Reading that it was the anniversary of Jim Morrison’s birth the other day, I immediately thought of The Doors’ classic “Light My Fire”.
“Light My Fire” was the song that brought The Doors immortality.
Released in early 1967, it was one of the earliest psychedelic rock tracks to hit the top of the charts, spending three weeks at Number One in the Billboard charts that summer.
An iconic rock track, it was a very well-deserved number 35 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 2011 listing of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
I adore this song, but I’d be the first to admit “Light My Fire” isn’t the most lyrically complex song ever written. Just two short verses repeated twice and a chorus.
Such lyrics as there are provide a nice-enough backdrop to the song…
You know that it would be untrue
You know that I would be a liar
If I was to say to you
Girl, we couldn’t get much higher
That lyric fits into 1967 so beautifully…although, if the rumours about the numerous ways in which lead singer Jim Morrison tried to “get much higher” were true, goodness knows what he had in mind each night he sang this verse.
Beyond capturing the spirit of 1967 perfectly, two things make “Light My Fire” a great song.
Firstly, Jim Morrison’s singing makes this a song like no other. It’s the vocal equivalent of The Who smashing their guitars at the end of their concerts. He starts quietly, beguilingly, teasingly, seductively…but by the end his throat is raw, his emotion spent, his pleading exhausted. He’s given this song his all…he leaves nothing in reserve.
But my very favourite part of “Light My Fire” is the work of Ray Manzarek. Ray passed away a couple of years ago and, unless they are die-hard Doors fans, most people probably wouldn’t recognise his name.
Ray Manzarek was the genius behind the organ part on “Light My Fire”.
Don’t get me wrong, “Light My Fire” is a great song and it would have been a hit without Ray Manzarek’s organ playing.
Indeed, this isn’t even a matter for debate, and I’m not disrespecting in any way Ray Manzerek’s contributions to one of popular music’s most popular songs.
You see, in 1968 it was a hit all over again without Ray Manzarek’s organ playing. Jose Feliciano took his smooth Latin guitar cover of “Light My Fire” to the very upper reaches of the charts.
As I’ve said before, I’ve got a firmly-held view that a truly great song is one that can be performed in a variety of different styles and still sound fantastic. “Light My Fire” is another one of those songs that proves the rule.
(For a great recent performance from Jose Feliciano, take a look here… https://youtu.be/iUS84SD0hRA )
But back to The Doors’ version and the work of Ray Manzarek…
The Doors’ name came from the title of a book by Aldous Huxley, who wrote author of “Brave New World”. If you haven’t read this since your school days, there are a number of disturbing parallels with life in late 2017, but we’ll gloss over that as it’s got nothing to do with today’s song.
The Aldous Huxley book which inspired the band’s name was called “The Doors of Perception” and in it, Aldous Huxley proposed the idea that it’s our perceptions of people and events that have more of an influence in how we handle them, than the objective reality of the situation.
One of the most popular recording acts of the late 1960s, The Doors have sold an estimated 100 million records around the world.
With Jim Morrison as their lead singer and philosopher-poet, and a reputation for incendiary, if erratic, live performances, less attention was paid to the other members of the band.
That may have been no bad thing, as Jim Morrison went the way of so many charismatic performers and met an untimely end in 1971. To this day, his grave is one of the most visited tourist sites in Paris, and there are still plenty of conspiracy theorists speculating about why his life was cut short.
Perhaps the truth is that he partied just a little too hard, and for just a little too long. The chaotic live concerts, the run-ins with the forces of law and order, the conviction for allegedly exposing himself on-stage were all the signs of someone whose grasp on reality was slowly slipping away. In the end, perhaps it didn’t take much to send Jim Morrison over the edge.
Although The Doors tried to continue for a while after Jim Morrison’s death, this didn’t last long. I imagine Jim Morrison could be a difficult man to work with, and so wildly unpredictable that everyone around him must have been on edge the whole time. But without him, the band wasn’t the same.
A bit like The Who after Keith Moon’s passing…although they drafted in a succession of excellent professional drummers, all of them probably much more technically capable than “Moon the Loon”, nothing was quite the same ever again.
Keith Moon brought an edge to the band, just like Jim Morrison did.
But to give the other members of The Doors full credit, they were all great musicians in their own right. And the entire band wrote what, for me, is their finest song, “Light My Fire”.
The Doors’ guitar player Robby Krieger featured as one of Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 greatest guitarists of all time. He developed an unusual playing style because The Doors didn’t have a bass player, or in fact another guitar player of any description. Robby Krieger had the talent to fill in for jobs that in other bands would have been done by a separate bass player, rhythm guitarist or a lead guitar player…sometimes more or less simultaneously.
Drummer John Densmore has done much to keep the spirit of Jim Morrison and The Doors alive through his implacable determination to keep the band and its music away from grubby commercialism, leading court cases to prevent licencing of The Door’s music and imagery.
I don’t imagine that has always endeared him to his fellow band members who might have missed out on multi-million dollar paydays as a consequence. But he has kept alive the idiosyncratic reputation of one of rock music’s most idiosyncratic bands. Without that, we may have become too familiar with their music as they sold out to the highest bidder, as so many others have done…and if they had, would The Doors still be thought of in the reverential way we think of them today? I suspect not…
And of course…back to where we started this story…the final member of the band is Ray Manzarek on keyboards, without whom The Doors might never have achieved their time in the spotlight.
He was a tremendously skilled and innovative player. His work on the Vox Continential combo organ is the sound we instantly think of when The Doors are mentioned.
And nowhere is that showcased better than on “Light My Fire”. I’ve linked to the three-minute single version of this iconic song below because it lets you see something of what the band must have been like performing on stage.
But the definitive version of “Light My Fire” is undoubtedly the seven-minute album version. The three-minute version is pleasant enough, but it’s almost like trying to decide whether or not you enjoy a film having only watched the trailer.
In seven minutes, there’s more time for the themes to develop, more intricate musicianship and more time to appreciate the way Jim Morrison’s vocals make their transition from his understated emotions at the beginning to their full-on soul-bearing intensity by the end.
There’s also a delightful guitar solo from Robby Krieger on the longer version that was cut from the single in the interests of time and which you may never have come across if you’ve only heard the “radio edit”.
So, if you have the time, I highly recommend the seven-minute version here… https://youtu.be/deB_u-to-IE
For the more time-challenged here’s the single version…and a chance to see one of the most iconic groups in popular music history at the height of their powers.
Please enjoy “Light My Fire” written and performed by The Doors…
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If you prefer to listen to the track on Spotify, you can find that here… https://open.spotify.com/track/5uvosCdMlFdTXhoazkTI5R