The Zombies – Odessey and Oracle – Classic Music Review
The Zombies certainly brought a distinctive style to the British Invasion with their jazz-tinged sound and breathy vocals. “She’s Not There” is a terribly exciting song that retains its distinctiveness to this day. The song couldn’t have come at a better time as far as the American consumer was concerned, for it was British with a Latin flair. 1964 was not only the first year of the Invasion, but the year that Getz and Gilberto found their way to stardom with “The Girl from Ipanema.” The Zombies must have seemed terribly “with it” at the time.
After that breakthrough hit, it was all downhill for The Zombies. “Tell Her No” did very well in the States, but failed to gain much traction in their homeland. The song had stylistic echoes of “She’s Not There,” and may have pigeonholed The Zombies as odd ducks with limited possibilities. Their next four singles bombed on both sides of the pond, and their first album didn’t do much either, in large part because their were too many covers that veiled the strength of the original compositions.
Miraculously, CBS Records signed them to a contract despite their dismal commercial track record, and The Zombies immediately began intensive rehearsals in preparation for recording sessions scheduled for EMI’s Abbey Road studios. The only conclusion one can draw from the sequence of events that followed is that someone in the band must have been carrying some bad karma from a past life as a serial killer, because nearly everything that could go wrong went wrong:
- They had limited recording time, so they had to work quickly and efficiently. Being musicians, their time management skills were not business-crisp, and they had to switch from Abbey Road to Olympic Studios midway through the recording process, then return to Abbey Road to wrap things up.
- They really wanted strings, but there was no budget for them, so they had to settle for the Mellotron.
- The time pressures and compromises led to the band members feeling grumpy and getting snarky with each other, with Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone getting into a serious snit over the vocal phrasing on “Time of the Season.”
- Once Argent and Chris White had mixed things down to mono and proudly turned the master over to CBS, they were informed that no, the record company wanted a stereo mix. As there was no money left in the budget, they had to pay for it themselves.
- The record was finally released in the UK, and to everyone’s horror, the word “odyssey” was misspelled on the album art. They tried to pass it off as intentional, because what the fuck else could they do?
- Odessey and Oracle drew no attention whatsoever. Two singles from the album failed to chart. Clive Davis at first refused to release the album in the U. S., then finally gave into the persistent Al Kooper and allowed him to release it on a subsidiary label. The record company geniuses decided to support the album release by selecting the most uncommercial track on the entire record (“Butcher’s Tale”) as a single in an attempt to capitalize on the burgeoning anti-war movement. It died along with the album. None of this affected The Zombies much, as they’d ceased to exist four months before the release.
Al Kooper finally managed to release “Time of the Season” as a single over a year later, where it made a big splash in the U. S. and Canada but did next to nothing in the green and pleasant land. The album, meanwhile, found its way to something called the “cutout bins,” the place in the record stores of the day where people like my father would spend hours flipping through stacks of obscure LP’s that had become lonely orphans, victims of commercial indifference. My dad’s copy of Odessey and Oracle has a horizontal slit on the upper left part of the cover, hence the term “cutout.” He considers it one of the greatest finds of his life, right up there with my mother, and always talks about both discoveries with beaming pride.
As he should. Odessey and Oracle is a jewel of a record, an endlessly engaging display of rich melodies and harmonies, outstanding musicianship and songwriting of the highest order. It seems to come out of nowhere; The Zombies’ trajectory gave few clues that a work of such sustained excellence was possible. In addition to the relative lack of support from their employers, I would also venture to guess that the reason such a remarkable work was completely ignored is that the listeners of the time had come to look at the Invasion as terribly passé and The Zombies as another Invasion group trying to resurrect their career by identifying with flower power, as the cover so blatantly advertises. While the album has since received long overdue recognition from the critical community and the music is quite accessible to the average listener, it remains far outside the stream of popular consciousness to this day, a record for the connoisseur, not the average fan. The only explanation I have for the continuing obscurity of Odessey and Oracle is the self-centered mediocrity of 21st century culture.
Nothing frustrates me more in life than the mediocrity of a culture that stubbornly refuses to be anything but mediocre and even celebrates that mediocrity.
We will happily leave behind that unpleasant state of affairs and immerse ourselves in the loftier standards of Odessey and Oracle. One clear advantage The Zombies did have is Geoff Emerick and Peter Vince at the controls in the booth, using the same kind of 4-track tape machine Emerick had used for Sgt. Pepper. Due to the time and budget limitations, Odessey and Oracle was not as demanding an affair as Sgt. Pepper in terms of retakes, tape loops and overdubs, but the sensitive precision of the arrangements were greatly enhanced by the sensitivity and experience of Emerick and Davis. The recording is wonderfully rich and warm.
You hear this warmth on the opening track, “Care of Cell 44,” one of the most disarming songs ever written. After a sprightly touch of harpsichord, the happy-go-lucky, pleasant pop feel that greets the listener calls up images of a couple strolling hand-in-hand through green fields or sandy beaches, showing off their gleaming white teeth made even whiter by repeated application of Pepsodent. The first time through this song it’s very easy to skim over the lyrics, and because the melody is so pleasant and the harmonies so vivid and rich that the few words you do hear lead you to conclude that the song is about a long-lost lover coming home. The second time through you pay a bit more attention and find that the relationship is a bit more complicated:
Saved you the room you used to stay in every Sunday
The one that is warmed by sunshine every day
And we’ll get to know each other for a second time
And then you can tell me ’bout your prison stay . . .
The harmonies on this track are breathtaking, especially the perfect execution of the “Feels so good you’re coming home soon” lines where The Zombies mix their voices in full force with disciplined precision. I also love the background humming that accompanies the verses and adds to the sunny-day-in-the-park irony of the song, and the mmm-bum-mmm-bum interludes where their voices join to create intriguing chord patterns. Chris White delivers a spot-on bass part that provides both melodic counterpoint and mood support. “Care of Cell 44” is the kind of thing I wished The Hollies had done in their prime.
“A Rose for Emily” follows, a tale of woe about a woman who could have been Eleanor Rigby’s long-lost cousin. The knockout factor of this song is the unusual and inventive chord structure; the verses begin in G major, but after following a progression dominated by diminished and minor sevenths, resolves to an unexpected A major instead of returning to G. From there they change keys to Bb for the chorus, again refusing to end on the root chord but with the suspended feeling from a D7 that resolves to the G major that opens the verses. The coda, on the other hand is built around the A chord with variations on that root with two departures to a modified D and Ddim. If this were just a set of strange chords, the song would be a total mess, but what’s amazing is how easily the chord progression flows, never sounding choppy or contrived. Accompanied only by piano maintaining a steady ONE-two-three-four pattern with variations in the transitions, Colin Blunstone’s lead vocal is superbly sensitive and he handles the extreme vertical movement of the melody with grace. The harmonies are left for the chorus, a dazzling display of harmonic lines coming at you from all directions and coming together nicely on the ending note. Rod Argent wrote these first two numbers, demonstrating his exceptional compositional range.
Remind me again—why did this album flop?
“Maybe After He’s Gone” is one of the three tunes recorded at Olympic Studios, and the different acoustics are quite noticeable. The Olympic songs seem to have more of a natural echo effect, the kind you might hear in a small church. Both Abbey Road and Olympic were considered the best in their day, so while it may have been inconvenient to shift studios in the middle of the recording process, nothing was lost and the different sonic textures add variety to the mix. “Maybe After He’s Gone” is a Chris White song of rain, lost love and eternal hope featuring mournful minor key verses driven by Paul Atkinson’s acoustic guitar that end on a major chord to dramatize the transition. After a brief caesura, we move into the hope-filled, major key chorus. Unlike Graham Gouldman, The Zombies got their modes and moods straight!
“Beechwood Park” continues the rain imagery in the first verse, but this is the summer rain that freshens the air “in the green of country lanes,” the lanes running through Chris White’s youth in Hertfordshire. Lyrically, the song is a reminder of the beauty of the natural world, and how all the senses can be inspired by the simple acts of nature:
And the breeze would touch your hair,
Kiss your face and make you care
About your world, your summer world,
And we would count the evening stars
As the day grew dark in Beechwood Park
I tend to prefer the human world to the natural world, so this song never really resonated with me until my recent trip to the Canaries, where quiet walks under the stars accompanied by cool breezes infused me with some of the strongest memories of the trip. The music of “Beechwood Park” is noted for its key-elusive chord structure that eventually resolves to Gm in the last line of the chorus, but the path it takes to get there involves visits to other keys and surprising chord transitions that delight me as much as the beauty I experienced on my vacation. The intro has a Procul Harum-like feel to it, and as usual, there’s a trivial debate about whether the guitar was run through a Leslie or the tremolo of a Fender Twin. Sigh.
The Zombies quote The Tempest in the liner notes and use imagery from Macbeth in “Brief Candles.” Macbeth happens to be my favorite Shakespearean opus, so I will take this opportunity to quote my favorite lines (which also provide the imagery for the song in question):
. . . Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Chris White uses the candle as a symbol of the “tiny gems of memory” that help us get through disappointment by showing us a way out. Each verse is a mini-story of three different people, appropriately sung by three of the Zombies (White, Blunstone, Argent). Each segment describes the aftermath of a disappointment and the act of reliving the experience that led to the disappointment; all lead to the chorus that ends with the paradoxical line, “His (her) sadness makes him (her) smile.” The first two stories deal with lost love; the last with a man whose only relationship is with the bottle. In his story, there is more doubt and less redemption, for the last line in his verse is “Maybe he will soon believe he’s better off this way.” The suggestion is that, as frustrating as they can be, human relationships are what makes the struggle worthwhile.
“Hung Up on a Dream” is the closest thing to a period piece, a dream of flowers, love and peace, and the least interesting piece on Odessey and Oracle. The song that follows more than makes up for the side trip to Nirvana. “Changes” opens with the Mellotron emulating a flute in a brief overture and then opens up to the singers with voices joined in madrigal style, accompanied only by a beating drum. The effect is stunning, and the passage is deeply satisfying when repeated throughout the song. The verse proper is constructed around a single high note on the piano playing over arpeggiated chords lower on the keyboard, allowing Colin Blunstone’s vocal maximum clarity. The “changes” in the song involve the contrast between a woman who was once at one with the rhythm of the seasons but has fallen prey to the dual temptations of money and fashion, a dichotomy that contrasts the permanence of nature with fleeting ego-gratification. The lyrics reflect the curious syntax found in many an English folk tune, and the combination of the madrigal section and the balladic language made me think this would have been a lovely song for Steeleye Span:
I knew her when summer was her crown
And autumn sad, how brown her eyes.
I knew her when winter was her cloak
In spring her voice she spoke to me
If ever a song deserved the adjective “glorious,” it’s this one. I could listen to those vocals forever. If I ever get married, I want the a cappella chorus to accompany my entrance as I traipse down the aisle in stilettos and a leather body suit with appropriate cutouts.
The lighter, bouncier “I Want Her She Wants Me,” another Olympic recording, comes up next. The first real toe-tapper on the album, it’s also one of the few songs I know where the harpsichord is more than a superfluous indulgence; here it not only sounds unusually pretty but provides the steady rhythms that provide a foundation for Hugh Grundy’s delightful fills, cymbal flashes and double-time excursions. Chris White is marvelous on the bass and the supporting counterpoint vocals are simply delightful. The long fade gives the voices and instruments more playtime, and while there are many times I’ll listen to a fade out and think “Hurry the fuck up!” on this one I wish The Zombies would have hung around a little longer.
Right up there with “Changes” for my favorite song on Odessey and Oracle is the smooth and sophisticated love song, “This Will Be Our Year.” With touches of jazz and R&B in the rhythm and in the hints of blue notes in Colin’s superb vocal and in the double-tracked piano, I love the way the melody and lyrics flow so well despite the nonstandard chord patterns and the half-step key change. The poetry is simple and lucid, as if the singer is having a moment of clarity about how lucky he is to have such a wonderful companion who stuck with him through the rough patches:
The warmth of your love
Is like the warmth of the sun
And this will be our year
Took a long time to come.
Don’t let go of my hand
Now darkness has gone
For this will be our year
Took a long time to come.
These two happy diversions give us enough of a spiritual lift to enable us to approach “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914),” one of the most unflinching anti-war songs in an era that was full of them. Opening with the ominous sounds of something moving in the gloom, a church organ enters the scene playing a dark, unholy pattern. Chris Davis adopts an Everyman vocal style that gives the lyrics immediate credibility, and those lyrics cut straight to the gut as he reflects on the horror of a World War I battlefield:
A butcher yes that was my trade
But the king’s shilling is now my fee
A butcher I may as well have stayed
For the slaughter that I see
And the preacher in his pulpit
Sermon: “Go and fight, do what is right”
But he don’t have to hear these guns
And I’ll bet he sleeps at night
And I . . . And I can’t stop shaking
My hands won’t stop shaking
My arms won’t stop shaking
My mind won’t stop shaking
I want to go home
Please let me go home
And I have seen a friend of mine
Hang on the wire
Like some rag toy
Then in the heat the flies come down
And cover up the boy
And the flies come down in
Mametz Wood, and French Verdun
If the preacher he could see those flies
Wouldn’t preach for the sound of guns
The subtle touches in this song raise the dramatic tension of the narrative: the additional echo applied to the preacher’s commandment to “Go and fight, do what it right”; the increasing loudness of the organ during the “shaking” passages; and Chris White’s change in tone in those passages from bitter veteran to frightened young man. It may not be the most pleasant listening experience, but “Butcher’s Tale” is both moving and memorable. I place it right up there with “And the Band Played Waltzin’ Mathilda” and “No Man’s Land/Flowers of the Forest” as one of the great anti-war songs of all time.
In contrast, “Friends of Mine” sounds almost superficial with its happy celebration of happy couples. I have a personal attachment to this song because of one line that resonates incredibly well with my life right now: “It feels so good to know two people so in love.” As my readers know, I am bisexual and have been in a long-term live-in relationship with a beautiful, intelligent and sensitive woman (we’d love a penis around the house, but a good man is hard to find). Anyway, in a society still in transition when it comes to alternative arrangements, our relationship provokes different responses from the people we encounter. Most rare are people who feel perfectly comfortable with the idea of two women in love. Then there are those who feel threatened by anything different, especially drunken males frightened by the idea that women could get through life without them and their dicks. This is when we hear the “fucking dyke” shit and on occasion have had drinks thrown at us, been spat upon and have even experienced physical assault (hence the need for martial arts training). The largest group are people who simply don’t know how to deal with it, but they’re willing to give us a chance. Once they get to know us, though, and they see how comfortable and happy we are together, they usually say one of two things: “You two look so good together,” or “I don’t know about your lifestyle, but I have to admit that it feels so good to know two people so in love! We can charm the pants off people, both literally and figuratively! Though “Friends of Mine” is not the kind of song that would usually float my boat, the personal meaning makes me smile when I hear it.
Odessey and Oracle ends with the one song everyone knows, “Time of the Season.” I go back and forth about this song’s appearance on Odessey and Oracle. First, I think it’s a great song, superbly performed, and one of the few romance songs that qualify as both sexy and sweet. The bass line is killer and the call-and-response vocals are both fresh and terribly attractive. That said, the Latin flavor and breathy vocals are so “She’s Not There” that at times the song feels out-of-place on this album. On the other hand, one could easily argue that the three-part harmonies in the chorus most certainly fit with this most harmonic of records. Oh, no! The blonde part of my brain is approaching overload! I can’t make up my mind! Help! Watch the video, you say? Good idea!
Ah, that’s better. I hereby proclaim that it fits because I love this song and I want it to fit. It’s great having an imperial side in one’s personality, especially if you are a blonde.
I think it’s absolutely tragic that Odessey and Oracle was ignored in its time and, except for the inevitable reunions, represented the band’s final work. The imagination runs wild to consider what The Zombies could have done with more support from the public and the record company. These were incredibly gifted musicians who could move from jazz to pop to folk to rock with relative ease; a band with two superb composers whose lyrical and musical awareness was on another plane compared to most of their contemporaries; and excellent vocalists who could solo and harmonize with the best of them. I feel cheated that all I have of The Zombies is two albums and a few bonus tracks from the odd compilation or two.
Still, given all the challenges they faced making Odessey and Oracle, I should be thankful for this precious gift. I am even more thankful for the environment that allowed such a work to come to life at all. Rod Argent, in an interview with The Guardian, commented on how special that period in musical history truly was, a period of renaissance that I pray will reappear in my lifetime:
The whole of the ’60s were a brilliant time to record because everything was exploding and there was such a feeling of positivity in the air. People were willing to embrace any ideas and see where they led.