Easter is just a few days away and I have just finished listening to Real Gone Music’s reissue of Rock Interpretations Of Handel’s Messiah, sometimes referred to as Rock Messiah, by David Axelrod. I’m sure it was not what George Frideric Handel had in mind when he composed the oratorio back in 1741.
Axelrod had one of the more interesting careers in American music. He learned his craft as a producer/arranger with the Capital label during the first half of the 1960s. He worked with such artists as Cannonball Adderley, Lou Rawls, and even David McCallum. As a solo artist he issued two albums devoted to the poetry and paintings of William Blake. He the moved on to write and produce an album by The Electric Prunes titled Mass In F Minor, which fused a Catholic mass with psychedelic rock. It remains one of the forgotten musical pleasures of the late 1960s.
During 1971 he was ready to create his grand opus. He translated Handel’s Messiah into a contemporary setting. There were adjusted lyrics, as well as an orchestra conducted by Cannonball Adderley. It was a little less psychedelic than his work with the Electric Prunes as it was a hodgepodge of styles that combined a funk rhythm section, jazz, electric piano, and some restrained guitar work (and yes, it did rock out in places). All of it was backed by the 30-piece orchestra.
Adding to the album’s allure were the lyrics and vocals. The lead vocals on “Behold A Virgin Shall Conceive” and “Comfort Ye My People” are passionate and powerful, which makes it unfortunate that the singers involved were never named. I could have done without the recitation of “And The Angel Said Unto Them,” but the chorus' work on a number of the tracks enhances the music.
At the time of its release, it achieved little commercial success and quickly disappeared. It's now back with new liner notes and a crystal clear sound which resurrects Axelrod’s Messiah in all its funky, soaring, jazzy, and rock rhythm glory. It may not be an essential album of its era, but it remains a nice and eclectic detour to the outer edges of rock music.