INTERVIEW: The Zombies’ Rod Argent And Colin Blunstone On How Odessey And Oracle Rose From The Dead To Become A Classic

by (@JordanRuntagh)

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Half a century after a breakup should have nailed their coffin shut, the Zombies are just as alive today as they were in their 1960s heyday. Singer Colin Blunstone and keyboard-playing composer Rod Argent have just completed a 14-date cross-country tour, including a packed house at New York City’s iconic BB King Blues Club. This fall, the band’s two creative pillars are entering the studio to record an album of new material for their continuously growing legion of fans young and old. Like their namesake, the Zombies have come back from the dead to reclaim their rightful place in rock history alongside trailblazing artists like Brian Wilson, Pink Floyd and even the Beatles.

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For decades, the Zombies’ career was summed up by just three titles: “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No,” and “Time Of The Season.” These are the only Top 40 entries logged by the band during their too brief existence. Granted, the songs have become bona fide classics of the rock canon and permanent fixtures on film, television, and radio. But the group is experiencing an unprecedented resurgence in the new millennium thanks to an album that was all but ignored upon release forty years prior.

Odessey and Oracle, their 1968 swan song issued just after the band split, has risen from obscurity to be hailed as a pop masterpiece. It appears on numerous “Greatest Albums Of All Time” lists, including those in Rolling Stone and Mojo, and has been cited as a favorite by artists as diverse as mod rocker Paul Weller, folk hero Elliott Smith, and grunge god Dave Grohl. Unlike many rediscovered “lost albums” that owe their belated success to a movie soundtrack or television advertisement, Odessey and Oracle has endured solely thanks to its musical merits and the passion of those who’ve heard it. Based primarily on word of mouth, the record’s status increases each year.

What is it about the Zombies that makes them so bewitching to musicians of every genre and generation? What is it that makes them different from their British Invasion brethren Herman’s Hermits, the Dave Clark Five, and the Animals? Each of those bands had far more chart success (18, 18, and 14 Top 40 hits, respectively), yet all are seen primarily as relics of the past. What sets the Zombies apart is that sound. It’s an unmistakable mix of Beatles, Bill Evans, blues, and baroque. There’s never been a sound quite like it in all of rock history, and that’s what makes it timeless.

The sound began in the mid-1950s with young Rod Argent, then just a choir boy in St. Albans, England. Inclined more towards Bach than rock, starting a beat group was the furthest thing from his mind. “I grew up loving music, but the first ten years of my life I didn’t like pop music at all,” he remembers. “If you can imagine the pop music that was around, it was okay but it wasn’t very exciting–Perry Como and all of that sort of thing.” It was his cousin Jim Rodford, future Kinks bassist who currently plays in the Zombies’ touring band, who brought the rock gospel direct from the King himself. “Jim played me Elvis singing ‘Hound Dog,’ and it completely, completely blew me away.” When Argent saw the raw power of his cousin’s group performing live, it was a revelation. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to be in the band one day.’”

That day came a few years later in 1961. Rodford once again provided the spark, securing a venue and equipment for the embryonic Zombies to have their first rehearsal. It was here that Argent began his musical union with Colin Blunstone, the friend of a schoolmate from the next town over. Originally, Argent was to be the group’s lead singer, but he had a change of heart when he heard Blunstone’s unforgettable voice. “He sat down and started singing a Ricky Nelson song. And it was fantastic. I went over and said, ‘Listen, I can’t believe it. You’ve got to be the lead singer. I’ll move over a chair, okay? I’ll play piano.’”

Argent was the first of millions to be knocked sideways by Blunstone’s hauntingly beautiful breathy vocals. Although instantly recognizable and singular in the extreme, his delivery is capable of bouncing back and forth between Bo Diddley stomps, George Gershwin standards, and Gregorian chant-like chorales. Etherial and androgynous, it might as well have crash-landed from another planet. What combination of influences could have possibly created such a unique voice? “I think right at the very beginning it would be the rock’n’roll greats—Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard,” Blunstone says “Later on we were very, very influenced by the Beatles. But then I think once we started playing professionally, I am not aware of being particularly influenced by anybody.”

Blunstone’s singing coupled with Argent’s classically steeped keyboards provided the fundamental backbone of the Zombies. Alongside Paul Atkinson on guitar, Hugh Grundy on drums and fellow songwriter Chris White on bass, the amateur band developed a strong following around St. Albans. By 1964 the quintet very nearly split to continue their studies at university, but then a local talent contest beckoned. The top prize of a recording contract with prestigious Decca Records was too good to pass up. When the band won, the choice was effectively made for them: the Zombies turned pro.

To be a professional group in 1964 meant to follow the Beatles’ lead and write your own material. So Rod Argent went home to pen his attempt at the Zombies’ first single, “She’s Not There.” Borrowing its opening lyrics from the Johnny Lee Hooker tune “No One Told Me,” it was only the second song that he had ever written. Not that he was particularly daunted by writing a song before the band’s first major recording date. “That’s the naivete of youth,” he laughs now. “Because when you’ve never done it before, you just imagine a completely successful scenario. And I thought ‘Yeah, great, we’ve got our session coming up, I can write a song that’s as good as the Beatles and it’ll be number one.’ And it was!”

The unusual syncopated rhythm, cartwheeling bass, moody minor chords, manic organ solo, and Blunstone’s jilted vocals all came together to create a stylish track that was without peer in the British rock climate. What’s more, it was anointed by a Beatle himself. George Harrison gave “She’s Not There” a glowing review while appearing on the popular musical panel show Jukebox Jury later that year. “He said some really nice things,” says Argent, who admits that he treasures a tape of the television program to this day. “He said the vocals were great, he loved the piano playing in it. And he said it was a hit! In those days, the word of a Beatle was the word of God. It really was. So it gave us a huge boost. And within a week or so the record was on the charts.”

The Fab Four also paved the way for the Zombies’ success across the pond. Major American labels had traditionally ignored international musical trends, but the Beatles’ unprecedented success in the States had them ravenous for any English rock imports. This so-called “British Invasion” ushered in a flurry of bands, but the Zombies were the first of the pack to reach Number 1 on the Cashbox charts (then equal to Billboard) with a self-penned song. They received the good news while in the studio recording their US follow-up single “Tell Her No,” Argent’s jazzy Burt Bacharach-inspired track. “That gave us a boost,” he says with a smile. So did learning that their records were on Elvis’ personal jukebox at Graceland.

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