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Looking back at the the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Summer celebration of The Zombies

As the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame celebrated The Zombies this summer, it became clear that this British Invasion band can keep rocking with the best of them.
 Colin Blunstone performing live. Photo by Bruce Frumerman.

Colin Blunstone performing live. Photo by Bruce Frumerman.

By Catherine Frumerman

Cleveland, OH, August 17, 2019 — It was a sultry morning with grey-bellied clouds blotting out the direct sun when The Zombies began their sound check overlooking The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s plaza. The Zombies, formed in 1961 in St Albans, England, were here to celebrate their year as Rock Hall class of 2019 inductees. A plaque has been put up in their honor. Inducted on March 29, their special year still has several months to go.

Disbanded in 1967, but reformed, by chance, when singer Colin Blunstone needed a pianist for a short series of U.K. solo gigs in 1999 and asked Rod Argent if he would step in. And that was going to be the end of it.

Instead, the pair performed more shows, but resisted labeling themselves by their old band name. Common sense and the sheer joy of performing Zombies music prevailed, leading to the formation of a permanent band in the early 2000s. Since then, interest in the band resulted in regular long tours in America and abroad (whilst, miraculously, leaving Blunstone to pursue his solo career with a schedule that would leave other artists breathless). Their feverish touring schedule left little time for writing and recording, but 2011 gave us Breathe Out Breathe In and 2015 welcomed Still Got That Hunger, which scooted into the top 100 on several charts.

Moreover, earlier in the week Billboard named "Time of the Season," from Odessey and Oracle, the number one song of 1969, which no doubt it is. The song that launched a thousand teenage dreams is thick with cool keyboard improvisation, neon guitar strikes, a laid-back sexy bassline, whilst a basso nova stirs underneath the drum beats. And then there are the lyrics and the voices. The protagonist, newly aware of his passion, sets the stage. Moments later, in the nonchalant call-and-response between the lead vocal of Colin Blunstone and the soft affirmation from Rod Argent, the hero tests his approach on the object of his affection: What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? It’s a timeless drama floating on some of the most gorgeous rock music ever. The music fades too soon.

Odessey and Oracle would have been a much different album had not John Lennon’s Mellotron been left behind at EMI (Abbey Road) Studios as The Beatles left, having completed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the Spring of 1967. The Zombies arrived days later.

Paul Clark, retired Chairman of the Board of The Rock Hall, believes the Mellotron in their Beatles collection is the one used on Sgt, Pepper’s. If so, it would be the one on Odessey and Oracle.

Clark conducted a brief interview with The Zombies, in the Rock Hall’s intimate Foster Theater, starting with the band’s beginnings as schoolboys in 1961, in St Albans, about 50 miles north of London. Their early influences, of course, included Elvis. When Rod Argent was 11, his cousin Jim Rodford played him the new single "Hound Dog." “It turned my world around. That was my first introduction to black music by proxy, because I’d never heard anyone sing like that. It led me very quickly to listen to people like Big Mama Thornton and people who did original rhythm and blues. Which, in a sense, was being ripped off at the time, but it was introducing that whole field of music to a much wider public.”

Argent described his early musical experience when his parents gave him a harmonica, age six or seven. “I could immediately see the scales in front of me, the whole tones, the half tones, quite visually. I had a flare for music.”

 Rod Argent talks to the audience. Photo by Bruce Frumerman.

Rod Argent talks to the audience. Photo by Bruce Frumerman.

His parents were passionate about music. His dad had a dance band. And his mum liked classical and especially the romantic popular music during Argent’s childhood. “I heard those and really loved what I heard.”

In the early 1950s, Rodford formed one of the first rock ‘n’ roll bands in the whole South East of England, The Bluetones. It was he who loaned the nascent Zombies equipment for their first rehearsal. Colin Blunstone arrived to join as rhythm guitarist. Argent was to be lead singer. By serendipity Argent heard Blunstone singing a Ricky Nelson song softly to himself and asked him to be lead singer. Blunstone suggested Argent play piano for the band after hearing him play "Nut Rocker" on their rehearsal spot’s piano. They agreed, and a partnership and The Zombies sound was born.

Other members were Paul Arnold (bass), Hugh Grundy (drums), and Paul Atkinson, of whom Argent says, “At school I wandered into a folk club and there was this guitarist with a great sort of groove. That was Paul. He was the first guy I asked to be in The Zombies. He added something, as everybody did. Everyone had a distinctive style and it all melded. We were so lucky.”

Grundy came on board when Argent saw him drumming in a marching band. Impressed by his precision, Argent asked him to join the band. “That was my audition,” said Grundy.

Arnold didn’t stay in the band long, instead studying to be a doctor. He did name the band. “And I hated it,” said Blunstone. “But it was catchy. I didn’t have a bloody clue what a zombie was. So, it was a stab in the dark. We were desperate for a name.”

Grundy, on the other hand, liked the name: “We always got a mention whenever the music of that era was talked about, because it was The Animals to The Zombies.”

Blunstone agrees, “We were at the end of the alphabet. And then ZZ Top came along and took our spot.”

ZZ Top took The Zombies’ spot in more ways. When Time of the Season hit Cashbox No. 1, The Zombies were broken up. Some promoters, separately, thought it a good idea to send fake Zombies out on the road. There were at least three such bands. One included future ZZ Toppers Dusty Hill and Frank Beard.

In 1964, The Zombies won a competition, which earned them a Decca recording contract. This gave the world "She’s Not There," placing The Zombies in America that Christmas Eve. Their song "New York" is about their Murray the K Brooklyn Fox experience, where they played for several days starting at eight in the morning. They did eight shows per day, with one or two numbers per show.

Argent recalled, “For us all great contemporary music comes from America. It’s where all our heroes had come from. And we were playing with some of them. Patti La Belle was sensational, she brought the house down. These little skinny 18-year-old kids had to get on the stage right after her.”

Grundy revved up a real motorcycle during The Shangri-Las "Leader of the Pack" (“We never saw him after that,” quipped White.), whilst Argent received a kiss from Mary Weiss in "Give Him A Great Big Kiss."

“Everyone was so supportive,” said Blunstone. “It was Christmas and we were all far from home. There was great comradery backstage. It was wonderful.”

Then, The Zombies appeared on the very first broadcast of Hullabaloo.

Blunstone: Hullabaloo. It was plain sailing. We all mimed. So, all we had to do was know the words. But then they said, “Just one little thing. We’d like you all to dance. In the middle of the show."

White: You know who I had dancing opposite me? The guy who exploded in West Side Story — Action [Tony Mordente].

Blunstone: I hope you didn’t show him up! To cut a long story short, they had to modify the dance section. We were hopeless.

Other reminiscences from the era included Blunstone standing on top of a ladder for a Ready Steady Go! appearance singing "Summertime," as the audience milled around underneath, causing the ladder to sway. And Argent meeting Manfred Mann who said, “You’re Rod Argent, aren’t you? Oh man, I love that record, She’s Not There, but you’ve got to change that name.”

In March 1965, "Tell Her No" climbed to No. 6 in Billboard’s Hot 100. Soon, The Zombies were back on a bus with Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars. Paul Atkinson’s silver-grey tour jacket with performers’ names is in the Rock Hall’s display of the Class of 2019 inductees. Also, in the case is a handmade bass guitar White played on "She’s Not There." It’s a mystery who made this guitar, with the initials JCB stamped into it. White had the guitar before he joined The Zombies, upon Arnold’s departure.

Other artifacts include a snare drum autographed by all five original Zombies, including Atkinson, who died in 2004. He signed the drum during his final appearance at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. His kids had not seen him play before, and they were blown away.

The snare is part of a kit that The Zombies all decided to buy for Grundy with their Herts Beat (that competition that also earned them their Decca contract) prize money.

White quipped, “In the end we decided Hugh needed good drums. The cardboard box was really out of tune.”

“If Ludwig’s good enough for Ringo, it’s good enough for me,” said Grundy. “I bought the kit as it was then. The snare drum Classic 402, as played by Ringo.”

 Hugh Grundy on drums.Photo by Bruce Frumerman.

Hugh Grundy on drums.Photo by Bruce Frumerman.

Rounding out the display is Argent’s "She’s Not There" Hohner Electric Pianet; Atkinson’s Epiphone Zenith from "Tell Her No"; Still Got That Hunger and Odessey and Oracle original cover art from Terry Quirk; a statuette from Cashbox for "She’s Not There"; and Blunstone’s jumper from Simpson of Piccadilly, as worn at Abbey Road Studios.

In 1967, protesting that studio mixing was cutting the balls off their latest music, The Zombies received one thousand pounds to self-produce their new album. They were paired with EMI sound engineer Geoff Emerick, who worked with The Beatles.

Odessey and Oracle is, in a word, glorious — from Quirk’s sleeve art, combining the classic and the whimsical, to the compelling, enchanting music in its grooves. It comprises 12 tracks: seven by White and five by Argent. There are no orphaned tracks.

The album was destined to be the swan song for The Zombies, not through any fault of their own. The fault lay with unscrupulous businessmen who killed the golden goose to the tune of two million pounds. For a visit to the Philippines, playing to 30,000 people a night for 10 nights at the Areneta Stadium, the band received 80 pounds per night.

Argent later noted to Goldmine that when The Zombies went to the Philippines in 1967, where they had three singles riding high in the charts, it turned out the Filipinos liked romantic pop, just as his mum did. Interestingly, that’s what The Zombies were asked to play there. The concert promoter hired two Go-Go dancers for the shows. The dancers pretty much stood there, not being able to Go-Go to the slow music.

Argent recalled, “We finished Odessey and Oracle in 1967 and we had a low profile in the U.K. We didn’t know we’d had hits all over the world. Chris and I had an honest publisher, so as writers we got paid. But these other guys in the band should have been pretty well off, too. We had hit records in Australia and Japan, but none of this was known to us. None of the money was coming through.”

Whilst back home, “No one was interested in Odessey and Oracle. Kenny Everett (the comedic DJ) was interested. He got us on his program and said, ‘Oh my lovely Zombies, you’ve broken up. But wouldn’t it be wise to let the album come out first?’”

The sunny single "Care of Cell 44" was out in the U.K. They thought if the single did something they’d stay together. Reaction was negligible. Atkinson, soon to be married, needed to make money, as did Blunstone and Grundy. The band broke up.

White and Argent wanted to stay in the music business and very quickly started working on the band Argent and making plans for Blunstone’s first solo album. “Within 18 months, those were well established paths for us,” said Argent.

It was CBS producer Al Kooper who championed Odessey and Oracle to Clive Davis, resulting in the release of "Time of the Season."

“Then a Boise, Idaho, DJ began playing it,” recalled Argent. “It took six months for it to start causing ripples in the pond. It gradually picked up momentum and you couldn’t stop it.”

And you couldn’t stop The Zombies. There might have been a lull in their career, but on August 17 their plaque in the Signature Gallery as part of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2019 was unveiled by the band. At that moment, the sun came out and some white birds flew past the window.

About an hour later it was time to once again meet The Zombies, this time in the plaza for the superb finish to the band’s Rock Hall afternoon.

 Chris White on bass, performing live with The Zombies. Photo by Bruce Frumerman.

Chris White on bass, performing live with The Zombies. Photo by Bruce Frumerman.

The Zombies delivered gorgeous music and plenty of emotional feeling, getting a fervent response for each song from the ardent audience who had withstood baking sun, a drenching cloudburst (sending the stage crew scrambling to save The Zombies’ equipment), and after that enough vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin) to last all year. The band began with the high-octane "Roadrunner," and dipped into the Zombie Heaven collection for "I Want You Back Again," a song Tom Petty revived and The Zombies reintroduced into their set with that endorsement.

"I Love You" was third. It’s a song that was covered by the San Jose, California, one-hit-wonder band People, as well as some New York New Wave bands. It’s a passionate song with tough bass from Søren Koch, the newest touring band Zombie, who joined in early 2018 after Jim Rodford had gone to the eternal rock ‘n’ roll jam in the sky.

Next up the Latin rhythmed "Sanctuary" set listeners’ hips swaying and, perhaps, lovers promising to open one another’s eyes. It’s a hot-cool song opening with icy-cocktail piano, flavored with exotic bongos from drummer Steve Rodford; and background maracas.

"Moving On" sets the singer on a tempestuous sail away from dark and painful situations, until he arrives at the "Edge of the Rainbow" in a much calmer environment seeing the light shining through. Both songs are from 2015’s Still Got That Hunger. Like just about all Zombies songs, these are very demanding of Colin Blunstone’s diaphragm and larynx. But he’s a champ and a professional, and we are so lucky he’s here to thrill our ears.

"Tell Her No" follows. A hit back in 1965, the song is fresh as a daisy. And so is "You Really Got A Hold On Me," a classic from Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. It is covered by The Zombies — as by The Beatles — for the love of it, not because they needed tunes.

After the melancholy "Old and Wise," we get a new song — "Merry-Go-Round." It’s bouncy and jazzy, and begins, “Some kind of freedom to take a leap in the dark for your love.” And goes on, “I will show you to a place where everything will be found. Life is a merry-go-round.” Old followed new with a quadruple mini-set of Odessey and Oracle songs: "Care of Cell 44"; "This Will Be Our Year" (the Chris White tune that seems to be popping up all over TV); "I Want Her She Wants Me"; and the ageless "Time of the Season."

"Hold Your Head Up" follows and Rod Argent plays fiery keyboard with a thousand fingers. "Hold Your Head Up" is the son of "Time of the Season"; its DNA is derived from the 1967-recorded song’s bass beat; a thing of prog-pop beauty and optimism. The final song is The Zombies’ first, "She’s Not There." Of course, these are the most emotion-filled moments of the entire day with original drummer Hugh Grundy and original bassist Chris White taking their rightful Zombie places to play the classic, hard-driving, jazzy song that began it all and brought them to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.