Posted: December 28th, 2008
If you weren’t fortunate enough to hear this music when it first appeared in the mid-Sixties, you will never know the extremes of its magic.
Since the rise of Oasis and Brit-Rock in the mid 90s, critics have been handing out Beatles comparisons with the mindless frequency of meter-maids writing parking tickets. This runaway praise-inflation has reached the point where just about any new British band to cross the Atlantic is automatically heralded as either Beatles-esque or Nick Drake-ish. Fortunately there are a few free thinkers in rock journalism, a small uncompromising minority who still define themselves by the music they recommend, steadfastly refusing to serve as stooges for the record industry.
With the old breed of critics we find legends like Dave DiMartino, a man more likely to jump in shit barefoot than to loosely compare bands to the likes of Beatles or Nick Drake. When it comes to rock ‘n roll, this former editor of Creem Magazine and current editor of Launch Media (Yahoo! Music) has pretty much seen and heard it all. Immune to hype, he distinguishes himself by never gushing frivolously. So I was a little startled when Dave D. told me that some album I never heard of by the Zombies entitled Odessey And Oracle was not only comparable to anything recorded by the Beatles, but was also on his All-Time Top Ten list.
Now when Dave D. talks, people listen, particularly when the subject is vintage British psychedelic pop. Prior to hearing Odessey And Oracle, I had known the Zombies only as an oldies radio-friendly two-hit wonder group (“She’s Not There” and “Time Of The Season”) that ingloriously came and went. With a healthy dose of scepticism, I decided to check out this supposed masterpiece for myself. I went to the record store, bought the cheapest (no bonus tracks) copy, and put the CD into the car player for the ride home, innocently waiting for the music to start like some unsuspecting driver moments before being plucked up by the spaceship. I really had no idea that this fabled relic of an album from such a poorly named band would actually provide one of the most exhilarating first listens of my life. The CD repeated and my head spun as I drove in circles around the block. This was too good to stop.
From the moment the album introduced itself to my ears with the opening grandeur of “Care of Cell Block 44,” it was clear that Dave D. was not overstating the facts. The song’s intricate harmonies, unconventional lyrics, catchy riffs, complex chord progressions, and dense orchestrations indeed make it comparable to anything off of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds or the Beatles’ Revolver. The rest of the album, for all its psychedelic experimentation and dark pop lyricism, sustains this incredible level of greatness from beginning to end. Unprecedented for the band but no lucky accident, this magnificently tuneful psychedelic pop/rock long-player turned out the way it did for a reason.
Sensing that the album would probably be their last, the Zombies had decided to make Odessey And Oracle their artistically uncompromising farewell, ambitiously exploring new ideas and dramatically expanding their sound without the expectation (or pressures) of superstardom. So, in 1967, when their first few singles sunk in the UK without a whisper, the guys shrugged their shoulders and split up. The story could have ended there, were it not for the efforts of Al Kooper, who persuaded CBS (his then employer) to domestically release the album in July of 1968. Expectations were six-feet under by the time the fourth single, “Time Of The Season” was released, but in early 1969 the Zombies reputation had arisen from the dead as the song topped the charts. A blue-eyed soul classic, the song was such a massive commercial success that CBS extended fat cash offers to lure the band into a reunion. But by this time Zombies keyboardist and songwriter Rod Argent was busy launching own band, Argent, so sadly, there would be no follow up.
Oddly enough, dying young and achieving posthumous fame did not guarantee that band would be immortalized. As the Sixties passed, the Zombies were returned to the dusty crypt of undeserved obscurity, and Odessey And Oracle dropped out of print. Their failure to achieve more widespread success is mystifying, particularly when you hear (which you must) Colin Blunstone’s breathy and soulful vocals, the band’s gorgeous backup harmonies, Rod Argent’s melodic piano and Mellotron wizardry, and Chris White’s utterly unique style of song writing.
Lacking the equivalent of a cute Beatle and looking a bit square, they were probably too adventurous for the radio and not sexy enough to sell posters. Whatever the case, their influence has extended further than their legend, with their music enjoying a legion of followers, from Teenage Fanclub to Elliot Smith. But even with the recent upsurge of interest in the band (culminating in 1997 with the release of the 4-disc boxed set entitled Zombie Heaven), Odessey And Oracle still remains one of the most underrated albums in rock history.
- Chris White – Bass, Vocals, Producer
- Rod Argent – Organ, Piano, Keyboards, Vocals, Producer, Mellotron
- Colin Blunstone – Vocals
- Paul Atkinson – Guitar
- Hugh Grundy – Drums
- Care Of Cell
- A Rose For Emily
- Maybe After He’s Gone
- Beechwood Park
- Brief Candles
- Hung Up On A Dream
- I Want Her She Wants Me
- This Will Be Our Year
- Butcher’s Tale
- Friends Of Mine
- Time Of The Season
- I Call You Mine (bonus track)
- Imagine The Swan (bonus track)