Formed in Los Angeles, in 1965, by UCLA film alumni Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, the classic Doors line-up reached fruition when Densmore and Krieger (incidentally, the real Los Angelinos) swapped Transcendental Meditation for drum and guitar duties, respectively. Morrison was from Florida, the son of a high-ranking naval officer, but preferred to be of no fixed abode, while the elder Manzarek hailed from Chicago and fashioned the group’s style in the beginning.
Working their way through LA clubs such as the London Fog and the Whisky A Go Go, the quartet came to the attention of Elektra boss Jac Holzman, who made them his star act and top priority. The Doors had the first billboard ads on the Sunset Strip, for their self-titled debut album, which included ‘Break On Through (To the Other Side)’ and the iconic hit ‘Light My Fire’, the latter of which sold over a million copies and became the group’s first No.1. Written in the main by Krieger, with lyrical tweaks from Morrison, ‘Light My Fire’ was their signature tune, though it was sometimes viewed as a bugbear by Jim, who wrestled with the transition from teenybop idol to serious artist.
It wasn’t all three-minute pop songs. ‘The End’ (whose Greek-tragedy motif got them thrown out of the Whisky) and ‘When the Music’s Over’ were designed to space out. However, those wild trips were a toned down for Waiting For The Sun (1968), an almost pastoral affair with wake-up moments like ‘Five To One’ and ‘The Unknown Soldier’ prefiguring both the demonic Charles Manson Family crimes and the growing tide of unrest over the Vietnam War.
Morrison himself seemed ambivalent about protest and politics, preferring the pub to the polemic by nature and poesy above all, hence his long-form ‘Celebration Of The Lizard’, a song never quite resolved in the studio but an occasional treat for the live crowd.
Fans were flummoxed by The Soft Parade (1969), which arrived at a time when the musicians in the band were using internal democracy to try and rein in Jim’s more outrageous antics. The album’s jazz and blues bent was seen as neither fish nor fowl, but fanatics love the sprawl of the title track, in which Morrison borrows from TS Eliot, and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (in the ‘Not To Touch The Earth” section). Elsewhere, the light spring of ‘Touch Me’, ‘Easy Ride’ and the elegiac ‘Wishful Sinful’ found the singer crooning his best Frank Sinatra: a baritone in brown leather pants.
Recorded on the rebound from the Miami incident, 1970’s Morrison Hotel was a thrilling success. ‘Roadhouse Blues’, ‘Peace Frog’, ‘Land Ho!’ and ‘Maggie M’Gill’ cast Morrison as part renegade and part sea salt: a hard-drinking, devil-may-care rogue with a touch of Celtic blarney to leaven his American poet mystique. Widely praised in the States, where Creem’s Dave Marsh called it “the most horrifying rock’n’roll I have ever heard, when they’re good, they’re simply unbeatable”, Morrison Hotel was also The Doors’ highest-charting album in the UK, where it peaked at No.12.
Appearing that summer, Absolutely Live (later repackaged as In Concert) is a warts-and-all account of shows performed in New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Detroit. With their star still high on the East Coast (elsewhere, promoters were wary of leasing their halls to Morrison), the set offers insight to band at the peak of their powers, with exemplary versions of Bo Diddley’s ‘Who Do You Love?’, Brecht and Weill’s ‘Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)’ and the band’s spooked original ‘Universal Mind’ punctuating the sonic mayhem. The ringside atmosphere is palpable, even though the recordings were made on rudimentary eight-track equipment.
1970’s studio compilation set 13 (note the image of occult master Aleister Crowley on the rear cover) was one of those over-my-dead-body releases for Morrison, who had earlier fought against allowing ‘Light My Fire’ to appear in a Buick Opel commercial. (Both, in fact, happened.)
Come the end of the year, Morrison was in poor physical and emotional state, and long-time producer Paul A Rothchild left the fold. Classifying initial vamps for ‘Riders On The Storm’ and ‘Love Her Madly’ as “terrible cocktail music lounge shit”, he refused to produce the album that would become LA Woman, though some fans felt that Rothchild had taken the eye off the ball once he became involved with Janis Joplin – a powerhouse singer who was, incidentally, a drinking spar of Morrison’s.
Ironically, both of those tracks were released as singles – and both were hits, though ‘Riders On The Storm’ found posthumous success after Morrison died in Paris on 3 July 1971. If that song – partially influenced by serial killer Billy Cook – emphasised the dark side of The Doors, then LA Woman’s title track was a gleeful paean to the City Of Angels’ noir underbelly. In his final role, Morrison had cast himself as Mr Mojo Risin’, the anagram of his name that became a latter-day moniker to match earlier soubriquets The Lizard King and teen tag King Of Orgasmic Rock. Perhaps he was an amalgamation of all three.
After Morrison’s death, the three remaining Doors continued manfully with the underwhelming Other Voices and Full Circle, both marked by great playing but lacking their former leader’s fire.
Seven years later, they rectified that to an extent with An American Prayer, a mix of audio collage including Morrison’s poetry recitals, jam sessions and excerpts from the singer’s unreleased film HWY: An American Pastoral. The latter became the template for the 2009 documentary When You’re Strange. Incidentally, Morrison had approached soundtrack maestro Lalo Schifrin to score his celluloid adventures and his free form verse, before left the country to join his partner Pamela Courson in Paris.
Since his death, The Doors have reconvened in various live guises, while several compilations and a wealth of live albums from the vaults keep fans sweet. Recommended are Boot Yer Butt! The Doors Bootlegs, Live In Detroit, Live In Boston and Live At The Matrix 1967, along with the lavish box set London Fog 1966, which us back to the beginning when blues standards littered the set and Morrison was still so shy he often performed with his back to the audience.
That didn’t last. In hindsight, one might think Morrison was on a trajectory heading to disaster; whether he may ever have cleaned up his act, no one knows. What is known is that The Doors left behind a glorious legacy of six studio albums that can always be played, and will repay in earnest the entreaty: “Break on through to the other side.”
A tremendous debut album, and indeed one of the best first-time outings in rock history, introducing the band's fusion of rock, blues, classical, jazz, and poetry with a knock-out punch. The lean, spidery guitar and organ riffs interweave with a hypnotic menace, providing a seductive backdrop for Jim Morrison's captivating vocals and probing prose. "Light My Fire" was the cut that topped the charts and established the group as stars, but most of the rest of the album is just as impressive, including some of their best songs: the propulsive "Break on Through" (their first single), the beguiling Oriental mystery of "The Crystal Ship," the mysterious "End of the Night," "Take It as It Comes" (one of several tunes besides "Light My Fire" that also had hit potential), and the stomping rock of "Soul Kitchen" and "Twentieth Century Fox." The 11-minute Oedipal drama "The End" was the group at its most daring and, some would contend, overambitious. It was nonetheless a haunting cap to an album whose nonstop melodicism and dynamic tension would never be equaled by the group again, let alone bettered. Words: Richie Unterberger
Many of the songs on Strange Days had been written around the same time as the ones that appeared on The Doors, and with hindsight one has the sense that the best of the batch had already been cherry picked for the debut album. For that reason, the band's second effort isn't as consistently stunning as their debut, though overall it's a very successful continuation of the themes of their classic album. Besides the hit "Strange Days," highlights included the funky "Moonlight Drive," the eerie "You're Lost Little Girl," and the jerkily rhythmic "Love Me Two Times," which gave the band a small chart single. "My Eyes Have Seen You" and "I Can't See Your Face in My Mind" are minor but pleasing entries in the group's repertoire that share a subdued Eastern psychedelic air. The 11-minute "When the Music's Over" would often be featured as a live showstopper, yet it also illustrated their tendency to occasionally slip into drawn-out bombast. Words: Richie Unterberger
The Doors' 1967 albums had raised expectations so high that their third effort was greeted as a major disappointment. With a few exceptions, the material was much mellower, and while this yielded some fine melodic ballad rock in "Love Street," "Wintertime Love," "Summer's Almost Gone," and "Yes, the River Knows," there was no denying that the songwriting was not as impressive as it had been on the first two records. On the other hand, there were first-rate tunes such as the spooky "The Unknown Soldier," with antiwar lyrics as uncompromisingly forceful as anything the band did, and the compulsively riff-driven "Hello, I Love You," which nonetheless bore an uncomfortably close resemblance to the Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night." The flamenco guitar of "Spanish Caravan," the all-out weirdness of "Not to Touch the Earth" (which was a snippet of a legendary abandoned opus, "The Celebration of the Lizard"), and the menacing closer "Five to One" were also interesting. In fact, time's been fairly kind to the record, which is quite enjoyable and diverse, just not as powerful a full-length statement as the group's best albums. Words: Richie Unterberger
The weakest studio album recorded with Jim Morrison in the group, partially because their experiments with brass and strings on about half the tracks weren't entirely successful. More to the point, though, this was their weakest set of material, low lights including filler like "Do It" and "Runnin' Blue," a strange bluegrass-soul blend that was a small hit. On the other hand, about half the record is quite good, especially the huge hit "Touch Me" (their most successful integration of orchestration), the vicious hard rock riffs of "Wild Child," the overlooked "Shaman's Blues," and the lengthy title track, a multi-part suite that was one of the band's best attempts to mix rock with poetry. "Tell All the People" and "Wishful Sinful," both penned by Robbie Krieger, were uncharacteristically wistful tunes that became small hits but were not all that good, and not sung very convincingly by Morrison. Words: Richie Unterberger
The Doors returned to crunching, straightforward hard rock on Morrison Hotel, an album that, despite yielding no major hit singles, returned them to critical favor with hip listeners. An increasingly bluesy flavor began to color the songwriting and arrangements, especially on the party'n'booze anthem "Roadhouse Blues." Airy mysticism was still present on "Waiting for the Sun," "Queen of the Highway," and "Indian Summer"; "Ship of Fools" and "Land Ho!" struck effective balances between the hard rock arrangements and the narrative reach of the lyrics. "Peace Frog" was the most political and controversial track, documenting the domestic unrest of late-'60s America before unexpectedly segueing into the restful ballad "Blue Sunday." "The Spy," by contrast, was a slow blues that pointed to the direction that would fully blossom on L.A. Woman. Words: Richie Unterberger
The final album with Jim Morrison in the lineup is by far their most blues-oriented, and the singer's poetic ardor is undiminished, though his voice sounds increasingly worn and craggy on some numbers. Actually, some of the straight blues items sound kind of turgid, but that's more than made up for by several cuts that rate among their finest and most disturbing work. The seven-minute title track was a car-cruising classic that celebrated both the glamour and seediness of Los Angeles; the other long cut, the brooding, jazzy "Riders on the Storm," was the group at its most melodic and ominous. It and the far bouncier "Love Her Madly" were hit singles, and "The Changeling" and "L'America" count as some of their better little-heeded album tracks. An uneven but worthy finale from the original quartet. Words: Richie Unterberger