In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
They’ve been a favorite critical target for generations, but the Doors were, at the very least, an important band. They taught people. Prog and metal learned from the band’s self-important sprawl. Goth learned from Jim Morrison’s romantic hedonism and theatrical darkness. Punk learned from his negate-everything nihilism. And the band’s dank dread helped usher out the era of flowery psychedelia — one that had just taken root when the band first found its way to #1.
From a certain perspective, though, the Doors’ greatest feat wasn’t in all the people they influenced or in the tides they changed. It was in how they became pop stars in the first place. This was not a foregone conclusion. Consider, for example, the Stooges, another Elektra Records hard-rock band with an experimental bent, a guttural fuck-everything point of view, an apocalyptic sense of doom, and a photogenic desperado out front. Both bands were out there on the roads, with their brains squirming like toads, around the same time. Both were hugely influential. But the Doors were almost instantly huge, and the Stooges couldn’t get arrested.
Now: Iggy Stooge didn’t have Jim Morrison’s whole lip/cheekbone situation to work with. That didn’t help. But more to the point, the Stooges didn’t have songs like “Light My Fire.” (They had better songs. They just didn’t have songs like that one.)
The Doors had started out when Morrison and his old film-school classmate Ray Manzarek ran into each other on Venice Beach and got to talking one day. They started out playing LA dives and eventually moved onto the Whiskey A Go Go, where they served as house band before getting banned after Morrison cussed during “The End.” Elektra signed them up after label boss Jac Holzman went to see them, at the urging of Love’s Arthur Lee. But “Break On Through (To The Other Side)” — the band’s debut single and a pretty succinct and catchy summation of their whole outlook — failed to break on through, stalling out at #126. “Light My Fire,” a more atypical song for the band, turned out to be the hit.
“Light My Fire” wasn’t even Jim Morrison’s song, and Morrison came to hate singing it. Guitarist Robbie Krieger had written most of it, with some input from his bandmates. (Morrison wrote the second verse, the “our love becomes a funeral pyre” bit.) It was the first song Krieger ever wrote. The Doors didn’t have a bass player, but there’s bass on the song, and the Wrecking Crew’s Carol Kaye says that she played it. On the album, the song was a seven-minute mess of noodley organ solos. But radio liked it, so Elektra chopped it down to a cool three minutes.
A lot of people hate that single edit, but Elektra did the Doors a favor. The Doors’ giddily endless soloing might be a key part of their mystique, but to my ears, it sounds dinky and indulgent more often than not. In its edited version, “Light My Fire,” at the very least, sounds like a song. Morrison’s horny baritone has room to dig in, and you can still hear bits and pieces of the band’s zoned-out excursions. They say what they need to say, and they get out.
But “Light My Fire” is, let’s be honest, a pretty corny song. Morrison sings about sex with a deathly sincerity, oozing concern when he tells some girl that they can only find true transcendence by bumping uglies. And when Morrison tries to turn it into something literary with his “no time to wallow in the mire” stuff, he only makes it sillier.
So: a pretty catchy sex song from a band with godlike aspirations. But the Doors legend owes more to what they did with “Light My Fire” — refusing to license it for a Buick ad, refusing to change the verboten “higher” line on Ed Sullivan — than with the song itself. The song itself is fine. It’s not anything more than that.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Beastie Boys doing a knowingly cheesy bossa nova cover of “Light My Fire,” with Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori on vocals, on the 1995 only-out-in-Australia EP Aglio E Olio:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Massive Attack included a cover of “Light My Fire,” with reggae great Horace Andy on vocals, as a bonus track on their 1994 album Protection. Here’s that:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made To Love Her” stalled out at #2 behind “Light My Fire.” It would’ve been a 9. Here it is: