Sunday, June 15, 2008

Ode to Doomed Youth

In response to yesterday's blog on the Zombies' album Odessey & Oracle--one of the great albums of the 1960s--my friend Tim Lucas wrote a comment in which he asked me about my thoughts on what I think is one of the most important cues on Odessey & Oracle, "Butchers Tale (Western Front 1914)," written and sung by the band's bassist and one of their chief songwriters, Chris White. Tim wrote:

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.

Rather than reproduce them below, the lyrics to "Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914)" can be found here. The short answer is that I think the meaning of the song can be found in the lingering influence of the poetry of British poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), perhaps the best of all the War Poets and a major poetic figure killed in action in 1918 just before the World World I Armistice. Owen, who hated war but who acted with heroism on the battlefield, had a special gift for being able to grasp the individuality and the reality of selves totally distinct from his own, a famous poetic example of which is his poem "Strange Meeting," about the meeting in some strange afterlife of two dead soldiers who had fought as enemies on opposite sides. I think "Butcher's Tale" also has a contingent connection to Owen's fine poem, "Anthem for Doomed Youth," as well (Owen's reference to boys "who die as cattle" may well have served as one of the inspirations for Chris White's lyrics). In the context of the 1960s and the Vietnam War, anti-war songs were not unusual, and in this sense "Butcher's Tale" is typical. "Butcher's Tale" is musically similar to songs such as the Association's fine anti-war tune, "Requiem for the Masses," the final cut on side 2 of Insight Out (1967), although I'm not sure whether this album had been issued when "Butcher's Tale" was actually recorded. But I agree with Tim that "Butcher's Tale" is one of the essential cuts on a very fine album.

What I find remarkable is that both Tim and I have concluded that Odessey and Oracle is one of the finest albums of the 1960s--this without any prior discussion of the album, hence without any intersubjective influence. But what is the origin of this shared subjective impression? Why do great albums seem so difficult to find in the first place?

Where we differ at all, I suppose, is in the subjective emotional impression the album leaves us, which while being love-oriented as Tim observes, nonetheless leaves me as being overall the expression of a deep longing. If the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (1966) is, as Brian Wilson has characterized it, "a teenager's hymn to God," then Odessey & Oracle is an invocation of the Grail Myth, that is, its vision is not that of a cornucopia, but rather a deep longing. Listen to the album while contemplating these famous lines by W. H. Auden:

The glacier knocks in the cupboard
The desert sighs in the bed
And the crack in the teacup opens
A lane to the land of the dead

Perhaps they weren't named the Zombies for nothing.


Tim Lucas said...

Like you, Sam, I came around to my discovery of ODESSEY & ORACLE belatedly, sometime in the early 1980's actually, when it was released as the second disc in an LP compendium called TIME OF THE ZOMBIES. The odd thing is that I always loved "Time of the Season," from the time I first heard it on the radio -- I actually have a vivid memory of the moment and can remember that I was looking in the bathroom mirror the first time I heard its distinctively breathy, sensual vocal against the bass and drum. For some reason, I never bought the single or sought out the album until much later, but I always seized on my radio when the song was played. I understand the single was not a hit in the UK, only here in the States. Yet it was only in the UK that the original Zombies recently regrouped to play the entire O&O album in concert in observation of its 40th anniversary. (If only we could look forward to King Crimson doing the same for their first album's 40th anniversary next year... but that will never happen.)

Speaking of the song's breathy vocal, I think Colin's singing on "Time of the Season" had a particular influence on other bands at the time. You can hear it in "Father Cannot Yell" on Can's debut album MONSTER MOVIE, in John Lennon's vocal on the single version of "Revolution" (during the middle eight), and it attains undisguisedly sexual dimensions in Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love."

It's interesting that the song has its origin in "The Tracks of My Tears" when it seems to obviously indebted to "Summertime," which I believe was recorded on The Zombies first album, BEGIN HERE.

A very wise observation you make about the Zombies: lyrically, they are more about yearning and longing than about real requited love. I never thought about this before, but there is always an absent component in my own art that seems necessary to it; this shared element may be part of what attacts me to The Zombies. I never would have thought of this aspect as pertaining to the Grail, which is why I come here.

Tim Lucas said...

PS: Believe it or not, that Auden poem was new to me, and the stanza you highlighted is a killer.

Tim Lucas said...

Oh, why not leave a third comment?

Reading over the lyrics of "Butchers Tale", I see that it too is a song of longing -- longing for peace and the comforts of home. It's not unusual to find an anti-war song on an album of this vintage; what is unusual is to have this kind of song written with such a pronounced, informed and worldly historical perspective and without the usual irony and preachiness.

I should mention that a book about the Zombies was published a few years ago, called THE ZOMBIES: HUNG UP ON A DREAM, by Claes Johansen. It was written with the input of the surviving group members (the original guitarist has passed away) and, while interesting, it really offered me no clue about how such a magical and timeless body of songwriting and recording came about.