By 1965 Johnny Rivers and the Byrds had put Hollywood’s Sunset Strip and clubs like the Whiskey-a-Go-Go and Ciro’s on the map. Keyboardist Ray Manzarek and singer/songwriter Jim Morrison had met in film school at UCLA and decided to form a band together. In the best ’60s tradition, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore were in Manzarek’s meditation class, and when they all got together, it clicked.
Elektra scout/producer Paul Rothchild saw the band live at the Whiskey in July, 1966 and was astonished – so much so that he wanted to create a studio album that was an “aural documentary” of their live set. Manzarek’s inventive organ dominated the live sound, complemented well by Krieger’s blues riffs, jazzy runs, and Spanish finger picking on guitar, and Densmore’s fluid, interpretive drumming. Morrison was the focal point, his commanding baritone grabbing the ear while his erratic antics and arresting good looks captured the eye.
Rothchild’s most enduring achievement is capturing that sound in the studio. Rothchild’s first sessions at Sunset Sound for The Doors went well – the band was well prepared by a year’s worth of nightly gigs – and several songs were recorded in only two or three takes. But that was not to last as they prepared to record “The End.”
Per Jerry Hopkins in No One Here Gets Out Alive, for the “End” session, Morrison was inebriated, laying on the floor in the corner of the Sunset Sound studio near the drums, softly mumbling the words to his Oedipal nightmare: “Fuck the mother, kill the father, fuck the mother, kill the father, fuck the mother, kill the father…”
As Rothchild tried to capture his attention, Morrison picked up a television set and threw it toward the control room. Rothchild ended the session and sent Morrison off with a girlfriend. As the young woman drove down Sunset, Morrison suddenly opened the car door and bolted down the street on foot. He dashed to the studio, scaled the gate, penetrated an outer and an inner door, then panting, peeled off his clothes.
Feeling heat all around him, Morrison did the sensible thing and yanked a fire extinguisher from the wall and doused the studio.
Alerted by the woman, Rothchild returned to the studio and persuaded the naked, dripping, foamy Morrison to leave, and left word with the owner to charge the damage to Elektra. The next day the studio was spotless and they got “The End,” one of the most dramatic moments on record, in two takes.
The Doors is a great and enduring album, wherein Morrison explores the dark side with the seriousness of an artist over a deep and appealing sonic palette laid down by the band. While Morrison the person can be viewed as a pretentious, self-destructive clown who drank himself to death by 27, Morrison-the-artist was one of best singers, lyricists and performers in rock history.
“Break On Through” bounds in on the momentum of Densmore’s irresistible double time bossa nova cymbal ride, Manzarek’s charging organ bass and Krieger’s tough unison guitar. Rothchild’s production is timelessly immediate and alive, and Morrison delivers his sermon with a bodhisattva’s certainty:
“You know the day destroys the night
Night divides the day
Try to run, Try to hide
Break on through to the other side”
Morrison captures the good/evil, light/dark dichotomy with eerie economy. There are no rookie jitters here – the Doors arrived whole and complete.
“Light My Fire,” a Robby Krieger composition and the band’s signature tune, stretches out on great Manzarek and Krieger solos, but returns home on ballsy Morrison vocals and an insistent melody. The song shot to No. 1 and remains a radio staple. Rothchild’s production and Bruce Botnick’s engineering isolate the instruments from the vocals, creating a classic clean but live sound.
The Doors is one of the greatest rock debuts of all time.