Even the most beloved records usually have a song you tend to skip. And while you love the song on its own—“Within You, Without You,” “Sloop John B,” “The India Song,” “Time After Time (Annelise),” “Nowhere Fast,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” etc.—it’s never hard to see the way it sticks out from the rest of the album in question.
On Odessey and Oracle, the Zombies album that has spent 50 years being both obscure and imperishable, that song has always been the haunted WWI ballad, “A Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).” That changed for me when I saw their October, 2015 show at Benaroya Hall.
“A Butcher’s Tale” is one of seven songs on Odessey written by the band’s bassist Chris White, and features his only lead vocal on the album. The story of Odessey and Oracle’s curious, near-tragic fate on the world’s stage is well known and exhaustively documented (I did a brief version in my review of the show), but it’s worth mentioning here because White has only recently rejoined the band for the tours commemorating the album’s 50th anniversary. His performance carried an added dimension of feeling:
...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... 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.
Tomorrow night, we’ll have a chance to hear it again, when the Odessey and Oracle 50th anniversary tour makes its second (and, one has to assume, final) Seattle stop, at the Showbox. I interviewed White by phone, before the Zombies show in Springfield, Illinois a few days ago. Of course, I couldn’t resist starting off with a question about that song.
I’ve always thought of “A Butcher’s Tale” as something of an outlier on Odessey and Oracle, but found it almost unbearably powerful when I saw you sing it at your last Seattle show. Is it as emotional an experience for you to do that number as it appeared?
Yes it is. And thank you for the compliment. My uncle died in the First World War at the age of 16 at the Battle of the Somme, so I had that in my family heritage. Then I read books about 60,000 casualties before breakfast on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. I was at a rehearsal one day in the '60s, when we were doing the album, and I was suddenly overcome by the size of the slaughter and the ridiculousness of it, and I had to write this song. Then I found when I was rehearsing for this tour, sometimes I couldn't finish the song because the same emotions welled up in me. You have to suppress that if you're performing for people, and I couldn't actually finish some of it sometimes.
Obviously, the feeling in the song itself is powerful, but I wonder if there isn’t another element that made it so stirring, something about having this incredible music you made—the song and the album—finally being recognized after all these years in a way you can viscerally experience.
I was at art college for four years, and the history of art is full of artists to who had to die before they were recognized. The actual pleasure is creating it and knowing that it works. There's two sorts of success out there: There's financial success which, unfortunately, most people judge things by, and there's success of creating something that really moves people. And I've had veterans come up to me and say how much that some affected them, from Vietnam. So it's touched people and really affected people. That's all music really is. You have to, one way or the other, affect or emotionally contact people.
But you haven’t felt the same desire your bandmates have felt, to go out and tour—either as the Zombies or Argent and Blunstone—and even make new records together over the last several years?
Well, Rod and I, we're old friends, have been, and we've always been in contact. We've always been working together, practically. Rod and I produced Colin's first three solo albums. I worked with Rod on Argent. We've always been friends. Basically, it came to the fact that he suddenly realized that, first of all, it was 40 years since the release of the album, we did a premiere of it in London. We just did it basically because it had never been performed. We split up before the album was very successful.
And do you think of the Zombies primarily in terms of Odessey and Oracle?
It's a very interesting situation, because Rod and Colin's current Zombies lineup—they’re putting out albums and everything. So it makes it quite interesting on stage to have an active group who are still writing and recording, and then looking back at our heritage with Odessey and Oracle. Which, when it came out, nobody wanted, and so celebrating the fact that it's now become sort of a cult thing, really.
It’s one of the great rock’n’roll stories, I think, the way that album has survived after having been so unjustly overlooked. I've always been curious about what the emotional toll it has taken on you then, and now.
There's a feeling of justification and, "Yes, we were right to do it," now. This is 50 years ago. I'm in my 70s now, so we were young men then. When we're on stage playing the album, it feels like back in your 20s again. Of course, when we have to climb stairs… We feel like 70 when we come off stage, but while we're playing it, it feels exactly the same as it did 50 years ago when we were working together. So it's a pleasure, it's an actual pleasure. And meeting people who are moved by the album and other younger artists who have been motivated to create their own stuff. That's been great.
It has been hugely influential, but you have remained a very quiet presence, even in the world of the Zombies, where Rod and Colin have been far more visible. If you’ll forgive the expression, but as you said, you were a young man at the time you made this work: What was your rock’n’roll dream at the time of the Zombies and how did it evolve afterward?
I didn't really have a rock’n’roll dream, I just loved performing and writing. Eventually it fell into place and it was an adventure. Of course, you never think in the '60s that things are gonna last till the next century, you don't think those things. Really the pleasure is in writing music and the pleasure of creating something and affecting somebody by your creation. So I've been quite happy not to be performing and being in the studio producing and writing and doing things like that. But this is wonderful now. This is like a celebration, and also meeting young groups who tell us how much it affected them and started them working. We had our heroes, and it's nice to be somebody else's hero for a change.
Rock music has always been so closely tied to youth culture, and you made this record at maybe the zenith of the idea that this once disposable music was meant to be both of its time and ever more ambitious. Was that a pressure you felt?
We went into the Abbey Road Studios as The Beatles had just finished recording Sgt. Pepper. And at the same time, Pet Sounds. Those are the magical moments, and they are spine tinglingly beautiful. That was the essence of the time. It just happened at the time. And of course, then the Summer of Love was the same period, where hope was around. It disappeared in all sorts of corruption, but nevertheless, at that time, we had hope.
Because the Zombies don’t have a big industrial apparatus to enshrine their legacy, it’s sometimes difficult to know what your relationship was to the rock moment that was happening in late ‘60s London—though, to be fair, it’s hard to imagine being more in the thick of things than recording at Abbey Road as the vapors of Sgt. Pepper were still lingering in the air. Did you feel like you were part of a thing, or just observing it?
I think we felt that we were part of the thing. It was the excitement of creativity. There wasn't competition so much. It was a very good period for creativity. Because don't forget, we'd only just come out of the rationing era in Britain. That whole period of the '60s was rebellion against rationing and the war, and we could do anything. It was a blank canvas. I feel sorry for bands today because they don't have that. They've got the whole history now of rock and roll, but we didn't.
And as the ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s and the Zombies gave way to Argent, and also Blunstone’s solo career, you wrote and produced a lot, but you didn’t miss performing?
No, because behind the scenes, being in the studios, creating with sounds as well as with songs, that fulfilled me. That was perfect. There were better bass players than me around, so it didn't really concern me as long as I was creating. As long as there was the excitement of writing something that really moved me. And the struggles. The blank page system, when you start with an idea and then something happens. That's exciting. That's what's important to me, writing something.
I think, basically, if you're working with one of the best keyboard players around, Rod Argent, and performers like Colin Blunstone, you're very lucky, because then you write for his voice. And a lot of Rod songs, he knew exactly what sort of bass line he wanted. So working with those people was a gift and I learned so much from it. I wrote songs, first of all, just for Colin's voice.
Obviously, his singing has always been very distinctive and beautiful, but to hear how good he still sounds, is almost miraculous. Do you ever just sort of marvel at the preservation of his voice?
Certainly! The one thing about Colin's voice is I think he's singing better now than he did when he was younger. He looks after it and he rehearses every night. He does his exercises before he goes on stage. He's just got an incredible voice. We don't have to change the pitch of the songs. He still does it in the original pitch. So it's quite a miracle, and you get blasé about it, sometimes, until you listen to him and you suddenly realize, this man is in his second youth.