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Fifty Year Friday: The Zombies, Odessey and Oracle

The-Zombies-Odessey-Oracle-770In early 1967, battling against the challenges of generating a stream of steady income, and considering splitting up due to lack of continued success and assorted frustrations, the UK pop-group, The Zombies, once heralded as one of the leading musical forces of the British Invasion, reluctantly accepted an offer to play a series of ten concerts in the large Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City, Philippines. Much to their surprise, they were greeted by two thousand fans at the Metro Manila airport, and found their music played repeatedly on Philippines pop radio, with five of their older songs currently in the top ten.  On the first night, March 3rd, 1967, the Zombies played to a total of 45,000 appreciative fans, with continuing large crowds through March 11th.

Such a reception should have encouraged the band, but as the pay amounted to only a paltry 380 British Pounds split between the band, the result was more that of discouragement.

So when it came time to record an album in June of 1967, thoughts of a break-up were already present with that actually disbandment happening before the album was released on April 19, 1968.  The Zombies had a limited budget and limited time, but they were intent on producing something lasting and of quality.  Fortunately the songs provided by band members Rod Argent and Chris White were exceptional.

One’s first impression is that this album, Odessey and Oracle, (the mispelling, though claimed by Argent to be intentional for many years, was an error on the part of the graphic designer) is heavily indebted to the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s, though it’s important to note that most of the songs on the album were written before Sgt. Pepper’s was released in May 1967. It’s also worth noting that nine of the twelve songs on Odessey and Oracle were recorded at  EMI‘s Abbey Road Studios using the same engineers that had contributed to Sgt. Pepper’s, the same eight-track technology and the very same Mellotron the Beatles had left behind, but with remarkably less studio time and no additional musicians employed.  Rod Argent: This “was the first time we were recording with more than four tracks, and we were like kids in a candy store, overdubbing Mellotron parts and vocal harmonies.”

The album opens with its strongest track, “Care of Cell 44”, one of Rod Argent masterpieces. This would of been the perfect single and was released as such, but it completely fizzled. With McCartney-like bass, a sprightly piano part, Beach Boys-like harmonies and overdubbed Mellotron, this upbeat song anticipates a style used years later by groups like SuperTramp and Kayak, chamber pop groups like Fugu, and Indie Pop groups like Beulah and Apples in Stereo.

If the music of “Care of Cell 44” is ahead of its time, so are the lyrics, which are also more like the Indie Pop of the 1990’s than anything of 1968:

“Good morning to you, I hope your feeling better, baby,
Thinking of me while you are far away
Counting the days until they set you free again.
Writing this letter, hoping you’re okay;
Sent to the room you used to stay in every Sunday —
The one that is warmed by sunshine everyday.
And we’ll get to know each other for a second time
Then you can tell me about your prison stay.”

The second song, “A Rose for Emily” starts with simple piano accompaniment against a clear unadorned vocal line followed by charming harmonies in the chorus.  The influence of Brian Wilson is clear, but the originality of this song, written by Argent in a single morning, is also clear.

The distinction in musical writing styles between Argent and Chris White is apparent with the next song, “Maybe After He’s Gone” which opens with acoustic guitar, but just as Argent’s lyrics pushed into darker and less traveled roads, the same with White’s songs — this one about the possibly remote prospect that the former love will return after the other guy has moved on.  The sense of sadness and loneliness conveyed effectively by the lyrics is underscored rather than obscured by the irony of relatively upbeat music.

In “Beechwood Park”, the next track,  Chris White takes an opposite approach of combining lyrics that when read might seem like pleasant reminiscing but when set with decidedly gloomy music becomes melancholic with a clear sense that this is a love that has been lost and never to be recovered.  It pairs well with the previous song, both effectively covering the same topic of guy loses girl, and perhaps even being about the same loss.

“Brief Candles” combines the sensitive ballad with the classic sixties psychedelic chorus. This time the verse is melancholic, the chorus uplifting, and the result, like the previous two tracks, is reflective and wistful.

The last track of side one, “Hung Up on a Dream” is another Rod Argent composition with lyrics very reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Day in the Life”, though probably written before Argent heard that song:

“Well, I remember yesterday
Just drifting slowly through a crowded street
With neon darkness shimmering through the haze
A sea of faces rippling in the heat

“And from that nameless changing crowd
A sweet vibration seemed to fill the air
I stood astounded staring hard
At men with flowers resting in their hair

“A sweet confusion filled my mind
Until I woke up only finding everything was just a dream
A dream unusual of its kind
That gave me peace and blew my mind.”

The music is not the standard verse-chorus-verse structure.  The first section is three instances of the verse followed by an instrumental bridge-like passage with the most sparkling chord changes, followed by another vocal section in the original key of G Major which them modulates for the return of the verse, now in F major, followed by an instrumental coda over the chords of the verse.

The second side is not as strong as the first side, but even a track like “I Want Her, She Wants Me”, which Argent has indicated he threw together quickly for the B side of a single, is catchy, well arranged, and well performed.

The two best tracks on side two are Chris White songs, the first of which is the anti-war song, “Butcher’s Tale”, the tale of a disillusioned, frightened British World War One soldier.

Chris White: “I wanted Colin to sing it but they got me to sing because they said ‘Your weak trembley little voice suits the song.’ We used this old American pedal organ that I’d bought in a junk store, and if you listen closely you can hear Rod’s fingernails, because it’s all miked up. We also had some musique concrète, which I actually nicked off a Pierre Boulez record, reversed the tape and sped it up. We ‘adapted’ it. One of the influences on that was ‘1941 New York Mining Disaster’ by the Bee Gees, which I thought was a great way of telling a story — very evocative.”

Surprisingly, this was released as a single, but failed perhaps due to is odd, eerie, though effectively evocative, content.

Also notable is the next Chris White composition on the album, “Friends of Mine”, with its upbeat, overall basic, but catchy music, covering a topic perhaps rarely (if ever) previously covered in recorded pop music:

“When we’re all in a crowd
And you catch her eye
And then you both smile
I feel so good inside
And when I’m with her
She talks about you
The things that you say
The things that you do

And when I feel bad
When people disappoint me
That’s when I need you two
To help me believe”

Background chorus included couples that were friends of the band and whose actual names are included in the song.  Ironically, per Rod Argent, despite being immortalized as being loving pairs on the album, none of these couples stayed together.

The last track, “Time of the Season”,  was also written last.  Composed in a single morning by Rod Argent, it is the least interesting song in terms of chord changes, but is notable for its unusually limited use of chorus and the two Argent’s era-appropriate jazz-psychedelia electronic organ solos.  Argent felt that this song had hit-potential but this view wasn’t particularly shared by others. Nonetheless, the song was eventually released as a single and, though the band was now no longer together, in 1969, “Time of the Season” rose to the number 3 spot on Billboard, rose to #1 on the Cash Box Top 100, and peaked at number 1 in Canada.  This was, by far, the Zombies biggest hit, but the Zombies were no more.

The single would have never been released if it wasn’t for Al Kooper (see earlier blog post here) who was now with Columbia in the A&R department (the Artists and Repertoire division, responsible for talent recognition and development.) More importantly, this album, Odessey and Oracle, would probably have never been released either, if it wasn’t for Al Kooper’s insistence.  As it was, Columbia released it on one of their small sub-labels, Date Records, which was dissolved by 1970.

Rod Argent: “In the States, the album was not going to be released until Al Kooper found it. He was the hot new A&R man that Clive Davis had employed, and he went rushing back from England to the US. He went into Clive Davis’ office and said, ‘I’ve listened to hundreds of albums and there’s one album that stands above the rest and I don’t care who owns this album, you’ve got to buy it from them. It doesn’t matter how much it costs.’ And Clive said, ‘Well, we own it, and we passed on it.’ Al said, ‘You can’t pass on it, you must release it.’

“He said OK and then they put out “Butcher’s Tale,” which is still one of my favorite tracks on the album, that Chris wrote. It still gives me chills when I hear it, but it was never a single. Al was aghast that they put that out as a single. Then they put out “Friends of Mine,” and as I remember, “Care of Cell 44.” Nothing happened. And then they put out “Time of the Season.”

Though there are significant differences in Argent’s and White’s writing for both music and lyrics, the album is filled with some of the most bubbly and sparkling pop chord changes ever, and holds together as a unified whole, with only the last track not quite fitting in.  For an album that was almost never released in the States, this is one of the more musical, influential, and important albums of 1968.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

Side A

#

Title

Writer

Length

1

Care of Cell 44 Rod Argent

3:57

2.

“A Rose for Emily” Argent

2:19

3.

“Maybe After He’s Gone” Chris White

2:34

4.

“Beechwood Park” White

2:44

5.

“Brief Candles” White

3:30

6.

“Hung Up on a Dream” Argent

3:02

Side B

#

Title

Writer

Length

7.

“Changes” White

3:20

8.

“I Want Her, She Wants Me” Argent

2:53

9.

“This Will Be Our Year” White

2:08

10.

Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914) White

2:48

11.

“Friends of Mine” White

2:18

12.

Time of the Season Argent

3:34

Total length:

35:18

Personnel

The Zombies

  • Colin Blunstone – lead vocals
  • Rod Argent – keyboards, backing vocals, lead vocals on “I Want Her, She Wants Me”, co-lead vocals on “Brief Candles”
  • Paul Atkinson – guitar, backing vocals on “Changes”
  • Chris White – bass, backing vocals, lead vocals on “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)”, co-lead vocals on “Brief Candles”
  • Hugh Grundy – drums, backing vocals on “Changes”

Production[

rearA

Original Liner Notes: 

Shakespeare said: 

“Be not afraid; 
The isle is full of noise 
Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments 
Will hum about mine years; and sometimes voices” 

Really, music is a very personal thing; it’s the product of a person’s experiences. Since no two people have been exactly alike, each writer has something unique to say.  That makes anything which is not just a copy of something else worth listening to. Believing this, and laden with gifts of fruit and nuts from the Orient, we descended upon CBS chieftain Derek, and with smarm and charm extracted, astonished, the finance necessary to compose, arrange and perform, produce and cover an LP ourselves, with no outside help or interference. 

This is the result:

Thanks to Terry Quick, artist flatmate of Chris, for the cover. Thanks to Will Shakespeare, not a flatmate of Chris, for his contribution to the sleeve notes.

ROD ARGENT, 1968
__________________________________________________

A few years ago we all fell under the spell of ‘She’s Not There’ and ‘Tell Her No’. Well, they are back again with the same spells and a few new ones. 

With this album, The Zombies establish themselves alongside the royalty of rock. The songs are so original in thought – a girl soon to come home to you (from prison), the horror of the First World War, with melodies incorporating well-timed diminished chords leaping through warm melodic tapestries. The musicianship level set on ‘She’s Not There’ is not betrayed, and The Zombies have indeed benefited from the time since then. 

While in London recently, I acquired forty British LPs. Once home, I began to listen to all forty. This record stuck out like a rose in a garden of weeds. It is for you now to enjoy this experience as I have, and I know once you have, you will continue to play some cuts from this album every day for a long time. The Zombies who are – very much alive. 

AL KOOPER, 1968


__________________________________________________

Additional notes

 

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