David Axelrod: David Axelrod’s Rock Interpretation of Handel’s Messiah

1971 rock orchestrations of Handel’s Messiah

Producer/arranger David Axelrod’s rock interpretation of Handel’s Messiah has twin histories. Originally released in 1971, it was part of a stream of God rock that included Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell and popular hits like “Spirit in the Sky,” “One Toke Over the Line” and “Jesus is Just Alright.” But as part of Axelrod’s personal oeuvre, it also followed in the footsteps of his literary and social-themed works of the late ’60s and his 1968 albums with (or perhaps, “as”) the Electric Prunes, Mass in F Minor and Release of an Oath. Taken in the retrospective stride of his full career, the album now feels less tethered to its 1971 theatrical contemporaries than to Axelrod’s long-running exploration of concept albums, jazz, soul and rock orchestration.

All four of those influences are heard here, with string arrangements that are as much Chicago soul as philharmonic concert hall, and full-kit drumming and fuzz guitars that reach back to his earlier experiments with psychedelia. The album was recorded with key Los Angeles sessions players, such as Carol Kaye, and features a 38-piece orchestra conducted by jazz legend (and Axelrod collaborator) Cannonball Adderley. Axelrod astutely observed that by 1971, rock music had developed album-oriented fans whose attention span was longer than the two-minutes-forty of AM radio hits, and that FM radio had developed listeners whose tastes spanned beyond pop music.

In contrast to his earlier instrumental work, and in deference to the piece being an oratorio, Axelrod arranged this with vocals, though sung in shades of soul and gospel that befit the era and arrangements, rather than with classical choruses. Axelrod interlaces electrically-orchestrated pieces with more strictly symphonic arrangements, such as “Pastoral Symphony,” lending the finished work the imprimatur of both rock and classical music. The set’s uncredited stars are its recitative leads, whose lead vocals give soul power to “And the Glory of the Lord,” “Behold” and “And the Angel Said Unto Them.”

There are moments of EL&P-like prog-rock, but the album’s bombast is mostly contained to the keystone “Hallelujah,” on which the backing gospel chorus melds with the familiar melody into a stagey declaration.  The closing “Worthy is the Lamb” brings the tone back on course. Real Gone’s reissue includes the album’s original nine tracks and no bonuses, housed in a gatefold mini-LP sleeve and featuring a six-page booklet with notes by Ritchie Unterberger. This is likely to be of interest primarily to Axelrod’s fans, though those interested in the early ‘70s God Rock phenomenon (and those who’ve enjoyed Andy Belling’s 1972 New Messiah or the more recent Messiah Rocks) should also find time for this one. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

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