55 Years Ago Today – Revisiting The Doors’ Eponymous Debut LP

Released in January of 1967 (1/4/67), the Doors’ self-titled debut album predates other monumental titles of the year—The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Jefferson Airplane‘s Surrealistic Pillow, Cream‘s Disraeli Gears, and Jimi Hendrix‘ Are You Experienced? —and effectively helped set the stage for a cultural/societal upheaval at this point in just its nascent stages. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest debut albums in rock history and while it is certainly an excellent record—especially given how comparatively quickly it was recorded by Bruce Botnick, with Paul A. Rothchild as producer– fifty-five years of hindsight confirms the LP has its weak points.

Still, there’s no denying the highlights. In fact, it’s the very contrast between the peaks and valleys that certify The Doors as an extraordinary work. The reckless abandon of “Break On Through (To The Other Side)” finds its counterpoint in the deep reveries of “The Crystal Ship” as well as the otherworldly atmosphere of the “End of the Night.” As much as Jim Morrison’s lyrics spoke to individual liberty and freedom from societal boundaries, so too did his singing: his was an untutored style unlike virtually any of his contemporaries, such as Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones or Roger Daltrey of The Who. On this record, sans much affectation, he proved his versatile mettle in no uncertain terms (he had never sung in public prior to joining the Doors).

Reaffirmation of the Doors’ fundamental distinction(s), the unusual instrumental lineup of the group mirrored the idiosyncratic gifts of their lead vocalist. In a deceptively skeletal format, keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robbie Krieger and drummer John Densmore utilized an opened-ended approach to improvisation: Densmore’s centered but expansive percussion built on the eclectic influences in Manzarek’s barrel-house blues cum baroque approach, while Krieger sounded like no other guitar hero of the time: his flamenco training afforded him lightning speed up and down the fretboard, but, as on his solo for the otherwise prosaic “Twentieth Century Fox,” his quickness wasn’t always readily discernible.

The band adopted the most conventional means of jamming by the transitions for “Light My Fire.” And those extended rounds of the solos comprising almost seven minutes allowed for a convenient edit to make the track suitable for single release: its explosive popularity made the Doors a household name in the ‘Summer of Love.’ But Densmore, Manzarek, and Krieger’s ability to maintain the taut drama of Morrison’ own spontaneity came even more clearly into play during the near twelve minutes of “The End;” much is made of the lead singer’s untethered exposition of the song’s narrative, but without the accuracy of the dramatic accents from his bandmates, it would all come off as empty pretense (the likes of which he was rightly accused [and guilty of] later in the band’s career).

Glimmers of such shortfalls appear in the weakest of the eleven cuts on The Doors. The quartet, especially the frontman, sound like poseurs pure and simple on “Back Door Man,” the Willie Dixon song originally recorded by Chester Burnett a/k/a ‘Howlin’ Wolf.’ And they are little more credible on “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar):” on this cull from an opera written by Kurt Weill and  Bertolt Brecht in 1927, the foursome’s disingenuous choice borders on self-parody. Better the two songs were segued in the track sequence with an original song or, better yet, excised in favor of self-composted selections from the wealth of material the Doors had at their disposal at the time (the likes of which would comprise their much superior sophomore LP, out later this very same year, Strange Days).

In the long run, The Doors’ commercial breakthrough was almost as significant as their creative epiphany, in part because it accounted for the enduring attraction of the group’s work. Hyperbole about the quality of this first album even supersedes the various revivals of the band’ popularity over the years, not coincidentally—and much to the derision of many fanatic purists—resulting in multiple repackages of their discography (such as the 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of this very title in 2017). But that all matters less than what The Doors contributed to the momentum of the inroads counter-culture would make into the established methods of the record business during this period: albums took precedence over singles so that the purported value of art threatened to supersede commerce. 

That’s not to say the paradigm shift would not have happened without the best of the earliest efforts(s) by Morrison, Krieger, Manzarek, and Densmore, but only that their eponymous debut marked a first significant indication of a movement whose effects would be of global import, much like the impact of the music.

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