Basking in the Land of the Zombies

50 yearszombies1

If a group like the Zombies appeared now, they would own the worldTom 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.
'Thank Your Lucky Stars' TV Programme, 1961 - 1966

The Zombies.  L to R: Hugh Grundy, Colin Blunstone, Chris White, Rod Argent, Paul Atkinson (Photo: Fremantle Media/REX/Shutterstock)

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.

odessey

Odessey and Oracle album from 1968, with “Time of the Season” (and colorful artwork by Terry Quirk)

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.

Music File Photos - The 1960s - by Chris Walter

(Photo: Chris Walter/WireImage)

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.

 

24 thoughts on “Basking in the Land of the Zombies

    • You’re welcome, Tad, so glad to meet another Zombie-ite. I also like TJ and the Shondells and read about their Pittsburgh connection. I bought a TJ anthology CD years ago, and songs like “Sweet Cherry Wine,” “Ball of Fire,” and “Loved One” opened my eyes, like the Zombies, to more talent beyond just their big hits. Also, James’s story about turning down Woodstock is a classic.

  1. I am one of those who likes the Zombies, appreciates their place in rock and roll history and yet probably only knows those few songs. I didn’t follow these guys very closely at all so the big shocker in your post was that they broke up in 1967! I remember first hearing ‘Time of the Season’ on the radio like it was yesterday and just assumed they were still together at that point. No DJ ever said otherwise. In fact minus Argent’s band, I would have had no reason to think they’d ever broken up, just maybe gone on hiatus. I’m continually amazed at how many bands I would have sworn would have bit the dust and yet are still around in one fashion or another. (My buddy Steve loves ‘Hold Your Head Up.’)

    However – “Didn’t destroy hotel rooms; Didn’t impregnate groupies; Didn’t follow gurus or dabble in occult.” And they call themselves a rock band? 🙂

    Back to the point. I remember seeing ‘Odessey and Oracle’ in the record racks. But no one I knew owned it, no station was really playing it so I overlooked it. I’ll have to add it (and the other one) to the “give-it-a-spin” pile. I confess to being continually amazed at the sheer level of musical talent in post-WWII Britain. What the hell were they drinking?

    PS. Congratulations for actually being able to type the words Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without spontaneously combusting. 🙂

    • Ha! Your “spontaneously combusting” remark, Jim, tells me that we share some emotions regarding RnRHOF. Notice that I’m compelled to use a negative modifier whenever I mention it. That being said, I’m still happy when a great but overlooked band finally gets their due, as I’m sure you are.

      “Odessey” has been slowly gaining respect over the decades. I’m not sure I’ve ever spied a new or used copy, either. If you have time, here’s one of the 2008 “Odessey” performances. Blunstone can still hit the high notes, and White’s rendition of “Butcher’s Tale,” one of their less accessible songs, is pretty poignant: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEj4bduFrjk

      • Actually I think you’re reading more into my statement than was intended. Were I to rephrase it for clarity I’d say, “Given your oft-stated antipathy to the HOF I’m surprised you didn’t spontaneously combust.” My own feelings are ambivalent to slightly negative but nowhere near as strong as yours. It is what it is.

  2. I got to thinking about that Petty quote never having seen it before. I found a Rolling Stone article where he singled out a song called “I Want You Back Again” which I’d never heard. He later covered it in concert. It’s kind of a nice jazzy song.

    Petty’s version rocks a little harder but is essentially the same tune.

    • Thank you! I watched the Petty concert clip. It’s a respectful version, and (to me, at least) doesn’t sound like Petty rocked out any harder than the Zombies did. It’s in waltz time, the band’s fourth U.S. single, an A-side, not a B-side like Petty claimed, but it only scraped the bottom of the U.S. charts in mid-1965. Per my “Zombie Heaven” liner notes, it was released in a hurry to capitalize on a Dick Clark tour.

      Despite the B-side/A-side mistake, ole Tom definitely knew and appreciated the Zombies. Thanks again!

      • Sure. I like how guys like Petty, Springsteen, Van Zandt, etc. loved those British Invasion (and older) tunes and played them. Some sense of roots, you know?

      • I agree. It’s great those “latter-day” rockers draw attention to earlier bands that might otherwise be ignored. Me… I don’t need their nods of approval. In a perfect world, great music like this would stand on its own.

      • Well it’s less a nod of approval, more of “isn’t it great that our musical heroes are keeping some of that stuff alive.” But well, you did quote Petty initially so, not nod of approval? Puzzled.

      • (To clear up my comment): I included the Petty quote more for readers, especially younger, who know Petty better than the Zombies, since he has a higher profile these days. (Whereas longtime Zombie fans like me already know they’d own the world!) I think it’s great that that quote drove you to digging up his cover of “I Want You Back Again,” which I didn’t previously know about.

        Speaking of “nods of approval,” you might want to check out the Zombies’ version of Gershwin’s “Summertime.” They add their own Zombie spin, and it’s a wonderful cover.

  3. As you point out so well, just about the definition of a too-overlooked band! I can still recall my little plastic transistor radio lighting up with “She’s Not There” and when that Argent piano solo came in, just stopping in my tracks. My radio’s little speaker probably didn’t let me hear Chis White’s bass part then, but that’s as unprecedented in a self-contained pop group record of that time.

    When you mentioned lyric writing as being a weakness, I was also stopped in my tracks. “What about ‘Rose for Emily’, ‘Care of Cell 44’ and ‘Butcher’s Tale?’ Those are great lyrics!” and then a ‘graph or so later you say the same thing! I’d also point out that “She’s Not There” is a great lyric, particularly in that it’s mysterious and not over-determined.

    • Amazing coincidence, Frank, your quote about (my mention of) Zombie lyrics. I love those three songs. Did you know that a Wm. Faulkner short story inspired “Rose for Emily”?

      “Mysterious” and “not over-determined” are good descriptors. My “Zombie Heaven” booklet quotes Rod as saying he was very concerned about the lyric to “She’s Not There,” and wanted the words to have “different stresses” and “their own rhythm.” So the mysterious lyrics suited the music perfectly.

      Thanks!

  4. Not familiar with their output other than the tunes that got on the radio. I guess I should dive into the others.I like that tune Jim posted. We know what Petty was listening to. He also does a great version of ‘Needles and Pins’. I now leave a little smarter in my musical knowledge. Later.
    Oh yeah, I like the Santana cover also. Plus I heard a rumor that there are some lost recordings of Howlin Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Light’n Hopkins, Janet Jackson and Muddy Waters.

    • They specialized in minor-keys, along with harmony, so if you like that stuff, you’ll probably like their non-radio songs as well. It’s odd that they hit it big in the states, but not so much their home country. Just the opposite of another fave of mine, the Small Faces. Thanks, Mr. Head!

  5. I gave “Odessey and Oracle” a spin. Am I the only who hears a massive Beach Boys and (some) Kinks influence? I wish I could say I really dug it. But even though I’m a pop lover, this album didn’t particularly do it for me. I could have used – and was maybe naively expecting – a lot more “Time of the Season” and a lot less of the other sound. My son was listening with me and loved “Season.” That is such a great tune.

    • Thanks for listening, and for your honesty. I don’t hear any Beach Boys influence at all. Some songs, like “Beechwood Park,” are reminiscent of the Kinks, though. Both bands developed concurrently. While I love Ray Davies’ lyrics and insights, I feel Blunstone is a much better singer than either Ray or Dave, and the Zombies exceeded the Kinks in the melody and harmony departments, and celebrated minor rather than major keys.

      I wasn’t greatly impressed the first time I heard “Odessey,” either (as part of a vinyl compilation). Maybe because I was expecting an entire album’s worth of “Time of the Season,” or too busy playing the game of “Sounds too much like…” It’s taken several decades for that record to crawl out of the critics’ crypt, though, so you might want to try bringing it to the beach with you in a few years!

      • No Beach Boys at all? Not even on the first tune? Man, that’s all I heard. Yeah, the Kinks weren’t great singers for sure. But that is my band for sure in so many ways. And Ray’s world-weary voice is perfect for his tunes.

        As to the beach, yes I will definitely give it (and that compilation you mentioned) a spin there. I love the beach and I love listening to music on my headphones while looking out at the water. I’m sure it will hit me differently there. 🙂

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