John Densmore14 Reasons To Love The Doors’ John Densmore

by Michael Parillo

The original four-piece lineup of the Doors was together for around six years, from its formation in mid-1965 until the death of frontman Jim Morrison in July 1971 at age twenty-seven. Over that span, the band—Morrison, keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger, and drummer John Densmore—released six studio albums and nurtured the impressive ability to write both the most confectionary pop songs and far darker, more complex bits of psychedelic art rock, ping-ponging between the two on each recording. The quartet, which also put out Absolutely Live (1970) and Morrison’s posthumously released spoken-word collection, An American Prayer (1978), remains to this day one of the bestselling and most popular classic rock groups.
Working without a regular bass-playing foil—the Doors often recorded with a bassist but hardly ever gigged with one—Densmore favored a lean, crisp, clear style in feel-good rhythmic explorations that, like the band’s songs, gathered together ideas from blues, pop, jazz, classical, and Latin, Eastern, and African music. There are many reasons to love this slyly inventive, often underrated drummer. Here are just a few. 
From the haunting opening cymbal clangs it’s clear this is going to be a deep affair, and sure enough the nearly twelveminute opus plays out as one of the band’s most emotional—and, with its Oedipal lyrics, most confrontational—songs. The ever-sensitive Densmore rides the Morrison wave with gigantic tom rolls and exploding canyon-echo fills (2:09, 7:42). He reacts to Morrison’s narrative as if they’re of one mind, building to a froth when Jim summons the shaman at the climax (8:47–10:20). The drummer then returns for a beautiful hushed coda.
This track from the Doors’ second album—supposedly containing the first lyrics Morrison shared with Manzarek before the band’s inception—showcases Densmore’s perfectly orchestrated part playing. The verse features quarter notes on the snare with tasty buzz rolls stringing the bars together. John opens up a bit with more rolls near the middle of the verse (0:35), then goes to the bell while playing a subtly funky R&B-style ghost-note groove (0:56). Finally, it’s back to quarters on the snare (1:55), but in more of a classic pop context than before. Lip-smacking ’60s drumming.
Densmore’s opening hi-hat foreplay and intro fills alone make this one worth the price of admission. But there’s much more to the track, a sort of sequel to “The End” in the hair-raising epic department, including one of Krieger’s finest guitar solos (the effects-drenched multitrack masterpiece at 2:54). “Music’s Over” also highlights Densmore’s special way with the singlestroke roll. His tight, brisk, swelling singles can be heard all over the Doors’ studio and live canon but reach a pinnacle of effectiveness here, especially around 2:32 and 2:45 (snare drum) and 8:01 (floor tom). This song finds the dynamic drummer at both his loudest and his softest, applying equal conviction to every stroke.
At under two minutes it’s among the Doors’ shortest songs, but it’s a complete pop delight bursting with drumming inspiration. Set in waltz time with a double-tracked Morrison vocal, it features perfect buzz rolls, bouncing tom fills (like the one at 0:21), and a buoyant groove. Dig the chattering rimclicks at 0:48. And Manzarek’s harpsichord ending.
Call it what you like, but you know what we mean—the stuttering bell pattern with left-hand snare and tom notes, which Densmore works to great effect across the Doors’ catalog, from “20th Century Fox” off the first album to “Ship Of Fools” off Morrison Hotel to the title track of L.A. Woman. The drummer loved the groove enough to keep playing it, with various nuances, and the Doors wouldn’t be the Doors without it.
It’s tempting to overlook this smash hit because…well…it’s still wildly overplayed on classic rock radio. (C’mon, throw us a “Shaman’s Blues” now and then!) But that would be a shame. Here Densmore works one of his patented tom-based beats, with the twist being that he doesn’t play a ride pattern at all. Instead he’s phrasing constantly, around the tune’s central rhythm. Savor the way he moves his licks around the kit, from the rack tom to the floor tom to both hands on the hi-hat. Stronger than dirt.
Morrison’s bizarrely fun lyrics threaten to steal the show here (“The monk bought lunch/Yeah, he bought a little/Yes, he did”), but there’s magical music taking “soft asylum” beneath the wordplay. Densmore’s work is a diverse tour de force, encompassing snazzy hi-hat propulsion (1:31), chilled-out jazz brushes (2:21), and tom-heavy tribalisms (3:04). The cymbal-catch fill at 5:36 is pretty sweet too.
The Doors could do a song like the 138-second sugarpuff “I Looked At You,” but on stage (and sometimes in the studio) they would stretch. Densmore and the other players watched Morrison intently, kept their ears open, and flanked Jim wherever he wandered. During a wild thirty-three-minute span on the newly released six-CD, 1970-recorded set The Doors Live In New York, the band plays “Celebration Of The Lizard” and “When The Music’s Over” (with a short blues ditty, “Build Me A Woman,” in between). Densmore, with his mates, navigates the sequence like an avant-garde pro, crashing and catching and rolling to highlight the unpredictable Morrison’s snowballing incantations.
From the moment Densmore joins Krieger’s choppy guitar riff with a four-on-the-floor kick and a funky two-handed hi-hat groove, you can tell you’re in for a rollicking good time, despite the bloody lyrics. John’s little fills, like the snare-hat-tom lick kicking into the second verse (0:46), just elevate the proceedings further. He plays another cool fill at 1:16, leading into a syncopated ghost-note-leavened pattern that helps set up the guitar solo. And the way “Peace Frog” leads so seamlessly into “Blue Sunday,” with its elegant, relaxed brushwork, is yet another reason to love Mr. D.
Densmore has one of the most recognizable rides in classic rock. Sometimes, like on the “I see your hair is burning” section of “L.A. Woman,” the bell sounds so gloriously brittle that you think the cymbal might just shatter. On “Riders On The Storm” John’s ride itself is like falling rain, creating a sustained cinematic atmosphere that lifts the song to the point where it renders the backing-track rainstorm almost unnecessary.
One of the wonderful things about Densmore’s drumming is the distinctive way he feels the time. On several Doors tracks, like this one and “L.A. Woman,” he favors a pulse that isn’t perfectly straight but rather has a little in-between seesaw action to it. And on “Love Her Madly” the snare-hat-snare fill before the second “All your love” section (1:56) is among Densmore’s cleverest and most delicious licks. Did he prepare that figure beforehand or bust it out on the spot?
The Doors’ bluesy final album before Morrison’s death features track is a journey through the United States via the snare drum. John begins with a simple, rudiment-style military pattern (0:57). He crashes where you least expect it (1:39) and later fills his way into a shuffle (2:06). For the instrumental break he shifts his original snare pattern into a version that has a bit more forward motion (2:30), and then he breaks into an active all-snare shuffle (2:54). For the last minute he weaves it all together (3:31), leading a tight group accelerando and adding ferocious snare smacks (4:22) at the very end.
This divisive album, which sets Morrison’s spoken-word recitations to old and new Doors music, is adored by some fans for its sonic clarity and sheer zaniness and disregarded by those who prefer Morrison’s songs to his poems. But American Prayer contains some of Densmore’s deepest grooves (“Ghost Song”), plus it’s a hoot learning everything you didn’t want to know about Morrison’s fetishes and obsessions. Sure, sometimes the new stuff is a little smooth, with its disco and Latin textures—and without the unruly frontman in the studio to muss things up—but the material that weaves Jim The Bard through original Doors tracks (“Newborn Awakening,” “The Hitchhiker”) leads to hearing familiar sounds in a new way.
Long after Morrison’s death, despite protestations from the other surviving Doors, Densmore has repeatedly exercised his veto power in order to prevent the quartet’s music from being used in TV commercials. These days, supplying music for ads may be one of the only ways for a young band to get ahead. But for classic fat cats who got huge the old-fashioned way—through radio popularity and record sales—it can be seen as either greedy or desperate, or both. And Densmore’s reasons are noble. “On stage, when we played these songs, they felt mysterious and magic,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s not for rent.”