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CLASSIC TRACKS: The Zombies ‘Time Of The Season’

Producer: The Zombies • Engineers: Peter Vince, Geoff Emerick
Published February 2016
By Tom Doyle

The Zombies in Abbey Road’s Studio 3, June 1967.The Zombies in Abbey Road’s Studio 3, June 1967.Photo: Waldegrave/REX Shutterstock

Now considered one of the classic tracks of the 1960s, the Zombies’ ‘Time Of The Season’ almost disappeared without trace...

From its opening bars of loping drums, rising bass line, reverberated offbeat clap and sigh of “aah”, the Zombies’ ‘Time Of The Season’ is an unmistakable track. A staple of classic rock stations the world over, it has also featured on numerous advert and film soundtracks down the years, particularly those that try to capture the spirit of ‘67 and the Summer Of Love.

Although recorded that very summer at Abbey Road, ‘Time Of The Season’ wasn’t a hit until two years later in the US and, weirdly, didn’t even chart in the UK. What’s more, by the time it had reached number one in America in 1969, the Zombies — singer Colin Blunstone, keyboardist Rod Argent, bassist Chris White, guitarist Paul Atkinson and drummer Hugh Grundy — had already broken up.

Argent, the writer of ‘Time Of The Season’, explains today that the decision was a purely financial one. “The guys in the band that were writers, Chris White and myself, were absolutely fine in terms of income because, as we later found out, we usually had a hit somewhere in the world at any point. But we just didn’t have any hits in the UK. The live fees were very dependent in those days on when you’d had your last hit, so they were just going down and down. I remember Paul Atkinson saying, ‘Look guys, I’ve just got married and I’ve got no money. I’m sorry but I’m gonna have to quit.’ That was the catalyst really.”

In fact, before they made their hit’s excellent (and now considered similarly classic) parent album, Odessey & Oracle, the Zombies had already pretty much made the decision to split. In effect, the record was a last hurrah. “It was in the air,” says Argent, “as far as Chris White and I were concerned anyway, that we might break up. And if we were gonna break up, we really wanted to have the chance to express our own songs with our own ideas. So we wanted to produce an album ourselves.”

Having formed in St Albans in 1962, the Zombies were signed to Decca Records in ’64 and immediately struck gold with their first single, the haunting R&B of ‘She’s Not There’, when it hit number 12 in the UK and, more impressively, number one in the States. Recorded at Decca’s studio in West Hampstead, north London, it was produced by Ken Jones and was quite a progressive recording for the time, particularly with Hugh Grundy’s overdubbing of a second drum part live as the track was being mixed down to its mono master.

In fact, as a result, hearing subsequent stereo mixes of ‘She’s Not There’ on the radio these days tends to infuriate Rod Argent. “Almost every time you hear it, it’s not the original record,” he says. “As it went down to the one-track in mono in 1964, we put on a separate drum part. Now of course that only ever exists on the mix, so when people try and mix it in stereo, there’s a bit missing from the original single that was a hit. I know at least one of the stereo mixes that’s often used was just done by a novice trainee and it doesn’t have the drum part on it. That drives me crazy but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Similarly, recording at Decca Studios increasingly became a frustrating process for the Zombies, who despite creating a host of great tracks, struggled with Ken Jones to come up with a follow-up hit in the wake of ‘She’s Not There’. “We had a very talented producer,” stresses Argent, “but he was very old school and he was just always trying to recreate what he thought were the selling points of ‘She’s Not There’. He thought that was mainly Colin’s breathy vocals. Now the thing is the breathiness of Colin’s vocals was very effective on that first record. But really, when Ken Jones set out to make that first record, it was very successful because he was just taking the music that was there and making the best of it, rather than trying to fit it into a preordained pattern, y’know. And we started to get really fed up. He was very autocratic.”

Matters reached a head when the band were recording their 1966 single, ‘Is This The Dream?’, which like all the other releases which followed ‘She’s Not There’, subsequently flopped. “Ken Jones would never let us stay for the mix,” Argent recalls. “I remember leaving the session and us all thinking, That sounds fantastic. We went down the pub and then came back about three hours later when he’d mixed it, and I remember thinking, 'Has somebody else come in and recorded this?' It was just not as we remembered it. So we got very frustrated with that.”

When, in early 1967, the Zombies left Decca and signed to CBS, they told Ken Jones they wanted to produce their next album themselves. “To be fair to him,” Argent points out, “once we’d said that, he said, ‘Well I’ll help you do it.’ He got us in touch with Abbey Road. And it was very, very unusual at the time for a non-EMI artist to be able to record at Abbey Road.”

Abbey Road

The Zombies entered Abbey Road to begin the making of Odessey & Oracle in June 1967, only two months after the Beatles had completed Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band there. “They virtually walked out and we walked in,” laughs Argent. “We used Studio 3. It was immediately good. We also used the engineers that the Beatles had been using. We didn’t specify them but we got Peter Vince and Geoff Emerick and they were absolutely wonderful. We felt that we were getting the best sound that we’d had up to that time, and it all felt very natural. It felt to us as if what we recorded on the multitrack, when we mixed it down with the engineers, was exactly in the same ballpark as the tracks that we’d recorded. That really was very liberating for us.”

Guitarist Paul Atkinson, bass player Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy.Guitarist Paul Atkinson, bass player Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy.In addition, of course, by working at Abbey Road, the Zombies found themselves in an environment which was at the cutting edge of recording in the UK, thanks of course to the envelope-pushing Beatles. Having recently heard that Brian Wilson had used an eight-track — machines still unavailable in Britain — to record the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the Fabs were hungering for more recording space for their increasingly elaborate productions.

Charged with coming up with a solution, Abbey Road engineer Ken Townsend successfully experimented in syncing two Studer J37 four-track machines, as used by the Beatles for the first time in February ’67 when recording the orchestra on ‘A Day In The Life’.

“George Martin asked if I could link four-track machines in sync,” Townsend remembered in Brian Southall’s 2002 book Abbey Road: The Story Of The World’s Most Famous Recording Studios. “I did this by recording a 50Hz tone on one track of the first machine and using this suitably amplified to drive the second machine. Although the method worked, one problem was to get the second machine to start at the right time at the remix stage.”

Townsend’s solution involved marking both tapes with chinagraph pencil and aligning them by eye before pressing play on both machines simultaneously. It was of course problematic, and often useless when the tapes were moved to other machines that might be running at fractionally different speeds.

But nevertheless, only four months after the recording of ‘A Day In The Life’, the Zombies were to benefit from this process for the making of Odessey & Oracle. “I often use the phrase ‘like kids in a candy store,’” says Argent. “We had access to more tracks, courtesy of the Beatles. We were very well prepared because the budget wasn’t big. We were very well rehearsed — and we would put the whole track down within one traditional three-hour session. But then if there was time left in the session, and we had access to one or two more tracks, then I might for instance run in and say, ‘Listen I can hear another harmony on the top there,’ and just overdub it. It felt fantastic. It felt as if any idea that we had, we could actually just go in there and do them. And they were all our own ideas, so we were buzzing really on all the tracks that we were recording.”

As was generally the tradition at the time, the Zombies recorded the main backing tracks live with all five members present in Studio 3. Hugh Grundy’s Ludwig drum kit was recorded using the famous ‘Glyn Johns technique’, employing three microphones: one for the kick and two overheads, one placed to the side of the kit and another positioned a metre above the snare. Elsewhere, Chris White used a Fender Precision bass and for guitar Paul Atkinson used a combination of Rickenbacker and Vox AC30.

Rod Argent, meanwhile, played a Hammond L100, which produced the first keyboard stab heard in the opening verse of ‘Time Of The Season’. Later in the song, given the freedom of extra tracks, he overdubbed a second Hammond solo over his initial one.

As the writer of the bass line of ‘Time Of The Season’, Argent acknowledges that it echoes the one from Ben E King’s ‘Stand By Me’, released five years earlier. “You’re right, it does echo ‘Stand By Me’,” he says. “I didn’t think about it at the time. When they were my songs, I almost always wrote the bass line and the drum part with the song. It was just a simple blues phrase, using the blue note leading up to the key note, and that’s all I thought really.”

The clap and breath effect that make ‘Time Of The Season’ so distinctive were overdubbed as a result of a eureka moment that Argent experienced while hearing the backing track playback. “That little clap in front of the snare and then the ‘aah’ that comes after it, we rehearsed it without that. We put it down and because we had extra tracks, I said, ‘D’you know what? I can hear this mouth percussion thing.’ So I just zoomed into the studio and did it. That was it. It was just absolutely at the moment, y’know. The EMT plates at Abbey Road were brilliant and that’s what was used on it.”

Another revelation to Rod Argent during the recording of Odessey & Oracle was that, for the first time, he managed to try out a Mellotron Mark II, which ended up being used on various tracks, not least the strident pop of the album’s opener, ‘Care Of Cell 44’.

“John Lennon had left his Mellotron in the studio and I used it,” he laughs. “I thought it was great. The thing is, I initially thought, Well what a great way of being able to put an orchestra onto something. But of course it’s very different to that and much more in a way because its own signature sound made it much less middle-of-the-road. The quality of it just being sampled on tape, the strange sort of overtones that gave to the sound, were a huge bonus really. They made it sound terrific.”

In fact, singer Colin Blunstone fancied ‘Care Of Cell 44’ over ‘Time Of The Season’ as the band’s big potential comeback hit. “I’m not sure how much he didn’t like ‘Time Of The Season’,” says Argent. “But it was the last song on the album that was written and recorded, and it was written very quickly before we went into the session. I shared a flat with Chris White at the time, and I remember saying to Chris, ‘D’you know what? I think this could be a hit.’ But Colin didn’t hear it as a hit, I know that.”

For the vocal on ‘Time Of The Season’, Blunstone used a Telefunken U47. But its recording was not a pain-free process and involved an argument between Argent and the singer. “I’m always very very picky about the phrasing on my songs,” Argent admits. “I was very gently saying, ‘It’s not quite right, can you do this?’ And he got very pissed off with it and said, ‘If you’re so fucking good, you can come here and do it.’ I said, ‘Look, come on, Colin. This is the last track on the album, y’know.’ And he always laughs about this because then he sang, ‘It’s the ‘Time Of The Season’ for loving,’ y’know [laughs]. While all this was going on at the time.”

A Quick Mix

Given the £1000 budget constraints for the making of Odessey & Oracle, when it came to the mixing, all of the tracks had to be quickly completed. “Very quickly,” says Argent. “We’d almost always record a track in three hours and then we would maybe mix at least a couple of tracks in a following three hour session.”

As such, this presented a problem, which the Zombies hadn’t considered when they handed over the album to CBS: they’d only mixed it in mono, forgetting about a stereo alternative. “At the time, stereo was coming in as the new big thing, and we hadn’t even thought about it,” Argent says. “We mixed it in mono and that’s where we put all our effort. That’s what Chris White and I were used to doing, working with mono. Then when we delivered the album to CBS, they said, ‘But you’ve got to mix it in stereo.’ And we said, ‘Oh, God, OK.’ And they said, ‘But you’ve run out of budget, so you’re gonna have to pay for it yourselves.’ We had to fork out another £200 to mix the thing in stereo. And we were in uncharted territory there. We didn’t really know what we were doing. I prefer the mono mix of the album, personally.”

As with the drum overdub missing from the stereo mix of ‘She’s Not There’, one element is lost on the stereo version of the rolling ‘This Will Be Our Year’ from Odessey & Oracle: namely the trumpet on its mono mix which had similarly been recorded live as it was being mixed down. “The horn part went down on the mono mix, so that was it,” Argent sighs. “You can’t separate it then.”

Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent separated by Argent’s Leslie speaker. Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent separated by Argent’s Leslie speaker. After being completed, and before its release, Odessey & Oracle was hampered by another problem: the misspelling of the word ‘odyssey’ on its cover painting by Terry Quirk. “He was an art school friend of Chris White’s and a very talented artist,” says Argent. “We wanted him to do the cover and we went away on tour. He showed us the original mock-up of where he was going with the cover and we said, ‘That’s fantastic, love it, just do it.’ So we went away on tour and we came back and CBS said, ‘Oh it’s finished, come and see it.’ We looked at it and said, ‘Oh it’s fabulous... but, um, he’s spelled odyssey wrong.’ And they looked at us and said, ‘Well it’s too late now, it’s gone to print.’

“So I immediately made up this story — and in fact I even told Colin — that it was a play on words. Sort of a collection of songs, a collection of odes, which was actually a journey, which is the ‘odessey’ part. But I mean that was a load of bollocks really [laughs]. I actually admitted this... it might have been as late as about 2000 or further on, with Colin in the room when I was doing an interview. Colin looked at me in complete amazement and he said, ‘You’ve never told me that.’”

Obscurity Beckons

In the States, after ‘Care Of Cell 44’ was released and failed to chart, CBS boss Clive Davis decided not to release Odessey & Oracle. It was only at the insistence of Al Kooper, guitarist, producer and most famously the organ player on Bob Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, that the album came out at all in America, on CBS subsidiary Date Records.

“Al Kooper had come to the UK and just gathered everything he could find,” says Argent. “He reckoned that he’d bought 200 albums and the one that, as he said, stood out ‘like a rose amongst thorns’ was Odessey & Oracle. He went back to Clive Davis and said, ‘Look, I’ve picked up this album in England and you’ve got to acquire this album. I don’t care who’s got it and how much you have to pay, you have to acquire this album.’ And Clive Davis said, ‘Well we’ve got it and we’ve passed on it.’ And Al Kooper said, ‘Well, you can’t do that. You must release it.’”

A touch bizarrely then, given the number of potential hits on the album, the next Zombies single released in the States in July 1968 was Chris White’s elaborate anti-war opus ‘Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)’, which the label felt might chime with a young record-buying audience becoming increasingly resistant to the conflict in Vietnam. It was another flop. “I thought it was a wonderful track, but never a single in a million years,” says Argent. “Al Kooper couldn’t believe that they’d released that as a single. As a last gasp, they put out ‘Time Of The Season’.”

Initially, ‘Time Of The Season’ looked set to suffer the same fate as its predecessors. That was until a DJ in Boise, Idaho began to repeatedly air the single. “This one guy started to play it and he got a reaction on it,” Argent recalls. “That was like a stone being thrown into a pond. The ripples started to go out and affect the surrounding areas, and it grew. It grew in a very slow way, in the way that things could in those days, and it took six months for it to climb the charts in America. But it did and it ended up being number one in Cashbox and number three in Billboard. But Cashbox was an absolute equivalent at the time of Billboard, so we took it as a number one [laughs].”

By the time ‘Time Of The Season’ reached number one in March 1969, the Zombies were no more. Its success however forced them back into the studio for the making of a follow-up album, which, apart from two unsuccessful singles, ‘Imagine The Swan’ and ‘If It Don’t Work Out’, was never released.

“We didn’t want to make another album,” Argent confesses. “We’d broken up with Odessey & Oracle and I wanted that to be it. Then we got all this pressure, particularly from our American publisher, who said, ‘You can’t leave it there. You just can’t.’ We said, ‘Look we don’t want to do anything.’ He said, ‘No no, you’ve got to do something.’ We sort of bowed to pressure and put a few tracks down, but it was a pretty half-hearted attempt really.”

Classic TracksFollowing the split, Rod Argent formed his own band Argent, best-known for their 1972 hit ‘Hold Your Head Up’ and 1973’s ‘God Gave Rock & Roll To You’, covered in 1991 by Kiss. Colin Blunstone meanwhile gave up music for a time, working for an insurance company before embarking upon a solo career in the 1970s.

In their absence, in America, a couple of Zombies imposter bands claiming to be them emerged and began to tour, cashing in on ‘Time Of The Season’ and the surge of interest in the now-defunct English band. “It did infuriate us,” Argent confesses. “We were actually offered a huge amount of money to reform after ‘Time Of The Season’ was number one. But by that time we’d already, all of us, embarked on different courses and it did not feel right just to chase the buck and abandon everything else, even though it was very tempting in material returns. It was a moment of madness. So other people leapt into the void and tried to cash in.”

Resurrection

As the years passed, ‘Time Of The Season’ increasingly began to become regarded as a classic track, featuring on film soundtracks and ads, including in 1999 a TV campaign for Tampax which reinterpreted the song’s lyric with tongue firmly in cheek.

“Oh yes yes, I know!” Argent laughs. “How funny that you remember that. ‘It’s the ‘Time Of The Season’...’ [laughs] Yes it has been used in quite a few adverts to evoke the ’60s and the Summer Of Love. But really, the whole of Odessey & Oracle was dead for about 12 to 15 years after it came out. Then suddenly people like Paul Weller started to talk about it as their favourite album — which he still does, and which I’m very grateful for. Many, many other succeeding waves of bands and young independent musicians have continually said the same thing. Big established artists like Tom Petty and more recently Dave Grohl have been talking about it. But there was a time, probably up until the end of the 1970s, when it hadn’t sold anything. Then it started to gather momentum, and it sells more every year now than it did when it first came out.”

In addition, Eminem sampled ‘Time Of The Season’ for his ‘Rhyme Or Reason’ track on his 2013 album The Marshall Mathers LP 2. “I actually really like the Eminem,” says Argent. “I call that a cover because he’s sampled it so heavily. He immediately agreed to give me 50 percent of the royalties... which is not as much as you might think. If it had been a single then it would’ve made a terrific amount of money. But it’s lovely having him do it. I love the way that it wasn’t just a cover. Where the lyric is ‘it’s the time of the season for loving,’ he said ‘there’s no rhyme or no reason for nothing.’ So it’s pretty similar sounding in terms of vowels and rhythms and everything else, but he inverted the sentiment completely. I thought that was really really clever.”

After tentatively reforming in 1997, the Zombies marked the 40th anniversary of Odessey & Oracle in 2008 by playing the album in its entirety for the first time at three sold-out shows at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London. In 2015, they released their sixth studio album, Still Got That Hunger, and toured the US and Europe to massive acclaim.

“The thing that gives us the most kick about the old stuff now and something like ‘Time Of The Season’ is when I get 17- and 18-year-olds come up and they find they can really relate to it,” Argent enthuses. “We visited the offices of Shazam when we were in the States and they looked up the number of times it had been Shazamed since 2012 and it really flabbergasted them. They said, ‘Do you know it’s been Shazamed over a million times since 2012? By its very nature, the people that grew up with ‘Time Of The Season’ in the States will know what it is and won’t need to Shazam it. This must be people who’re not sure what they’re listening to. So at least a component of that must be young people.’ That to us is lovely.”

Ultimately, Rod Argent has a theory as to why ‘Time Of The Season’ has stood the test of time. “When I’ve written songs, I’ve never tried to make them fashionable in the sense of making them sound like whatever else is around at that moment,” he states. “In the long term, I think maybe it makes it not date as much as some of the stuff contemporary to us at the time has dated.

“I do think it captures a mood. However that was and whatever it is, it does capture a mood.”

Published February 2016