Recently, while learning the guitar chords to The Mamas & the Papas’ “Creeque Alley,” I listened to the group’s 1967 performance of the song on the Ed Sullivan Show. As the four harmonized, some of the lyrics stuck out because they reminded me of The Doors’ infamous appearance.
Those lyrics, sang clearly on that year’s June 11 episode, were: “just a-gettin’ higher,” “still a-gettin’ higher,” and “couldn’t get no higher.”
Three months later, on the Sept. 17 episode, The Doors performed their songs “People Are Strange” and “Light My Fire.” The latter moves into the chorus with the lyric, “Girl we couldn’t get much higher,” used twice in the song.
(To my ear, because of Jim Morrison’s haunting, sleek pronunciation, The Door’s “higher” on Sullivan is less clear than the M&P’s and isn’t exaggerated like Val Kilmer’s — but the lyric is still understandable.)
As the story goes, the band was told by a CBS rep shortly before the show that they couldn’t say “higher” and that the lyric should be changed, like to, “There’s nothing I require.”
Keyboardist Ray Manzarek told the rep they would change it — yet this was only temporary appeasement, for as soon as the rep left their dressing room, the band excitedly agreed to leave the lyric intact.
After the performance, The Doors were angrily told they’d never play the show again, to which Morrison famously replied, “Hey man, we just did the Ed Sullivan Show.”
This certainly wasn’t the show’s only censorship effort.
Other well-known examples are Elvis Presley being shown from the waist up on his third performance because his hips were deemed to gyra-tious (despite being in frame on episodes before), and the Rolling Stones having to go from “let’s spend the night together” (deemed too sexual) to “let’s spend some time together.”
In a thorough content analysis, how much uncensored coupling innuendo would we find in the show’s 24 seasons?
A sensible conclusion from the double-standard “higher” to no “higher,” hips to no hips, and the Stones’ chorus being considered risqué: The show’s standards — as is often the case in ethics — were comically arbitrary, impromptu, and pompous.
I assign the last adjective because the “censored” content was widely distributed even in the 1960s, making one TV show only one small access point among many.
“Light My Fire” alone could be heard in the ’60s on American Bandstand, Shebang (the track, not a performance by the band), the Grammy Awards (Jose Feliciano’s cover, which won for best male pop vocal), and an NBC special (Feliciano again).
This isn’t even mentioning radio and records, with the original version spending 121 weeks on the Billboard 200, including three at No. 1.
The Sullivan futility reminds me of today’s big networks continuing to censor four-letter words despite social media, YouTube, smart phones…playgrounds…life… (I will say, though, that I still appreciate the punch of a good bleep.)
As for The Doors, perhaps the censorship effort stemmed less from the word and more from Morrison’s seductive, dangerous aura — as opposed to The Mamas & the Papas’ unthreatening, California-hippie caroling. Despite their “highers,” the group was quickly allowed back on for the Sept. 24, 1967, episode.
Meanwhile, The Doors seem to have relished in their disobedience and its “consequences,” much like many other artists throughout modern decades. For them, it becomes a boost upward, doing what they’re told not to or otherwise going against the grain.
And then the “banned” material often gets far more attention — and the artist more encouraged to rebelliously serve it — than if the thought police had just sat back and enjoyed the show with the rest.