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Classic Tracks: The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm”

“When we first recorded ‘Riders on the Storm,’ it was a nice, light song—but when we got into mixing it is when it all came together."

The 7-inch sleeve of The Doors' "Riders on the Storm."
The 7-inch sleeve of The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm.”

This article was originally posted February 1, 2006.

Though it was only about five years between the recording of “The End” from The Doors’ eponymous first album and “Riders on the Storm” from their final studio album, L.A. Woman, it felt at the time as though the band had been around forever.

The arc of The Doors’ career was extreme. They went from being a popular L.A. club band — part of the new mid-’60s underground — in ’66 and the first part of ’67 to national superstars once their first album hit the airwaves and “Light My Fire” swept across the land. Their first three albums were massively popular (and also really good), and it wasn’t long before they moved from clubs and small auditoriums to giant sports arenas. Jim Morrison did not handle his rapid ascent well — as has been chronicled in many a lurid article and book, he degenerated into a sloppy, at times belligerent drunk and drug abuser, who had no compunction about showing up onstage completely wasted, unable to perform well.

The low point came in Miami in March 1969, when, in a drunken stupor, he allegedly exposed himself onstage, leading to his arrest for “lewd and lascivious behavior,” triggering a fall from grace as rapid as his rise had been. The Doors were banned in many cities, and Morrison spent much of the next year embroiled in ugly, time-consuming legal proceedings, trying desperately to stay out of jail. The group’s “comeback” in 1970, with the Morrison Hotel album and a scaled-back tour of smaller venues, seemed to be successful on most levels, and helped erase the taint of Miami somewhat, but the fact is, Morrison was physically spent and mentally exhausted by the time the group assembled to record L.A. Woman.

At first, it looked as though the band would record their new album much as they had previously, with Paul Rothchild in the producer’s chair, Bruce Botnick engineering and working at Sunset Sound (Hollywood). But the wheels came off almost before the train left the station. Tensions with Rothchild had been building for some time, and the producer was in no mood to record a band who clearly did not have their songs together or a lead singer who was reliable enough to cut tracks.

Rothchild told me in 1981, “Basically, things had been sliding since Miami. Jim was really not interested after about the third album. He wanted to do other things. He wanted to write. Wanted to be an actor. Being lead singer of The Doors was really not his idea of a good time. It became very difficult to get him involved with the records.

“Let’s put my career in perspective. I had close to 100 LPs under my belt,” he continues. “I had just finished making one of the greatest albums of my career, a labor of total love by the most loving and dedicated musicians I’d ever worked with. I’m talking about Janis Joplin’s Pearl album. That music was full of heart, the way it’s supposed to be in the studio. You get 110 percent from everyone in the band and 150 percent from Janis.

“[With L.A. Woman,] I went into rehearsals with The Doors for about a month. They were set up in the basement of their offices on Santa Monica Boulevard, but it was a joke! They’d come straggling in. Jim wouldn’t even show up half the time. There was no enthusiasm at all. They were all drugged on their own boredom. Just totally bummed out. Ray [Manzarek, keyboardist] would try to get things together. He has this great enthusiasm! I love that man! John [Densmore, drummer] was really angry about Jim’s attitude, and Robby [Krieger, guitarist] sort of laughed at it, and said, ‘That’s Jim!’

“It wasn’t just Jim, though. They’d all been lazy. They only had four or five songs that were defined enough to play as songs at that point. The most complete were ‘L.A. Woman’ and ‘Riders on the Storm,’ both of which I thought were great, great songs. My problem was I couldn’t get them to play either of them decently. It was like watching an 80-year-old man trying to run the marathon. There was nothing there. We rehearsed and rehearsed, but it didn’t get any better. Finally, I said, ‘Let’s go into the studio. We’ve got to make a record sometime.’ I figured I’d be able to do it like the last few — patch together the best stuff. Ray would be a great cheerleader and we’d finally get this thing going.

“Well, we went into the studio and it was dreadful. I worked my ass off for a week, but it was still awful. I finally turned to Bruce Botnick, and said, ‘I know another producer would stick with this because it’s a quarter-million dollars for the producer, but I can’t do this.’”

Botnick picks up the story: “Basically what happened is Paul was tired, the group was tired, and he recognized that and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ and he told me, ‘I think you can do it.’ We all went out to dinner and he laid it on the line, and he went home feeling like when you get out of school and have the whole summer ahead of you; that’s how happy he felt.”

Rothchild wasn’t the only one who felt liberated: “When Paul removed himself, we felt the same as he did — we were out of school; we were free,” Botnick remembers. “The guys said to me, ‘What do you think we can do here?’ And I said, ‘You guys like your rehearsal room?’ ‘Yeah, we love it there!’ ‘Great, I’m going to get some gear and I’ll set it up in [manager] Bill Siddons’ office, which is upstairs, and run mic cables downstairs and we’ll record there; forget going into a regular studio every day.’ Well, they liked that idea a lot and three or four days later we did just that. I got a bunch of gear from Elektra Studios across the street — a [custom] console and a Scully 8-track. We kept it simple. I had the gear upstairs; the band was downstairs in their rehearsal room. The idea was there weren’t any rules. The idea was to play well and capture it on tape and see what happened. They had earphones, I had speakers. Jim was set up in the bathroom because it was so crammed. He stood in the doorway and sang the whole album, using the same mic he used on tour, which I think was an Electro-Voice.”

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Free of their producer’s intense perfectionism and verbal harangues — he had complained bitterly that their attempts at “Riders on the Storm” sounded like bad cocktail jazz — the group relaxed enough in their new recording environment to lay down the basic tracks for the entire record very quickly. “The album took us five or six days to record, like the first ones,” Botnick says. “They were ready; they felt free, so they were just having fun.” Rhythm guitarist Marc Benno and Elvis Presley’s bassist, Jerry Scheff, were brought in to augment the band’s three-piece sound, and Manzarek, in particular, went out of his way to work up some new keyboard textures, as shown by the spacey Rhodes piano line that glistens throughout “Riders on the Storm.”

Botnick says of the song’s origins, “I believe it was one of Jim’s poems, and Jim had also come up with the melody as he had on all of his songs. With him it usually wasn’t lyrics and then a melody; it all came at once. When he wrote the initial batch of 24 songs [well before The Doors recorded their first album], he sat on the beach with Ray and sang them to him. He wasn’t a musician; he just had them in his head. And ‘Riders on the Storm’ came together like that, too, but then, of course, the guys took it from there and heard an arrangement to go with it, and it became quite jazzy as the guys liked to do. The Doors always had one foot in the jazz world and one in the blues world; one in the classical world and another in rock ‘n’ roll. They were all over the place.

“When we first recorded ‘Riders on the Storm,’ it was a nice, light song—but when we got into mixing it [at Poppy Studios on a Quad Eight board] is when it all came together. I was a nut for sound effects, and I said, ‘I want to try something.’ Elektra Records [The Doors’ label] had a bunch of sound effects discs, including one with rain and thunder. I took it off a disc and put it on a stereo tape. Then I just ran the tape in the background while I was mixing because we were already maxed out on tracks. When the [effects] tape ran out, I would just back up the tape somewhere and hit Play again, and then go into record on the stereo [mixdown], and by serendipity, the thunder came where they did; nothing was planned.

“Later on [many years later] when I went to do the surround album [version], that became a complication because I didn’t have the rain and thunder printed [on tracks of the original 8-track master], so I had to re-create it. I had the original stereo tape, but I wound up making surround rain and then physically cutting the thunder. I knew where they were supposed to go on the track, but I needed them to do special things in surround.”

Another brilliant finishing touch on the song has been claimed by both Botnick and Densmore, “so we take credit for it together now,” Botnick says with a laugh. This was doubling Morrison’s sung lead vocal with a spoken-whisper track underneath, done at Poppy during the mix sessions. “It adds this mystery to the song,” Botnick says, “and then you put the rain and the thunder with it, and all of a sudden, this ‘cocktail jazz’ song became something else altogether.”

Botnick says the mix only took about four days. “One strange thing that happened while we were mixing at Poppy, which is now Signet Sound, is there was a big, big earthquake in L.A. [the so-called San Fernando earthquake of February 9, 1971]. The control room glass at Poppy was floor to ceiling, so you’d look straight out to the studio as there wasn’t even a wall there. It was spectacular, but unfortunately, with every earthquake aftershock, you had this glass wall that was 10 feet high and 30 feet long moving and swaying; it was really spooky. We’d have to leave the building between mixes.”

Once the album was completed, “Jim left for Paris, and said, ‘I’ll see ya!’” Botnick says. Morrison went to Paris to chill out and write poetry — get back to his literary roots somewhat in the land of his idols, such as Rimbaud and Verlaine. L.A. Woman was released in April 1971 and was an immediate hit. “Love Her Madly” was the hit single, but FM radio jumped all over the title cut and “Riders on the Storm.” But Morrison never came home. He died on July 3, 1971, in a Paris apartment under still mysterious circumstances, most likely heart failure brought on by the ingestion of various drugs mixed with alcohol. Coincidentally, the single version of “Riders on the Storm” entered the charts that very day and eventually made it to Number 14 on the pop charts.

Not surprisingly, Morrison’s death led to a huge upsurge in interest in The Doors and it hasn’t really dimmed much since. “Riders on the Storm” remains a staple of classic rock radio. It was the title of Densmore’s 1991 autobiography and, ironically, the name of the current touring band that features Manzarek, Kreiger and former Cult lead singer Ian Astbury…after Densmore successfully sued them over the use of the name “Doors of the 21st Century.”

Asked if he’s surprised by the continuing endurance of “Riders on the Storm,” Botnick says, “By now, I’ve given up being surprised by The Doors’ success. I’m seeing 12-year-olds into The Doors. Their parents liked them. Some of their parents were into them, too. There’s obviously a message there — that Jim is able to transcend the generations. I find it kind of flattering, too. It was pretty obvious at the time that what we were doing was pretty special.”