Song of Innocence
|Song of Innocence|
|Studio album by David Axelrod|
|Recorded||1968; Capitol Studios, Los Angeles|
|Genre||Jazz fusion, baroque pop, psychedelic R&B|
|David Axelrod chronology|
Song of Innocence is the debut album of American composer and producer David Axelrod, released in October 1968 on Capitol Records. Axelrod sought to capitalize on the experimental climate of popular music at the time and composed the album as a suite-like tone poem based on Songs of Innocence, a 1789 illustrated collection of poems by William Blake. It was recorded at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles with an orchestra and studio musicians, including keyboardist and conductor Don Randi, guitarist Al Casey, bassist Carol Kaye, and drummer Earl Palmer.
Song of Innocence is an instrumental jazz fusion album that incorporates elements of classical, rock, funk, pop, and theatre music. It is arranged for bass, drums, and string instruments, and is written in the rock idiom, with tempos centered around rock-based patterns by Palmer. Axelrod used contrast in his orchestral compositions and interspersed the album's euphoric psychedelic R&B form with dramatic, harrowing arrangements to reflect the supernatural themes found in Blake's poems. The music's reverent, psychedelic overtones evoke their themes of innocence and spirituality.
Although it was innovative for its application of rock and jazz techniques, Song of Innocence was not commercially successful and confounded contemporary music critics, who viewed it as an ambitious curiosity piece. In the 1990s, critics reassessed the album and regarded it as a classic, while leading disc jockeys in hip hop and electronica rediscovered and sampled the album's music. "Holy Thursday", the album's best-known song, was frequently sampled by hip hop producers. The renewed interest in Axelrod's work prompted Stateside Records to reissue Song of Innocence in 2000.
In 1968, David Axelrod gained national fame for his controversial mass composition Mass in F Minor, which he wrote in a contemporary rock vein for the Electric Prunes. Axelrod, who was challenged by what he described as a "new breed of record buyer" who is "more sophisticated in his thinking", was one of several Los Angeles-based musical eccentrics during the late 1960s who expanded on the mid-1960s studio experiments of Brian Wilson and George Martin. After his success with the Electric Prunes, he was asked to record a similar album by Capitol Records, for whom he worked as a staff producer and songwriter. Axelrod wanted to further capitalize on the experimental climate of popular music at the time and chose to adapt works by English poet William Blake on an album.
At the time, Blake musical settings were at the height of their popularity among musicians and composers. Numerous serious music composers had set his poems to music since the 1870s, and the practice was eventually adapted in other musical fields during the 20th century, including popular music, musical theatre, and the 1960s folk idiom. Axelrod, a self-professed "Blake freak", had been fascinated by Blake's painting and poetry since his late teens, and frequently read the poems as an adult. He conceived Song of Innocence after he had bought an edition of Blake's complete poetry while working in Capitol's art department, and considered the concept for a few years before Mass in F Minor. Axelrod was not sociable with colleagues, such as record executives who could have helped him professionally, and felt that he could identify with Blake; he considered the poet "very bad at making new friends."
Axelrod composed Song of Innocence in one week, and began recording in mid-1968. Axelrod recorded the album at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles, and enlisted his close-knit group of veteran studio musicians, including keyboardist and conductor Don Randi, guitarist Al Casey, bassist Carol Kaye, and drummer Earl Palmer. He had worked with them when producing sessions for other recording artists. Axelrod also worked with violinist Harry Bluestone.
Axelrod did not play an instrument on the album; he wrote arrangements for his orchestra, and utilized 33 players to perform his notated charts. He had learned how to read and orchestrate complex music charts from jazz musicians during the 1950s. Randi conducted the orchestra and played both piano and organ on the album. Axelrod preferred listening to a session from a recording booth like his contemporary Igor Stravinsky and explained in an interview for the Los Angeles Times, "That way the sounds don't seem to go all over the place; music seems so small in a studio." Axelrod originally wanted some of the album's compositions to feature a large-scale choir, but was uncertain if he could find the appropriate ensemble. As a result, he recorded an entirely instrumental album and included one Blake setting for each section of the score.
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A jazz fusion album, Song of Innocence fuses jazz elements with impressionistic musical figures and hard rock guitar solos. Its music also incorporates funk, rock, theatre, and pop styles. Music journalists categorized the album as jazz-rock, baroque pop, and psychedelic R&B. John Murph of JazzTimes found it "more art pop than jazz". Axelrod, who had produced bebop albums before working for Capitol, asserted that jazz played a crucial role in the music: "For years, all I did was jazz. When I first got in the record business, I was so into jazz that I had never heard Elvis Presley. I still probably listen to jazz more than anything else."
The album is a tone poem suite based on Blake's illustrated 1789 collection Songs of Innocence. The songs borrow titles from Blake's poems, which dealt with themes such as visions, religious iniquity, rite of passage, and life experience after a person's birth and innocence. Mary Campbell of The Baltimore Sun felt that the elements of classical and Christian church music on the album make it sound "reverent, as if describing a biblical story." Les Inrockuptibles described it as a "psyche-liturgical" work dedicated to Blake. Thom Jurek of Allmusic wrote that "Axelrod's psychedelia" is implied in the musical form and feeling, which "drive him to celebrate the wildness and folly of youth with celebration and verve."
The album is arranged for bass, drums, and strings, and is written in the rock idiom. As a composer, Axelrod eschewed the conventional unison approach to orchestral writing and developed more contrasts, while centering his tempos around rock-based patterns played by Earl Palmer. Most of the drumming has a 4
4 time signature. Axelrod's instrumental ensemble is utilized as a rock orchestra. They play melodramatic strings, which are tied to strong, echo-laden breakbeats. The music is also embellished with abundant electric piano, intricate raw basslines, and Echoplex effects. Axelrod used elements of suspense to reflect the supernatural themes found in Blake's poems. According to music journalist David N. Howard, the album's "euphorically" upbeat psychedelic R&B form is interspersed by "dramatically sparse" and "harrowing" arrangements.
Song of Innocence uses key musical phrases that are expanded upon as the album progresses. Axelrod was interested in György Ligeti's 1961 piece Atmosphères and Lukas Foss' idea of starting a piece with a sustained chord, having musicians improvise over 100 bars, and ending with another chord as they finish. "Urizen" opens the album with long sustained chords, sound effects, reverbed guitar stabs, and a supple bassline. On "Holy Thursday", the rhythm section plays a slow, jazzed-out groove and bluesy bop piano lines, as a big band vamp is played by a large-scale string section. In response to their swing style, the brass section and guitarists play dramatic, high-pitched overtones built around a complex melody. The middle of the album is typified by more traditional jazz passages and the presence of a psychedelic harpsichord. "The Smile" has hyperactive drums, offbeat bass, and a progressive string part. The songs near the end steadily transition to heady psychedelia and abound in gritty guitars and disorienting organ licks. For "The Mental Traveler", Axelrod said that he tried to experiment with atonality, but "chickened out".
Release and reception
Song of Innocence was released in October 1968 by Capitol Records. It received radio exposure on both AM and FM stations with songs such as the title track and "Holy Thursday", which became the album's best-known song. The album was not a commercial success, and by October 1969, had only sold 75,000 copies.
Song of Innocence confounded contemporary music critics, who regarded it as an ambitious novelty. Billboard called it "an aesthetic mix of music and philosophy ... chock full of mysticism, creativity, and change", and felt that Axelrod's "musical idyll" is "compelling enough to influence the charts." Alasdair Clayre of Gramophone wrote that his impressions of Blake "reveal a depth of imagination and skill warranting attention beyond the confines of pop music", proving Axelrod is "an accomplished and original composer for a concert-size orchestra", which he felt comprised the best of California's studio musicians. However, Clayre questioned whether the "occasional guitar gobbling" reflected Axelrod's genuine ideas or "an obligatory concession to contemporary sound" on an otherwise "captivating" album. The magazine's Nigel Hunter said that the songs were "of absorbing power and depth", and "did not grate in any way with the exception of the amplified guitar."
In a negative review, Nat Freedland of Entertainment World criticized Axelrod for "indulging himself here to little avail." Paul Kresh of Stereo Review panned the album as a pretentious, "meager musical meal" filled out by movie music tricks, including an outdated "recourse to showy orchestration and forced climaxes". Kresh asserted that it falls severely short of the concept Axelrod aspired to and that "only the most uneducated will be taken in by the mountains of misterioso claptrap that surround these squeaking musical mice."
Song of Innocence was one of many concept albums recorded as rock music was developing in various directions during the late 1960s, following in the wake of the Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was innovative for its original application of both rock and jazz techniques. Axelrod followed the album up in 1969 with the similarly Blake-inspired Songs of Experience, which adapted Gunther Schuller's third stream concept to baroque orchestrations and rock, pop, and R&B rhythms and melodies. Both albums established him as an unpredictable, challenging conceptual artist. His instrumental interpretations of Blake were the first in jazz, and were followed by Rafał Augustyn's Niewinnosc (1971), Adrian Mitchell's 1971 musical Tyger: A Celebration of William Blake with composer Mike Westbrook, and Westbrook's subsequent Blake-inspired works, including The Westbrook Blake: "Bright as Fire" (1980).
During the late 1990s, Axelrod's albums were reassessed and considered innovative by critics, including Song of Innocence, which was regarded as a classic. NME called it "sky-kissingly high and divine", and found Axelrod versatile enough to "soar above his own pretensions." Mojo cited it as "the heart of Axelrod's legacy." John Bush of Allmusic wrote that it "sounded like nothing else from its era," and Thom Jurek viewed that the music continues to sound new upon each listen due to a lack of "cynicism and hipper-than-thou posturing". In a four-and-a-half star review of the album, Jurek wrote that, although it was a "visionary work in 1968", it "withstands the test of time better than the Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album that allegedly inspired it." Tiny Mix Tapes, which gave it a perfect score, called Song of Innocence a "richly engrossing", "diverse and opulent experience", and cited it as "one of the most volatile" musical fusions and also "one of the most unique and thought provoking musical efforts of the last several decades."
Axelrod's music was rediscovered and sampled by leading disc jockeys in the 1990s, including hip hop producers. When sampling in hip hop peaked during the early and mid-1990s, they searched for archived records with atmospheric beats and strings to sample. Los Angeles-based disc jockey B+ recalled finding a copy of the album at a Goodwill in Culver City and said that it appealed to him because of its dissonant quality, musical dynamics, and string sound: "This big sound. It was like somehow [Axelrod] was summoning the future, that you can project this environment, this moment into the future." Electronica pioneers such as DJ Cam and DJ Shadow also sampled Song of Innocence. The latter sampled the album's choral themes and piano motifs on his influential debut album Endtroducing..... (1996). Music critic Piero Scaruffi said that Song of Innocence's "dark, depressed ambience predated trip-hop" and that Axelrod's integration of funk breakbeats, orchestral arrangements, and psychedelic melodies foreshadowed the dance music of the late 1990s.
The renewed interest in Axelrod's work prompted Stateside Records to reissue Song of Innocence in 2000. Upon its reissue, Now wrote that, after seeming "wacky" during the 1960s, the songs are "a sampler's dream come true – who knew?" David Keenan of The Wire attributed Axelrod's sampling legacy with producers such as DJ Premier and DJ Shadow to "the original badass drummer, Earl Palmer, [who] played on all of these tracks." He facetiously critiqued that the album's songs "may reek of stale joss sticks and patchouli-scented self-actualisation, but in their very datedness they somehow sound very modern." Pitchfork Media's Sean Fennessey felt that Axelrod's first two albums are "essential if only as a tour guide through early 90s hip-hop", having "literally been a rap producer's delight for years." "The Smile" was sampled by Pete Rock on his 1998 song "Strange Fruit". "Holy Thursday" was frequently sampled by producers, including The Beatnuts on their 1994 song "Hit Me with That", UNKLE on their 1998 song "Rabbit in Your Headlights", and Swizz Beatz on Lil Wayne's 2008 song "Dr. Carter". In a 2013 list for Complex magazine, DJ and production duo Kon and Amir named "Holy Thursday" the greatest hip hop sample of all time.
|5.||"Song of Innocence"||4:32|
|7.||"The Mental Traveler"||4:03|
Credits are adapted from the album's liner notes.
|United States||October 1968||Capitol Records||stereo LP||ST-2982|
|United States||1975||stereo LP reissue||ST-11362|
|United Kingdom||2000||Stateside Records, EMI||CD reissue||5 21588|
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