The Zombies are perhaps the most aptly named band in history. The group has been declared dead many times over, very nearly going the way of countless mid-'60s British Invasion groups who were cast out with the advent of psychedelia and hard rock. But the Zombies are still alive, still making music, and still packing venues. And, as the title of their new album suggests, they've Still Got That Hunger.
The group's very survival is one of the most compelling stories in rock. Following a pair of successful pop singles, the immortal "She's Not There" and "Tell Her No," the band split after their 1967 masterpiece Odessey and Oracle was released to general indifference. Two years after their demise, they scored a posthumous worldwide smash with the album cut, "Time of the Season." Despite the sales, the band remained dormant for decades, during which time their reputation grew exponentially. Odessey and Oracle, all but ignored upon issue, was hailed as a favorite by some of music's leading lights, including Dave Grohl, Robert Plant, and Paul Weller, It wasn't label promotion or a choice soundtrack placement—it was simply word of mouth and the undeniable strength of their music.
A serendipitous chain of events reunited vocalist Colin Bunstone with organist/composer Rod Argent in the 21st century, and the duo have released several albums credited both to their own names and also their more famous band moniker. But Still Got That Hunger is their first work that openly pays tribute to the Zombies' remarkable endurance. Hardly a the final chapter —Argent and Blunstone have plenty of music left in them— the record feels like the completion of the circle. Moreover, it feels like a band embracing their hard-won legacy at long last.
This is evident even in the album's vibrant neo-psychedelic cover, painted by original Odessey and Oracle artist Terry Quirk. But obviously it's the music that really counts. The baroque 'n' roll "Chasing The Past" and the Steely Dan-esque bossa nova groove of "And We Were Young Again" both take a wistful look at time passing. But perhaps the most poignant track is "New York," a love letter to the city that embraced them during their first American tour in 1964. And fans from that era will be thrilled to hear the revisited Zombies single "I Want You Back Again," which has gotten even more fierce with age.
The entire album is surprisingly hard for men in their 70s. The guitar-work from honorary Zombie Tom Toomey is pure fire, and father-son rhythm section of Jim and Steve Rodford (bass and drums, respectively) doesn't play nice—and we mean that as a compliment. Together, they somehow managed to record an album that sounds perfectly contemporary, yet no different than the classic music we've come to love from the Zombies. How did they do this? It's a testament to their one-of-a-kind sound, which is quite literally timeless.
The five are currently on the American leg of their world-wide tour, but they're got something special in store for fans. In addition to tracks from Still Got That Hunger, Argent and Blunstone are reuniting with the surviving original Zombies Chris White and Hugh Grundy to perform Odessey and Oracle in its entirety. Perfectly balancing the old with the new, it's a hell of a victory lap.
What's it like being a Zombie on the prowl these days? Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone were kind enough to tell me.
VH1: It’s been such an amazing past few years for you. South by Southwest, the Summerstage, too many tours to count, and now this album. How does it feel for you, 50 years after your first hit?
Colin Blunstone: Well, you know it’s interesting you say that, because sometimes people say, "I’m sure the most exciting thing in your life must’ve been being number one with ‘Time of Your Season,’ or number one with 'She's Not There.'" That was great, but one of the most exciting things for me is that this [recent revival] came from very small beginnings. Rod and I reunited in 1999 to play just six concerts. That was supposed to be the end of it, but we enjoyed it so much we’ve kept going. And we’ve built the band up without a hit record and without any major label support. We’ve built the band up to an extent where we can look back and be quite proud of what we’ve done. We don’t have any false illusions, we’re not comparing ourselves with the major giants of rock. But in our own way this has been a great adventure, a great journey, and we’ve really enjoyed it.
Can you tell me a little about your journey with the new album, Still Got That Hunger?
Rod Argent: I enjoyed doing the last album [2011's Breathe Out, Breathe In], but for the first time this album feels like we’ve managed to capture the true group experience. And we consciously decided that we wanted to record it in a live way, in the way we used to do it. We had no choice in the old days, we only had 4 tracks and everyone had to record together. There was no alternative! Playing live, everybody spontaneously moderates what they do to each second of what they’re hearing. You can see each other. It’s making music in that true, living way which used to be the only way to do things.
It became a question of using the best of modern technology to capture an integral performance. Sometimes that means that the sum is greater than the parts. And the parts may be excellent, but the sum is greater because everything is happening together, and is working in synchronicity. It works so well due to the fact that we also had [producer] Chris Potter, who we very quickly came to trust. That is essential, because when you’re working together you have to know someone is capturing what you’re trying to do. We have that with Chris Potter, and he did some great mixes which were very fresh and natural. It just worked wonderfully.
It worked so well that we didn't have to redo Colin’s guide vocals. In the end, they were used as the master vocals. And the solos equally. We intended to revisit them afterwards, because we were just trying to build a framework. They were exactly what happened in the studio, because it was the inspiration of what was happening in the moment and it all came out so well.
CB: It’s funny, you might think it’s more difficult for everyone to be playing live together. Normally you’d go in and do your vocals after the backing tracks have been laid down. You’re recording on your own, and you take as many takes as you want. But actually, when you’re all working together, it’s easier. You just get inspired by what other people are playing— it lifts you. And you’re just giving a performance. I wasn’t really aware of the control room, or the recording process, I was only aware that we were giving a performance. And I’d love to record like that, always.
You started off thinking you were doing guide vocals, didn’t you? These weren't supposed to be master vocals?
CB: Yes, that's right.
RA: And Chris [Potter] didn’t regard it as being master vocals. But at the end of it, he said, "Actually that’s very good..." You know, it’s as it should be. That’s how a song’s supposed to sound, you know.
It’s human, it’s organic.
RA: Exactly! And it sounds simple and fresh. Even though a lot of effort and thought goes into it, the end result sounds natural and simple.
It feels so fresh and current, but it doesn’t sound vastly different from the music that you were making in 1965. And I think that’s a testament to the unique sound you've developed.
RA: That’s the nicest thing we could hear, because it wasn’t in any way a copy. There was nothing in us that was saying, "Oh, don’t you think we could include a few elements of…" That’s the last thing we think about. We just try to make it work. But several people have said they can feel a real connection to the early stuff. And I can hear it, because we’re still excited about exploring harmonies, and we’re still excited about having little bits of improvisation. All the things that we naturally did in the old days are still things that excite us. We can still make them work now, and we feel that we have on this album. The fact that people feel that there’s a connection with the old stuff is a huge compliment, because it’s in no way a copy. It's obviously of now, but at the same time you can feel those same elements.
What still gives you that hunger to play together after all this time?
CB: Well, I think we both feel the same as we did when we first started playing— it's just the thrill of performing. We love to play and that’s why we do it. And finances have never been a great motivational force in our lives. It’s just as well, and in that respect we’ve been quite successful (laughs).
RA: What we’ve still got that hunger for is the privilege of being able to work on a new song, make a new track, go out and play something new onstage, and feel the energy coming back from the audience. And the thrill of making something work, that’s why we’re doing it. And I hope we make vast amounts of money. But I don’t think we will...(laughs) But at the same time, that’s never been the primary reason for saying, "Let’s do this thing like this." It’s always been trying to get excited about creating. And I think the Beatles were the same way. I think they’ve been the most commercially successful band in the history of pop music but they always started by getting excited. And still do! I mean, McCartney still gets very excited about what he’s doing. That’s always been our primary focus, and still is.
Speaking of playing live, you have a song called "New York" on the album. It's sort of a love letter to New York City. I know you have a really special relationship with this place. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
RA: It was really written about our first experience in New York. It overwhelmed me when I first came here when I was 19 years old. But you have to realize the background. I got turned on to rock n roll, like many people have, by Elvis. I could still picture myself in Jim Rodford’s front room when he played me “Hound Dog,” and it just had a huge impact on me. Elvis seemed like this mythical super-being, from a superworld of music which was so remote it was not anything we could even think about. And then eight or nine years later, we were coming over to this magical world with a number one record. I found out many years later that Elvis actually had our songs on his jukebox! You know, this was such a dream.
A few months ago I was in my car, and for some reason I started thinking about this and picturing the first time we walked in to the Brooklyn Fox. And immediately, that second verse was the first thing I wrote. It came to me in the car: “I walked into the Brooklyn Fox that snowy Christmas Day, and Patti LaBelle simply stole my heart away.”
She took me to Aretha Franklin. I had long conversations with her, and she said "You’ve got to check out this new girl on the block." It was Aretha Franklin. She also told me about Nina Simone, as well. They showed me so much soul and helped us fit in with our English rock n roll. We were very apprehensive about being little English boys, going over trying to bring our rock n roll in the presence of people like Patti LaBelle, Ben E. King, the Drifters, the Shirelles. [We thought,] "How can we play in front of these people?" But they accepted us, and they were very warm towards us. It was so lovely.
So "New York" was written directly as a memory, a snapshot of that time— Christmas 1964. And I know it affected Chris White very much, because when he first heard it he said, "Oh, I love that, it’s exactly what we felt when we walked into the Brooklyn Fox."
At first I was overwhelmed by New York and the cultural change. You know the B-52s lyric, "I’ve got me a car that’s as big as a whale"? That's how it felt! We came over from England, and culturally you were worlds apart from us then. Everything is so much similar now. But then, it was just worlds and worlds apart. But I came to appreciate the New York energy and honesty. At the time, the energy overwhelmed me totally. But within a little while of coming back to New York, I came to really appreciate that. And the honesty I felt, as opposed to some other places I’ve been that felt much more plastic. You know, you got what you saw in New York. The people were very brash, to our first experiences, but very honest and accepting. So that’s what that song’s all about, that first Christmas.
It's a beautiful song. One of the other highlights for me is, "Little One." It feels so intimate with the two of you. That was really all live in the studio?
CB: Absolutely, yeah. I’m really glad you said that, because it’s a little bit of a secret here, but I wanted to do that vocal again. I’m really glad you said you liked it.
RA: That was a once through, yeah.
The cover art for Still Got That Hunger harkens back to Odessey and Oracle. In fact you got Terry Quirk back to do it. Obviously you and Colin have done several albums over the past 15 years, but do you feel there's something special about this particular record that brings you full circle in a way?
CB: I think perhaps there is, yeah. Absolutely.
RA: I think it does complete the circle, because I think in a way we’re going back to our first principles in the way we recorded the album. And even how we'd try to rehearse the songs in the way we used to rehearse them, so that structurally they were very organic rather than piecemeal. In a way we were going back to that, and yet I feel that this band —this current incarnation of the band— is so enjoyable to play with every night, that we wanted to capture that as well. So it’s completing the circle with the same principles.
I’m really pleased with the songs that we’ve written, and I’m really pleased with the way they’ve come out. If people don’t like the album, there’s nothing we can do about it because it’s what it should sound like. So if people don’t like it, then well, OK, fine, but I like it. And I don’t see how it could be done any better. So it does feel like a completion of the circle, yeah.