I realize the regular world is currently engaged in the pressing matter of deciding how to feel about the new Adele single, “Hello.” (For the record, it’s already my second favorite song by that title , and maybe my third favorite that uses the line “Hello, it’s me,” behind this and this. And that’s in less than a week! Who can imagine how I’ll feel about it in three years when I’m still hearing it in line to buy groceries or on hold with the robot bank?)
Anyway. I’ve spent the past week listening to an album that’s nearly 50 years old… for a change. And one song in particular, a song I usually skip. Here is why:
When a good band makes a great record that gets ignored by the public, it can register as anything from a crying shame to an actual tragedy, depending on your connection to the music. The reasons why The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle (there was no psychedelic pspell check function in 1968) was a commerical zero make perfect sense in the weird intersection of pop music and time, and on the historical scale of injustices taking place that year in Europe, in Asia, in Memphis, a flopped LP by a second-tier British invasion band places pretty low.
The Zombies had had a couple of hits a few years prior, but their moment passed and they split up between the album’s completion in late ’67 and eventual release the following spring. Hardly the end of the world—unless you were a member of the Zombies. It’s just one of the things that happen to rock bands. As the doomed founder of another ill-fated group would sing nearly a decade later, “plans fail every day.”
But something about the particular greatness of Odessey and Oracle—the thanks-for-nothing vindication of “Time of the Season” accidentally becoming a massive American hit in 1969, and the album’s rediscovery by later generations of musicians and fans who knew the right crates to dig through—has lent the record’s initial failure an air of cosmic unfairness. How could a work of such consummate beauty and craft have simply been ignored?
Well, for one thing, 1968 was a crowded field for great LPs: the White Album, Electric Ladyland, Beggars Banquet, Songs of Leonard Cohen, Music from Big Pink, Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, Tighten Up, Scott 2, Fleetwood Mac, The Dock of the Bay, et al. And yet, the world had no problem making space for the likes of Cream, Bobby Goldsboro, Andy Williams, and Donovan… sigh. I always imagine the excitement of them working in Abbey Road studio, dialing in the tremolo setting to make the lead guitar on "Beechwood Park" warble just so, perfecting those vocal sections on "Changes," knowing they had absolutely, utterly nailed their masterpiece, hungry for it to join the swelling ranks of modern classics in the newly serious LP format. And then... disappointment, despair, dissolution. Which is to say: show business.
Last Wednesday night, the reunited Zombies took to the stage of Benaroya Hall to play Odessey and Oracle in its entirety. It was exactly the right space—not the picnic basket mass-market of Bumbershoot or the shit-smeared bar rag of El Corazon, both of which they have played in recent years. This was a concert hall, fit for a concert. Since the band had broken up before the album was released, these reunions represent the only time the actual creators of the songs have been able to perform them in front of an audience. Even the most-beloved songs aren’t really finished until they’re heard.
The version of the band that has been touring as the Zombies for the past decade or so—founding members Rod Argent (keybs) and Colin Blunstone (voice) and a handful of talented but unobtrusive ringers—opened the show with a totally fine set that included songs from the decent new album, Still Got That Hunger. There were moments; opener “I Love You” pulled off the same magic it has the last few times this line-up played Seattle, and only a Scrooge would deny the R&B pop glory of “She’s Not There.” Blunstone’s banter was sharp and funny, while Argent’s tended to go on a bit. Opinions about the overall worthiness of this whole ensemble remain divided, but their sweet enthusiasm and charming squareness landed me unwaveringly on their side.
However, when the band returned after the interval with founding members Chris White (bass) and Hugh Grundy (drums) in tow, the room began to crackle with excitement. It’s worth mentioning that the players weren’t especially well-preserved, but then, the Zombies never looked cool. (Picture being in mid-‘60s London with hit records all over the world and still being dorky—I have no difficulty imagining it, which is one tiny part of why I have a soft spot for this band forever.) How they sounded, meanwhile, is another matter.
Time has done nothing to dim the way the Zombies sound, and from the (sliiiiightly sped up) trilling piano run on the intro to “Care of Cell 44,” to the extra chorus tacked to the end of “Time of the Season” to compensate for the fade out, they were a marvel to behold. They took pains to recreate the sounds with added instruments (two Mellotrons!) and players, and the intricate vocal arrangements with the help of backing vocalists. But these weren’t mere reenactments; it was so much more than accurate. They were reliving, enlivening, basking. Through the concentration (not easy songs to pull off, by the way) they appeared to love every second, soaking up in the long ovations after each song, taking in all sections of the house, and clearly noticing the tears pouring out of many an eye. (It was only a speck of dust, I swear.)
Yes, there is the thing of bands playing entire albums in order for the purposes of nostalgia, and this was clearly that to some degree. But it was something else, too, something more, something important. This was appreciation deferred by decades, the closing of a circuit that they had to have believed would never be closed. Nostalgia is a purgatory because it involves only looking backward, and blurring away the inconvenient edges of pain and complication. The live version of Odessey and Oracle, played by oldish men who don’t look the way we expect even oldish rockstars to look, was more akin to time travel, to being unstuck in time. At different moments, it was ’67 (when they made the songs), ’68 (when they were ignored), ’69 (when one of them began getting noticed), and dozens of subsequent years, when each of them had to move onto other things without ever fully forgetting, and when each of us in that room first discovered this eternally obscure diamond of a record for ourselves, and learned to cherish it all the more fiercely for its unprotected nature.
There’s no Sgt. Pepper’s industrial infrastructure working to ensure that future generations remember (and therefore continue to purchase) Odessey and Oracle. No Pet Sounds reappraisal industry fueled by the Brian Wilson genius mythos and underwritten by the luxury of several dozen evergreen surfer hits. There’s just Argent and Blunstone, and for a short time White and Grundy, appearing together because something is missing in their lives that can only be filled by these songs, this record. That’s what I saw, anyway.
I’ve written before about the living miracle that is Colin Blunstone’s vocal preservation, and I could go on about it forever. His voice is a natural phenomenon, light and dusky, gentle but also tactile, a breath full of shadows. How can he sound no different than he did 50 years ago? How, in short, can a living human sing like that? The piercing high A in “I Love You” was as nothing compared to the galloping verse melody of “Care of Cell 44,” or its soaring chorus. The twilight melancholy of “A Rose for Emily” shot through the room like a chill wind (there’s that dust speck again). After Argent and White took their verses on “Brief Candles,” Blunstone’s lead vocal on the chorus arose like a gymnast on rings. Song after swooning song. Line after longing line. “Your summer world.” “The sky is overcast.” “Soon she’ll realize that she is better off this way.” “I want her, she wants me.” “Maybe after he’s gone, you’ll come back, love me again.” “Who’s your daddy? (Who’s your daddy, he rich?) Is he rich like me?” That voice. Those arrangements. It was really happening, exhilaratingly. "Can't forget you, won't forget you." Better than you even wanted. You can say Oracle is derivative of the Beatles and Beach Boys vernacular, which it obviously is, or you can acknowledge its idiomatic mastery and understand it as a response to those bands by an utterly worthy underdog contemporary. That makes its marginalization all the more confounding, its revival all the more satisfying.
The true highlight of the show was reserved for the song that has always been my least favorite on the album (even “Friends of Mine” is redeemed by its loping gait and the Tootsie Pop-sweet refrain “It feels so good to know two people so in love—so in love!”). “A Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)” suffers from a lot of ‘60s things, the archaisms and inversions of the antiquated language, the portentous parenthetical in the title, the moaning intro, and a general anti-war sogginess bolstered by the minimal arrangement for voice and pump organ. But when Chris White, looking for all the world like Leonard Nimoy playing a retired bank loan officer, took center stage and sang the song he’d written, there was a fragility to his presence, a tremble in his voice that made the song’s refrain—“And I...And I can't stop shaking/ My hands won't stop shaking/ My arms won't stop shaking/ My mind won't stop shaking/ I want to go home/ Please let me go home/Go home”—land with a heartbreaking pathos. Not only was he the soldier in the song, he was the boy who’d decided he no longer wanted to be a Zombie anymore if the world didn’t want Odessey and Oracle. He was the man who’d gone onto a good, long career as a writer and producer, who had no reason to be standing on this stage other than a love of the songs he’d written and recorded when he was still hopeful enough to pour everything into them.
And last Wednesday night, it was all he could do to get those words out. His plain tenor was slightly pinched by nerves, by a palpable connection to the humanity of the song, to his once-and-future bandmates, and to the couple thousand Seattleites who’d waited half a century to hear him do it.
My heart hasn’t stopped shaking since.