Fifty years ago this June, the English rock band the Zombies began recording a lush, Mellotron-tinged masterpiece of melodic, intricate pop called Odessey and Oracle. Though it reflected and refracted its Summer of Love provenance right down to its trippy, unintentionally misspelled title, the album tanked on release. In fact, its eventual acknowledgment as one of the finest LPs of that heady era is largely the result of a particularly inspired A&R man and a Midwestern deejay who truly believed that the record's third single was the one. Otherwise, the record might well be an obscure relic today.
Happily, late-blooming love for that misbegotten platter has led to a thriving second life for these Zombies. On Monday, the four surviving members, along with longtime musical cohorts, will perform the record in its entirety, from "Care of Cell 44" through that semi-posthumous No. 1, "Time of the Season." In defiance of time, they'll do all the songs in the original keys. In acknowledgement of time, they won't play it again after this tour. Rod Argent, the band's main songwriter, whose keyboard work, along with Colin Blunstone's dreamy vocals, are the band's signature, spoke with us about a record like no other.
INDY: How instrumental was [musician/Columbia A&R man] Al Kooper to Odessey and Oracle?
ROD ARGENT: That record would never have been released [in the U.S.] if it hadn't been for Al. We'd given up on it. We'd broken up. We'd made the album and loved it, thought it was the best we could do. It got some great reviews, but the first single came out and it didn't get played in the UK, so we decided to break up and move on to other paths. At that time, Al Kooper came over to the UK and picked up two hundred records. He went back to Clive Davis and said, "Look, I've found one exceptional album and we have to release it." And [Davis] said, "Well, we have it and we've passed on it."
Al said, "You can't pass on it, you have got to release it." So he released it, and they released "Butcher's Tale" [as a single], which is one of my favorite tracks on the album, but never a single. That didn't do anything, and then "Friends of Mine" didn't either. As a third release, they released "Time of the Season." Over a period of about six months, it gradually spread because only one DJ played it, in Boise, Idaho. Six months later it was number one.
In retrospect, isn't "Time of the Season" the obvious single?
The thing is, things always seem obvious in retrospect. But I was probably the only one in the band—I remember saying to [bassist/composer of seven songs on Odessey] Chris White, "You know, this is a hit single," because it seemed to have some of the qualities I love most about the Zombies. It had that freshness. It had a little bit of a jazz element to it, a little improvisation to it, but also a bass and drum riff which was integral to the song, just like in "She's Not There," the very first thing I ever wrote. It's a bass and drum riff, really, to go with the opening blues-influenced melody. And it seemed to capture, in a quite natural way, the things that had given us another number one at the beginning of our career.
"Tell Her No" has that jazz element too. Those are serious jazz chords.
We'd just been on tour with Dionne Warwick, and she'd been doing some Burt Bacharach material. I've always loved his songs and his writing, and I was intrigued by the fact that he was using such jazzy chord sequences and voicings, and I thought, I just want to introduce some of that into a song. It's a very simple song, but it has these very jazzy major-chord voicings.
Odessey and Oracle is a rare record in so many ways. It opens with "Care of Cell 44," a tune about a man waiting for his girlfriend to get out of jail.
I got the original germ of an idea of a jaunty little love song. I think, when I started writing, it was a beautiful morning, and a little phrase occurred to me: "Good morning to you/I hope you're feeling better, baby." And then I suddenly thought, hang on. It's a bit ordinary. And I just started to weave the story from there. You know—why would somebody be really excited because someone was coming back after a long time from something that is imposed on them? And it became a prison song.
How gratifying is it to have Odessey and Oracle mentioned as a classic among albums like Pet Sounds, Forever Changes, and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band?
It's extraordinarily gratifying, because it almost didn't come out. Colin says sometimes, when people go mad about the record, which they do, "Well, where were you when it came out, when we had to break up because nothing was happening?" I said to him, "Look, Colin, how many people whose records failed at the time have never been heard of again? How many people who had hit records at the time never get their records rated or played now?"
It's extraordinarily satisfying, not only that the album has life, but it still seems to be able to relate to the current generation.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Resurrected Rapture."