The drummer has been reassessing the band's salad days because he recently contributed to a newly released, limited-edition box set, London Fog 1966, which contains the earliest known recordings of the Doors. It features a recording of part of one of the band's concerts at Sunset Strip club the London Fog that one of the group's friends made that May, seven heavy, keyboard-saturated covers of blues and R&B songs by Muddy Waters, Wilson Pickett and Little Richard, as well as early originals like "Strange Days" and Morrison Hotel's "You Make Me Real." It also contains black-and-white 8-by-10s, a replica of a beer coaster from the club, a postcard and a fabricated set list written up by Densmore. "All it's missing is just a little clipping of a shag carpet with the smell of stale beer," says the drummer, who speaks matter-of-factly, with a dry sense of humor. "The London Fog was a dump." Taken as a set, the box evokes the most transformative time in the band's career.
This period began a few months after the Doors formed. The group had made its stage debut at a UCLA film school screening where one of keyboardist Ray Manzarek's class projects was shown. They played some parties for their friends, as well as a private party at Hughes Aircraft, where Manzarek's father worked. It wasn't until early January 1966 when the owner of the London Fog offered them a residency, where they'd play five 45-minute sets a night, from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., six nights a week. The Jim Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive reports they made $5 each on weeknights and $10 each on weekends.
"The stage was so fucking high, you needed an oxygen mask," Densmore recalls of the London Fog. "I was worried about Jim falling. It had all these stupid, little circus ropes around the sides of the stage so you supposedly wouldn't fall. It was ridiculous. And across the way was a cage with Rhonda Layne, the go-go girl. She was slightly overweight and wore a miniskirt and go-go boots, doing the twist or the frug. She didn't know how to dance to 'The End,' that's for sure. How do you do the frug to 'The End'? And the audience would stare at us like we're nuts, and then we'd play 'Lucille,' and they'd go, 'Oh, Little Richard, OK.'"
"You could probably fit 50 or 60 people in there," says guitarist Robby Krieger, who speaks slowly and carefully as he reflects. "It was just a bar." They managed to fill the place with their friends on the first night ("The owner was ecstatic – 'These guys have a following!'" Krieger says), but attendance fell off dramatically the next day. "You can hear, like, three people clapping on the recording," the guitarist says. "We were lucky to get 10 people."
Nevertheless, the club announced the arrival of the band with a sign that announced its arrival: "The Doors (Band From Venice)." A postcard replicating that sign is in the box set. "We were bohemian and that was the old beatnik turf," Densmore says. But that wasn't the kind of audience that came to see them. "It was sailors and perverts."
It was during this time that the band cut their teeth. They worked on original songs, some of which came out in January of the following year on The Doors. "Playing in front of people, even if it's 12, ups the ante," Densmore says. "It forced us to examine everything. Jim's baritone was not fully formed. I've got a lot of testosterone in my playing, but I was learning that what was really important was a sense of dynamics." And they built confidence onstage, since Morrison notoriously faced the rest of the band instead of the audience at early performances. "This recording has to be late in our London Fog career," Krieger says. "In the beginning, Jim wasn't as talkative or singing as good. We were constantly trying to get him to turn around and engage the audience."
"He sounds boisterous," Densmore says. "On this one, he's kind of, I don't know, loaded. Or, no, happy."
To relate to the crowds, no matter how small, the group also took it upon themselves to learn a number of cover songs that could get people dancing. "Come on and dance, somebody, let's go," Morrison shouts at the start of their take on Big Joe Williams' floor stomper "Baby, Please Don't Go." Their go-to favorites also included Them's "Gloria" and Wilson Pickett's "Don't Fight It," the latter of which is included on London Fog. "We had seen Wilson Pickett at the Whisky doing that song and we really liked it," Krieger says. "We picked songs that we liked and were songs that not necessarily a lot of other bands were doing, because we wanted to be different."
They also spent a lot of time looking for unusual songs. "We all had record collections, except for Jim, who really didn't live anywhere," he says. "He would just stay at different girls' houses in those days. But Ray had a great collection and my dad had a good one, too, lots of old 78s and rhythm & blues stuff." They discovered "Back Door Man" on Krieger's copy of John Hammond and His Screamin' Nighthawks and took on that arrangement, rather than Howlin' Wolf's. And they also found "Alabama Song" on a Lotte Lenya record Manzarek owned, but by Krieger's estimation, "it was just not really rock & roll," so he wrote some new chords for it so it would work without the original violins.
"We'd play John Lee Hooker," Densmore says. "I remember Ray had an album of that and I played 'Crawling King Snake,' and I said to everybody, 'We have got to record this song. It's us.' And it took until L.A. Woman but we did it. And we'd sit around and listen to Ravi Shankar, and a lot of that seeped into 'The End.'"
"We were young, and at that age, that was the time to be creative," Krieger says. "As Jim explained it, he felt like all his life up 'til that point was like a bow string being drawn back and then finally you get it let it go and all the creativity comes out."
Krieger, who turned 20 in 1966, recalls carefully refining his approach to guitar playing by working with Manzarek. He'd started playing flamenco but soon was drawn to other styles of playing by listening to Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Paul Rothchild–produced blues albums and Mike Bloomfield. But before the Doors, Krieger had never played seriously in a band, so finding his groove with a keyboardist (and no bass guitar) took some time. "Ray was doing the bass and the organ, and that left a big space for the guitar, so I was free to do a lot of stuff that you wouldn't normally be able to do in a band," he says. "And John's drumming was different than what you heard in other bands, and a lot of that was the way Ray was playing. John could answer Jim's phrasing."
This unity is audible in the London Fog originals, a slower, more straightforward version of "Strange Days" and a more soulful, guitar-led version of "You Make Me Real"; the two songs wouldn't make their recorded debut for years. They also played the long, meandering "The End" at the London Fog show on the box set, but the tape containing that song was lost. The songs came from a lot of experimenting, and Densmore describes the process as a "melting pot" of Krieger's flamenco, Manzarek's interest in Chicago blues and his own jazz flair.
He says the Doors' early rehearsals were "magic" because of the way they wrote around Morrison's ideas. "Jim was sitting on the couch and he said, 'Hey, listen, I don't know how to write songs. I got these words in my head and the only way I can remember them is with melodies,'" he says. "He would sing them to us a cappella. A song like 'Crystal Ship' has a complicated melody. He'd sing it and we'd go, 'Holy shit, wait a minute. F-sharp. Let's do that.' He couldn't play a chord on any instrument, but he had this orchestra in his head."
Regarding Morrison's harmonica ability, as heard on London Fog's "Rock Me," Densmore says, "Jim is absolutely the worst harmonica player on the planet. He wanted to be a musician so bad. He'd just squeak and honk and, oh, God ... Then he got a little better, but he's not Mick Jagger."
Regardless of his own aptitude, Morrison appreciated his bandmates' talent and he made a gesture to them that still resonates with Densmore. "He said, 'Why don't we just split all the credits,'" he says. "That moment was pivotal. I don't think any musical organization since the Thirties had done that. It produced 200 percent commitment from each of the four members. Later, when we played a gig and we were big, and we were introduced as 'Jim Morrison and the Doors,' he dragged the announcer back out and forced him to call it 'The Doors.' He was the star frontman, but behind the scenes, it was totally equal."
When Krieger thinks back on the genesis of "The End," he remembers it was a lot simpler and lacked what he calls the "Oedipal part." "It was just a little love song," he says. Densmore remembers it as another song Morrison sang a cappella. "We all went, 'Oh, it's a love song,'" he says. "And then over time, we used to jam and improvise and then in those sections, Jim was free to throw in any poetry he felt like. So over time, all that stuff like 'Ride the snake to the lake/The blue bus is falling up' trickled in. It turned into this epic, Francis Coppola visual, but it was really just a love song in the very beginning, very touching. It has a beautiful melody."
It's a song, he says, that grew into an epic partly because of the audiences at the London Fog. "Rob so brilliantly tuned his guitar into an East Indian tuning, so it had a trance thing going," Densmore says. "We tried to hypnotize everybody. We could see people looking like they just got a drink or some herb, and they'd be swooning. It was like, 'Oh, wow, this is working. They're out of it. They're hypnotized. Let's stay with it.'
"It's fashioned exactly like ragas, which go on for 10 or 15 minutes with droning and a climax," he continues. "Robby and I went to Ravi Shankar's school of Indian music. He took a sitar and I took tablas. And Ravi Shankar said, 'You need to be patient, you Americans. With Indian music, you take time before you have an orgasm.' He didn't say 'orgasm,' but there's something there. So 'The End' developed. I got this idea that I would increase the tempo gradually, and then everybody would get up and dance and it would be cool. They'd go into a frenzy and it speeds up to exhaustion."
The group's time at the London Fog ended just as chaotically. A fight broke out and it was blamed on the band. Even though Densmore says they had nothing to do with it, they were fired. "It was a real sleazy place," he says. As their luck would have it, though, Ronnie Haran – the talent booker for the Whisky – saw them at the last night of their London Fog residency and said she wanted them to play her establishment. "When Ronnie said, 'You're the house band at Mecca,' oh, my God, it was like, 'Maybe we're going to pay the rent with this,'" the drummer says.
"Once we got to the Whisky, we played almost every night for three or four months," Krieger says. "We'd play our songs every night and see how the audience reacted. When you play it live, you get a sense of what works and what doesn't. By the time we left the Whisky, we had enough songs for three albums."
Prior to their arrival at the Whisky, Densmore remembers feeling jealous of the band Love, who arrived there before them. "I'd think, 'I'm better than that drummer, why am I not in there?'" he says. "But it was [Love frontman] Arthur Lee who turned Jac [Holzman], the president of Elektra, on to us. What a great gesture." The band went into the studio in August, played for five days, and The Doors came out a few months later. It went to Number Two on Billboard and has since been certified four times platinum.
These days, Krieger has been playing jazz fusion with some former members of Frank Zappa's band, working in his own studio; his son Waylon has been singing with his group recently. He put out a solo album, Singularity, in 2010 and hopes to have another one out soon. He will be touring in the early part of 2017 and is booked to play the 53rd anniversary of the Whisky next month. Densmore still plays drums, but currently he's working on a third book about "musicians I've played with." He figures it will be out in a year. Asked if he's still playing, he says he's "looking for music between sentences." Morrison, who struggled with substance abuse, died in 1971; Manzarek died in 2013.
Since next month marks the 50th anniversary of The Doors, the band has a number of archival releases, like London Fog, in the works. "London Fog is the first limited-edition release, but it's jumpstarting the whole thing," Densmore says. "There will be more stuff, including a couple of films, including one you haven't seen before. I'm very excited about that."
Even though Densmore has been parsing the band's history lately, he still looks at his time in the Doors as "some beautiful, crazy dream," and uses a train metaphor to explain just how it all worked. "Jim was the engine, Ray was shoveling coal, Robby was writing these great, catchy hit songs, and I'm the caboose," he says. "I'm in the back, and I'm really enjoying it, but I'm also quite aware of Jim's self-destruction and real nervous about it and trying to put the breaks on. But I'm young and we don't have substance-abuse clinics. I didn't know he was an alcoholic, so there was tension. But I knew we were creating something that maybe would last. I hoped 10, but now it's 50 years. There it is."
The Doors performed their final show with Jim Morrison on December 16, 1970.