Before the Doors made a record, they developed their signature sound onstage in front of audiences.
“A lot of the songs in the beginning, me or [guitarist Robby Krieger] would come in with a basic idea, words and melody,” singer Jim Morrison told Rolling Stone in 1969. “But then the whole arrangement and actual generation of the piece would happen night after night, day after day, either in rehearsal or in clubs.”
When it came time to record some of those earliest songs for their debut album, the process went quickly, mainly for economical reasons. “We started almost immediately, and some of the songs took only a few takes,” Morrison noted. “We’d do several takes just to make sure we couldn’t do a better one. It’s also true that on the first album they don’t want to spend as much. The group doesn’t either, because the groups pay for the production of an album.”
“The joy of that first album comes from the whole point of putting a rock ‘n’ roll band together, which is to make a record,” keyboardist Ray Manzarek once noted. “To actually be in a recording studio for that first time is an existential moment. It only happens once in your life, and if that doesn’t energize you, nothing will. You’ve got a beat Southern-gothic, French-symbolist poet who joins with a classical jazz-blues keyboard player, a jazz marching-band drummer and a bottleneck American folk-blues flamenco guitarist. Take those four disparate types, and play Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, Willie Dixon, plus our own songs. The Doors combines all those elements.”
The band’s self-titled debut broke the band through to the other side — from house group at the Sunset Strip’s Whisky a Go Go to one of rock’s most popular outfits. Beginning with the bossa nova-inspired opening track to the 12-minute closer, the below track-by-track guide outlines why The Doors remains a classic half a century after its release.
1. “Break on Through (To the Other Side)”
Even though they had a sound that was all their own, the Doors absorbed many influences. The debut LP’s opening track and first single, “Break on Through,” includes several of them. In his autobiography, Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors, Manzarek noted that his part was inspired by Brazilian bossa nova, particularly Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto’s classic 1963 album Getz/Gilberto. And because the Doors had no bass player, Manzarek filled in the bottom on his keyboard, playing a bass line inspired by Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” Krieger’s guitar riff borrowed from Paul Butterfield’s version of Elmore James’ “Shake Your Moneymaker.”
2. “Soul Kitchen”
“Soul Kitchen” was Morrison’s tribute to a soul food restaurant in Venice Beach called Olivia’s. The singer frequently stayed late at the restaurant, which was often packed with UCLA students, much to the dismay of the staff. (Apparently there’s some truth to the line “Let me sleep all night in your soul kitchen.”) As drummer John Densmore described in his 1991 book, Riders on the Storm: My Life With Jim Morrison and the Doors, Olivia’s was a “small soul food restaurant at the corner of Ocean Park and Main” but “belonged in Biloxi, Miss.,” and resembled “an Amtrak dining car that got stranded on the beach.”
3. “The Crystal Ship”
Morrison’s lyrics could be perplexingly vague, so it was often assumed he was filling his songs with drug references. That’s how “The Crystal Ship” developed its reputation as a song about a drug overdose or maybe even a suicide pact. In 1990, decades after the song’s release and Morrison’s death, a letter from a fan to the Los Angeles Times claimed the song was really about crystal methamphetamine; the “ship” represented a hypodermic needle, while the “kiss” was the act of injection. Densmore responded to the letter to set the record straight once and for all. “Jim wrote ‘The Crystal Ship’ for Mary Werbelow, a girlfriend with whom he was breaking up,” he wrote. “We knew that crystal … was slang for the drug methedrine, but the song was a goodbye love song.”
4. “Twentieth Century Fox”
One of the few songs on The Doors that openly acknowledged Morrison’s adopted hometown of Los Angeles, “Twentieth Century Fox” described a stylish yet materialistic woman. But it’s really a metaphor for a broader social scene. “We knew exactly what he was talking about in ‘Twentieth Century Fox’ — youth culture and the attraction of L.A.,” said beat poet Linda Albertano, who, like Morrison, attended UCLA’s film school. “Young people are drawn to Hollywood, and their excitement in being here, in turn, excites the people who are ready to consume them. ‘Twentieth Century Fox’ is about fresh meat, as it were, about to enter the abattoir with a smile.” Producer Paul Rothchild had the band walk on wooden planks in the studio to achieve the pounding effect heard in the song. “If you listen to the rhythm sound on the chorus, it sounds like a small army!” Rothchild recalled to BAM magazine in 1981. “I’d just done a flamenco record where I’d used a similar idea. I thought it would be great to put it on a rock ‘n’ roll record.”
5. “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)”
The first of two cover songs on The Doors, “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)” began as a poem written in German by Bertolt Brecht in 1925. Two years later Kurt Weill added music to the piece for a play. The English translation, by a Brecht collaborator, has been covered dozens of times over the years. The Doors’ version retains a similar arrangement to the original. (Brecht fan David Bowie later covered the song and released it as a single in 1980.)
6. “Light My Fire”
Everyone in the Doors knew they were onto something with “Light My Fire” – it was one of the most popular songs in their live sets. “We knew that ‘Light My Fire’ was our best song, because when we would play it like at the Whisky or whatever, people would just go nuts,” Krieger told Forbes in 2021. “It was just so much more than any of the other songs.” Even though the album version of the songs clocks in at almost seven minutes, the band was advised to cut down the song to a more radio-friendly time of three. That wasn’t easy. “Nobody could figure out how to cut it,” Elektra Records founder Jaz Holzman told Mojo in 2010. “Finally, I said to [producer Paul] Rothchild, ‘Nobody can cut it but you.’ When he cut out the solo, there were screams. Except from Jim. Jim said, ‘Imagine a kid in Minneapolis hearing even the cut version over the radio, it’s going to turn his head around.’ So they said, ‘Go ahead, release it.'” The single did just as well on the charts as it did in the clubs. “That was it, man,” Krieger recalled. “It just took off.”
7. “Back Door Man”
Another cover song on The Doors, “Back Door Man” was written by blues legend Willie Dixon and first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in 1960. In his memoir, Densmore said his band’s version was “deeply sexual and got everyone moving.” Blues music had always played a significant role in the Doors’ development, offering a blueprint for their own improvisation. “I think in this country we keep returning to blues and country because they’re our two indigenous musical forms,” Morrison said in 1969. “I like singing blues — these free, long blues trips where there’s no specific beginning or end. It just gets into a groove, and I can just keep making up things. And everybody’s soloing. I like that kind of song rather than just a song. You know, just starting on a blues and just seeing where it takes us.”
8. “I Looked at You”
The seeds of “I Looked at You” – a relatively simple, three-chord song – were sown in 1966, a year before it was recorded. The Doors had signed a preliminary contract with Columbia Records, but the label dropped them. Down on their luck and somewhat desperate for funds, they took on a gig writing incidental music for a Ford Motor Company customer-service training film called Love Thy Customer. The band worked haphazardly, but pieces of “I Looked at You” – as well as other future Doors tracks “Build Me a Woman” and “The Soft Parade” – can be heard in the background. They were paid $200 for the day’s work.
9. “End of the Night”
“End of the Night” features distinctly eerie slide guitar sound by Krieger, who often experimented with his instrument. “I’d try different tunings until one worked,” he told MusicRadar in 2009. The song’s title comes from the 1932 French novel Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine, while some of Morrison’s lyrics are directly lifted from the William Blake poem “Auguries of Innocence”: “Some are born to sweet delight, some are born to endless night.”
10. “Take It as It Comes”
The Beatles weren’t the only band interested in Transcendental Meditation in the ’60s. Morrison, Densmore, Manzarek and Krieger had all attended a workshops run by guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at one point. “Three of us showed up at the very first Maharishi meeting when he came to L.A. in ’62,” Krieger told the Los Angeles Daily News in 2021. “John and Ray and I just happened to be there when there were maybe 12 people at the whole thing.” Maharishi often used the expression “Take it easy, take it as it comes.”
11. “The End”
About halfway through the 12-minute album closer “The End,” Morrison launches into a spoken-word segment that includes lines like “He came to a door, and he looked inside, ‘Father?’ ‘Yes, son? ‘I want to kill you,” a nod to the Greek drama Oedipus Rex. “At one point, Jim said to me during the recording session, and he was tearful, and he shouted in the studio, ‘Does anybody understand me?'” Densmore recalled in his memoir. “And I said, Yes, I do, and right then and there we got into a long discussion, and Jim just kept saying over and over kill the father, fuck the mother, and essentially boils down to this: Kill all those things in yourself which are instilled in you and are not of yourself, they are alien concepts which are not yours, they must die. So, what Jim says at the end of the Oedipus section, which is essentially the same thing that the classic says, Kill the alien concepts, get back reality, the end of alien concepts, the beginning of personal concepts.” Morrison “trashed the studio after we did ‘The End,’” Krieger once noted (via Rolling Stone). “Jim was on a lot of acid, and when we finished recording, he didn’t want to go home. The rest of us left, but he snuck back into the studio and got pissed off that there was no one else around, so he sprayed the place down with a foaming fire extinguisher.” Morrison later admitted that the Oedipal section wasn’t necessarily intended to be a direct reference. “I’d say there was a similarity, definitely,” he said in 1969. “But to tell you the truth, every time I hear that song, it means something else to me. I really don’t know what I was trying to say. It just started out as a simple goodbye song. Probably just to a girl, but I could see how it could be goodbye to a kind of childhood. I really don’t know. I think it’s sufficiently complex and universal in its imagery that it could be almost anything you want it to be.”
Doors Albums Ranked
The Doors did more in a short period of time than almost any other classic rock band.