The Zombies’ Odyssey 50 Years On

For Rod Argent and The Zombies, deciding to play their final album as a band, the pop psychedelic masterpiece, “Odessey and the Oracle,” live for the first time required more than getting together a group that had not performed in decades.

It required a Victorian-era pump organ.

When Argent and Chris White, the two writers in the short-lived Sixties British band committed to doing the album live, they decided not to compromise. After all, the band never had a chance to play “Odessey and Oracle” following its release in 1967. They broke up before the album was released (delayed in the U.S. until Al Kooper convinced Clive Davis to issue it. More on that later).

So they decided to replicate its 12 tunes note for note. That meant finding a pump organ for “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914),” a Pink Floyd meets The Beatles deep track about the horrors of war.

Luckily for them, they found one not 15 miles from Argent’s home in Bedfordshire, “one of the very few Victorian pump organs around for sale in the whole country,” Argent says. It had to be stripped of a century of dust, cleaned and put back together.

The organ and the album debuted live during a 2008 London concert. A one-night stand turned into three. “All sorts of people turned up,” Argent says by phone. “Robert Plant. Paul Weller, who was there all three nights. Snow Patrol. I can’t remember everyone who was there. It was hugely successful.”

Now, 50 years after they released the enduring classic, “Odessey and Oracle” (the title was misspelled by the cover artist), they are on a tour of the United States with a sprawling band recreating the album that contains their biggest hit, “Time of the Season.” (Plenty of Americans saw groups named The Zombies playing that tune in 1968, but they were imposters. More on that later).

They come to Virginia Beach’s Sandler Center for Performing Arts on March 21.

The genesis of the tour was a few gigs in 2000 when Argent got together with White. At first, they didn’t play Zombies tunes. “Very, very gradually we started to realize there was a whole bunch of (Zombies) material we’d never played live and we started including it for fun and very gradually became more serious about putting something more prominent together,” he says.

White broached the idea of playing the resurrected classic. “He said do you realize in 40 years we’ve never played “Odessey and Oracle” live on stage in its entirety? Why don’t we do it?” Argent recalls. “I said, ‘How do we do it?’ ”
The answer was to take their current touring band, add the rest of the living members of The Zombies including Colin Blunstone and drummer Hugh Grundy and a secret weapon, Darian Sahanaja, an arranger for Brian Wilson and member of The Wondermints who could play the Mellotron parts. The final piece was Chris White’s wife, Vivian Boucherat, who adds the high harmonies.

“We decided if we were going to do it at all, we were going to do it by reproducing every single note on the original, ” adds Argent, who went on to form the group, Argent, after the Zombies and have hits with “Hold Your Head Up” and “God Gave Rock and Roll to You.” “We needed all those musical lines and the extra harmonies we’d overdubbed to really make some of the tracks come alive.”

That the album was made in the first place is another story. By 1967, The Zombies had not had a hit in Great Britain for too long. Live gigs in those days, Argent notes, were paid based on your chart position. They’d scored a hit with “She’s Not There” at home, literally the third song Argent wrote in his life. But that was it.

“In those days, we were very much more based out of the country of origin,” he says. “We had done some States tours, but we were very much based in the UK. We found out later that we usually had a hit somewhere in the world, but we didn’t know this at the time. “

White and Argent, the writers, had a steady stream of income from publishers, but the three other guys in the band were struggling. “We were lucky enough to have very honest publishers. We didn’t have to search around for money. We were pretty well off, actually,” Argent says. “But the rest of the band didn’t have a penny to dress themselves with by the time we broke up.”

They also weren’t happy with the sound of their records. They wanted a fuller sound, no doubt influenced by The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” and the experimentation of The Beatles at the time. Argent’s roots go deep into classical music growing up. Then he discovered rock, especially Elvis Presley, introduced to him by Jim Rodford, a neighbor down the street who would go on to play with The Kinks. Rock and roll got him into R&B and then a long exploration into the jazz of Miles Davis, Bill Evans and John Coltrane. He says he was “very knocked out” when Pat Metheny mentioned his admiration for “She’s Not There.”

With their popularity waning, CBS in the UK offered them only 1,000 pounds to record the album. They walked into Abbey Road Studios just after The Beatles walked out following the recording of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Fresh in Argent’s mind were the bass lines of “Pet Sounds,” and the singles “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” “Sgt. Pepper” would not be released until they’d finished.

“Lennon left his Mellotron lying around and we pounced on that,” Argent says. “We had a ball recording that album. We had a very limited budget so over several months it was basically one session of three hours or two sessions of three hours at most to create each track.”

The last song they recorded, their last song in the studio, was “Time of the Season.” Argent got the inspiration for the title because he misheard the lyrics to Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears” as “it’s the time of the season to trace the tracks of my tears,” which he blames on scratchy AM radio. Most of the song was written in a day. He finished the final words in the studio as the rest of the band chilled in a pub waiting to record.

When they returned, he wanted Blunstone to sing lead. It took more than a few takes and some verbal sparring before he nailed the phrasing Argent wanted. “I remember saying to Chris White I think this could be a big hit, but no one else shared my feeling,” he recalls.

For the first time on “Odessey,” they used multi-tracking, which allowed for overdubs of piano, Mellotron, guitar or harmonies. “We were very proud of the album when we finished. We thought it was the best thing we could do,” he adds. “It was how we wanted to sound.”

It was released in the UK to an ignoring audience.

Al Kooper, the keyboardist and member of Blood, Sweat and Tears, was a house producer for CBS in America at the time. He heard the album on a trip to Britain and bought 200 copies to take back to New York. Kooper told Davis he had to find out who had the rights, secure them and release the album in the U.S.

The rights weren’t a problem, Davis said. CBS in the U.S. owned them. But he’d already passed on the album. Kooper persisted, the album was released in the U.S. and became a hit — eventually (more on that s

oon). “We certainly keep in touch with Al,” Argent says laughing. “Our gratitude is unbounded.”

The first two singles flopped. Then came “Time of the Season.” “Nobody played it, but one DJ in Boise, Idaho, picked up on it,” he says. Over six months, the song slowly rippled out from there, rising on the charts to become a number one in nearly every country — except the UK, Argent notes.

The Zombies were offered a million dollars to tour. But Argent was moving forward with his own band with White as producer. Blunstone became a solo act. Guitarist Paul Atkinson became an A&R man. Grundy eventually left music all together.

The band that was no more had a hit. Crafty promoters solved that problem, creating fake Zombies who met the demand for “Time of the Season.” Years later, Argent learned one of those groups, born in Texas, featured a couple of guys named Dusty Hill and Frank Beard. They’d later go on to be two-thirds of a little band named ZZ Top.

The album struggled along, not earning many sales or much acclaim until years later when it became a cult disc that’s a staple of record stores, especially on vinyl. “To my complete astonishment, it has had a long life and is sells more every year than when it first came out,” Argent says.

The Zombies are on one last tour, a tour of the U.S. playing “Odessey” based on the success of those UK shows. There was just one problem. The pump organ, that huge pump organ, could not go on the road.

So they went looking for another one, one that was portable. They found a World War I era pump organ that was used to play for the troops, a perfect ending.

“That’s even more appropriate because the song we use it for is Chris White’s “Butcher’s Tale,” based on the world war,” Argent says.

For The Zombies, the odyssey had a happy ending. It just took time.

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