Alternately idolized and maligned, Jim Morrison's reputation has had one of the more unpredictable trajectories of any classic rock figurehead. And yet whether or not the music he made happens to be fashionable at any given moment, his influence on generations of rock poets, punks, goths, and hip-hop producers continues to grow. In advance of Morrison's 80th birthday on Dec. 8, Q looks at some of the most memorable Doors covers and samples.
“Light My Fire,” Stevie Wonder (1969)
In the decades that followed Morrison’s death in 1971, his image would in many ways come to overshadow his music. In some circles, that image was one of an ahead-of-his-time link between the Symbolist poets and the hordes of goths and punks who would later take his example and run with it. For others, Morrison would come to be seen as a walking symbol of Aquarian age pretension and self-indulgence. But while he was still alive, it was possible just to think of Morrison as the singer-songwriter behind a clutch of excellent pop songs, and then-19-year-old Wonder’s joyously jubilant cover of the group’s biggest hit is a perfect example of accepting great songwriting on its own terms.
“Tell All the People,” Merry Clayton (1970)
For all of the Doors’ moments of melodrama, all the invocations of Oedipal angst and brains squirming like toads, the band’s music was just as steeped in traditional blues and R&B as it was in free-form poetry. On this searing rendition of a Soft Parade deep-cut that she recorded shortly after her breakout on the Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter,” Clayton takes the Doors to church, with glorious results.
“Light My Fire,” Al Green (1971)
While Wonder’s version of the Doors’ 1967 staple played up its symphonic tunefulness, Green took a different tack on his version two years later, emphasizing the song’s slow-burning, seductive churn, as he builds from nearly spoken word verses to fully explosive choruses.
“Soul Kitchen,” X (1980)
Considering punk’s eventual aversion to the “dinosaur” rock bands that immediately preceded the movement, plenty of its earlier figureheads were happy to hold Morrison up as a key influence: Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine and Ian Curtis chief among them. Perhaps the best early punk band to cover the Doors, however, was L.A. standard-bearers X, who coincidentally happened to have the band’s keyboardist Ray Manzarek behind the boards producing their first four albums. “Soul Kitchen,” from the first, is the perfect punk reimagining of the song: much faster, much snottier (Exene Cervenka’s voice crack on “I really want to stay here all night” gives the line an extra jolt of caffeinated desperation), and just reverent enough to the source material without ever seeming too much in its debt. Covering such a quintessentially 1960s band was not without its perils in SoCal’s thoroughly anti-hippie hardcore punk scene, but as the band’s John Doe noted later: “Some of the more hardcore bands thought of us as hippies anyway… At least everyone respected the Doors, because they were so dark and moody.”
“People Are Strange,” Echo and the Bunnymen (1987)
Yet another 1980s Doors cover featuring Manzarek as producer (as well as keyboardist), this perfectly intuitive pairing of Echo and the Bunnymen and one of the Doors’ greatest earworms was commissioned for the soundtrack to The Lost Boys, and became a minor hit in the UK, helping to buoy the Bunnymen’s next act after a hiatus. Ian McCulloch, Morrison, Vampire Kiefer Sutherland…everything about this cover brings to mind a very particular type of ‘80s teenager’s mood board.
“You’re Lost Little Girl,” Siouxsie and the Banshees (1987)
The Godmother of Goth tips her black veil to one of the genre’s prime ancestors on this rendition from the Banshees’ 1987’s covers album, Through the Looking Glass. Effortlessly swapping Manzarek’s warm organ for glacial synths and Morrison’s emotive baritone for Siouxsie Sioux’s affectless croon, the band brilliantly honors the original’s charms while making it entirely their own.
“The Cactus,” 3rd Bass (1989)
Though it’s probably most famous today for being the song that inspired MC Hammer to allegedly order a gangland hit on the New York hip-hop group (if you’re unfamiliar with that story, please set aside a quarter hour to catch up), the title track from 3rd Bass' debut makes brilliant use of a tweaked-just-right sample from “Peace Frog,” one of the first times a hip-hop producer would find inspiration in Morrison’s oeuvre, though certainly not the last.
“Waiting for the Sun,” Soundgarden (1996)
Oliver Stone’s 1991 film The Doors was something of an inflection point for Morrison’s complicated reputation in the years that followed, with Val Kilmer’s fully immersive portrayal winning the band plenty of renewed exposure and younger fans, while some of the film’s more outre flourishes made him an easier target than ever for mockery. Soundgarden had always been wary of rock star self-importance — the band’s hit “Jesus Christ Pose” mocks a posture that Morrison virtually invented — but Chris Cornell and Co. were nonetheless hardly immune to his influence, and this thunderous live cover of “Waiting for the Sun” shows how thoroughly ingrained the Doors had always been in the band’s DNA.
“Ruffturrain,” Call o’ Da Wild
This sadly little-remembered Harlem hip-hop duo is best known for its association with Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs, who produced this hidden gem based on a kernel of the Doors’ “The End.” Ripping Robby Krieger’s wind-swept guitar intro, the song is no less apocalyptic than its parent track, painting a bleak portrait of urban decay before going on to shout out “Riders on the Storm” in the chorus.
“Takeover,” Jay-Z (2001)
Long before he fully entered the public eye as a rapper, pop star, fashion entrepreneur and lightning rod for exhausting amounts of controversy, Kanye West was known simply as a brilliant young producer with a preternaturally sharp ear for a sample, and his note-perfect flip of the Doors’ “Five to One” for this scorched-earth diss track from Jay-Z’s The Blueprint album was a huge factor in establishing his early reputation. (Strange to imagine that the famously bassist-less Doors were likely introduced to a whole generation of hip-hop fans via an isolated bass line.)
“Roadhouse Blues,” Lana Del Rey (2012)
The only surprising thing about hearing Del Rey cover a Doors song is realizing that she hasn’t covered several of them, nor done any of them in the studio. If anyone under 40 seems an obvious heir to the Lizard King, it’s her: the dark-edged glamour, the ventures into spoken-word poetry, the obsession with weird old L.A., the Venice Beach connections, the seductively anachronistic vocal style employed in the service of thoroughly modern pop music… Del Rey has already proven herself thoroughly capable of elevating the reputations of other critically-disdained yet massively popular SoCal rock legends, but until she decides to formally adopt the modern day Morrison mantle, this video of her rollicking live take on “Roadhouse Blues” with Camp Freddy will have to do.