Originally released in April 1968, David Axelrod’s debut album receives another reissue, but this time on Egon’s Now-Again Records based in Los Angeles. An under performing curiosity at the time, ‘Song of Innocence’ is now heralded by many as an essential classic and has been an in demand record since the early 1990s when record collectors, DJs and sample based hip hop producers began searching for less obvious sounds to augment their expanding record collections.
‘Song of Innocence’ is a 7-track suite inspired by the 1789 illustrated collection of poems of the same name by English poet William Blake. Recorded the same year as Miles Davis’ ‘Filles de Kilimanjaro, Rotary Connection’s ‘Aladdin’ and Dorothy Ashby’s ‘Afro-Harping’, the musical and cultural climate in the US in mid and late 1960s revealed a degree of openness to experimentation and creativity with almost a disregard for commercial achievement, even records released on large record labels like this on Capitol Records. Axelrod, who at the time was a staff arranger and producer for Capitol, had previously worked with Lou Rawls and ‘Cannonball’ Adderley before producing garage rock group The Electric Prunes and their albums ‘Mass In F Minor’ and ‘Release of an Oath’ both in 1968. These two albums combined rock sensibilities with classical music elements, an avenue Axelrod would futher explore with his following work including with ‘Song of Innocence’.
The album begins with ‘Urizen’, a blend of 60s funk, soaring string arrangements and electric guitar pulses with additional church organ chops. The most well-known piece, ‘Holy Thursday’, is a deeply rich and textured composition featuring the breakbeat drumming of Earl Palmer, effective melodic vibraphone patterns, psychedelic electric guitar and highly evolved string orchestrations. In a 2013 list complied by Complex the US based media outlet, DJ and producers Kon and Amir proclaimed ‘Holy Thursday’ to be the ‘greatest hip hop sample of all time’. This template of exploiting contrasting musical elements of layered jazz, baroque rock, psychedelica and classical music is applied throughout the album and provides the listener with dense cinematic soundscapes and dynamic arrangements, which does yield a soundtrack quality including the use of repeated motifs throughout the record.
Axelrod didn’t actually play on any of the compositions as all performances were completed by high-end LA-based session musicians – now known colloquially as The Wrecking Crew. This group of musicians included celebrated bass player Carol Kaye, the aforementioned drummer Earl Palmer, guitarist Howard Roberts and pianist Don Randi, who also conducted the orchestra. Axelrod went on to further explore a more Third Stream methodology with his subsequent albums, maintaining a conceptual approach to composing and arranging throughout his career, with his follow up, ‘Songs of Experience’ (1969) also inspired by the work of William Blake.
Reports of several vinyl copies of the reissue being of less than high quality have been documented; yet others have additionally stated the opposite. ‘Song of Innocence’ has been reissued previously and it’s a pity that there has not been any unreleased material yet discovered from these sessions. And for such an epic and iconic album it’s remarkably that is has a very short running time of only 27 minutes. But for many ‘Song of Innocence’ is considered a masterpiece. Multi-layered, absorbing and original, it began a procession of albums from Axelrod that may not have been revered at the time of their release, but would later become highly regarded and celebrated.
And furthermore, I would wholly recommend ‘The Wrecking Crew’, a 2015 documentary from Magnolia Pictures regarding the LA based session musicians who performed on hundreds of recordings in the 1960s and ‘70s, often uncredited, including on many of the Axelrod albums.