Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
The Doors have, over decades, become more a product of mythology than of music, as the conversation surrounding them has often focused on just about anything but their music. There are any number of takes on the legendary L.A. band, from musings on the poetic and destructive genius of Jim Morrison, to the singer’s infamous arrest after allegedly exposing himself on stage, to the persistent presence of Morrison’s nipples on dorm room walls all across the country, even to this day.
Part of that continual focus on anything but the music is due to the fact that rock criticism and the formation of the canon has always relied on a certain amount of myth-making. Musicians are transformed into so much more than just men and women putting words to music; they’re deified, especially when they die young, as Morrison did. Another contributing factor in this case is that so much of The Doors’ music isn’t very good. Considering the relatively small discography, their hit-to-miss ratio isn’t exactly the stuff of rock legend. Still, none of that can change their undeniably powerful, energetic, and influential self-titled debut.
Released in 1967, The Doors is an album that could have only been a product of such a time and place, with a band of young, disillusioned American kids making a record, implicitly or not, about their country’s move from the optimism of the ’60s to the cynicism of the ’70s. The Doors embodies that transition, both musically and culturally, paving the way for journeys into psychedelic rock and punk in the years to come.
More than anything else, it’s the music that signals that transition, that suggests the peace and love of the previous years is nothing but a mask covering up the rot underneath such a utopian message. The Doors makes sure that there’s no mistake about its message, however elusive and obtuse, from the get-go, with the band’s introduction in the propulsive opener “Break On Through (To The Other Side).” There’s a debt owed to blues and R&B immediately, as Manzarek’s bass pedals evoke Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” The Doors take the sexy, seductive nature of that track and then flip the script, juxtaposing the longing romance, and therefore optimism, with a more sinister and pessimistic perspective. Just after Morrison sings the ballad-esque lines, “I found an island in your arms / country in your eyes,” he undercuts the romance and finishes with “arms that chain / eyes that lie.” For as obtuse and self-serious as Morrison’s songwriting would get, there’s a conciseness to the lyrics on The Doors, even throughout the 12-minute closer, that makes sure the emotional devastation hits home.
The Doors take the inherent anger of the blues and move it to the forefront, making it more aggressive, perhaps as a way to distance themselves from the flower-power rock bands of the time and years previous—1967 was the Summer Of Love, after all. Their cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Back Door Man” is primal and angry, and one of Morrison’s finest vocal performances. It captures the band at its garage-rock best, with the crunchy tone of Robby Krieger’s guitar piercing through the mix while Morrison grunts and wails his way through feelings of misunderstanding and loss. In a lot of ways The Doors not only helped build, for both better and worse, psychedelic rock, but also punk. “Back Door Man” is absolutely a punk vocal performance, and “Break On Through” blazes through its simple chord structure with reckless abandon.
Tracks like those, along with the bluesy “Soul Kitchen” and laid-back “Twentieth Century Fox,” showed that The Doors were helping to move rock toward a more forceful garage tone—Led Zeppelin I was released two years later, as was the self-titled debut from The Stooges. The band also moved the genre into more experimental territory. Along with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and Jefferson Airplane, The Doors channeled cultural disillusionment into long guitar jams and freakouts, and that’s really what makes The Doors such a significant and lasting record. It’s the perfect distillation of the band, before their music truly bloated and became entirely too self-serious.
The most obvious and successful iteration of The Doors’ psych-rock tendencies is “Light My Fire.” Again, the mythology is perhaps bigger than the song itself, as the song was the one that led to their first, and last, Ed Sullivan Show appearance, with Morrison refusing to remove the “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher” lyric. The track’s “stick it to the man” history aside, “Light My Fire” really does embody the essence of The Doors; if you can’t groove to “Light My Fire,” you’re probably not going to find much to like in the band’s discography. It’s a track built on a catchy keyboard hook and sexually explicit lyrics. The arrangement swells and recedes across its seven-minute run time, leaving room for punctuated moments of chaos and more contemplative solos and grooves. It’s the very definition of psychedelic rock, interweaving complex guitar and keyboard lines into catchy rhythms, a little bit of jazz brushing up against the fuzzed-out rock.
The first 10 tracks of The Doors are enough to make it one of the better albums in the rock ’n’ roll canon, but it’s the final song, “The End,” that moves it into a more heralded place. It’s the type of song that you can play to “explain” The Doors, as it exemplifies everything that makes them not only captivating and talented musicians, but also otherworldly rock gods. “The End” is 12 minutes of seductive, tense, explicit psych-rock and is the clearest indicator of the disillusioned attitude of the band; it’s no wonder Francis Ford Coppola famously used it in Apocalypse Now. From the Oedipal lyrics, which originally culminated in Morrison frantically and angrily shouting “Mother… I want to fuck you,” to the complete frenzy of the track’s climax, it’s a near-perfect piece of angry psych-rock.
“The End” is an appropriate capper to The Doors because it lays the themes of the record bare. The blurred line between love and loathing fuels the track as it explores how the two can often intertwine, or rather feed off each other. It’s dark stuff, but it’s also strikingly human. As the years, and drugs, took their toll on Morrison and fractured his relationship with the band, The Doors’ music became increasingly obtuse and impenetrable. But The Doors remains a landmark record, one that not only embodies all the seductive and compelling qualities of The Doors, but also the fractured and turbulent time when the album was brought into being.