While musical virtuosity and compositional genius are indisputable bona fides for any great artist to possess, and are indeed the key ingredients behind any number of remarkable records throughout history, such elements aren’t necessarily requisite. This is a sentiment especially true when considering a unique and prolific era like the 1960s, specifically when it comes to judging the decade’s rock music and understanding that there’s something that turns rock musicians into “rock stars” is largely intangible. This elusive quality applies to The Doors broadly, but is most specifically reflected in their 1967 eponymous, auspicious debut album. The extraordinary and consistent chemistry exhibited among the three instrumentalists — Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, and John Densmore — was no small part of the magic, but the driving, energizing force behind the band’s appeal was the charismatic and mystical frontman, poet, and singer: Jim Morrison (AKA Mr. Mojo Risin). In spending every day for a year and a half together — rehearsing at Venice beach and then performing as a minor act in the iconic Whisky a Go Go club, before signing with Elektra records — the group was able to build a cohesive vision that rendered their first album nothing less than a phenomenal achievement. The Doors brings the decade’s familiar sun-drenched psychedelia into somber, darker, and more unknown territory, as if its sounds were positioned underneath the rays of dusk and “in the neon groves” — or, as Morrison articulated in a poem first spotted by Manzarek, amid a “moonlight drive.” It was an album that immediately and brazenly haunted the music scene like some kind of nocturnal animal, and as the opening track’s title suggests, it helped the band to “break on through to the other side.”
A track littered with chaos, madness, and savage beauty, “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” is perhaps as definitive and encompassing a sonic statement as The Doors ever made. Moving from Densmore’s bossa nova-driven drumming to Krieger’s relaxed guitar riffs and on into Manzarek’s organ key wizardry, the sound builds from catchy simplicity to a full, multi-layered composition; earthly delights evolving into otherworldly reveries. Morrison’s distinctive baritone vocals here introduce the fluctuations listeners would come to know well: he easily ranges very tender emotionalism to ferocious shrieking and even screams, his style something of a wild mix of Frank Sinatra, Elvis, and Scott Walker, but imbued with the crazed performative manner of blues legends like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Howlin’ Wolf. Indeed, Morrison’s shamanic presence works in dense harmony with his bandmates’ instrumental mastery, effortlessly building a Dionysian record of orgiastic revelry; it’s a quality that’s specifically notable when Morrison indulges in repeated verses, as if chanting the sacred mantras in a (un)holy ceremony. His forthright, aggressive lyricism on “Break on Through” can elsewhere take a different shape, instead embracing some symbolist/surrealist poetry (inspired by Charles Baudelaire or Arthur Rimbaud), such as in “Soul Kitchen” — “Let me sleep all night in your soul kitchen / Warm my mind near your gentle stove” — or, more vividly, in the lulling atmosphere of “The Crystal Ship” — “Before you slip into unconsciousness / I’d like to have another kiss […] The crystal ship is being filled / A thousand girls, a thousand thrills.” This fluidity is used to varied effect, whether that’s in the cinematic character of “Twentieth Century Fox, “ the joyous, unbridled frivolity of the fanfare-inflected “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar),” or in the bawdy ode, “Back Door Man.”
The album’s second half can appear to settle into variations of other well-known tracks, but even these often sparkle with singular charms. For instance, the cheesy-sounding “I Look at You” boasts a simple structure but soon flares into an uplifting chorus, while elsewhere Manzarek’s ecstatic organ passages effectively hook listeners in “Take It as It Comes.” Another song, “End of the Night” (subtly referring to Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s novel, Journey to the End of the Night) may share superficial similarities with “The Crystal Ship” in its dark, trance-like mood, but it too ultimately stands on its own thanks to Krieger’s dreamy guitar solos and Morrison’s enchanting melancholy. This second half also plays home to two of the band’s most (in)famous hits: “Light My Fire” and “The End.” The first operates in much the same way as “Break on Through”: embracing edge and energy, the cut finds Morrison slinging lustful, even sleazy lyrics alongside Manzarek’s feverish organ work, Densmore’s dynamic drumming, and Krieger’s nimble guitar (here tuned so that it resembles a sitar, more than anything), indeed easily setting “the night on fire.” But when The Doors’ festive, epicurean journey finally reaches “The End,” everything is suddenly tilted to the tenor of hallucination, madness, and even gloom — “Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain / And all the children are insane.” Across this epic (and controversial) song’s 10 minutes, Morrison’s deeply bizarre and heavily symbolic poetry gradually moves from sinister romance toward an oedipal tragedy, a lyrical movement that remains disturbing today — “Father? / Yes, son / I want to kill you / Mother, I want to…” — all this while the remaining group members exercise their own potentiality in an onslaught of oddball experimentalism. And so, while “The End” acts as a fitting finale to The Door’s audacious debut, it also marks something of a beginning, predictive of the band’s ensuing, adventurous run over the next half-decade. The Doors is an album befitting the group’s outsized, mythical legacy, an everlasting trip of a record, a euphoric experience to which listeners, then and now, can drift and dance their way through.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.