They’ve been a favourite critical target for generations. In fact, several of my MOJO colleagues (take a bow, David Hepworth and Mark Wagstaff) regard them as virtually unlistenable in the 21st century, which — at the very least — is kind of missing the point of The Doors somewhat.
The Doors were, at the very least, an important band. They taught people. Important people. Prog and metal learned from the band’s boorish, self-important sprawl. Goth learned from Jim Morrison’s romantic hedonism and theatrical darkness. Punk learned from his negate-everything nihilism. Would we have had Liverpool doom merchants Echo and the Bunnymen without The Doors? I think you know the answer.
And the band’s dank dread helped usher out the era of wet and flowery psychedelia — one that had just taken root when The Doors experienced their first taste of commercial success in the middle of 1967, the so-called Summer of Love, as epitomised by The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper 50 long years ago.
Fast forward 15 years (a lifetime when you’re newly in your teens), and the first time I heard a Doors song it wasn’t by them at all. On Monday 11 October 1982, I came home clutching Friend or Foe, Adam Ant’s first solo album after the recent disbandment of the Ants.
I scanned the credits and found, unusually for such a prolific songwriter, my favourite pop idol had included a cover version for the first time. ‘All songs written by Ant/Marco except track 6* The Doors.’
The song was called Hello, I Love You.
My mother heard it billowing out of my bedroom and exclaimed, just as she’d done just a few weeks before when she’d heard Midge Ure’s reimagining of the Walker Brothers’ No Regrets…
“That’s an old song! That was by The Doors in the ‘60s. They were American, and the singer was called Jim Morrison. He was very good looking, and he always wore leather trousers. He got in trouble for exposing himself on stage. Then he died in the bath. In Paris.”
Mini pop history lesson over (but hey, at least mum shared a birthday with Morrison), it took me about another three years or so before I had the funds or inclination to track down the original song, which was one of the popper offerings on 1985’s 19-track double album The Best of The Doors.
I was struck by Morrison’s Jesus as a demon-like pose on the cover. Yes, he was indeed very good looking. A tousle-headed Greek God with a devilish glint, his Adonis looks opened gates and hearts that the band’s intellectualism and frequent musical exoticism might otherwise have caused to be closed to them.
The Doors were those most dangerous of revolutionaries: populists. Their hooky melodies defined a type of ’60’s counter-culture colliding with unashamed commercialism. Though, if I’m honest, the band didn’t receive too many turntable spins until I, conversely, switched to CD. By 1991’s Oliver Stone biopic, when Doors retro-mania was in full flow, the album had become a Saturday night staple at my hotel workplace, largely encouraged by pot-washer, pot-smoker boy Jason, a rabid Elvis Presley fan who, inexplicably, only ever expressed an interest in one other record I played, Dusty Springfield’s Breakfast in Bed, from the majestic Dusty in Memphis.
What’s remarkable is how the legend of The Doors bore little relation to their record sales, in Blighty at least. In Morrison’s lifetime, the band scored two Top 20 albums on the UK chart, with Hello, I Love You their only bona fide hit single, peaking at a middling 15.
They fared better in their homeland though. Hello spent two weeks at No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and was also in the Top Five simultaneously with José Feliciano’s version of what is probably the band’s signature song, Light My Fire. A far-out make-out record, Feliciano’s acoustic rendition adds a sense of tenderness that Morrison didn’t use, but the final 30 seconds can be a bloody chore to sit through, sounding like a Westworld robot short-circuiting in the mire.
Light My Fire had been The Doors’ first and only other No.1 single in the US (with only 1969’s Touch Me returning them to the Top 10), though it took until Stone’s high profile film for the track to gain a Top 40 placing in Britain, relighting its fire all the way to No.7 in June 1991.
Trying to review Jim Morrison and co is a fascinating experience, because even if you don’t care much for their music, you have to admit that no one sounds like The Doors. Well, apart from Echo & The Bunnymen of course. Even when they’re doing hoary old blues numbers the band have a singular sound and an undeniable presence.
From a certain perspective, though, the Doors’ greatest feat wasn’t in all the people they influenced or in the tides they changed. It was in how they became pop stars in the first place. This was not a foregone conclusion. Consider, for example, The Stooges, another Elektra Records hard-rock band with an experimental bent, albeit from the Midwest, with a guttural fuck-everything point of view, an apocalyptic sense of doom, and a photogenic desperado out front.
Both bands were out there on the roads, with their brains squirming like toads, around the same time. As with New York’s Andy Warhol-sponsored The Velvet Underground, both were hugely influential. But almost instantly, the Doors were everywhere, and the Stooges couldn’t get arrested, even after Iggy did unspeakable things with peanut butter.
Now: Iggy Pop (or Lou Reed, come to that) didn’t have Jim Morrison’s whole lip/cheekbone situation to work with. That didn’t help. But more to the point, the Stooges didn’t have songs like Light My Fire. (They had one or two better songs. They just didn’t have songs like that one.)
The Doors had started out in California when Morrison and his old film-school classmate Ray Manzarek ran into each other on Venice Beach and got to talking one day. They started out playing LA dives and eventually moved onto West Hollywood’s Whiskey A Go Go, where they served as house band before getting banned after Morrison cussed during The End.
Elektra signed them up after label boss Jac Holzman went to see them, at the urging of Love’s Arthur Lee. But Break On Through (To The Other Side) — the band’s debut single and a pretty succinct and catchy summation of their whole outlook — failed to live up to its name, stalling out at 126. Light My Fire, a more atypical song for the band, turned out to be the one.
Light My Fire wasn’t even Jim Morrison’s song, and he came to hate singing it. With possibly the greatest beginner’s luck in rock history, guitarist Robbie Krieger, then 20, had written most of it, with some input from his bandmates. It was the first song Krieger ever wrote. He spoke to Reverb about it last year, citing Play With Fire as one of his favourite Rolling Stones songs and the key lyrical inspiration.
“That was the first one I wrote, because up until then Jim had been writing the songs. But we realised we didn’t have enough originals, so Jim said, ‘Why don’t you write some? Why do I have to do all the work!?’ So I said, ‘OK, what should I write about?’ And he goes, ‘Write about something universal. Write about something that will last, not just about today.’ So I decided I’d write about earth, air, fire or water.”
With a verse and chorus under his belt, he brought the work-in-progress before his bandmates. The song had a folk-rock flair in this early state, leading some in the group to derisively compare it to a Sonny and Cher number. But Morrison saw its potential and offered to contribute some extra lyrics. “Jim came up with the second verse about the funeral pyre,” Kreiger remembered in Classic Albums. “I said, ‘Jim, why is it always about death? Why do you always have to do that?’ And he said, ‘No man, it’ll be perfect. You’ll have the love part of it and then you’ll have that death part of it.’ And he was right.”
Keyboardist Ray Manzarek, added the cartwheeling Bach-like introduction and bass line (borrowed from Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill) while John Densmore (drums) lent the Latin rhythm. When it was released the following year, the song would be jointly credited to all four members.
The Doors didn’t have a bass player, but there’s bass on the song, and the Wrecking Crew’s Carol Kaye says that she played it. On the eponymously titled album, the song was a seven-minute carnival ride of never-ending noodly organ solos. But radio liked it, so Elektra chopped it down to a cool three minutes. Beware, this live clip from the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 reinstates over ten minutes of superfluous silly stuff.
There were still numerous scratching of heads, because the edit snipped away that carnival-ride rhythm, but Elektra did the band a favour. The Doors’ giddily endless soloing might be a key part of their mystique, but to many ears, it sounds dinky and indulgent more often than not. In its edited version, Light My Fire, at the very least, sounds like a song. Morrison’s horny baritone has room to dig in, and you can still hear bits and pieces of the band’s zoned-out excursions. They say what they need to say, and they get out.
Having said that, the organ-led ‘carnival ride’ sound was the Doors’ essence, because they just did what they do: you pay your money, get on the ride, and keep your hands off the wheel—unless it was that L.A. Woman and her Riders on the Storm, in which case you buckled up and stomped on the gas yourself…literally.
But Light My Fire is, let’s be honest, a bit of a corny song. Morrison sings about sex with a deathly sincerity, oozing concern when he tells some girl that they can only find true transcendence by bumping uglies. And when he tries to turn it into something literary with his “no time to wallow in the mire” stuff, he only makes it sillier.
So: a pretty catchy sex song from a band with godlike aspirations. But the Doors legend owes more to what they did with Light My Fire — refusing to license it for a Buick ad, refusing to change the verboten “higher” drug reference on The Ed Sullivan Show — than with the song itself. The song itself is fine. It’s not anything more than that, even if the likes of Shirley Bassey and Amii Stewart did their best with their admittedly transcendent MOR and disco reworkings in the 1970s*.
Both Light My Fire and Hello, I Love You were taken from The Doors’ first self-titled album, released the week the newly re-christened David Bowie turned 20 in first week of January 1967. While Sgt. Pepper bestrode ’67 like a kaleidoscopic colossus (released the same week as Bowie’s flop debut and keeping The Doors from pole position in their homeland), but the eponymous debut of The Doors also took popular music into areas previously thought impossible: the incitement to expand one’s consciousness of opener Break On Through was just the beginning of its incendiary agenda.
Emerging like a flash of psychedelic rock lightning, the record almost shouts, “WE HAVE ARRIVED, PEOPLE!” Brimming with passionate energy, the Los Angeles quartet reign supreme on The Doors. Making their mark at least until they’ve warmed the place up for Shirl.
First impressions do count for something, and they couldn’t have picked a better opener than Break On Through. Its disarming bossa nova opening is countered almost immediately by Jim Morrison’s commanding voice; 30 seconds later the band gives you four deep thrusts before ramping up to bash mode in the chorus. With a superb sense of erotic dynamics, they turn down the heat to deliver a few more teasing caresses, then thrust-thrust (breathe) thrust-thrust and they’re slamming it home again.
There’s a reason why they say The Doors invented “orgasmic rock.”
The historically fascinating aspect to the song has to do with censorship. On most pressings of their records before the 1990s, the line after “Everybody loves my baby” is “She get… She get…”
I just assumed Morrison had a bit of a stutter.
Stick on a 21st Century Doors and the line is magically transformed into “She gets high.”
I looked at the stereo with a combination of wonder and disgust.
“You have to be kidding. They censored that?”
Oh yeah. In the USA of the mid 20th Century, the straights were stoked up and paranoid about the drug culture. Druggies were the communists under the bed in the Sixties. Dangerous subversives out to destroy the American way of life. What an audio witch-hunt.
As for Jim himself, being a fan of Frank Sinatra, his weapon of choice during the sessions was a Telefunken/Neumann U47. Initially produced from 1949-1965, the tube condenser exhibited a wide and true frequency response, which proved to be perfect for capturing Morrison’s entire personality – the moody, manic shaman – throughout the entire recording.
There are several other gems, particularly the glittering, stately The Crystal Ship and the playfully sensual Twentieth Century Fox. The bright, sparkly tones of Manzarek’s Vox Continental shine effortlessly with his trusty Marxophone on tracks such as Alabama Song (Whisky Bar), an old Brecht/Weill stage number from the 1920s and later covered in expertly erratic fashion by Bowie.
Though often excellent, The Doors is never warm. Icicles seem to hang off its organ-dominated music, however beautiful, while Morrison’s bombastic baritone is never going to lend intimacy. Willie Dixon’s Back Door Man, covered competently herein, is a song of insinuation, but the shocking innovation going on in epic closer The End inhabits a realm beyond innuendo.
At a time when frank discussion of sex is still taboo, Morrison gleefully and comprehensively explores Freudian theory and Oedipal myth. That rock had never heard anything as daring gave The End a feeling of quality by default at the time, but the track hasn’t dated well, despite its ubiquitousness since Francis Ford Coppola used it in Apocalypse Now.
Liberalisation of media content made it seem banal, then even ludicrous, surprisingly quickly. The End’s transition from radical to risible was rather unfortunate for the original vinyl side two of the album: much of it consisted of songs that seemed like the watery dregs of side one’s flavoursome casket.
The best parts of The Doors remain remarkable even where their revolutionary nature has been obscured by time. In fact, time has provided a disappointment of a different sort: subsequent corrected remasters have revealed we were enjoying The Doors all these years at – Ye Gods! – the wrong speed. Sgt. Pepper would have liked that.
And of COURSE, Jim Morrison is very good-looking. As is Adam Ant. And he’s 62. And 62 is nothing to be scared of.
The Doors 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition — packaged in a 12”x12” hardcover book and containing the album’s newly remastered original stereo and mono mixes, plus a third disc featuring a live performance from The Matrix in San Francisco on 4 March 1967— is out on 31 March 2017.
Postscript: A year after Light My Fire launched The Doors, they came out with their third album, Waiting For The Sun, a piece of nerve-frazzled gobbledygook so indulgent that much of it is practically unlistenable today. The Doors, or their handlers, must’ve known that the album would’ve been a tough pill to swallow. So the album was front-loaded with its two most accessible songs; the panting pickup banger Hello, I Love You and the sweetly charming Love Street (a fave rave of Bowie’s no less). Only Spanish Caravan and the eerie title track are also worth checking out. OK, perhaps you have a point Dave and Wag. Well, a bit of a point.
*Bryan Ferry once revealed that Light My Fire was also rehearsed by Roxy Music for inclusion on their 1982-1983 Avalon world tour but was never played in public.