Songs of Innocence and Experience: The Tone Poems of David Axelrod and William Blake

Left, David Axelrod from www.davidaxelrod.com; Right, William Blake portrait by Thomas Phillips, 1807.

Los Angeles-born composer and music producer, David Axelrod is a bridge between Dr. Dre and original Romantic poet, William Blake. Axelrod's irresistible drum breaks and sonic wizardry began in the 1950s culminating with his masterful era at Capitol Records a decade later. Axelrod created an extensive catalog of songs that remain sacred to DJs, vinyl archaeologists and music lovers.

Son of a labor activist, Axelrod grew up working class in Los Angeles around Jefferson Boulevard and Crenshaw Boulevard. Born in 1936, he graduated from Dorsey High School and earned his graduate degree in the nightclubs of Central Avenue. He was briefly a boxer before finding early success as both a record promoter and musician. Mentors like Gerald Wiggins plugged him into the jazz and R&B scenes on Central Avenue and throughout the city. His first hits were in the late fifties. By the late sixties he was prolific at Capitol, with his fingerprints on a dozen projects: records with Cannonball Adderley, Lou Rawls, David McCallum, the Electric Prunes and three solo albums.

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Songs of Innocence
Songs of Innocence

In 1968 after several years of success at Capitol, Axelrod recorded his first two solo albums. Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience were musical interpretations of William Blake's tandem suites of poetry, from which the titles were taken. Veteran photographer/record collector Brian Cross, a.k.a. B+, says, "The first time I became aware of the music of David Axelrod, I found a copy of his legendary "Songs of Innocence." I brought it home anxious to see if in fact the murmuring I had heard within the hip-hop community about the blazing breaks and huge orchestral sweeps were true. Listening to the record overwhelmed me. I thought, how could somebody be making hip-hop instrumentals about William Blake in 1968?" Cross discovered Axelrod in the early 90s, around the same time his friend DJ Shadow sampled him. Axelrod's catalog is one of the most sampled discographies ever -- more on this later.

The poetry of William Blake is the best lens to discuss the music of Axelrod. Blake's work from the 1780s through 1800 predated other Romantic figures like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Lord Byron. He was never accepted in the literary canon like the writers mentioned above during his own time, though his legend has grown considerably over the years.

Cover of the original 'Songs of Innocence and Experience' from 1789, printed by Blake himself
Cover of the original 'Songs of Innocence and Experience' from 1789, printed by Blake himself

Blake's poetry explores the nuances of man's two sides; Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience especially address rite of passage and life's ever changing perspectives. The poems begin with birth and innocence, and pontificate on the many facets of the journey towards experience. Axelrod's compositions reflect intricate understanding of Blake's poetry. To read Blake's verse and hear Axelrod's corresponding tone poems simultaneously gives new meaning to both. Blake's poetry becomes a code to know Axelrod, and vice-versa.

William Blake was also a painter, engraver, radical, and mystic. Axelrod's interpretations use suspense to reflect the supernatural mojo of Blake's poetry. Huge orchestral sweeps match Blake's explosive verse. Axelrod calls his interpretations: tone poems. His access to the best studio musicians, like bassist Carol Kaye, guitarist Howard Roberts, keyboardist Don Randi, and drummer Earl Palmer blessed the project from the start.

Axelrod chose fifteen Blake poems: seven for Songs of Innocence, eight for Songs of Experience. Blake's lines are never audible. Navigating the interplay between light and dark, Axelrod utilizes heavy strings, the harpsichord, guitar, bass, keyboards, at times even chamber music, for his intricate execution. British music writer David Howard in his book "Sonic Alchemy" writes, "Songs of Innocence's dramatically sparse arrangements played like an imaginary soundtrack to a Technicolor-soaked Italian gothic horror flick." Critics at the time called it "jazz-rock, baroque-pop." Others called it psychedelic R&B. Merging pop, rock, jazz and theater, it sounds more daring than ever almost 50 years later.

The title track of Songs of Innocence calls to the excitement of life ahead: A new day, a new life. Blake's verse reads:

'Piper, sit thee down and write
In a book that all may read.'
So he vanish'd from my sight,
And I pluck'd a hollow reed,

And I made a rural pen,
And I stain'd the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear.

With Songs of Experience, the cycle of poems addresses man's darker side. For "The Human Abstract," Axelrod uses escalating piano, bass and percussions to conjure Blake's ghost. On the track "London," Axelrod's tone poem is a musical oeuvre to the spirit of London during the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Blake's opening stanza captures the zeitgeist:

I wander thro' each charted'd street
Near where the chart'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In 1970 Axelrod released his third solo album on Capitol, Earth Rot. Addressing the environmental crisis, the record included a choir singing lyrics adapted from "Song of the Earth Spirit", a Navajo creation legend. The subtitle of the album was: "A Musical Comment on the State of the Environment." Earth Rot was released on Earth Day in 1970. The Kent State Massacre happened a few days before and universities across America closed for a few weeks. College bookstores that sold the album were closed as well, and Axelrod never regained the momentum lost. The album's sales were much smaller than his previous two records.

Axelrod met several times with Allen Ginsberg about a project. They talked about collaborating on an album of Blake and Ginsberg's poems. Life got in the way, and it was never made. Axelrod continued through the Seventies with albums like Heavy Axe, but he slowly pulled away from the music industry after the death of his son.

He wasn't able to stay away too long because producers in the 90s kept sampling him. He's in the elite company of James Brown, Roy Ayers, George Clinton and Donald Byrd -- among the most-sampled musicians. One of the first producers to sample Axelrod was DJ Shadow. By the late 90s Axelrod received royalty checks from Diamond D, Dr. Dre, Pete Rock, The Beatnuts, the Fugees, De La Soul and others.

Performing at the Royal Festival Hall. Photo from www.davidaxelrodmusic.com

Beat diggers have rediscovered the catalog of David Axelrod again and again. Mo Wax Records released a lost Axelrod recording in 2000. The self-titled David Axelrod was an album of previously unreleased tracks from his golden era, which Brian Cross had found over at Axe's house in the nineties. DJ Shadow and Radiohead did some remixes with Axelrod in 2000.

In 2004 Axelrod performed with an orchestra in London at the Royal Festival Hall. He conducted center-stage a 13-song set, mostly drawing from Songs of Innocence & Experience, bookended by covers of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, a nod to his Capitol label mates.

The London concert is one of Axelrod's few live performances ever. Brian Cross and Eric Coleman filmed the historic concert. Richard Ashcroft, lead singer of the Verve sang on "Holy Are You." The few times Axelrod steps to the microphone to address the crowd, he appears humbled but in control. He thanked Dr. Dre before they played "The Edge," joking that he originally hated sampling but grew to love it after receiving the royalties from Dr. Dre's track.

In 2007 Axelrod appeared at the Grauman's Egyptian Theater for the Los Angeles premiere of David Axelrod Live: Royal Festival Hall. The ninety-minute concert film screened to a capacity crowd. Axelrod was there, I sat a few rows ahead of him. Afterwards he came forward to answer questions from the audience. Eric Coleman introduced me to Axelrod. I gave him a copy of my book "I AM ALIVE IN LOS ANGELES!" I wrote my number in the book when I signed it.

A few days later, he called. I was in Venice and almost drove off the road when I answered to Axelrod. I had to pull over because I couldn't believe he called. He told me he liked my poems. We talked about driving around L.A., particularly around Jefferson Park. I called a week later and his wife told me he was unavailable. I really wanted to ride with him. I'm thankful for the few conversations we had. David Axelrod's musical catalog is a reservoir of sound and inspiration, I am grateful to have met the man.

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