What’s so good about The Doors? Away from all the sex, drugs and obscenity, the commodification of the band’s image and the posthumous worship of singer Jim Morrison, it’s a question worth asking. Or, to be more specific, what is it that defines the band’s legacy and secures their place in the classic rock canon?
Like many American and British bands of the mid to late-’60s, The Doors were heavily influenced by the blues and even recorded covers of songs originally performed by Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters. But while their interest in blues music was authentic, it was also somewhat academic—The Doors were, after all, a bunch of white, college-educated LA bohemians.
Psychedelic substances played a pivotal role in the Doors story, too. The band took its name from The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley’s nonfiction account of his experiences on mescaline. But organist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore weren’t prone to all night jams a la the Grateful Dead or avant-rock excursions in the style of The Electric Prunes.
Rather, what defined The Doors’ music was their ability to write robust rock songs with memorable vocal hooks. On record, the band always sounded urgent and well-rehearsed. And in Morrison, despite his mercurial onstage behaviour and questionable lyrical pretensions, The Doors had a uniquely gifted frontperson, one whose presence was always felt.
In the 50 years since Morrison’s death, we’ve heard myriad accounts of The Doors’ history. Krieger is finally ready to tell his side of the story, with his long-awaited memoir, Set the Night on Fire: Living, Dying and Playing Guitar with the Doors, out now.
To celebrate its release, here are The Doors’ ten best songs.
- ‘Break On Through (To The Other Side)’, The Doors (1967)
It seems like a backhanded compliment to say that The Doors’ best song is the first track on their first album. But whether or not you believe ‘Break On Through’ is their best song, it’s a perfect introduction to what The Doors do so well.
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At the risk of sounding like one of your dad’s mates, ‘Break On Through’ simply rocks. It lasts for fewer than three minutes, but it’s enough time for you to acknowledge that Krieger is a guitarist of advanced ability and Manzarek a multi-tasking freak on the organ. Morrison, meanwhile, is a virile mystic, as profound as he is goofy.
- ‘L.A. Woman’, L.A Woman (1971)
L.A Woman is the preeminent Doors album. It was the band’s sixth studio album and arrived just four years after their debut. But in many ways, L.A. Woman was a return to the band’s roots after the proto-soft rock croonerism of 1969’s The Soft Parade (the record that gave us ‘Touch Me’).
The title track is the album centrepiece, an eight minute showcase of the band’s blues-rock flair in which Morrison impersonates Muddy Waters and reflects, ambivalently, on life and love in Los Angeles.
- ‘Strange Days’, Strange Days (1967)
Within nine months of releasing their debut LP, The Doors were back with album two, Strange Days. The record’s two most widely known tracks are the carnivalesque ‘People Are Strange’ and the blues-boogie number ‘Love Me Two Times’. But the album’s psychedelic-tinged title track is the one that stands out from the pack.
Although The Doors were too stylistically curious to ever fully commit to the aesthetics of psychedelia, ‘Strange Days’ remains a pillar of first wave psychedelic rock.
- ‘Waiting For The Sun’, Morrison Hotel (1970)
In 1968, The Doors released their third album, Waiting For the Sun. However, nothing on the album, not even the hit single, ‘Hello, I Love You’, matched the quality of the song of the same name, which didn’t surface until Morrison Hotel in 1970.
Morrison Hotel can be regarded alongside L.A. Woman as part one of The Doors’ late-career tour de force. ‘Waiting For the Sun’ is the album’s most immediately arresting track, sounding like the psychedelic blues rock equivalent of ‘Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds’—dynamic, kaleidoscopic, and rooted in a rock solid groove.
- ‘Riders On the Storm’, L.A Woman (1971)
The Doors’ long-time producer Paul A. Rothchild was apparently so unimpressed with ‘Riders On the Storm’ that he dismissed it as “cocktail music”. For Rothchild, ‘Riders…’ was further proof of what he perceived to be the band’s diminishing quality, which ultimately caused him to quit before production of L.A. Woman got under way.
So, was Rothchild right? ‘Riders On the Storm’ is definitely very listenable, but Rothchild’s assessment doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. ‘Riders On the Storm’ is apt soundtrack music, but it’s also a vital piece of songwriting. Morrison’s lyrics are particularly compelling, drawing on philosopher Martin Heideigger’s concept of “thrownness”: “Into this world we’re thrown, like a dog without a bone.”
- ‘The Changeling’, L.A Woman (1971)
‘The Changeling’ kicks off L.A Woman and all but ensures you’ll be sticking around to hear the rest of the album. The Doors penned plenty of blues rock romps in the space between The Doors and L.A. Woman, but none managed to replicate the infectious verve of ‘Break On Through’ quite like ‘The Changeling’.
- ‘Roadhouse Blues’, Morrison Hotel (1970)
Speaking of blues rock romps, that’s exactly what you get from ‘Roadhouse Blues’. There’s some conjecture about whether the song originated as a joke for The Doors. If that is the case, it’d help explain why the band members sound like they’re having such an excellent time.
‘Roadhouse Blues’ is a straight up and down boogie rock number. There are no production bells and whistles and the band makes no attempt to show-off their cleverness. It’s all 12-bar blues progressions and primitive vocalisations from Morrison.
- ‘Light My Fire’, The Doors (1967)
Among all Doors songs, ‘Light My Fire’ is the most over-played on classic rock radio and most frequently despoiled in karaoke rooms around the world. But despite its ubiquity—and how quickly Manzarek’s organ line loses its novelty—the quality of ‘Light My Fire’ shouldn’t be overlooked.
If you’re in search of a distillation of Morrison’s unique gifts as a frontperson, look no further than this song. Plus, for fans who feel betrayed by the band’s later flirtations with pop-oriented songwriting, ‘Light My Fire’ is evidence that their knack for penning pop hits was there from the start.
- ‘Queen of the Highway’, Morrison Hotel (1970)
There’s sufficient anecdotal evidence to suggest that Jim Morrison was not always pleasant to be around. He almost certainly betrayed the trust of those who loved him, a fact that’s alluded to in ‘Queen of the Highway’, specifically the lines, “He was a monster / Black, dressed in leather.”
But this brief moment of penitence isn’t what justifies ‘Queen of the Highway’ ’s inclusion in this list. Rather, it’s here because of how fully realised it feels, revealing The Doors as West Coast forerunners to the nascent Southern rock genre.
- ‘Who Do You Love’, Absolutely Live (1970)
The Doors had a reputation as an unpredictable live act. Or, rather, Morrison had a reputation and the rest of the band had to put up with it. Accordingly, their one official live album, 1970’s Absolutely Live, is neither a trainwreck nor a document of The Doors at their blistering best.
The band begins their performance with a rejigged version of the Bo Diddley classic ‘Who Do You Love’. Opening a show—let alone a live album—with a cover seems like an odd move, but the band so totally embodies this performance of ‘Who Do You Love’ that it deserves recognition as one of The Doors’ defining moments.