The Doors built its finest work around straight-ahead rock’n’roll, adding a whirling, baroque jazz samba momentum from the alchemy of keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger, and drummer John Densmore, all schooled in the post-bop cool permeating, by the mid-1960s, the many stripes of a blossoming California pop music scene. Jim Morrison brought the goods of fame, an impassioned thunderhead vocal whether singing his own lyrics or Krieger’s (the band’s most successful writer), and a hip pin-up beauty boosting the band’s pop darling status. (There is great irony here, as the New York Factory crowd crowed over Morrison’s veneer — with appropriate Warhol-esque fascination — and Morrison himself did everything he could to make and then deface his pretty boy shell, revealing the rot within, in one of rock’s most infamous stories of self-creation/immolation.) At the core of Elektra’s push to advance American rock in the wake of the British Invasion, the Doors — along with label mates Love, the Stooges, and the MC5 — subverted from within, using their musicianship and Morrison’s undeniable charisma to chart a course for a freedom in pop music that contained the seeds of both progressive rock and punk. In this they were like the Velvet Underground, although their east coast analogue never achieved anywhere near the popular impact of the Doors (V.U.’s influence notwithstanding).
Of their six studio albums with Morrison, all of which have their strengths, the self-titled debut is the Doors’ most cohesive LP. Released in the first days of 1967, it counterpointed the hippie cheer of the Sgt. Pepper era, playing to rock’s shadowy furies and heavily influenced by the day-glo punk creep of Love, a band greatly admired by Morrison and which, although still months away from its masterpiece Forever Changes, had already taken the dive into the seamy pop noir that Los Angeles inspired in those who saw desperation in greater relief the brighter the sun shone. It was a darkness with extreme definition, fascinating to both Arthur Lee and Jim Morrison, and the Doors came out of the gate startlingly fully formed in concept and execution, with Manzarek’s keys and Krieger’s unusual, flamenco/finger-style guitar conjuring a smooth jazz carnie ride driven by Densmore’s muscular but lithe drumming. Nothing else sounded remotely close to the Doors, thanks in large part too to producer Paul Rothschild and engineer Bruce Botnick, who used the studio as if they were recording a jazz group, attaining a clean, lively separation absent from the period’s rock recordings. Chalk this up to Elektra’s genius and artist-first philosophy.
Krieger’s “Light My Fire” was the band’s first great success, although its shortened radio single eviscerates its midsection, which contains one of rock’s great guitar solos and instrumental interplay that made its artists’ statement clear: this wasn’t the Wrecking Crew or session players, but a group intent on pushing limits as a band, as if that in itself meant something. Even the simple final line — “Try to set the night on fire” — Morrison treats as life or death (to this day few singers can build towards and deliver the final utterance of a song as Morrison could). More revolutionary for its time than it now might seem — and diminished by Oliver Stone’s clunky telling of its creation — “Light My Fire” and the first Doors record as a whole established the notion of a rock group as artistically independent from its record company, a sea change in American music in the late 1960s. For all of the attention focused on Jim Morrison’s histrionic deterioration and Ray Manzarek’s eulogizing of the Lizard King, the Doors were a cooperative, artistic effort that continues to influence, and haunt, rock groups that hew the edge.
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