NICE GUYS FINISH FIRST: The Zombies

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Not only are these denizens of the ‘60s British Invasion touring behind another album of all-new material, they are performing acknowledged classic Odessey and Oracle in its entirety with four of the original five members participating. Longtime fans—like our archival expert Dr. Steinfeld—are no doubt pinching themselves. Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone get on the couch with BLURT…

BY DAVE STEINFELD

The Zombies formed in 1961 while still in their teens, in the London suburb of St. Albans. A year later, the band’s lineup solidified, consisting of Colin Blunstone on lead vocals; Rod Argent on keyboards and vocals; Paul Atkinson on guitar; Chris White on bass; and Hugh Grundy on drums. Like The Beatles, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones, this quintet was part of the original British Invasion — but they differed from those other bands in several significant ways.

Firstly, The Zombies’ sound was always centered musically around Argent’s keyboards whereas the other bands were all guitar based. Second, although they did eventually make a terrific long-player (1968’s Odessey and Oracle), The Zombies were generally more of a singles band than an album band. Third — and perhaps most significantly — they never achieved the same degree of commercial success as those other bands did, especially in their native England, for reasons that many of us still don’t really understand.

Zombies clean up their act

The Zombies did get off to a strong start. “She’s Not There,” their debut single, went all the way to number two on the US charts in 1964. But with the exception of the following year’s “Tell Her No” — a great song that owed as much to jazz as to rock — they would never manage another big hit while they were together. Ironically, the band scored its biggest smash after it had already broken up! In 1967, disappointed both by their lack of commercial success and by the way their previous records had been produced, The Zombies entered Abbey Road Studios to create their swan song, Odessey and Oracle. This time around, the band decided they would helm the recording sessions on their own. ”Chris and I desperately wanted to produce an album ourselves,” Argent told me. “We kept making demos that we thought were great and then the final produced singles would leave us disappointed.”

Released in early 1968, Odessey and Oracle didn’t make much of an impact commercially when it first came out and the band split up. Argent and Chris White — who was the other main writer in The Zombies — had done okay because of their songwriting royalties. But incredibly, the other three members of the band had to get “real jobs!” Blunstone worked for a while in a London insurance office while Grundy reportedly did some construction work. Paul Atkinson eventually wound up having a very successful career in music, albeit behind the scenes. As an A&R man, he signed Bruce Hornsby and ABBA, among other artists. (Atkinson passed away in 2004.)

But a funny thing happened after the fact. Odessey and Oracle slowly but surely became more popular. In fact, as early as the winter of 1968-1969, “Time of the Season” (the album’s final track) became a massive worldwide hit. It still gets a ton of airplay on Oldies and Classic Rock stations and has been covered many times. In addition, the album itself has belatedly earned a lot of recognition. Many musicians cite it as an influence and Rolling Stone even ranked it number-100 on their list of the top 500 albums of all time. And for good reason. In addition to “Time of the Season,” — which manages to evoke the late 60s and remain timeless all at once — Odessey includes beautiful songs like “A Rose for Emily” and “Maybe After He’s Gone”; the anti-war “A Butcher’s Tale” (the only Zombies tune sung by White); and “Care of Cell 44,” a jaunty love letter to a woman who is in prison!

All that said, The Zombies would not regroup for many years, even though they worked together in various combos during the ’70s. Blunstone left the insurance business and embarked on a sporadic but critically acclaimed solo career while Argent formed the band that bore his name and earned more commercial success with arena-rock anthems like “Hold Your Head Up” and “God Gave Rock and Roll to You.” Chris White stayed busy writing and producing but preferred not to perform and largely stayed out of the limelight.

Around the start of the millennium, Argent and Blunstone got together and launched a new version of The Zombies rounded out by bassist Jim Rodford, who had played not only with Argent but also with The Kinks; his son Steve on drums; and guitarist Keith Airey (who was succeeded several years ago by Tom Toomey). They have since released several albums of new material and toured around the world to positive reviews. Between their renewed enthusiasm in the present — and the fact that their past music has belatedly gotten more attention — this really is the time of The Zombies! Considering that other bands from the British beat era have either lost central members (The Beatles, The Who), are mired in endless sibling rivalry (The Kinks) or are just going through the motions (let’s be honest, The Stones), it’s incredibly refreshing to see The Zombies doing so well. Here’s a group of guys in their early ’70s, with four of the five members still alive, arguably sounding better than ever, finally getting the recognition they should have gotten decades ago. Rock and roll needs more stories like this.

Still Got That Hunger, The Zombies’ sixth and latest studio disc, arrived October 9 via The End Records. Despite the somewhat corny title, it’s an excellent effort. To these ears, highlights of Hunger include the rousing opener, “Moving On”; the jazzy ballad “And We were Young Again”; “Edge of the Rainbow,” which is almost a torch song; and a joyous track called “New York,” which was triggered by Argent’s memories of the first time the band visited The Big Apple (see below). Throughout the album, there is a sense of both looking back and moving forward. And at 10 songs, Hunger never outstays its welcome.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent recently when they were passing through Manhattan right before kicking off their latest tour. Talking with them was a pleasure. [Below: tracks from the new album. Go HERE to read a review of one of the band’s recent concerts in Glenside, PA.]

BLURT” I’ll start by asking you about the new album, Still Got That Hunger. Give me a little background on when and where you guys recorded the new album.

 COLIN BLUNSTONE: We recorded it in the spring of this year, 2015, [in two] independent studios in and around London. The first one was called State Of The Ark which is in Richmond. It’s owned by Terry Britten, one of the writers of “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” It’s a really lovely studio. The second one was called Sugarcane. That’s in Wormsworth.

Our idea [was] to extensively rehearse before we recorded it, the same way as we recorded Odessey and Oracle. With [that album] we had to rehearse really thoroughly before we went in because we had such a limited budget in Abbey Road. We thought it would be a good idea to go back to that. Not particularly because of the budget — but why should we be working on arrangements in the studio when we can do that in a rehearsal room? [So] we rehearsed extensively and then went into State Of The Ark. In a way, it’s a live album that was recorded in a studio environment. We were all in a big room; it was divided up and of course it had glass so that we could see one another. But the band played live. In fact, they asked me to sing some guide vocals to help them while they were playing. But when we listened to the guide vocals, we decided that we would use them! So all the vocals were recorded live.

ROD ARGENT: We really wanted to do it with everybody playing together, so we could get back to that old idea of capturing a performance — rather than building something up gradually. I think it worked brilliantly. And we had a great producer, Chris Potter. If you’re gonna do things that way, and you’re gonna be ensconced in this live room, you need someone you trust in the other room. [Someone] that you know has got things right when he says, “We haven’t quite it yet. I think we should work more” or when he says, “That sounded great.”

 

Rod, I want to ask you about one specific track. I don’t know whether I like it because I live here or just because it’s a good song. But [it’s] “New York!” Take me back in time [to] when you were first here, and the genesis of writing that song.

 RA: Well, it was a magic time. The guy that turned me onto rock and roll, as with many people, was Elvis Presley. When I heard him sing “Hound Dog,” it changed my whole feeling about music. I’d only really listened to classical music up to that time — and then I [fell] in love with rock and roll. Little Richard and Elvis in particular. I still think his voice is transcendent on those very early records.

And just eight years later, this magical land that seemed so far away was a place that we were going to. Not only going [to] but we’d recorded a number one song! And we were going to play with our heroes: Ben E. King and The Drifters, Patti LaBelle, The Shirelles. You know, these were magic figures. [But] the black R&B figures we felt very apprehensive about performing in front of. Yet they took us to their hearts, which was so lovely. I remember thinking about that one day, in my car. And the lines of the second verse, the one that you’re talking about, just came to me in the car.

(recites):

“I walked into The Brooklyn Fox that snowy Christmas day

And Patti and her Bluebelles simply stole my heart away

She took me to Aretha Franklin, showed me so much soul

And helped us join the party with our English rock and roll.”

Absolutely true! I remember having long chats with Patti and her saying, “There’s this wonderful singer you’ve got to check out called Aretha Franklin.” That was before she did her soul stuff, when she was really just [singing] cabaret material.

That just came to me, with the melody of the verse, when I was in the car, and then I built the song up around that. I think it really captures what we all felt at the time. [Below: Argent & Blunstone]

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Colin, you wrote “Now I Know I’ll Never Get Over You.”

 CB: That’s right… I actually recorded that song four or five years ago with a string quartet. So it’s totally different! It’s done in a very modern-classical way… I play guitar and write on guitar and that’s how that was written. A lyric is about whatever the listener decides it’s about — but this is what triggered it in my mind. When people in a band are on the road and they come back, having been on the road for a long time, they’re dying to get home. You know, that’s what keeps then going. [But] when you get home, it can be a little bit stressful because you’ve been away for such a long time. There can be a distance with people that you weren’t expecting. That happened to me once, after a long tour, and it felt quite strange. And that’s what triggered the lyrical idea of that song.

 

With this tour coming up, what can we look forward to? Do you have it set up as two distinct sections? My understanding is that the current band, with the Rodfords, is gonna play but also that you’re bringing Chris [White] and Hugh Grundy out for part of it.

 CB: That’s correct. The first half will be the new band. I think we’re gonna play five songs from the new album. And I’m sure we’ll play some hits as well. Then in the second half, we’ll play Odessey and Oracle in its entirety, with Chris White and Hugh Grundy. But we’ll also include the current band [in that half] as well. And Darian Sahanaja, from the Brian Wilson band, will play second keyboard. We [did] this before, in the U.K. in 2008 and 2009. Darian came over and played and the really interesting thing was that [he] knew the album better than we did! (laughter) He’s a superb player.

The idea is that absolutely everything that was on Odessey and Oracle will be covered. The only thing that we might not be able to do — on “This Will Be Our Year,” there’s a brass section. It’s a strange brass section in that it’s three trombones and a trumpet. We managed to have a brass section in the UK but I’m not sure if we’ll be able to do it here. [Below: recent live photo of the band onstage]

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Tell me about the first time you met.

 CB: I remember our first rehearsal in St. Albans in 1961. It was Rod’s idea to put a band together and he knew four of the people in the band; he didn’t know me. I went to a different school and a friend of Rod’s asked me to come along. I used to play a lot of sport and I had a broken nose and two black eyes and I had strapping right across my face! So they were all a little bit wary of me. Actually, I looked like a zombie! (laughter)

 

Can I ask you about a couple of [older] songs? I love “Care of Cell 44.” What inspired that?

 RA: It was just a story-song. It wasn’t based on anything real. I just thought it would be a really nice twist. It’s a love song but [the message is] “I can’t wait for you to get back from prison!” I just wrote a little story-song around it.

CB: I always felt that was the most commercial track on [Odessey and Oracle]. Personally, I prefer it to “Time of the Season.” This may be one of the reasons I didn’t become an A&R man! (laughter) “Time of the Season” went on to sell two or three million copies and “Care of Cell 44” really didn’t sell many copies at all.

 

Tell me about “Tell Her No,” which was a big hit.

RA: I’d been really enjoying Burt Bacharach. I loved the way that he was using major seventh and major ninth chords. And I thought, “I want to write a song that has [that] feeling.” I mean, it doesn’t sound anything like a Bacharach song but it has some of those chords. It’s quite jazzy.

 

I know you’ve been asked about it a million times but I have to ask you about “Time of the Season.” What inspired that song?

 RA: Well, it was written against a whole feeling of what was going on at the time. This huge youth culture that was suddenly aware of what was happening, particularly in Vietnam and the reality of the violence. Up to that time, I don’t think any war had been reported in any sort of detail. And the images were pretty horrifying. They’re not as graphic as what we see now on the news but at the time, it was a huge break. That had the result of a whole youth culture saying, “We don’t espouse these ways anymore.” And not only [that] but it made a difference! It actually changed what happened. Now, we were never naive about the love and peace thing; we always thought some of it was incredibly naive and crude in a way. But there was no denying that that was a powerful feeling. When you can have something like Woodstock going on — with so many people there and no violence — it’s quite extraordinary. You had births and deaths there but no real violence.

So that was a backdrop to that song. And just a tiny detail was that I’d always loved the song “Summertime” by George Gershwin. [So] I sort of gave an affectionate nod to George Gershwin! When it says, “You’re daddy’s rich/And your mama’s good-looking,” in “Summertime” — you know, I said, “What’s your name? Who’s your Daddy? Is he rich like me?” When I said rich, I meant it in the current mood of the time. Is he rich in what he’s able to give you, rather than money? Rich in saying, “Look. You’ve gotta espouse the right values,” and things like that. It was a juxtaposition of songs and an affectionate nod in the direction of “Summertime.”


Going back to the first incarnation of The Zombies, most of the [songs] were written either by yourself or by Chris White. How were you guys different as writers and what did each of you bring that maybe the other guy didn’t?

 RA: I think that Chris was perhaps more naturally romantic in his writing. I think I was perhaps more informed by what I loved within different forms of music like jazz and R&B. I mean, even ‘She’s Not There” — it’s got that jazzy, improvised thing in the middle. Chris was more romantic [and] terribly inventive. Chris particularly flowered, in my opinion, in the period leading up to Odessey and Oracle. I think what he was writing on Odessey was absolutely fabulous.

 

Colin, when The Zombies first broke up, is it true that you initially went to work in an insurance office?

 CB: I did, yeah! Rod and Chris had done very well, out of writing. But we weren’t managed particularly well. And although we played extensively, we never made any serious income from playing live. I mean, there is a story there. In effect, we did make a lot of money — but it never filtered through to us. So when the band ended, the three non-writers — Paul, Hugh and myself — had to get jobs. We didn’t have a choice. I didn’t feel a great calling for insurance but I phoned up an employment agency. They said, “There’s a job [open].” And I said, “I’ll take it.” So I worked there for nearly a year and then gradually came back into the music business. It was an interesting experience. It was in the center of London, this office. The phones were ringing all the time.

You know, I was really sad when the band finished… I didn’t know anything about insurance! But it was a busy office, and I didn’t have time to dwell on what had happened. So in a way, I think it was quite good for me. [Below: the original members caught recently at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame]

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Interesting. The Zombies’ story is happier than many. First of all, four of the five of you are still alive; you’re not drug casualties; and belatedly, you’ve gotten the respect that you deserve. Does success feel a bit sweeter because it’s hard-earned?

 CB: Well, in a way, the answer is absolutely yes. People sometimes say the biggest thrill in [their] life was having a hit record. [But] I say the most exciting thing in my working life is that Rod and I just through touring — [with] no hit record [and] no big record company behind us — we started out playing rooms behind pubs in 1999 and we built the band [back] up, to a point where we’re playing quite big venues now. That’s a huge thrill. And I would hope that it will give hope to other bands as well, to know that it can be done.

 

It’s nice to see it happen to people who deserve it.

 CB: Thank you. But I must emphasize that we don’t have any false illusions about our position in the music industry. You know, there are bands that are really miles away from us.

 

Two years or so ago, I spoke with Nick Lowe and one of the last things he said was something like, “I’m very happy with this new album but I don’t think Beyoncé has to look over her shoulder.”

 CB: (laughs heartily) Well, it’s true, isn’t it? For Rod and I and the other guys in the band, it’s always been about the music. Always trying to write and record the absolute best we can rather than try to mirror what’s in the charts at [that] moment. It’s not commercial success that’s been our main driving force, you know? It’s trying to achieve something musically and artistically. Something that moves us. And then we hope that if it moves us, it’s gonna move other people.

Below, watch an hour-long concert of The Zombies in which they perform the Odessey and Oracle album in its entirety. While the synching is a bit off in places, the audio is uniformly superb, with “Time of the Season” (around the 39-min. mark) being particularly captivating.

 

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