Music Writing by Carson Arnold


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(from Songs of Experience; 1969, Ascension/EMI)

After some time I finally called up David Axelrod for an interview. Some of you may know his early work, while others are hearing his beats sampled in Dr Dre or DJ Shadow albums, after being rediscovered by the hip-hop genre during years of obscurity. Traveling back as a jazz scout in the fifties, he's produced the likes of Lou Rawls, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, the Electric Prunes, and is remembered for his two cool-whip Blake-orchestrations in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience in the late sixties. Composer, arranger, heavy-metal enthusiast, and L.A. native of Capitol Records, we talked about all these things at 10:30 in the morning at his North Hollywood apartment while preparing for an upcoming concert in London. Here's how it went down...


Carson Arnold: How are you doing?


David Axelrod: Terrible, I got the flu, but go ahead.


CA: The only albums I own of your's are Songs of Experience, Heavy Axe, the MoWax album and a few Electric Prunes things.


DA: You'll have to go to the store. You're in Vermont? Call, everything's been re-released. It's all on CD. Get Songs of Innocence, get Songs of Experience. Get two anthologies all from EMI.


CA: What are you working on now?


DA: I'm working on a concert on March 17th {2004} at Royal Festival Hall in London. It's pretty exciting. Both {old material and new stuff}.


CA: Things from The Requiem?


DA: I'd better...they'll kill me.


CA: Will there be new albums?


DA: Next year. There's gonna be an album out of this, of the concert. Two albums. I wouldn't mind, really, but it just seems those days are over. Companies don't like it.


CA: Your compositions?


DA: Well yeah, and then there will be some arrangements of some other people.


CA: Like who?


DA: Um...I'm gonna skip that. They don't know in London yet. {Asking about new material} Lately, I've been working on this concert for weeks. I have to do an hour and forty minutes worth of music. That's almost three CDs!


CA: Your track "The Little Children" reminded me a lot of Stravinsky's Cantatas.


DA: Igor? That's strange. I love Igor. I think, though, I was using more {Alban} Berg than I was Igor. Try and find a key in it. I mean, what key are we in?...I don't know either. Thing is, I've been going through tonal centers. Oh wait a minute, you're talking about the MoWax album?....Jesus. Listen, I just woke up and I'm sick as a dog, so bear with me, okay? Do you have ringing in your ears?


CA: More headaches, but it seems to be going away.


DA: You're lucky you're not in LA. I'm very serious, there's a virus here, because we're in the Pacific rim-- the gateway to the United States. And every virus that comes in from Asia hits LA so bad. I mean, I'm talking to you right now and getting all these chills-- I could have malaria. Of course my doctor, great buddy of many years, starts laughing. He goes, "How do you get malaria in LA, you idiot?" {Laughs} I don't know, but I have it. Where you gonna get malaria in North Hollywood?


CA: When I called you last time you had a flu, too.


DA: Whatever comes through here. There is no flu season in southern California, it's a year round situation.


CA: Do you play a lot of music so the neighbor's hear you?


DA: Well we have a work-room. We have a one-bedroom apartment, my wife and I, and downstairs I have a single apartment that I've turned into a work-room. I hate to call it a studio. Studio? What the fuck is that? It's a work-room, it's where I work. {Terri, my wife} is terrific. She's an angel.


CA: I was reading an article that Mojo did of you, where you said production wasn't an art. "I hate artists."


DA: That came up {Chuckling}...God. I never said that, it's not what I really meant, that it's not an art. I just don't like the term "art". I've never liked that term, I'm a musician. That's good enough for me. So many people are loved for being an "artiste". What the fuck is that?


CA: So what you, Phil Spector or Henry Mancini did wasn't art, it was just production?


DA: They're not artists either, don't you understand my point? They're workers, they work...I got so much shit for saying that it's unbelievable. Musicians that I know got very mad. "Why would you say something like that?" Of course it's art, for god sakes. I was just talking about the way certain people talk about "artistes" all the time.


CA: What do you think of sampling? You were you pretty much resurrected, maybe I don't wanna say that-


DA: That's a good term, though. Yeah, I feel like Lazarus myself, so why shouldn't you use it.


CA: Sure! So sampling-- you said "a machine can sound like the blues but it ain't the blues."


DA: That's right.


CA: So first of all, why would DJ Shadow or Dr Dre would choose you to represent their beats?


DA: Because I make good music, and they want good music. What they do with it, some people irritate me, but some people do it so well. I mean, I really wish I would've thought putting the intro behind where the orchestra first comes in the way Dre did on Next Episode. That was really hip.


CA: But what will happen in production when people can just sample one or two seconds? What's to hope to in producing?


DA: Well, I dunno, that would be subliminal. One second of music goes by so you don't really know if you're hearing it or feeling it. William Friedkin, the director, once admitted he throws in nine frames...Thirty-five millimeter film runs twenty-four frames a second. So what is nine frames? Are you really seeing it? {Laughs} If you say one minute that would be different. You wouldn't hear one second. You feel it.


CA: Somebody like Stan Brakhage.


DA: I don't know who that is.


CA: He took film and spliced it all up into different colors. Basically what John Cage did with music he did with film.


DA: I'm not hearing you well.


CA: (Must be my rotary phone. I'll speak louder.) With sampling, somebody like you who came up self-taught with classical music, now anybody can take a piece of music without knowing anything about music and sample just a beat.


DA: That's a bit of an irritant: The lack and knowledge of music in the entire industry. There are so few vice presidents of A & R today who know where middle C is, it's absurd. It's one of the things that's wrong with the industry. People just don't know music. And yet they're the hierarchy of their labels. How can you be the vice president of A & R and not know where the C chord is? That's crazy.


CA: Was it the same way back in 1968?


DA: No. When I was first interviewed at Capitol Records, the head of A & R was a man named Voyle Gilmore. There were so many musicians there it was unbelievable. Vole himself had been a drummer. As a matter of fact, he told me a story once that he use to go on the road with the Gum Sisters, which became Judy Garland, that was her original name. Poor Voyle, she use to call him. One day I went up to see him at his office and he looked like death eaten crackers, god he looked horrible. I said, "God, Voyle, you look terrible." He said, "I've been up all night. Judy called at about two-thirty and she kept me on until about five-thirty." And I just broke up laughing at that, because he had known her since she was a little kid. And whenever something was bad in her life, she'd call {him}. Point is, though, Voyle took out the score, the transposed score and he said, "Read me the chords, vertically." So I did. And he went, "Very good." Everybody on that floor knew music. Every producer was an arranger, and a good one.


CA: And now you're back in this new industry and still trying to produce good music within it.


DA: I'm going to. When I get to London, I check out of my hotel on the 18th, concert on the 17th, and I'm being picked up by a certain artist-- very big time artist-- and I'm going to stay at his place as a guest with he and his wife, and for two days we're gonna discuss his next album. He called me.


CA: And you can't say who that is?


DA: No.


CA: Not even a hint?


DA: Well, the reason why it'd be silly to do that, I'm not trying to be secretive or anything, he doesn't wanna it known.


CA: What producers do you admire today?


DA: Sure. I like Scott Walker. Scott Walker is great. And Dre is great. For godsakes, Dre is a great producer. And Diamond D. Diamond D did something, it was so hip, he took a track-- I think it was either from Songs of Innocence or Songs of Experience-- then he took a guitar from another track, on the same album. And where he put the guitar, it sounded so good. If they're creative, if they have the imagination, they can do anything, and it comes out right. {DJ} Shadow's the same way. Shadow's a great guy, Josh is a great friend. His wife is my manager.


CA: Do you think Dre and Shadow saw you as an obscurity and that's why they pulled you out?


DA: No, not at all. Josh has been mentioning me in interviews since '96. I think I met him in the year 2000. Might've been back in 1999, now that I think about it...It was, yeah. We had a mutual friend who is a great friend of his and became a great friend of mine, so this guy brought {Shadow} over.


CA: Are there any artists way back that you wanted to work with but never had the chance to?


DA: Well of course. I would've liked to have worked with Ray Charles. I would've liked to have worked with Aretha Franklin.


CA: What about disco?


DA: I didn't think a lot of it. Well, I liked KC and the Sunshine Band, they were good.


CA: There's a lot of unreleased stuff of yours during the 80's.


DA: Yeah, I made three albums and none of them have come out. I didn't get paid. They're great. They're with fly-by-night people and I have a bad habit of trusting people, and that trust turns to dust. It was all different, I keep getting different all the time. Like the next album's a lot different than the last one.


CA: On the last one, you took old Electric Prunes tracks-


DA: Well the Electric Prunes is a strange thing because those were studio musicians. {On the next one I'm} always going forward, always. {Youth} is what I'm dealing with anyway. They have a lot of albums. I went to London in 2001 to do a promotion thing, and that was an interview every half hour. Then we went to Paris, that was great, and again, an interview every half hour. Then back to London, then to Hamburg, Germany. We did sixteen interviews in eighteen hours in Hamburg, and music critics, journalists, whatever you wanna call 'em, flew in from all over Germany. Reason why we went to Hamburg is that's because it's the media center of Germany, all the headquarters are there.


CA: So how does your royalties work now? If Dre uses a sample of yours on his song, and it gets played on the radio, how's it work?


DA: Oh man, listen, it's been great. Dre's album sold eight, nine million copies or something like that, and you think I'm gonna complain? On that, I got fifty percent because he used all my music-- he just looped it...Knock on wood, it was very nice. I love Dre. I'm in love with Dre.


CA: You see him often?


DA: Nope. Now that I think of it, I've never even spoken to him.


CA: Don't you find that odd?


DA: Nope, nothing in this business is odd, because the business itself is odd. Just to be in it you gotta be weird. I have been {in the business} for years. I've been getting royalties since the 70's. {People wanting to work with me} picked up in 1999.


CA: You strike me as one of the few producers who didn't exploit music maybe in the way some did. Didn't fuck around with the blues to make a buck, in other words.


DA: I don't fuck around with music at all. It's too good. It's my life why would I wanna fuck with it? I've never thought about hit records. Ever. Because hit records depend on a lot of other things. I've always tried to make the best record that I can, and that's what any producer can do. The rest, interplays with how much promotion they're gonna do, how much merchandising-- that's up to the label. Sometimes freak things happen. When "Mercy Mercy Mercy" broke out, Cannon {Adderely} and I were probably the most stunned people around, and Joe Zawinul who wrote it. I mean, Capitol couldn't figure it out. All of a sudden all these orders were coming in and they weren't ready for it, so they had to farm out the pressing for the first three weeks to RCA's plant. They had a big plant and they weren't doing that good. So they were pressing Mercy Mercy for Capitol until Capitol could gear up their own record plants for Mercy Mercy.


CA: How come with Songs of Experience there was poor distribution?


DA: There wasn't...It just seemed that...They can't categorize me and that's difficult for some in the industry, which to me is ridiculous. They should just throw out categories. I'm using Duke Ellington now. Duke hated- So did Benny Carter. Benny hated whenever someone called him like "the greatest living jazz musician". He'd go, "Why does it have to be jazz? You ever watch Ironsides? I wrote the music to that {laughing}." Benny was beautiful, I loved him. Duke said in the thirties or something, "There's only to kinds of music: good and bad." And he's right.


CA: If ain't got that swing it don't mean a thing.


DA: I think he wrote a song called that. {Begins singing it} Doo-wop/doo-wop/doo-wop/doo-wop...Songs of Innocence came first and it was getting some terrific radio play, but they were having a problem because the rock stations weren't sure what the hell it was. A guy who was very hip was Russ Solomon, the guy who owns Tower Records. When that came out he had three stores. One in Sacramento, one in San Fransisco, and one, supposedly the biggest in America, on Sunset. And he personally told them to give me two bins. He always liked my music. So I had a bin in jazz and a bin in rock...The perfect store for me would be everyone was listed by name-- A through Z-- whether they were composers, performers, or whatever. That would be the perfect store. Forget about having these rock sections or classical or jazz. Get rid of the categories, for godsakes.


CA: As an L.A. native, what do you think of the New York City scene during the sixties?


DA: What did I think of it? I thought it was cool. New York's always been cool. Hell, it was cool in the 50's when I first went there.


CA: You had a pretty tough upbringing, self-taught to get into music.


DA: But so did Zappa, Duke Ellington, Benny Carter. So did Wagner. You study. They have books. Frank was a dear friend and we used to compare notes on how we studied. A great deal of it was done in a public library. That's what Bernard Herrmann used to say. Look at his music, god, that score for Taxi Driver is just amazing. Everything he did was great. But there's something about that Taxi Driver score that's so great. He was self-taught. That's not true {that all were self-taught}. A good friend is Randy Newman. I've always told him that I envy his education, and he agrees. It's a lot easier when you have that knowledge. Duke kinda envied Gershwin. He'd say, "George has the knowledge. When I do an extended piece my transitions are kinda weak, they're more like juxtapositions."


CA: I know there was the Easy Rider film stuff with the Electric Prunes, but how come you didn't do more film scores?


DA: I never wanted to.


CA: No? I thought it would be perfect.


DA: I know. Looking back, it was a mistake.


CA: Did people approach you? Directors?


DA: Yes they did. After Songs of Innocence came out, I got three calls. One of them was from George Lucas who was putting his first film, Thk 1138, and I don't know what happen. We talked for awhile and that was that. But Robert Altman was terrific. At that time he was doing his first feature, A Cold Day In The Park, with Sandy Dennis. And the problem was the producers were new, and they were afraid because I had never done a movie. But he was so wonderful, I had so much fun with him. I mean, the guy's about six feet seven. So we have the screening and I see it...And I had seen films before when the color's all wishy-washy, but you get used to that. So we came out and went to this bar, and boy can this guy drink, because I can drink. But he could really drink, Jesus. He's drinking triple scotches {laughing}. I'm drinking double. But we talked about the movie and I said, you know, I don't think we can boil it in fourteen pieces, because anything bigger is gonna wipe out the movie, it's a small movie. But he was the only one out of the three or four people I talked to at that time who actually called me. Because one, I fucked up. There was another science-fiction movie being made by Douglas Strumboli, who's become now the great special effects dude. The producer was Michael Gruskoff, who became very big at 20th Century Fox because he brought in Mel Brooks. The thing is, I had a hangover, it was nine in the morning, I don't think I even got home until 4. I should never make interviews for nine in the morning. So he looked at me and went, "Can you tell me what pictures you've done?" And I just stared at him for a minute and said, "The Good Earth". {Laughing} And that was it, interview over. I don't know why I do these things. I still do them.


CA: But films could still use your stuff.


DA: Well, I've been in them. We started putting all these records into movies, which was Dennis Hopper's idea in Easy Rider. That's where Scorsese got the idea to use all records in Mean Streets-- there's no score. But Easy Rider is the first one to do that.


CA: As of 1970 you were pretty big with the entertainment business-


DA: I was big all over the world, still am. I was probably bigger now than I was then. It's because the world's more open. I mean, I got a royalty statement and there's China and Russia. I should've taken Terri and gone to Russia. Because Russia does not send money out, they freeze it, a lot of countries do that because they can't afford to let the money go, so you gotta go there and spend it. We should've gone, I sold a lot of records there. We had stash of rubles, only problem is, a pack of cigarettes cost a million rubles.


CA: Are you in touch with any of the old producers anymore? Andrew Oldham, Spector?


DA: Nope. Not anymore. The only producer that was a great friend and is a great friend is Jimmy Bowen. He was a great producer, Jimmy had a lot of hits.


CA: What about Quincy Jones?


DA: Oh yeah, Quincy. I forgot about Quincy. {We bring up Nina Rota} He can write that music on the silly side, like on 8 and a Half. But then he can do something like a satyricon, where he uses his entire symphony orchestra, or for The Godfather. I could never figure out how Carmen Coppola won an award for the second when all the cues came out of the first. But Howard Shore won for Lord of the Rings last year and there's a good chance of him winning again this year, and that's fine by me, because he can really write. Do you see The Score with Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro?


CA: Yeah, I did.


DA: Did you hear the score? Jesus, how could you not?


CA: A terrible film.


DA: The bass player- So what? Listen to the fucking music. I'm not sure if I've watched it all, because I get so hung up on his score. He's got a bass player, reminds me so much of a young Ray Brown. So I listen to the music and don't watch the movie, it's like a concert.


CA: Tell me some classical things you're listening to.


DA: I'm back to listening to Berlioz, who never goes out of style. Symphonie Fantastique, nothing compares. The man was crazy, I love him. Definitely insane. Him and a lot of Moussorgsky. He knew what he was doing.


CA: I always thought Moussorgsky's "Night On Bald Mountain" was a lot like heavy-metal in a lot of ways.


DA: I never thought of it that way. I have it, I listen to it, I have the score to it. And when I listen to it I will think about that. See, you put something on my mind. Incidentally, I love heavy-metal. There's no reason why you can't have jazz play heavy-metal on guitar. Depends on the player. I can't remember it, but in the first Woodstock there was a guitar player who was so fucking great.


CA: I take it you've talked about your work with the Electric Prunes enough.


DA: God, what is there left to say? What's left to say? Is anyone still interested? I'm not, either. It's been printed so many times.


CA: What did you think of Lou Rawls' albums without your production?


DA: Lou could sing for me any day. I don't think he gets the credit he deserves. I will say between '66 and 1970, we outsold Marvin Gaye. And yet you never see Lou, no one talks about him from that era, it's everybody else. I don't understand it, he was the biggest seller in the period, regardless of the category. We'd go number one in r & b and skip top ten on the big chart. He was great to work with. I would say, "Here's the songs, get me the keys." And he would. He'd come in and sing. We got so many Grammy nominations it was absurd.


CA: How about producing Clara Ward?


DA: Oh, Clara Ward. Yeah, that was really weird. That was a very strange album, to say the least {chuckling}. I didn't wanna record her, I was forced to {by the company}. I could've said no by that time, but the way they put it to me, he said he liked me. He said, "I really want you to record her." And if the boss signs her, then you record her.


CA: So in your contract how many albums did you have to do?


DA: No. You're just signed. There's no obligation. What you are is you're given a certain sum of money-- you're either in the black or the red?


CA: You hung out with the Beats a bit. Wally Berman?


DA: Out in Venice. Wally Berman was never a Beat, I was a good friend of his. A woman by the name of Christine McKenna is writing a biography of him right now. I got a call from her and we were on for about three hours, and after awhile I said, "Well how did you know to call me?" She said his son. When I knew Wally he never had a son. She said he had all his records and when he was a kid Wally would tell him about all the stuff we used to do. But Wally was never a Beat, he was a very schooled painter. That was the difference between the New York scene and here. The only guy I knew {there} was Ginsberg, and I had some long conversations with Allen. I get this call from Capitol and it's Allen Ginsberg. The reasons was he was seriously into William Blake, and I was too, ever since I was in my teens-- that's why I did the album. But it shows you what that decade was like. What would happen today if I went into a label and said I have an idea for an album-- I wanna do William Blake. They'd throw me out, of course. What if Alan Parsons went into a label and said I wanna do an album on Edgar Allan Poe. "Edgar Allan Poe? Are you nuts?"


CA: So to be a good producer then, what do you advise?


DA: The same thing that always went down. The greatest producer I know was {Chalrie} Lee Gillett. This guy produced Nat {King} Cole and they were like brothers. Like Cannonball and me. But Lee had Nat Cole, Stan Kenton, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and you know? How he found all these songs is amazing. Because at that time, see, there were song-pluggers that worked for the big publishers and the independent publishers as well. And that's how your day was spent: listening to material. For me to find one song for Lou {Rawls}, I'd listen to maybe 80 to find one song before I went, "Yeah, yeah, this is good." And we're looking for ten songs, don't forget.


CA: So on Heavy Axe Carly Simon's "You're So Vain".


DA: That's Cannonball. He produced that album, that's his album {laughing}. We did an album called Accent On Africa, it wasn't exactly the way he wanted it. So after the first take I walked over and said what do you think? He goes, "Don't ask me, this is your album." So Heavy Axe. He has a great memory, doesn't forget, and I don't either, so he called me on the talk-back, "C'mon in here, David, c'mon and here this." I go, "Don't ask me, this is your album." I didn't argue one tune with him. I hated that Steve Wonder tune {"Don't You Worry 'bout a Thing"} I just go okay, fine. Fine. He couldn't figure it out, though, why I was so complient, because he and I could argue a lot. If you look on the back, it's the only one that doesn't say "Produced by David Axelrod and Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley". He was the producer. I do like "My Family".


CA: "Loved Boy" on Mo'Wax was dedicated to your son.


DA: That was dedicated to my son who died. 1970. Died of an overdose. I don't wanna talk about that...Lou sang the hell of it, because he knew my son. As a matter of fact, he was with me when I got the phone call. We were in Alabama, a lot of people were going down there, and...that was that.


CA: You were destitute for awhile during-


DA: Yeah. We were in bad shape. That's not the royal "we", that's Terri and me. We were living in a big room behind this house, and the bathroom had the toilet and the sink had only cold water. Only a hot-plate. Nothing was happening.


CA: But composing.


DA: Certainly. Always.


{Our conversation had been going for over an hour at this point, and shifted to talk a few minutes more about a local record shop nearby. His flu seemed to swelter everything and promised to return back to bed, way behind on his concert which hadn't worked on for a few days. I told him I'd be playing his records and there was a chuckle as if we'd be speaking sometime again.}


--Carson Arnold - March 10th, 2004


copyright 2004 Carson Arnold


H(ear) is an online music column consisting of interviews, articles, and investigations written by Carson Arnold. As a freelance writer for various magazines and liner notes, living in the woods of Vermont with his family, Carson widely encourages one to submit their art, writing or any interesting piece of material that you would like to share. H(ear) is accepting both promos and demos for review or any other valuable music-related subjects. If you wish to make a comment or would like to receive H(ear) weekly by email please contact Carson at [email protected]

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