Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Rock band formed in Los Angeles in 1965 by vocalist/poet Jim Morrison (b 8 December 1943, Melbourne FL; d 3 July 1971, Paris) and pianist Ray Manzarek (b 12 February 1939, Chicago; d 20 May 2013, Germany), students at UCLA film school. Manzarek played in an R&B band Rick and the Ravens with brothers Jim and Rick, met guitarist Robby Krieger (b 8 January 1946, L.A.), drummer John Densmore (b 1 December 1945, L.A.), both ex-Psychedelic Rangers. Manzarek was classically trained, Densmore was a jazz fan, Krieger played without a plectrum; they had a sound which could be menacing without being heavy, but their catalogue of really good songs remained thin, and Morrison's demented role-playing became the centre of the act. He renamed the band after Aldous Huxley's book about drug experience The Doors Of Perception (Huxley borrowed it from poet William Blake).

Controversial from the start, banned from Whiskey-A-Go-Go for performing their Oedipal melodrama 'The End' in contrast to Krieger's pop song 'Light My Fire', which was driven by Mazarek's swirling organ and edited to make a no. 11 USA single. Their first Elektra LP The Doors also included an eleven-minute version of 'The End'; they had emerged from the underground: Strange Days '67 had epic 'When The Music's Over', addressing Vietnam and social issues, a no. 3 LP with two top 30 singles, 'People Are Strange' and 'Love Me Two Times'. Waiting For The Sun '68 topped the album chart, but the band were falling between teen audience, who lapped up the Kinks-influenced 'Hello I Love You' (USA no. 1/UK no. 15), and the underground, who considered them trite now that they were popular. Songs like 'Five To One' (with line 'They got the guns but we got the numbers') convinced police and promoters that the music mattered and a rock band could be a genuine threat; Morrison's drink/drugs problems had led to brushes with the law; he allegedly exposed himself on stage in Miami March '69 and live appearances dwindled. Soft Parade '69 was unimpressive, though 'Touch Me' was no. 3 USA; Morrison Hotel '70 and L.A. Woman '71 were less elaborately produced and had an R&B earthiness: as we shall see, they were trying to get back to their roots.

Morrison temporarily left the band for a sojourn in Paris to concentrate on poetry and was found dead in his bath, probably from a drug-related heart attack. Few saw the corpse except for his common-law wife Pamela Courson (who herself overdosed '74) and an anonymous doctor, fuelling the usual sort of rock legend, that he'd faked his own death. A month later 'Riders On The Storm' from the last LP made no. 14 USA, and the Courson and Morrison families divided the estate (quite an irony, since Morrison professed to despise them and pretended that his father, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, didn't exist).

The band made two uninspired LPs before quitting; Krieger and Densmore joined Jess Roden in Butts Band; Krieger released solo No Habla '89 on IRS. Manzarek worked with Iggy Pop '74, made solo albums The Golden Scarab and The Whole Thing Started With R'n'R '75, produced albums by L.A. punks X. The Doors reunited to set Morrison's poetry readings (recorded in 1970) to music; An American Prayer '78 was surprisingly successful. His refusal to conform and his demise made Morrison a hero for punk's new wave; unlike the majority of their contemporaries the Doors' music actually increased in popularity: the Stranglers, Echo and the Bunnymen, countless others offered retreads; the back catalogue is still selling. A live album Alive She Cried was exhumed '83 to stand with Absolutely Live '70; the Doors remained obstinately open. Oliver Stone's film The Doors '91 (based on biography No One Here Gets Out Alive '80 by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman) shed no light on whether the Lizard King was a genius or a bozo.

The warm, talkative Manzarek reminisced on two-CD The Doors, Myth And Reality: The Spoken Word History '96 on Monster Sounds; The Doors Box Set '97 on Elektra compiled four-CDs of rarities, demos etc. But a six-CD set released late 2009, Live In New York on Rhino, was a revelation. They had begun as a blues-based band with literary aspirations, and before they had a lot of their own material they worked long hours and played a lot of blues; at the time of Morrison's death they were stripping down and getting back in gear. In January 1970 they played four concerts at the smaller Felt Forum, rather than at the giant Madison Square Garden next door, knowing that New Yorkers would get the musical references, the jazz influence, and Morrison's poetry, and they were a tight band, Manzarek playing Fender Rhodes Piano Bass with his left hand while supporting Morrison on organ with his right, Krieger alternately soloing and riffing off Manzarek, and Densmore one of the rock drummers who could swing. No doubt this is the way they would like to be remembered.