IT’S ALWAYS THE TIME OF THE SEASON FOR… The Zombies

With the legendary British band having recently
toured the U.S. and soon
headed to Europe
, let us pay tribute to the
group and its “timeless” sound.

 

BY REV.
KEITH A. GORDON

 

The
Zombies offer up a textbook example of the magic of rock ‘n’ roll to create
legend out of obscurity. Formed in the U.K. in 1961 by singer Colin Blunstone,
guitarist Paul Atkinson, bassist Chris White, keyboardist Rod Argent, and
drummer Hugh Grundy, the band was signed by Decca Records after winning a local
music competition. They scored a hit single right out of the gate when the
Argent-penned “She’s Not There” charted in both the U.K. and the U.S.
in August 1964. The Zombies rode the British Invasion wave into the U.S. Top
Ten with Argent’s “Tell Her No” later in ’64, but half a dozen or so
subsequent single releases failed to match the band’s earlier chart success,
and Decca dropped the band in early 1967.

 

The
Zombies had spent a couple years of hard touring across the United States, performing
alongside folks like Dusty Springfield and the Searchers when they signed a
last-gasp deal with CBS Records which resulted in what has since become known
as the band’s magnum opus, the wonderful Odessey
and Oracle
. An inspired mix of the band’s British R&B roots and
contemporary late 1960s psychedelic pop/rock with symphonic overtones, support
by the label for the making of Odessey
and Oracle
was virtually non-existent. This forced the band to use a
then-novel Mellotron to mimic orchestral passages because they couldn’t afford
studio musicians on the miniscule recording budget provided by CBS. When the
label demanded a stereo mix of the album (which was recorded in mono), Argent
and White footed the cost themselves.

 

The album
sank like a stone in the band’s homeland, and was only released in the U.S. because of support from Columbia Records
A&R man Al Kooper, a talented musician and songwriter in his own right, who
had bought a copy of Odessey and Oracle during a trip to London
and recognized its brilliance. By the time of the album’s late 1968 U.S.
release, the Zombies had already broken up and Rod Argent had begun forming his
self-named hard rock band with Zombies bandmate Chris White…all of which made
the unexpected success of “Time Of The Season,” which would rise to 3
on the U.S. charts in late 1969, all the more awkward. The band members
declined to tour in support of the album and hit single, resulting in at least
three counterfeit versions of the band touring the states as “the Zombies”
well into the 1980s.

 

Somewhere
along the line, though, that ol’ rock ‘n’ roll magic kicked in, and as new
audiences discovered Odessey and Oracle,
the album became a bona fide record collectors’ dream, a holy grail of 1960s-era
psychedelic pop that commanded hundreds of dollars for an original vinyl copy.
Music historians connected the dots between the Zombies and like-minded
“sunshine pop” bands like Left Banke and the Millennium, while musicians
like Paul Weller and Dave Grohl confessed their admiration for the band and its
landmark album. In the wake of renewed enthusiasm for their work, three of the
five original members reunited briefly during the 1990s to record a new studio
album, mostly to retain their rights to the Zombies name.

 

In 2008,
Blunstone and Argent got back together and re-formed the band with White and
Grundy to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Odessey
and Oracle
with a series of live shows. The duo has been at it ever since, touring
annually as the Zombies featuring Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent, the two
joined by former Argent/Kinks bassist Jim Rodford and his son, drummer Steve
Rodford, along with guitarist Keith Airey, who would be replaced by Tom Toomey
by the time the re-vamped Zombies recorded their critically-acclaimed 2010
album Breathe In, Breath Out.

 

In January
2011 the Zombies were invited to perform in front of a small, albeit
enthusiastic “invitation only” audience in London’s Metropolis
Studios, an intimate concert that was documented for the subsequent release of Recorded Live In Concert At Metropolis
Studios, London
(Convexe Entertainment), a two-disc audio/visual
extravaganza certain to thrill the pants off of any longtime fans of the band.
The CD and DVD offer up 19 tunes, most of ’em bona fide classics, including six
from Odessey and Oracle as well as
the earlier hits, and even a couple of cuts from the Zombies’ most recent, Breathe In, Breath Out.

 

The show
starts out with “I Love You,” a popular but failed 1965 single that
features a distinctive riff and forceful melody. How can a “failed
single” be popular, you ask? Well, it was originally released as the
B-side to a meager U.S. single, “Whenever You’re Ready.” But the song
would become a hit when it was later recorded by the California pop band
People! in 1968, rising to 14 in the U.S.
and working its way into the top ten in Japan
(twice!), Mexico, Israel, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Decca
reissued the Zombies’ original as a single in late ’68 but it sank like a
stone. Still, it’s remained one of the band’s more popular live songs, and here
it’s provided a strong performance, with solid vocal harmonies, psychedelic
fretwork, and plenty of Argent’s manic keyboard-pounding.

 

The band
acquits itself nicely on the Jimmy Ruffin smash “What Becomes of the
Broken Hearted,” which was a U.K. hit for Blunstone and keyboardist Dave
Stewart (not the Eurythmics guy) back in 1981. With the band providing
Motown-styled backing harmonies, Blunstone imbues the song with a longing and
wistfulness that falls just short of Ruffin’s original. An odd instrumental
interlude mid-song detracts somewhat from the performance, but Argent’s soulful
keyboard riffing hits just the right note. Toomey’s guitar solo near the end is
elegant and tasteful, extending the song to its short, discordant ending.
“A Rose For Emily” is the first of a half-dozen songs pulled from Odessey and Oracle, a wan pastoral
ballad that displays moments of Beatlesque melodic brilliance and interesting
vocal harmonies.

 

The
audience is preternaturally patient waiting for the hits, and they get the
first in the form of “Time of the Season,” an uncharacteristic song
in light of the rest of the band’s more sedate psyche-pop milieu. With its
familiar riff, unusual melody, chiming keyboards, and oblique lyrics it’s an
instantly accessible tune and while it originally flopped as a 1968 single in
the U.K. it would hit 3 in
the U.S. and top the charts
in Canada
a year later. “Tell Her No” suffered a similar fate previously when
released in 1964, hitting big in North America while the band’s hometown
audience largely yawned. “Tell Her No” offers a similar syncopated
melody and chorus, and the 21st century Zombies do it well, Blunstone’s soft
lead vocals providing a counterpoint to the band’s almost overwhelming backing
harmonies. It’s an engaging moment that thrills the audience.

 

The last
of the Zombies’ hit U.S.
singles to be performed this night was also the band’s first, “She’s Not
There” hitting 2 in the U.S.
and Canada while charting at
12 in the U.K.
In many ways, it would set the standard by which subsequent releases would be
measured, which is why, perhaps, “Tell Her No” and “Time of the
Season” rose above the band’s other singles in that they all share a distinctive
harmonic vibe that stood out as different and innovative at the time. Performed
here, the song lends itself to a lively Argent keyboard solo, with great vocal
harmonies lending to the larger-than-life sound of the song. The classic rock
radio standard “Hold Your Head Up” was Rod Argent’s biggest hit with
his self-named band, the 1972 single hitting 5 in the U.S. and receiving
constant radio airplay ever since.

 

The
Zombies’ version here of “Hold Your Head Up” is stretched out and
definitely over-the-top, allowing Argent to bang away at the keyboards with
reckless abandon, his vocals assisted by the band’s harmonies on the chorus
while Toomey delivers the song’s timeless guitar lick. Although the audience
came to hear the hits, the Zombies had a lot of good-to-great songs that never
received their due. “I Don’t Believe In Miracles,” from the band’s
1991 reunion album, is a bittersweet ballad that features a strong vocal turn,
beautiful harmonies, a melancholy melody, and finely-crafted lyrics. “Care
of Cell 44” is a deceptively catching
slice of sunshine pop with a uniquely British ambience and instrumentation
similar to colleagues the Kinks while “Beechwood Park,” at times,
reminds of Procol Harum with classical-tinged baroque instrumentation and
somber yet effective vocals.            

 

While some
1960s-era bands touring the oldies circuit these days are living entirely on
past glories, you can’t say the same of the Zombies. Sure, Recorded Live In Concert At Metropolis Studios, London strikes all the highlights of the
band’s career for an appreciative audience, but the hits are a small part of
the 19 inspired performances caught on audio and video that night. There’s a
reason why Odessey and Oracle is
considered a rock ‘n’ roll classic, and it has a lot to do with the depth of the band’s songwriting chops, their
instrumental prowess, and their often whimsical imagination, all of which are
on full display on both the CD and DVD of Recorded
Live In Concert At Metropolis Studios, London
.
 

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