The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle: An Oral History of the ‘60s Rock Masterpiece That Rose from the Dead
The surviving members of the Zombies recall the creation of their 1968 baroque-rock masterpiece, Odessey and Oracle
The Zombies were dead and buried in 1968. Their two hits, the sublime “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No,” had charted over three years before—an eternity in ’60s pop time—and public disinterest in their recent output left the band broke, demoralized, and unable to continue.
That should have been the end of the story, but true to their name, the Zombies were remarkably jolted back to life decades later by an album that was widely ignored when it was first issued just after they called it quits. Odessey and Oracle, a kaleidoscopic musical vision spanning cultures, genres and moods, has steadily risen from obscurity to the lofty status of a rock masterpiece. Containing the Age of Aquarius anthem “Time of the Season,” it appears on numerous Greatest Albums Of All Time lists, including those in Rolling Stone and Mojo. Unlike most musical second comings, this one owes nothing to indie movie soundtracks or hip television advertisements. Instead it was the ethereal beauty of the songs, spread through word of mouth by fans, including Dave Grohl, Tom Petty, and the Avett Brothers.
The four surviving band members hit the road this spring to celebrate Odessey and Oracle‘s semi-centennial by performing the album in full for sold-out audiences across the country. It’s a fitting victory lap half a century in the making. To mark their overdue recognition as rock ‘n’ roll innovators, the Zombies will perform on Conan May 1st—the original lineup’s first US television appearance since 1965. They even have a new book, appropriately misspelled The “Odessey”: The Zombies in Words and Images, in which the band tells their remarkable story in their own words for the first time.
On the eve of the Odessey and Oracle‘s 50th anniversary, PEOPLE sat down with the Zombies—keyboardist/composer Rod Argent, vocalist Colin Blunstone, bassist/composer Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy—for in-depth discussions about the album’s creation and its unlikely comeback. Read on for an oral history of Odessey and Oracle, complete with vivid animated lyric videos by Jamieson Mundy (inspired by the work of Vivienne Boucherat and Terry Quirk), unveiled here for the very first time.
The Zombies first emerged onto the international music scene with 1964’s “She’s Not There,” a peerless union of rock, R&B and jazz that scored on both sides of the Atlantic. Amazingly, it was only the second song ever written by teenage Rod Argent, but its distinctive syncopated rhythm, moody minor chords, cartwheeling bass and virtuosic electric piano solo vaulted it above more lightweight British Invasion fare. George Harrison named the song as a favorite soon after release, and it was a staple of Elvis Presley’s personal jukebox at his Graceland mansion.
Despite the promising start, the Zombies career stalled. Their follow-up single, Argent’s jazzy Burt Bacharach-inspired “Tell Her No,” broke the Top 10 in the United States, but languished in the lower reaches of the charts back home in England. Their debut album, Begin Here, a collection of strong originals and imaginative R&B covers, barely cracked the Top 40. The band’s label, Decca Records, abandoned plans for a second long player and slashed their promotional budget, effectively condemning the Zombies to commercial death. Strong singles like “She’s Coming Home,” “Whenever You’re Ready,” and “Just Out of Reach” failed to reverse the downward trend, and by mid-1966 the band had stopped charting in the US and UK entirely.
In an attempt to refill their empty coffers, an increasingly desperate Zombies agreed to a residency in the Philippines. It would prove to be a new low for the band.
CHRIS WHITE: We had no work and our manager said, “I can do you 10 days in the Philippines. The Searchers have done it. They’ll pay for all your costs, all equipment, all your keep, all food, everything. A hundred pounds a night.” I said “Oh, that’s a thousand pounds!” He said, “No, that’s 100 pounds between you.” He took 20 percent, so we were working for 18 pounds a night. When we arrived there after 30 hours of travel, we found we had three songs in the Top 20.
COLIN BLUNSTONE: We didn’t know we’d had any hit records in the Far East, so when we arrived at like two o’clock in the morning, there was a huge crowd as we got off the plane and there was a lot of excitement. I can remember looking over my shoulder and thinking, “There must be someone famous on this plane.” It was us! It was two o’clock in the morning and thousands of people were there. I thought we were going to play in a hotel bar in the evenings and we’d get a chance to sunbathe and have a swim during the day—that’s what I was expecting.
COLIN: We were taken to the Arnaeta Coliseum. I think it was the second biggest coliseum in the world, just outside Manila. And we were pretty much prisoners, we had to stay in there. We couldn’t leave without permission. But we opened to 28,000 people—and there were a couple nights that were bigger. They were lovely, lovely people, and so enthusiastic. But we had all these records in the Top 10, and we were getting 18 pounds a night. It’s heartbreaking, really.
CHRIS: Thirty thousand people a night for 10 days, at 18 quid a night. The record company over there was represented by a Chinese millionaire. He took us out for a meal—we got permission to go—and he said, “You should ask for more money. You would have made up the losses for the Araneta Coliseum for the last three years by being here. There’s an option coming up for you, I understand. Ask for 1,000 pounds a night.” We said, “What if they refuse?” He said, “Well the mayor for Manila is godfather to my son. We’ll put a consortium together…” They put business people together to pay us that 1,000 pounds a night. But then we got threatened, as did the venues we played at. The first place we played was on the Golden Mile, it was like a big Las Vegas thing. The night after we played there it burnt down! The second venue, we were in the dressing room and they said, “We can’t let you go on, we’ve been threatened as well.”
The band’s fortunes failed to improve when they returned to England.
CHRIS: We arrived back and we lost our manager, we lost our record deal with Decca, and we had no money.
COLIN: When we came back from that we had a record released. We did a cover of “Going Out of My Head,” the Little Anthony and the Imperials record. It was really badly produced, and a bit of a nightmare. At that point, we decided we wanted to make a record and produce it ourselves—primarily Rod and Chris.
CHRIS: Rod and I wanted to produce because we weren’t even allowed to go into the mixing room before that. So we said, “Let’s go do a deal.” We got 1,000 pounds from CBS to do an album and produce ourselves.
COLIN: And that’s sort of setting the scene for how we started Odessey and Oracle.
As something of a parting gift, their former producer managed to book the band into EMI Studios at Abbey Road, world famous as the sonic laboratory of the Beatles. The Zombies entered Studio Two in the spring of 1967, just as the fab foursome were completing their generation-defining opus, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Elsewhere in the building, Pink Floyd was recording their debut, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and the Pretty Things were creating their trailblazing rock opera, S.F. Sorrow.
ROD ARGENT: We followed the Beatles into Abbey Road; in fact, we used the same engineers [including Geoff Emerick]. It was a brilliant team working at Abbey Road. That was the place to be in 1967. In fact, John Lennon’s Mellotron [an analog predecessor of the modern synthesizer] was still in the studio and we used that.
COLIN: Without asking!
ROD: If you listen to Oracle it’s just full of Mellotron. And if he hadn’t left his Mellotron behind, we probably wouldn’t have used a Mellotron. There were all sorts of percussion instruments lying around on the floor. We used all those as well, like tambourines and so forth. So that was very exciting for us to follow the Beatles into Abbey Road. It was great.
HUGH GRUNDY: I think the aura was in the studio, if you can understand that. Some sort of aura that I’m sure influenced us, although we never thought it at the time.
In addition to the music being made inside Abbey Road, the Zombies were spurred on by Pet Sounds, the Brian Wilson-helmed Beach Boys masterpiece released the previous spring.
ROD: We didn’t think, “Oh, we have to do something like Pet Sounds,” but I think it did inspire us. There wasn’t any attempt to copy the elements that were in there so much as the creativity of it and the feeling of pushing pop music forward into different spaces than it had been before. I think Pet Sounds was an indirect influence, as it was on Sgt. Pepper. Since then, Paul McCartney’s said the same thing; they felt they had to do something similar.
CHRIS: There was a lovely challenge from Brian Wilson and the Beatles—Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper and all that sort of thing. That was an exciting period of trying new things.
Unlike the Beatles and the Beach Boys, the Zombies were working on a shoestring budget.
ROD: One thousand pounds.
COLIN: For the whole thing.
ROD: Even then, that wasn’t a huge amount.
CHRIS: That was just for the mono mix. Rod and I had to pay 1,000 pounds ourselves to mix it in stereo! Stereo was just coming in then.
COLIN: And we were recording in the most expensive studio in the country, so we had to record incredibly quickly.
ROD: Three-hour sessions.
CHRIS: It was 10 a.m. ‘til 1 p.m., and we couldn’t go overtime. And, of course, no night recordings at all. We’d do three backing tracks in three hours.
HUGH: We had to, because the guys in the brown coats would come in and say, “That’s it, it’s lunchtime!”
COLIN: We rehearsed a lot, so we knew exactly what we had to do when we went into the studio.
Sessions continued from June to November 1967, yielding the dozen completed tracks that would comprise Odessey and Oracle.
“Care of Cell 44” (Rod Argent)
COLIN: “Care of Cell 44” is probably my favorite track on the album. I love the lyric; it’s just so unusual. It’s sort of a love song between a boy and his girlfriend—and his girlfriend’s in prison! And yet, it’s got quite a jaunty air about it. Obviously there is a bit of a tragedy going on there, but it’s played to such a lovely melody. I just think it works incredibly well. Very, very clever.
ROD: It’s a serious sentiment, but it’s a slight tongue in cheek thing where you start on the love song and you suddenly say, “Now that you’re in prison…”
HUGH: We though, “Great! How different!”
CHRIS: The song took shape after some rehearsing. We used to do it around a piano in Rod’s house, first of all, just working it out.
HUGH: Then we went to a local village hall—close to a pub—with a PA system to do the songs. And then into the studio to do it. We had discipline!
CHRIS: But we allowed invention to happen in the studio for certain ideas.
COLIN: I thought that it should be a smash hit. At the same time, I didn’t think “Time of the Season” would be a smash hit. So I’m really glad I didn’t go into A&R!
“A Rose for Emily” (Rod Argent)
ROD: “A Rose for Emily” came from two sources. One was the fact that I suddenly realized we were running out of time to record and we hadn’t got enough songs. So I went to bed one night and I wrote myself a note—I wish I’d kept it. I was still living with my parents, and it said, “Tomorrow: get up, 9 a.m. have breakfast, 10 a.m. write song.” And I did! I had just finished reading this short story by William Faulkner called “A Rose for Emily,” but the song did haven’t anything to do with the subject matter of the story. I enjoyed the story, but I thought, “What a beautifully evocative title.” Even though I’d just read the short story, I took the title and spun my own story around it. And I did it, literally, in a few hours, spinning the story, developing the chords while I was developing the lyric as well. That was a song that was written very quickly. When you write, you sometimes find out the end of the story as you’re writing it. I was developing the story as I was doing it.
“Maybe After He’s Gone” (Chris White)
COLIN: There’s a tricky ending on the end of this one. It was recorded with a full backing all the way through, but there are places where the backing drops out.
ROD: I think we recorded a backing track all the way through and then took it out in sections and just left the vocals. We also did that in “Time of the Season.”
CHRIS: What we’d do was, Rod would bring songs and I’d bring songs. Rod’s the leader, so if he doesn’t like it, it wouldn’t go because he’s in control. He’s a genius. Working with Colin Blunstone’s voice and Rod Argent’s sense of harmony and musicality—where could we go wrong?
“Beechwood Park” (Chris White)
COLIN: I remember Beechwood Park was a real place, quite close to where Chris White used to live.
CHRIS: I lived in a village called Markyate. My father had bought a general store, so we used to deliver the groceries to this big manor house, which was a private girl’s school. It’s where I learned to drive, because it had a private driveway, so my father let me drive when I was 12 or 14. But it was very evocative around the country lanes around there. I always remember after a storm once the sun came out. That’s where the line comes from: “Just after summer rain.” I remember the steam rising while learning to drive around there. It was also the place where The Dirty Dozen prisoner of war camp scene was filmed. We had all the actors there in our village.
COLIN: After Odessey and Oracle [was released], I seem to remember the school contacted him because they wanted some kind of royalty payment or something.
ROD: Some stupid old bugger said, “Well, we can’t have Beechwood Park being talked about in a rock song.”
CHRIS: The lady from the school secretary said, “We ought to get royalties for that, you know—using our name!” But my mother wouldn’t have any of that!
“Brief Candles” (Chris White)
CHRIS: That started off out as a title from Aldous Huxley. I hadn’t read it at that time, but I thought “Brief Candles” was a good title. It’s basically three lonely people talking. I have this image of three people drinking at a bar like Cheers, and their separate stories. The brief candles are just little memories. Titles sometimes engender those ideas.
HUGH: Personally it’s one of my favorites because it’s a strong one to play. I give it some really good stick. Love that.
CHRIS: We learned that you couldn’t copyright a title. One of the blokes who used to write for King Crimson used to say, “When I get stuck, I buy Time magazine or something like that and look at the paragraph headings. Sometimes there are good ideas for song titles. Always look at titles subeditors choose, there’s something in those phrases.”
HUGH: Short, pithy little phrases that encapsulate the idea of the article.
“Hung Up on a Dream” (Rod Argent)
ROD: My memory is that things like LSD had barely surfaced then, so it wasn’t really proliferating. It really wasn’t. What was really informing the atmosphere even by then was suddenly Vietnam was everywhere on television—which, for me, really, was one of the governing factors in the whole uprising of the peace and love thing. Because for the first time a whole youth culture was seeing war as it really was in some detail. Rather than being jingoistic, they were seeing some of the realities of what was going on, and they were saying, “We don’t want any part of this.” The result of that was that it was such a powerful cultural movement, particularly with young people who were beginning to have such a voice as a result of their increasing importance in culture. It was actually affecting policy, and there was this feeling of empowerment, this feeling that things could actually be changed, rather than think, “There’s nothing we can do about this.”
CHRIS: At that point we really believed in the Summer of Love. You felt there was a possibility. There was no Trump around.
ROD: It really permeated everything, and it felt like a very powerful thing. And in a way, even though we weren’t naïve about the whole peace and love thing that was starting to emerge, we couldn’t help but be affected by it. And even though we felt that some of it was crude and basic, there was a reality there too that you couldn’t dismiss. And part of that whole feeling, I think, was captured in “Hung Up on a Dream.”
HUGH: It was in the direction of the Beatles of course, because they were starting to do the Sgt. Pepper-type stuff and making it a little more Haight Ashbury and all that sort of thing. That’s the influence behind that song.
ROD: That was the one song that I was worried about singing and playing live again, because the lines felt so dated and a little bit embarrassing to sing. But in the event when we did it, it felt uplifting and lovely to do.
“Changes” (Chris White)
CHRIS: It’s a song about how hippiedom generates into materialism. I saw a lovely cartoon once—it was much later—it was the Woodstock anniversary and it had all these people handing cocktail glasses around. But how things change! And then we decided to do it just with keyboards. It’s the first one that Hugh and [guitarist] Paul [Atkinson] sang on as well, because we only had four tracks.
HUGH: The idea was, because of the four-part harmony, how are we going to get that bottom bass harmony? “Hugh and Paul, any good?” Paul and I sang exactly the same note. It was very simple, but we did it. And that gives me a chance to sing onstage.
CHRIS: We had to do it quick, we only had a few minutes left when we were doing the harmonies on the overdub.
COLIN: At Abbey Road it was very strict time keeping. You went from 10 a.m. ‘til 1 p.m., lunch break, 2 p.m. ‘til 5 p.m., supper break, 7 p.m. ‘til 10 p.m. That’s how it was then.
ROD: There was no other way of doing it then, unless you were the Beatles.
COLIN: We were doing a 10 ‘til 1 and we got everyone around the mic to try and build up the vocal harmonies. The red light was on. It’s sacrosanct: you cannot go into the studio when the red light was on. But it was like a minute past 1 o’clock and two guys came in in long brown coats. We were right next-door to a grand piano, and we’re singing and they’re taking this grand piano out! And not that quietly, either. I can’t remember what they said, but I can picture it and just imagine them saying, “Right, this way!” And we’re singing!
ROD: Abbey Road was a ridiculous combination of having the most cutting edge technology in the world—or the U.K. anyway—but at the same time having this incredibly unionized old-fashioned attitude: “You can’t do this now, sorry! No good! We’ve got to go!”
COLIN: “We can’t have all this recording going on in the studio!” [laughs]
HUGH: If you’ve got the best hi-fi I think you can hear something.
“I Want Her She Wants Me” (Rod Argent)
CHRIS: We used to sometimes do demos [for other bands] and Rod had done a demo for “I Want Her She Wants Me.” Someone was looking for something for the Mindbenders, so they did it first. But they didn’t do the right chords and Rod was a bit irritated with this. So when we did Odessey and Oracle we said, “Well, let’s do it properly,” as we did on the demo.
ROD: The Beatles’ had left John Lennon’s Mellotron in the studio, and there was an electronic harpsichord there, which I think they also owned. I may well have used that electronic harpsichord for “I Want Her She Wants Me.”
“This Will Be Our Year” (Chris White)
ROD: Simple, direct and captivating.
COLIN: We play that all the time. It’s a huge favorite with people, and especially for weddings. We do that at weddings, and we do an Alan Parsons song called “Old and Wise” for funerals—so we literally can do the whole thing. We can get Bar Mitzvahs, too!
CHRIS: I’ve actually sung it at my son’s wedding, and at my wife’s sister’s wedding as they walked down the aisle. We met Graham Nash at the Hall of Fame, and he said his girlfriend wants “This Will Be Our Year” played at his wedding—and not one of his songs! He was lovely about that.
HUGH: That’s another favorite song to play because it’s hopeful. You can understand why people want it played at their weddings. But from my point of view, I’m playing a different type of drum pattern with it. It’s a triplet-y type feel, which is absolutely great to play.
“Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)” (Chris White)
CHRIS: My mother told me a story that her older brother, who was 16, joined up for the first World War. He came home and they had to clean off all the lice from his uniform, then he went back and died in the Battle of the Somme. Later I read a book by A.J.P. Taylor about the Battle of the Somme, and also a book called The Donkeys. It so horrified me. I’d read this book, and I was on my way to rehearsal with the boys and I suddenly realized that there were 60,000 casualties on the first day of the battle before breakfast—60,000. And I suddenly worked out that each of those people had a family and relations, so no wonder the effect was so huge. And it went on! But it so horrified me.
I had a job on a butcher’s round on one of those bicycles while I was at art college, that was my Saturday job. The bloke I worked for used to be in the army catering service. So it became the butcher’s tale. It really moved me. I had an old pedal organ, so I played the song for Rod. I wrote it for Colin, but he said, “Your weak, wavery little tiny voice will sing it much better!” [laughs]
COLIN: I’ve sung so many of Rod and Chris’ songs—probably close to 150 songs. As I remember, it was played to me and I just said, “I can’t see this. I can’t see this on this album with these songs. I’m not sure I can sing it.” For instance, I was thinking of songs like “Friends of Mine,” which follows it on the album. That’s as I remember the conversation and Chris said, “OK, I’ll sing it.” And he did a great job. Having heard him sing it, you can’t imagine anyone else doing it.
ROD: The real title should have been “Butchers Tale (Western Front 1916)” because it’s a campaign that happened in 1916. But because the powers that be at CBS made a unilateral decision and said, “Oh, the first World War started in 1914,” so they made it “Butchers Tale (Western Front 1914).”
COLIN: A lot of people in America thought it was about Vietnam.
CHRIS: It really surprised me. I’ve had a lot of vets come up to me and say, “You’ve got to realize that song really saved my life because we were out in Vietnam and we thought people didn’t bother about us.” And also Iraqi veterans as well. They suddenly realized that people do recognize what they’re going through.
HUGH: It became pertinent for another generation with two different wars.
CHRIS: The point is that one day we’ll learn, maybe. I have to admit, we do the songs in the order of the album [onstage], and it’s sometimes difficult for me to do “Friends of Mine” straight after that. You take on the character, the emotions of that poor fellow singing. The last two rehearsals I broke down, because the emotions are so powerful on that.
ROD: The way he captured the emotion of that song is very powerful. And it is on stage. That vulnerability onstage comes through.
“Friends of Mine” (Chris White)
CHRIS: It’s upbeat, because I wrote the song and it was originally very slow. We tried it, and Rod said, “Try it faster.” We tried it faster and it got really going. He said, “We need something under that chorus.” So I said, “How about names of friends we know.” We all came up of different names and we all fit them in properly. The trouble is the only couple left alive is Jim and Jean—and Jim’s the current Zombies bass player, Jim Rodford.
ROD: Most of them are either divorced or dead now. [laughs]
COLIN: This is one of the drawbacks of having a long career.
“Time of the Season” (Rod Argent)
COLIN: I remember that “Time of the Season” was the last track.
ROD: It was written very quickly. I shared a flat with Chris at the time. I remember playing it to Chris and saying, “I think this could be a hit.” And we recorded it very quickly. There’s a well-known story about me trying to teach it to Colin in the studio.
COLIN: It was only finished in the morning and we were recording it in the afternoon, so I wasn’t really familiar with the melodies.
ROD: And I was saying, “Oh, can you just anticipate that syllable.” And he got a bit frustrated and said, “Look, if you’re so f–king good, you go and sing it!”
CHRIS: Colin was thinking about not making any money and things like that, and he said, “If you’re so f–king good, you come and f–king sing.” And Rod said, “You’re the f–king singer, you come and sing it!”
COLIN: I think we built up to the F word. It was a simmering argument developing that probably started off with “bloody” and we ended up with that. What happened was I said to him, “If you’re so bloody clever—“ And there were lots of people in the control room, it was through the mic and into the control. “If you’re so bloody clever, you come over here and you bloody sing it!” And he said to me, “You’re the bloody lead singer, you bloody stand there ‘til you get it bloody right!” And then, [sings] “It’s the time of the season for lovinggggg!” While that fight’s going on in the background of it.
While its bass-line sounds like a menacing version of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” the title owes a small debt to a Smokey Robinson tune.
ROD: In the old days with small gramophones, it was pretty difficult to hear exactly what syllables were being sung. I loved “Track of my Tears,” and for years I thought the song was “It’s the time of the season to trace the tracks of my tears,” rather than “If you look closer it’s easier to trace the tracks of my tears.” When I found out it wasn’t “Time of the Season,” I was disappointed. I thought, “Well I’m going to write a song with ‘Time of the Season’ in it.”
The Zombies released several singles in advance of Odessey and Oracle, and the results were not promising. The irresistibly catchy “Friends of Mine” was issued in October 1967 and inexplicably sank without a trace, as did the equally radio-friendly “Care of Cell 44” a month later. The commercial failure hit the band hard. Years of chart decline and unprofitable tours left them spiritually and financially bankrupt, and it was decided to dissolve their musical partnership following the completion of the album. After a performance at Keele University in December, the Zombies ceased to function as a band.
The split was kept quiet until their swan song. Odessey and Oracle, was unveiled in the UK on April 26, 1968, wrapped in a sleeve festooned with colorful flora, mystical figures, and other psychedelic signs of the times. The cover art was designed by Terry Quirk, Chris White’s school friend and roommate. He was also responsible for the famous titular typo. (For decades, the group maintained that the idiosyncratic spelling of “odyssey” was a play on the word “ode.” Only recently did Argent confess it was a spelling error that went unnoticed until it was too late in production.)
The back cover bore a brief manifesto penned by Argent. “Really music is a very personal thing,” it reads in part. “It’s the product of a person’s experiences. Since no two people have been exactly alike, each writer has something unique to say. That makes anything which is not just a copy of something else worth listening to.” Sadly, few people were listening when Odessey and Oracle hit shelves.
CHRIS: When we finished the album, nothing happened. The record buyers weren’t interested at all.
ROD: It got great reviews, it just didn’t sell.
CHRIS: Paul was getting married and we just said, “We can’t afford this.” Colin, Paul and Hugh couldn’t afford to go on. Rod and I said, “We want to still do this,” because we had some money because we were writing. So he put together Argent. Then suddenly “Time of the Season” went to Number 1 in the United States.
It was a twist that none of the former Zombies saw coming—by Al Kooper did. The prolific musician and founder of jazz-rock fusion pioneers Blood Sweat & Tears had just been hired by CBS Records as an A&R executive when he came across a copy of Odessey and Oracle during a trip to London. Instantly smitten, he paid a visit to newly named CBS Records chief, Clive Davis.
CHRIS: We really liked Clive Davis because he was a real music man. When Rod and I came over when “Time of the Season” was a hit, he took us into his office and said, “I’ve got to play you this.” And he played Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” full length. And he said, “The A&R department want me to edit it otherwise we’ll never get it played. I want it to stay as it is.” That was his first thing he said to us. Now, that’s a music man, that’s not a businessman.
HUGH: Clive wasn’t overly struck by Odessey and Oracle. He passed on it. Al Kooper was the one who heard it and talked him into releasing it [in the United States].
CHRIS: Al Kooper championed it when he had just been signed to CBS as an A&R man.
HUGH: Three times they mail-shot “Time of the Season” to the radio stations. They kept on trying. It started out in one tiny little city right in the middle of the country—Boise, Idaho. It’s become a classic name in our history. Other radio stations were listening—they must listen to each other and think, “What’s he playing that I’m not playing?” They kept hearing it and going, “Maybe we better play it.” And then bang, bang, bang. Then people started buying it, which is fantastic, otherwise I don’t think we’d be sitting here now.
COLIN: It was nearly two years before “Time Of The Season” was a huge hit in America, and by then we were all committed to other projects. So it was never discussed that we would reform the band.
By March 1969, the Zombies lived up to their namesake—they were a dead group reanimated by enormous chart success. Despite entreaties from CBS to reform and capitalize on their hard-won hit, the former band mates had moved on. Argent continued to make music with White and ultimately formed the successful ‘70s prog-rock outfit Argent. Paul Atkinson worked as an A&R man at Columbia Records, and drummer Hugh Grundy worked for a time in auto sales. Perhaps most bizarrely, Blunstone, one of rock’s most hauntingly beautiful voices, had a stint working in the insurance business. Eventually he was coaxed out of musical exile, first recording under the moniker Neil MacArthur and finally under his own name.
With no band to support it, Odessey and Oracle was largely lost in the shuffle, an obscure relic of the psychedelic age. But slowly, through word of mouth, the album’s reputation began to grow.
COLIN: Nothing happened for about eight years, but then gradually it started picking up incredible reviews and huge artists started to cite it as an influence; in particular in the U.K., Paul Weller. It just started to sell like eight or nine years after it was released.
Weller, the front man of the Jam and an unabashed enthusiast of all things ‘60s, was the first star to sing Odessey and Oracle’s praises, citing the disc as his all-time favorite in numnerous interviews. When Dave Grohl was asked to name which song changed his life, the Nirvana and Foo Fighters powerhouse chose “Care Of Cell 44”. Tom Petty labels himself a fan from the beginning, penning the introduction for the band’s new book, The Odessey. Brian Wilson, Carlos Santana, Susanna Hoffs, Nate Ruess also add their acclaim in the book’s notes.
CHRIS: The nice thing is that the album seems to be relevant now, 50 years later, and so many people—same as when Del Shannon and Buddy Holly have affected us—people like Tom Petty and Al Kooper and Paul Weller are really inspired by it.
HUGH: They’re all finding something in it that’s inspiring, and what a deep joy it is for all of us who made it. It’s a universal thing, music. It inspires us all. We all have our own views on songs we know and love and evoke particular memories of a moment in your life when it was so pertinent and it meant so much. For one reason or another, it might be happiness or it might be sadness. But the emotion is fantastic.
Argent and Blunstone began performing together again in 2000, first under their own names before reviving the Zombies banner in 2004. Just before Odessey and Oracle’s 40th anniversary, they attention turned to their long-neglected tour de force. In March 2008, the four surviving members teamed up for three shows at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire, where they performed the album live in its entirety for the very first time. Tragically, Paul Atkinson had died of kidney and liver disease in 2004, so the band called upon the help of Keith Airey on guitar.
HUGH: I don’t know how that idea came about, or who suggested it or quite why, but it was a general thought, “Why don’t we see if we can play Odessey and Oracle live?” We just said, “Let’s get around the piano and see what happens?” And that’s exactly what happened, we went around to Rod’s house, all stood around his piano, and he started playing the first song and it sounded like we’d been playing it for ages. It sounded like we’d never ever stopped. It was an astonishing feeling.
ROD: It made us change our attitudes to it. Because when Colin and I started playing together again, from nothing, we just said, “Let’s do a couple gigs,” and then we thought, “Wow, that was great.” To our amazement, we found ourselves rediscovering ourselves. We really did.
The sold-out shows were rapturously received, providing a long overdue ovation for Odessey and Oracle. In the decade to come, the songs would take their rightful place in the pop culture pantheon. “This Will Be Our Year” was included in a 2014 episode of the television juggernaut Mad Men, and “A Rose for Emily” serves at the theme to the blockbuster 2017 podcast, S-Town. The surviving members reunited for another tour of the album in 2015, and once again in 2017 on the eve of the 50th anniversary— a victory lap half a century in the making.
COLIN: For me it’s a total mystery. It’s a unique album. It was never really a hit anywhere—one week at Number 98 in the Billboard charts, but that’s probably the only place it’s ever charted. And yet it sells more year on year. Who knows why? It’s a total mystery to me. It’s a great mystery.
HUGH: It’s sheer pleasure, joy and elation doing it on stage. To get that huge reaction from the audience is amazing, and to watch who’s in that audience, because it’s now 50 years, which has allowed a whole new generation to come into it. There’s a whole range of ages in that audience. And when I look down and see them mouthing the words, I think to myself, “That is unbelievable.”