Many established musical artists have released albums that are stylistic head-scratchers, something that appears to be the very antithesis of what they’re normally known for. Bob Dylan released the puzzling Self Portrait in 1970. Neil Young embraced synthesizers with the odd, misunderstood Trans in 1982. Liz Phair, often considered one of the leading mavericks of feminist indie rock, offered up slick mainstream pop on her self-titled 2003 album.
With these rather blatant examples of musical 180-degree turns in mind, it doesn’t seem – at least in hindsight – that the Doors’ fourth album, The Soft Parade, was really all that different from their previous three. Sure, the L.A.-based foursome was known for a potent mix of garage rock, blues, and of-the-moment psychedelia, and The Soft Parade veered (at times, deeply) into pop territory. But prior to that album, the Doors were, among other things, a singles band. A handful of their songs cracked the Pop Top 40, and two of them – “Light My Fire” and “Hello, I Love You” – reached number one.
What really set The Soft Parade apart from the other Doors albums at the time was the appearance of horns and strings on several of the tracks, which some fans and critics claimed dulled the edges of this dangerous band. The truth is, these embellishments – arranged by Paul Harris, who was hired by producer Paul A. Rothchild – only appear on a few of the album’s songs. While they occasionally seem distracting, they frequently carry the songs into inspiring realms. It should be noted that Rothchild produced the Doors’ three previous albums, so this is not a case of some big-shot studio head storming into the studio, guns blazing, looking to rebuild a band from scratch in the name of crass commercialization. Additionally, drummer John Densmore and keyboardist Ray Manzarek, who both had extensive jazz backgrounds, were particularly receptive to this new direction.
Doors vocalist Jim Morrison may not have been completely opposed to the horns and strings. Still, it’s worth noting that the songs that were written with these arrangements in mind – “Tell All the People”, “Touch Me”, “Runnin’ Blue”, and “Wishful Sinful” – were all composed solely by guitarist Robby Krieger. Morrison was drinking heavily during the making of The Soft Parade, and his writing contributions were comparatively minimal. Morrison went so far as to insist that the band members receive individual writing credits, as Krieger’s lyrics – which were more in line with the traditional pop music of the time – flew in the face of Morrison’s more mystical and existential subject matter. In other words, if Morrison was going to sing something like “I’m gonna love you / ‘Til the stars fall from the sky”, he wanted to know that he had nothing to do with writing it.
The new 50th-anniversary deluxe edition of The Soft Parade gives fans a chance to revisit the album in its original form (remastered by longtime Doors engineer and mixer Bruce Botnick), adds some previously unreleased studio material, a rare B-side, and – to the delight of Doors purists – horn- and string-free versions of Krieger’s aforementioned tracks. The single “Touch Me”, one of the Doors’ biggest hits, is perhaps the one track that benefits from these embellishments. Densmore and Manzarek are in perfect sync with the jazzy nature of the horns, and the strings, while admittedly syrupy, are a welcome complement to Morrison’s lusty declarations.
One of the original track’s best-known features is jazz saxophonist Curtis Amy’s brief, Coltrane-inspired solo. The remixed version seems a bit lacking, although Manzarek’s multiple keyboards are more upfront. There’s an additional mix that includes a newly recorded Krieger guitar solo in place of the saxophone. Krieger’s new guitar parts are also available on new mixes of “Runnin’ Blue” and “Wishful Sinful”. While this new guitar work may seem like an odd bit of revisionism, it’s pretty entertaining to hear an “alternate universe” version of “Touch Me”. Krieger’s blistering 2019 solo fits the song perfectly, even if its appearance is slightly off-putting to anyone familiar with the original.
It seems unusual to think that The Soft Parade received the kind of hate that greeted it in 1969. “Touch Me” isn’t much of a stylistic departure from “Light My Fire”, and while “Tell All the People” has more than a whiff of hippy-dippy sentiment to it, the Doors were hardly immune to that kind of thing. The band sound better than ever, with the keyboard/drums/guitar lineup firing on all cylinders (aided in part by auxiliary bassists Harvey Brooks and Douglass Lubahn) and Morrison’s bluesy howl cutting through the air like a scythe. There are certain oddities present, such as the Otis Redding tribute “Runnin’ Blue”, with its cringe-worthy Dylanisms in the chorus, and the breakneck jump-blues of “Easy Ride” (a song originally written for the previous Doors album, Waiting for the Sun).
For fans of Morrison’s mystical blues evangelizing, “Shaman’s Blues” fits in well with older Doors material, as does the heavy, jazzy “Do It”, with its swirling Hammond organ and hypnotic “Please, please, listen to me children” chorus repeated like a mantra over the simmering band. “Who Scared You” – originally the b-side of “Wishful Sinful” – is also presented here, and the relatively understated horns work well with Densmore’s complex, tumbling drum fills.
While the remixes provide interesting optional versions of the original tracks, the previously unreleased studio material included in the deluxe edition is a bit of a mixed bag. Three tracks recorded while Morrison was absent from the studio, with Manzarek filling in on lead vocals, including an early version of “Roadhouse Blues” (later released with Morrison on the next album, Morrison Hotel) with new bass parts recorded by Robert DeLeo of Stone Temple Pilots. While Manzarek isn’t necessarily a bad singer, he’s certainly not Jim, and the recording has the air of better-than-average karaoke. By the same token, “(You Need Meat) Don’t Go No Further” and “I’m Your Doctor” are serviceable recordings if this was your average bar band, but the Doors deserve better, and these tracks come off awkward and forced.
Other raw recordings include “Rock Is Dead”, a much-bootlegged, hour-long jam session that’s interesting from a fan’s standpoint but hardly something the average listener will sit through more than once. “Seminary School” is a run-through of Morrison’s fiery Baptist preacher recitation that was eventually included on the album’s title track, and “Chaos” is a fittingly titled bit of studio jamming.
Like so many of the “anniversary” boxed sets that have been popping up by all manner of artists, this new deluxe edition provides a great opportunity to rediscover an old classic. While it’s hardly the Doors at their absolute peak, The Soft Parade provides plenty of high points for a band whose charismatic singer passed away only two short years later. It’s not always an easy ride, but it’s one well worth taking.