Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Zombies - Odessey and Oracle

I have a terrible confession to make. . It’s too embarrassing for a true rock fan to make....but here goes....I had no idea of the existence of The Zombies’ “Odessey and Oracle” (their misspelling, not mine) until January 2008. There I said it. Saying it quickly makes me feel no better. Apart from the magnificent “She’s Not There”, I had no idea of anything else that they did (and they didn’t have a large recorded output). That’s probably the way classic hits radio stations would prefer it.
I was going away on a beach holiday with the family, so I figured a copy of Uncut Magazine would make for some good holiday reading. Neil Young was on the cover with the headline “I’m not ready to go yet” (would he call an interview with Uncut if he was?) If I was going to be away for the week, I figured I’d read this from cover to cover, even covering those articles about bands I didn’t like or have no clue as to who they were. The Zombies featured in an article about the making of the band’s funky single “Time of the Season”, and interviewed all surviving members (Paul Atkinson died in 2004).
I learned that after 8 years of slogging it out to a largely disinterested general British public (and a disastrous tour of the Phillipines – something in common with the Fab Four),they decided to call it a day, but would record one final album, then split. That album was “Odessey and Oracle”. By the time it got released in the US (with a little help from fan, Al Kooper) and became a number one hit, the Zombies were no more. Oh sure, for a number of years, there were fake touring versions of the band, but not the real thing featuring all members – Colin Blunstone, Chris White, Paul Atkinson, Hugh Grundy and Rod Argent. This article and one that appeared about the same time in a Mojo magazine about the band’s reformation to play the album live 40 years later had me intrigued. I ordered and bought the album.
Make no mistake folks, this album is a bona fide pop classic. It’s been labelled with the psychedelic tag, but the music on this album could have been released any time and fans of great melodies and gorgeous harmonies would still find it fresh. After I bought the album, I must have played it 4 or 5 times a week for a year. No shit – it’s THAT good. My 9 year old daughter knows every lyric on the album. When Judgement Day comes and my faults are being itemised, I know I’ll have the introduction of this record to my daughter on the good side of the scale.
The album opens up with a killer trio of tunes. How the hell did they get away with opening up the album with a love letter from a man to his girlfriend, who just happens to be a prison inmate? How how many other love songs have THAT as a twist? This could have easily been tacky, but somehow on “Care of Cell 44”, the lyrics work. Then there’s that “aaaaaaahhhhh” harmony in the chorus. Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson should have been nervous. The next track “A Rose For Emily” will break your heart. Lyrically, it’s sort of a companion piece to “Eleanor Rigby” with a tale of humanity forgotten. While you’re still scratching your head and asking how much beauty can come from sadness, then comes “Maybe After He’s Gone”. There are many songs about unrequited love (hell, Chris Isaak and Roy Orbison made careers out of them). This is more of a “my girlfriend doesn’t love me anymore because she found someone better” song. Now there are songs and real life situations where the ditched party doesn’t take it so well. Revenge or sadness may be normal emotions. The protagonist of this song takes the view that he’ll wait for the new beau to leave and then will be accepted back in the affections of his former love. This seems pitiful and pathetic. However, I’m sure this is what Chris White meant to convey when he wrote the song. It wasn’t just a lame piece of album filler, not with this lyric as the opening verse:
She told me she loved me
With words as soft as morning rain
But the light that fell upon me
Turned to shadow when he came

Further melodies with melancholy are abound on this album, but there are also songs covering other emotions. One is the truly romantic “This Will Be Our Year”. On a planet where love of great music was more of a priority, this song would be played at weddings, not Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Ruin, I Ruin It For You”...or something like that. I won’t describe it – just listen to it with someone you REALLY love.
Think of all the anti-war songs you’ve heard and anti-war films you’ve watched. They can all be distilled into "The Butcher's Tale". This is one very scary two and a half minute song, set in World War One. I’ve never heard anything that brought the front line so close to the observer. The musical accompaniment to Chris White’s frightened vocals is a pump organ which makes the song sound positively gothic. When the protagonist sings “I can’t stop shaking, my hands won’t stop shaking”, you really feel his fear. This song seems out of place with the joy and melancholy of the rest of the album, and yet, I can’t imagine the album without it.
When I told a friend who works as a broadcaster that I’d discovered this album, he told me how he envied me for getting the feeling of hearing this album for the first time. He’d lived with it for years. The songwriting of Chris White and Rod Argent and the breathy vocals of lead singer Colin Blunstone as well as the musicianship of all of the band contribute to a true work of art. If you haven’t heard this album, feel no shame. Just get it. I truly envy what awaits you.

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