We spoke with Chris White about recording next door to Sgt. Pepper, having a number one hit as a teenager, why “God Only Knows” is still the most beautiful song ever written and why receiving his applause 50 years later was worth the wait.
Abbey Road Studios had all the equipment, adventures and experiments that the Beatles had done already, which we benefited from.
I understand that you, Colin Blunstone and the rest of the Zombies recorded Odessey and Oracle partially at Abbey Road Studios. Plenty of people still record there all the time, but I can only imagine what it was like in 1967, with the Beatles and other greats in and out of there. Can you describe the energy in the building at that time?
It was like a factory, but of course, it had all that reputation. We actually walked in just after the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper. They were in Studio 2 and we were in Studio 3. We think we were the first non-EMI group to use Abbey Road Studios. But it was an exciting place. It was like a business factory, but a music factory. The sessions were three hours long, then you had a break, then three hours in the afternoon and three in the evening. It was quite a place, really. They had all the equipment, adventures and experiments that the Beatles had done already, which we benefited from. We didn’t run into them, though. They had left by the time we went in. We only had a budget of £1000 to do Odessey and Oracle, so we had to be fully rehearsed. We’d do two songs in three hours, that sort of thing. We didn’t work in the studio.
That’s interesting. Did not having a lot of time or money to expend add to the immediacy of the music?
It made us tighten up. It was only on four-track, first of all. We weren’t working on multitrack, it was four tracks. The Beatles had asked the engineers there to sync up two four-tracks, so we’d had the benefit of bouncing tracks. But we had to be really rehearsed and know exactly what we wanted to do when we went in there. We didn’t have enough money to be in there for days, you know?
What drew you as a child to pick up the bass guitar, at the expense of other instruments? What great bass players in history inspired you to develop your own unique style?
My father was a semiprofessional bass player, so I started up on upright bass. We were in the ‘60s and there weren’t really many musical instruments around until Fender put stuff out. So when I was at art college, I decided to buy one secondhand. Somebody had made a bass and didn’t want it anymore, so I bought it off him and just used that, really. I suppose the people who influenced me most were people like Jim Rodford who were in the local town and played bass, but I couldn’t quote anybody else because my personal role was as a songwriter, really. That was my drive.
Being at this level with people quoting and using our songs is wonderful and makes me feel that we were right at the time.
I can’t imagine penning a song as timeless as “Time of the Season” and experiencing it over and over as it permeates pop culture forever. I’ve heard it in hundreds of contexts throughout my life, and I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like it! How has your relationship with your own songs changed over the years? What’s the experience like to have created something — anything — that made such an impact?
It is fascinating, because remember, when we recorded Odessey, it was Rod Argent and my first production because we were fed up not being able to mix the previous tracks. So we recorded the album, and… it did nothing when it came out, so the band split up. 50 years later, to be at this level with people quoting and using our songs is wonderful. It just feels great. It makes me feel that we were right at the time.
I understand you met Colin, Rod and the rest when you all attended the same boys’ grammar school in Hertfordshire, England, with some of you singing in the same choir. Can you tell us about your memories of this time?
Well, there were two schools. Rod, our guitarist Paul Atkinson and the drummer were at St. Albans’ Abbey School and Colin and I were at the local grammar school. I was two years older than Colin, so we didn’t actually meet in school. It was only when we’d meet in the group that we got together, probably. We just really wanted to play. Most of the boys, they were younger than me by two or three years, and they were coming up to their exams and some were thinking about going to college.
I was going to be an art teacher. Then we decided to enter a contest before we split up, and we won that. And then they said “Well, why don’t you write something?” so Rod wrote “She’s Not There” and I wrote the B-side, “You Make Me Feel Good,” and we carried on from there. All of a sudden, we were #1 in America the same year we decided to give it a year’s trial!
It was obviously a big laugh, really. We couldn’t sue or stop anyone pretending to us, because we were no longer in existence! We’d split up at that point. But we always reckoned recently that if the Zombies split up, we’ll do a fake Z.Z. Top group!
If you had to tell alien invaders what the greatest piece of music we can offer them on Earth is, what would you tell them and why?
“God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys. That vocal and chord structure was so beautifully produced. It just opened up all sorts of areas for songwriters. It was a contest, really, between the Beach Boys and the Beatles. They tried to outdo each other, metaphorically, and it energized us. It was a great period of time for writing and creating things. We’re lucky we’re all still friends, so we’re enjoying it at the moment.
The album that finished us is now putting us right up high with the modern and young musicians. It may have taken 50 years, but there’s nothing better than that.
Do you mean you’re still tight with members of the Beach Boys, or your fellow Zombies?
No, no. We know several people in the Beach Boys – Darian Sahanaja, who does the Odessey and Oracle sections, is the person who plays with Brian Wilson and puts Pet Sounds together and everything. He asked if we wanted him to play with us, of course we did. The Beatles we never got a chance to meet, because they were touring all the time and we were touring as well. It’s very sad, recently, that Tom Petty died, because he came to our gigs recently. I know Benmont Tench, his keyboard player, quite well. It’s very sad when great musicians pass away like that.
Absolutely. What a colossal blow to music. Did you have a lot of run-ins with Tom over the years?
No, but he came out to one of our gigs in 2015 with the whole of the Heartbreakers because he figured we were instrumental in getting him started. He’d written the forewords to several of our boxed sets and also a book we put out recently. He figured that we were an influence on him wanting to make records.
I’m really amazed by the ways he paid tribute to all his inspirations. As far as the mid-‘60s, though, when the Beatles and Beach Boys were influencing and kind of playing off each other, did you guys feel like the odd men out in the British Invasion?
What we wanted to do was produce an album ourselves that we really, really liked. Odessey and Oracle got good reviews in England, but it didn’t do anything. Eight months later, CBS put out “Time of the Season” in America and it went to #1, but we were all doing different projects then. We did three albums with Colin Blunstone, and Rod and I put together the band Argent. I wasn’t playing, I was producing and writing. So we didn’t want to put the Zombies back together then. But now, fifty years later, we decided to put together a celebration of Odessey and Oracle. The five original members got together to do the tour. It’s a great pleasure to do that and to be nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame again! That’s really nice.
Congratulations! That must feel like you all got that pat on the back, finally.
Hopefully! It’s quite pleasant to perform. It goes down quite well when we do the concerts. When we’re onstage, it feels like we’re back as teenagers again. Because the songs were original and fresh back then, it still feels that way now. We never tried to follow any trends of the time. We just wrote the songs because they were what we wanted to do. We didn’t want to copy anything or do anything the same as what was going on at the time. We recorded them how we heard them. And it doesn’t seem like it’s dated to the core audience.
There are very nice young bands around now. Music is very important.
You’re absolutely right. And what gifts do you still receive from music, half a century later?
It still moves me. I can still be reduced to tears watching Latvian and Bulgarian singers. Different sorts of music like classical and jazz can really move me to tears sometimes. It’s the art form that sustains you. You can touch down on it anytime. I love books, which you have to pick up, and with art, which I was studying, you have to go see the pictures. Music is all over the place. It lifts people up. It can reduce us to tears and make us feel happy. I have a lot of people come up to me and say the songs move them or changed their lives, all sorts of things like that. That’s a pleasure, communicating with people or giving pleasure.
While you are all celebrating the anniversary of this great album, what do you see down the road for yourself, creatively? Do you feel like there’s more that you want to say through music?
Yeah, I co-write with my wife, who’s actually onstage with us. She is a backing singer for the Zombies’ vocal section. We will be writing songs and working with young people. Also, we finished a musical based on the making of Odessey and Oracle, which is sort of being carted around at the moment.
I’ve got to work. You can’t stop working, because music takes over your life. When you stop, there’s something missing. Music certainly gives me a purpose day-to-day. The album that finished us is now putting us right up high with the modern and young musicians, which is a great pleasure. It may have taken 50 years, but there you go. There is nothing better than that.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Phone
Published: November 13, 2017
Total questions: 13
Word count: 1805
Reading time: Six minutes
Odessey and Oracle budget: £1000
Innovation: Eight-track machine
B-side: “You Make Me Feel Good”
Abbey Road Studios, bass, Brian Wilson, Bulgaria, Chris White, college, colossal, communication, Darian Sahanaja, eight-track, Fender, foreword, four-track, God Only Knows, importance, instrumental, Jim Rodford, Latvia, metaphor, music, Odessey and Oracle, original, Pet Sounds, pleasure, tears, teenagers, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Zombies, Tom Petty, trend, upright bass
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
Related conversations W