The Doors pulled an unusual cover out of their pockets while recording their 1967 debut album. While originals like ‘Light My Fire’ and ‘The End’ blended the baroque with the psychedelic, the album’s biggest cover was a stone-cold blues classic. Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Back Door Man’ gave The Doors some necessary edge and menace, especially compared with their other cover on that album: the Kurt Weil show tune ‘Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)’.
Featuring carnival organ and oompah bass lines, ‘Alabama Song’ was the antithesis of what most psychedelic bands were interested in during the Summer of Love. But The Doors always had a unique ability to blend the old and the new, bolstered by Ray Manzarek’s classical piano training. Pulling in influences that brought Bach to rock, Manzarek wasn’t afraid to take on the strangest of genres during his time with the band.
That included proposing ‘Alabama Song’ as a cover. The rest of the band did their best to adapt the song to their own style, but once they entered the studio, Manzarek and producer Paul Rothchild sought to give the song a distinctively old-school barrelhouse bar arrangement. In order to do so, Rothchild brought in an instrument that was unfamiliar to Manzarek: a marxophone.
“I’d never even heard of it,” Manzarek admitted in The Doors’ episode of Classic Albums. “Paul Rothchild said, ‘Let’s get the marxophone’ and I said, ‘What the hell is that, man?’ He said, ‘It’s a hammer zither!’ because, being a folky out of New York City, they knew about all that sort of thing. It worked out perfectly, that jingle-jangly sound. It was perfect for the whisky bar.”
The marxophone adds a distinctive sound to the song, and you can hear its unique sonic qualities throughout the track. Anytime you think you hear a piano ringing out far too long on each note, that’s the marxophone. When the song moves into the “moon of Alabama” section, the marxophone makes its way to the front of the mix. It’s the kind of sound that can’t be mistaken for anything else, even if you can’t necessarily put your finger on what instrument it is.
Check out Manzarek talking about the marxophone down below.