Doors’ Debut Album: 10 Things You Didn’t Know
How an uncredited bassist, Jim Morrison’s acid-fueled studio meltdown and a fateful Buick ad played into band’s legendary first LP
If you wanted to craft the perfect rock debut, the most obvious route wouldn’t be to meld Bavarian oompah with Willie Dixon’s Chicago blues, Bach minuets with John Coltrane charts, 12th-century Celtic myths with ancient Greek tragedy, topped off with plenty of existential angst and a healthy dose of psychedelics. But even with influences touching on all of the above, the Doors’ 1967 self-titled debut would soon make the band immortal, thanks to songs like “Break on Through (to the Other Side),” “The End” and the immortal “Light My Fire.”
Fresh from their gig as the house band at the Sunset Strip’s Whisky a Go Go – where they were fired for performing a profanity-laced riff on Oedipus Rex during “The End” – poet/vocalist Jim Morrison, keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore spent a week at Sunset Sound Recorders documenting the act that had vaulted them to the top of the Los Angeles scene in less than a year. “The first album is basically the Doors live,” Manzarek says in the documentary Classic Albums: The Doors. “There are very few overdubs. It’s ‘The Doors: Live from the Whisky a Go Go’ … except in a recording studio.”
The Doors captured for eternity the raw, vital, hypnotic excitement of four fearless artists. In honor of the album’s 50th anniversary, here are 10 little-known facts about the record’s conception and reception.
1. “Light My Fire” was the first song Robby Krieger ever wrote.
The Doors’ guitarist may have had the greatest beginner’s luck in rock history. Having never completed a song, the 20-year-old composed “Light My Fire,” the Number One smash that continues to evoke the Summer of Love’s sensual heat.
“That was the first one I wrote, because up until then Jim had been writing the songs,” he told Reverb in 2016. “But we realized we didn’t have enough originals, so Jim said, ‘Why don’t you write some? Why do I have to do all the work!?’ So I said, ‘OK, what should I write about?’ And he goes, ‘Write about something universal. Write about something that will last, not just about today.’ So I decided I’d write about [either] earth, air, fire or water.” Citing “Play With Fire” as one of his favorite Rolling Stones songs, he settled on fire.
Krieger labored over the song for several days, determined to conjure up something more than a standard rock progression. “Up until then the Doors were doing three-chord type songs that were pretty simple, like ‘I Looked at You’ or ‘End of the Night.'” he told Clash Music. “I wanted to write something more adventurous. I decided I was going to put every chord I knew into this song – and I did! There’s about 14 different chords in there.” For a melody, he looked to “Hey Joe,” then a recent hit for Los Angeles band the Leaves.
With a verse and chorus under his belt, he brought the work-in-progress before his bandmates. The song had a folk-rock flair in this early state, leading some in the group to derisively compare it to a Sonny and Cher number. But Morrison saw its potential and offered to contribute some extra lyrics. “Jim came up with the second verse about the funeral pyre,” Kreiger remembered in Classic Albums. “I said, ‘Jim, why is it always about death? Why do you always have to do that?’ And he said, ‘No man, it’ll be perfect. You’ll have the love part of it and then you’ll have that death part of it.’ And he was right.”
Manzarek added the cartwheeling Bach-like introduction and bass line (borrowed from Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill”) while Densmore lent the Latin rhythm. When it was released the following year, the song would be jointly credited to the Doors.
2. Before recording their debut, the Doors provided backing music to a Ford Motor Company training film.
In the early spring of 1966, the Doors’ were dropped from a preliminary Columbia Records contract with little warning – and little to show for it. Lacking representation and struggling financially, the band took an unglamorous gig at Parthenon Pictures providing incidental music for a Ford Motor Company customer service training film titled Love Thy Customer.
The Doors piled into a cramped screening room at Los Angeles’ Rampart Studios, where they viewed the 25-minute clip on a small monitor. They composed a soundtrack largely on the spot, jamming live as the scenes flickered past. Fragments of what later became “I Looked at You,” “Build Me a Woman,” and “The Soft Parade” can be heard in the finished product. Though they played only instrumental passages, Morrison is said to have contributed percussion and additional sound effects. The day of work earned them $200.
Believed to be lost for decades, Love Thy Customer was discovered in the UCLA film vaults in 2002 and released on the 2014 Doors rarities DVD R-Evolution. However, the original soundtrack session tapes have yet to be located.
3. “Break on Through (to the Other Side)” owes a large debt to a Paul Butterfield Blues Band song, and Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.”
“If it hadn’t been for Butterfield going electric, I probably wouldn’t have gone into rock & roll,” Robby Krieger recently admitted on his website. The Doors guitarist spent his early years emulating flamenco masters like Mario Escudero, Carlos Montoya, and Sabicas before moving into the blues. From there he discovered the raw Chicago sound of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, bolstered by the searing twin guitars of Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop. Their work would have a marked influence on his playing style, particularly on the track “Break on Through (to the Other Side).”
When the Doors began arranging the Morrison composition, Krieger found a familiar line falling out of his guitar. “I got the idea for the riff from the Paul Butterfield song ‘Shake Your Money-Maker,’ which was one of my favorites,” he says in Classic Albums. “We just changed the beat around.” The Butterfield version of the song – first recorded by Elmore James in 1961 – was a track off their self-titled 1965 debut, produced by future Doors collaborator Paul Rothchild.
In the same documentary Manzarek also demonstrates how he lifted the keyboard bass line from Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” as well as elements of his organ solo. “We’d steal from anybody!”
4. The first two songs they recorded were shelved, but alternate versions surfaced on future Doors albums.
“Moonlight Drive” is the quintessential Doors song: bluesy, nocturnal and dripping with doomed romanticism. The bewitching combination provided the spark that led to the band’s creation in July 1965, when Morrison and Manzarek, former classmates at UCLA’s film school, bumped into each other on the sands of Venice Beach.
The friends hadn’t seen each other since graduating that spring, and it was a welcome reunion. “I said, ‘Well, what have you been up to?'” Manzarek told NPR’s Fresh Air in 1998. “And he said, ‘Well, I’ve been living up on Dennis Jacobs’ rooftop, consuming a bit of LSD and writing songs.'” After some convincing, he persuaded the shy Morrison to sing him one.
“He sat down on the beach, dug his hands into the sand, and the sand started streaming out in little rivulets. He kind of closed his eyes, and began to sing in a Chet Baker, haunted whisper kind of voice. He began to sing ‘Moonlight Drive,’ and when I heard that first stanza – ‘Let’s swim to the moon, let’s climb through the tide, penetrate the evening that the city sleeps to hide’ – I thought ‘Ooh, spooky and cool, man.'” At that moment, they decided to start a rock band.
The song featured prominently in the nascent Doors’ early sets, and was even included on a demo recorded that September at Trans World Pacific Studios. Krieger had yet to join the band – Manzarek’s brothers Jim and Rick handled guitar and harmonica parts. When the four Doors finally came together, rehearsing at a friend’s garage behind a Santa Monica bus depot, “Moonlight Drive” was the first number they played.
“I knew instantly we had found ‘it,’ that indefinable, transcendent something that Kerouac refers to,” Manzarek told Gibson.com in 2011. “We all looked at each other and went, ‘Man, what have we just done? Oh, my. Are we allowed to do that on this planet?’ That was it. ‘Moonlight Drive.’ At that point, everybody knew. We all just sort of nodded our heads and that was it. That was the birth of the Doors. Right there.”
When the band convened in Sunset Sound studios to record the The Doors in August 1966, “Moonlight Drive” seemed like an appropriate starting point. “When we went to record the first album, the first one we did was ‘Moonlight Drive,'” Krieger told People in 2016. But inhibited by the unfamiliar studio setting, they were unable to recapture the magic of their first rehearsal. “It just sounded too mysterious and kind of dark. So we rearranged it for the second album [1967’s Strange Days] and made it a little more wild.” The original version, which Krieger dubs “the very first recording we ever did as the Doors,” was shelved and lost for a time, before surfacing on a box set in 1997.
The second song they worked on that day, “Indian Summer,” also failed to make the cut. “It wasn’t that we thought they weren’t good enough for the first album, but we had to pick and choose,” says Krieger. “A lot of good ones didn’t make it.” A re-recorded version would be included on 1970’s Morrison Hotel.
5. After recording “The End,” Jim Morrison returned to the studio on LSD and hosed the band’s equipment with a fire extinguisher.
“The End” was the Doors’ showstopper, an extended tour de force that blurred the lines between music and theater. The piece was especially exhausting for Morrison, who delivered a lengthy mid-song poem inspired by the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex. Performing “The End” before a live audience was enough of a challenge, but summoning the energy in a sterile recording studio took considerable effort on the part of the band, producer Paul Rothchild and engineer Bruce Botnick.
“The lights had been dimmed and the candles were burning right next to Jim, whose back was to the control room,” Rothchild remembers in Stephen Davis’ Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend. “The only other illumination came from the lights on the VU meters. The studio was very dark.” To further set the mood, Morrison apparently took a tab of LSD.
At first the hallucinogen had an overall positive effect on the performance, but during the playback it became apparent that Morrison was, by Krieger’s estimation, “too high to continue the session.” Three of the Doors decided to continue work the following day. Morrison had a different idea.
“He trashed the studio after we did ‘The End,'” Krieger told author Mick Houghton. “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.”
Botnick elaborates on the episode in Mick Wall’s Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre. “[Jim had] gone across the street to the Blessed Sacrament, a Catholic Church, and he had an epiphany over there. He came back to the studio and the gate was locked. He climbed over the gate, got in, but he couldn’t get into the control room. That was locked. But the studio was open and the red lights were on.” The red-hued work lights seemingly registered as a fire in Morrison’s psychedelicized brain. “He thought it was on fire, so he grabbed a fire extinguisher and knocked over the ashtrays that were full of sand and tried to put out the fire.”
Manzarek recalled the story slightly differently. In his memoir, Light My Fire, he claims that Morrison began ranting about a fire while being driven home from the studio by his girlfriend, Pamela Courson. He was so persistent that Courson reluctantly returned to the studio, and Morrison immediately bounded over the fence. “He took the fire extinguisher and hosed the whole place down,” Manzarek told Houghton. “Not in the control room, thank God, just in the area where the band was … just blasted the whole place man, just to cool it down.” Much of the band’s equipment was ruined, including a full sized harpsichord.
The following day, a single boot, belonging to Morrison, was found among the destruction. “The studio people just absolutely freaked,” says Manzarek. “Paul [Rothchild] said, ‘Uh, don’t worry, don’t worry, Elektra will pay for it. No reason to call the police.’ He knew right away who did it, you know. We all knew right away what had happened.” The only one who claimed ignorance was, predictably, Morrison himself. “I did that? Come on, really?” Densmore recalls him saying over breakfast the next day.
Elektra head Jac Holzman immediately cut a very large check to studio owner Tutti Camarata. “I rushed over and said, ‘I agree, it’s out of control. I’ll pay for the damages,” he told Mojo. The incident was smoothed over, but Krieger felt the moment marked a turning point in Morrison’s psyche. “I thought Jim [felt], ‘Well, I got away with that, I can get away with anything.”
6. The Doors used a secret bass player in the studio – Wrecking Crew session legend and future Bread member Larry Knetchel.
Instead of a bassist, the Doors famously relied on Ray Manzarek’s left hand to hold down the low end with a Fender Rhodes Piano Bass keyboard. The role originally fell to him out of necessity when the band first began to coalesce. “We auditioned quite a few bass players,” he recalled in the Classic Albums documentary. “We auditioned one bass player and we sounded like the Rolling Stones. Then we auditioned another bass player and we sounded like the Animals.” Unwilling to come across as imitators – or, worse yet, traditional – the Doors simply did without. “Adding a bass made us sound like every other rock & roll band,” Densmore wrote in his memoir, Riders on the Storm. “We were determined to do almost anything to sound different.”
The absence of a bassist became a crucial element of the Doors live sound, but Rothchild felt that the recordings needed a stronger bass attack than the occasionally “mushy” Rhodes could provide. He quietly hired Larry Knechtel, of the ubiquitous gang of Los Angeles session players known as the Wrecking Crew, to thicken the sound. Knechtel had already appeared on hits by the Beach Boys, Elvis Presley and the Byrds by the time he was booked to overdub bass lines on six of the record’s 11 tracks, including “Light My Fire” and the swaggering “Soul Kitchen.”
Knechtel’s work on The Doors went uncredited at the time, and it was years before the extent of his contributions were known. Some criticized the band for seemingly airbrushing the player out of the Doors’ story, but Densmore clarifed the decision in a 2015 Facebook post. “Larry Knechtel wasn’t credited because he duplicated Ray’s left hand bass lines exactly. He didn’t record with us on the tracks, he overdubbed later. This was a time before Moog synthesizers, and Rothchild felt (correctly) that Ray’s lines needed more sonic punch from a string plucked in addition to a keyboard.”
Knechtel would not play on any future Doors sessions, but he did reportedly record bass on Jose Feliciano’s flamenco version of “Light My Fire,” which became a Number Three hit in the United States in 1968.
7. To promote the album, Elektra Records purchased the first “rock billboard” in history.
Sessions for The Doors were complete by the end of the summer, but Holzman decided to hold the album’s release until the following January to avoid the crush of albums earmarked for the Christmas market. If the band were disappointed by the delay, they were soothed by Holzman’s ingenious promotional scheme: a massive billboard looming over the Sunset Strip. The medium had traditionally been used to push films, food, cigarettes and a host of other products, and this was the first time a rock band would appear on one.
“BREAK ON THROUGH WITH AN ELECTRIFYING NEW ALBUM,” proclaimed the ad, complete with Joel Brodsky’s arresting image of the group that graced the sleeve’s back cover. Located next to the Chateau Marmont, a short distance from the club scene where the Doors cut their teeth just a year earlier, the prime location cost a whopping $1,200 a month. The venture was, according to Holzman, “a calling card for the artist, but it was a very large calling card.” He believed the ad would catch the attention of Los Angeles DJs on their way to work and piqué their interest. He was right, giving birth to a whole new field of artist promotion. Rock billboards would soon dot the Strip and beyond.
According to Densmore, the extravagance earned the band some good-natured ribbing. “Radio broadcaster Bill Erwin had interviewed us at the new billboard, and was teasing us about the ad,” he writes in Riders on the Storm. “‘This is kind of a strange way of using a billboard, guys. I mean, you really can’t hear a billboard. And nobody’s heard of the Doors yet.'”
8. Jim Morrison falsely claimed that his parents were dead in the press bio that accompanied the album.
The infamous “Father, I want to kill you,” passage from “The End” was inspired by Oedipus, but the theme had a personal resonance for Morrison. His complex relationship with authoritarian parents precipitated the inner turmoil that characterized his adult life, inspiring both his finest music and his madness.
On the rare occasions that Morrison spoke of his childhood, he described it as “an open sore” – painful and best kept under wraps. His father, George Stephen Morrison, was a high-ranking career naval officer. It was he who gave Morrison the middle name “Douglas” after General Douglas MacArthur, in hopes that his son would follow in his footsteps. On that score, he would be severely disappointed.
The family moved often, and Morrison’s father was frequently absent on tours of duty. When he was home, he had little patience for youthful disobedience. Though Morrison’s younger brother Andy tells author Jerry Hopkins that he, Jim and sister Anne rarely received physical discipline, he says they were routinely subjected to the military punishment known as “dressing down,” wherein the culprit would be berated into submissive tears.
Ultimately promoted to Rear Admiral, Morrison’s father was something of a military Zelig. In 1941 he witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Two decades later, aboard the USS Bon Homme Richard aircraft carrier, he commanded American naval forces during the Gulf of Tonkin incident, a military clash that led to a dramatic escalation of the war in Vietnam. He was a familiar face around Cape Canaveral, the Pentagon and the Naval Golf Course.
After learning of his son’s desire to become a rock singer, the elder Morrison wrote a letter urging him “to give up any idea of singing or any connection with a music group because of what I consider to be a complete lack of talent in this direction.” Morrison effectively severed all contact with his father thereafter, and they never saw one another again. “His reluctance to communicate with me again is to me quite understandable,” Admiral Morrison admitted privately in 1970.
When Elektra approached the Doors to pen press bios for their debut album, Jim took the opportunity to edit his own history. Asked to name his parents and siblings, he simply wrote, “Deceased.” For a time, even his close friends believed him to be an orphan.
Morrison’s split from him family was total; they didn’t even realize he was in a band. His brother Andy only found out when a classmate showed him the Doors album cover and pointed out his resemblance to the lead singer. “A friend of mine brought me the album,” he told Hopkins. “I’d been listening to ‘Light My Fire’ for months and didn’t know. That’s how we found out. We hadn’t seen Jim or heard from him in two years. I played the album for my parents the day I got it, the day after my friend told me about it. Dad knows music. He plays piano and clarinet. Dad likes strong melody. He hates electric guitars. He likes the old ballads. He doesn’t like rock. He listened to the album and afterwards he didn’t say a thing. Not a thing.”
Morrison’s mother Clara made attempts to contact him through Elektra Records, but the newly minted rock star kept her at arms length. He barred her from visiting him backstage during a gig in Washington, D.C., but did give her a front row seat for the concert. Those in attendance later said that the Oedipal section in “The End” packed an extra strong punch that night.
Throughout the band’s travels, Morrison managed to keep in touch with Andy, who was just 19 in 1967. “I told him that mom felt really bad when he refused to see her. He told me if he called once, they’d expect calls every month or so. He said, ‘Either you break it, or you’re part of the family – there’s no halfway point. Either you talk all the time, or not at all.'” Morrison chose not at all.
Admiral Morrison declined to speak publicly about his son until the end of his life. “We look back on him with great delight,” he said in Tom DiCillo’s documentary When You’re Strange, taped just before his death in 2008. “I had the feeling that he felt we’d just as soon not be associated with his career. He knew I didn’t think rock music was the best goal for him. Maybe he was trying to protect us.”
Densmore proposed another reason in his memoir. “Personally, I think the opposite is true, that Jim did it to proclaim independence and cut the umbilical cord once and for all.”
9. The word “high” caused several headaches for the band.
The Doors’ September 17th, 1967, appearance on the The Ed Sullivan Show infamously resulted in a lifetime ban after Morrison disobeyed the CBS Standards and Practices department and sang the original lyric to “Light My Fire” – “Girl we couldn’t get much higher” – instead of their decidedly lackluster suggestion/demand: “Girl, we couldn’t get much better.” Producers and network executives were infuriated, and a stone-faced Sullivan denied Morrison the traditional post-performance handshake, instead cutting straight to a commercial for Purina Dog Chow.
The band was unbothered by the incident. “They said, ‘You’ll never do this show again!'” recalled Densmore in the Classic Albums documentary. “And we said, ‘Well, we just did it. We only wanted to do it once. Cheers!'”
An earlier attempt at censorship had been more successful. “Break on Through (to the Other Side),” the opening track on The Doors, seemed like an obvious choice for the band’s first single. But Rothchild was concerned that the song’s “She get high” refrain would limit its airplay potential. “He said, ‘You know, we’re not going to be able to get this played, so we really should cut that out,'” Densmore told Forbes in 2015. “We reluctantly agreed.” The offending line was edited down to a repeated “She get!” followed by Morrison’s guttural wail.
Though lyrically meaningless, the abrupt passage became a familiar part of the song. When Botnick restored the missing “high” as part of the 1999 remaster of The Doors, some rock purists were outraged.
10. The Doors – minus Morrison – agreed to license “Light My Fire” for a Buick ad. When Morrison found out, he threatened to smash a Buick during every Doors concert.
After the band’s 1968 European tour concluded in Sweden on September 20th, Morrison decided to stay in London with girlfriend Pamela Courson and work on his poetry under the encouraging guidance of writer Michael McClure. It seemed like a great plan, except for the fact that his bandmates knew next to nothing about it. This proved problematic when representatives from Buick contacted the Doors, offering them $75,000 to license “Light My Fire” for an ad campaign featuring the memorable slogan, “Come on Buick, light my fire!”
“I thought it was an interesting idea,” Manzarek later told Patricia Butler and Jerry Hopkins in their book Angels Dance and Angels Die: The Tragic Romance of Pamela and Jim Morrison. “The car they wanted to use it for was the Opel, a small little ecologically correct car, a little four-cylinder, two-seater automobile they worked on with the German Opel company. It wasn’t obviously a big Buick or anything like that.” (Some reports claim the vehicle in question was the less-than-eco-friendly Gran Sports GS455.)
The Doors had always vowed to split both profits and decisions equally, but Morrison was out of contact and Buick needed an answer. “Jim left town and didn’t show any of us the respect to tell us that he was leaving, how long he would be gone, when he was coming home – he just disappeared,” the band’s road manager, Bill Siddons, told Butler and Hopkins. “So Buick came up, offered us a bunch of money, unheard-of money, to do something with a song that Robby wrote, and they all kind of went, ‘Well, gee. We’d really like to have have Jim’s vote here, but it’s a lot of money and it’s really big and could be important, so fuck it, let’s go!” Lawyer Max Fink held Morrison’s power of attorney, and inked the deal along with the three other Doors.
Morrison was apoplectic when he learned of the decision after returning home that November. “Jim told us he couldn’t trust us anymore,” Densmore told Rolling Stone in 2013. “We had agreed that we would never use our music in any commercial, but the money Buick offered us had been hard to refuse. Jim accused us of making a deal with the devil and said he would smash a Buick with a sledgehammer onstage if we let them [change the lyrics].”
One apocryphal story has Morrison angrily ramming 16 Buicks parked on the Sunset Strip, totaling his own Porsche in the process. True or not, he vociferously expressed his frustrations to Siddons, Holzman and others in the band’s management, demanding that the contract be rescinded. “They couldn’t take it back, they’d already agreed to it,” says Siddons. An elaborate radio, television and print campaign was already underway, including a billboard within sight of the Doors’ offices.
But it came to nothing. In the end, Buick scrapped the concept. They claimed that they merely decided to go in a different creative direction, but perhaps a few words with an enraged Lizard King set them off the idea. Whatever the reason, the Buick incident irreparably damaged the brotherhood of the Doors. “That was the end of the dream,” says Siddons. “That was the end of that era of Jim’s relationship with the other members of the band; from then on it was business. That was the day Jim said, ‘I don’t have partners anymore; I have associates.'”