If a group like the Zombies appeared now, they would own the world—Tom Petty, 1997
Thanks, Tom, longitudes agrees.
Here’s a list of reasons why the Zombies would own the world, plus some tidbits about a beloved band on the eve of their long-overdue induction into the seriously flawed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in the same induction “class” as…wait for it…Janet Jackson):
- Hailed from the city of St Albans, Hertfordshire, north of London
- Formed in 1961 when the members were just 15; broke up in 1967
- Consisted of five schoolmates: Rod Argent (keyboards), Chris White (bass), Colin Blunstone (lead vocals), Hugh Grundy (drums), and Paul Atkinson (guitar)
- Lineup remained intact, and friends, throughout career
- Won a song contest in 1964, then signed to Decca Records by infamous Dick Rowe (aka MWTDB, or “Man Who Turned Down Beatles”)
- Covered American R&B songs in beginning, like most early ’60s Brit bands, but soon concentrated on self-compositions
- Two U.S. number one singles with “She’s Not There” (1964) and “Time of the Season” (1969)
- A U.S. number three single with “Tell Her No” (1965)
- A critically acclaimed album, Odessey and Oracle (1968), released just after they disbanded (U.S.-released only through efforts of Al Kooper)
- Appeared briefly in Otto Preminger-directed movie starring Laurence Olivier, entitled Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)
- More popular in America than their homeland (part of the “British Invasion“)
- The first pop band in which electric piano was the main instrument
- A lead singer (Blunstone) with a distinctive, smoky voice and movie-star looks
- Not just one, but two songwriters of exceptional talent (Argent and White)
- Didn’t do drugs
- Didn’t destroy hotel rooms
- Didn’t impregnate groupies
- Didn’t follow gurus or dabble in occult
- Did perfect the two-and-a-half-minute pop symphony
- Did amass a cornucopia of non-charting symphonies that remains undiscovered outside of Zombie enthusiasts.
I’ll confess, though, that I was also a bit late joining the Zombie cavalcade. For years, I’d considered them a three-hit wonder: five middle-class English geeks in matching suits who made a few classic singles…brief candles who flickered momentarily during a whirlwind era.
Thankfully, I evolved. While vacationing in Florida in 1986 with my brother, Steve, he played a 90-minute cassette of Zombies songs while we basked on the beach. The cassette included their three hits, of course, but it also had a beaucoup of superb songs I’d never heard. It was a eureka moment. “This band is more than meets the ear!” I remarked to the startled bikini strutting nearby, between applications of Panama Jack SPF-15 while scoping the “scenery” with binoculars.
(To this day, I never visit the beach without bringing along the five Zombies…and SPF-30, if not the binoculars.)
The Zombies only recorded for four years, disbanding in December 1967 just when the rock “revolution” was occurring. Thus, their beat-band and media-perpetuated square image—executive outfits and librarian glasses—remained static, while select other British Invasion bands had an opportunity to become “heavy.” This fact undoubtedly hurt their standing with the emerging hard rock crowd and the rock music press that followed.
They also lacked a distinctive lyricist, right when words were becoming important in rock. After their initial success in 1964-65, the public seemed to turn away, despite their cranking out numerous carefully crafted songs.
Amazingly, “Time of the Season” became a surprise hit over a year after they broke up, reaching #1 on Cashbox 50 years ago this March 29 (coincidentally, the same day as the Hall of Fame induction spectacle). By that time, leader Argent had formed his hard/progressive rock band, Argent, with White along as a co-writer (notably on the Top 5 single “Hold Your Head Up” from 1972). Columbia Records begged him to reunite the Zombies to capitalize on the success of “Time of the Season.” But to his everlasting credit, he refused.
Like Argent, Blunstone continued as a recording artist, finding great solo success in Europe. Chris White continued writing and producing, and Atkinson and Grundy became music A&R reps. Atkinson sadly died in 2004, but the other four miraculously reunited in 2008 for the 40th anniversary of Odessey and Oracle, performing the entire record on stage for the first time ever…and, unlike most such reunion affairs, the singing and musicianship was immaculate. Presently, Argent and Blunstone record and tour together under the Zombies name.
If melody and harmony still count for something in popular music, the Zombies earned their PhD, and they’re at the top of the iceberg of 1960s British Invasion bands. Only the Beatles and Hollies achieved their harmonic depth, and only the Beatles managed such caramel-coated melodies and marbled arrangements. While their lyrics were less clever or astute than, say, Lennon-McCartney or Ray Davies (the Kinks), they blossomed on Odessey; one only has to look closely at the words to Rod Argent’s “Care of Cell 44” or “A Rose for Emily,” or Chris White’s plaintive song about a soldier’s emotions during WWI, “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).”
If you’re unfamiliar with the Zombies beyond their three hits, and you’d like your own eureka moment, I humbly recommend Odessey and Oracle (especially vinyl), one of the great lost jewels of the ‘60s, and the Zombies’ singular contribution to the canon of classic rock albums (despite the misspelled title!). If this tickles your fancy, then proceed to the affectionately compiled CD box set Zombie Heaven, or newly released vinyl set Complete Studio Recordings; pure pop bliss of the like we will never hear again. You’ll be as pleasantly surprised as me when I heard that cassette, on the beach, way back in 1986.
While it may defy logic why it’s taken so long for the Zombies to enter the dubious Hall, and while they disappeared from the rock radar way too early, this is certainly their year, and it took a long time to come. And below is a link to my favorite Zombies song, the moody 1965 B-side “Don’t Go Away,” written by Chris White. Note the velvety “oohs” and “aahs,” and unusual A-B-C-C-A-B structure.
Mark it on your calendar: March 29, 2019 is worldwide Day of the Zombies.