With laurels like these, who could ask for more?
In the 1960s, England gave us three great pop groups: The Beatles, The Kinks and The Zombies. Of these, The Zombies are the most puzzling. They were together for only five years during their original run, from 1962 to 1967, releasing only one album in that time, Begin Here, renamedThe Zombies for U.S. release. By the time Odessey and Oracle came out in 1968, the group had broken up, partly due to internal tensions, partly due to lack of commercial prospects.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the album’s momentous recording, which mostly took place in the summer of 1967. Geoff Emerick, fresh from working on Sgt. Pepper’s, served as one of the album’s engineers, which is evident in the arrangements and instrumentation; indeed, the album was recorded in the same studio where the Fabs conveniently left behind their Mellotron, which would feature prominently on “Changes” and “Hung Up on a Dream.”
In the charming and well-produced book published by Reel Art Press/BMG Books, we relive The Zombies’ career through adorable photographs of the lads themselves—Colin Blunstone, Rod Argent, Chris White, Hugh Grundy and Paul Atkinson, who passed away in 2004—and many charming collages by Vivienne Boucherat (White’s wife and a singer in her own right), which serve as a nice complement to the scans of handwritten lyrics.
We also get a mini-oral history of the band, as well as comments from notable fans like Tom Petty (who wrote the foreword), Graham Nash and Brian Wilson, along with other contemporary acts like Beach House and Cage the Elephant, power pop icons Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs, Paul Weller of The Jam and critics like Dave Marsh, Bob Boilen and Ken Tucker.
The band emerged at a time when seemingly any group of schoolboys could get a band together. They looked iconic in their own way, though perhaps not as cool as either The Beatles or The Kinks who had the luxury of symmetry (four members apiece, rather than the Zombies’ five). But they didn’t need to, achieving a degree of pop sophistication, seemingly immediately, that is hard to fathom. Imagine having “She’s Not There” be your first hit! That’s something even a Beatle could envy. Not to mention “Tell Her No,” another Argent-penned hit from 1964, much inspired by Bacharach, that sold a whopping half a million copies, as well as the utterly magical “The Way I Feel Inside,” one of the most beautiful love songs ever, which, as this volume reveals, was written by Argent in 20 minutes, ahem, in the bathroom. So, in brief, they had an auspicious start, to be sure, but nothing like what would come.
Odessey and Oracle is not a rock album. It’s not even a pop album, exactly. It’s more like if medieval troubadours were transplanted to the ‘60s, took some creative writing classes, caught themselves up to speed with The Beatles, Brian Wilson and Bacharach-David, then turned to write music of their own. It somehow also manages to be psychedelic work without much actual consumption of mind-altering substances. It is, itself, mind-altering.
All this is especially impressive given their limited budget and constrained schedules (having to record in three-hour shifts). The album bursts with melodic invention. The Zombies were lucky to have one of pop’s most captivating vocalists in Colin Blunstone and two outstanding writers and musicians in Rod Argent and Chris White. On this album, we have Argent’s pop intuition, seen in classics like “Care of Cell 44,” “A Rose for Emily,” the show-stopping “Hung Up on a Dream,” “I Want Her She Wants Me” and, of course, the immortal “Time of the Season.” White, meanwhile, contributes fabulous lyrics and music of his own on songs like “Maybe After He’s Gone,” the nostalgia trip “Beechwood Park,” “Brief Candles,” “Changes,” This Will Be Our Year” (my personal favorite), the haunting “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1916)” and the endearing, joyful “Friends of Mine.”
On the whole, The Zombies come off, in their recollections of the writing and recording of these songs, as humble, cheerful and genuinely awed by their own accomplishments, with seemingly no hint of resentment or disappointment at not having lasted longer. Of course, they have since reunited and have had the chance to perform Odessey and Oracle, now that—as Argent quite plausibly claims—the album is appreciated more than ever before. In the closing pages of the book, we see the four surviving Zombies sitting together, smiling, looking as lad-like as ever. Ultimately, there may not be as much mystery to the band as one might hope—just talented people allowing each other and themselves to do good work. The Zombies are one of the few bands I’m happy to see rest on their laurels. With laurels like these, who could ask for more?