David Axelrod; Songs of Innocence and Experience

David Axelrod; Songs of Innocence and Experience

A good few years ago there was a huge resurgence of the vinyl record. DJ Shadow had shown with his seminal ’95 album Endtroducing… that anything from psychedelic rock to avant guarde electronica could form the basis of a quality hip-hop record, and as turntables outstripped guitars in instrument sales, Ebay was awash with Lp’s and 45’s new and old for the avid collectors and would-be producers.

A Producer’s Favourite

Web sites such as the-breaks.com helped to compile a catalogue of the dusty vinyl which hip-hop’s favourite sons had plundered in search of a break, and internet forums eulogised and mythologized obscure records which were virtually unobtainable except through purchasing the original recording.

No one has benefitted more from this musical archaeology than David Axelrod, a composer with a taste for pretentious concepts, theatrical orchestration and supremely funky rhythm sections. His music is up there with James Brown as being one of the most sampled. Ever wondered where the swelling horns on Dr Dre’s “Next Episode” came from? Have a listen to Axelrod’s “The Edge” originally written by him for “Man from U.N.C.L.E” star David McCallum.

There have been at least three Axelrod retrospective compilations, mainly culling tracks from his heyday at Capitol Records in the late sixties. In 2001 he made a welcome return to music by releasing his first album for many years on James Lavelle’s Mo’ Wax label. Add to this the appearance of his music on Grand Theft Auto IV, and that “The Human Abstract” ranked 151 in Pitchfork’s top 200 songs of the sixties, and you have an artist whose musical credibility and standing have been firmly cemented.

Songs of Innocence and Experience

Though he was actively making albums up till the early 80’s, his first two albums for Capitol are always considered his finest. His debut album Songs of Innocence (68) and its follow up Songs of Experience (68) perfectly blended the classical, jazz, rock and funk which influenced Axelrod as a composer.

The albums are based upon seventeenth century English painter and poet William Blake’s own two volumes Songs of Innocence and Experience. After psychedelising the Latin Mass for the Electric Prunes and using a Jewish spiritual text as the basis for another Prunes album Release of an Oath (though there were none of the original Electric Prunes on the record), what better way for Axelrod to continue to explore religion by drawing upon Blake’s own mysticism.

The Drumming of Earl Palmer

Given the gravity of the subject matter one could be forgiven for thinking that both albums would be learning towards the avant guarde, but in truth the compositions are set in pop and funk structures. All the seven tracks on Innocence are variations on a simple, almost naïve melodic theme. But the success of these two records owes a great deal to the immaculate drumming of the late Earl Palmer.

On Songs of Innocence Palmer is joined by session guitarist Howard Roberts and by the brilliant bassist Carol Kaye, but it is Palmer who steels the show. Just listen to how Carol Kaye’s bass duels with Palmer’s steady breakbeat for “Holy Thursday”, holding down the warm piano chords as well as keyboard, vibraphone and guitar solos. Or the beat on “The Smile” which urges Howard Robert’s guitar to ride the sweeping sixties groove with a beautifully impassioned and understated improvisation.

Similarly on Songs of Experience the drumming is again to the fore with Palmer’s lazy break steering the melancholic bottomless piano line of “The Human Abstract” to its theatrical crescendo. On “The Divine Image” the snare hits, sounding as strong and crisp as any recorded, perfectly blends with the sinister bass line swathed in menacing, prowling strings. Its proto trip-hop, 30 years before Massive Attack even plugged in a sampler.

Earl Palmer sadly passed away earlier this year, but as the interest in these two albums continues to grow so too does the acknowledgement of the part he played on these seminal recordings. Songs of Innocence and Experience not only preserves Axelrod’s musical legacy but also preserves the reputations of those that contributed to the realisation of his concept.