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How The Doors’ Debut Album Opened A World Of Possibilities For Rock
In Depth

How The Doors’ Debut Album Opened A World Of Possibilities For Rock

Full of dark, mysterious, psych-flavoured pop, The Doors’ debut album is still the best point of entry to a fantastic body of work.

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When The Doors’ self-titled debut album first arrived, at the start of 1967, US publication Crawdaddy described it as “an album of magnitude” before suggesting that the record was “as good as anything in rock”. It wasn’t the first album (and it certainly wouldn’t be the last) to be greeted with such fulsome praise, but, over half a century later, The Doors still stacks up to the hyperbole. Standing tall among the best debut albums of all time, it remains a touchstone of late-60s rock.

Listen to The Doors’ self-titled debut album here.

While it arrived sounding fully-formed and fabulous, The Doors’ debut album didn’t materialise out of nowhere. In their embryonic form, the band began after keyboardist Ray Manzarek first met novice vocalist (and UCLA film-school dropout) Jim Morrison in 1965, but The Doors’ classic line-up – with Manzarek and Morrison joined by guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore – didn’t coalesce until the start of 1966. Even then, they were still unknown outside of their immediate circle when they embarked on their famous residency at Los Angeles’ London Fog nightclub in the spring of that year.

“They were kind of our heroes in LA”

It’s been well documented that this initial, dues-paying season of gigs – followed by a more high-profile residency at LA’s famous Whisky A Go Go – effectively set The Doors on the road to the superstar status they attained 12 months later. Certainly, the first half of 1966 was pivotal for the band’s development: by the time they were wowing audiences on a nightly basis at the Whisky, they had a killer set of songs and were fronted by a vocalist exuding star quality. The only question left unanswered was which record label they would sign with.

The hip Elektra imprint, co-founded in 1950 by Jac Holzman and Paul Rickolt, eventually won out, attracting the band thanks in part to its roster. “It was a small boutique label that had a bunch of artists that we respected, such as Paul Butterfield,” John Densmore told US publication Goldmine in 2017. “And Judy Collins was covering then-unknown Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. It was just a very hip, small folk label, and we could actually talk directly to the president. It wasn’t a giant corporation.”

One of the label’s newest signings, Arthur Lee’s Love, also helped steer The Doors towards Holzman’s company. “They were kind of our heroes in LA,” Krieger told Goldmine, who figured that, if Elektra were “good enough for Love, they’re good enough for us. I always loved everything on the label. I probably had three quarters of their releases in my collection, so it was pretty cool to be on Elektra.”

“After months of playing nightly sets, we were able to go”

As it turned out, Elektra wasn’t just hip. Holzman and co really knew their business and, in producer Paul A Rothchild and engineer Bruce Botnick, they’d already lined up the ideal team to help bring The Doors’ debut album to fruition. The duo already had an impressive track record, with their credits including Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s first two albums.

“I had never met a producer or engineer before, really,” Krieger recalled in 2017, adding that Rothchild had worked on “a lot of” his favourite records. “It was amazing that we got him to be our producer… Paul was kind of a New York guy, and we didn’t know many people like that. He was this high-energy guy. He was very positive and super-hip. We immediately bonded with him. And Bruce was cool (and experienced), too. We were kind of in awe of those guys.”

The Doors were still lean and hungry when, on 19 August 1966, they entered LA’s Sunset Sound Recorders to begin work on their self-titled debut album, and the record was in the can after just six days of sessions. The band had honed most of the tracks to perfection during their endless slots at the London Fog and the Whisky, but the graft was worth it: rich, diverse and accomplished, The Doors was laden with classic material, and it felt like the work of a band with considerably more experience.

“Our debut album was recorded in the perfect amount of time”

Jim Morrison’s precocious lyrical skills immediately stood out on tunes that still stand among among the best Doors songs of all time, such as the dramatic, Aldous Huxley-influenced Break On Through (To The Other Side) and the glorious ballad The Crystal Ship, which began with the beguiling lines “Before you slip into unconsciousness/I’d like to have another kiss/Another flashing chance at bliss”. However, while Morrison’s erudition and charismatic croon provided a focal point, the band’s three musicians matched him for invention throughout.

The album’s more immediate tunes, I Looked At You, Soul Kitchen and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi-inspired Take It As It Comes, showed that The Doors had morphed into prime purveyors of dark, psych-tinged rock and pop. Yet they were also versatile enough to take on Willie Dixon’s blues standard Back Door Man and ambitious enough work up a remarkable reimagining of Alabama Song – a track originally penned in 1927 by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, for the Weimar Republic-era German opera Mahagonny-Songspiel.

During the sessions, the only song which posed any problem was the album’s 11-minute denouement, The End. The band had been closing their live sets at the Whisky with this long, raga-like workout and, just prior to the album sessions, Morrison had inserted a new lyric inspired by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex. This controversial idea was based upon the notion that young boys lived through a phase of adolescence in which they sought to usurp their father and have sex with their mother. The Whisky A Go Go stage was the ideal setting for the song’s inherent drama to play out but, having shocked audiences with his first performance of this new section (“‘Father?’ ‘Yes, son?’ ‘I want to kill you’/‘Mother? I want to fuck you’”), recreating those dynamics in the studio proved difficult.

“Jim wanted to re-create that inspired night”

“Sunset Sound Recorders is one of the most historic studios in the world, having produced everything from [The Rolling Stones’] Exile On Main St to [Prince’s] Purple Rain to the soundtrack to Mary Poppins,” Robby Krieger wrote in his memoir, Set The Night On Fire. “But it was a workshop. No frills… We knew we couldn’t achieve the vibe we needed in a space like that, so we brought in our own lamps, turned off the fluorescents, and lit some candles and incense.

“But mood lighting only got us so far,” the guitarist added. “If Jim wanted to re-create that inspired night at the Whisky, he figured he needed to re-create his acid intake as well… We were all experienced enough with acid that we weren’t alarmed or afraid. We were excited. Two takes turned out to be all we needed for The End. We all went home satisfied.”

Eventually climaxing with Morrison’s Oedipal scream, The End’s notorious spoken-word section raised more than a few eyebrows, but it only added a further frisson of excitement for most discerning rock fans who were thrilled by The Doors’ debut when it was first released, on 4 January 1967.

“Light My Fire always got the best crowd response”

While the album sold robustly from the start (aided by Jac Holzman’s then highly innovative idea to promote the record with its own billboard on LA’s Sunset Strip), it really took off after its second single, Light My Fire, topped the US charts during the summer of 1967. Primarily composed by Robby Krieger and further elevated by Ray Manzarek’s magnificent, Bach-inspired organ figures, Light My Fire’s quality was apparent to all concerned, but because it included lengthy solos from Manzarek and Krieger, and clocked in at seven minutes, the song didn’t initially seem like a hit single.

“We knew Light My Fire was strong since it always got the best crowd response at the Whisky, but we didn’t want to cut out the solo,” Krieger recalled. “Bob Dylan had gotten a pass with over six minutes of Like A Rolling Stone; why couldn’t we get away with the same thing?” After persuasion from local KBLA-FM DJ Dave Diamond, one of the only broadcasters to play the whole song on air, The Doors reluctantly agreed to create a radio edit in the hopes of encouraging other stations to follow suit. “In our guts we knew Dave was right,” Krieger noted, conceding that, if they hadn’t agreed, The Doors’ debut album may not have performed as well as it did, and “the first song I ever wrote may not have become a standard”.

“Here we are, still talking about the record”

With Light My Fire finally topping the US Billboard Hot 100 ahead of Stevie Wonder’s I Was Made To Love Her during the summer of 1967, The Doors’ debut album also went supernova, reaching No.2 in the US, where it sat behind only The BeatlesSgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It would eventually go quadruple-platinum in the US and play a big part in setting The Doors’ legend in stone. The band created an impressive body of work over the next five years, but – with the possible exception of 1971’s LA Woman – they arguably never topped their talismanic debut album.

“Our debut album was recorded in the perfect amount of time,” Robby Krieger noted in his memoir. “Not so fast that we didn’t have time to get the energy right, but not so slow that we second-guessed ourselves. After months of playing multiple nightly sets at the Fog and the Whisky, we were able to just hit Record and go.”

By Krieger’s own admission, The Doors’ main ambition was to pay the rent and stick around for a decade or so. “Yet here we are,” he reflected, “still talking about the record over 50 years later!”

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