Visionary composer, arranger and producer David Axelrod passed away on the 5th February. Here’s an in depth look at his legacy.
Composer, arranger and producer extraordinaire David Axelrod passed away on the 5th of February at the age of 86. Disappointingly, few of us will have much of a reaction to that news.
Having created some of the lushest and most interestingly complex music released in the late 60s and 70s (from albums he produced to his own solo records), there are not many corners of music that Axelrod didn’t touch upon. It’s likely that many people will have inadvertently heard some of his songs as they have been plundered by early 90s samplers, from De La Soul via the Beatnuts, through to Madlib and Lil Wayne.
I first came across him somewhat by accident. I had heard murmurings of the name during a phase of my life spent listening to what can only be described as ‘frightening freakbeat’ – particularly when exploring one of the more underrated groups of the 60s, the Electric Prunes. Whilst researching an undergrad essay on the music of Serge Gainsbourg, I read an article in which he was dubbed ‘the French David Axelrod’. I immediately looked him up, and that is when I first heard Song of Innocence.
David Axelrod had spent the 60s producing records for a plethora of musicians, varying from hard-bop saxophonist Cannonball Adderly to actress and singer Donna Loren, but it was only in 1968, having produced, arranged and recorded two records for the Electric Prunes (the 2nd of which, Release of an Oath, didn’t actually feature any members of the Electric Prunes), that he decided to go about making his own record.
The Electric Prunes projects were both praised and criticised for catering to a new breed of sophisticated record listener, as the studio experiments of George Martin and Brian Wilson were, and so this led Axelrod to capitalise on this new experimental climate of popular music. Using the paintings and poetry of visionary Romantic William Blake as his touchstone, Axelrod conceived the initial concept whilst working on the Prunes’ records, and composed the music to the instrumental album in just a week. Gathering members of the infamous Wrecking Crew including the legendary Carol Kaye on bass and Earl Palmer on drums, along with a 33-piece orchestra, he began recording in mid-1968.
Song of Innocence is quite unlike anything I’ve heard before, yet also sounds like so many things. Loosely described as a jazz fusion album (a term apparently coined on the album’s release), it also incorporates funk, rock, theatre and pop stylings. Critics at the time described it as jazz-rock, baroque pop, psychedelic R&B and art pop – it certainly covers all those genres, yet also sounds nothing like them. It could almost be described as ‘orchestral rock’ but I feel that limits what it really is. There are hard rock guitar solos (as heard in standout track ‘Holy Thursday’), quasi-reverential organ lines, melodramatic string parts, pronounced breakbeats and intricate bass-lines. And it runs for less than half an hour. Quite a remarkable feat to squeeze all of that into just 26 minutes.
All the tracks take the name of a different Blake poem. The poems themselves discuss visions, religious iniquity and rite of passage. Opening with ‘Urizen’, we are immediately introduced to sustained chords similar to those theorised by Lukas Foss, syncopated with various sound effects and reverb-drenched guitar stabs. All this is underpinned by a supple and rumbling bass-line supplied by Kaye. This leads on to what the DJ duo Kon & Amir described as the greatest hip-hop sample ever, ‘Holy Thursday’.
Opening with a soft piano line, it drops into a slow, jazzy groove with another rumbling line from Kaye. It slowly crescendos in and out, with a big band vamp played by a string section creeping in and out. The response from the brass section and guitars to this slow, melodic groove is to build a dramatic tension, with high-pitched overtones set to complex melodies. This song made me realise why Gainsbourg was described as the French Axelrod – it’s lush strings and slow, steady groove could have easily been lifted from his magnificent record, Histoire de Melody Nelson.
The next track, ‘The Smile’, introduces a harpsichord into the mix, with a very solid, rhythmic drum beat colliding with a progressive sounding string part and thrown off kilter with an offbeat bass-line. This marks a change in the general tone of the record, as it slowly becomes more psychedelic, with gritty guitars and heady but disorientating organ licks. It has been said that the album was heavily inspired by Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and with mid-album tracks like ‘A Dream’, the title track ‘Song of Innocence’ and ‘Merlin’s Prophecy’ this is clearly evident from the various sound effects, electric piano embellishments, the intricate bass-lines that pepper this album and some surprising use of the grandfather of the delay effect, the mighty Echoplex.
The album closes on ‘The Mental Traveller’ which touches, rather sheepishly, upon notions of atonality, and is a surprisingly poignant track as this album really is a voyage into the psyche of the 60s. It covers nearly every genre perfected during that decade, and seems almost like a monolith marking the end of the 60s with its fascinating collision of genres, styles and modes.
Released at the end of 1968, it was cooly received by both the public and the critics, with some describing it as pretentious and as ‘misterioso claptrap’. Some did think the album would be interesting enough to turn heads but it only sold 75,000 copies its first year.
Fast forward to the early 90s, and a new generation of musicians was being formed. Hip- hop was in its heyday, with producers digging across the globe for new samples to use. When hip-hop artists stumbled upon Song of Innocence, they found it had all the hallmarks of what MCs of the era wanted – string stabs accompanied by atmospheric and easy-to-borrow 4/4 beats. It was perfect for the burgeoning sampling scene. The Beatnuts are often credited as the first to sample ‘Holy Thursday’ on their 1994 track ‘Hit me with That’, and they were quickly followed by DJ Shadow (who used many of the piano motifs and choral themes from the whole album throughout his 1996 magnum opus, Endtroducing…..), UNKLE on their 1998 track ‘Rabbit in Your Headlights’ and Lil Wayne on ‘Dr Carter’. That’s not mentioning Joey BadA$$, Busta Rhymes, J Dilla, Pete Rock, Jurassic 5, Eminem, Cypress Hill, 50 Cent, Lootpack/Madlib, Sadat X and countless others.
I was shocked and saddened by the death of David Axelrod, and it seems an absolute travesty that his work hasn’t received the praise it deserves. Many producers and musicians are indebted to the remarkable work he produced throughout his lengthy career, and though some seem to think that Song of Innocence has the whiff of stale joss-sticks and patchouli-scented self-actualisation, the end result is something incredibly modern and forward-thinking. Go forth, and take the mental voyage.