the producers to make a mark on the world of jazz and rock in the 1960s
and 1970s, David Axelrod had one of the most unusual career paths.
Gaining his first notable credits on late-1950s jazz albums, by the
mid-1960s he'd combined jazz, soul, and pop as the producer of hit
recordings by Lou Rawls and Cannonball Adderley. Given the freedom to
create records under his own name, Axelrod was behind some of the most
ambitious concept albums of the late 1960s and early 1970s, marrying
psychedelic rock, orchestrated arrangements, soul, and funk in
adaptations of classic literary, religious, and musical works. One of
the most audacious of these was issued on RCA in late 1971 as David Axelrod's Rock Interpretation of
Handel's Messiah, referred to from this point onward as Messiah for short.
Rock albums with
religious themes were somewhat in vogue around this time. Jesus Christ Superstar reached #1
earlier in the year, and Godspell
would go gold not long after that, entering the Top Forty in 1972.
Axelrod, however, was not jumping on a bandwagon, and indeed was a
pioneer of the approach, his first efforts along those lines dating
back about four years before Messiah's
release. He arranged and wrote the material on the Electric Prunes'
third album, Mass in F Minor
(released at the end of 1967), which combined psychedelic rock music
and religious themes with classically-oriented horns and strings on
tracks sung entirely in Latin. With a different lineup of Electric
Prunes, he also composed and arranged their 1968 album Release of an Oath, based on the
Kol Nidre, the sacred Jewish prayer recited on the eye of Yom Kippur.
By that time, it could be argued that the band's LPs were more Axelrod
records than Electric Prunes ones, though their association with David
ended after Release of an Oath.
By that time, however, Axelrod was releasing albums in a similar mold under his own name. In 1968, his Song of Innocence took its inspiration from poems by William Blake. So, naturally enough, did its 1969 follow-up, Songs of Experience. These weren't whimsical attempts by Axelrod or Capitol Records to exploit mysticism in the hippie culture, but an expression of an interest that he'd harbored for quite a few years. "If I went to somebody today and told them I wanted to do an album of tone poems to William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, they'd throw me out," he told MOJO in 2001. "First question – how much? In the '60s those questions weren't asked. I'd got involved with Blake in my early twenties, reading the poems over and over. I composed the album in a week."
Axelrod's final album for Capitol, 1970's environmentally-themed Earth Rot, used (according to a review in Circus) words "from The Old Testament (particularly Genesis and Isaiah) and from a Navajo legend-poem, 'Song of the Earth Spirit.'" Interestingly, the review also opined that "some of it sounds like Handel's Messiah or a Bach fugue." Axelrod would take on Handel's Messiah for real on his next album, moving to another major label, RCA.
"Sometime in the 1960s I got a nice letter sent to me at Capitol from a young guy named Ron Budnik," explained Axelrod in an interview with Richard Morton Jack. "He wanted a career in the music industry, and wondered if I could give him some advice. I had my secretary schedule an appointment, and we talked. He was knocked out, because no one else he'd written to had replied. By 1971 Ron was working at RCA, and contacted me to ask whether I would be interested in recording the Messiah for them. I said, you bet I would!"
Added Axelrod, "But I knew from the start it was going to be both different and difficult. I worked out arrangements for the sections I wanted to include, and used the usual session players - Carol Kaye on bass, Mike Deasy on guitar, and so on." Budnik was credited as producer, Axelrod taking the writing and arrangement credits. Conducting would be his good friend Cannonball Adderley, who as it happened cut an early fusion album titled Black Messiah around the same time, with Axelrod as producer. Recording engineer Peter Abbott had worked on Axelrod-produced LPs by Adderley and Lou Rawls, as well as rock releases by the Monkees, Fred Neil, and Michael Nesmith.
Axelrod could have hardly chosen a more revered classical work to interpret. Composed by George Frideric Handel as an oratorio in 1741, its text was drawn from the King James Bible and psalms included with the Book of Common Prayer. It had been performed for centuries, and recorded for decades, in countless forms. He likely wasn't worried about offending purists who thought Messiah had no business being modernized, telling Billboard in July 1971, "today you can get away with anything because people are so flexible." By that time, he added, college students had the patience to sit and "dig Mozart and Santana on the changer at the same time." It seemed safe to say that no one else had thought of doing a rock version of Messiah, though as it turned out, another would hit the market around the same time as Axelrod's.
Though some of his earlier recordings had been instrumental, as Messiah is very much a choral work, it made sense that vocals would be prominent in Axelrod's arrangements. Soul-gospel singing, whether choral or solo (as in "Behold a Virgin Shall Conceive," handled by a passionate uncredited woman vocalist, and "Comfort Ye My People," where the duties were given to a likewise uncredited male singer), was very much at the forefront of several tracks. While grand classical-style orchestration was present, there were also plenty of wah-wahing, distorted rock and funk guitar, bass, drums, and organ. There were also plenty of the funky "breakbeats" – the varied but steadily driving rhythms, especially on the drums – that made Axelrod a much beloved source of samples to future generations, kicking in after the first half-minute of the opening track, "And the Angel Said Unto Them." Isolate the brief drum solo about a minute into "Worthy Is the Lamb" for a sample, and few would guess it came from an adaptation of a famous classical work.
Those behind the album made their intentions clear on the LP sleeve. "The text of this work (by Charles Jennings) is the same as used by Handel in 1741 with slight modifications," wrote Axelrod. "Handel's melodies and counterpoint are so beautiful that it was as much fun as work to borrow and alter (or probably to some, mess up) for my interpretation. Hallelujah!" Chipped in Ron Budnik: "On this album is the work of George Frideric Handel, as interpreted by David Axelrod, an artist of this century who shares the same bold, energetic sense of pride as the great composers of the past. Until now an attempt to condense and modify this classic work on a contemporary level has been avoided, probably because of its prominence and singular distinction. It is hoped that Axelrod's work will bring to light and punctuate the creative acumen of Handel in what is considered his finest – the MESSIAH."
Noted Axelrod in his interview with Richard Morton Jack, "I thought it was an interesting piece, but when it was released, I was dismayed to see that they had printed my name far bigger and more prominently than Handel's on the front cover. Oh, god, did I suffer for that! Reviewers had their knives sharpened from the moment they saw it. People forget that once something's recorded, the artist ceases to have an input. I enjoyed the music, though." Phyl Garland was indeed savage when reviewing the album for Ebony: "Handel's bulky corpse must have turned over in its grave when they came up with this one, especially when they got to fooling around with his famous Hallelujah Chorus. The whole thing just seems so unnecessary."
A more straightforward assessment by Martin Bernheimer of The Los Angeles Times found the LP "relatively straight and square, as much concerned with Handel and jazz and the gospel tradition as it is with blatant rock...in several numbers Axelrod uses only a Handelian motive [sic] for extended 'original' elaboration." Stated Axelrod to Bernheimer, "I didn't want any of that bubblegum stuff," adding that it was essentially a matter of "making Handel more accessible."
Coincidentally, another rock adaptation of excerpts from Messiah, with only four duplications, appeared around the same time on a different label, conducted and arranged by Andy Belling. Described by Bernheimer as "essentially loud and funky, from start to finish," the almost simultaneous release of the two albums no doubt hurt the commercial prospects of each one. Owing to the mushrooming popularity of Axelrod's work several decades down the line, however, it is his Messiah that's remembered today, at least when it comes to rock interpretations of Handel's oratorio. – Richie Unterberger
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