June 3, 1967—Nearly five months after the debut of their eponymous first LP was released, The Doors began their climb toward commercial success by issuing “Light My Fire.” The group has become such a staple of classic-rock stations in the years since that it’s worth a reminder of just how much it overturned the conventions of rock ‘n’ roll in that tumultuous year.
The magnitude of The Doors’ legend has become so enormous that I don’t see any way to convey it—or even this particular album—in a single blog post. But concentrating on “Light My Fire,” the closing song on the LP’s first side, might focus attention on salient points.
“Light My Fire” wasn’t the band’s first single—that distinction belonged to “Break on Through”—but, by going to #1 on the charts, it made the group impossible to ignore.
Unlike their other tunes, it was not written primarily by frontman Jim Morrison, but by Robby Krieger. “Why do I have to do all the work!?” Morrison pointedly challenged the guitarist, who had never written a song to that point.
The first idea that Krieger had was to write about the elements. Getting stuck after a few verses, he turned back to Morrison, who supplied the most unusual—and, as befitting the singer’s mordant bent—darkest line in the song: "and our love become a funeral pyre." The tune ended up credited to the entire band, though, because contributions were also made by drummer John Densmore (the Latin-flavored groove) and keyboardist Ray Manzarek (the fugue-like opening).
That opening, worked out rapidly by Manzarek on a Vox Continental organ after the band had laid out a jazz-like, improvisational middle section, might have been inspired by baroque music, but the finished product was certainly a matter of thinking outside the Bachs. (The ironic Manzarek was rather more modest: “It just came out of, you know, fifteen or twenty years of music practice.”)
Phil Spector, The Beatles, and The Beach Boys had been employing classical instruments such as violins, the harpsichord and the organ, and The Left Banke became explicitly branded “baroque pop” with their 1966 hit “Walk Away, Renee.” But Manzarek’s use of the organ, in supporting Morrison’s Dionysian lead, was as far removed from the spiritual as pop music could get. In 1967, rock and pop listeners would become even more accustomed to the organ in songs like Vanilla Fudge’s cover of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” and Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” The march toward the “progressive rock” era had begun in earnest.
The album version of “Light My Fire” clocked in at seven minutes long. When the band heard about their record company’s plan to release the single at a bit under three minutes—then the ironclad maximum for Top 40 airplay—they were annoyed that the shorter version would eliminate the middle section where they got the chance to display skill to the fullest. But those improvisations would hardly be lost—FM rock stations were about to take off (WNEW-FM, the archetype of that format, would premiere that October), and listeners flocking to the format fanned interest in the song anew.
Three months after the single’s release, The Doors appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Just a few minutes before airtime, a producer relayed Sullivan’s request that they substitute, “Girl, we couldn’t get much better” for “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher,” lest the latter be interpreted as a drug reference. But on the show, a defiant Morrison not only sang the original lyric, but seemed to emphasize it even more. An incensed Sullivan banned the group from the show from then on. (Not that the band needed it, given its continued success.)
The following year, Jose Feliciano enjoyed a hit with his own very unique interpretation of “Light My Fire.” But for most of the baby boomers coming into their high school and college years, it’s a fair bet that nothing could compare to the original in where it could transport listeners.