God Would Be A Fool To Mess With It – The Zombies’ “Odessey and Oracle”

The Zombies
Odessey and Oracle
CBS

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One finds curious connections. Though its somewhat baroque, chamber-pop character makes it a difficult record for some people to get into – and was, in fact, responsible for my own delayed appreciation – Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom remains, in my view, the man’s finest achievement. Layered and unafraid of filigreed edges or the flagrant parp of a horn or two, the album, given time to fall together, is an unassailable piece of work the magic of which Declan can be forgiven for trying to recapture ever since. And that album’s producer? Former Beatles teenaged assistant producer Geoff Emerick, the very same man responsible for co-engineering what’s rightfully become the enduring psych-pop classic Odessey and Oracle by the Zombies, released 46 years ago this month to a far less salubrious reception as might be inferred from the superlatives found earlier in this sentence.

Impossible though it may be to believe now, Odessey and Oracle (the misspelling courtesy cover artist Terry Quirk, bassist Chris White’s then-roommate) was, to quote Wiki, “received indifferently upon its release.” To be fair, the lion’s share of blame for that may very well fall to neither band nor management but rather the simple fact of the album’s release date. April 19th, 1968 (the UK release date; the US wouldn’t see it until June) was pretty much smack in the middle of a stretch of record releases the towering, history-making nature of which would overshadow untold numbers of records that in most any other era – including whatever one we’re in now – would be slathered over by fans and critics alike. Considering that, in the course of 1968, Electric Ladyland, Crown of Creation, Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, Neil Young, Traffic, Astral Weeks, Beggars Banquet, Wheels of Fire, Music From Big Pink, Anthem of the Sun, We’re Only In It For The Money, Quicksilver Messenger Service, two records each by Aretha (Lady Soul and Aretha Now) and two by the Byrds (Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo) and oh yeah, the White Album, all emerged as if in a solid tidal (title?) wave, it’s little wonder the Zombies’ sophomore effort made but a modest (if that) splash. That’s a tough neighborhood. The only consolations in retrospect might be that many other releases found themselves similarly swamped, at least here in the US. Gris-Gris, White Light/White Heat (of course), The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, The Move, Os Mutantes, Nazz, Song Cycle, The Soft Machine, Music In A Doll’s House, and, most notably maybe, Silver Apples, all were left shouting from the sidelines as the likes of Steppenwolf and Iron Butterfly roared from center stage, most of them requiring years of slow seasoning before finding their place in the canon.

 

Adding to Odessey‘s (then) apparently cursed status, the band by the end of recording in the summer of ’67 – itself a pressurized, fraught process as budget and deadline fought it out tooth and nail to see which one could be tightest – was close to tatters if not fully in it. Both attempted singles – “Care of Cell 44” and “Friends of Mine” – found no purchase, literally or figuratively, live gigs were drying up, squabbles and disillusion replaced all sense of camaraderie and come mid-December 1967 the Zombies – less than two short years after the smash debut excitement of “She’s Not There” – would simply disintegrate, never, until several decades later, even performing the record live. A curious thing, however, happened on the way to anonymity.

Championed stateside by a pugnacious staff producer at Columbia Records by the name of Al Kooper, Odessey and Oracle overcame its first hurdle when Kooper, having picked it up in London and cottoned to its potential, convinced the mighty Clive Davis, Columbia president at the time, to release the record at all. In typical zeitgeist co-opting fashion, the label chose the somewhat abstruse “Butchers Tale (Western Front 1914)” as the inaugural single, hoping to cash in on an anti-war sentiment that was beginning to move from simmer to boil that summer. Just as typically, it died. The pushy, implacable Kooper, however, would not be stayed and a few months later persuaded his paymasters to release “Time of the Season” with the UK-failed “Friends of Mine” on the reverse. It, too, sputtered, dragging along on life-support, gaining partisans at a glacial pace clear through to the following year when it finally broke through in a major way, snowballing its way up the US charts until it crashed the Billboard Top 10, landing at #3 in early ’69, over a year past the band’s dissolution. Quixotic journeys to success often require an unforeseen handmaiden to act as guide and interlocutor and in the young Al Kooper, fresh off his indispensable organ turns on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde (the sessions to which he’d not officially been invited), Odessey and Oracle had found its Sancho Panza. For an album to have a chance to become ‘enduring’ it has to have a chance to survive in the first place, and the ten-month overnight success of “Time of the Season” ensured at least that. But if an album is going to reach for the pantheon of ‘iconic’ status there has to be something more, an unknowable but palpable aesthetic integrity AKA the X-factor. The spark of the whole has to be there to help prop up – and in some cases surpass, perhaps – the single million-seller at its center. Not a problem for Odessey and Oracle, as it turns out. The damn thing is damn near flawless (and that ‘damn near’ may well be the most regrettable tautology in the history of tautologies), and for that we have the collision of genius that was these musicians, their vision and prowess, abetted by the technical savvy of Misters Emerick and Peter Vince, creator of the “bass injection” method of recording electric bass and another Beatles graduate.

Gently launching the album on a dainty harpsichord-esque figure, “Care of Cell 44,” one of five Rod Argent compositions, also sets the archetypal psych-pop table, a sunny vocal floating over a textbook Sgt Peppery arrangement (in a telling coincidence, the album was recorded primarily at Abbey Road using the same type tape machine as had been used to record said Beatles masterpiece), it’s varied, complex, adventurously baroque. The glancingly dark, poignant hope of the lyrics, their text essentially a letter to a soon-to-be-released prisoner, provides a gritty counterpoint – one imagines the lonely bedsit these words may have been written from – to the song’s paisley melody that justifies its choice as the first (UK) single.

 

Like many records of that period, sorrow and minor chords of lingering melancholia shadow the brighter, sometimes stately shades of poptimism that is the invariable province of a sound that makes liberal use of mellotron, pastoral acoustic (or sonorous electric) guitars, pump organs, crisp, parlor-recital piano, the occasional flute, and Beach Boys-worthy harmonies. Axiomatically, of course, this is where the tension lies that can make records like this, if they’re good enough, stick inside our brains and resonate, setting our emotional nerves so pleasantly a-jangle that any notion of ever forgetting them is not exactly lost but rather abandoned. It being the stylistic mode of the day, a trove of bands adopted the rather ornamental template on display here, but you can count on no hands any that did it better than the Zombies on Odessey and Oracle.

The spare “A Rose For Emily,” Argent’s short Faulkner-inspired piano ballad, leavens its somber fragility with some layered harmonies that suggest a garden made of voices, a last sad refuge against the grey. “Beechwood Park” lays bassist Chris White’s nostalgic yearning for an idyllic youth in a Procol Harumed bed of longing and reflection, Colin Blunstone’s naturalistic tenor taking on a tremulous authority, the harmonies the pitch of a summer sunset. Reminiscence and the fleetingness of time are not rare visitors to this album, possibly unsurprising given the likely tacit understanding among the band that the early and instant momentum granted by the “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No” years had slowed to nearly standing still and the engines were shutting down all around them. Regardless of this being a pop album in every respect, a whiff of mortality stalks the edges. “Hung Up On A Dream,” with its “neon darkness shining through the haze,” its sylvan tempo, Paul Atkinson’s chiming, lute-like guitar, and angel choir backing vox, manages to bask equally in a lilting peace and a resigned sense of loss, Blunstone wistful as he sings “Sometimes I think I’ll never find / such purity and peace of mind again.”

Not that there isn’t fun to be had, or at least some measure of light-heartedness. The Argent-penned and -sung “I Want Her, She Wants Me” begins ever-so-playfully with a rockabilly-echoing bass and maintains its frolicsome pop charm throughout. The splashy bounce of “Friends of Mine” is downright infections, a 2:16 antidote to any manner of a bad mood, and then of course there’s “Time of the Season” itself, mystic and soulful, winking and almost irreverent with its own inherent heaviness, what with those gasped ahhs we all know so well providing a kind of percussive insouciance that in turn rather nimbly underscores the flippant impetuousness of the lyrics (“What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich, rich like me? – not exactly the hippie ideal, eh?). That they then let flow – not once but twice – an organ solo that’s part Doors, part Booker T, and part Brian Auger, played by Argent with a flourishing, suave virtuosity, is simply the mark of effortless creative aplomb. Abetted by some of the most recognizable rhythm work in rock history – White’s deliberate, pulse-y, pop funk bass, Hugh Grandy’s subtly tricky, semi-jazzy stick work – “Time of the Season” is as deservedly well-known as any chart hit in the worldwide oldies playlist, and arguably the candidate for the most eternally listenable. I don’t think anyone gets tired of hearing that song. It’s amazing, then, to consider that it may not be the sparkliest gem in the bunch.

 

The unceasing joy of Odessey and Oracle is being granted the opportunity for exuberant (re)discovery of what most of the world missed the first time around and has continued to overlook. While revisiting this record for the first time in at least ten years, there were numerous moments of time-stopping wonder, and at least two instances that challenged the primacy of the record’s most famous track. “Maybe After He’s Gone,” though lulling at first with pensive, downtempo, acoustic-dappled balladry, soon erupts with bloom and dazzle, assembling element after element of classic pop tropes – Spectoresque drum echoes, sinuous seductive bass runs, a piano roll that reminds, oddly enough, of Al Kooper, those ever-present Everly-ish harmonies – all wrapped inside the kind of pop architecture that future constructionists like Alex Chilton and Carl Newman would climb all over in their own attempts to add to the classicist landscape. The topper, though, may just be “Brief Candles.” Prefaced by a folkish interlude of a piano passage, the lyrics a piece of delicate reportage (Argent taking the first verse here), the song, with a triumphant burst that amounts to the word ‘hook’ defined, coalesces into what might be the quintessential Zombies track, all their characteristics as they’d developed over their relatively short career distilled into three and a half minutes – the baroque, the pop rush, the resistance-melting voice, the seemingly easy complexity of the arrangement, and, most pointedly, the pronounced melancholy-meets-the-ecstatic fulcrum more fully in place than anywhere else on the album, no better exemplified by the line “his sadness makes him smile.”

There’s a delicious emotional satisfaction in that line as there is pretty much everywhere on Odessey and Oracle. It’s a shame, I suppose, that the band didn’t at the time receive even a fraction of the kudos they eventually would for writing, recording, and producing what is now considered a certified legend of an album. That’s the usual line, anyway, and yeah, maybe if they had been properly fêted upon Odessey and Oracle‘s release they’d have gone on to greater heights but I’d argue that the trajectory of their mercurial career – and especially their belief during its making that that thread was nearly played out – is what led to this record’s greatness. It is its “X-factor.” Among rock’s most perfect ‘perfect storms,’ even God would be a fool to mess with it. An immortal album.