Fifty years since the death of their singer Jim Morrison in a Paris bath tub on 3 July 1971, The Doors continue to divide opinion. Their fans will brook no argument as to the band’s place in history as one of the most imaginative, challenging and influential bands of the rock era. To their detractors, they are a self-indulgent sham. Regardless of your viewpoint however, there can be no denying the power and long-lasting impact of many of their songs.
As the front-man and main composer, Morrison – the prototype of the self-destructive rocker – was the clear focal point of The Doors, but he was by no means the whole show. Ray Manzarek’s distinctive keyboards provided the hypnotic groove that powered much of the group’s material, and rock-steady drummer John Densmore and the undemonstrative Robbie Krieger – a versatile, tasteful guitarist who also wrote his major share of Doors songs including almost all of signature tune “Light My Fire” – were vital to the group’s sound.
Krieger said a few years ago that one of the reasons The Doors were still so viable was that they didn’t have any bad songs. Well, that statement is open to scrutiny, but over six studio albums they certainly produced a remarkable number of intriguing songs, and more than a few classics.
Here are the 20 best songs by The Doors:
20) Moonlight Drive (Strange Days, 1967)
The song Jim Morrison sang to Ray Manzarek on LA’s Venice beach one balmy evening in 1965 – prompting the keyboardist to suggest they form a band and “make a million dollars” – was held back until The Doors’ second album. With some striking slide guitar from Robbie Krieger, what begins as a warm love song takes on a typically Morrison cryptic edge as the song progresses.
19) Alabama Song (Whisky Bar) (The Doors, 1967)
A bold and unusual move in covering the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill drinking song that sounds as if it was made for the group. That could be because Doors producer Paul Rothschild considered Morrison and Brecht kindred spirits who challenged the conventions of their different eras. But actually, it was Ray Manzarek who suggested The Doors record the song.
18) Waiting for the Sun (Morrison Hotel, 1970)
“Waiting for the Sun” should have been the title song on The Doors’ third album but it wasn’t ready, so it appears a little out of place on Morrison Hotel, on which the band triumphantly revisit their blues roots. However, the combination of Krieger’s alternately melodic and fuzz-toned guitars and Manzarek’s sinister keyboards, plus some classic Morrison self-mythologising (“This is the strangest life I’ve ever known”), sums up the otherworldly mystique of the band.
17) Hello, I Love You (Waiting for the Sun, 1968)
The Doors at their most commercial, a US No 1 and the band’s only sizeable UK hit during Morrison’s lifetime, with lyrics written by the frontman after watching a girl walk along Venice beach. Robby Krieger later added the music and refutes accusations of the similarity of the main riff to The Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night”. He does, however, claim to have taken the drumbeat from Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Life”.
16) Strange Days (1967). (Strange Days, 1967)
By their second album, The Doors had come alive to the possibilities raised by new studio innovations; the title track features one of the earliest uses of the moog synthesiser. This gave Morrison’s double-tracked vocal an appropriately psychedelic vibe, on this timely state of the nation address from the perspective of a perplexed older generation of Americans.
15) The Unknown Soldier (Waiting for the Sun, 1968)
The son of an admiral serving in the Vietnam War conveys Morrison’s unease at the way the conflict was being portrayed in the media. Released as a single just as those horrors were being beamed into a nation’s homes, “The Unknown Soldier” railed against the futility of war, and was graphically illustrated by a promotional film showing Morrison being executed by firing squad.
14) When the Music’s Over (Strange Days, 1967)
At 11 minutes long, this attempt to replicate the impact and power of the debut album’s epic closer “The End” is almost overwhelmed by its own pretentiousness, only rescued by superb musicianship and Morrison’s characteristically theatrical vocal. Robby Krieger’s acid-rock solo is a particular highlight and among the apocalyptic imagery is one of those lines in the Morrison canon that are firmly lodged in memory: “Cancel my subscription to the resurrection.”
13) Love Me Two Times (Strange Days, 1967)
A favourite of soldiers serving in Vietnam, who identified with lyrics such as, “Love me two times/I’m goin’ away”, this bouncy blues rocker seemed perfect for radio. Its suggestive lyrics worked against it however, and it received limited airplay. Now, the real highlight of “Love Me Two Times” is undoubtedly Manzarek’s wizardry on the harpsichord.
12) The Changeling (LA Woman, 1971)
Peerless blues-rock kicked off the last Doors album with Morrison’s by now ravaged voice adding the required gravitas and swagger to “The Changeling”. “Get loose,” he grunts, amid the funkiest groove on any Doors track and the perfect example of how tight a band they had become. The lyrics about leaving town would prove prophetic, as Morrison would decamp to Paris soon after recording LA Woman.
11) Love Her Madly (LA Woman, 1971)
Written by Robbie Krieger, this hit single from LA Woman caused long-term Doors producer Paul Rothchild to throw in the towel and hand the reins over to Bruce Botnick. “Cocktail music,” according to Rothchild, while “Love Her Madly” is almost Californian sunshine pop, but with the usual Doors’ kicker: “Don’t you love her as she’s walking out the door?”
10) The Crystal Ship (The Doors, 1967)
The title of this haunting psychedelic ballad, a farewell song from Morrison to a former lover, may refer to the band itself and the “thousand thrills” of being part of The Doors. It’s certainly The Doors at their most enigmatic – and Morrison at his most poetic. If Manzarek’s classically inspired keyboards don’t grab you, then Morrison’s opening couplet (“Before you slip into unconsciousness/I’d like to have another kiss”), surely will.
9) People are Strange (Strange Days, 1967)
A Morrison/Krieger co-write with Morrison’s lyrics inspired by a walk around the burgeoning Laurel Canyon scene, “People are Strange” has a touch of “Alabama Song” about it, thanks to its quirky German theatre influences. The band performed a memorable version of it on the Ed Sullivan Show, in which theaudience’s excitement and anticipation are palpable.
8) Peace Fog (Morrison Hotel, 1970)
The lyrics of this pulsating rocker fuse harrowing memories from Morrison’s childhood, observations on contemporary civil unrest in America, and Morrison’s impending court cases from incidents at New Haven and Miami concerts. However, “Peace Frog” is most notable for Robby Krieger’s funky guitar master class, before it segues beautifully into the wonderfully romantic “Blue Sunday”. Morrison’s growl becomes a honeyed croon once again.
7) Touch Me (The Soft Parade, 1969)
Demonstrating why he was known as “The Psychedelic Sinatra”, Morrison applied his smoothest vocal to this playful, brilliant top three US single written by Robby Krieger. For proof of how great a singer Morrison could be, check out The Doors performing “Touch Me” on the Smothers Brothers show on YouTube, for one of the greatest live vocal performances you are ever likely to experience.
6) Break on Through (To the Other side) (The Doors, 1967)
The Doors’ first single opened their debut album and immediately established their taboo-challenging manifesto. The lyrics, set against an irresistible bossa nova rhythm, are a summation of their resolve to break down barriers (or the doors of perception if you like). The single did indeed break new ground, with one of rock’s first promotional films.
5) Roadhouse Blues (Morrison Hotel, 1970)
The biggest compliment I can pay “Roadhouse Blues” is that on first listen I assumed it was a traditional blues song that had been updated. It’s not; it’s a band co-write with lyrics by Morrison, and is so authentic with Morrison’s wasted voice growling the lyrics, and the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian blowing up a storm on harmonica, that it quickly became a standard of its own.
4) Riders on the Storm (LA Woman, 1971)
With its sombre mood of impending death “Riders on the Storm” has become perhaps The Doors’ best-known song. Striking sound effects of distant thunder and falling rain, plus Morrison’s overdubbed whispered vocals, create the ominous atmosphere, while Ray Manzarek’s ethereal rain-imitating piano adds a jazzy quality. LA Woman’s final track – Morrison’s last recording with The Doors – was the frontman’s long goodbye, and continues to cast its ghostly shadow 50 years later.
3) The End (The Doors, 1967)
Perhaps the most controversial song of its era, Morrison’s magnum opus has proven to be one of the key planks in the legend of The Doors, particularly after its use in Apocalypse Now. A doom-laden eleven-minute epic based on the Greek tragedy of Oedipus who killed his father and made love to his mother, “The End”, proved a fitting climax to a groundbreaking debut album.
2) LA Woman (LA Woman, 1971)
Hollywood bungalows, cops in cars and topless bars are vividly brought to life on LA Woman’s magnificent title track, an unofficial anthem for Los Angeles. A thumping bass-line courtesy of Jerry Scheff, Elvis’s bass player, opens proceedings, while John Densmore’s driving drums and career-defining musicianship from Manzarek and Krieger set the scene for Morrison’s last journey through the “City of Night”.
1) Light My Fire (The Doors, 1967)
A celebration of erotic ecstasy containing all their sex and death motifs, which long ago became a standard. It’s the song that introduced The Doors to the world at large when the truncated single topped the US charts in the summer of 1967. For the ultimate listening experience, the seven-minute album track remains essential. It captures the individual members at their mercurial best, with Manzarek’s swirling, spiralling organ flourish, Krieger’s memorable solo, Densmore’s steady power, and Morrison’s iconic vocal all meshing together to create The Doors’ signature song.