Josh Rutner

saxophonist, editor, indexer, etc.

Episode 32: Odessey and Oracle (The Zombies, 1968)

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Abbey Road Studios—the summer of 1967. The Beatles had, just about a month earlier, wrapped up their ground-breaking sessions that would become their eight studio album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In walk another set of loveable English lads—The Zombies—well-dressed, well-rehearsed and raring to go, working on what they were already quite sure would be their second and final recording, Odessey And Oracle. They’d had a #2 hit in America with their 1964 debut single, “She’s Not There,” but reception of the band was quieting, and they were still living with their parents. So? One last hurrah. They’d had a clear vision for their songs and thus were able to convince CBS records—“with smarm and charm,” as they say—to give them £1000 and, importantly, to let them self-produce. Abbey Road Studios post-Sgt. Pepper’s was an ideal place to realize their lush, multi-layered backing vocal tracks, and instruments left behind from the Beatles’ session, such as the Mellotron—an early sampling keyboard that allowed them to quickly and easily infuse their often baroque arrangements with strings and flutes—provided a nice assist. Other instruments, on the other hand, like the pump-organ with its "high gothic top" that accompanied Chris White’s appropriately claustrophobic World War I-inspired song, "Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914),” had to be carefully transported to the studio by the band.

The influence of the Beatles as well as the Beach Boys shines through in the backing vocals of the bouncy opening track, called “Care of Cell 44,” which takes the unique form of a man’s letter his loved one, soon slated to be released from prison. After the verses, we hear those hums plus “bum-bum-bums” that so readily signal Beach Boys, followed immediately by open-throated, Beatlesque “Ah” backings.

Strains of melancholy run throughout the album, but nowhere quite so plainly as in the second track, “A Rose for Emily.” The title was borrowed from a 1930 Faulkner short story, but aside from both texts invoking images of graves and the view that, in the face of tragedy, nothing can be done, the song’s “Emily” was drawn from whole cloth. The song’s character is described—through the beautifully empathetic voice of lead-singer Colin Blunstone—as being surrounded by, but always left out of affairs of love. Summer arrives, but her sky is overcast. She tends to her rosebush, from which young lovers, swirling around her, pick flowers to give to anyone but her. Her pride, the only thing protecting her from pain, is no match for time’s nonchalant snuffing-out of both her and her roses. Heigh-ho, alas, and also lack-a-day: Not one rose left even for her grave. The elementary piano accompaniment complements beautifully the deep and luscious backing vocals.

In “Brief Candles,” three numb, spent lovers, fresh out of relationships, assess their respective loneliness, seeking the worthwhile in separation, enjoyment in their symptoms—their sadness makes them smile. Bassist Chris White, who wrote the song, said, “I suppose really it’s just about the ridiculousness of trying to make reasons of things.” The verses are quiet, accompanied only by piano, ramping up each time to the choruses, where the tempo and feel upshift, and bass, drums, and organ join in.

For such wonderfully psychedelic cover art—the misspelling of Odessey on the sleeve, by the way, uncaught by CBS’s art department through to the final pressing, was long face-savingly played-off by certain members of the band as just a hip play-on-words—anyway, for such a swirlingly-psychedelic artwork on the cover, the album is quite taught and composed through and through. No long and winding jams; and as for spacey effects, it’s pretty much limited to the brief, spooky fever-dream introduction of “Butcher’s Tale,” which lasts only 10 seconds before the pump organ appears and we’re off to the trenches.                                           

In the original release’s sleeve notes, the band included a foreshortened and slightly adjusted quotation from ol’ Will Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Be not afraid[afeared]; / The isle is full of noises / Sound[s], and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. / Sometimes a thousand twang[l]ing instruments / Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices.” 

Rest assured there’s nothing to be afeared of, listening to The Zombies. And much to delight in. So check out Odessey and Oracle, following the advice of the jester Trinculo, who, after Caliban utters the words above, says, “The sound is going away; let's follow it, and after, do our work.”

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.