Colin Blunstone's first band does a great job of capturing the anti-war sentiment of the 1960s in this extraordinary song
Listen to Butcher's Tale
Between the end of the first world war and the start of the second, there was a gap of 21 years. The second world war ended in 1945, and 20 years later ? during 1965 ? the US greatly increased its military involvement in Vietnam, a conscription war that haunted a generation of young Americans and slowly tore the country apart.
In Britain there was no conscription after the end of national service in 1960. In the mid to late 60s, the then Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, resisted attempts by the US president, Lyndon Johnson, to involve Britain in the Vietnam war. The country's involvement in the bitter conflict in Northern Ireland was undertaken by the standing army.
This left a generation of British youth wondering about the war that hadn't come. There were plenty of alternatives, not least among them the cold war with its visions of nuclear annihilation. There was also the long shadow of the second world war ? the bombsites, the violent explosions and unspoken psychological damage that lay behind the stiff upper lip which had made survival possible.
The birth of so many 60s musicians coincided with horrific events. Mick Jagger's arrival in late July 1943 occurred while the RAF was carpet-bombing Hamburg, while Pete Townshend, born in May 1945, came into the world during the last days of the Hitler regime. In recent years, Townshend has given many interviews that refer to the war, and the damage done to his parents' generation and their children.
On Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914), from 1968, the Zombies went further back. The song begins with a wheezing organ, with sound-effects like a breath from a horror movie, before a stark accordion sets up the first verse: "A butcher yes that was my trade/ But the king's shilling is now my fee/ A butcher I may as well have stayed/ For the slaughter that I see".
Colin Blunstone had one of the most smooth and sensuous voices of the period, but here it's strained and wobbly, jerking in time with the stop-start rhythm. On the shell-shocked chorus ? "And I can't stop shaking/ My hands won't stop shaking/ My arms won't stop shaking/ My mind won't stop shaking" ? it cracks, only resolving in the simple, heartfelt statement: "I want to go home".
Like Eric Burdon and the Animals' contemporaneous single Sky Pilot, the Zombies comment on the hypocrisy of organised religion ? "And the preacher in his pulpit/ Sermon: 'Go and fight, do what is right'/ But he don't have to hear these guns/ And I'll bet he sleeps at night" ? but Butcher's Tale is reined in while the Animals' song is, in their customary fine style, over the top.
The juddering rhythm ? like the automatism of shock victims ? is relentless, setting up the full horror of the second verse: "And I have seen a friend of mine/ Hang on the wire/ Like some rag toy/ Then in the heat the flies come down/ And cover up the boy". The accordion rises and falls, without resolution, a closed loop. There is no escape and there never will be.
This is a serious song about an extremely serious subject that succeeds because of its restraint and complete synchronicity of form with content, of music with lyric, of feeling with imagination. The Zombies did not experience the western front, but they projected themselves into a terrible event with all the considerable talent at their disposal.
Butcher's Tale is unlike anything else on Odessey and Oracle ? an album of melodic British pop with contemporary psych touches. Much of it is upbeat, with a few more reflective moments such as A Rose For Emily and Care of Cell 44. But Butcher's Tale is the record's dark heart The one stark moment of experience that makes the happiness expressed elsewhere even more delightful.
The horror of the first world war is all the more intense because of the disparity between people's expectations ? the pro-war euphoria that swept European cities in August 1914 ? and the reality of mass slaughter. The number of dead ranked in the millions, a figure that did not recognise the many more left maimed in mind and body ? the ruined men of the 1920s.
Even in 1968, the first world war still cast a powerful shadow over Britain ? the memorials, the ceremonies, the still prevalent feeling of a disaster so terrible that it broke the country forever. I remember this sensation of loss very strongly from my 60s childhood/teenhood, and it is that atmosphere that the Zombies capture so accurately in this extraordinary anti-war song.