BY JONATHAN VALANIA A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away called the Summer Of Love, The Zombies created one the three or four baroque-pop masterpieces of the psychedelic era of the 1960s. And nobody cared. Though they had a couple hits, The Zombies were never cool like the Beatles and the Stones were cool. Their innate dorkiness probably didn’t help, though it would, years later, thanks to Wes Anderson, render them alpha males in the Land Of Twee. But still, they served with valor, bravely walking point during the British Invasion and proudly wearing the uniform: skinny suits, Cuban heels, owlish eyewear, problem hair. Plus, they sang like angels. The aforementioned masterpiece was called Odessey & Oracle (the artist who created the album cover misspelled ODYSSEY, and nobody noticed until after it came back from the printers) and by the time it was released in April of 1968, the band had long since broken up because, despite the fact they had a hit in 1964 with “She’s Not There,” they were too broke to carry on. (Actually, the band’s two songwriters, keyboardist Rod Argent and bassist Chris White did quite well for themselves with publishing royalties. After The Zombies split in December ’67, Argent and White formed Argent, who would have a Top 10 hit with “Hold Your Head Up” in 1972, but would never chart again.) Odessey & Oracle’s secret weapon, “Time Of The Season,” arguably one of the greatest pop songs of all time, became a surprise hit when it was released as a single in 1969 but the album from whence it came continued to molder in obscurity.
In the fullness of time, the album’s incandescent beauty, novelistic songcraft and deathless harmonies came to be appreciated by a quorum of critics and collectors and by the late 90’s a new consensus emerged: Odessey & Oracle is one of the greatest fucking albums of all time. In 2008, to mark the 40th anniversary of Oracle’s release, The Zombies reunited for a one-night stand at Shepherd’s Bush, which soon turned into four nights to meet demand, later expanding into a four city tour. Last week the original line-up of The Zombies embarked on an 18-city tour of America, which stops at the Keswick on Sunday, performing Odessey & Oracle start to finish for American audiences for the very first time. Earlier this week, we called up Zombies’ bassist Chris White, who along with Rod Argent split songwriting duties on Odessey, to get the low down. DISCUSSED: Battle of the Somme, D.H. Lawrence, LSD, Paul McCartney’s mellotron, Abbey Road, Aldous Huxley, turning 72, what it feels like to have created one of the greatest pop albums of all time.
PHAWKER: Great to speak with you, huge fan, really excited that you guys are doing Odessey & Oracle and I appreciate you taking the time to do this, let’s just jump right in. I just heard, the other day that one of the original names of the band was Chatterley and the Gamekeepers, are you aware of this?
CHRIS WHITE: I’m not aware of that. I joined because the bass player wanted to finish his exams and I joined about a year and a half before we went professional so I don’t remember all the names. All I knew was that they suggested, they were so fed up with having different names that they tried to have something unusual called the Zombies which no one else would ever copy, you know? So I don’t know, it does ring a bell, Chatterley and the Gamekeepers, yes.
PHAWKER: I don’t even know what that’s from. Is that a DH Lawrence reference?
CHRIS WHITE: Yes, exactly. Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
PHAWKER: So you and Rod Argent were the writers in the band. What was your background as a musician? Are you trained or are you guys all just self-taught, picked it up along the way?
CHRIS WHITE: I think basically self-taught. My father, he was a part time upright bass player in dance bands and things and I think Rod’s father was in dance bands as a keyboard player. So it just went on from that basically. So I started playing bass, upright bass, he also played guitar and Rod’s father played keyboard. So we don’t have any formal training. I did have piano lessons.
PHAWKER: Can you read music?
CHRIS WHITE: Slowly, yes but not like a keyboard player can.
PHAWKER: I’m just trying to understand how you guys could compose pop music that is so advanced and intricate and ornate without any formal training or the ability to read music…
CHRIS WHITE: It’s what you listen to. Most music is written instinctively except when you’re really trained to be a classical musician. So there’s no need for-you hear it, you recreate it. And that’s really all I can say about it is basically you just hear the music in your head and try and recreate it. Same thing that Brian Wilson does, you know.
PHAWKER: Yeah, yeah exactly. So you actually hear intact melodies in your head?
CHRIS WHITE: We’re going back a long way, I mean it’s 47 years.
PHAWKER: Sure, I understand.
CHRIS WHITE: The nearest simile is when Leonardo da Vinci said he had the block of stone he set the sculpture free, rather than having it in his mind, he set it free from the stone. And that’s what I do when I’m writing something, I have got a shape and it slowly appears as I chip away at it.
PHAWKER: So homing in on Odessey and Oracle to the best of your recollection, did that title come from?
CHRIS WHITE: I think it was, Rod and I, he was sharing a flat with me and the designer of the cover, the designer and myself, we both met up at the school and then I … we were art students and then I … we were talking and we were wondering what to call the album and we thought well it’s really lots of stories, it’s an odyssey and an oracle, we just came up with that title. And then of course my designer friend wrote it out and we were too busy working to notice that he spelled it wrong.
PHAWKER: Where was the band’s head at back then? The album was recorded in the summer of 1967, the Summer Of Love, a time of a great cultural, spiritual and social transformation. Specifically lots of people were taking psychedelic drugs and seeing the world in new ways and opening up new avenues of creativity, sound and perception. All of which is a long way of asking did you guys all ever take LSD?
CHRIS WHITE: No. Never. Completely. We named … the album is known as a psychedelic album and we didn’t even smoke. The only person smoking cigarettes was the drummer and he doesn’t do that anymore anyway so we weren’t involved in any drug taking in any form. That’s the weird thing. I think we’ve seen too many casualties of LSD overdosing so, you know, we were just a bit too nervous and the creativity was spinning in our heads anyway. Once I tried smoking a couple times, but it just slows you down and it’s sort of too much, so no, we weren’t drug takers. Definitely not, you know. That’s not being a Puritan; that’s just the fact that it didn’t appeal.
PHAWKER: I read that between the first record and Odessey & Oracle there was a second album recorded that was shelved. Is that correct?
CHRIS WHITE: No it didn’t. We just kept going. In those days it was singles that mattered and so we just went in and kept doing different singles. And some never made it to an album. So we had all these back tracks, then when, in ’67, Rod and I weren’t happy with the way the production was going although Ken Jones had done some great stuff with this but he was making it too soft. So that’s when we decided we wanted a new producer on our album. So it was a fresh start and we had this back catalog stuff but we didn’t use it. We went straight into Abbey Road Studios and did three songs in an hour and three songs in three hours sort of thing. Very short sessions.
PHAWKER: What was Abbey Road like in ’67 when you were recording? I know the British recording engineers were very proper men. I don’t know if Abbey Road was like that, but I know that the BBC engineers would wear like white lab coats and stuff like that. Was it still very formal when you guys were there?
CHRIS WHITE: Oh, yes it was. The technicians who wield the stuff in and out wore brown overalls. You had strict three hour sessions and then you broke for lunch and they were strict on the time. If you went over, that wasn’t a very good thing to do. Once, actually on the recording of Oddessey & Oracle while we were doing group harmony on things, two men came in and moved a piano while we doing last minute recording. Actually what we used because didn’t have time.
CHRIS WHITE: I think it was “Changes” which is just acoustic.
PHAWKER: Why was the studio time broken down into three hour segments?
CHRIS WHITE: They had their own canteen there. The engineers had a break at a certain time. I suppose it’s a sort of offshoot from the official BBC engineers, but we were lucky because we came in just after the Beatles had been doing Sergeant Pepper so therefore they had lots of equipment that they forced them to try and use, trying to use two four-track [recorders] linked together or bounce one to the other. That’s also how we came to use a mellotron, because it was still left from McCartney’s sessions.
PHAWKER: The music on Odessey was often categorized as baroque. I’m almost certain that was not a term that you guys tossed around about your own music…
CHRIS WHITE: No. We’ve never used that at all. As far as we were concerned, we were just making music and people like to designate things in a certain style and put them in pigeon holes. But it stuck. It doesn’t matter. Having said that, it probably describes the period quite well.
PHAWKER: Can we just go through some of the songs that you wrote on the record, I’ll throw out a title, anything that sticks out in your mind about what you were thinking about when you wrote it or if there are any anecdotes you can think about when you were recording it? Is that cool with you?
CHRIST WHITE: That’s fine.
PHAWKER: Okay. So let’s start with “Maybe, After He’s Gone”
CHRIS WHITE: That was basically, I think it was the idea of three stories and someone’s woman or something has gone off with somebody else, so maybe after he’s gone, she’ll come back, love me again. Poor fool but there you go, that’s a teenage angst sort of thing, really, isn’t it?
PHAWKER: And then “Beechwood Park.”
CHRIS WHITE: “Beechwood Park” — I lived in the village north of the town we all met St. Albans and it was a girls’ school, and my father had a general store and he used to deliver there — and it was a beautiful old house which had been made into a private school. It was later used in the Dirty Dozen film for one of the locations. I remember learning how to drive on their grounds, going down country lanes which were steaming from the sun after a rain — that image had been stuck in my head really. I thought that “Beechwood Park”’s a good name.
PHAWKER: Now, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but there is an American band that called themselves Beachwood Sparks.
CHRIS WHITE: Yes, I did know about that. Yes.
CHRIS WHITE: No, I haven’t.
PHAWKER: You should check out their first album. It’s really good in a sort of Byrds/Gram Parson’s psychedelic country rock kind of stuff. Yeah, they were on Sub Pop Records. So I highly recommend their debut.
CHRIS WHITE: Okay, I’ll have to listen.
PHAWKER: Yes. “Brief Candles”
CHRIS WHITE: There was this book, and I can’t remember who wrote it now, Brief Candles. And I thought it was a good title and “Brief Candles” was different little stories, different little vignettes made into a song of people being lonely or whatever.
PHAWKER: “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914),” this is obviously a World War I reference. Tell me what you were referencing here or what was the inspiration.
CHRIS WHITE: Well I had an uncle who was sixteen when he died in the Battle of the Somme and my mother wanted to tell me about him, he signed up when he was underage. I read a book by A. J. P. Taylor called The Donkeys and a complete illustration of what it was like at the Battle of the Somme and my Saturday job while I was at college was being a butcher’s boy, you know, one of those little bicycles with a small wheel in front of the basket, you use them to deliver in the local village, and I read this story about the Somme and the horror of suddenly realizing — I was driving to rehearse with the boys once, I suddenly realized that before breakfast on the first day of the battle there were 60,000 casualties and the enormity of that echo onto the families of those 60,000 casualties. It affected me so much that I had to pull over to the side of the road because I was shaking so much, and so that’s what generated the song. And I was … found an old pump organ I found in a junk store and I had it in my flat, and we used that. We took it to Abbey Road studios because it was so in-keeping [with the vibe of the song].
PHAWKER: And also you sing lead on this song, right, correct?
CHRIST WHITE: Yes, I did.
PHAWKER: And that was unusual for you to do?
CHRIS WHITE: Yes it was but I felt so emotional about it and they forced me to do it to be quite honest. On this tour it’s getting such a great reaction and that surprises me because it’s such an awful story really.
PHAWKER: Well awful wars are still going on, right?
CHRIS WHITE: Yeah, that’s the problem. It’s that we don’t learn, ever.
PHAWKER: “Friends of Mine”
CHRIS WHITE: That was basically observing when you’re young and full of optimism, basically, cheerfully. When you see people who are in love. They just got together; it’s really refreshing. It’s nice to see, really. And then all of a sudden when we were rehearsing it, we came up with the idea of putting it in the names of people who actually we know. Unfortunately most of them are divorced now or dead. There are a few still going along. But that was the idea of the song really. Just a cheerful song really, especially after “Butcher’s Tale.”
CHRIS WHITE: It was the end of the session at Abbey Road and it was a tiring time. Rod had only just finishing doing the tune and the lyrics in the morning session and he was quite precise about how he wanted “the time of the season when love runs hi-igh” and Colin wasn’t doing that “hi-igh” and so from the control room Rod was like ‘no, noo, no’ and Colin being tired said, ‘Look if you’re so fucking good about it why don’t you come and sing the fucking thing yourself?’ Afterwards he said ‘I didn’t really feel it anyway but I’m glad I did sing it.’ Now it’s one of his favorites.
PHAWKER: The band broke up three months after completing the album and before it was released. By December ’68, the band was already no more, right?
CHRIS WHITE: Yeah. I think it was because Rod and I had enough income to live off writing
but the other three weren’t. We were getting less and less gigs and the guitarist, Paul Atkinson, was getting married and there was no way he could survive on the money. We said well let’s just finish the album and see if it does anything and we’ll decide, and it didn’t do anything.
PHAWKER: The record company released two singles, which both stiffed and then pretty much gave up on it.
CHRIS WHITE: Yes, that’s right, and they couldn’t get any reaction at all.
PHAWKER: Which is weird.
CHRIS WHITE: In America the first single was “Butcher’s Tale.” That’s not a single and they put it out the first single. But they were adamant that this would be hit. I think it was because of the Vietnam War situation, and they thought it might appeal.
PHAWKER: Like an anti-war song?
CHRIS WHITE: Yes. But I think the last thing anyone doing service abroad wants is to hear about the First World War but, funny enough, my son met a couple of people who were [Vietnam] vets and they said that song really made them feel good because they thought that people had forgotten about them in Vietnam and that song made them realize they were thought about, and that’s quite interesting.
PHAWKER: So how does it feel all these years later that the record’s finally gotten its due. It’s now regarded as one of the great baroque-pop masterpieces of the psychedelic era, up there with Love Forever Changes and Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. All those records, at the time they came out were totally unappreciated and have since gone on to become regarded as three of the high water marks of ‘60s music.
CHRIS WHITE: It was a great period of change and creativity in music. I haven’t seen as much recently in that- it was that wonderful period of songs affecting your life. It was a period of “Let’s try something different. Let’s try something new.” And youth. The creativity of youth was overshadowing the old dyed in the wool stationary people who just want to make money with music.
PHAWKER: So you guys performed in it London back in 2007 to mark 40th anniversary?
CHRIS WHITE: Yeah. We’d thought we’d do one day to celebrate the 40th anniversary in London but it turned into three because it was oversubscribed and then they wanted us to do it in four different cities in England. We thought that was it, basically, but then the idea of doing Odessey and Oracle in America really — we thought we’d do it in 2017 which would have been the 50th anniversary, but as I said, we might not be around.
PHAWKER: Yeah. Right, right. Let’s not wait any longer. How old are you now?
CHRIS WHITE: I’m 72.
PHAWKER: That’s a fun age. How difficult is it to recreate the songs. I’m assuming you do them pretty much note for note and you’re really trying to recreate the recordings live as best as possible, right?
CHRIS WHITE: Well, yeah it worked incredibly well. In fact, sometimes I still see other members as school boys. It’s very funny, you know, I don’t think of them as senior citizens now. But it’s invigorating to listen to Colin’s voice and Rod play, and all the people we’re working with. It’s just incredibly invigorating really. And the audience’s reaction has been incredible.
PHAWKER: And one last thing. Did you guys ever resent the fact that the Beatles could do very adventurous, innovative, cutting edge music and become super famous and wealthy pop stars, and you guys were doing music that was just as adventurous and innovative and cutting edge yet you could not turn it into the goose who laid the golden egg?
CHRIS WHITE: No. not exactly. I mean — wonderful, the Beatles opened up the whole market, the whole idea of creativity, especially for us in America. We were the second group after them with a hit with one of our own, and it was so exciting listening to the Beatles. Basically the whole period was exciting, and it made you want to do more like what they did. It makes you want to be creative. It makes you want to have the same excitement. No resentment whatsoever.