Saturday, June 14, 2008

Mondegreen Pt. 5: Time of the Season to Trace

Some months ago I embarked upon an ambitious, if somewhat self-indulgent project of listening to all the rock and R&B albums released during the year of 1968, in the order, as closely as I could determine, in which originally they were released. Of course, such a project is riddled with problems: release dates are difficult to determine and many sources are hopelessly inaccurate, many of the albums released in the early months of 1968 were recorded in some cases over many months and different times in 1967 so that the release dates don't match the order in which the records were recorded (not that I assumed this would be the case), and there is the additional problem of different release dates of albums in the US and the UK. However, this project happily has led me to make a discovery that I had to include under my ongoing series of blogs on the mondegreen.

To fully explain to those who may have only recently begun reading my blog, I also, a few months ago, began to explore the mondegreen, the unintentional mishearing of a verbal utterance enabled by homophonic ambiguity. The first venture, "Dead Ants Are My Friends, A-Blowin’ in the Wind," was followed by a second entry, "Betty and the Jets." The third, which I wrote on Easter Sunday exploring the implications of the Biblical mondegreen, I titled "Melon Calling Baby." My fourth entry on the subject was about John Fred & His Playboy Band's wonderful #1 hit of early 1968, "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)," in which I argued that this particular song is one instance that we can definitively point to as a song actually invented or created through mondegreen deformation (John Fred misheard the Beatles' lyric "Lucy in the sky with diamonds" as "Lucy in disguise with diamonds"). So... as part of my self-imposed listening regime, a couple of months ago, in April (April being the release date of the album in the UK) I began listening to The Zombies' Odessey & Oracle, and on that album I discovered a second instance of a song created through mondegreen deformation--"Time of the Season." I say "began listening" because in fact I haven't stopped listening to it, and I have to say it is not only one of the best albums of 1968, but may in fact be one of the best albums of the 1960s. It was precisely this sort of renewed appreciation for records that I hadn't listened to in a long time that was, in large part, the motive for my year-long listening project.

I have insisted throughout my discussions of the mondegreen that I'm not so much interested in it as a form of "error" as I am in the way it is a sort of creative interaction with the song's actual lyrics. In my “Betty and the Jets” entry, for instance (on the mishearing of Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets"), I’d suggested the existence of the mondegreen, at least insofar as lyrics are concerned, is a consequence of a message being deformed once it is subject to electronic transmission, a technology which emphasizes the received nature of messages.

Some years ago I happened to purchase the excellent 4-CD import box set titled Zombie Heaven (Big Beat), and having found myself returning to Odessey & Oracle over and over again the past couple of months, I pulled out the box set in order to study its rather detailed liner notes written by Alec Palao. Subsequently I found a second instance of the mondegreen leading to the invention of a new song, this time with Rod Argent's "Time of the Season."

Apparently the Zombies for some time had performed Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' song, "The Tracks of My Tears" (1965) as part of their live act. In "The Tracks of My Tears," Smokey Robinson sings, "If you look closer, it's easy to trace/The tracks of my tears." In the liner notes to Zombie Heaven Rod Argent says:

With my faulty hearing, for years where Smokey sings 'if you look closer it's easy to trace' in 'Tracks of My Tears', I thought was 'it's the time of the season to trace'. I felt cheated when I found out the real words, but I thought I'd use that phrase. Then you've got the weird choral part, the 'loving' bit, so the song has a weird hybrid of influences.

It's interesting to speculate about the meaning Rod Argent gave to "The Tracks of My Tears" given he thought the lyric was, "it's the time of the season to trace." Here are the partial lyrics to "The Tracks of My Tears," with the mondegreen substituted for the proper lyric:

People say I'm the life of the party
Cause I tell a joke or two
Although I might be laughing loud and hearty
Deep inside I'm blue

So take a good look at my face
You'll see my smile looks out of place
It's the time of the season to trace
The tracks of my tears

I need you, need you

Since you left me if you see me with another girl
eeming like I'm having fun
lthough she may be cute she's just a substitute
Because you're the permanent one

So take a good look at my face
You'll see my smile looks out of place

It's the time of the season to trace
The tracks of my tears

For the man who wrote the Zombies' two biggest hits, "She's Not There" and "Tell Her No," both songs about an unnamed femme fatale, the mondegreen deformation of "The Tracks of My Tears" transforms the singer's life into an interminable hell, suggesting years have gone by since his break up. The song consequently is all about his morbid obsession with his lost beloved--just as are, interestingly, the songs "She's Not There" and "Tell Her No." I'd always imagined the time frame of the Miracles' song as referring to a recent break up ("My smile is my make up/I wear since my break up with you"), but by transforming "If you look closer, it's easy to trace" into "It's the time of the season to trace," the break up was apparently years and years ago, and seemingly his life has been destroyed. Hence the song suggests the singer is caught in the circularity ("time of the [cyclical] season") of an overwhelming obsession.

Having come across this recent instance of a mondegreen, it's become impossible for me to listen to Odessey & Oracle in the same way as I did before. Songs such as "Care of Cell 44" and "Maybe After He's Gone" now seem more sinister (in the former case) and morbidly obsessive (in the latter). Indeed, the album has a great deal more gravitas than I at first imagined. I've come to realize that the mondegreen not only represents a creative interaction with the original song, but also, inevitably, transforms how we subsequently hear it.


Tim Lucas said...
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Tim Lucas said...

I would say without hesitation that ODESSEY & ORACLE is one of the finest albums of the 1960s. As far as mondegreens are concerned, the album's very title is one: "ODESSEY" appears to be a musical double entendre but was in fact the cover artist's misspelling. In a recent radio interview, singer Colin Blunstone confessed that it was not until recently that Rod Argent confessed the error to him, maintaining for decades that it was a clever musical allusion!

One of the many things I love about the album is the transgressive lyric of "Care of Cell 44," which depicts two lovers anticipating a coming reunion -- when the girl is released from jail!

If you look over The Zombies' stellar catalogue of music, beautifully preserved in the ZOMBIE HEAVEN box set, it's hard to miss how much of it is lyrically rooted in romantic dejection and obsession. This, I think, is the very quality, along with its roots in jazz as well as rhythm and blues, that keeps it so contemporary sounding forty-odd years on. I think it was Rod Argent himself who once counted all of the "No's" in "Tell Her No" and said it therefore must be the most negative song in pop music history.

I'd be very interested to read your thoughts on what I think is one of the most important cues on O&O: "Butchers Tale," which was written and sung by the band's bassist and one of their chief songwriters, Chris White. Situated in the middle of the second side of such a melodic and love-oriented album, I find it essential to the album's strength and character. I admit that it took some getting used to, but now I feel musically moved by its shrill, dissonant qualities as the singer describes the French response to the coming first World War at ground level. It's also a very uncommon historical pop song (if indeed it is a pop song) that may find its only kindred spirit in similar historical ballads by Al Stewart.

I have a short list of moments in my life when I heard something musical that changed my whole idea of the world. Some of the early ones are hearing "Telstar", seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, hearing The Kinks' "You Really Got Me" for the first time, and another is the first time I heard The Zombies on my transistor radio.