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Counterbalance: The Zombies' 'Odessey and Oracle'

It's the time of the season when love runs high. In this time, give it to me easy and let me try with pleasured hands to talk about a 1968 psychedelic milestone. A misspelled masterpiece is this week’s Counterbalance.

The Zombies

Odessey and Oracle

US Release: 1968-06
UK Release: 1968-04-19
Label: CBS

Klinger: As I said a few weeks ago, I spent my formative years fascinated by the lists and ratings and reviews that issued forth from the typewriters of those earliest rock writers—the early rumblings of what would eventually form the Great List, that conglomeration of Best of Lists that has formed the basis of our little Counterbalance experiment. And all throughout that time, there was one curious little album that would keep popping up as an underrated classic, the Zombies' Odessey and Oracle, which was released in early 1968 but given new life when “Time of the Season” became a surprise hit more than a year later. Back in the ’80s, the LP seemed to be somewhat hard to come by, so I let it slip away from my must-listen list for a number of years. Much later, when access to music became as basic as a municipal utility, I finally got around to digging into it, and I have to say that I fell pretty quickly in love.

In poring over the Great List, though, I came across a shocking discovery. The Zombies' Odessey and Oracle, an album that regularly rounded out Top 100 of all time lists, one that I had always considered to be as mandatory as, say, Love's Forever Changes, was languishing somewhere down the list at No. 326. Respectable enough, but still not what I expected. What happened? How could it be that this (OK, technically minor) masterpiece of late-period psychedelia, an album that combines the ornate arrangements of Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles with the pure-pop harmonies of the Beach Boys (and throws in a touch of blue-eyed soul) could have fallen off the rock-nerd radar? I look to you for input here, Mendelsohn, because I am quite befuddled. Befuddled!

Mendelsohn: What’s to be befuddled about? Odessey and Oracle is a run-of-the-mill psychedelic record. The Beatles were better at being the Beatles, the Beach Boys were better at being the Beach Boys, and the Zombies were really good at being middle-of-the-pack also-rans from the late 1960s while incorporating the same elements from the Beatles and the Beach Boys into their music that all the other psychedelic bands were copying.

And then there’s Love — while also fairly standard psychedelia — who had the added benefit of being a little more rock-oriented and therefore providing a timeless nature to Arthur Lee’s music. For all the grief I gave you about Forever Changes (number 49 on the Great List), it is the obviously superior album, not only for the timeless sound, but it also relied a little less on the standard psychedelic arrangements that turned from brilliant to hackneyed over the span of a couple of months in the late 1960s.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the appeal of this album. Odessey and Oracle has the makings of underrated cult classic written all over it — from the misspelling on the front cover to band’s short-lived career, to the over-used “Time of the Season”, on every soundtrack for every movie ever made that dealt with the 1960s in some way or another. Heck, some of these songs are downright good. But nothing to get all befuddled about. Unfuddle yourself.

Klinger: That's not possible, Mendelsohn, because your dismissive reaction to this finely crafted bit of '60s pop only serves to provoke further fuddling. Yes, Odessey and Oracle is an album that's very much of its time, but to me that's part of its charm. It's nowhere near as dark as Forever Changes, but the light that shines through songs like "Care of Cell 44" (the sweetest song about prison ever) or "This Will Be Our Year" is nothing short of infectious. That general mood, by the way, seems like it's something that comes directly from the Zombies themselves. The misspelling of "Odyssey" is due to the fact that they were too nice to correct their mate who painted the cover just for them. I respect that.

And no, I'm not suggesting that the Zombies were in the Beatles/Beach Boys' echelon, but Odessey and Oracle is an interesting case study of how groups would respond in the wake of that first explosion of innovation. Legend has it that the group went into Abbey Road studios to record and found the engineers dismantling the equipment that the Beatles had used to record Sgt. Pepper. They insisted that all dismantling cease at once, and the group was able to record many of their tracks using the same technology that drove Pepper. That explains the shiny clean polish throughout, but the songs are also there to back it up. Between Rod Argent's more baroque songs like "A Rose for Emily" and Chris White's mini-suites ("Beechwood Park"), there's a good bit of variety, and it's mostly all anchored by Colin Blunstone's soulful vocals. I’ll concede the influences — I don't know who wouldn't — but to dismiss it as standard copying suggests a general lack of context.

Mendelsohn: So get with the contexting — because to my ears, Odessey and Oracle, with the exception of maybe “This Will Be Our Year”, “Time of the Season”, and “Butcher’s Tale”, sound an awful lot like the Beatles. In fact, the more I listen to this record, the more I find myself wondering why I’m not listening to the Beatles instead. “Care of Cell 44” sounds an awful lot like “A Day in the Life”, “A Rose For Emily” is an obvious rip off of “Eleanor Rigby”, and “Maybe After He’s Gone” might be a retread of “For No One”.

I know, I’m stretching. But I need a little more convincing. I’d also rather be listening to the Beatles.

Klinger: First of all, I might suggest you go back and listen to "A Day in the Life" again. It's possible someone has implanted a false memory in your brain like in Inception if you think it even vaguely resembles "Care of Cell 44". But if you're going to humbug your way through every album from the '60s that sounded like the Beatles, you're in for a long slog here. Don't forget, too, that the Beatles were just as much synthesizers of everything that was going on around them as they were innovators. I've said before that Beatles albums are very much pop music Annual Reports for the years that they were released. (And besides, I still think the Zombies are far more indebted to Pet Sounds than Pepper.)

The real takeaway here might be that musical movements are just that — a full spectrum of artists who each add their own piece to the puzzle. Yes, it's easy to latch on to the prime movers behind those movements, but I don't think you get a complete picture of any genre that way. You can't understand punk if you only listen to the Clash. But what I think Odessey and Oracle does is present a somewhat sunnier side of psychedelia that’s still quite forward thinking (those intricately arranged harmonies throughout the album are just a joy), which is especially important given the general tendency among some rockists to think that darkness is somehow the best measure of depth.

Mendelsohn: Maybe it was “Hung Up on a Dream” that I thought sounded like “A Day in the Life”. Either way, I understand that fascination with this album, and I appreciate your point of looking past the prime movers of any movement for a decidedly different take. Should you ever want to have a conversation about the second- (and third-) tier artists who rode the indie rock boom through the middle of the last decade, I have a couple albums you should hear (in fact, count on it). But then, I’m sure you will feel the same way about those albums as I feel about Odessey and Oracle.

And that maybe because I have no real connection to this record or I don’t really care about the context. But I don’t think darkness (or lack thereof) is any real way to measure depth. This album’s sunny disposition may have turned some of the rock critics off, but I would also go so far as to say that the rockists didn’t like it because it doesn’t rock — and if it doesn't rock, it has no depth. The psychedelic music movement was made up of a dizzying array of musical styles, colors, and interesting smells, but the groups that all rose to the top knew how to rock, or at the very least, appreciated the importance of a little feedback. The Zombies, for as good as they are, seem a bit bland, a bit washed over, a bit too squeaky clean with their intricate melodies and arranged harmonies. I guess, if I was a rock critic, that’s probably what I would say. These guys are good... a little too good. And then I’d hold that against them.

Klinger: Dang it, now I'm even more befuddled than I was before. I’m going to need another listen through “Friends of Mine”. That always helps.

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