On September 17th, 1967, four California musicians wandered into the cold recesses of Studio 50 in New York City to perform their latest single on The Ed Sullivan Show. The preeminent pop music platform of the ’60s, a performance on Sullivan had the ability to break an underground artist through to a mainstream American record-buying audience.
If you know anything about The Doors, the iconic rock band that mixed blues, psychedelics, poetry and carnival organ, then you know the story — or you know some version of it. Through almost 55 years of semi-accurate biopics, retold accounts, and passed on legend, the performance has become a mythic pillar of the band’s own narrative, one where Jim Morrison embodies his defiant countercultural image to its absolute zenith in front of a morally mortified American public.
The actual story, however, is less harrowing. It’s a fairly restrained performance from Morrison, at least at first: no vulgar outbursts or public intoxication or incidents of indecent exposure, just a charismatic lead singer decked out in signature leather pants and long flowing locks of hair singing a love song. By most accounts, Morrison was nervous about being broadcast to millions of viewers and does little more than stand in place with his eyes closed. In fact, the only sign that something was amiss comes as the band barrels into the song’s first chorus. The camera flashes to keyboardist Ray Manzarek, and in the background, guitarist Robby Krieger flashes a wry smile. Krieger knows what just happened: Morrison sang the line that the band promised to excise from the song, the line that represented an intersection between recreational drug use and the euphoric burn of passion and love. A line that Krieger himself wrote.
‘Light My Fire’, much like the band themselves, has transcended into the realm of rock and roll mythos, untethered by humble beginnings or banal realities. Instead, the lasting legacy of the song involves getting high, funeral pyres, five-minute keyboard solos, and pure hedonistic wails of lust. If you’re so inclined, it works marvellously as a microcosm of the entire Doors experience, distilled into a single recording. But it wasn’t intended that way, at least not at first.
The origins of ‘Light My Fire’ are rooted in a young band who simply didn’t have enough material. Morrison, the leader and main songwriter, asked the other band members to contribute anything that they might have had that could round out a setlist. Krieger, who at that time wasn’t overly confident in his own songwriting ability, came back with a half-finished flamenco guitar tune that only had a single verse and chorus.
The folky starting point of ‘Light My Fire’ seems twee compared to the bombastic finished product, but Krieger’s rough sketch contained the boundary-pushing element that would make The Doors a dangerous and allegedly perverse act compared to their peers with the lyrics: “You know it would be untrue/You know that I would be a liar/If a was to say to you/Girl we couldn’t get much higher/Come on baby light my fire.” Krieger didn’t intend to shock. The “higher” line fit the song’s theme and had far more to do with amorous desire than with any explicit drug reference.
When Krieger brought ‘Light My Fire’ to the band, it immediately went through The Doors “communal mind”, as Manzarek calls it. Drummer John Densmore adds a Latin beat, Manzarek adds an intro figure inspired by Bach fugues, and Morrison added the second verse referencing funeral pyres. Krieger was initially unhappy with the references to death, but Morrison argued that it was necessary to have contrasting shades of light and dark.
The result was a harmonically challenging, musically dense, and altogether eerie portrait of eternal love. The combination of Krieger’s folk music background and Manzarek’s classical training meant that song had an unusual chord progression, especially for mainstream radio. The intro starts in the key of G, then modulates down to F, then to Eb, and finally to A major before transitioning to the parallel minor, where the song’s verses are played. The main progression of this section, A minor to F# minor, gives way to IV-V-I progression in the song’s chorus. You know the old adage that most pop songs have three chords? ‘Light My Fire’ has at least twelve, not counting inversions and suspensions, even in the radio edit.
That radio edit was initially a source of contention. The band felt strongly about not excluding the song’s solos, but when radio DJs began asking for a shorter version that could be played outside of the experimental late-night shows that featured longer material, The Doors realised that they might have a hit on their hands. Despite losing the enthralling sprawl of the middle section that highlights the band’s expert musicianship, the single edit of ‘Light My Fire’ loses none of its singular power or threatening aura. The band were content that they hadn’t sold out, and in April of 1967, nearly eight months after its recording, ‘Light My Fire’ was released as the band’s second single.
The story from there is well-trod territory: the appearance on Ed Sullivan, the fanaticism for the band during the Summer of Love, the move away from psychedelic pop and into harder-edged blues territory, Morrison’s physical decline and eventual death in Paris. This is all Doors 101, but it all started with a basic need to fill time. If not for ‘Light My Fire’, it’s likely that The Doors would never have transcended to the pervasive heights that they did, and it’s all thanks to the chemistry of four individuals willing to push the envelope for themselves and the world at large.