“You know that it would be untrue/You know that I would be a liar/If I were to say to you/’Girl, we couldn’t get much higher.’”
This short verse consists of the few lines that propelled the career of The Doors. The now-mega popular counterculture group were booked on The Ed Sullivan Show on September 27th 1967, in a move that would go on to consolidate the band’s success although not in the way many would have expected. After the charismatic and rebellious lead singer Jim Morrison had clashed with network executives, Morrison emerged as one of America’s forefront faces during a time of political and social change.
Background Of The Doors
The Doors were formed in Los Angeles in 1965 by Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek. Taking their name from Aldous Huxley’s The Doors Of Perception, the band created a fusion of blues, jazz, and rock to create a unique sound.
The Doors eponymous debut album attracted little initial success. However, a few months later, the group released the track Light My Fire as a single. On June 3rd, the track entered the charts; this went on to hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on July 29th 1967, where it would stay for three weeks. In celebration, Morris bought his famous skintight black, leather suit whilst mingling with the ‘in-crowd, including the likes of Andy Warhol.
This was a significant moment for American music. The Rock ‘N’ Roll Years Volume Three magazine put it that “America had been invaded and surrendered” as the so-called ‘British Invasion’ had taken place in which British music crossed the pond for US success. Yet The Doors were frontrunners in the American-strong musical movement of the later-’60s. Amongst The Doors were contemporaries such as Simon & Garfunkel, The Beach Boys, and The Monkees – albeit with those acts very different in presentation and style.
Now what the band needed was a larger platform. After all, what better way to display was better than television to display the dashing Jim Morrison to a national audience? As Manzarek himself claimed in retrospect: “The girls are going to love this guy’, and the girls did love him.”
The Ed Sullivan Show By 1967
The Ed Sullivan Show was one of the largest TV programmes on air by 1967.
Most famously, the entertainment variety show had made the careers of The Beatles. 73 million viewers watched the start of the aforementioned ‘British Invasion’ as the Liverpudlian quartet dazzled stateside audiences. The single most important moment in the history of the band, Barry Miles wrote in The Beatles Diary: An intimate Day By Day History that it was “Thirteen and a half minutes of television that changed the face of American popular music.”
This is not to mention all the others who have since become household names such as Elvis Presley, The Supremes, The Rolling Stones, Jackson 5, Bill Haley, The Beach Boys, and The Byrds amongst many others – all because of the hugely-important Ed Sullivan Show.
The show still had a big presence by series 21 in 1967, with the previous series averaging a 5.7 rating – still highly impressive figures even if a fall off from previous series. So for The Doors, this was the opportunity of a career, one they seized with both hands.
Road To Sullivan
The Doors were actually not told about their appearance by their manager. Keyboardist Ray Manzarek recalled: “My wife and I were watching at home…Ed, at the end of the show came on and said, ‘Next week we’re going to have…a rock group from California, The Doors doing their number one hit ‘Light My Fire.’ We looked at each other, saying ‘Oh I guess we’re on The Ed Sullivan Show next week.’” For their part, the group seemed unenthused despite the chance to perform on the only live broadcast venue for live music at that time.
Tensions did not start off well. Upon meeting “The Lizard King” Morrison, Ed told the group they were “too serious”, having previously remarked that the guys: “ought to smile more” (According to drummer John Densmore). This itself was an odd comment considering Sullivan’s nickname “The Great Stone Face” due to his lack of natural charisma and lack of an upbeat nature.
“Girl, We Couldn’t Get Much Better”
Bob Precht – Sullivan’s son-in-law and show producer- asked if the band could rephrase some of their lyrics during preparations. See, in Light My Fire, the line “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher” violated Standards and Practices due to its reference to illicit drugs.
Instances like this were not completely unprecedented. Just nine months earlier, The Rolling Stones were successfully convinced to change their suggestively-sounding Let’s Spend The Night Together to Let’s Spend Some Times Together (although Mick did give knowing and subliminal hints to the viewer). Even Elvis Presley’s appearance on the show was show waist-up to avoid viewers seeing the filth of his ‘risque’ hip convulsions.
The Doors’ response differs on the source. Stephen Davis’ Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend states Morrison retorted with: “Fuck you,” followed by a “shocked silence.” Other accounts state the group claimed to have gone along with it to the executive. The Ed Sullivan Show website, claims that after Precht left the room, Morrison defiantly declared: “We’re not changing a word.”
Whatever version you believe, Densmore in retrospect observed that: “We all sensed rage…a possible explosion too near the surface to mess with, in dealing with Jim.” Shit was about to hit the fan.
Stephen Davis’ book tells us that The Doors were introduced by Sullivan with “his lip curling slightly, in evident distaste.”
The Doors first performed People Are Strange, as organised, before jumping into Light My Fire.
When coming to the line. Morrison sang it as it was, using the word “higher” twice during the performance, contrary to the depiction in The Doors biopic from 1991 – which over-emphasised the word’s usage. The ever-volatile and unpredictable Morrison could simply not be told what to do.
After the first mention in the first verse, the camera just catches guitarist Robby Kreiger – in the words of Far Out magazine – “smirking at the disobedience, clearly envisioning the telling off they were about to get.”
Davis’ biography commented that the memorable performance ended with Jim “sending Morrison scream-energy out to a Middle America unprepared to hear anything so painfully acute.”
Aftermath & Fallout
The stoic and rather benign Sullivan, who was in his mid-60s at the time, clapped and mouthed compliments about the band. Notably, he did not shake the hands with the band members as was custom, instead quickly cutting away to an advert for Purina Dog Chow.
Furious, the band were chewed out backstage by the crew. They were told: “Mr Sullivan liked you boys” and that “we were going to book you for six more shows.” It is well-documented that JoMo replied “Hey man, So what? We just DID Ed Sullivan.”
Robby Kreiger later remarked: “So, yeah. We never played The Ed Sullivan Show again, but we didn’t care.”
Some supported the decision however, such as the band’s manager at JAM, inc. Jeff Jampol. He condoned their rebellion, stating: “It’s fascinating to get an inside peek at how television, the media, and the corporate culture continually conspired to censor art and free expression…[The Doors’ actions are] a refreshing reminder and contrast to so many of today’s mainstream artists who seemingly refuse to take a stand, to speak out against injustice, or who are unwilling to put their wallet (and sometimes, their entire career) on the line…Thank God for Jim Morrison; thank God for The Doors.”
In terms of punishment, The Doors saw new-found acclaim and, if anything, a larger following. In a time of such cultural upheaval, such an act only skyrocketed them to fame, with New York writer Albert Goldman going on to call Jim “the one authentic sex hero of the current generation” and perhaps more tellingly “the most admired figure on the American rock scene.”
Although Costello was barred from Saturday Night Live and Hendrix was forbidden by the BBC, no bans were as infamous as The Doors’.
The Doors used The Ed Sullivan Show as a launching pad, albeit not in the traditional sense. After this, it was up and onwards for the band, banned from the show only after using it to establish them in the American mainstream. The explicit defiance of Morrison can be seen as an early illustration of punk, with the cool Morrison standing up to the unhip Ed Sullivan Show. As such, it has become a significant moment in musical history, even if far from the most controversial performance the band ever played.
The uncompromising group had their status-cementing moment, leading to great success. As The Ed Sullivan Show website summarised their career and the event: “Although The Doors’ active career ended in the early 1970s, their music, popularity and legend persist to this day. To date, the band has sold more than 74 million albums worldwide. Their distinctive style, poetic lyrics and uncompromising approach to music personify the undying spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. Perhaps the William Blake poem proved to be prophetic. The influence of The Doors ‘…appears to man as it is, infinite.’”