The following work serves as a platform to express my thoughts and feelings in regard to the group’s various releases, taking special observation for how the quartet evolved musically over their short six-year existence with the original lineup. This is essentially a guide for those with the desire to delve into the wonderful and dark world of The Doors but find their catalogue somewhat daunting.
Aside from being one of the most popular rock bands of all time, The Doors also represent a major transformative period for the United States. Bursting out of the tail end of the 1960s, the group draws the line between bubbling flower culture and worldwide political anarchy; such is their allure to myself.
Similar pioneering English rock groups such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones exemplified hippy culture by singing about general happiness, dazed days, and passive revolution. While the groups’ subject matter certainly alluded to world issues, their musical angle opted to distract and calm via psychedelia and catchy choruses.
Coming from across the ocean, The Doors did not come from the world of direct World War II liberation, and rather emerged from the dense fog of American political air. Current affairs preceding the group’s formation in 1965 included the escalation of American involvement in the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Prior to this, the world saw the liberation of Europe from Hitler’s reign, the Korean War, and the rise of Communism within Soviet countries. This long list of events undoubtedly influenced The Doors and their dark-toned music, as such was occurring during the members’ formative years in accordance with their official formation.
Such a dense atmosphere molded those who recorded this unique music, and thus, as a product of the time, The Doors’ tunes serve as excellent soundtracks to their homeland. Most notably is the inclusion of the song “The End” to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now, which famously depicts the story of an American soldier’s journey to track down a rogue army commander within a Vietnamese wartime chaos. Jim Morrison’s frantic grunting and Robby Kreiger’s somber guitar playing pairs perfectly with the cinematic intro montage of helicopters ominously perusing the Vietnamese jungle. This, I believe, is the perfect career moment to cite when describing the group.
Now that the introduction has been dealt with, let’s go over a descriptive overview of The Doors’ creative outputs chronologically in relation to the maturity of their career. The following serves as a guide for those interested in getting into the group but may get lost within a relatively-expansive discography.
The Doors (1967)
The Doors’ self-titled debut is essentially everything that can be done right as a new group releasing their first album. First of all, and undoubtedly most importantly, this is a phenomenal record. Secondly, in my opinion your first release as a group should be the record named after your band, as such a time is when you’re at your most uninfluenced and immature state. Following your first release, you begin to gain a following, you’re tempted to switch styles to cater to a bigger audience, or you’ve lost your fire (but your baby might be able to light it back up for you) and you’re not motivated to make good music anymore. Your first output is the most wholesome and to-the-core your group can get sonically, which is why that primary splash should be your self-titled (if you’re planning on having such a record). The following praise expands upon this notion.
The Doors is essentially perfection when taking into account the above. The release is energetic, rebellious in a truthful fashion, and highlights everything that is great about the quartet. The energy on some points of this record is nearly unparalleled in relation to other acts at the time; perhaps Jimmy Hendrix or The Who attain similar levels of ferocity, but the point nonetheless stands. Such is found ten seconds within the record, when Jim’s voice breaks through into the chorus of “Break on Through to the Other Side” which repeats multiple times throughout the song. Furthermore, this quality can be found throughout the chaotic conclusion to “The End”, the album’s closer. While I wouldn’t say that liveliness is the group’s most redeemable quality, it certainly plays a part in why they’re part of that selection of second wave rock bands which pushed the envelope further than The Beatles or The Rolling Stones did.
The secondary quality to this record is its rebellious nature, found both overtly and within the undertones of the music. While Morrison’s lyrics are often fairly repetitive and sparse, when they are included they’re well written and always hint towards something greater. Songs like “Twentieth Century Fox”, “Back Door Man” (which is a Willie Dixon cover), and “Light My Fire” all allude to the ongoing sexual revolution of the 1960s. Love and sex wasn’t discussed behind metaphors in song, it was blatantly there for listeners to hear, which parallels Morrison’s lifestyle in truthful fashion. “Twentieth Century Fox” is actually a perfect representation of this revolutionary factor, as the tune compares the explorative and fearless attitudes of modern women with those in the more reserved nineteenth century.
In short, The Doors has everything that excels from the group. Revolutionary and transparent subject matter, dark tones within the instrumentation, and lively song writing. This is my favourite record by the band, and I know for a fact many other fans say the same. This is arguably one of the best debuts in music history, especially considering how different it was for the time.
Strange Days (1967)
Sophomore release Strange Days replaces a lot of the debut’s jumpiness with a dazed psychedelia. In similar progressive fashion, the release also features widespread innovation within choices of instrument. While such is not necessarily prominent in the mix, the traditional guitar, piano, and percussion trio is joined by the use of a synthesizer, harpsichord, and marimba for some points of the full-length.
To sum up the release in short, Strange Days contributes more of a depressive psychedelic flavour to the group’s discography. While Jim’s signature energetic screaming voice can be heard on tracks “Horse Latitudes”, “Moonlight Drive”, and “My Eyes Have Seen You”, most of the singer’s contribution falls into a soft-spoken mellow style that’s flared with a slight tinge of motivation that keeps you interested until the next line. So, while their self-titled debut is great album to drive home to, when you’ve got your sweatpants on and a joint in your hand Strange Days is the record to lounge out to.
The sophomore effort ultimately triumphs as a successful shift in style that floats on top of great song writing. If you’re not a fan of The Doors’ softer side, tracks “My Eyes Have Seen You” and the monolithic album-closer “When the Music’s Over” will scratch that familiar itch of yours. However, the fuzzed-out solos, vocal echoing, and general psychedelic feel will be appreciated for those into the more mellow side of rock and roll. I guess The Doors even needed a distraction from their own lyrical content published prior.
Waiting for the Sun (1968)
Waiting for the Sun introduces us to The Doors’ most mellow and pop-influenced side. Whether such manifests from a desire to achieve further widespread fame, or perhaps to not let down their newfound fanbase, I’m not sure. I do know that this two-album slump (including their next work, 1969’s The Soft Parade) is not only a drab point in the band’s career for myself, but these two records seem to be rightfully passed up by most people due to their hit-or-miss auras. Keep in mind that they do have some heavy competition stacked up against them, though.
The current album in question does manage to feel like a body of work rather than simply a collection of works, which is a positive in its own right. Other than album closer “Five to One”, all other 10 tracks operate within that “sweetspot” of somewhere between two and four minutes. While there are some depressive lows on the record that The Doors are known for, such as the lyrical lullabies of “Summer’s Almost Gone”, the record operates with a more mainstream attitude, as the track lengths suggest. Don’t get me wrong, you’re still listening to The Doors, however one can’t help but escape the feeling that some of these tracks have been sitting around for a while, perhaps neglected from past album drafts.
Side A of Waiting for the Sun is where most of these citations arise. The big single, “Hello I Love You”, is a censored (in comparison to past similar lyrics), simple, and fairly generic tune that, while achieving widespread enjoyment, isn’t something you’d expect from this band. “Wintertime Love” is an attempt at a shorter interlude-type track, but ironically enough, falls flat because it leaves the listener desiring more, especially with its relatively abrupt ending.
Side B almost redeems this album for me, if it wasn’t stacked against nearly-imperfect creations like their debut or the lovely L.A. Woman. “Spanish Caravan”, opening the album’s second side, is a complete-sounding highlight in comparison to the songs heard prior. Next, we have a song very similar to “L’America” (off of L.A. Woman) that features Jim’s stereotypical cryptic lyrics alongside a campfire-like beat, complete with eerie harmonies and ominous backing vocals. While the band might not have nailed the songs on this album, they did achieve the dark twisted soundtrack that we fell in love with on their first two albums. Closing this release is “Five to One”, the best track on the record by far.
The Soft Parade (1969)
Partner in crime with the preceding album, The Soft Parade concludes the aforementioned career slump. This meaning that these two particular full-lengths don’t really achieve what I feel are the group’s two most distinguished and unique qualities; those being ominousness and unique (The Soft Parade is certainly unique, but still a hit-or-miss among listeners, so not always captivating) but equally captivating songwriting. Albeit the album does succeed on a multitude of other levels, its just different and therefore varied in terms of fan enjoyment.
What The Soft Parade does well lies behind half of the aforementioned quality, that being strong and odd songwriting. “Shaman’s Blues” is certainly a contender for this citation, being one of my favourites on the album. Furthermore, rather than the depressive factor found prior, such has been replaced with an orgy of trumpet, saxophone, congo, trombone, and fiddle which all make up the added orchestra to this album, hence the aptly-coined title The Soft Parade.
Now that I think about it, that is really an exceptional naming of this album. The accompanying orchestral arrangement, the sense of grandeur, and the cheery nature of the album all point towards a soft parade. With that on the podium, I applaud the group for venturing into the unknown with this release, and really diving off the deep end into a wide array of unheard studio sounds. While in some sense Waiting for the Sun feels like an attempt to craft works similar to their first two albums, The Soft Parade is undoubtedly a grand effort; and they pulled it off!
The trumpets on “Touch Me”, groovy electric bass on “Do It”, the fiddle on “Runnin’ Blue”; there are so many splendid musical parts of this album that feature this new array of equipment. The album is simply different in its own right, and whether you enjoy this one or not, it led to the group getting comfortable with further song formats and instrumental experimentation, like the country-rock “Roadhouse Blues” on their next release.
The Soft Parade is a wonderful album, albeit as a result of venturing forth into uncharted territory which makes the release somewhat divisive among fans. The album also sees the return of the beloved lengthy and meandering Doors song, with this rendition being the concluding title track.
Morrison Hotel (1970)
Finally, we reach the group’s penultimate full-length. Morrison Hotel serves as a transition album between the creative effort of The Soft Parade and the blues-influenced L.A. Woman. While those two albums take musical direction into two polar extremes (at least relatively), Morrison Hotel is kind of a fun album within the group’s transition, and a success at that.
There are a slew of foreign influences to be heard on this release, from the various harmonica sections to the guitar experimentation during the intro to “Peace Frog”. The most notable example of this citation is of course the album opener, “Roadhouse Blues”, which is basically a straight country/rock song. This track exemplifies the album perfectly in my eyes.
“Roadhouse Blues” is a staple of the band’s output and beloved by all; I can’t really see anyone disliking this song from a purely-musical standpoint. It represents a massive shift in creative direction which fluttered the band through their final years together. On top of that, the song is a widespread success, which is especially noteworthy as it sounds very different from the standard Doors tune. However, on the flipside, “Roadhouse Blues” doesn’t really fit within Morrison Hotel, and neither do a few other tracks. All four of their prior outputs have succeeded within their selective collections, and whether or not you’re a fan of Strange Days or The Soft Parade, it would be hard to argue that they don’t work as albums. Morrison Hotel on the other hand doesn’t feel like an album when listening to it, as some songs feel a little out of place, despite being excellent tracks. One would listen to “Roadhouse Blues” and wonder whether Morrison Hotel would follow to be a country-inspired album, to which they would be wrong as there really isn’t anything sonically similar on the release.
While a great full-length when dissected, Morrison Hotel fails to succeed as an album, which may be the most important factor, and rather is best described as a great collection of songs. This is however one of the highlights of their career for me as a fan, as the record is certainly enjoyable from song-to-song.
L.A. Woman (1971)
L.A. Woman is The Doors’ final studio output within Jim Morrison’s lifetime. Following his passing, the group released two more full-lengths within the span of a few years which featured old recordings of Jim reciting some of his written poetry. While those records are special in their own right (1971’s Other Voices and 1972’s Full Circle), they do not officially contain studio tracks written and recorded by all four original members, so I will not count them on this list.
Unlike most other bands, The Doors successfully pulled their career around in terms of album quality. In 90% of the cases you see, musical groups start off very strong and tend to teeter off the scale in terms of direction or quality following a handful of outputs. However, my analyzation (which seems to be in line with the greater public opinion) draws The Doors’ curve in a “U” shape, with their first two and final two outputs being the strongest, with their peaks occurring at polar ends of the spectrum. While L.A. Woman doesn’t top their debut, it sure as hell comes pretty darn close.
The appreciation for their last album cannot be understood without knowledge of the band’s backstory. Jim’s inhibitions tended to be welcomed by his career path, rather than the oh-so-common reversal of the story wherein rock stars begin as cute innocent boys and end up developing major drug habits coupled with sex addiction. Jim seemed to always be one to chase the ladies and get stoned, especially back in a time where both weren’t seen as socially acceptable. So naturally, the dangerous ebb and flow of musical fame didn’t render him off-kilter in similar fashion to other rockstars, and rather he sought seclusion from the radio years. Thus is why he decided to take a break from The Doors soon after the conclusion of the L.A. Woman recording sessions, with the goal of rekindling his fire with his woman in the beautiful city of Paris.
The above backstory lies behind the album’s wonder. If you take time to observe and ponder the record’s lyrical themes, it quickly becomes evident that the entire full-length is about Jim leaving for Paris with the goal of taking a necessary break. While the themes obviously stretch further than that, many citations can be made for the claim.
Among many other claims that can be made, “Hyacinth House” discusses a clear dissatisfaction with the people around a protagonist. The title track, “L.A. Woman”, ponders the story of two lovers far from one-another which sees an exciting climax when Jim bursts into a happy screaming fit when the music begins to pick up. Furthermore, “Changeling” is about an individual shifting into another stage of their life.
Some fans tend to take these themes a little too far and claim that L.A. Woman would have been the last Doors album regardless of his passing, as these songs reveal Jim’s profound unhappiness with his status of life. I wholeheartedly disagree as Jim was clearly motivated within the album’s writing process as L.A. Woman is one of the band’s best works, and also because it is known that he called one of the other members a few weeks before his passing which ended in a happy exchange about the album’s success and potential touring. Just this knowledge alone, knowing that the album is so attached to the death of one of the most prolific musicians in history is pretty astonishing.
This is all discussion that doesn’t even nail down the music yet. L.A. Woman is a sexual, passionate, and diverse album that deals with an endless number of relatable issues discussed above. The album is also just really flavourful, as it smoothly switches directions song after song resulting in an interesting project. From the blues-inspired “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)”, to the touchingly-mellow “Car Hiss by My Window”, and finally the haunting “L’America”, the release really has something for everyone. The effort also concludes with arguably one of the group’s most infamous and exceptional songs, “Riders on the Storm”.
While their debut self-titled and their concluding L.A. Woman both fight for the title of the best Doors album, I believe that their debut wins for the sheer factor that it was so progressive for its time. From the background shoutings of “fuck me, oh yeah fuck fuck fuck baby” during the climax of “The End” that are only distinguishable if you pay close attention, to the sheer lack of care for coming off as reformed, their first will always be my favourite and is a great starting point. From then on, I’d suggest taking a dive into the psychedelic Strange Days, and if you don’t particularly enjoy the softer Waiting for the Sun or The Soft Parade, go ahead and skip on over to L.A. Woman, then finish with Morrison Hotel. Enjoy the ride!