Go on an ‘Odessey’ with The Zombies

By  Ian Shirley

In March 2007, it was the time of the season for The Zombies, who re-formed in the U.K. to perform their classic second album Odessey and Oracle live nearly 40 years after its release in 1968.

“I have worked with Rod Argent in a touring band for the last eight years,” says former frontman Colin Blunstone, “so Rod and I play a lot together. But, we got original Zombies drummer Hugh Grundy and Chris White, the bass player, on board. We all got together, went through the album to see how we all felt about playing together and it sounded great, really fresh and confident. We did that even before we agreed to do these shows.”

ZombiesColinlive3p5.jpgAlthough original guitarist Paul Atkinson sadly passed away in 2004, all three U.K. dates sold out. Hopefully, the band will play in America later in 2008 as interest in the Zombies has also never been higher, with an old and new generation re-discovering the music of this vibrant creative ‘60s group.

The Zombies formed at school in St. Albans, just outside London in 1961 trading names like the Mustangs and the Sundowners back and forth. Their final moniker was given to the band by original bass player Paul Arnold.

“He came up with the idea of the Zombies, and the rest of us liked it,” says Blunstone. “You must remember, back then there were not all these zombie films that there are now! I thought it was a bit left-field, but as there were no other bands called the Zombies, it got the vote.”

In addition to Blunstone on vocals, the lineup consisted of Argent (piano), Atkinson (guitar), Grundy (drums) and Arnold’s replacement, Chris White (bass). The Zombies began gigging and building up a local reputation and like many bands, their repertoire was made up of crowd-pleasing cover versions ranging from the Beatles to unusual choices like the Four Preps’ “Big Man.”

They took their most significant step in 1963 when the band clubbed together to buy an electric piano for Argent, which meant this his inventive keyboard parts previously played on the piano could be heard better. This literally transformed the Zombies sound.

After winning a local talent show in 1964, the Zombies secured a record contract in the U.K. with Decca which led to the release of their first single, “She’s Not There.” Blunstone recalls that it was almost by accident that the song was written at all.

“When our producer at Decca arranged the studio time, we had planned to do the Gershwin classic ‘Summertime.’ But, as we had two weeks before going in, he said, “Why don’t you write something?” Rod went away and wrote ‘She’s Not There.’”

Released as their debut 7-inch in July 1964, the effect of “She’s Not There” was life changing, as it was not only favorably reviewed on “Juke Box Jury” by George Harrison but became a massive hit in the U.K. The Zombies became a professional band and went on the road as part of a nationwide package tour with The Searchers, Dionne Warwick and The Isley Brothers.

“It was so exciting, such a thrill for us,” recalls Blunstone. “We watched them every night and traveled with them and got to know them really well. It was amazing as three or four months before that we were just a local band.”

By Christmas 1964, The Zombies were an international band as, when released in the States, “She’s Not There” reached #2 on the Billboard charts. The band was flown across the ocean to promote the single.

“We were in New York for the Christmas of 64/65 as we had the Cashbox #1 record, and we did the ‘Murray The K’ show,” Blunstone recalls. “I think there were 16 acts on the show, and it went on all day. All the acts sung a couple of songs; then, there was a short break, and then you did the show again. Dionne Warwick was on there, as were the Shirelles, Benny King, Chuck Jackson and the Shangri-Las. It was absolutely fabulous.”  

Things were not so fabulous when Decca tried for that all-important second hit single.

“There was huge pressure to put ‘Leave Me Be’ out very quickly. I don’t think anyone in the band felt confident about it being the follow-up to ‘She’s Not There,’” says Blunstone.

In fact, the single stiffed, and even the strong “Tell Her No” could only get to #42 in February 1965. In America, it was another story, with “Tell Her No” peaking at #6 in January 1965.

The Zombies were rushed into the studio and recorded their debut album in two weeks. Begin Here was a mixture of cover versions like “Roadrunner,” “Sticks and Stones” and “I Got My Mojo Working” as well as gorgeous originals, like “The Way I Feel Inside” and “I Don’t Want To Know,” written by Rod Argent and Chris White.

“It was recorded extremely quickly,” says Blunstone. “We were recording probably four tracks every evening, and it had to be mixed and the artwork sorted out very fast. There are a lot of good songs on the album, but I wish we had a little more time.”

At the time of release, Begin Here sold poorly in the U.K., which makes these copies with the atmospheric sleeve highly sought after, with original pressings in mint condition selling for more than $500. Such was the frenetic pace of the Zombies live and promotional schedule that, in the wake of the Beatles silver screen success, in 1965 the band were even involved in a feature film called “Bunny Lake Is Missing.”

“We did three tracks for that film,“ recalls Blunstone. “Otto Premminger was the director, and it was an interesting experience, and we are only in the film for about three or four seconds, but they took two full days filming to get those two seconds.”

Decca kept the band on a treadmill in the U.K. during 1965 and 1966, with producer Ken Scott trying to recapture the hit formula of “She’s Not There” on singles like “Is This The Dream,” “Indication” and “Gotta Get A Hold Of Myself.”

Despite now being recognized as fantastic inventive songs, equal to the Beatles in scope and execution, none became hits in the U.K. or America, although in the Phillipines, the band enjoyed huge chart success, which led to them playing a series of concerts in the region in 1967. Musically, the band had developed and found working with producer Ken Jones restrictive.

“Those Decca singles are really good, but there started to be friction with Ken, because he did not like us there for the mixing sessions,” says Blunstone. “We would leave the studio with the track sounding as we sounded but — in our opinion — he always seemed to be trying to recreate the first sessions we did. So, he would have my voice up high in the mix and very compressed, so you had this kind of breathy effect we had on ‘She’s Not There,’ and it seemed to lose a lot of its dynamics and a lot of the power. To us, the mixes did not represent the way we were playing. Things came to a head after we came back from the Phillipines and heard the mix of ‘Going Out Of Our Head’ and thought this has to stop now. That is when we went into and recorded Odessey and Oracle without a producer.”

By this time, the Zombies had switched from Decca to CBS and, through a stroke of good fortune, were allowed to record at Abbey Road.

“As far as I know up to that point only EMI artists recorded at Abbey Road, but somehow we managed to get in there just after the Beatles had finished recording Sgt. Pepper’s, and it was a really exciting place to be,” recalls Blunstone. “They had wonderful engineers, and we were lucky enough to work with both Geoff Emerick and Peter Vince, who both worked on Pepper’s. There had been a lot of innovation during the Beatles sessions, and we were lucky enough to reap the benefit of those innovations.”

Even though the band only had a budget of $2,000, they were determined to deliver their best.

“We got around that by rehearsing really extensively before the sessions, so we just went in and played the songs,” says Blunstone.
The resulting album was a testament to the songwriting and arranging talents of Rod Argent, Chris White and the unique Zombies sound that extended to gorgeous vocal harmonies that even pip the Beach Boys on tracks like “Maybe After He’s Gone” and “Beechwood Park.” The arrangements were superb, with Argent even using electric harpsichord on “I Want Her, She Wants Me” and the band employing — a la the Beatles — special effects on Chris White’s “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).”

The album artwork, done by Terry Quirk, a close friend of the band, was stunning; however, he did not spell Odyssey right.

“It was too far down the line to re-do the cover,” recalls Blunstone, “so Rod invents this story that it was done on purpose, as a play on words!”

It also seemed that the Zombies’ career was also too far down the line. Singles like “Friends Of Mine” and “Care of Cell 44” failed to chart in the U.K., and the band agreed to split up.

“We were maybe over-hasty,” says Blunstone with hindsight, “as the album had not been released when the band finished. In fact, because the band no longer existed, they were not going to release the album at all in America.”

It was at this point that the cavalry, in the shape of Al Kooper, rode into town. Kooper held down an A&R post with CBS in America, and after buying a copy of Odessey in the U.K., he was blown away by the music of the album.

“I thought it was equal to a Beatles album,“ Kooper recalls today, “especially tracks like ‘Care of Cell 44,’ ‘Rose For Emily’ and ‘This Will Be Our Year.’”

Returning to America, he made sure that the album and a certain single was released in the States. “The geniuses at CBS had put ‘Butchers Tale’ out as the first single,” Kooper says. “I told them that they were nuts and to put out ‘Time Of The Season.’”

Although the single became a massive hit, its run up the charts was apparently started by an unknown DJ in Boise, Idaho, who kept playing the single. Then, other DJs in his area picked up on the song, which then fanned out across America.

“I think it was six or seven months after ‘Time Of The Season’ was released that it hit #1 in the Cashbox chart and #2 or #3 in the Billboard chart,” recalls a very grateful Blunstone who, along with the rest of the band, was able to thank Al in person.

“When they came to the U.S. to collect their gold discs,” recalls Kooper, “they came to my office and thanked me profusely.”
Of course, this success was double-edged. As with “She’s Not There,” promoters were crying out for the band to tour — so much so that Zombies impersonators got work — but the split was permanent.

Today, Blunstone admits that it may have been a mistake, but the success of “Time Of The Season” did allow Rod Argent and Chris White to sign to CBS as Argent, and after a short career break, Blunstone returned under the name of Neil MacArthur and then enjoyed a long and fruitful musical career.

Of course, the Zombies now are being appreciated even more as their songs and arrangements have stood the test of time, with Odessey seen as a British Forever Changes (the landmark psych-pop album by Love) and mint U.K. copies of the album changing hands for up to $900 on eBay.  

Blunstone is certainly grateful for the exposure the Zombies gave him.
“We really did try our hardest to do the best we could and that people appreciate that today… well, you can’t ask for more.”

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