The Zombies – Odessey and Oracle (1968)

The Zombies had a short career book-ended by two hit singles, the second of which was released after they split up. Other than those two singles they made little impact in real time, though they left behind this album – now acclaimed as one of the gems of 60’s pop.

After a string of singles that failed to follow up on the success of “She’s Not There”, the Zombies recorded an album on a small budget. They rehearsed assiduously before recording started so that they wouldn’t waste costly studio time. There were no extra songs recorded and so there are no left overs from the sessions. They couldn’t afford to hire in session players, so the album has a stripped down feel to it.

It was mid 1967. Pink Floyd had just finished laying down their debut album. The Beatles had laid down their first album and the Beatles had released the landmark Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Incredible String Band (the most sixties of all sixties bands) had made waves with The 5000 Spirits, and even the Stones were wearing flowers and ringing bells.

The Zombies eschewed effects, exotic sounds and endless overdubbing and even went light on the solos. They focused relentlessly on tunefulness and expertly arranged vocals (three of the band were trained choir singers and the band were far better musically educated than most of their contemporaries). The lyrics were direct and literal. The dominant sounds are the piano and the vocals. The album they recorded was pretty far from psychedelia.

It’s been put to us by some writers that this approach actually presages simpler, more direct sounds that other bands started embracing a year or so later. I’m not sure I buy that because the Beatles (always one step ahead), more specifically Paul McCartney, had already gone for the stripped down, piano based sound on the stunning “For No One”. A whole album of this approach may have been a novelty in real time though. The album is very cohesive stylistically.

Be that as it may, or as we chose to not care about or even to just ignore, the approach works here and works still because by eschewing fashion they didn’t fix the album in the sixties and added nothing to distract from the album’s core strengths – the consistent quality of the songs, the clever arrangements, the interesting harmonic movements and especially the brilliant vocals. The complex vocal arrangements are beautifully executed. Colin Blunstone’s effortless tenor is the lead voice, but they all sing and the band packs a big vocal punch.

There are small glitches – odd transitions where (I presume) tapes from different takes were spliced together. These would have been unnoticeable on the original mono mix, and are a small fly in the ointment here (only really bothersome if you listen on headphones, and only a little). What you get, what you STILL get, is pleasingly melodic pop music with stand out vocals that are as good as anybody (and I mean anybody) came up with in that time or for a while afterwards. And no distractions from that – people talk about serving the song, but it’s not often that the songs are so emphasised and everything done to serve them across a whole album.

This is a thoroughly satisfying, end-to-end enjoyable album. The best songs are hook-laden pop masterpieces, and the lesser songs are still good enough that the album never sags. You may not have been THERE or you may have been there but missed them (as many did), but you can catch up now.

They broke up almost as soon as the album was finished. An American label eventually picked up an option on Odessy and Oracle (the spelling was forced by errors in the artwork and a lack of money for a rework) after some nagging from Al Kooper. The planned single, “Time Of The Season” was released and took a while to get a hold on the charts before climbing to number two and giving the defunct band a pay day. A little bit of a happy ending.

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