Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Hippies vs. Punks: The Zombies' Odessey & Oracle (1968)

I was working a conference in April and in attendance was a guy I've known for a long time. He is a member of my union; that's how I know him. He is something of a pop music aficionado. He can go on for long stretches of time; for instance, about the recording history and chart positions of British Invasion bands of the 1960s.

This is what he did when I gave him, and a couple other aging union brothers, a lift home from an all-day out-of-town union assembly. He had burned a British Invasion disk. To each track he provided a running commentary. It was a delight, until the CD player of the rental car I was driving ate the disk. The guy freaked and started pounding on the dashboard. Fortunately, we were only a few clicks from his aprtment. I was able to soothe him with the promise that a pair of needle-nose pliers would remedy the situation. When we got to his building, he ran upstairs, grabbed the pliers (which, thank goodness, he possessed) and returned to successfully extract his juicy nuggets of Georgie Fame, Petula Clark, Herman's Hermits and The Hollies.

Next I saw him, at last month's conference, there wasn't any shadow of the British-Invasion-CD meltdown, only the bright sunshine of his having seen the week prior The Zombies 50th anniversary tour of Odessey & Oracle (1968).

Odessey & Oracle, which my union brother proceeded to tell me, is a classic from the psychedelic era. The album was recorded principally at Abbey Road Studios a few months after The Beatles had recorded Sgt. Pepper's there. He raved for a solid ten minutes about the record, saying I had to listen to it immediately, particularly if I was unfamiliar with it. I promised I would.

I waited until a copy, which was the 2004 reissue by Fuel 2000, was available from my public library. I've been listening to it off and on for four weeks (mostly on last week).

What I've been thinking about is mostly how short-lived psychedelic pop/rock was. This train of thought is a continuation from the last Hippies vs. Punks post. By 1969 Pink Floyd had put a lot of sonic space between it and their Syd Barrett records. (Just think of the aural distance between June 1, 1967 Sgt. Pepper's and November 22, 1968 The White Album.)

The popular reception of Odessey & Oracle is a testament to the spontaneously anachronistic quality of psychedelic pop. As Greg Russo explains in his liner notes, The Zombies were having difficulty making money on tour. After a disastrous trip to the Far East, the band -- really the songwriters, keyboard player Rod Argent and bass player Chris White -- decided to make one more go of it in the studio. They signed with CBS Records, and CBS put up the money to record at Abbey Road.

Once the session work was done and the mixes made, Clive Davis, head of CBS, was not much impressed, an opinion that was confirmed when the first two singles released in 1967, "Friends of Mine" (not the best choice) and "Care of Cell 44" (much better) both tanked, followed by the generally ignored release of the album in April 1968.

The label then basically shelved Odessey & Oracle. By this time most of The Zombies had gone out and found regular day jobs. Chasing after the Zeitgeist, Rod Argent was already working on rebuilding the band, moving a new Zombies (which would become Argent) in, as Russo says, "a progressive, heavier" direction.

Then something bizarre happened. A U.S. radio station in the Midwest started playing "Time of the Season" at the end of 1968/beginning of '69, and by March it was a smash hit, reaching #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping the Cashbox chart.

By March of 1969 the first blush of psychedelia had already faded. Nixon was in the White House and his secret saturation bombing of Cambodia was underway. Nineteen-Sixty-Nine and 1970 -- with Woodstock and Altamont, Easy Rider and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Weather Underground and Kent State -- are the end of the '60s dream.

The Zombies psychedelic pop from the Summer of Love must have seemed simultaneously dated and fresh. Instantaneous nostalgia.

Sgt. Pepper's promise that everything is right here right now had proven hard to hold onto. Societies are not founded on such freedom. But people didn't want to give up the dream, particularly as that dream was floating closer and closer to the mainstream. So Odessey & Oracle found its place on AM radios in station wagons headed to and from the beach, or even on the supermarket PA, soothing shoppers as they strolled the fluorescent aisles buying Pop-Tarts and Tang.

Last week when I went on my morning coffee break -- there is an espresso place up the block from the building where I work that serves good coffee and is staffed by friendly, attractive, thoughtful, non-hipster young people -- two young women (my favorites) were working the counter. while on the sound system The Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love" was playing.

Either these young women were very kind and adept at affecting interest or they were genuinely interested when I launched into a small spiel about how music is isomorphic, that it mirrors the society from whence it originates, and that now, for our society, it would be impossible to produce Motown sound. "We're not that happy anymore," I said.

One of the young women agreed. "Yeah. You're right. We don't do happy."


  1. Now you're in my wheelhouse. The Zombies were very good songwriters, and Colin Blunstone had an incredible voice, which I didn't really appreciate at the time.

    When I was delaying my induction in 1971, by taking a tour of Europe, I saw an ad in a local London publication (Time Out? Lights Out?) about a show with a new band, Argent, so one Sunday afternoon I went to a bar in Epping Forest out in the burbs. There was a good crowd hanging out in the garden next to the bar, but the band hadn't started. I remember sitting down at a table with a bunch of long hairs and complained about the band not already playing. Everyone at the table stared at me and I suddenly realized that I had sat down in the middle of the band, having a pint in garden before the show. I sheepishly slunk away.

    And it was a good show, when they finally started playing.

    I saw a reconstituted Zombies in 2005, opening for Arthur Lee's latest iteration of Love, in SF. Great show, and Blunstone's voice was incredible.

    I can't say I have been knocked out my their newer material. Their simple but absolutely clever pop songs were great, but then we're arguing taste here. The director of the movie "Bunny Lake Is Missing" used their song, "Just Out Of Reach", to great effect.

    While they were contemporaneous with psychedelia, I never connected them to any social movement. They didn't sing about taking drugs, and until O&O I don't think that they had any anti-war songs. They were hanging between a more ornate rock (Argent's playing) and a relationship with Anglicized blues and jazz. Once Argent came along Argent the player got to stretch out with long solos (Hold Your Head Up et al) and Blunstone slipped into almost easy listening pop.

    Also, the guitarist from Argent, Russ Ballard, had an interesting career post-Argent. He'd previously played around, including the guitarist in Unit 4 + 2 (Concrete And Clay). He wrote a number of hits for various acts, things you wouldn't connect to him, including that great song for Frida, "I Know There's Something Going On", with Phil Collins producing and playing his massive gated drums. I think he also wrote "Back In The New York Groove". And that great song of mopey sadness vehicle, "I Don't Believe In Miracles", which was done by the Zombies, himself, and by Colin Blunstone during his solo career.

    1. Thanks Bob. Great stuff -- Sharing a pint with Argent. I recently downloaded their second and third albums.

  2. Arthur Lee's Love more represented the Summer of Love for me, from their first paleo-punk/folkrock first album (talking about mopey, take a listen to the original version of "Message To Pretty"). The second album got acidy, between things like "Stephanie Knows Who", the speedy "7 and 7 Is", and things like "She Comes In Colors" which I believe Jagger ripped off on "Their Satanic Majesties Request" with "She's A Rainbow". Jagger comes off as asshole on acid on that song, versus Lee's "She Comes In Colors" which is part racial commentary, part psychiatric self-examination. "A thought in my head, I think, of something to do. Expressions tell everything. I see one on you."

    But if you really want to capture the end of psychedelia try "Forever Changes". While the band was stringing out on heroin and Dennis Wilson was hanging out with the Captain from Captain and Tennille and Charlie Manson and LA was falling into the Pacific, Lee was creating a rock/Mexicali/orchestral masterpiece. "Forever Changes" still is a great glimpse into the era. Living in The Castle in Topanga Canyon while insane cults were killing people, a seeming commentary on Vietnam coming home.

    My personal post-psychedelia period was pretty much trying to avoid killing people for the army over in Nam. Networks around me were shattered between friends snorting coke and dropping out of college. A very dark period.

    But life goes on, and so did the Zombies.

    You got any questions on the era, let me know. Another recommendation, Blunstone's solo album, "One Year", a respite from the Grand Funks and southern boogie bands at the time. Great, mopey rock. He also recorded a number of singles in Britain under pseudonyms.

    Glad to help out.

  3. When do you think the psychedelic era ended? It seems to me by 1969 there's a split between prog rock (Yes, Genesis) and acid rock (Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple) developing. I wonder what is the last proper psychedelic Summer of Love record.

    My knowledge of Love is very limited. I have a copy of FOREVER CHANGES. I just have never gotten around to make a study of it. I want to get the Thunderclap Newman record you alerted me to. Because after reading your post I discovered that Speedy Keen produced the first Johhny Thunders and the Hearbreakers LP, L.A.M.F., a seminal album from the Punk revolution of 1977.

    Thanks as always Bob for your input.

    1. Thunderclap's album wasn't that great. The only two cuts I listen to are "Something In The Air" and "Accidents" which is more about people dying in accidents. I wouldn't spend big bucks on it.

      As far as the last proper psychedelia album, I don't know. Depends on what your parameters are for defining a proper psy/Summer of Love album. I'll have to contemplate that for awhile. When 1967 ended so, technically, was the Summer of Love. And during 1967 a lot of music was earlier rock, and after there were still dudes playing sitars.

      Have you ever read Peter Levenda? Or the book on the Manson Family by Ed Sanders? Sanders was a poet in Greenwich and a member of the Fugs, I wasn't in LA, but it really gives a feel for the pop culture and its discontents. Levenda's three-volume work on modern political witchcraft touches bases on all sorts of things going on through the period. I'm around. I'll get back to you.

  4. I read Ed Sanders' THE FAMILY a couple summers back. Incredible! A masterpiece. There was all that stuff in there about human sacrifice in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I'll check out Levenda. I guess Summer of Love/psychedelia can spill over several years given the example of ODESSEY & ORACLE which took off in the spring of 1969. An interesting question in this regard would be whether a proper psychedelic album was produced or charted after May 1970, Kent State/Nationwide Student Strike, when the Nixon bunch thought Uncle Sam was in peril. I read Ron Jacobs DAYDREAM SUNSET when it came out in 2015. He says that last serious year of 1960s protest was 1971. Maybe there is a proper psychedelic album from that time.