Listen to this track by British Invasion rear guard turned retroactively celebrated pop-rock-psych quintet from St. Albans, England, The Zombies. It’s “Care of Cell 44” as taken from the band’s second and final record by the original line-up, Oddesey & Oracle. That album is now confirmed as one of the best releases of the decade by a number of well-established sources. And this single was the first salvo from it in the UK.
The song deals in subject matter which is familiar to the pop song milieu. It’s a song about prison. But, in this case it’s about a loved one looking forward to welcoming the prisoner back home once a sentence has been served. Instead of being a doleful tune about being in the pokey ala “Folsom Prison Blues”, it’s a song of celebration, with a joyful melody to bear it up. The band were convinced of its commercial appeal.
But, they were wrong!
Among other things happening at the time, the failure of this track as a single was a nail in the coffin (pardon the pun) for the Zombies. They broke up as the original line-up of the band by the end of the year this record was recorded, 1967. But, that wouldn’t be the end of the tale.The band would be brought back to life, sort of, almost two years after the break up. Another song on the record, “Time Of The Season”, would head up their next chapter for the band a couple of years later. But, in the meantime “Care Of Cell 44” would be the opening track to one of the most celebrated albums of the 1960s, a work that took some time to reach that status on both sides of the Atlantic, now with an established cult fanbase. Sometimes, it takes time for a listening culture to catch up to what they missed the first time around.
“Care Of Cell 44” is a classic slice of British psych, full of buoyant optimism and innocence, and with some disorienting elements about it thematically that give it real dimension. It sets the pace for the all of the other songs to follow. It helps that the Brian Wilsonesque choral singing, the spacey mellotron, and Chris White’s liquid basslines make this something special, especially when you consider how rushed they were to get it together in the studio at the time.
“Care of Cell 44” is a curious but highly potent opening song, full of the joy and effervescence which can be found on the record it introduces, but also a bit mysterious too. That’s what all opening tracks should offer. The lack of context for the story raises more questions than answers, perhaps something that only becomes apparent after the first few listens.
Who is the narrator? A husband? A wife? Who is the recipient of the letter to the titular cell? Are they deserving of such enthusiasm that they are soon to come home? What were they doing time for, anyway? Were they wrongly accused, or rightly? Is the relationship itself between narrator and prisoner somehow tied up in the crime? Is this a man talking to another man?
Or maybe it really is what it appears to be, written during a time when pop stars really were doing time in jail cells – for a while at least. In 1967, the London police were cracking down on drug use and what was considered the subversive nature of rock culture by arresting pop stars. This could be a fan letter to a favourite incarcerated pop singer!
All of these questions throw the listener off the scent as to whether this song is all that it seems. Maybe this ambiguity is what made this one a hard sell on the pop charts at the time. But, like a fine wine, the song and the record would come into their own. And the surviving original line up of the Zombies would reunite in 2008 to perform the record in its entirety at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire, with the knowledge that their unappreciated efforts forty years earlier had paid off.
Original members Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone continue as The Zombies today, and with talk of a new album on the horizon too.
You can catch up to them and learn more about that new release at thezombies.net.
And for more about Odessey & Oracle, check out this page for a song-by-song breakdown.