Photo by Payley Photography
by Yasmine Shemesh
In 1967, the Zombies travelled to the Philippines to headline a 10-day series of concerts at the Araneta Coliseum. The band performed to more than 30,000 fans a night. It was a big deal, especially since the group hadn’t found much success yet, particularly not at home in Britain — singles “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No” fared much better in Asia and the United States. After returning to England, the Zombies’ record contract with Decca finished and primary songwriters Chris White and Rod Argent were yearning to produce. And so, with a new deal inked with CBS, the Zombies began working on what would be their masterpiece, Odessey and Oracle.
“That’s really, for me, what life’s about,” says White. “Writing songs.” The bassist is speaking over the telephone from New York, where he and his bandmates (“the boys,” as he affectionately refers to them) are on a North American tour performing Odessey in full for its 50th anniversary. Though now critically celebrated, the album was so under-appreciated when it was released in 1968 that, by the time “Time of the Season” became a hit, the band had split up. White went on to become a prolific songwriter, frequently collaborating with Argent and frontman Colin Blunstone. Meanwhile, Odessey slowly accumulated a cult following, with Tom Petty and Brian Wilson leading the pack.
“The bottom line is we didn’t try and do what was current,” White says, on the album’s perennial relevancy. “Secondly, we wrote songs that we wanted to experiment with and it was simple. It was simplistic. We didn’t have to overdub and get everything perfect.”
Indeed, Odessey is both experimental and succinct in its sonic palette and prose. A gorgeous collection of baroque pop vignettes that stands independently from its contemporaries and remains to be an emblem of the psychedelic era. White never thought it would happen.
“I was going to be an art teacher,” he laughs. “All of a sudden, I’m a songwriter and a musician.”
White and Argent were sharing a flat in North London with Terry Quirk, the artist who would illustrate Odessey’s swirling cover. As roommates, White and Argent bounced ideas off one another. “I had a pedal harmonium and he had a baby grand in his room,” White remembers. “So, we used to work on lots of things together. It was an interesting, exciting time, but you don’t think of it as exciting then, you just think, ‘it’s all we can really do.’ You just want to write songs or record things.”
That summer, White penned seven of Odessey’s 12 tracks. “We don’t know, as writers, where these ideas come from,” he contemplates. “Sometimes, I’ve heard songs I’ve written and I think, ‘who wrote that?’ and someone will tell me, ‘oh, you did!’ because it seems songs appear. And if you’re working with people like Rod Argent, whose a great songwriter, and Colin’s voice, you tend to write for them.”
One of the most personal moments on Odessey for White — and also his only vocal lead for the band — is “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).”
“I found out from my mother that my 16-year-old uncle had died in the Battle of the Somme in the First World War,” he says. “And she told me stories [of] when he came home and they had to iron out the lice from the lines of his uniform.” White picked up Alan Clark’s book, The Donkeys, and discovered that, on the first day of battle, there were 60,000 casualties before breakfast. “I was driving to rehearsal with one of the boys and I had to pull over to the side of the road because it suddenly sent shivers up me,” he sighs. “So I had to write this song and I had an old American pedal organ, so it just seemed to suit it.”
They recorded Odessey in Abbey Road, on the heels of the Beatles who had just wrapped Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Zombies were also the first band allowed in the studio that weren’t EMI artists. Armed with both limited budget and time — a thousand pounds and three months — they went into every session well prepared.
“We used to do three backing tracks in three hours and then we’d do the vocals the next day, and it was very, very fast,” White recalls. “We’d write songs, then we’d choose the songs in rehearsal, routine them, and then go into the studios.” It was a bit like working in a factory, he laughs, because Abbey Road had strict hours.
Still, the Zombies left plenty of room for improvisation. They’d go over the basics (bass, drums, keyboards, guitar), allowing for change as they went along. They were also inheritors of some of the Beatles’ innovations and the Mellotron was there, left by John Lennon. Argent found it and plays it on Odessey. “It was an exciting and inventive time,” White continues. “We took full advantage of it, because this was the first time that we’d produced ourselves. Rod and I got fed up with not being allowed to be in the mixing sessions in recordings…and so we decided we wanted to do it ourselves. We had good engineers, Geoff Emerick and Peter Vince, people who were working with the Beatles. We were kids in a candy store, really, to be quite honest.”
It allowed the Zombies to fully indulge their creativity. Experimenting was inspiration in itself. “If you don’t try something, you’re wasting your life,” White says. “Even if you fail, you gotta try something. And the excitement is in the doing and the writing. Dave Grohl, he said, ‘don’t bother to train a musician. Go into the garage and learn the chords as you go along.’ And, really, there’s a lot of essence in that.”
Playing Odessey live, especially for the first time, unlocks its orchestrations vividly. With that, too, comes newfound appreciation for the songs. “Hung Up On a Dream,” one of Argent’s contributions to Odessey, is a new favourite of White’s. Performing it, he says, especially with Darian Sahanaja — Brian Wilson’s keyboardist who accompanies the Zombies on this tour — has really woken up the arrangements.
White, Blunstone, Argent, and drummer Hugh Grundy have remained close over these years. “We still treat each other like school children, I’m afraid, in our 70s,” he chuckles. And the fun isn’t stopping anytime soon. The Zombies plan to record new material and there’s a musical about the making of Odessey on the way. “You got to keep working, otherwise you die,” White levels. Being imaginative keeps the mind young. “Lots of people retire and they think, ‘well, what am I going to do now?’ It’s all a journey. You just gotta keep going.”
Now, life has led to the opportunity to revisit something they never had the chance to. It’s magical, White says. It whisks them back to the summer of 1967 — a time of hot ideas and scorched music pages.
“I was rehearsing [‘Butcher’s Tale’] the other day and I couldn’t finish it. I broke down. That emotion flooded back. And I said, ‘sorry, I’ve got to be professional, I’ve got to finish it!’ but it was such an emotional feeling. It’s wonderful to feel like that and not just do it out of routine or just to earn a living. That’s the important thing, really. Perform and write songs.”