Break on through – 50 years of The Doors

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Jim Morrison

Jim Morrison

This month marks the 50th anniversary of one of rock’s most enduring releases, so Getintothis’ Andy Holland reflects on what makes The Doors’ debut so important.

Few bands have had as much influence as The Doors, and arguably the bulk of their reputation rests on the impact of their self-titled debut album.

Although some of the material on the album had obvious pop sensibilities, overall the mood was dark and intense. By 60s rock band standards, The Doors had a spindly, rather fragile sound, which had to be fleshed out, edited and overdubbed for live recordings, but it was also unique. Unlike most bands of the period, they didn’t have a bass guitarist; in live situations keyboard player Ray Manzarek provided the bassline on a Fender Rhodes Piano Bass, but for recording purposes, they brought in hired hands to provide bass-guitar.  This had an influence on the sort of material they wrote; the archetypal Doors song was keyboard riff driven, sidling along hypnotically with snaky guitar lines and darkly poetic lyrics.

Not having a bass player was not unheard of in Los Angeles at the time. The biggest selling contemporary LA band were The Seeds, and they didn’t have bass-player either. Like The Doors, their keyboard player (Daryl Hooper) also provided bass lines, and this had been a big influence on Ray Manzarek. The difference was that Sky Saxon’s outfit was an extroverted punk band, concentrating on fast, unpolished, punky sneerathons. The Doors were far more subtle; they were no garage band, they were sophisticated and they loved adding texture to their songs. They were rhythmically brittle and sharp, with a penchant for light and shade. They could take their music down to such a quiet level that you became conscious of every brush applied to the snare, and then a blood-curdling scream would erupt and scare the crap out of you.

Much of this had to do with lead singer Jim Morrison’s personality traits and obsessions. Most of us are fixated on sex and death, but Morrison was morbidly so. He was one of rock’s genuine one-offs; there has never been anybody like him. He was a borderline genius, with an IQ of 149, was extremely well-read, but he lived his life like a drunken high-wire walker, sometimes literally.

He began his career looking like the perfect rock-star, all chiselled features, deep-set eyes, dark curly locks, low-slung leather trousers, and Cuban-heeled boots. He came across as utterly fearless. The problem was that within two years his lifestyle had turned him into a bloated, booze-addled train-wreck with rather uncouth habits like pissing himself, rarely bathing, and shouting abuse in the street. He was a difficult man to like or even be around, but he was a fascinating character for all of that. The other members of The Doors were in awe of him but were justifiably quite scared of his unpredictable personality.

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None more so than John Densmore, whose heavily jazz-influenced drumming bound the band’s sound together. Ray Manzarek was their mystical, bespectacled keyboard player, who loved to play in jazz modes that few other bands even attempted. Guitarist, Robby Kreiger, started out as an acoustic flamenco guitarist and only changed to electric guitar when he joined The Doors. His guitar playing sounded unusual since he utilised the right-hand technique he had acquired in flamenco and soloed in unusual scales.

Prior to Morrison, no pop singer had ever sung in a comparable way. He brought an unsettling, downright creepy atmosphere to songs; it was the sound of paranoia personified; it seemed to be haunted by acid-infused visions he’d had, and societal tensions felt during the Cold War. Most singers who claimed they wanted to create chaos would have sounded rather grandiose, but Jim Morrison actually sounded like he meant it.

His biggest musical hero was Elvis Presley, but most of all he also modelled his vocal style on Frank Sinatra, so much so that when Ol’ Blue Eyes himself first heard Light Me Fire he commented that, ‘This guy’s ripping me off…’.  However, where Sinatra crooned about cosy romantic bliss, Morrison seemed to croon about an imminent apocalypse. There was a world of difference. Morrison’s influences made him stand out; most American singers of the period were still aping British Invasion singers like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, or Eric BurdonMorrison’s was an authentically American voice.

Break On Through (To The Other Side) begins the album. It serves as The Doors’ mission statement and as a bona fide acid-rock anthem. The song is unusual since it uses a bossa-nova style beat, still in 4/4, but being musically inspired by Dave Brubeck‘s Take 5, which was played in 5/4. The beat, meanwhile, is meshed to a bass-line part-purloined from Ray Charles’ What’d I Say?

Lyrically, Break On Through refers to Morrison’s commitment to French symbolist poet, Arthur Rimbaud’s, ‘Systematic derangement of the senses’ and William Blake’s ‘the road of excess leads to the Palace Of Wisdom’. All of this serves to make the song rather pivotal in understanding what the band were about. Break On Through had a groove that was easy to dance to, it was lyrically edgy, but all of this was masked by the song’s melodic and commercial appeal.

Like most bands of the period The Doors had performed a cover Them’s Gloria in the early sets, and in fact, Jim Morrison had struck up a friendship with fellow Morrison, Van (no relation) following Them’s first appearance in Los Angeles. Both had a fondness for poetry and drinking vast quantities of alcohol. Even a casual listen to Them’s original recording of Gloria should reveal how much The Doors’ sound owed to the song. In fact, a number of their most famous songs used it as a model. It is fair to say that Soul Kitchen was one of them, and it marks the first appearance of that classic keyboard riff, which would be recycled later in the year for When The Music’s Over, the heavy track from second album Strange Days.

The track also features full use of The Doors’ use of dynamics in the arrangement; the verses are played quietly which highlights Morrison’s vocal and lyrics, which feature grotesque images like ‘The cars go by, all stuffed with eyes’ and the famous lament ‘I light another cigarette and learn to forget’. The choruses are emphasised with a Dave Clark Five (very big in the US) style stomping rhythm and backing vocals.

Soul Kitchen is generally understood as a sexual metaphor (well, it probably is), but there is another explanation. Being from Florida, Morrison loved soul food and he wrote this about an African American restaurant called Olivia’s on Venice Beach that served it. He would often stay so long he had to be forced to leave, which is why he supposedly sang, ‘Let me sleep all night in your soul kitchen’.  Yeah, right.

Immediately following Soul Kitchen is a very different kind of song. Morrison does some of his best crooning on Crystal Ship, opening with the eerie lines; ‘Before you slip into unconsciousness, I’d like to have another kiss’. There is something impossibly romantic and doomed about the whole track. The overall feel of it is one of drowning; Manzarek’s piano playing on it is particularly outstanding. Some of the lyrics are daft but they’re performed with such conviction that it’s difficult to notice.

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Twentieth Century Fox is The Doors at their most poppy, clever and commercial. Of course, it shares its name with one of the most legendary film companies, but ‘fox’ was also a very in vogue word for a beautiful and chic young woman. This wordplay works on two levels, because the song refers to the movie-like superficiality of this particular ‘fox’, and the line ‘Got the world locked up inside a plastic box’ should be interpreted as comparing her to a Barbie doll. Yup, it’s that old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll misogyny rearing its ugly head again.

Alabama Song (Whisky Bar) is The Doors’ version of a Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill song. The melody is different from the original and one of the verses is left out. Manzarek’s marxophone playing on this track is a really nice touch. The fact that The Doors chose to include this song on their debut album proved they were no ordinary rock band and that they had very theatrical and European angle to them.

Guitarist Robby Kreiger wrote Light My Fire and, being as gifted as he was, wrote other Doors hits as well; Love Me Two Times and Touch Me amongst them. The Spanish influence is audible in the song and it was the band’s first major success when it was released as a single. Some of the rhymes in the lyrics are quite painful when compared to Morrison’s efforts – ‘mire’ and ‘pyre’, for example – but somehow it doesn’t affect the overall impact of the song, which became instantly popular. However, thanks to the extended instrumental breaks the song clocks in at well over seven minutes long and so it had to be edited down to three minutes for DJs to play it (I must admit here that as much as this writer loves The Doors, I don’t much care for their penchant for long instrumental breaks, particularly on this song).

Side Two opens with The Doors’ take on Howling Wolf’s Back Door Man, a popular part of their live set. Morrison would do quite a bit of improvising when the band performed it, adding a fair amount of his own lyrics, which became progressively more extreme as their career progressed, sometimes unpleasantly so. The Back Door Man of Howling Wolf’s song was the lover of a married woman who arrived at the back-door for extramarital sex after her husband left for work through the front door, but Morrison’s take on the song was an expression of his own preference for anal sex (Morrison was bisexual). The Doors’ version of the blues is unusual when contrasted with other bands from the period, since as discussed earlier, the band’s rhythm section wasn’t as solid as most of their contemporaries. The inventive interplay of the band on this song makes up for it though.

I Looked At You is – for The Doors – a relatively simple song, which is even suggestive of Merseybeat in the verses, and a twelve-bar blues pattern later on. This is the band at their lightest, and it proved they were no one-track ponies; they could do pop as well as any of their contemporaries.

End Of The Night
, titled after the book by Louis-Ferdinand Celine (Journey To The End Of The Night), also directly quotes from William Blake’s Songs Of Innocence And Experience.

The phrase ‘bright midnight’ is straight out of Friedrich Nietzsche. The track has a trance-like atmosphere, with quite sparse playing from the band; Manzarek’s keyboards have a vibrato effect, which makes them almost sound like a harp, Kreiger’s guitar is tastefully sparse and liquid, his brief guitar solo is almost hallucinatory and it is typically idiosyncratic, Densmore’s drums are enormously effective, varying from light brushed cymbals to concussive kicks and snares. Morrison intones the lyrics like a mantra, and the whole effect is eerie, bleak, and medieval. Later in the track, the whole band turn the song into a torch ballad, with Morrison singing at the very top of his range. It’s difficult to imagine any other band of the 60s who could have made a song like this work.

Manzarek, Densmore, and Kreiger were united by their shared love for transcendental meditation and were followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who was more famous for his link with The Beatles. Take It As It Comes was often dedicated to the Maharishi during live performances, but since Morrison wrote the lyrics and he had no dalliance whatsoever with Eastern mysticism, it seems unlikely that he wrote about that.

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The lyrics are similar to those of The Byrds’ Turn, Turn, Turn, but the link here is that both songs were inspired by Ecclesiastes in The Bible, and both songs quote from it. It is quite a powerful fast-paced rocker, and Morrison seems to be referring to sex, ‘You’re moving much too fast, if you want our love to last’, etc.  Manzarek claimed that his keyboard breaks on the song were inspired by Bach, but in this setting they seem to more closely resemble Arabic music to us. But what do we know?

One could write an entire essay on The End, and many have done so. The song will be forever associated with the Vietnam War, thanks to Apocalypse Now, and perhaps Morrison would have been proud of that being the case.

Jim Morrison’s father was Rear Admiral George Stephen Morrison, who was directly involved in the notorious Gulf Of Tonkin Incident which greatly escalated the Vietnam War, and he continued to play a key role throughout the conflict. Jim Morrison was deeply ashamed of this and had a litany of issues with his parents, who he often went as far as claiming they were dead. His monumental lack of respect for any form of authority (particularly the military) directly stemmed from his relationship with his father, and it led to many well-documented problems for him. The fact that he was continuously falling foul of the police was part of it, as was his point-blank refusal to play by the rules of the music industry. All of this marred his life, his career, and his personal relationships.

In light of all of this, it is scarcely surprising that the central theme of The End is Oedipal fantasy. Other members of The Doors have related stories of Morrison chanting ‘Kill the father, fuck the mother,’ over and over during an acid trip, or a drunken stupor. The End would be different every time The Doors performed it, sometimes it would go even further over the line than the recorded version (the more recent releases have been remixed so Morrison‘s more inflammatory language is now audible). Others would be more tame, but not that much.

At over 11 minutes long, The End is one of the ‘heaviest’ tracks that The Doors ever released during their career (Celebration Of The Lizard was recorded for Waiting For The Sun but remained unreleased).  Recording a song about murder and incest was always going to be controversial, but in 1967 it was unthinkable. The ‘beautiful friend’ that Morrison refers to is death, and the whole song seems to slither along like that poisonous snake Morrison invites us the ride.

Kreiger’s guitar playing is at its most flamenco, varying between Eastern textures, desert-dry, croaking guitar licks, and even mimicking a death-rattle. Manzarek’s keyboard feels like the wind blowing through a broken asthmatic concertina, flurries of notes creating circular patterns, and bone dry images. Densmore’s drumming is absolutely at its finest, holding the whole track together, accenting the most important sections with thunderous toms and chiming cymbals, overlaying the whole song with a superb sense of drama. The End made The Doors notorious; the darkest, scariest band in existence at the time.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t The End which sparked all the initial controversy about The Doors. That happened when Morrison was asked to change the relatively harmless lyrics for Light My Fire on The Ed Sullivan Show, which he agreed to, but then thought better of and performed it with offending lyrics anyway. The Doors’ reputation was sealed. They were dangerous, and downright disrespectful too. Even Mick Jagger changed his lyrics for the Ed Sullivan Show, but Jim Morrison didn’t give a fuck.  He was constitutionally unable to.

The Doors would go on to record five more albums before Jim Morrison‘s death in July 1971, by which time the band had ceased to perform live. It could be argued that it was one of the most impressive runs that any band has ever achieved.

The excellent Strange Days came out later in 1967 and it solidified the sound of their debut; it was one of the first rock albums to incorporate the Moog synthesiser and is a personal favourite. 1968’s Waiting For The Sun further established their style but by then Morrison‘s personal habits were already taking a toll on his health, which meant the quality of the songs was suffering. They did manage to record Morrison‘s tour-de-force, Celebration Of The Lizard, at this juncture, even if only segments were released at the time (it is now included on current reissues).

1969’s Soft Parade found the band at their weakest; Morrison‘s interest in the band seemed to be on the wane which meant the rest of the band, particularly Kreiger, were left to fill in the blanks. The album is an interesting one though since it introduced orchestration into their sound. It was an experiment that proved to be a one-off, however.

Their next album, Morrison Hotel, was released in 1970 and was a return to form. Morrison had been spending lots of his time in biker bars and his interest in rock ‘n’ roll had been rekindled. Therefore, it remains The Doors’ most straight ahead rocker; Roadhouse Blues became a huge inspiration to many hard rock bands, particularly Status Quo who seemed to base their entire early sound on it. Their final album LA Woman (1971) explored the style further while adding soul/funk and blues into the mix. It was a very strong album to end their career with Morrison on, with many of its cuts still being played on classic rock stations to this day, for example; Rider’s On The Storm, Love Her Madly, etc.

Few bands arrive fully formed and that above all is what marked The Doors out from the start. In a decade when rock was still finding its feet and there were so many bands vying for attention, The Doors broke into the public consciousness with their own ethos, manifesto, and a highly visual approach to all of their work. They were a psychedelic rock band with a difference; this was no flower power, peace and love outfit, a Doors performance seemed to bring to life the stuff of nightmares. Morrison battled demons throughout his entire time on Earth, and with the help of The Doors he could bring them vividly to life in his music. We all have similar challenges to varying extents; it’s part of the human condition.

This is perhaps why The Doors have never gone out of fashion. The truth of their message was too powerful to be forgotten – it’s as old as time.  That’s why bands are still being influenced by them and will continue to be. For example, Salford band Blossoms topped the with a sound that was obviously influenced by The Doors, either directly or indirectly. As long as there are bands that want to brood and wear leather trousers, The Doors’ legacy will live on.

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