Psychadelic Kol Nidre

An orchestrated psychedelic rock recording with a total running time of just under 25 minutes, based on the Kol Nidre, one of the most solemn, holy and important prayers in the Jewish calendar. Sounds like a bizarre idea destined for commercial and critical oblivion?

Well, that’s pretty much what happened to Release of an Oath by The Electric Prunes when it was released back in November 1968. Nobody seemed to care, so it disappeared, with surviving copies of the LP record ending up gathering dust in the racks of second-hand record shops. A hidden treasure awaiting rediscovery.

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It was 30 years ago, during my regular foraging excursions to the ‘rarities’ department upstairs at The Record and Tape Exchange in London’s Notting Hill. In those days, record collectors were hunting blind, stumbling upon music without the help of Wikipedia entries or ancient audio uploaded onto YouTube. It was the record cover of Release of an Oath that first caught my eye – depicting a single left hand, photographed in a very 1960s style strobe-effect, giving the impression that the hand is actually in motion. Above the photograph, printed in bold letters, was the title, and the name of the band, The Electric Prunes – who had put out a garage classic from 1966, I had Too Much to Dream (Last Night), which was a real favourite of mine. The real clincher was spotting the words ‘Kol Nidre’. So, Release of an Oath is a conceptual JEWISH rock LP. Could this be possible?! I flipped the sleeve over, and checked the notes on the back: the music composed and arranged by David A. Axelrod ‘is blending the melodies of the centuries with today’s contemporary sounds.’ I was hooked.

Swiftly, I handed the empty sleeve over to one of the shop staff to be reunited with the LP record that was tucked into one of the stacks of vinyl-packed shelves behind the counter. I then checked that the condition (Near Mint) was as described, and paid the ten-pound asking price. Not cheap, but it was a ‘rarity’ after all. The house rules of the Record And Tape Exchange were a frustration to collectors – they didn’t allow you to play the record in the shop. You had to wait to listen to it back home. But this time, that anticipation was even more significant.

I put the needle on to the edge of the opening track of Release of an Oath – appropriately entitled ‘Kol Nidre’ (the actual prayer itself is recited in the synagogue at the beginning of the evening service on the Day of Atonement) – and I was utterly absorbed, and thrilled, by the music.

From the late 1950s, David Axelrod was a maverick record industry figure. A one-time drummer and A&R man, a record producer and arranger—and an avant-garde composer too. At the turn of 1968, he and The Electric Prunes had released Mass in F Minor, a psychedelic Eucharistic concept album sung in Latin. A fabulous sonic experiment that achieved cult status as the first ever ‘God Rock’ album.

But for me, as a Jew, it was their subsequent Jewish project, which I knew nothing about at the time, that just seemed so incredibly curious and meaningful. As is so often the case nowadays, we know more about the history of this recording than when the LP was first issued back in 1968 – or when I came across it some 15 years later. Several of the seven tracks from Release of an Oath have since been sampled by various notable hip hop DJs, and the unique funky and psychedelic sound of David Axelrod’s discography has received critical acclaim – and with far more interest than when his records were first released.

But one mystery continued to linger on. Who actually was playing on Release of an Oath? It has since emerged that it wasn’t the actual Electric Prunes at all (as they were no longer together). Instead, it was a highly skilled collection of in-house session musicians performing Axelrod’s moody and dramatic orchestral arrangements – complete with thrashing impassioned electric guitar solos, and the sacred lyrics sung with feeling and remarkable spiritual integrity.

Axelrod followed on from the Kol Nidre, with compositions based on the mystical poetry of William Blake, and then there was an LP called Earth Rot a warning about environmental pollution. In 1993, he returned to an overtly Jewish theme once again with Requiem: The Holocaust.

I have a tradition that every year, just before the festival of Yom Kippur, I listen to Release of an Oath. I hold the cover in both hands, and always read Jules B Newman’s original sleeve notes. He describes Axelrod’s Kol Nidre as a modern song of liberation for mankind, ‘yearning to free his spirit of the conqueror’s yoke….’ Such is the lament of the Kol Nidre: ‘a prayer of antiquity which cleanses the spirit and enables man to start anew, with his eyes again on the stars’. It’s a truly beautiful record. I often think that it would it be wonderful if listening to Release of an Oath could somehow be integrated into our religious education curriculum?

Alan Dein is an oral historian, a multi award-winning documentary radio broadcaster for the BBC, a blogger, and a lifelong record collector.

Release of an Oath features in the exhibition Jukebox. Jewkbox! A Jewish Century On Shellac And Vinyl, at the Jewish Museum Hohenems, in collaboration with the Jewish Museum Munich, until March 2015. The organisers state that ‘the history of humankind’s first global medium is also a history of Jewish inventors, musicians, composers, music producers and songwriters. Their music, the omnipresent sound of the 20th century – its best-known songs, musicals, and soundtracks – was not always ‘Jewish’ music but was always a product of Jewish history and experience’.

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