In 1967 The Doors released their self titled debut album to positive reviews with a review calling The Doors “an album of magnitude.” The album reached No.2 on the billboard 200 chart, staying there for two week. The album holding the No.1 position was The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album reached its No.2 chart position with the assistance of a billboard on the Sunset Strip urging drivers and pedestrians to “break on through with an electrifying album.” This endeavor was the first of its kind and led to large album sales.
To match the billboard advisement the band released the single “Break On Through (To The Other Side). Besides being the first single and track from the album the song is steeped in complexities in its, musical composition, lyrical message and time of release. A thorough analysis of the song provides deep understanding and appreciation of its composition, message, artist, and textures all involved in contributing to the song.
John Densmore, percussionist for the band, began the song with an interesting stylistic choice. Densmore, a jazz style percussionist, provided a backbone to the song with a Brazilian bossa nova beat. Densmore adopted the bossa nova style by replacing the stick and brush technique with two sticks to stiffen the sound making it more appropriate for rock and roll. The Latino influence continued with Ray Manzarek’s keyboard an organ playing and progressed to the sound of Ray Charles. Not innocent of appropriation any more than the other musicians’ contribution to the song, the guitar riff by Robby Krieger was derived from “Shake Your Money Maker” by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and Krieger shifted the beat in “Shake Your Money Maker” to create the riff in “Break On Through.” The instrumental composition drew from a wide breathe of musicians and musical styles to make something new.
Just as important to the composition and understanding of the song are the lyrics and where they pull meaning from. Jim Morrison, the singer of The Doors and lyricist for “Break On Through,” mixes poetics with philosophical concern. It is necessary to state some historical context to ground the lyrics. The 1960s atmosphere shifted from a quiet, unquestioning following of authority to a pandemoniac questioning of authority and taboos. The lyrics urged the listener to exert their own determination by shaking off “arms that chain us” and “eyes that lie.” Such restrictive controls could have been interpreted as parental authority as many young people moved to San Francisco in unprecedented numbers in the 1960s.
Another method of rebellion from authority and its controlling parameters was through the use of drugs. Marijuana and LSD became increasing popular in the 1960s. The Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco became synonymous with hallucinogens like LSD and its distribution by Owsley Stanley, an underground LSD manufacturer and the Grateful Dead’s sound engineer. Jim Morrison was a participant of the drug culture, and believed in the expansion of the consciousness. Morrison was a reader of the Romantic poet William Blake, and Blake’s quote “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” resonates in the song lyrics. In the original lyrics of the song was intended to be sung “she gets high/ she gets high/ she gets high/ she gets high yeah,” but due to censorship the use of “high” was removed. It would not till the 40th anniversary release of the album that the song would be distributed with the original lyrics in the recording. Drug use was a popular method to transcend what many young people believed were oppressive norms and mores.
“Break on Through” is indivisible from the culture it is made in, and only by probing the layers of the song: musical composition, lyrical message, and time and environment in which it was created can the listener have a complete understanding and appreciation of the song.
Here is a documentary no only on the song “Break On Through,” but the whole album, The Doors.
Hey really awesome song choice! I just wanted to back up your point of the song’s relation to “the road to excess being paved with pleasure”. Morrison also was a devoted reader of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who also was an influence to Bob Dylan and Patti Smith of the same time period. Morrison was drawn to Rimbaud by the similar childhoods the two shared. Jim went so far as to say “I am Rimbaud in a leather jacket”. The two were both known for being excessive alcoholics and womanizers, which eventually caused Morrison to famously die at the age of 27. This may have been a part of his quest to “break on through to the other side”, influenced by Rimbaud’s similar indulgence as a youth in his belief that it would make him a legendary poet. Rimbaud said in a letter written in 1871 that “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences”. This was the theme of a poem he wrote the same year, at the age of 17, called The Drunken Boat which caused him to be known as a legendary poet compared to Shakespeare. I think it’s a distinct possibility that Morrison could have been taken this lesson to heart and may have been trying to emulate Rimbaud before his tragic passing.