Monday, April 18, 2016

Death of the British Invasion

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part 3
The Zombies, Odessey and Oracle

Official history records that the Zombies released two studio albums in the 1960s, but that’s deceptive. Their first LP, Begin Here (released in America as The Zombies), was a collection of singles, B-sides, demo recordings, and other sundries, compiled largely without the band’s aid. Slovenly management and no label support hobbled their art.. By 1968, having released nothing but 45s, the Zombies were on the edge of dissolution.

The Zombies’ principal songwriters, keyboardist Rod Argent and bassist Chris White, composed their band’s first dedicated LP, Odessey and Oracle, secure in the knowledge that the band would shatter before the album’s release. The title’s spelling supposedly reflects a cover artist painter who didn’t check the paperwork before painting. The album debuted to indifferent reviews. Then the third and final single, “Time Of the Season,” became a world-dominating phenomenon.

Recorded at legendary Abbey Road Studios, just after The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper, this album definitely shows the Fab Four’s influences. But from the opening strains of “Care Of Cell 44,”, a letter from a man awaiting his lover’s anticipated release from prison, it’s clear the Zombies aren’t merely beholden to the Beatles’ influence. They’re creating something unique to themselves, possibly years ahead of the late British Invasion around them.

Without doubt, the Zombies were better technical musicians than the Beatles. A graduate of a cathedral music school, Argent in particular was capable of syncopated rhythms, difficult chord progressions, and offbeat time signatures that eluded Lennon and McCartney. Their baroque arrangements, now classic rock radio staples, went substantially unappreciated in their time. But they use them to maximum effect on this album.

The original lineup of the Zombies
But they weren’t just musically advanced. This album’s lyrical content took pre-Woodstock audiences completely by surprise. “Cell 44,” the album’s first single, mixes remarkably dark themes with hippie-era musical bounce, playing the irony for all it’s worth. The second single, “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914),” combines images from war poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen into a bleak portrait of war’s innate horrors, predating most American Vietnam-era protest songs.

Both singles went nowhere, unfortunately. Album cuts like “I Want Her She Wants Me” and “Maybe After He’s Gone,” written in darkly funereal tones, didn’t attract hippie-era attention. And while occasional critics appreciated “A Rose For Emily,” based on the Faulkner story of the same title, and “Beechwood Park,” a masterwork of nostalgia, audiences in 1968 were unprepared for anything so dark. The stark, visionary musicianship went largely unheralded.

Only when “Time Of the Season” upended everything did the Zombies begin receiving the recognition they deserved. By then, however, it was too late. Broke and riven with managerial problems, the band splintered; most members left music, at least temporarily. Though unscrupulous promoters floated several fake Zombies lineups, the original band didn’t perform these songs live until 1990—and the survivors didn’t tour America with this music until 2015.

The dark themes, allusive lyrics, and musical sophistication probably didn’t suit their time. Despite Argent’s inarguably Sixties organ work, this album frequently has a sound more akin to 1973. The 1960s were substantially divided between the Beatles’ optimism, leading to an acrimonious breakup, and the Stones’ sullen teenage posturing, which has remained lucrative for over fifty years. The Sixties weren’t prepared for the Zombies’ subtle musicianship, or their lyrical ambiguity.

No songs on this album runs very long. The longest, “Cell 44,” approaches four minutes, and “Time Of the Season” hits three-and-a-half, but by contrast, these feel almost marathon-length. Few tracks exceed three minutes. Even with surprising time signature changes on tracks like “Brief Candles,” or the subtextual wrath of “Friends of Mine,” the sound sometimes feels circumscribed by the limits of a vinyl 45, probably imposed by the label.

Perhaps that says something there. Despite hip contemporary complaints about industrial interference in artistic integrity, recording has always been a struggle between music as art, and music as business. The Zombies shattered, not as some have claimed, because of artistic differences, but because management was indifferent to their vision. The Zombies has profound musical potential, but didn’t follow the pulse of their time very well.

Since its release, Odessey and Oracle has achieved cult status, mainly by word of mouth. Unlike most LPs of its generation, it remains available in its entirety, without being chopped into “Greatest Hits” confetti. Anyone listening, expecting happy hippie-era escapism, will find it as jarring as it must have seemed in 1968. For an oldie, this album maintains its harsh edge. Nearly fifty years later, it still bites.

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