Games

Mods and Mellotrons: The Zombies at Abbey Road

The Zombies had arrived at Abbey Road Studios in June of 1967. Fortunately, the Beatles had left some things behind.


The Zombies

Odessey & Oracle

Label: CBS
US Release Date: 1968-04
UK Release Date: 1968-06
Amazon
iTunes

When British pop act the Zombies arrived at Abbey Road Studios in June of 1967, the Beatles had just finished wrapping up the sessions for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. By April 21st, the Beatles had logged hundreds of hours for their ambitious eighth studio record, although the sessions for Sgt. Pepper's included dates that yielded non-LP tracks like "Only a Northern Song" and more. When those reportedly agonizing sessions of tape splicing and manual scissor edits adjourned, the Beatles left a number of instruments behind. Among them was a Mellotron, an early 1960s era keyboard that offered sample playback via magnetic audio tape. That summer, the Zombies were eager to incorporate Mellotron sounds in the recording of their sophomore album Odessey & Oracle, a polished, classically-influenced cornerstone of English psychedelic pop. The band split before Odessey saw release, much less before its single "Time of the Season" garnered number-one chart status in 1969.

During an endlessly fascinating new BBC "Mastertapes" interview with Zombies members Colin Blunstone, Chris White, and Rod Argent, presenter John Wilson pressed the band about their experiences at Abbey Road Studios. The artists were eager to chat about the access to multi-tracking they had at Abbey Road, and how they benefited from the ability to layer harmonies or piano leads on top of their sparse backing tracks. At the onset of the discussion, Argent talked about how the Beatles had made use of multi-tracking for Sgt. Pepper's, and that while the engineers were making it available to the Zombies, studio personnel confirmed that mixing multiple tracks down to single tracks and bouncing them between two four-track tape machines to make room for overdubs "was a nightmare".

"That was the excitement of producing the album ourselves", said Rod Argent in an interview for the liner notes of 1997's Zombie Heaven, the Zombies box set from Big Beat Records. "If we wanted to do a mass vocal thing like we did on 'Changes', with all the harmony lines equal, we could because we were doing it ourselves. We were very 'up' about all that."

During the BBC interview, there's a brief discussion of the Zombies' baroque era influences. Rod Argent demonstrated where Bach had figured in by way of a live piano rendition of the classically driven bridge section of Odessey's "Hung Up on a Dream", a song which prominently features the Mellotron.

“(‘Hung Up’) wasn’t at all about an acid trip”, said Argent during the talks for Zombie Heaven, refuting the speculation that the band members were LSD advocates. "All I remember about the writing of that song was that we'd just discovered the Mellotron, and that was a bit of an inspiration."

An Abbey Road session in late 1966 afforded Beatles member Paul McCartney the opportunity to thicken the already dreary chorus segment of bandmate John Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever" with the Mellotron's "Swinging Flutes" setting. That's a comparatively minor part of the tale, however. Writer Robert Webb has an excellent account in The Independent of the night "Lennon casually told his recording team that he wanted the two (previously recorded 'Strawberry Fields') versions joined together." The songwriter decided that a heavier version than what they'd previously laid down was needed. According to music journalist and author Paul Du Noyer, John Lennon encountered a "sense of aimlessness" after having returned home from Spain, where the chords for "Strawberry Fields" began to take shape while he was filming How I Won the War. "Shell-shocked by the first four years of Beatlemania", wrote Du Noyer for Q in 1999, "Lennon had withdrawn into a cocoon of private misery, living in Home Counties isolation amid the slow decay of his marriage to Cynthia."

When played alongside "Strawberry Fields Forever", the Zombies' "Changes" is a particularly upbeat piece of music. Almost exactly a year after the start of the "Strawberry Fields" sessions, Rod Argent was sitting where Lennon sat. He was tracking a section of Mellotron that would bookend "Changes", a strikingly innovative three minutes of Odessey & Oracle that features little more than the newfangled keyboard's swirls, piano, and the whole band's dense layer of vocal harmonies. Rich with bassist Chris White's storybook-like characterization of an affluent woman who'd traded her simple life for one of "diamonds and stones", "Changes" is balanced by percussive hand drums and an airy melody.

Argent unpacked the Mellotron's place in "Changes" during the new BBC interview. "I thought of it, first of all, as orchestra substitute, but of course it's got totally its own sound", said Argent to John Wilson. The Mellotron allowed for playback of up to approximately eight-second intervals of sampled violins, flutes, and more. "I think that (on) a lot of the album, a lot of the songs were about color. In something like 'Changes', we were aware of color all the way through. So we would start with Mellotron."

Listen to the Zombies BBC "Mastertapes" interview here or download both episodes.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.