Fifty years. It seems impossible that this record has been around for fifty years. Its timelessness makes it sound as modern as anything being released now, but of course the songs on it are all intractably familiar to anyone with a passing interest in classic rock. I wasn’t around, so I can’t imagine what this sounded like to the uninitiated when it was first released; I remember my older brother playing the singles “Light My Fire” and “Break On Through” and they were ubiquitous on classic rock radio. Watching Apocalypse Now! as a teen, of course, “The End” is forever linked to that film in my memory. But there’s no memory of hearing the album front to back for the first time.
“Break On Through” has to be in contention for best lead track on a debut album in the history of rock and roll. John Densmore‘s bossa nova drums lead into Ray Manzarek‘s keyboard bassline and Jim Morrison almost speaks the first couple lines of the song before tearing loose in the shouted chorus. It is a concise two-and-a-half minutes that never stutters, never stops, never even pauses to let you catch your breath.
“Soul Kitchen” is one of my favorite cuts on the record. Though I don’t recall ever hearing The Doors referenced as a direct influence on Frank Black (though how could they not be at least a subconscious influence on anyone launching a music career in the ’80s?), this song foreshadows the classic Pixies loud-quiet-loud format, though in reverse. It starts out with Morrison almost crooning the opening verse before the whole band kicks into overdrive and he belts out the lyrics in the refrain. But as soon as that’s over, everything goes soft and quiet again until the next go-’round. It’s brilliant and captivating.
With its lazy, hazy, mellow melody, “The Crystal Ship” really sets The Doors apart from traditional rock music by fully embracing the psychedelic side of Morrison’s and Manzarek’s art. It’s easy to see why this is widely regarded as one of the ultimate tune in, turn on, drop out songs.
And then “Twentieth Century Fox” is a straight-ahead rock-and-roller, albeit with a heavier than normal dose of the Vox Continental. Robby Krieger finally gets a few seconds in the spotlight on this track with a by-the-numbers guitar solo that he makes his own, but overall it’s Manzarek and Densmore driving this cut.
Then they decide to do a Kurt Weill cover. I don’t really get this. It’s not that I don’t like the song (though it is, admittedly, my least favorite on the album) but it carries with it a level of camp – especially with that sort of clockwork oompa-oompa tempo throughout – that is wildly out of sync with the rest of the record. I heard David Bowie‘s version of “Alabama Song” before I heard The Doors do it and that just adds to the fact that when listening to The Doors from start to finish, this song really takes me out of the experience.
“Light My Fire” closes side one of the original LP release. For years, I’d only heard the single version of this song on commercial radio. This is one track on this record where I can say that hearing the full seven minute cut of the song for the first time was revelatory. The single, of course, is made up of the lyric portion. The fact that there have been so many “easy listening” cover versions of this song lend my friend’s comments in the aside (below) some credence. On the album version, after the first chorus, Manzarek launches into a blistering organ solo that lasts over two minutes while Densmore destroys some skins in the background. This gives way to a Krieger solo that meanders around for nearly as long, and through it all, Ray’s left hand just keeps walking that bassline. This all starts about one minute in and Morrison doesn’t come back until after the five-and-a-half minute mark, so if all you’ve heard is the single version, you’ve missed the whole song.
Personal Aside: I had a friend back in the ’90s and we used to just hang around and listen to records, the way you do when you’re in your teens and twenties with little money and lots of spare time. At one point, he said to me, “These lyrics are crap. You’ve just got a group of guys who want to make some really excellent music, and then some self-indulgent art-school poet comes along and shits all over your record.” And in the twenty or so years that have passed since that conversation, I have forgotten whether he was talking about The Doors or The Cure. And either way, it could be argued that he might have had a point.
Side two opens with Willie Dixon‘s “Back Door Man,” highlighting the band’s blues influence. The Doors play this as a full-on rock song, though, bringing a ton of energy to the recording and providing some of Morrison’s best vocals on the record.
For the longest time, I thought “I Looked At You,” was titled “We’re On Our Way,” since that’s the phrase repeated over and over throughout the song. This is just a fun garage rocker that I could easily imagine being done by The Ramones or ? And The Mysterians. It’s a high-tempo blast from start to finish.
“End Of The Night” is a quieter number with another excellent Krieger solo at its midpoint, this one very reminiscent of Santo & Johnny’s 1959 hit “Sleep Walk,” and then the art school poet comes back in to wrap up the last minute of the song. I always expect this song to shift gears and take off, but it maintains its downtempo swing thoughout.
The shortest song on the album, “Take It As It Comes” could be seen as a throwaway penultimate track before the big finale, but ends up being a complex (though compact) slice of rock-and-roll, starting off with Jim’s roiling take on Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 and escalating to a blistering coda, all in under two-and-a-half minutes.
Finally, the appropriately named “The End.” I will admit that it took me a very, very long time to wrap my head around this song, to be able to appreciate and enjoy it, and not just because that infamous Oedipal rap in the middle is designed to make the listener uncomfortable. It always seemed overly long and self-indulgent. Over time I grew to hear it as languorous, luxurious, velvet giving way to sandpaper before turning back to velvet again. The jazz inflections of the music are the perfect score to Morrison’s seemingly stream-of-consciousness rambling and imagery.
Listening to an album older than I am, it is difficult to grasp how groundbreaking The Doors must have sounded fifty years ago when it was first released. Even now, it is fresh and of-the-moment. There’s nothing that ties the album as a whole to that era apart from the music being used to accompany images from the late ’60s in various media throughout my lifetime. One thing that does surprise me is that there weren’t more singles, more hits from the record, and more artists doing covers of these songs – not “Break On Through” and “Light My Fire,” perhaps, but there are four or five lesser-known songs on the album that some brash young band could use to kickstart a career if done correctly.
The maturity of the musicianship and complexity of (most of) the lyrics make it hard to believe that this was a debut record made by kids in their twenties. Five star goodness from front to back with any and every song deserving of a spot on any respectable classic rock playlist. This might not be my favorite album by The Doors, but it’s a damn good one. I’d go so far as to call it essential, in that it captures the genesis of a legendary band that would go on to influence musicians forever after.