Cover to Cover

Words by Pinks

Illustrations by:

Light My Fire: from Jim Morrison to Will Young with all manner of delights and disgraces in between…

When The Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger shared the seeds of a new song with his bandmates in their beachfront rehearsal space, he could never have imagined the meandering path through history that it would carve. Regarded as the epitome of late 1960s rock, ‘Light My Fire’ has travelled across genre and style through every decade to become a fully fledged ‘standard’ covered by an endless stream of bands and artists.

Interestingly, the original track is perhaps unrepresentative of The Doors ‘sound’. Although it has got the gothic majesty of Manzarek’s spiralling organ, the inventive guitar of Krieger, Densmore’s jazz-tinged percussive underbelly and Morrison’s unmistakable howls and oblique references to death, it lacks the band’s penchant for R&B (The Morrison Hotel LP), haunting epics (‘The End’) or confrontational lyrics (‘The Unknown Soldier’). Indeed, the song even became problematic – particularly for Morrison – with its US number 1 success leading to the band being labelled by some as ‘commercial’ rather than serious underground-born artists. Releasing a version that edited out the bulk of the organ and guitar solos and selling the song rights to a soft drink advertiser probably didn’t help matters…

Its initial commercial success has certainly been a contributing factor in why ‘Light My Fire’ has since been covered, interpreted or mangled by a veritable smorgasbord of ‘artists’ – current count clocks in at 100 plus – but saleability is just one reason. On top of that, it transcends many a musical genre, making it inviting for all sorts of musicians to have a crack at. The song’s meaning differs from artist to artist too – with fiery imagery, twisted eroticism and thinly veiled references to drugs emphasised on the one hand, and a rather simple ode to love on the other.

By the end of the 1960s, more than 20 versions had been recorded, but don’t forget this was a time when the cover was big business – it was common practice for new versions of successful tracks to hit the shelves almost straight away, ranging from the carbon copy to the radical overhaul. Country/pop favourite BJ Thomas was one of the first to throw his hat into the ring with a rather diluted offering, closely followed by the guitarist’s guitarist Chet Atkins, who made a right meal of it and chose to ignore the restraint demonstrated by Krieger in the original.

Lucky for us, there were artists who recognised the inner beauty of the song and that it deserved respectful treatment. Step forward Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & The Trinity with a version that married Driscoll’s disinterested vocal to a dark jazz backbone. Meanwhile, José Feliciano, master of flamenco, liked the track so much that he recorded four different versions. Those on the soul tip were also persuaded with a young Stevie Wonder, Erma Franklin, Jackie Wilson and The Four Tops all recording acceptable takes on the classic while Nancy Sinatra hit the nail right on the head with hers, all arched eyebrows and ice maiden cool.

New versions continued to flow thick and fast in the 1970s with a particularly memorable cover by Shirley Bassey giving it the full-on Bond theme treatment, all dramatic strings and towering climax. In total contrast, Ananda Shankar opted for a sitar-heavy adaptation, before Isaac Hayes got his hands on it and gave it the low-slung groove that only he could. The late 1970s saw a prolonged pause in the song’s long journey, but not before Minnie Ripperton (RIP) had a bash, adorning the song with her unmistakable operatic tones.

1980s versions are thin on the ground, but that can only be a good thing (who were The Del Rubio Triplets anyway?), and it wasn’t until the early 1990s, that interest in ‘Light My Fire’ was relit with Massive Attack taking the prize for the most unusual and twisted cover version – recorded live as a sound system clash with chattering MCs, bass bins booming, the sweet vocal of Horace Andy and a cheeky sax solo.

However, the musical ingenuity of ‘Light My Fire’ covers ends there. What has followed since has been by no means been inventive or even tasteful; the worst offender being Mike Flowers Pops and his dreadful lounge cheese-fest version, a follow-up to his take on Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’ – a joke that wasn’t very funny the first time round. After that a procession of sorry specimens marched to The Doors classic tune, from UB40’s frankly piss poor effort and Jonathan King’s butchering to Will Young’s recent ‘hit’ version – the less said the better.

Despite decades of flitting from genre to genre through opera and soul to rock and dance, there’s no ignoring it: once a pop song always a pop song. From chart topper in the 1967 to chart topper in 2002… I bet poor old Jim is turning in his grave.