Before I go off on yet another one of my many spiels about this and that in music and in the world in general, Ill get one thing off my chest that may add some needed perspective to what Im about to say. I like The Doors. No, scratch that, I love The Doors. In the pantheon of classic rock bands that I have discovered over the past five or so years, the Doors were one of my first finds, and certainly one of the most important ones. I own all of their studio albums, I have a couple of Doors t-shirts (although, in retrospect, the band t-shirts kind of give people the wrong impression about me), and a poster that I felt says it all - paintings of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon next to one another, captioned Spirits Of Rock (never mind that there are scads of artists missing from the poster, its still quite a sight). I love the Doors and thats that - and honestly, theres not much anyone can say that could change that, because Ive already established in my own mind, what there is that is wrong with them (did that make sense?).
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If The Doors and their leader Jim Morrison have nothing else going for them (and they do, but just follow me for a moment), they are at the very least, proof of one thing: just because youre a poet doesnt automatically make you a good poet. Jim Morrison exemplifies this idea to a T. This is, I suppose, the big distinction that can be made between myself and most other Doors fans. There are many people blind to the fact that Jim Morrison was not some supernatural, spiritual, troubled and brilliant soul when in reality, he was a drunk who wrote more than his fair share of absolute rubbish. Just look at some of his lyrics and youll find random words slotted together to create a flow, lyrics with little or no recognizable meaning. Sure, he caught lightning in a jar on more than a few occasions, and he was more adept than most folks at the whole poetry thing, but everyone gets lucky - and I will forever maintain that everyone on earth has at least one brilliant idea somewhere in the back of their minds (as stupid as they may otherwise be). Jim Morrisons success was, I believe, equal parts luck, charisma, moderate talent, and alcohol (or drugs, whichever suited him at the time). Its a terrible thing to say, I suppose, but it seems so obviously true when you watched him prance around on stage for fifteen minutes mumbling on about the Lizard King. As Philip Seymour Hoffmans portrayal of Creem editor Lester Bangs put it in Almost Famous, The Doors? Jim Morrison? Please. Hes a drunken buffoon posing as a poet. The difference is that, in my mind, there isnt anything particularly wrong with that. The Doors rock just the same, whether they have Jim Morrison as their vocalist and lyricist or Robert Frost. The good moments by and large outweighed the bad, and thats all I ask for - his lyrics, at the very least, made you think, which is cool on one level or another. Once youve gotten over the fact that he never said anything life altering or particularly profound, hes still pretty good.
Theres a clip from the Canadian comedy troupe Kids In The Hall entitled Doors Fan, in which a record store owner tells everyone who comes in that whatever record theyre looking for sucks, eventually going off on a tangent about the Doors, culminating in the classic repetition, because Im a Doors fan. At one point in his rant though, Bruce McCulloch utters the one line that is as true as it gets in regard to the group. Greatest hits albums are for housewives and schoolgirls, he says, which is very much true. The Doors were about much more than the hits - which is why a Doors Greatest Hits package is essentially, but should only be the beginning for anyone interested in the band. Yes, they had their fair share of radio hits and big songs, but the number of classic tracks they cut are simply too much to fit on a single or double disc collection. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least seven classic Doors cuts that havent appeared on a hits package, but damn well should. Even The Soft Parade, almost universally considered to be the Doors single worst album, is home to three or four songs that simply deserve to be heard by anyone and everyone. And its on that note, I suppose, that we jump into the fire, so to speak.
The Doors were certainly an unlikely pairing, thats for sure. The oddball combination of an amateur poet (Morrison), a classically trained pianist (Ray Manzarek), a jazz guitarist (Robbie Krieger) and a beatnik drummer (John Densmore) would eventually prove to be one of the most fruitful relationships in rock (and one that is currently being bastardized by some money hungry members). Formed in 1965 while the majority of the quartet were enrolled at UCLA in Los Angeles, it took little time before their unique brand of rock and roll was noticed and Elektra picked up the group less than a year later. Their self-titled debut was and still is largely considered to be one of the single greatest debuts in the history of rock music, but opinion is much more mixed on everything past that until the death of Jim Morrison in 1971. It seems the band struggled to outdo what may very well have been a perfect record, which must have been tough considering it was only their first. Thats not to say that the Doors eponymous record is the only one worth picking up - its where everyone should start, but its by no means the be all and end all of the groups catalogue. While they never quite attained the same level again, in my opinion, they came close on at least three different occasions. The Doors peculiar brand of rock was the result of the sum of the groups parts, four men with four different musical backgrounds who came together to create a curious blend of deep blues, jazz, beat poetry, and straight rock and roll. Manzareks organ work (which closely resembles that found in Iron Butterfly) was heavily steeped in classical and church music, while Kriegers guitar work was equal parts jazz and flamenco. Densmores drumming - almost as simple as the instrument got - and Morrisons poetic ramblings filled out the sound, making something that sounds almost ridiculous on paper work marvellously on record. The fact that the band knew so many different styles was one of their biggest helps, as was their almost unending ambition (and Morrisons drunken charisma was no doubt a help as well). The Doors blended so many styles of music whilst also adding their own individual touch that any song they wrote sounded inimitable and like something no other band could touch. Some bands are so ambiguous that they could very well be another, but there was no mistaking the resonant vocals of Morrison or the echoing organ of Manzarek. All four members brought something unique to the group that set them, as a whole, apart from others in the mid 1960s.
After releasing their debut album, there obviously wasnt much else that the band could do, so they simple rode the coattails of the album with another, Strange Days, which was made up of songs written at the same time as those that appeared on the first record. Despite a number of absolutely great moments, Strange Days didnt sell particularly well, and Morrison and his band mates were left to decide what they wanted to do next. Waiting For The Sun was released in 1968, a more pop-oriented departure for the band that would be home to a number of significant hits. For better or for worse, Waiting For The Sun sold much better than Strange Days, and the band was left with another decision - return to their blues-based rock roots or continue to experiment and expand. Led Zeppelin was left with a similar decision in 1971 when fans were left confused by the new acoustic turn that they had taken on Led Zeppelin III. Ultimately, Zeppelin chose to blend the hard rock and the acoustic numbers on Led Zeppelin IV - a smash hit of an album. Perhaps the Doors didnt choose so wisely, instead opting for a further trip into experimental pop and jazz music. This move, which would surely alienate its fair share of previous fans, was originally intended to open the Doors music to a wider audience. 1969s The Soft Parade did alienate a number of fans, but it was also a massive failure sales-wise, and the band would quickly return to doing what they knew best. But still, The Soft Parade stands as an example of a band trying something new and different. And despite being almost universally panned and rejected (I found it at the record store on sale for $4.99 Cdn, which is about $3 in U.S. funds - which goes to show you what people think of it), The Soft Parade isnt a bad record. Its the most unique of the Doors studio recordings by far, and it has more than its fair share of highlights. Why The Soft Parade has been ripped apart so badly, I cant figure out. Yet again, I have to blame it on the innate human inability to accept change.
There are two specific things that distance The Soft Parade far from anything else that The Doors have done. If youve heard the record before, the first is quite obvious - the jazz influence brought to the table by guitarist Krieger is much more noticeable and easily detectable than it ever was on any of the bands other releases, where it was often negligible. Along with the whole new jazz approach comes a definite tinge of New Orleans style, complete with an entire big band, horns, strings, and the works. Nearly every song on the record features, in some way or another, the presence of horns or strings. Sometimes its subtle, but most of the time its not. Its right in your face, and to be honest, its kind of interesting. As an experimental thing, it actually works rather well, and when it doesnt work, it can be more often chalked up to a bad song rather than poor use of the horns and saxophones. They fit well with Morrisons vocals, and the rest of the band has toned down their work so as to give the trumpets more room to work. They blare, and they actually achieve a sort-of orchestral pop feel when combined with the rest of the band (which may precisely be the reason why the disc is so hated). They sound, well, classic, and the arrangements are excellent - if somewhat overbearing at times.
The other big difference between The Soft Parade and every other (especially previous ones) Doors album is the increased songwriting contribution from Robbie Krieger. For the most part, the bands main lyricist was Morrison, so the increased presence of Kriegers writing (which appears here much more than on anything the band ever did) can either be considered a good or a bad thing. If youre of the opinion that Morrison was a lunatic, then its refreshing, but if you think of him as a demi-god, youll be sorely disappointed by Kriegers rather un-mysterious lyrical approach. Morrison does write his fair share, but just the inclusion of Kriegers name is indeed a bit of a surprise. As far as his actual ability in the lyrical department, its a bit of a mixed bag. At his best, his lyrics are excellent pop songwriting, jangly, upbeat, vibrant and full of life. At their worst, though, theyre trite, clichéd, repetitive and more than a little boring - but in either case, theyre still extremely easy to tell apart from Morrisons psychedelic doom and gloom (which, incidentally also has some great and not-so-great moments here). If we got only the best of Kriegers songwriting, Id be entirely happy, because he is a great songwriter at times, but its unfortunate that we see too many lows from him. In fact, Morrison was so disenchanted with some of these lyrics that he demanded the record company make it explicitly clear who wrote each song - the reason for the extremely large credits in the albums liner notes.
Even with these two differences, The Soft Parade still sounds very much like the Doors - the distinct vocals, church organ and flamenco guitar licks are all here, as they always were, only now theyve been assisted with the presence of all these horns. To try and describe the music in one all-encompassing way would be foolish because of how different some of the songs sound. In addition to the heavy jazz presence, there are also moments deeply steeped in folk, bluegrass, plain pop, and yes, even the blues. Of course, the blues influence never really left, it just sits below the surface of all the songs. The drumming remains rather simple and understated (you wont hear any heavy snare or bass drum, because that wasnt really Densmores bag). Horns aside, the sound is still dominated by Manzareks swirling organ, playing both melodies and fills wherever its needed. And Krieger, writing credits under his belt and all plays his jazz-influenced, flamenco style guitar, gently playing licks here and there, textured with just a little bit of distortion. The bass is, as usual, played by studio musicians, as its common knowledge that the Doors had no official bass player. And, consistent with the fact that the bassist was a studio musician, there is little use of the instrument. Morrisons vocals remain as deep, ominous and powerful as ever, despite being obviously frustrated and bored with some of the material with which he is working. When hes at his best, his voice is as brooding and plain scary as it ever was, but when he gets bored, you can almost feel the glazed over look in his eyes as he wades his way through Kriegers lyrics. Morrisons lyrics, in stark contrast to Kriegers, follow the same lines as in the past - sinister references to drug use, mysteriously veiled comments, and lines that just dont make much sense (although they still sound great with Jims deep, sonorous voice).
I should note, before I go right into some of the highlights and lowlights that many of these impressions came from listening to the album on vinyl, a copy of the record that I stumbled on a few hours ago. In comparing the sound quality of the record with the CD, Im inclined to say that the whole concept and ideal of The Soft Parade seems to hold up better on vinyl, where the music sounds much warmer and the instruments (especially the horns) have more space in which to spread out. Tell All The People is The Soft Parades opener, and should give any listener an idea, more or less, of whats about to come. Beginning with an elaborate, ascending flourish of horns, the Krieger-penned song slows to verses featuring almost nothing but an organ. The horns pick up in the crescendos and choruses, adding a great touch to the music. Lyrically, this is probably one of Kriegers better pieces, with Morrison preaching what almost sounds like a sermon. Jim sounds a little flat, but it works in some way or another - because the song is more musical than it is lyrical. Touch Me, another Krieger written song and one of the bands biggest hits (originally titled Hit Me because of Kriegers problem with women at the time, it was later changed by Morrison), is as close to a pure pop song as the Doors ever got, sounding almost like a Las Vegas lounge act (though not necessarily in a bad way). Filled with some soft rhythmic guitar strumming and more hornwork, ascending quickly into the verses, its an appealing song, if not one with a tremendous amount of meaning behind it. The subtle strings in the background twinkle almost eerily, and a saxophone solo from Curtis Amy fills out the burst of energetic pop.
Shamans Blues, the first Morrison composition, is arguably the best song on the record. Featuring Manzarek playing a low, almost bass-y organ line and Krieger playing a bit of swirling, psychedelic, simple guitar riff, the number is filled with all sorts of dark imagery from Morrison. Featuring minimal use of any additional instruments, its the most true to the bands original vision, but it fits in with the rest of The Soft Parade nonetheless. Morrisons choppy rhythmic delivery sounds very cool, helping what sounds like a vague love song of sorts. Do It is the low point on The Soft Parade, but all things considered, it isnt too bad. Again, the strings and horns are minimal, but Kriegers lyrics - a simple repetition of Please, please, listen to the children - sound forced, clichéd, and boring considering so many other groups have used a similar theme much better. Easy Ride is an upbeat, almost jangly, jazz-style number that offers only marginal improvement from the song proceeding it, while Wild Child is as close to pure blues as the album ever got. A sauntering beat and thumping guitar riff assist Morrisons thick, gravely vocals. About Linda Ashcroft, who knew Morrison for a four-year period before his death, this song just sounds plain sinister.
Runnin Blues is the most frustrating song of the bunch. I say frustrating because the song, written by Krieger, has the best verse structure of any of the songs here. Unfortunately, the power behind the verses dissipate during the chorus, sung by Krieger in a country hoedown, bluegrass style, sound absolutely terrible. It doesnt fit at all with the song, which is unfortunate. Beginning with Morrison repeating one line with no music, the music quickly joins, with the horns emphasizing the final two words of each line of the song. The descending verses sound absolutely amazing, but the momentum they carry is ruined by the chorus. Wishful, Sinful is soft and plodding, filled with soft guitar licks and gentle strings swelling from speaker to speaker.
Our closer here is the title track, The Soft Parade. Along the lines of When The Musics Over and The Celebration Of The Lizard, The Soft Parade is an almost nine minute long epic that seems to try and approximate the success of The End. The results are impressive, if somewhat schizophrenic and scattered, moving all over the place and not focusing hard on any one specific idea. Beginning with Morrison delivering a sermon in his authoritative voice (You cannot petition the Lord with prayer! he screams at the top of his lungs), the song moves into a slow warble accompanying some baleful vocals. From there, the music jumps into a sort of psychedelic lounge act, with Morrison rambling about peppermint and other stuff that doesnt make sense. And then the melodies shift yet again, which happens at least two more times throughout the rest of the song. At one point were assaulted by heavy bongo drumming with chanting, eventually working back into something more musical. As the song closes, the sermon voice returns, rambling about whipping horses eyes. The whole thing is rather disorientating, but in its psychedelic blaze, it does hit home on some great ideas - All our lives we sweat and save, building for a shallow grave. Spooky stuff.
The Soft Parade isnt the Doors best album. In fact, in all likelihood, its their worst (of the material with Jim, anyway). But worst or not, it does have at least one good thing going for it. Of all the Doors albums, The Soft Parade is the most musically diverse and fascinating. The horns, the different styles, the experimentation all hits home on some level or another, resulting in a Doors album that, at the very least, sounds unlike anything else they ever did. But on the flip side of the coin, it still sounds very much like something that the Doors would do. The Soft Parade certainly isnt nearly as bad a record as its been made out to be. In fact, aside from one poor song and a couple of slight missteps, its otherwise a very good album, and one that any Doors fan should pick up. It shouldnt be the first for a new devotee to the band, but its a good addition to any record collection nonetheless.
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