The Doors were unlike any other U.S. classic rock act of the 1960s. There was their instrumental make up, first of all: They bucked the default setting of lead guitar-rhythm guitar-bass-drums, instead featuring Robby Krieger on guitar, Ray Manzarek on organ and John Densmore on drums. There was also a dark undertow to the music, a darkness that remained even as the Doors left behind the psychedelia of 1967 for the raw blues of 1970. Finally, they were blessed — and cursed — by having one of the most charismatic lead singers in rock, Jim Morrison. In his prime, the self-proclaimed Lizard King showed off his handsome face and lean physique in a famous series of shots where he posed bare-chested or by wrapping himself in skin-tight black leather. But his determination to explore every byway of the road of excess led not to the expected palace of wisdom but an early death at age 27 (officially due to a heart attack, though drugs likely played a factor). Doors songs probed the mysteries of sex and death, and Morrison seemed to embody both of those primal forces, becoming a rock ‘n’ roll casualty to boot, himself. Spanning the range of those forces, here are the 15 best songs by The Doors.
Here’s a song that starts out as a jaunty pop ditty, with Morrison teasingly trying to attract the attention of his object of desire (even as he pokes fun at his own ambitions with lyrics like, “Do you hope to make her see you, fool?”). But by the end, he’s screaming in the frustration of one whose passion has been unreciprocated. It gives a harsher edge to what might otherwise have been just another slice of light-hearted teeny pop. Many thought the fuzz-toned melody was inspired by the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night,” but Krieger told Guitar World otherwise: “I told John [Densmore] to play something like ‘Sunshine of Your Love.’ So, we ripped off the Cream, not the Kinks.”
It was no small irony that this bitter anti-war song was written by an admiral’s son. There’s a topsy-turvy feel to the music that repetitively rises and falls with military precision, as Morrison blithely sings about getting the day’s casualty news over breakfast. The most sinister aspect of the song is the set piece in the middle, where the nameless soldier meets his end not in the glory of battle, but before a firing squad. (In fact, the band would often act out this scenario when they played live, with Krieger “shooting” Morrison dead with his guitar). There’s a glimmer of hope at the end, when Morrison announces the “war is over.” It’s small comfort, though, if you’re already dead.
This track from 1971’s L.A. Woman is a nice slice of funk. It rumbles along with the assistance of guest bassist Jerry Scheff (a member of Elvis Presley’s live band), as well as Morrison’s tough, muscular vocals. L.A. Woman was the last album released during Morrison’s lifetime, and shows the harder rock direction the band was pursuing—no more dreamy visions or lizard kings. However, the way Morrison drawls out the line “I’m a chaaaange-ling,” suggests some influence from John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling King Snake,” also on the album.
It might have been the Swinging Sixties, but this song, with its entreaty for a little extra affection before the narrator takes his leave, was deemed too controversial in some quarters and denied airplay when released as a single (which may have accounted for its only reaching No. 25 in the charts). But, “Love Me Two Times” also had a greater resonance during the Vietnam era, when so many soldiers were leaving behind their loved ones. In a different, slower arrangement, this song could’ve been a starker blues number. As it is, Krieger’s buoyant guitar line keeps the number on a higher plane, Manzarak’s harpsichord adds some different color and Morrison’s vocal underscores the rising tension by going up an octave during the final choruses.
This 11-minute piece—far too sprawling to be considered a conventional song for radio play—doesn’t have the psychological underpinnings of something like “The End,” but is just as dramatic in its own right. A simple keyboard intro from Manzarek leads to a shout from Morrison that’s quickly matched by Krieger’s wailing guitar. But however improvisational the piece feels, it never meanders aimlessly. Some of Morrison’s most recognizable phrases appear (“feast of friends,” “alive she cried,” “scream of the butterfly”), in a number that also takes a detour into environmental awareness, as well as making a demand that would be taken up by a generation: _We want the world, and we want it now!_It’s Morrison’s manifesto, perhaps, with a suitably downbeat conclusion.
“Moonlight Drive” is a key song in Doors history: This was the song Morrison sang to Manzarek that led him to suggest they form a band and it was the first song the Morrison/Manzarek/Krieger/Densmore lineup worked on together. It set the template for the band’s future “love” songs, which more often involved suspicion, loss, and allusions to death more than happy endings. Krieger’s insinuating slide guitar draws you in like a fish on a hook, while Densmore plays an insistent tattoo on the snare. Meanwhile, Morrison’s invitation for a trip under the moonlight sounds increasingly sinister as the song progresses. “Baby, gonna drown tonight!” he seems to sing with a smirk during the fade out. You’ve been warned.
Opinions are divided about Morrison’s epic 17-minute piece “Celebration of the Lizard,” originally planned as one side of the Doors’ third album, Waiting for the Sun. Critic Lester Bangs, for one, dismissed it as, “low comedy…undergraduate imagery.” “Not to Touch the Earth,” excised from the longer piece for Waiting for the Sun, provides a good introduction. As Morrison spins stories about dead presidents and snakes, the music spirals up into a raging frenzy before coming back to earth with a mighty crash. “I am the Lizard King, I can do anything,” he solemnly intones at the end, locking himself into an image he tried to escape from for the rest of his life. The full “Celebration…” can be found on Legacy: The Absolute Best.
Morrison wrote this song after Krieger suggested he take a walk to rouse him out of a depression. Which explains the unease and paranoia in a lyric that addresses the fear and isolation of being alone, beautifully depicted in the line “Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted.” Manzarek provides a crisp honky tonk piano and the unsettled mood is heightened by song’s ending on an unresolved note, leaving the listener hanging in the air as much as the song’s narrator.
Deciding to cover a song from the Weimer Republic was certainly an atypical choice for a rock band, which made “Whisky Bar” (a Bertol Brecht/Kurt Weill number featured in the opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny [Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny]) the most unusual cover the Doors ever did. They discovered the song in the record collection of Manzarek’s wife and decided to put their own spin on it. It’s not as spooky as Lotte Lenya’s version, but nonetheless evinces a world-weariness, its cabaret musical stylings making this the perfect song to accompany a late night pub crawl.
As the opening track on the band’s first album and their debut single, this was the song that introduced the world at large to The Doors. It’s a taut, potent track, fizzing with energy from Densmore’s opening bossa nova beat that drives the song. The lines that speak of love—“I found an island in your arms/Country in your eyes”—are swiftly undercut in the next stanza as the Lizard King sings about “Arms that chained/Eyes that lied.” Morrison sounds even more ferocious in the unedited version of the song, available on the 2006 reissue of the album and 2003 set Legacy: The Absolute Best, where he sings “She get high;” the word “high” was mixed out on the track’s original release, due to its drug connotations.
The most atmospheric song by The Doors is ushered in by the sound of an approaching thunderstorm and Manzarek’s gently cascading keyboard line. Morrison coolly croons his way through a lyric that touches on isolation and impeding death (the hitchhiking killer in the second verse), with low key backing from the band that creates a haunting world of loss and desolation.
More than one woman has claimed to be the inspiration of this song, but it could just as easily be about the city itself, that realm of glittering dreams and broken promises makes a “lucky little lady” and “another lost angel” flip sides of the same coin. Morrison’s bawling vocal casts him a somewhat dispassionate observer (“Cops in cars, the topless bars/Never saw a woman so alone”) who nonetheless tumbles over into his own legend, as he slows down the pace to proclaim himself, “Mr. Mojo Risin’” (some fans even realized that that moniker is an anagram of “Jim Morrison,” even if though there’s an extra “M” remaining). The propulsive music barely gives you a chance to catch your breath before cruising into oblivion.
The Doors’ first magnum opus, and one of their most controversial numbers, “The End” started out as a simple break up song. In the days when the band had few originals, they routinely spun out songs with extended instrumental sections when playing live, Morrison lyrically improvising whatever came into his head. One night, he began riffing on the psychodrama of Oedipus Rex, stating that he wanted to kill his father and shrieking that he wanted to fuck his mother; it got them fired from their residency, but the lyric stayed in. It was toned down on record (you can hear it unexpurgated on various live albums), but it’s a powerful moment nonetheless. The band’s music matches Morrison’s stream-of-consciousness meanderings perfectly, illustrating how locked in they were with each other.
“Roadhouse Blues” is a bar-stomper so raucous you can smell the spilled booze and the sawdust on the floor just by listening to it. The Doors’ reputation is that of an acid rock, psychedelic band, but they were all fans of the blues. They could get down and dirty with the best of them, creating a song you can imagine them vamping on for hours (as they do on the outtakes). John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful, adds a wailing harmonica and Morrison’s vocal barrels out of the starting gate at full throttle, though the freewheeling mood is tempered by the unease in the lines “The future’s uncertain/and the end is always near.”
Simply put, this is The Doors’ signature song. Krieger wasn’t trying to come up with a timeless classic when he wrote “Light My Fire;” he was simply responding to singer Jim Morrison’s request that the band members write more songs for the group. Krieger brought in the first verse and chorus and the rest of the band fleshed it out. Morrison added the verse comparing love to a funeral pyre (this was a band that rarely delivered a straight forward love song). Keyboardist Ray Manzarek came up with a swirling organ part he called, “a kind of turning-in-on-itself Fibonacci spiral.” Drummer John Densmore kicked off the song with a smart opening crack of his snare. The song’s extended instrumental break was cut for the single release, so to get a real sense of the band’s improvisational skills, check out the live versions that are even longer than the seven-minute version on the album and work in all kinds of musical bits and pieces like a few bars “My Favorite Things.”