Skip to main content

Enter your email below to be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Please enter a valid email address
Please accept the terms
The Soft Parade: How The Doors Walked A New Creative Path
In Depth

The Soft Parade: How The Doors Walked A New Creative Path

Rising out of ‘beautiful chaos’, ‘The Soft Parade’ found The Doors using horns and string sections to build an ornate new sound.

Back

By the time they released their fourth album, The Soft Parade, in 1969, The Doors were arguably victims of their own success. Despite going platinum and cracking the US Top 10, their eagerly awaited follow-up to Waiting For The Sun challenged some listeners who found the group’s embrace of horns and string sections too big a leap from the psychedelic blues-rock The Doors had so masterfully spun on their self-titled debut album and its follow-up, Strange Days. Yet while the sonic window-dressing certainly found the group weaving a new sound, it also underscored their willingness to explore new creative avenues.

Listen to ‘The Soft Parade’ here.

“It was the hardest I ever worked in the studio”

Waiting For The Sun had topped the US chart and peaked inside the UK Top 20, thrusting The Doors onto the world’s stage when they set out on a prestigious European tour in the autumn of 1968. Outwardly, then, the band appeared to have done the heavy lifting by this point. Their record sales were consistently impressive and, as they entered 1969, they were packing out cavernous venues such as New York City’s Madison Square Garden. However, behind the scenes, the pressure to keep up with themselves was beginning to take its toll.

When they embarked on the The Soft Parade sessions at Los Angeles’ Elektra Sound West studios, late in 1968, The Doors had little in the way of newly penned material, and frontman Jim Morrison was becoming disillusioned with his rock-star image. Keen to devote more of his time to poetry and filmmaking, he distanced himself from the recording sessions and, when he was present, the heavy drinking he’d indulged in when The Doors made Waiting For The Sun resumed.

“It was like pulling teeth trying to get Jim into it,” engineer Bruce Botnick recalled in James Riordan’s Break On Through: The Life And Death Of Jim Morrison. “It was bizarre – it was the hardest I ever worked in the studio.”

Progress on the album continued during gaps in The Doors’ gruelling touring schedule in the first few months of 1969, but the tense atmosphere was further exacerbated by producer Paul A Rothchild’s disciplined approach and his singular artistic vision for the record.

“Our session looked like the one for ‘Sgt Pepper’”

Also in Riordan’s book, Elektra Records president, Jac Holzman, recalled that Rothchild’s quest for perfection, which often resulted in numerous retakes of songs, was “grinding them into the ground”, while the producer’s desire to coat a number of The Soft Parade’s songs in lavish arrangements ensured the studio bills quickly mounted. The sessions did, however, have their upsides – not least in terms of famous studio visitors.

“George Harrison was in town, so we got to meet a Beatle,” John Densmore enthused in his memoir, Riders On The Storm. “Alluding to all the extra musicians, he commented that our session looked like the one for Sgt Pepper. I guess that’s the kind of record we were trying to do. It was a thrill meeting him, although I found myself getting tongue-tied!”

In more recent decades, rock bands such as Echo And The Bunnymen and The Verve have been praised for their use of orchestration on landmark titles such as Ocean Rain and Urban Hymns, but The Doors’ integration of brass and strings wasn’t so readily understood at the time. And yet, four albums into their career, the sweeping strings added a fresh dimension to Robby Krieger-penned fare such as Wishful Sinful and the stirring Touch Me. A Billboard Top 5 hit, the latter song also benefitted from an expressive solo from saxophonist Curtis Amy, renowned for his work with soul icons Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson.

“It was beautiful chaos”

Meanwhile, when Rothchild and his bandmates did get Morrison’s attention, the singer stepped up to the plate. Both Wild Child and the prowling Shaman’s Blues established themselves as contenders for a place among the best Doors songs, with Morrison’s visceral lyrics on the latter (“Cold, grinding grizzly bear jaws hot on your heels”) more than matching the music’s cyclical menace.

The Soft Parade’s tour de force, however, was its concluding title track: a suite-like affair which veered from folky introspection to surreal pop before settling into one of the band’s most hypnotic grooves as it played out across nine mesmerising minutes. Morrison was again fully engaged here, and the band later recalled how Paul Rothchild’s production took this otherworldly cut to an entirely new level.

“There were several vocals to choose from, and at the end of the song, just for fun, Paul turned them all on and it was beautiful chaos,” John Densmore enthused. “Jim’s vocals overlapped and commented on each other – one would say, ‘You gotta meet me at the crossroads,’ and another quickly retaliated, ‘Too late, too late,’ and so on. Schizophrenic multi-tracking. Rothchild and the studio had indeed become like the fifth Door.”

“Ray and I fulfilled our dream”

Released on 18 July 1969, The Soft Parade peaked at No.6 in the US, but The Doors’ experiments with a broader sonic palette were short-lived. By the time they returned, a mere seven months later, with Morrison Hotel, the group sounded leaner and considerably hungrier. The Soft Parade, however, had given them a welcome chance to bring their jazz inspirations further to the fore.

The Soft Parade cost around $200,000 to make, which was a lot in 1969, and when Paul Rothchild arranged an orchestra or strings and horns for overdubs, we weren’t sure, but we thought, well why not – his intuition has paid off so far,” Densmore later recalled.

“After all, we got Curtis Amy, a West Coast jazz saxophonist, and George Bohanon, former trombonist with the Chico Hamilton Quartet, and told them to play like John Coltrane and Archie Shepp on Robby’s song Runnin’ Blue… so yeah, certainly Ray and I fulfilled our dream of having more of a jazz influence on The Soft Parade.”

Check out our best Doors songs to find out which ‘The Soft Parade’ tracks

‘The Soft Parade’ Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

Tell All The People

A blast of horns, and a new Doors era is announced with Tell All The People, whose opening fanfare also heralds the arrival of a messiah-like protagonist summoning the hordes for the 60s’ last gasp (“Can’t you see the wonder at your feet?/Your life’s complete/Follow me down”). Guitarist Robby Krieger penned the lyrics to this slow-building call-to-arms, but though Jim Morrison had no problem with delivering grand statements, both Ray Manzarek and John Densmore have described the self-proclaimed Lizard King’s apparent dislike of the line “Can’t you see me growing? Get your guns” as a turning point for the group: “I don’t want the public to think they should ‘get their guns and follow me!’”, the drummer, writing in his memoir, Riders On The Storm: My Life With Jim Morrison And The Doors, recalled him saying.

Where on previous Doors albums the group as a whole had been credited with writing each song, The Soft Parade was the first Doors release to carry individual writing credits, allegedly because of a dispute between Morrison and Krieger over changing the lyric. But while Densmore was “surprised to see Robby get so passionate about anything. He certainly cared about his songs, and he valued Jim as his mouthpiece,” Krieger has recounted things differently in his own book, Set The Night On Fire: Living, Dying And Playing Guitar With The Doors.

“Whenever Jim wanted to change a lyric, he just did it. He was the poet. I was the guitarist,” Krieger wrote. Noting that The Soft Parade’s title track also included the line “You’d better bring your gun”, Krieger felt the change in songwriting credits “was more about Jim recognising how little he had contributed” to the album, “and feeling uncomfortable about people assuming the lyrics always came from him”. Certainly, during the recording sessions, Morrison, a UCLA film-school graduate, was devoting more of his time to editing the band’s Feast Of Friends documentary, and was readying his first two collections of poetry, The New Creatures and The Lords: Notes On Vision, for self-publication. Disillusioned with the lifestyle of the rock frontman, he brought fewer songs than usual to the studio.

“In the beginning, I wrote most of the songs,” Morrison confirmed to Rolling Stone magazine around the time of The Soft Parade’s release, before going on to highlight Krieger’s increased role in the group. “On each successive album, Robby contributed more songs. Until finally on this album it’s almost split between us.” Of The Soft Parade’s nine songs, Krieger would receive four individual writing credits and share a fifth with Morrison.

Touch Me

A crucial change to Touch Me’s lyrics was born less out of a disagreement than out of a wish to avoid confusion. Initially writing the song as Hit Me, Robby Krieger later explained how he felt that “the motions of a card game – people upping the stakes and refusing to show their hand” would be “a good metaphor for a contentious relationship” (John Densmore even suggested the song’s original opening lines, “Come on, come on, come on, come on/Now, hit me, babe,” were inspired by the rumoured “intensity of some of Robby and [his then girlfriend, now wife] Lynn’s domestic squabbles”). “Jim worried that people wouldn’t get the symbolism and would take the phrase ‘Hit me’ literally,” Krieger said. “By swapping out a single word, he changed the whole song for the better and undeniably helped Touch Me become a hit.”

Consciously or not, a commercial instinct had infiltrated the studio during the recording of Touch Me – quite literally. When the band realised the song’s closing riff sounded like the melody to a TV commercial for Ajax detergent, they chanted the ad slogan “Stronger than dirt!” on top as a joke. But with an intro that built to seven bars instead of the expected eight, Touch Me was tooled to catch the ear from the off. By adding some pop bounce and washes of crooner-era strings to their patented take on R&B, The Doors scored themselves a No.3 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.

Shaman’s Blues

“The shaman was a man who would intoxicate himself,” Jim Morrison explained to critic Richard Goldstein, for an interview that ran in New York Magazine shortly after the band began recording The Soft Parade. “And, he would put himself into a trance by dancing, whirling around, drinking, taking drugs – however. Then, he would go on a mental travel and describe his journey to the rest of the tribe.”

Ostensibly a song about a lost love, Shaman’s Blues gives some indication as to Morrison’s more troubled mindset during the Soft Parade sessions. After singing of “Cold grinding grizzly-bear jaws/Hot on your heels”, he makes a wider appeal to mercy: “Will you stop/Will you stop the pain?” Though he is remembered as one of the best rock frontmen of all time, live performance was beginning to take its toll on the man whose self-styled shaman’s dance had become a significant part of the Doors concert experience, and whose reliance on alcohol was exacerbated by the pressure he’d begun to feel as a countercultural idol whom audiences increasingly wanted more from (“The joy of performing has ended,” he wrote in a private notebook the year after The Soft Parade’s release). With such songs as Shaman’s Blues, the journey Morrison was describing was beginning to seem increasingly perilous.

Do It

Leaving the orchestral arrangements to the side, and with an ear on developments in the wider jazz world, the three Doors instrumentalists worked up an earthy, jazz-rock-inflected groove for Do It. Less complex, Morrison’s lyrics hark back to the earlier “They got the guns/But we got the numbers” sloganeering of Waiting For The Sun’s closing song, Five To One. “Please, please listen to me, children,” he sings, as if addressing those followers he gathered on Tell All The People: “You are the ones who will rule the world.”

Easy Ride

Developments in cinema make themselves felt on Easy Ride, whose title is just one letter away from matching that of the countercultural Hollywood event of the year, Easy Rider (The Doors’ album and Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s film were released within days of each other in July 1969). Taken at a gallop, the song also keeps pace with the country-rock explosion of the late 60s and early 70s, though Ray Manzarek has acknowledged that Muddy Waters’ Chess Records classic Got My Mojo Working provided another springboard for the group. Writing in his memoir, Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors, the keyboardist also identified Jim Morrison’s long-term girlfriend, Pamela Courson, as the “coda queen” of the outro, summoned to “rage in darkness by my side”.

Wild Child

A robust blues-rock cut, Wild Child is underpinned by John Densmore’s martial drumming, around which Robby Krieger winds psychedelicised slide guitar that recalls his work on the Strange Days album. Ray Manzarek has called Wild Child “Jim’s autobiographical (and acknowledgement of Danny Sugarman)” song, and the lines “Not your mother’s/Or your father’s child” offer some insight into Morrison’s estranged relationship with his parents, whom the singer claimed had died in a car crash when he was a child (in reality, his mother died in 2006 and his father died two years later; he also had a brother, Andrew, and a sister, Anne, both of whom outlived him).

Sugarman was a Doors obsessive, hired at the age of 12 to answer the group’s fan mail. He would go on to manage the band and co-write the legend-enshrining Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive, and has been credited by the group for working to keep their legacy alive right up until his death, aged 50, in 2005. “He was very persevering,” Robby Krieger told the Los Angeles Times of Sugarman’s first interactions with the band. “We’d tell him to leave and he’d always come back… He was just this crazy kid who really loved The Doors.”

Runnin’ Blue

The “poor Otis, dead and gone” Morrison sings of at the start of Runnin’ Blue was Otis Redding, who had died in a plane crash on 10 December 1967, just two weeks before he was due to support The Doors at the Winterland Ballroom, in San Francisco. But though Morrison added that Redding, one of the best soul singers of all time, had “left me here to sing his song”, on Runnin’ Blue he cedes the chorus to Robby Krieger, whose Bob Dylan-styled vocals mark the only time on a Doors album that anyone other than Morrison had taken a lead vocal, until the group recorded the Other Voices and Full Circle albums in the wake of Morrison’s death.

“He wasn’t writing, and he had run out of old material,” Krieger would later recall of Morrison’s reduced output during the Soft Parade era. “It meant I had to step up to fill in the songwriting gaps. Which was fine by me. But it threw off the balance that made our other records work so well.” Even on an album which saw the group experiment with their sound, Runnin’ Blue was given an unusual arrangement, featuring fiddle and mandolin. Manzarek would later describe the result as a “jazzy, atonal, country-and-western” song.

Wishful Sinful

Of The Soft Parade’s string-enhanced songs, Wishful Sinful is the most classically inspired (with the orchestra at their disposal, The Doors also recorded a version of Albinoni’s Adagio In G Minor – a Morrison favourite). Another Krieger composition, it saw the guitarist once again look to the elements for inspiration, as he had done with Light My Fire and Waiting For The Sun’s Yes, The River Knows, bathing his lyrics in watery imagery matched by a luxurious orchestral arrangement by Paul Harris. Having initially resisted the idea of using strings and horns on the album, Krieger would come to enjoy the way it forced him to into a different creative space. “Writing such complex and grandiose arrangements turned out to be stimulating challenge,” he wrote in Set The Night On Fire. “And when you’re in the studio listening live to all those strings and horns, the power of it just washes over you.”

The Soft Parade

Speaking to BAM magazine in 1981, producer Paul Rothchild explained how The Soft Parade’s title track came together. “Whenever we got stuck in the studio with a bridge section, I’d ask Jim to get out his notebooks of poetry and we’d go through them and find a piece that fit rhythmically and conceptually. A lot of the fragments there were just bits of poetry we put together.” Indeed, the image of a “soft parade” occurs throghout a number of Morrison’s poems, and was, according to biographer Jerry Hopkins, the singer’s description of people walking down Sunset Boulevard.

The piecemeal creation of the lyrics lent itself to the song’s suite-like arrangement, which moves from Morrison’s preacher-styled opening to a vulnerable, harpsichord-adorned plea for asylum, a funk-lite passage that gives way to a gently shuffling segue, and on into the lysergic explorations that had characterised The Doors’ previous epic album closers, The End and When The Music’s Over. Despite having watched his bandmate struggle to engage with the recording process for their fourth album, John Densmore would later note that, for this song, “Jim’s performance was so strong that the former little Catholic boy inside me thought we were blaspheming and would be punished.” Instead, however, The Doors were rewarded with a closing track that many listeners felt was a highlight of their career. But it was beginning to come at a cost for Morrison. Reflecting on lyrics such as “Can you find me soft asylum?/I can’t make it anymore”, Densmore admitted he could have “taken a closer look” at what Morrison was saying, adding, “It didn’t occur to me how serious a price Jim was paying.”

Less than three years on from The Soft Parade’s release, Jim Morrison would be dead, the latest addition to the notorious “27 Club”. As his posthumously published works have shown, he was a poet and a songwriter in one. It’s works such as The Soft Parade, full of what Hopkins and Danny Sugarman would describe in No One Here Gets Out Alive as “lines thought to be too weird and colourful to have been written by anyone else”, that stand as a testament to the artist behind the rock-star trappings.

Buy Doors vinyl, box sets and more at the Dig! store.

Original article: 18 July 2021

Updated: 18 July 2023. Extra words: Jason Draper

More Like This

‘Caustic Love’: Behind Paolo Nutini’s Bold And Adventurous Third Album
In Depth

‘Caustic Love’: Behind Paolo Nutini’s Bold And Adventurous Third Album

Sharp-tongued and full of vigour, Paolo Nutini’s third album, ‘Caustic Love’, broke a four-year silence from the Scottish singer-songwriter.

‘Twisted Tenderness’: How Electronic Bowed Out On A Creative High
In Depth

‘Twisted Tenderness’: How Electronic Bowed Out On A Creative High

Electronic’s third album was also their swansong, but ‘Twisted Tenderness’ contained some of Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner’s finest songs.

Sign up to our newsletter

Be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Sign Up