By Robin Platts
As the 1967 Summer of Love approached, the Zombies were struggling, disillusioned and disappointed after three years in the music business.
“We’d been playing non-stop for three years,” recalled lead singer Colin Blunstone. “We’d had the really unfortunate situation of starting off with a huge hit and everything was a little bit less successful after that. If you start at the top, it’s very difficult to take disappointment after that. And that’s what happened to us.”
The Zombies had arrived in 1964, riding the British Invasion with two Top 10 U.S. hits, She’s Not There and Tell Her No, both of which also charted in Britain. The next few Zombies singles hit the lower reaches of the U.S. charts, but failed to register in the UK.
By 1966, despite the increasingly strong material being written by the Zombies’ chief songwriters, keyboard player Rod Argent and bassist Chris White, the band’s singles weren’t charting on either side of the Atlantic.
“Our records were selling less and less,” said White. “The only people earning money were Rod and myself, because we were writing the songs. The rot started setting in and Decca then didn’t take up our option.”
After Decca Records dropped the band, the Zombies decided to give it one last try, with a self-produced album of original material. Argent knew the band would likely have split up by the time the album came out, but he and White in particular were eager to put the Zombies to rest with a parting gesture that, for the first time, gave the band control over every aspect of a record, from the songwriting to production and cover design.
“We decided to produce an album ourselves,” said White. “We got a deal with CBS in England and recorded it at Abbey Road. I think we did the whole album for a thousand pounds, still using four tracks. It was like a factory. Everyone had a break at lunch time and at tea time. And then you just went on until eight o’clock at night.”
The album was recorded at EMI’s Abbey Road studio, with engineers Phil MacDonald and Geoff Emerick, who had recently worked on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP.
“We went into Abbey Road No. 2 just as the Beatles were leaving,” recalled the late Paul Atkinson, the Zombies’ guitarist. “They’d just finished doing Sgt. Pepper. So we walk in and Geoff Emerick and Phil MacDonald are unplugging all these patch cables. We said, ‘Wait a minute, what are you doing? Plug those back in again.’ And they said, ‘No, no, please. We’ve had six months of this. It’s been driving us crazy. We want to unplug all this stuff and get back to recording normally.’
“I think they had six or eight four-track machines lined up against the wall of the control room, all connected by patch cords,” Atkinson remembered. “So we made them plug them back in again and we used the same technique. So we benefited directly from Sgt. Pepper.”
The band produced the album on a tight budget, with sessions taking place between June and November 1967. The recording “was done over a period of months,” White said, “but the actual time in the studio was very quick, because we couldn’t afford to waste money. We didn’t get advances in those days. It was a matter of trying to do it as cheaply as possible.”
Despite sticking to a tight schedule and budget, White and Argent ended up having to use some of their own royalty earnings to complete the album. After the recording was finished, Odessey and Oracle was mixed in mono, which was the more popular format in Britain at the time. “CBS came back to us and said, okay, great, now you’ve got to mix it in stereo but you’ve used up your budget, so you’ll have to pay for it yourselves,” Argent recalled. “So we had to spend two hundred pounds of our own money remixing the album in stereo.”
Odessey and Oracle’s closing track, Time of the Season, would eventually put the Zombies back in the Top 10; unfortunately, nobody knew it at the time, least of all Colin Blunstone:
“I didn’t like that song,” Blunstone said with a laugh, recalling his initial reaction to Time of the Season. “I really didn’t. Rod and I had a big, big row in the studio as I was singing it. He was in the control room, and the song had only just been written and we hadn’t had a chance to rehearse it that much. He was offering advice about how the song should go and I was getting a bit upset about all this advice coming down. And I asked him, in very strong terms, whether he didn’t think he ought to be singing it, rather than me. He said, “Now you stay there and you sing it!’ It was a hell of a row.
“I look back now and I’m very glad that I did sing it,” Blunstone reflected. “But I think that had a big effect on me afterwards. No way did I see that as a hit and, of course, it was a million seller. You have to keep an open mind, because you can be horrendously wrong.”
The choral harmonies on Time of the Season were just one example of the strong vocal arrangements that set Odessey and Oracle apart from most of the Zombies’ earlier efforts. The album’s opener, Care of Cell 44, was embellished with irresistible Beach Boys-style vocals, while A Rose for Emily’s vocal counterpoints are similarly indicative of the attention to detail that characterizes everything on Odessey and Oracle. Nothing on the album seems half-baked; every track feels fully realized in its arrangement and performance.
Colin Blunstone handled most of the lead vocals on Odessey and Oracle, but the album also featured Rod Argent singing lead on I Want Her, She Wants Me, while Chris White took the lead on one of his own compositions, Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).
“That came about because I was always fascinated with the First World War and happened to be reading a book about the battle of the Somme,” White recalled. “I think, in retrospect, I was affected quite a bit by the Bee Gees’ New York Mining Disaster. And I had bought this old American pedal harmonium form a junk shop.
“The others said, ‘Why don’t you sing it in your shaky little voice?’ So I sang it. It was a throwaway track, really.”
Brief Candles had Argent, White and Blunstone each singing lead on a verse (with Blunstone handling the chorus), while Changes featured the whole band singing on its chorus.
“We had to do three songs in a day, so you got them down as fast as possible,” Chris White recalled. “On Changes, we tried to use the drummer and guitarist, who didn’t normally sing, to get the harmonies done. We were running overtime in Abbey Road Studio 3 and the fellows in white coats came in and removed the piano while we were doing the last minutes of harmony. That was the sort of thing you were dealing with in those days.”
Odessey and Oracle was completed towards the end of 1967 and released in England in April 1968.
The misspelling of “odyssey” in the album title first appeared in the cover painting by White’s roommate, artist Terry Quirk.
“He spelled it wrong and it was too late,” Argent recalled. “He designed the whole thing and it came out. And then we sort of made up this story that it was actually a play on words – it was a play on the word ‘ode’ and it had a sort of poetic meaning.”
The album, like the two British singles that preceded it (Friends of Mine and Care of Cell 44), failed to chart. The Zombies had already decided to call it a day, but the commercial failure of Odessey and Oracle confirmed the band’s demise.
“I was getting more and more frustrated playing one-nighters around the country, travelling around in the back of a van,” said Atkinson. “It was pretty rough. There was a lot of tension in the group. Rod certainly had his ambitions to do something new and progressive, as he ended up doing with Argent. All of us felt that the Zombies had had their best days and let’s move on.”
“We were rehearsing acoustically at Chris White’s flat in Finchley,” Blunstone recalled. “I think everyone was tired and being a bit negative. As I remember it, Paul said, ‘Well, I think it’s time for me now; I think that’s enough.’ And Rod said, ‘If Paul’s going to leave, I think we should fold the band.’ And no one argued. I think we were all just very, very tired. It was remarkably undemonstrative; probably very English. After all those years and those miles of travelling and everything.”
That would have been the end of the Zombies story if it hadn’t been for the intervention of Al Kooper, at that time working as a staff producer for CBS in America. Kooper discovered Odessey and Oracle during a visit to London and convinced CBS to put it out in the States, on the label’s Date subsidiary.
The American release, in June 1968, initially appeared to be another failure, undoubtedly compounded the selection of Butcher’s Tale – the album’s least radio-friendly track – as the first single.
“The first single off the album in America was Butcher’s Tale,” White recalled, “because to them it applied to the Vietnam conflict. Then they put out Care of Cell 44, because they thought that was the commercial one. And nothing happened and the Zombies had split up anyway. And eight months after we split up, CBS decided as a last shot they’d put out Time of the Season. One day it sold six copies in Boise, Idaho and, for that one reason, they thought maybe we’ve got a chance here, so they put it out to all their distributors. And then it started getting featured and it became Number 1.”
When Time of the Season reached the Top 10 in early 1969, the Zombies had long since split and moved on to other things. Rod Argent and Chris White were still working together, writing and producing new material for the group Argent. They briefly revived the Zombies name for the planned R.I.P. album, intended to meet the demand for new Zombies recordings after the unexpected success of Time of the Season. This LP would have featured a handful of new “Zombies” tracks, performed by an early line-up of the group Argent (with Rod singing lead), fleshed out with a selection of Zombies studio outtakes from years past. The album was scrapped, although Imagine the Swan was released as a 45 and all the other tracks have subsequently surfaced on compilations.
Over the years, Odessey and Oracle came to be something of a cult classic, acknowledged – like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album – as one of the lost gems of the ‘60s. Although Paul Atkinson passed away in 2004, the four surviving Zombies regrouped at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire in 2008 to perform Odessey and Oracle in its entirety on the 40th anniversary of the album’s release.