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.
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.
All signs pointed to the Zombies giving the Beatles a run for their money, but this period would prove to be the pinnacle of the band’s success during their active life. Although “Tell Her No” reached a respectable Number 6 in America, it inexplicably wallowed beneath the Top 40 back home in Britain. Their debut long player Begin Here, a varied collection of strong originals and innovative R&B covers, peaked at a tepid Number 39. A panicked Decca Records scrapped plans for a second album and drastically slashed their promotional budget. In short, the band was left out to dry. Vibrant singles like “She’s Coming Home,” “Whenever You’re Ready,” and “Just Out of Reach” saw their sales in steep decline, and by mid-1966 the Zombies had stopped charting in the US and UK entirely.
Ironically, during this same period, the group was engaged in a frenzied tour of Asia. In the Philippines they had an astonishing five songs in the local Top 10, and played to sold-out crowds of 30,000 nightly. Despite the rapturous reception, they were earning minuscule performance fees and band morale was at an all-time low. In early 1967, much as the Beatles had done just a few months earlier, the Zombies took a break from the strain of touring and retreated to the studio. The result would be their magnum opus, Odessey and Oracle.
But the band was without a label. Decca and the Zombies had gone their separate ways after releasing one last single, a heavily orchestrated version of Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Goin’ Out Of My Head.” The bombastic cover didn’t trouble the charts, but the record’s flip-side, a sitar-tinged rocker called “She Does Everything To Me,” hinted at the new direction to come. CBS offered the band 1,000 pounds to record at the famed EMI Studios at Abbey Road, creative laboratory of the Beatles. The figure was tiny even by 1960s standards, but what the deal lacked in finances it made up for in creative freedom.
Until then, this freedom was rare. Tensions had been growing with the band’s long-time producer Ken Jones, who seemed more interested in recapturing the glory of their first single rather than adapting to the rapidly changing times. 1966 had yielded landmark albums like the Beatles’ Revolver, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde--all of which were lightyears away from the pop beat boom of two years before. When it came to translating the Zombies’ musical vision, Argent found Jones unsympathetic. “He was a great guy but he was very autocratic. And what he said went, in the studio. If he thought there was a mistake or there was something wrong with the performance in his ears, then he would say, ‘Do another take, I think you can do better.’ But if he thought it was okay, even if we violently disagreed, that was it. And we were never allowed into the mixes.” As the band began work on their new material, they amicably parted ways with their old producer. “In the end we just outgrew one another,” Blunstone concludes. Argent and Chris White would produce the disc that represented the band’s first true artistic statement.
Call it fate, luck, or coincidence, but the Zombies’ tale shares many parallels with the Beatles, and their paths converged in a major way at Abbey Road in the summer of 1967. Argent, Blunstone and the band were literally entering Studio Two as the foursome were exiting, having just completed their generation-defining Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Elsewhere in the building, Pink Floyd was recording their debut, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and the Pretty Things were creating their trailblazing rock opera, S.F. Sorrow. “That was the place to be in 1967,” recalls Argent. “In fact, John Lennon’s Mellotron was still in the studio and we used that–” “Without asking!” adds Colin with a laugh.
Used most memorably on the introduction to the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the Mellotron is an early predecessor to today’s synthesizers. Through the use of tape loops, it could replicate an array of instruments and rhythms, played as one would a keyboard. Because the Zombies’ shoe-string recording budget didn’t allow them to hire session musicians, the instrument provided an ideal solution for expanding their sonic palate. Flutes, strings, horns, and woodwinds could be summoned merely by pressing a key. “If you listen to Oracle it’s just full of Mellotron. And if [John Lennon] hadn’t left his behind, we probably wouldn’t have used one.” An assortment of exotic percussion instruments was also left behind in the studio, and these were similarly put to good use. With engineering help from Geoff Emerick, fresh off of his work on Sgt. Pepper, and the legendary Peter Vince, a spirit of adventure reigned. The Zombies had nothing to lose.
The dozen songs recorded between June and November of 1967 are a kaleidoscopic vision, spanning styles, cultures, and moods. “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914),” a frightening soundscape told from the perspective of a World War I soldier surveying human slaughter, stands alongside “Friends Of Mine,” a song as light as the title suggests. The lush arrangement on “Maybe After He’s Gone” follows the sparse “A Rose For Emily,” which relies only on baroque piano and vocals. Argent’s love of Bach shines throughout, most notably on the delicate instrumental bridge to “Hung Up On A Dream” and the recurring guitar figure in “Beechwood Park.” From the other side of the globe, African conga rhythms crop up in “Changes.” The album even takes an unexpectedly gospel turn with “This Will Be Our Year,” an optimistic ode and perennial wedding favorite sung by Blunstone with soulful swagger.
Odessey and Oracle is a masterclass in dynamics, both as a whole, and on angular tracks like “Brief Candles” and “Maybe After He’s Gone.” These songs have distinct movements distinguished by remarkably different textures. Seemingly influenced by Brian Wilson’s modular recording technique employed on his then-recent chart-topper “Good Vibrations,” the songs are chopped apart and assembled into place like an aural collage. Motifs appear, disappear, and reappear as if a dream.
Despite their disparate qualities, there is a unity to the work. Even on the many upbeat songs, there’s an underlying sense of melancholy present throughout. Like its American cousin Pet Sounds, the album is an exploration of both innocence, and of innocence lost. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the song “Beechwood Park.” Named for an all-girls school near St. Albans, the song conjures a distant childhood by taking the bold step of addressing the listener directly. “Do you remember golden days and golden summer sun? The sound of laughter in our ears in the breeze as we would run?” inquires the vibrato-drenched vocals, shaky and echoey as memories tend to be. The effect is terrifyingly potent.
In addition to their musical daring, Argent and White’s lyrics are among some of the most delightfully eccentric in rock. Venturing far outside the safe realm of first-person used in previous titles like “I Love You,” “I Know She Will,” and “I Remember When I Loved Her,” many of their new songs took on the characteristics of evocative vignettes. “A Rose For Emily” draws its inspiration from a William Faulkner short story, and the World War I viewpoint of “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)” is hardly standard fodder for pop songs. But perhaps the most imaginative is “Care Of Cell 44,” the ludicrously upbeat album-opener about a lover dreaming of the day his girlfriend returns home from prison.
While the subject matter is unusual, the song is among the most perfectly crafted pop songs of the 1960s. Like its lyrics, the music demands attention by deliberately defying expectations–beginning when Argent’s genteel faux-classical harpsichord introduction is rudely elbowed aside by Hugh Grundy’s thundering drums. White’s melodic McCartney-esque bass line sends the track soaring into an airy bed of strings and swirling a cappella breaks that would make even the Beach Boys envious. The sheer exuberance in Blunstone’s singing is infectious, making it a natural choice for a single in October of 1967. “One of my favorites!” he says of the song today. “I thought that that should be a smash hit.” For reasons that continue to baffle anyone who’s ever heard it, the single sank like a stone.
“Care Of Cell 44″’s commercial failure hit the band hard. The years of chart decline and less-than-profitable concert tours had left them bankrupt both spiritually and financially, and this latest flop saw the band understandably frustrated. The friction bubbled over during a session for Odessey and Oracle’s centerpiece, “Time Of The Season.” Inspired by the Miracles’ “The Tracks Of My Tears,” Argent penned the song during that year’s semi-mythical Summer of Love. “It’s the time of the season for loving,” they sang, but there was a chill in the studio. Composer Argent was displeased with the vocal performance he was getting from Blunstone. The singer, who wasn’t enamored with the tune in the first place, came dangerously close to telling Argent to go sing it himself. They finished the track, among the last to be recorded, but the mood continued to plummet.
There was no dramatic blowout that signaled the Zombies’ final death knell. In fact, the reasons for their breakup were heartbreakingly practical. The band’s income was largely based upon their UK club and college gigs, and when the hits dried up, so did the bookings. With an impending wedding, guitarist Paul Atkinson came to the sad realization that he couldn’t support his new family on the band’s inconsistent payouts. Both Grundy and Blunstone had similar grievances, and so it was agreed to end the partnership upon completion of the album. The band’s money situation was so dire that Argent and White were forced to pay for Odessey and Oracle’s stereo mixes out of their own pocket with songwriting royalties. After a show at Keele University in December, the Zombies ceased to function as a band.
They kept the breakup quiet until the album was issued in April 1968. Although denied an American release, the 12 songs hit British shelves housed in a sleeve dripping with colorful flora, mystical figures, scrawly lettering, and other psychedelic signs of the times. White’s roommate Terry Quirk designed the album, and was responsible for it’s famous titular typo. For decades, group members insisted that the idiosyncratic spelling of “odyssey” was a play on the word “ode.” Only recently did Argent confess it was merely a spelling error that went unnoticed until it was too late– a fact he and White kept secret from the rest of the band. The back cover bore a short and simple manifesto authored by Argent. “Really music is a very personal thing,” it reads in part. “It’s the product of a person’s experiences. Since no two people have been exactly alike, each writer has something unique to say. That makes anything which is not just a copy of something else worth listening to.” Sadly, few people listened in the spring of ’68.
Fortunately, Al Kooper did. A prolific musician and founder of the band Blood Sweat & Tears, Kooper was working as a staff producer at CBS’ American branch. After purchasing a stack of British records on a trip to London, Odessey and Oracle “stuck out like a rose in a garden of weeds.” He immediately paid a visit to newly named CBS record chief, Clive Davis. “I told him to buy Odessey and Oracle and he told me CBS already owned the LP and were about to pass on it,” he writes in the liner notes for the album’s 30th anniversary reissue. “I talked him into releasing it and recommended they put out as singles ‘Care of Cell 44’ and then ‘Time of the Season’. They hedged their bets…and released ‘Butcher’s Tale’ for some reason.”
Easily the least commercial song on the album –if not in all of pop history– “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)” was selected as a lead single in hopes that its brutal depiction of war would be resonate with the anti-Vietnam sentiment among the young. While they may have agreed with the politics, Chris White’s tormented whaling about fly-covered corpses did not fare well alongside Coke jingles on teen transistor radios. To CBS execs, this was just the latest in a long line of Zombies bombs, but it failed to dampen Al Kooper’s enthusiasm. Summoning considerable chutzpah, he managed to convince Davis to give “Time Of The Season” a chance on the American charts. It was released as little more than a courtesy, but ultimately sparked a resurrection that even Kooper couldn’t have predicted.
It was a DJ from Boise, his name since lost to time, who is credited with breaking the song wide. Like many to follow, he was seduced by its brand of jet-black liquid cool. “Time Of The Season” is cinematic in the extreme, practically a film noir set to music. The bass-line, an evil twin of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” slinks out of the speakers like a cat through a back alley. Colin’s disembodied voice emerges from the shadows, tempting you into something wicked. Despite the band’s tenuous state during recording, the lyrics brimmed with a youthful confidence that bordered on arrogance. “What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?” Colin deliciously purrs, a subtle nod to the Zombies’ cover of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” (“Your daddy’s rich, and your momma’s good looking’…”), the first song they ever recorded.
The tune appears almost sinister until it erupts into the multi-tracked chorus and the message is made clear: it’s the time of the season for loving. It almost catches you off guard. Once again, the Zombies are well served by their ability to surprise, alternating light with shade and making it look easy. “Time Of The Season” was the perfect soundtrack to the age of Aquarius, and became an anthem for beautiful people who truly believed that they were forging a new cosmic consciousness. It contained enough peace-love-and-understanding vibes to appeal to flower children, enough bluesy force to appeal to “serious” music fans, and enough hummable hooks to stand out on pop radio. It had to be a hit.
And in March 1969, it was. After gathering steam for nearly six months, the song finally reached Number 3 on the Billboard charts. CBS had a monster seller on its hands, but no band to promote the album. By this time, the Zombies were very much dead and buried. Argent had teamed up with White and cousin Jim Rodford to form a band that would become Argent. Chris Atkinson held a job in A&R at Columbia Records, and drummer Hugh Grundy worked in auto sales. Blunstone had done a short stint in the insurance business before being coaxed out of musical exile to record under the name Neil MacArthur. In spite of the smash it contained, Odessey and Oracle would fall by the wayside. “By then we were all committed to other projects,” Blunstone explains. “So it was never discussed that we would reform the band.”
The intervening years saw the band Argent achieve great success in the burgeoning prog-rock scene with classics like “Hold Your Head Up,” and “God Gave Rock ’n’ Roll To You.” Blunstone also enjoyed a rich musical career, both solo and with collaborators like Dave Stewart and The Alan Parsons Project. But as time went on, the myth of Odessey and Oracle grew –particularly among musicians. Paul Weller, the unashamedly ’60s-influenced frontman of the Jam, was the first major star to sing its praises, citing the disc as his all-time favorite in countless interviews. When Dave Grohl was asked to name which song changed his life, the Nirvana and Foo Fighters powerhouse chose “Care Of Cell 44”. Tom Petty labels himself a fan from the beginning, penning these words in the mid-’90s: “If a group like the Zombies appeared now, they would own the world.” Clearly, the momentum was building.
Barring a one-off gathering in 1997, Blunstone and Agent didn’t play together until 2000. Like some of the best things in life, it was unplanned. Argent spotted Blunstone in the audience while performing at a charity concert, and invited him onstage for an impromptu reunion. This positive experience set the stage for further collaborations to come. “To start with, it was for six concerts, just for fun,” says Blunstone. These dates featured “honorary Zombies” Jim Rodford on bass, his son Steve Rodford on drums, and Keith Airey on guitar. “We enjoyed it so much we kept going. But we didn’t play many Zombies tunes and we didn’t call ourselves the Zombies. It was only when we got out there and played and we got talking to people that we realized the worldwide interest in the Zombies. We had no idea.” The 2001 album Out Of The Shadows was credited to Blunstone and Argent, but they revived the Zombies moniker for 2004’s As Far As I Can See and subsequent tours. For Argent, it was a reawakening. “To our amazement, we found ourselves rediscovering ourselves,” he marvels.
On the eve of Odessey and Oracle’s 40th anniversary, the Zombies attention turned to their long-neglected tour de force. At the suggestion of Chris White, the four surviving original members teamed up in March 2008 for three shows at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire, where they performed the album live in its entirety for the very first time. Tragically, Paul Atkinson had died of kidney and liver disease in 2004, so the band called upon the help of Keith Airey on guitar, as well as an assortment of other musicians to recreate the mutli-tracked songs. Among them was Darian Sahanaja, the maestro who had aided Brian Wilson in bringing his own reclaimed masterworks Pet Sounds and SMiLE to the concert stage just a few years before. The sold out shows were attended by rock luminaries like Robert Plant and (of course) Paul Weller, and garnered rave reviews in the global press. It was a triumphant homecoming, four decades in the making.
Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone’s musical gifts have not dulled with age. 2011’s phenomenal Breathe In, Breathe Out can attest to that. So can their stellar live shows. But their legacy also rests in the music they’ve inspired in others. Contemporary bands like the Fleet Foxes and Britain’s the Vaccines, whose members were born (like this writer) more than 20 years after the Zombies broke up, are still finding new things to appreciate in their work.
Dylan Treleven, a Brooklyn-based musician and producer who has played with Oberhofer, Widowspeak, and Sliver Dollars, reveres their creative courage in the studio. “The main thing for me about Odessey and Oracle is that they used all these devices that were sort of experimental for pop music at the time, like intricate vocal harmonies and weird arrangements.” The fact that they were able to get such rich and textured sounds with extremely limited resources is doubly impressive. “It’s pretty inspirational to anyone in our current generation of bedroom pop and home recording.” Musical innovation aside, he also singles out their tight lyrical composition. “They tell stories! Pretty much every song on that record is poetic and weird, but not obtuse. Personally, as a songwriter who’s really interested in the classic American and UK songwriting traditions, I really appreciate that.”
The fact that Odessey and Oracle was produced at all is a minor miracle. That it has endured for generations and continues to attract new ears is almost supernatural. The record was ahead of its time when released in 1968, but today its value is without question. It stands as a testament to unbounded imagination and brave originality. “Each writer has something unique to say,” the Zombies inscribed on the album sleeve. “That makes anything which is not just a copy of something else worth listening to.” It took forty years, but they finally proved their point.