In early 1967, John Peel started playing tracks from the debut album by a new Californian group called The Doors. With no knowledge of the men responsible and little contemporary US music to compare it to except feet-finding debuts by Love and Jefferson Airplane, this remarkable music was all there was to go on. Nobody had sounded like this before or has done since.
The Doors mixed spaced blues and unfettered jazz improvisation with a riveting sexual voice singing the deepest lyrics yet to grace a rock record, all bathed in a lustrous hallucinogenic sheen. The opiated sonic cocktails created by keyboard-player Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore has sometimes been overshadowed by the tales of late singer Jim Morrison’s booze-fuelled snake-waving and ongoing mystery surrounding his 1971 death. The Doors’ sound is as jawdropping and otherworldly on the new state-of-the-art reissues as it was then. I’m not here to stoke the Morrison myth, more to point out that he was one quarter of a true magic band.
In summer 1965, fellow U.C.L.A. students Morrison and Manzarek collided on L.A.’s Venice Beach and, with a little prodding, Jim sang ‘Moonlight Drive’, one of the songs he’d been concocting in his head on the roof of a nearby abandoned building. As Ray likes to put it, “Maybe there were some angels pulling it all together that day on the beach in Venice, California.”
Angels did overtime as Ray’s group, Rick and the Ravens, morphed into The Doors with Jim joined by jazz-loving drummer John Densmore and Ray’s brothers replaced by guitarist Robby Krieger. Jim took the name from Aldous Huxley’s mescaline romp The Doors Of Perception. Instead of a bassist, Ray played Fender Piano Bass with his left hand while tattooing riffs and solos with his right.
The Doors’ sound seemed unique from the off. It couldn’t have just fallen out of the sky. That’s what I said to Ray Manzarek and he was off, wonderfully animated like he just worked it out. “Maybe it did, man, it’s possible it did just fall out of the sky! Robby Krieger plays flamenco guitar with his fingers as he’s playing rock ‘n’ roll. He’s also playing that wonderful bottleneck guitar that comes out of his jug band days. Here’s the keyboard player who’s out of Chicago with blues roots but he also studied classical music and was a jazz lover. You add that dark, Slavic soul to Robby Krieger’s sliding, snaky, crystalline bottleneck guitar and underneath you put this jazz drummer, who also played in a marching band. On top of that you float a Beat-French symbolist-Southern Gothic poet singing some very, very interesting lyrics. Maybe it did just fall together. How does that sound get made? Y’know, sometimes magic does happen.”
I never thought of Jim as insane but it was there. That’s what made him so great. pour alcohol into that crack and you don’t wanna see what’s gonna come out.
Songs evolved fast, classics appearing early. “At first Jim was writing everything then one day we said, “Hey, we haven’t got enough originals”,” recalls Robby Krieger, taking time out from his Russian Caravan project with ex-Frank Zappa bandleader Arthur Barrow. “Jim says, “Hey, why don’t you guys write some too?” That‘s when I went and wrote ‘Light My Fire’. I’m glad he said that!”
‘Light My Fire’ would not only become The Doors’ first Number One but started their renowned stretching out through telepathic improvisations. Robby: “Up until then The Doors were doing three-chord type songs that were pretty simple like ‘I Looked At You’ or ‘End Of The Night’. I wanted to write something more adventurous. I decided I was going to put every chord I knew into this song and did! There’s about 14 different chords in there. We said, “Let’s do it like Coltrane, A minor to B minor like he did on ‘My Favourite Things’.” As we played it over the next year the solos got longer and longer. It was very organic. I wish I could say we planned it that way but it just came out.”
After rejection by L.A.’s clubs for being ‘too weird’, The Doors ended up playing a dive called the London Fog. “We had to play four, sometimes five sets a night,” recalls Ray. “Night after night for virtually nobody. We got the opportunity to do anything we wanted to fill up four or five hours. So every night we would play ‘The End’, ‘When The Music’s Over’, ‘Light My Fire’ and expand those things. ‘The End’ had originally started off as a two or three minute love song and we just kept playing it while Jim started adding lyrics to it.”
The booking agent for top Sunset Strip club the Whisky A Go Go was impressed enough to make The Doors house band between May and August 1966. Now everything gelled and their career took off.
“There were hundreds of people virtually every night because it was the Mecca of rock ‘n’ roll so we’re playing for a packed audience and our songs are together,” remembers Ray. “It was 1966, the Los Angeles summer of love. All the longhairs had come to Sunset Strip from all over L.A. The freaks. We weren’t even called hippies then. All the freaks had come together. To play for an audience like that aroused all the passion that we possibly had in our bodies.”
‘The End’ gained its Oedipal monologue one August night after Jim ingested 40 times the usual amount of Owsley acid. It slaughtered the crowd and got The Doors fired from the club but convinced Elektra boss Jac Holzman to sign them. They recorded the first album in two weeks with producer Paul Rothchild and engineer Bruce Botnik capturing their sound with crystal clarity. The Doors released their first single ‘Break On Through [To The Other Side]’ in January 1967 but it was the album and ‘Light My Fire’ hitting Number One that bust them out of L.A. clubland and saw Jim ‘neglecting’ to change the word ‘higher’ on The Ed Sullivan Show. The group were soon back in the studio recording more of their set for the incandescent ‘Strange Days’. No difficult second album there.
Meanwhile, after incidents like being arrested onstage for public disorder in Newhaven, Connecticut, Jim not only became a counter-culture figurehead but teen-mag pin-up. His idea of success had been the respect given to Love, the sinister local heroes who wouldn’t tour. Jim’s antidote to sudden stardom lay in the bottle. Or, as Ray Manzarek puts it, “We had to receive Jimbo. Out of the bottle of alcohol and occupying the personality of Jim was a besotted lout known as Jimbo. It was like, ‘What the fuck? Jim? Just how drunk do you intend on getting? Jim? Are you there? Oh my God, it’s not Jim at all! It’s Jimbo.’ That was weird man. Strange days had indeed found us at that point.”
It wasn’t until writing his autobiography, Light My Fire, at the age of 50 that Ray nailed the Jimbo persona. “I began to realise there was a psychotic break here, but interestingly Jim Morrison always thought of himself as a shaman. He talked about the shaman, [uncanny Morrison drawl] “You know the Shaman’s got a crack, Ray. He’s an unusual individual in the tribe but he’s kind of cracked, and out of that crack comes his abilities to say things. As we say about a crazy person, he’s a little cracked.” I never thought of Jim as insane but it was there. That’s what made him so great. That’s what made his poetry and public performances so great. But pour alcohol into that crack and you don’t wanna see what’s gonna come out.”
Jimbo became a raucous buffoon getting his knob out; not funny anymore, especially when recording the next two albums, ‘Waiting For The Sun’ and ‘The Soft Parade’, reaching such a nadir during the latter that the other Doors took over. Starting late 1968, recording lasted nine painful months with Robby writing half the songs. Ray now cacklingly takes the blame for smoothing down the sound with horns and strings but the album was critically mauled and didn’t sell as well as its chart-topping predecessor.
In March 1969, Jim got busted at a riotous gig in Miami. It was alleged he flashed his lizard but the band maintain he didn’t. The trial would hang over for his head for the next 18 months until he got convicted for public profanity and indecent exposure (the appeal was never heard). The Doors went into the studio against all odds but some kind of Dunkirk spirit stirred and, reacting against the sheen of ‘The Soft Parade’, they returned to the basics of rock ‘n’ roll, blues and their own sound to make the astonishingly-successful ‘Morrison Hotel’.
During the trial, Jim was allowed to make The Doors’ only other UK appearance, in September 1970 at the Isle Of Wight Festival (they had previously played two rapturously-received shows at London’s Roundhouse in September 1968). Although they played faves without incident, Jim was lifeless. The Doors saw it as one of their worst gigs.
In late 1970, the Doors started recording again. Rothchild didn’t like their new music and left the group and Botnick creating the timeless masterpiece ‘L.A. Woman’. The title track and ‘Riders On The Storm’ cruised immaculately.
“Yeah it was kind of like driving music,” agrees Ray. “It’s funny you should mention those two songs because they were like a new way of writing. We all just played in the studio and those songs just happened. We were just fooling around playing ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’ and suddenly Jim starts coming up with ‘Riders On The Storm’. It just kind of happened spontaneously.”
Album finished, Jim made his last trip to Paris in February 1971 and died mysteriously in early July while Ray and the Doors waited for him to return with new lyrics. “When he said, “I’m going to Paris”, I thought, ‘Excellent, an American in Paris’. Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Jim Morrison. Carry on the American tradition. Leave the groupies, leave the drinking buddies, go to Paris, refresh yourself and start writing.”
“Jim was writing as fast as he could in Paris, working up some strong ideas. I have a lot of the stuff. Some of it’s very, very good. But there is a sense of despair in there too. It’s like, “Jim? What the fuck man?” This is my buddy from film school. When we put a band together on the beach in Venice he sang the songs to me and I said, “That’s brilliant, let’s get a rock ‘n’ roll band together. We’re going all the way with this thing. The Beatles, the Stones, in between are going to be The Doors!” We got to Madison Square Garden and had the Number One song in America. Yet in the writings in Paris there was this note of despair. It was like, ‘What do you have to despair over?’ And I don’t know the answer. There was something eating at Jim. Some problem on the inside that was unresolved. It caused him to drink, I’m sure, and God knows what he was into in Paris.”
Unfortunately, Jim’s written word material is owned by the family of Pam Courson, his long-time girlfriend who accompanied him to Paris and died herself in 1974.
“I’m gonna do my best to get my hands on what are obviously song lyrics,” declares Ray. “Some day we can put some of those songs together. Unfortunately Pamela Courson’s mother controls Jim Morrison’s poetry. Fuck! Fuck, man! Jim’s probably listening in now saying, ‘Oh Ray, get that stuff back and put it out will you?’”
It was 1966, the Los Angeles summer of love. All the longhairs had come to Sunset Strip from all over L.A. All the freaks had come together. To play for an audience like that aroused all the passion t
In 2003, Ray and Robby formed The Doors Of The 21st Century to carry on The Doors’ spirit live with Cult frontman Ian Astbury singing. John Densmore not only declined but successfully sued with Morrison’s family. Now called Riders On The Storm, the pair have recruited ex-Fuel singer Brett Scallions to tour Europe in June. Last year, I got married to a Doors fanatic called Michelle. The honeymoon was spent in Paris, following Morrison’s trail through the bars to the flat where he died and the cemetery which has become a worldwide mecca for devotees. Riders On The Storm play Paris on July 3, the 36th anniversary of Jim’s death and also my birthday, so the honeymoon continues.
At 68, Ray Manzarek still feels passionately that Doors music has a place in the 21st century, whether its mighty influence on music over the past 40 years or saying something to today’s youth. “That’s what we hope to do, even more than the bands, just the young people walking the street thinking, ‘Where did I come from? Why am I here? What am I doing with my life? I know some day I’m gonna die, where do I go after I die?’ Hopefully we can help you along with those questions: the idea of freedom and if you can find a freedom for yourself in the Doors lyrics and music.”
Robby Krieger is philosophical. “For a while when I was doing my solo stuff I just wanted to get away from The Doors but then over the years I’ve realised that something like that only happens once in a lifetime, so you’ve got to be proud of it. I don’t mind talking about it or even playing those songs. They’re still fun to play. When a lot of kids first hear it they might not know about any of the legend and stuff at all. They might just like how it sounds.”
That sounds rather familiar…
After last year’s ‘Perception’ boxed set, which saw The Doors and Bruce Botnick remix the six studio albums with extras, they are now available separately with the multi-format ‘The Very Best Of The Doors’.
THE DOORS [January 1967]
One of the all-time great debut albums, ‘The Doors’ declared 1967 well and truly open. After the evocative manifesto of ‘Break On Through [To The Other Side]’, it straddles lascivious blues (‘Back Door Man’), shimmering ballads (‘End Of The Night’, ‘The Crystal Ship’) while ‘Light My Fire’ injects Bach and Coltrane into a Top Ten lust-anthem. ‘The End’’s lysergic ritual is carried to epic, Oedipal lengths. Already stoned immaculate.
STRANGE DAYS [October 1967]
‘Strange Days’ intensified The Doors’ sound with a dream-sequence procession of stone killers, notably Robby’s James Brown-punching ‘Love Me Two Times’, yearning ‘You’re Lost Little Girl’, screamingly epic ‘When The Music’s Over’ and ‘Moonlight Drive’, the song Jim sang on Venice Beach. ‘Horse Latitudes’ married eerie sound effects to one of Jim’s school poems about horses being shunted off Spanish sailing ships.
WAITING FOR THE SUN [July 1968]
The Doors’ difficult third album originally envisaged a side-long poem, ‘The Celebration Of The Lizard’, but only the menacing ‘Not To Touch The Earth’ graduated so The Doors hastily created new songs, some quite flimsy. But the snappy ‘Hello I Love You’ from 1965 provided their second Number One while calls-to-arms ‘The Unknown Soldier’ and ‘Five To One’ reflected the times as ‘Summer’s Almost Gone’ and psych-flamenco ‘Spanish Caravan’ crystallised The Doors’ emotional majesty.
THE SOFT PARADE [July 1969]
The Doors’ even trickier fourth album added strings, horns and, in the mental absence of perma-pissed Morrison, Krieger wrote most of the songs. Not that bad: ‘Shaman’s Blues’ boasts astral interplay, ‘Wild Child’ is a fierce Doors blues and ‘Wishful Sinful’ a strong ballad. ‘Touch Me’ approaches MOR with its moon-in-June croon and the disjointed title track’s attempt at another epic falls a bit flat. Bizarrely, Otis Redding tribute ‘Runnin’ Blue’ hired country pickers for a barn-dance section.
MORRISON HOTEL [February 1970]
With its sleeve taken outside a downtown flophouse, ‘Morrison Hotel’ saw The Doors back to their roots on top form with Jim’s name back in the credits. ‘Roadhouse Blues’ is a rollicking declaration of intent with John Sebastian supplying blues-wailing harmonica on the ultimate bar song. The pounding ‘You Make Me Real’, ethereal blues of ‘The Spy’, social-commenting ‘Peace Frog’ and early songs like the poignant ‘Indian Summer’ and ‘Waiting For The Sun’ are just highlights of an album which could still arm-wrestle many of today’s pretenders off the table.
L.A. WOMAN [April 1971]
‘L.A. Woman’ continued the blues path but also displayed The Doors as formidable musicians on top of their game, whether knocking out compact radio hits (‘Love Her Madly’), tough Jimbo struts (‘The Changeling’), smoked blues (‘Cars Hiss By My Window’) or the effortlessly convoluted paranoia-fest of ‘L’America’. But two tracks rule: the title song’s rousing, open-top cruise and ‘Riders On The Storm’, the last song the Doors recorded and a perfect encapsulation of their spine-chilling atmospherics.