The Doors mark the moment when the American rock underground of the 1960s came crashing into the mainstream. The group’s massive influence on the course of rock music may been overshadowed by decades of lionization of their late lead singer Jim Morrison, whose early death wound up being a pivotal part of their legacy. He seemed to loom larger in his afterlife than he did when he roamed the earth, his posthumous popularity cresting in the ’80s as the Doors returned to radio airwaves in the wake of their magnum opus “The End” soundtracking pivotal moments in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. “The End” never appeared as a single but its Oedipal melodrama zeroed in on the Doors’ appeal back in 1967: the group seemed otherworldly and dangerous, drawing from inspirations not normally heard in rock music. Morrison’s heated poetry and hedonism were genuinely new at the time the Doors released their self-titled debut in 1967, as were the droning guitars of Robby Krieger and cascading organ lines of Ray Manzarek, who also played keyboard bass in concert (on record, session musicians often laid down a bass part). Underneath their trippy surface, the Doors were veterans of the Los Angeles garage scene, and their affinity for blues and hard rock gave the band a flinty earthiness that served them well throughout their career; it’s certainly evident on their biggest hit singles, including “Light My Fire,” “Love Me Two Times,” “Hello, I Love You,” “Touch Me,” and “Love Her Madly.” The blend of muscle and mysticism helped shape the parameters of punk and art-rock — it’s difficult to imagine Iggy Pop without the Doors — and ultimately wound up being their biggest lasting influence, eclipsing the Morrison mythos and years of play on classic rock radio.
The roots of the Doors lay in Rick & the Ravens, a fratty rock & roll combo comprising Rick and Jim Manzarek, and featuring their brother Ray on keyboards. Ray had been playing with the group since 1961, sticking with it as he enrolled in UCLA’s graduate film program. By happenstance, he met a fellow student by the name of Jim Morrison while they were both on Venice Beach. The pair hit it off and Manzarek encouraged Morrison to sing with Rick & the Ravens. During the course of 1965, Morrison gradually became part of the group, with John Densmore — a drummer for the Psychedelic Rangers who was an acquaintance of Manzarek’s — joining the band that summer. They headed into Los Angeles’s World Pacific Studios to record a demo in September 1965, cutting the first versions of “Moonlight Drive,” “Hello, I Love You,” and “Summer’s Almost Gone.” Not long afterward, the band renamed itself the Doors upon the suggestion of Morrison, and they soon lost Rick and Jim Manzarek, along with Pat Hansen (aka Patty Sullivan), the bassist who played on the World Pacific session. Between the two departures came the arrival of Robby Krieger, a guitarist who played with Densmore in the Psychedelic Rangers. The band never replaced Hansen. Manzarek decided to play bass via the Fender Rhodes Piano Bass, which had just hit the market.
The Doors scored a residency at the London Fog, a club situated on the Sunset Strip. In the first months of 1966, the group worked out the kinks in their chemistry and material while at that venue, so when they started playing the Whisky A Go Go that summer, they had found their voice. Upon the recommendation of Love’s Arthur Lee, Jac Holzman, the president of Elektra Records, and producer Paul A. Rothchild, witnessed two sets from the Doors on August 10, 1966. Just over a week later, the band signed to Elektra, which also was home to Love. Within the next seven days, the Doors were fired from the Whisky thanks to Morrison’s on-stage profanity during “The End” and they headed into Sunset Sound to record their debut.
The Doors headed to stores during the first week of 1967. The band immediately supported the album through local television performances and the release of “Break on Through,” which failed to garner much attention nationally. What broke the Doors in America was “Light My Fire,” a cascading epic truncated to a tight pop single in April 1967. Over the course of the summer of 1967, “Light My Fire” climbed its way to number one on the Billboard Hot 100, an ascent punctuated by an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show where Morrison sang “girl we couldn’t get much higher” — in defiance of the request of a tamer lyric on the part of the show’s producers — turning the Doors into stars in the process. By the time “Light My Fire” ended its run on the charts, the Doors had their second album, Strange Days, ready to go.
Strange Days was knocked out quickly, constructed largely of songs the Doors had been kicking around for a while. The record performed like an aftershock on the charts: it went to number three, thanks largely to its first single “People Are Strange,” which just missed the Top 10, peaking at 12. As its second single, “Love Me Two Times,” worked its way to its 25 placement, Morrison had his first skirmish with the law. During a concert at New Haven Arena in Connecticut on December 9, 1967, Morrison provoked the police through a number of verbal jabs and the men in blue responded by hauling him off to jail on charges of public obscenity, indecency, and inciting a riot. Charges were eventually dropped due to a lack of evidence, but the incident was instrumental in turning the singer into a rock & roll outlaw while also proving a harbinger for Morrison’s reckless behavior.
The arrest had no immediate effect on the Doors’ popularity, which grew during 1968 as the group played bigger concerts, which were sometimes plagued by skirmishes between audiences and the police. Waiting for the Sun, their third album, consolidated this popularity, reaching number one on the strength of its number one single “Hello, I Love You,” but the sessions with producer Rothchild were difficult. By that point, the group had exhausted its pre-existing songbook and the producer rejected the side-long suite “Celebration of the Lizard,” leaving the band to compose many of the songs in the studio. By the end of the year, the group bounced back with “Touch Me,” a boastful single buoyed by blaring horns that gave them a number three hit in early 1969. As the Doors worked on the hit’s accompanying album, The Soft Parade, the band’s momentum was disrupted by a March 1, 1969 concert in Miami that ended with a warrant being served for Morrison’s arrest. The key charge hinged upon an allegation that Morrison exposed himself during a drunken on-stage rant, a charge the singer and the rest of the Doors denied. The singer declined a plea bargain and was convicted to serve six months; he remained free as he pursued an appeal.
Morrison’s arrests, combined with his increasing alcoholism, wound up hampering the band and, with its heavy-handed orchestral arrangements, The Soft Parade opened the Doors up to accusations of selling out. The Soft Parade still went into the Top 10 upon its summer 1969 release but none of the record’s subsequent three singles cracked Billboard’s Top 40, a notable slowing in the band’s commercial fortunes. Morrison Hotel, the band’s harder, streamlined LP from early 1970, also didn’t generate a hit — “Roadhouse Blues,” the flip of its single “You Make Me Real,” would later be an album rock staple — yet it found the band righting itself artistically; audiences responded by sending the album to number four on Billboard. Bolstered by the summer release of the concert album, the Doors toured throughout 1970, often holding concerts that came under the fire of local municipalities, conflicts fueled by Morrison’s reckless behavior. The year culminated with Morrison walking out of a December 12 show in New Orleans; it turned out to be the last concert he’d play with the Doors.
In the first months of 1971, the Doors wrapped up the recording of L.A. Woman, an album that found them severing ties with their longtime producer Rothchild; he was replaced by Bruce Botnick. Extending the harder sound of Morrison Hotel, L.A. Woman appeared in the spring of 1971 accompanied by the single “Love Her Madly.” The single went to 11 on Billboard’s Top 40, followed by a number 14 placement for the moody “Riders on the Storm,” with the album reaching nine on the album chart. The group’s comeback was short-lived: Jim Morrison was found dead on July 3, 1971, just weeks after the release of L.A. Woman.
Morrison’s early death cemented his place in rock’s firmament, but the Doors did not disband in the wake of his passing. At the time of his death, Krieger, Manzarek, and Densmore were in the thick of recording a new album, expecting that the singer would add vocals sometime during the summer of 1971. When he died, the band finished the LP that became Other Voices — the guitarist and keyboardist split lead vocal duties — releasing it in October of that year and supporting it with live shows; it performed respectably on the charts, reaching 31 on Billboard. Full Circle followed less than a year later, reaching 68 — an underwhelming position, considering how the compilation Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine went to 55 earlier that year — but by that point the band was on its last legs, and they split in 1973
A few years later, the surviving Doors reconvened to set several spoken word recordings by Jim Morrison to music. The resulting An American Prayer appeared in 1978, the first flowering of a Jim Morrison revival that spilled into the ’80s. An American Prayer didn’t sell well but Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam war epic Apocalypse Now had two sequences featuring “The End,” exposing the band’s darker side to new audiences. A year later, No One Here Gets Out Alive — a biography of Morrison by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman — was published and it became a hit, leading to Doors’ songs returning to FM airwaves and the release of a Greatest Hits album. This surge of interest in the band led Rolling Stone to put the singer on the cover in September of 1981 with the tagline “Jim Morrison: He’s Hot, He’s Sexy and He’s Dead.” In the article, Bryn Bridenthal, the public relations vice-president at Elektra/Asylum Records claimed, “We’ve sold more Doors records this year than in any year since they were first released.” Throughout the ’80s, the interest in the Doors didn’t wane, thanks to a series of archival releases kickstarted by 1983′s Alive, She Cried, a compilation of concert performances that peaked at 23 on Billboard. Four years later, the Live at the Hollywood Bowl album was released.
This resurgence of interest in the Doors culminated in March 1991, when Oliver Stone’s biopic — starring Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison and Kyle MacLachlan as Ray Manzarek, with Kevin Dillon portraying John Densmore and Frank Whaley playing Robby Krieger — hit the theaters. In its wake, the live album In Concert appeared in the stores. The Doors were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, and then released a career-spanning compilation The Doors Box Set in 1997, which featured the surviving members reuniting to finish off the outtake “Orange County Suite.” The low-key reunion continued in 2000 when the group recorded a spot on VH1′s Storytellers, which featured guest spots by many newer rockers, including Scott Weiland, Scott Stapp, and Train’s Pat Monahan. Also arriving in 2000 was the tribute album Stoned Immaculate: The Music of the Doors and the launch of the Bright Midnight series of archival concerts. Over the next two decades, Bright Midnight released notable live performances on a regular basis. In 2002, Manzarek and Krieger teamed up for a new project called the Doors of the 21st Century featuring Ian Astbury of the Cult on vocals. Within a year, Densmore filed an injunction against the pair over the use of the Doors’ name, leading the guitarist and keyboardist to tour under variations of their surnames.
Ray Manzarek died from bile duct cancer at the age of 74 in May 2013. After his death, Krieger and Densmore reunited in tribute at the benefit concert Stand Up to Cancer. In 2020, the pair teamed up again for the Homeward Bound Concert, a charity event in Los Angeles; for this event, they played with Krist Novoselic of Nirvana, Micah Nelson and Haley Reinhart. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine