Odessey and Oracle – The Zombies – A (relatively) brief look at an underground British Pop masterpiece

by Rik Mercaldi on March 15, 2014

In the late 1960s artists were pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable in Pop music with experimental approaches and orchestral arrangements. The Beatles with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pink Floyd’s debut, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and The Moody Blues first concept record, Days of Future Passed, being a few key examples.

ZombiesBut, The Beatles and Pink Floyd weren’t the only groups recording tracks at Abbey Road Studios in 1967. Not possessing the looks and cheeky charm of The Beatles, the controversial persona of the Rolling Stones, the Mod endorsement and chaos of The Who, or the whimsical, psychedelic, underground appeal of The Floyd, The Zombies were a bit of an anomaly. Their sound, clearly indebted to the Pop and R&B leanings consistent with most other musical groups in England at the time, was nonetheless different.

The deep, breathy vocals of Colin Blunstone, combined with Rod Argent’s virtuosic keyboard skills, and their darker, minor key based melodies, stood out from the more Blues and guitar based riffing of their contemporaries. They also seemed to not be overly concerned with cultivating their image as much as other groups.

After several chart hits starting in 1964 with “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No”, and one full length album, we’re going to fast forward a few years to 1967. The Zombies enter EMI’s Abbey Road Studios to begin laying down tracks for what would become their second album, eventually to be titled, Odessey and Oracle. (Interesting note: The band claimed that The mis-spelling of the title was intentional, covering up the fact that it was actually a mistake by the designer Terry Quirk who shared a flat with Zombies bass player Chris White.)

Looking at some of songs that make up the record, the range of styles, sounds, and subject matter is quite astounding, especially in the context of the period. In addition to the stellar songwriting, inspired arrangements, and immaculate performances across the entire album, several tracks had interesting lyrical approaches and instrumentation that were quite groundbreaking at the time and would later become very influential.

Zombies“Care of Cell 44”, which opens the LP, seems like yet another perfectly written and excellently performed pop song about romantic longing, until you realize that the main character is actually writing a letter to his girl who is in prison for an unexplained crime. His rose colored vision of their future together is both naive and touchingly sweet. Not exactly your typical love song. Blunstone’s vocals are absolutely riveting, especially in the chorus, where the sound explodes with an almost bombastic frenzy of multi layered backing vocals.

“Rose for Emily” which follows is a beautiful, melancholic, ballad ruminating on the passing of time, the sadness of being forgotten, and death. The meticulously arranged and stunningly performed vocal tracks combined with the delicate, ethereal piano, are gentle and moving. A sharp contrast to the sad, hopelessness of the song’s subject matter.

“Beechwood Park” is an exquisite, minor key rumination of the past, delicately performed with an almost autumnal quality that draws the listener into another world, and again, executed with precision and breathtaking dynamics.
As a side note to film buffs, located in the area which inspired the songs rich visual imagery, was Beechwood House, a girls boarding school near Markyate which was the actual location used in the film “The Dirty Dozen”.

“Brief Candles”, which follows, was a collection of stories, all sung by different band members in succession. Rod first, followed by Chris, and then Colin. The idea was partially inspired by a collection of short stories written by Aldous Huxley.

“Hung Up On a Dream” was one of the first tracks recorded with a newly acquired Mellotron. A primitive (predigital sampling) keyboard that contained tapes of prerecorded sounds of instruments that could be played on a standard piano/organ styled keyboard. It’s also interesting to note that although the imagery of the lyrics evokes an acid trip, the writer, Rod Argent, was vehemently opposed to mind altering drugs, as were the other band members. This was another characteristic that differentiated them from a lot of other musicians at the time.

By far, one of the strangest tracks on the album has to be “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)”. Written and sung by Chris White (his only lead vocal on the album, apart from one verse in “Brief Candles”) the song is a disturbing portrait of war, as told by a soldier, a butcher by trade, and although it takes place during the First World War, a subject of great interest to its author, it was actually intended as metaphoric commentary on Vietnam. To the surprise of the band, the song was chosen by the record company as a single, probably for this reason, as protest songs were gaining popularity at the time.

Another feature that makes this song stand out, is the very unique instrumentation. The only musical instrument used on the track is an antique pedal organ found by Chris White in a junk store, and played by Rod Argent. Recorded by close miking the instrument as it was played, you can actually hear his fingernails hitting the keys. The sound effects were an example of “musique concrète”, an experimental technique of musical composition using recorded sounds as raw material, first developed in 1948 by French composer Pierre Schaeffer. It was created by reversing the tape of a recording by Pierre Boulez and then speeding it up. A very creative use of sampling, long before that term was ever used in a musical context.

The closing track, and probably their most famous song, is “Time Of The Season”. An infectious melody, with a cool call and response verse coupled with their trademark huge chorus of vocals, and topped off with the inventive and inspired electric piano stylings of Rod Argent. The song actually became one of the biggest selling records in the US when it was posthumously released as a single in 1969, after the band had already broken up. Long before the album was even close to completion, tensions were already building up within the group and creative differences were beginning to reveal themselves. By the time the album was released in the UK in April 1968, the band was no more. Even the runaway success of “Time of the Season” couldn’t bring them back as they were already working on new projects.

Despite the critical acclaim the album received much later (it’s often listed in the top albums of all time lists compiled by many music publications) it’s still a relative obscurity among the mainstream record buying public. It still remains a cult favorite whose legacy continues to spread through the word of mouth of its ever expanding group of admirers.

  • Adi Eddie Carney

    Thank you for a wonderful article. I have long thought that Odessey and Oracle is one of the finest albums of the 60s. I wish more people appreciated it as we do. Hopefully this article can spread the word!

    • Rik M.

      Thanks Adi!
      It’s one of my favorites and this is my first attempt at writing about albums, which I’d like to make a regular feature here, so thank you for the encouraging words!

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Gekko Gordon Gekko

    Most people don’t know this but at that time most recordings at Abbey Road Studios where done with tube equipment. The recording consoles , limiters, and compressors that recorded most of the Beatles recording up to 1968 was done using tube equipment. Their album “Abbey Road” was the first one to use a full transistorized recording console ( The TG desk 8 track series one). Back in 1967 Abbey Road was experimenting with a transistor recording console but the machine was a precursor to the TG recording console which was used on the Beatles Abbey Road used along with Pink Floyd’s “Dark side of the mood” (series 4 recording desk ) The Zombies “Odessey and Oracle” used that experimental transistor console and I also strongly believe that Pink Floyd’s “Pipers at the gates of dawn” also used it also, either during the session recording or during the master mixing process.

    • http://www.thestrummingmonkey.com Rik Mercaldi

      Thanks for the input, Gordon, very interesting stuff, cheers!

  • Ned Law

    Great album – but Colin’s name is Blunstone

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