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Ray Manzarek explains The Doors song 'Riders on the Storm'

Firstly, before we get into the brilliance of The Doors classic ‘Riders on the Storm, as the calendar comes to a close it is worth reflecting in the year the spawned Jim Morrison’s defining anthem. The albums released in 1971 read like a greatest of all-time list; The Doors smashed it out of the park with L.A. Woman, Joni Mitchell made everybody cry with Blue, T. Rex kickstarted glam rock with Electric Warrior, John Lennon dealt out some peace on Imagine, Marvin Gaye changed soul with What’s Going On, Funkadelic brought the party with Maggot Brain, David Bowie… and on… and on… 

Now, for the song itself that happily sits among the glowing company that the year offered up and, in a way, helped to define the changing zeitgeist as counterculture drew to a close. As it happens, it was chronologically Jim Morrison’s final act with The Doors, before dying at the tragically young age of 27. It epitomised both Morrison’s iconoclastic mantra, The Doors’ unique rock mysticism. With the evocative image of a road-weary traveller, the band crafted an atmospheric masterpiece that housed more imagery than the Museum of Modern Art.

The song began as a jam of ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’, a country tune which was originally written by Stan Jones and depicts a coterie of curse cowboys forced to ride horseback through the sky for tortured eternities. While The Doors may have taken the song in an entirely different direction thereafter, this brooding sense of epic Western theology remains. In fact, few songs in history conjure up a landscape with as much immediacy as ‘Riders on the Storm’ as it draws upon the stark Midwest’s dusty haze. 

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Therein lies the tale of a hitchhiker. Morrison himself was no stranger to wandering the serpentine roads of the west with an outstretched thumb. In college, his girlfriend lived three hundred miles away and Morrison would thumb rides towards her on his lonesome. Morrison crafted a darker traveller to give the song a grave gravitas. “There’s a killer on the road/ His brain is squirming like a toad,” Morrison croons out in reference to murderous hitchhiker Billy Cook who killed six people as he made his way between Missouri and California.

All the while, this wild tale that harks back through American eternities and beyond sways about on backdrop with enough atmosphere to sustain life in space. Central to this, is the keyboard intro that interrupts the storm itself from the one and only Ray Manzarek. Manzarek decided that Morrison’s worldview needed a sense of sonic wilderness. “We got to put some jazz to it, make it dark,” he opined. In the end, it could hardly be darker, as Manzarek explains: “The song was just too haunted and too beautiful. It was almost as if he had a premonition.”

You can watch the legendary musician discuss the whys wherefores and musicology behind the song in the video below. Even with the keyboard alone, the song still paints pictures like a fine expressionist. Manzarek even explains the bassline, which rattles with the riotous earthly depth of a subterranean army of moles undergoing a mutiny. In short, the song is a thing of beauty and watching a breakdown of its construction is also a force to behold.