Making of The Doors: The Recording Sessions

In the eighteen years which had passed since Jac Holzman started Elektra Records in college, it had grown from little more than a tape recorder and microphone strapped onto the back of Holzman's motor scooter to a well-known folk label in the process of expanding into the burgeoning rock scene. Holzman had signed Paul Butterfield and Love when he decided the exhibitionist debauch known as the Doors was just what he needed.

He had great foresight - many other record executives were blind to the movement in 1966 - these same executives would descend on the California rock scene to scrape up whatever was left a year later.

Sunset Sound Recording Studios was located at 6650 West Sunset Blvd. Sunset Sound was known at the time, for it's ability to duplicate a "live" feel, which was what Holzman wanted, and in early September 1966, The Doors and Paul Rothchild began sessions there.

Rothchild was just the kind of producer the Doors needed. He was intelligent and well read, understanding poetry, jazz and rock 'n' roll. While a very strong presence in the studio, he also knew how to give the band room when they needed it.

"Things were wonderful in the Sixties because it was an era of intense experimentation," Rothchild has said. "Everyone was trying to out-hip each other. With the Doors we tried to strike a very fine line between being very fresh and original and being documentary - making the record sound like it really happened live, which it did, for the most part. I personally always try to focus on longevity and honesty. We stayed away from trendy clichés, including the use of popular devices of the time like wa-wa pedals. . .we would do advanced and"is to draw from the creative musician the maximum of his capabilities."

Engineer Bruce Botnick remembers the sessions: "Paul sat in on rehearsals like any good producer does, and clarified things for recording. He, of course, had problems with dramatic license, having to deal with profanity, which in those days had to be kept off the record. Paul had a lot of work to deal with Jim at the time, it was tough, real tough work for him, but he hung in there and did it."

Botnick came into the Doors sessions with five years experience under his belt, working with Buffalo Springfield and Love. He recalls meeting the Doors: "I'd never seen them before in my life. They were just a local bar band. I was impressed with them but it wasn't like 'Oh my God, this is going to be the heaviest band in the world,' because you just didn't think about that. It was my music also, my genre, they were all my age, we were all growing together. It felt real natural."
For the Doors the studio was a new medium. Not only did they have to contend with recording techniques which were unfamiliar to them, but they had to get used to performing in a different environment as well - they had to give their best without depending on the energy they were used to receiving from an audience. They spent a couple of days recording songs which did not make it to the album; they didn't stop with the perfect take, they stopped at the one they felt had the muse in it.

According to Rothchild the entire album was done on a four-track recorder, and for the most part, they only used three tracks. He recorded bass and drums on one track, guitar and organ on another, and Morrison's vocals on the third, leaving the fourth track open for for a few extras.

Rothchild brought in an uncredited bass player named Larry Knechtel because he felt Ray's piano-bass sound lacked definition. Rothchild wasn't afraid to give JIm any ideas, but he felt little was needed. Jim was completely in control, on top of everything he did. Rothchild remembers: ''I'd met musicians who were fine people, but JIm was the first I'd met since Michael Bloomfield, who was a stunning intellect. He was well read and sensitive to things around him and within himself. He was unafraid to reveal himself, to put the vulnerable side of himself onstage. He was exposing his soul, and that was bravery to the extreme in those days when everybody was posturing."

Rothchild overdubbed Morrison singing harmony to himself on a couple of songs. At that time double voicing as very avant - garde and it accounts for part of the eeriness of the vocal sound on the first album.

In 1966 Sunset Sound had one of the finest echo chambers in the world. It was essentially a small floating chamber, a room within a room, constructed of hard polished surfaces. They also had the first isolation booth for vocals, which was a major advance in recording techniques.

Botnick remembers Jim as a natural, spontaneous singer. "He never considered himself a singer, although toward the end he started to think of himself in light of Frank Sinatra, because he liked the way Sinatra used to phrase. He was a big student of singers, he used to listen to Elvis's phrasing, but I think his biggest influence was Sinatra. But he sang from his heart, it wasn't premeditated. He was among the first group of singer - songwriters where his singing was a way to present his words. He never studied singing, he just sang. He had good pipes."

While many bands struggle with disagreement in the studio, on their first album, the Doors seemed to have a true unity of purpose. According to Rothchild, he and the band set one goal; every song had to take you on an aural, visual and psychological journey. From a strictly musical standpoint, the material was exceptionally good. The group chose the songs carefully. Rothchild believes the inclusion of Brecht & Weill's "Alabama Song" was intellectually significant for the Doors. "Both Jim and Ray were admirers of Brecht and Weill. I suppose they were saying in the Thirties what Jim was trying to get across in the Sixties. In different ways, they were both trying to declare a reality to their generation."

Most of the Doors' originals were recorded the way they'd performed them night after night on the Strip. What had evolved over the course of a year was now being captured on tape. While recording End of the Night however, Jim decided to change one of the lines at the last minute. He had always previously performed it as "Take a trip to the end of the night," but in the studio he decided the word "trip" was overused, so he changed it to "highway".

Everyone involved in the recording felt there were many special moments where things just came together in an almost magical way. This feeling was particularly prevalent during the recording of The End. Although the song would eventually come off as unique and exciting in the studio as it was performed live, the first time The Doors tried to record it, Jim was high on acid, and after numerous tries, they gave up for the night. Rothchild described the night for Crawdaddy: "We tried, and we just couldn't get it. Jim wanted desperately to do it. His entire being was screaming...he was emotionally very moved. At one point he had tears in his eyes in the session and he shouted in the studio 'Does anybody understand me?' Right then and there we got into a long discussion about this section of the song. But it wasn't working. I have tried several times to record artists on acid and it doesn't work."

The next day was different, however. Due to the complexity of the song, a good portion of the day was spent setting up, but once the tape began rolling the performance was what Paul Rothchild later called "the most awe-inspiring thing I have ever witnessed in a studio." For the recording, the studio was completely darkened except for the lights on the recording console and a single candle burning next to Jim. "I was totally overwhelmed. Normally, the producer sits there just listening for all the things that are right and anything about to go wrong, but for this take I was completely sucked up into it, absolutely an audience."

"We were about six minutes into it when I turned to Bruce and said 'Do you understand what's happening here? This is one of the most important moments in recorded rock 'n' roll.' It was a magic moment. Jim was doing The End, doing it for all time, and I was pulled off, right on down his road. He said come with me and I did. And it was almost a shock when the song was over - it felt like, yes, it's the end, that's the end, that's the statement, it cannot go any further. When they were done, I felt emotionally washed. I had goose bumps from head to foot. For one of the very first times in rock 'n' roll history, sheer drama had taken place on tape...Bruce was also completely sucked into it. His head was on the console, and he was just absolutely immersed in the take - he became part of the audience, too. So the muse did visit the studio that night, and all of us were audience. The machines knew what to do, I guess. It was magic."

According to Jim, the recording of The End was a turning point in the Doors attitude toward their music. "We didn't start out with such big ideas. We thought we were going to be just another pop group, but then something happened when we recorded The End. We saw that what we were doing was more important than just a hit song. We were writing serious music and performing it in a very dramatic way. The End is like going to see a movie when you already know the plot. It's a timeless piece of was then that we realized we were different from other groups. We were playing music that would last for years, not weeks."

The night they recorded The End would always remain a significant moment for Jim. After everyone finally went home for the night, he couldn't stop thinking about it and wound up returning to the studio alone. Ray tells what happened: "He took the fire extinguisher and hosed the whole place down...not in the control room, thank God, just in the area where the band was...just blasted the whole place man, just to cool it down. And the studio people came in the next morning - they didn't now anything about it. Somehow he just snuck in there, past the guard and everything. Thank God - he would've been in jail! The studio people just absolutely freaked. Paul said 'uh, don't worry, don't worry, Elektra will pay for it, no reason to call the police.' He knew right away who did it, you know. We all knew right away what had happened."

[edited excerpts from Break On Through, with additional material]

Copyright 2003 by Riordan/Prochnicky &

Buy The Doors CD!
Buy Jim Morrison: Break On Through!
The Genesis of Jim Morrison's Poetry