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‘The Unknown Soldier’: The Story Behind The Doors’ Potent Anti-War Song
dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

‘The Unknown Soldier’: The Story Behind The Doors’ Potent Anti-War Song

Recorded at the height of the Vietnam War, ‘The Unknown Soldier’ was The Doors’ most political song, striking a chord at home and abroad.

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Like all young, socially-aware US citizens of their era, The Doors were affected by their nation’s involvement in Vietnam War. The conflict began in 1955 and – in layman’s terms – involved a protracted battle between the Soviet Russia- and China-allied North Vietnam and the US-backed South Vietnam. However, the war drastically intensified in 1964, after the United States Congress gave the US military the power to draft young male civilians of 21 or over. The Doors’ vocalist, Jim Morrison, and drummer John Densmore only narrowly avoided shipping out in 1966, and guitarist Robby Krieger also secured an exemption after the band issued their anti-war protest song, The Unknown Soldier, in the spring of 1968.

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The Doors’ first anti-war song: “Anti-Vietnam sentiment was at its peak”

The Doors had some direct links with the military. Most famously, Jim Morrison’s father was an Admiral in the US Navy, though keyboardist Ray Manzarek also did a stint in the Army Security Agency in the early 60s. Despite this, none of the band were political animals, and they were well aware of the depth of anti-war feeling in US society. As their second album, Strange Days, elevated them to superstar status in the autumn of 1967, an estimated 35,000 people marched on the Pentagon to protest North America’s involvement in Vietnam, and The Doors also felt compelled to make their voices heard.

Consequently, after the band played the International Ballroom at the Hilton Hotel, in Arlington, Virginia, in November 1967, Morrison visited the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier in the nearby Arlington Cemetery. The visit inspired him to pen the lyrics for the song of the same name, which The Doors worked up on the road before recording it as the follow-up single to their Top 30 hit Love Me Two Times.

The lyrics: “I was proud of Jim’s first obviously political statement”

For the most part, Morrison’s lyrics were atypically direct. Lines such as “Breakfast where the news is read/Television, children fed/Unborn living, living dead/Bullets strike the helmet’s head” were suitably stark and devoid of the poetic flourishes distinguishing earlier works such as Light My Fire and Break On Through (To The Other Side). Sitting in rock music’s long lineage of protest songs, his words clearly galvanised the band, who responded by working up a dark, psychedelic-tinged rock backdrop to support them.

Musically, the verses were nervous and cagey, and the band upped the ante further by inserting a theatrical “mock execution” midway through the track. A frequent highlight of The Doors’ live set, this section of the song featured Densmore’s rattling military snare reaching a crescendo before Krieger simulated shooting Morrison with his guitar. The singer would then collapse on cue, the band would build the music back up, and Morrison would eventually reclaim the stage, declaring “It’s all over!/War is over!” as the song climaxed.

The recording: “To perform the execution action we shot off a real rifle”

Melody Maker magazine described The Unknown Soldier as “an apocalyptic piece which seems to sum up the Vietnam-nourished at the centre of American life”, and the song certainly packed an emotional punch. However, recording it in the studio, during sessions for what would become The Doors’ third album, Waiting For The Sun, proved difficult and time-consuming – not least because the group’s producer, Paul Rothchild, was becoming increasingly obsessed with sonic perfection.

“When it came to The Unknown Soldier, Paul Rothchild approached it like a science project,” Robby Krieger wrote in his memoir, Set The Night On Fire: Living, Dying, And Playing Guitar With The Doors. “Anti-Vietnam sentiment was at its peak, so he thought Jim’s lyric could tap into the vibe of the moment and form the basis of a hit. When it came to the music, he decided to study hit singles to find common traits. What’s the average tempo of a hit single? What’s the average length of a hit single?”

Writing in Riders On The Storm: My Life With The Doors – one of the best music autobiographies to reflect on life in the 60s counterculture – John Densmore recalled the lengths that Rothchild went to in order to capture The Unknown Soldier as he heard it, putting the band through at least 59 takes of what was merely the first half of the song. “To perform the execution action in the middle of the song, we marched around the studio and shot off a real rifle filled with blanks,” Densmore revealed. “It was fun, but I think we spent about two hours getting one gunshot. It seemed absurd.”

The release: “I was proud of the record company for having the courage to push it”

Despite enduring around 130 takes in total, The Doors succeeded in getting The Unknown Soldier in the can. They also took the – then highly innovative – step of making a promotional film which would support the record upon its release in March 1968.

Created by filmmakers Mark Abramson and Edward Dephoure, The Unknown Soldier video featured graphic Vietnam War footage intercut with shots of The Doors walking along Santa Monica Beach, during which Jim Morrison was tied to the remains of the Pacific Ocean Park pier and again mock-executed by firing squad. After the gunshot, Morrison lurches forward with blood running from his mouth, and the band – minus their singer – walk away across the beach.

Due to its controversial nature, The Unknown Soldier’s powerful promo was rarely shown at the time. It premiered before a Doors concert in Boston and was again screened when the band played Fillmore East, in New York City, shortly after. However, it only circulated widely in the 80s, when it was included on The Doors’ Dance On Fire VHS collection.

Despite its outspoken sentiments, The Unknown Soldier picked up positive reviews on release (Time magazine dubbed it the band’s “anti-war philippic”; Cashbox praised the song’s “sheer passion”), and it also struck a chord with record-buyers, who took it into the US Top 40.

The legacy: “It was more powerful with its universal imagery”

“The lyrics weren’t talking specifically about the Vietnam War, but I thought it was more powerful with its universal imagery. That was Jim’s gift,” Densmore reflected on what remains one of the best Doors songs.

Marking the point where the group actively engaged with real-world politics, The Unknown Soldier also showed that rock musicians and music-industry gatekeepers alike could express sentiments that may have risked alienating some members of the public. “I was proud of Jim’s first obviously political statement,” Densmore concluded, “and proud of the record company for having the courage to push it.”

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