The ’60s were an especially inventive time for pop music. The classic rock ‘n’ roll rhythms of the ’50s had given way to a far more cinematic vision of what music could and should be. Although the mainstream musical landscape would soon make room for Beatlemania and the British Invasion, there were also bands digging through their numerous influences and finding out that they weren’t bound by anything that had come before. Whether an artist was more inclined to favor a kaleidoscopic approach to pop or whether their intent was grounded in something a bit more traditional, you were never more than a turn of the radio dial away from hearing something new.
It didn’t matter where you came from, either-bands from the U.S. were just as futurist in their own way as bands from any other part of the world. But rather than stay with any sort of staid evolution resulting from the musical gains made during the ’50s, the music that filled the ’60s was far more wide-eyed in its optimism, more ebullient and attracted by the ideas of societal reformation and the counterculture. Pop music could be used as a vehicle for change and understanding, or it could simply be the result of a desperately catchy chorus and some ear-tugging instrumentation.
Among all these bands vying for attention in an increasingly crowded pop marketplace were The Zombies, who formed in 1961 in St. Albans in Hertfordshire, England. Composed of Rod Argent, Paul Atkinson, Hugh Grundy, Colin Blunstone and Paul Arnold, the band first came together when everyone was still in school-they initially called themselves the Mustangs but changed their name rather quickly once they discovered how many other bands were using that name. According to Blunstone, Arnold was the one who came up with the idea to name the band The Zombies, although Arnold would later grow bored with the band and left to become a physician; his spot was filled by bassist Chris White.
The Zombies had a string of hits with songs such as “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No” but would not find a sustained international stardom until the release of their second record, “Odessey and Oracle,” which contains their monolithic hit, “Time of the Season.” Though “Time of the Season” became a surprise hit, the album itself languished, finding release only through the efforts of musician Al Kooper and his insistence that it contained several radio-worthy singles. Add to this the fact that the sessions that produced “Odessey and Oracle” basically drove the band apart and you get the feeling that this record seemed to have had everything stacked against it in terms of commercial and critical success. By the time Columbia Records released it on their Dates Records ancillary imprint, the band had broken up and was in no position to tour in support of the album.
But for those people who heard and appreciated this record for the anomalous way it handled its production, it created a chain of obsession and ecstatic word-of-mouth that began passing from person to person. And despite a minuscule recording budget, the band was able to integrate many musical avenues into these songs. Because of extensive rehearsals, they went through their studio sessions quickly, with no time for outtakes or superfluous songs. This efficient way of recording led the band to discover the wonders that came from those small moments in the studio when everything comes together perfectly at just the right time.
Opening track “Care of Cell 44” is an effervescent jaunt through the harmonized pop that had become so prevalent but that the band rebuilt from the foundation to the rafters, resulting in a dizzying collection of melody and ebullient rhythms. Led by the mercurial vocals of Blunstone, the track presents the band as bearers of a new kind of psychedelia, one that relied less on psychotropics and more on the natural abilities of the band.
The label picked “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)” as the album’s lead single, hoping to cash in on the track’s anti-war sentiment but failed to see that the album wasn’t necessarily a singles record. A flow and internal rhythm drive these songs, and that’s something that must have seemed completely foreign to a label used to having mega-hit singles from their roster of artists. It isn’t a difficult set of songs to get into, but Columbia had no clue how to market it-so its reception was damaged as a result. However, over the years, it has gained a well-deserved reputation for being one of the greatest pop records of the ’60s.
Other tracks such as “This Will Be Our Year” and “Time of the Season” use harmony and an irresistible hook to pin down your senses and overload them with that perfect pop sound. These songs are less concerned with overt statements and more indebted to the kind of music that exists to explore every last nook and shadow of specific melodies. The music veers between wall-of-sound cacophony to a simple, more modest melodic execution. But regardless of how the band approached any individual song, they were able to inject their personality and weren’t just adding another glossy pop brick to an already-impressive façade.
“Odessey and Oracle” feels personal, spiritual even, and reveals its secrets one song at a time. Although the band never really found this kind of creative ingenuity again in their later work, the legacy and influence of this record firmly places them as one of the most important bands of the ’60s. Their fascination with the pop spectacle of the ’60s was necessary to push the genre forward into as-yet-unexplored areas of musical innovation. There’s no mistaking the determination and drive of a band who understood the limitations of the genre within which they worked and continued to stretch the seams just a little bit more than had been done before.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.