Shouts and Murmurs | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Shouts and Murmurs 

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Cream
Those Were the Days
(Polydor)

Zombies
Zombie Heaven
(Big Beat)

Agricultural history can be summed up as the progressive triumph of human ingenuity over the uncertainty of nature--unless you happen to be a pig or a cow, in which case it's a tale of increasingly efficient slaughter. In other words, history is shaped by the values of the teller as much as by events, and that's true whether you're trying to understand rock 'n' roll's past or scavenging other boneyards.

I was reminded of this recently by the release of two box sets devoted to British bands of the 60s. Those Were the Days is a Cream anthology that collects all of the legendary power trio's studio work on two discs, with two additional discs of live sessions. Zombie Heaven is an import-only set that crams most of the Zombies' studio recordings onto two discs, with a third disc of demos and a fourth of BBC radio shows.

Most rock fans know both bands by name, but while Cream is widely considered a rock 'n' roll cornerstone, a near supergroup whose garrulous, blues-based hard rock set the tone for the 70s, the Zombies are dimly remembered as a melancholic beat combo whose entire legacy consists of three mid-60s singles: "She's Not There," "Tell Her No," and "Time of the Season."

A statistical comparison of the two bands only reinforces the notion that the Zombies are whey-faced menials in rock's hall of titans:

Number of Top 40 U.S. singles

Cream: 3

Zombies: 3

Number of gold or platinum records

Cream: 6

Zombies: 0

Number of noncompilation LPs currently in print

Cream: 5

Zombies: 1

Hall of Fame Membership

Cream: yes

Zombies: no

Most famous band member; subsequent influence

Cream: Eric Clapton; incalculable

Zombies: Rod Argent; may have opened the door for Keith Emerson

In short, a four-disc Zombies compendium seems only slightly less promising than a Freddie and the Dreamers box set. But a side-by-side listen to the Cream and Zombies sets suggests that their reputations are based on something other than raw achievement.

Immersing oneself in Those Were the Days is more an act of reacquaintance than a mission of discovery. Cream's core catalog has remained in print since the 60s, and about half a dozen of the trio's tunes have been staples of FM radio since the early 70s. Back when "heavy" rock was just coming into vogue, "Sunshine of Your Love" lumbered onto the charts like a triple-barreled steamroller, compressing a basic blues riff into a proto-metal power surge that still packs juice. "White Room" remains one of the psychedelic era's most propulsive doses, and "Badge" proved that Cream could play it exceptionally light and tuneful. Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker's instrumental interplay fired their boiling studio rendition of "Rollin' and Tumblin'," the churning "Deserted Cities of the Heart," and, of course, the classic live take of "Crossroads."

But it ain't exactly classified that Cream had its flaws, and a spin through Those Were the Days throws them into high relief. The first LP, Fresh Cream, was the uneven debut of a band still searching for its sound, and though its third and final studio effort, Wheels of Fire, contained bracing, adventurous works like "As You Said," an acoustic number with an Indian-influenced melody and strings, it also gave us Baker's ludicrous "Pressed Rat and Warthog" and a thoroughly narcoleptic cover of Howlin' Wolf's "Sitting on Top of the World." Disraeli Gears, then, stands as the band's only real masterstroke.

If Cream's exciting early work was sparked by the dynamic alchemy of three sympathetic virtuosos, its later live recordings are the often tedious effusions of three tireless monologuists--ear-crushing volume, extended unaccompanied wankery, and pure bombast mar much of the material on the box set's final two CDs. In the liner notes to Those Were the Days, drummer Baker recalls that Clapton and Bruce ceaselessly topped up their Marshall stacks simply to keep from being overshadowed by each other. "It was ridiculous....Playing that loud had nothing to do with the music. There was, in fact, one gig where Eric and I stopped playing for two choruses. Jack didn't even know. Standing in front of his triple stack of Marshalls, he was making so much noise he couldn't tell if we were playing or not."

The most striking thing about the Zombies box set, by contrast, is the band's unheralded consistency. While many incomplete compilations that have appeared over the years suggest that "Tell Her No" and "She's Not There" were surprisingly good efforts from an otherwise ho-hum group, Zombie Heaven's first two discs unreel scores of songs that match or surpass those standards without ever lapsing into formula. "Leave Me Be," "Woman," "Whenever You're Ready," and other complete unknowns swath amazingly infectious hooks in the band's patented minor-key harmonies and velvety vocals. In fact, Zombie Heaven makes a forceful case that the quintet was one of the most distinctive bands of its era. Yet rock histories routinely toss the Zombies in amid British Invasion effluvia like the Searchers and Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas.

Like most of their peers, the Zombies were heavily influenced by R & B, but the American musicians who had the greatest impact on their music were Miles Davis and Burt Bacharach. While the band wasn't out to mimic Davis, there are definite parallels between the way singer Colin Blunstone's breathy voice caressed melodies and the way Davis's muted trumpet wistfully whispered phrases. And the quintet's use of irregular rhythms and harmonies based on major sevenths and ninths put them in a separate musical universe from the Stones, the Kinks, or the Beatles in 1964.

Both Cream and the Zombies made their final recordings in 1968. Cream's passing was met with widespread sorrow, while the Zombies' final LP, Odessey and Oracle, was a commercial stiff, though "Time of the Season," belatedly released as a single, went to number three on the Billboard chart. Given the wealth of brilliant pop on Zombie Heaven one can't help but wonder why things fell out like they did.

A possible explanation crops up on a 1965 radio session documented on Zombie Heaven, when a British deejay brings up the subject of the "new rock-folk protest" style then emerging in America. In the mid 60s, as baby boomers grew up to confront Vietnam, social unrest, and an increasingly polarized political scene, they wanted their music to grow up with them, to become something more than the mere "kid stuff" of Beatlemania. Although the Zombies occasionally dabbled in "serious" lyrics, their primary subject matter was personal; they used classically tailored pop songs to pine for lost love rather than to excoriate the Man. By 1968 their focus was quaint and dated. The time of the season was for sit-ins.

Of course, Cream was hardly a political group, but the band members' instrumental virtuosity and willingness to "explore" music through improvisation conferred upon them a "serious" status. Their "art" was "important"; their extended soloing a sign of brilliance, hence the resounding applause that greets each filibuster on the live material.

The boomer standard still dominates the music press, which to this day labors under the delusion that the only great rock is serious rock. That's why punk, for example, has gone down as a revolutionary rejection of the establishment rather than as a simple return to the three-chord insolence of Eddie Cochran. And in some corners, rock still isn't considered worthwhile unless it can be construed as "groundbreaking." Since rock's history is in large part written by folks who make a living "explaining" these larger significances, it is kinder to acts like Cream, whose music can be inflated into a grand progressive scheme, than it is to acts like the Zombies, whose work is simply, purely, sometimes perfectly of the moment.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Cream photo by Jim Marshall; Zombies photo uncredited; album covers.

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