How The Zombies' career was brought back to life

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In the summer of 1964, The Zombies became the second British group after The Beatles to have a No.1 single in the US chart with a self-penned song. The record in question, She’s Not There, propelled the five Hertfordshire teenagers to overnight success and they soon followed in the Chelsea bootsteps of the Fab Four and The Rolling Stones across the Atlantic.

The ‘invasion’ was a blast while it lasted but they were thrown in at the deep end with no time to think, let alone write more songs, says lead singer Colin Blunstone, on reflection. “I’m not saying that I resent having the success when we had it, I’m eternally grateful. We were finding out about the music business in the glare of international publicity… and making our mistakes in a very public forum. It might have been better for us if we’d done that more privately.”

Although they played to hordes of screaming fans in the US, Europe and even the Philippines, they failed to follow up their big hit in the UK and within three or four years their career had expired.

In what was almost their last gasp, in 1967 they went to the famous Abbey Road studios to record their ‘psychedelic’ album, Odessey And Oracle, but disbanded before it was released the following year to fantastic reviews but feeble sales. Disillusioned and skint, Colin Blunstone took a job in an insurance office while keyboard player Rod Argent and bassist Chris White, the two primary songwriters in the band, continued in the music business.

They all went their separate ways, but fate conspired to revive their career and put the original Zombies back together again in a manner that none of them could ever have envisaged back in the 60s.

Colin Blunstone – whose soulful voice is on a par with almost any of Tamla Motown’s finest and has even led to him being described as ‘the male Dusty Springfield’ – is decidedly upbeat when The Blues calls him, and buzzing with excitement about the prospect of another US tour and their latest album, Still Got That Hunger.

Formed in 1961, The Zombies fashioned their early sound on the blues and R&B coming out of the US, but they were never going to be the standard three-guitar rock’n’roll band, he says. “It really started when I talked my parents into buying me a guitar when I was 12 or 13 and there was a band being put together at school in St Albans. We sat in alpha order and the guy in front of me was Paul Arnold. He knew some of the other guys in this band and said, ‘You’ve got a guitar haven’t you? Want to be in a band?’ And that’s how I ended up on a Saturday morning rehearsal, not knowing any of these guys except one. At first I was gonna be the rhythm guitarist and Rod [Argent] was going to be the lead singer. We’d just been doing an instrumental called Malagueña and Rod hadn’t played at all, so he went over to this broken-down old piano and he played Nut Rocker by B Bumble & The Stingers. It’s quite something for a boy of 15 to be playing this and I was absolutely stunned. I just went rushing over and said, ‘Listen, you should play keyboards in the band.’ But it wasn’t fashionable to have a keyboard player in a rock’n’roll band at that time. Rock bands had three guitars. Rod was a bit reluctant but he said, ‘I’ll play keyboards in the band if you’ll be lead singer.’ It was a very short time between being someone who played a few tunes at home, to being the rhythm guitarist in a band, where I thought I could hide, to being the lead singer, right in the middle out front.”

There was a thriving rock’n’roll and jazz club scene in St Albans at that time, giving the young band members the opportunity to soak it all in. Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent, who had both been choir boys at school, absorbed influences from “classical music, modern jazz, the blues, rhythm and blues, rock’n’roll and pop”. Their musical education – both formal and informal – combined to give The Zombies an unusual sound, a little different to the straight blues and R&B that other groups were starting to discover, although they did share that same hunger for those hard-to-find records.

In 1963 they made the trek to Soho’s Studio 51 club (hosted by jazz band leader Ken Colyer) to see The Rolling Stones, then in the first flush of success with their debut single Come On. “It was a very small place but absolutely packed and they were sensational. They were playing R&B classics. I remember we went up to them afterwards. They didn’t know who we were, they certainly didn’t then and they probably don’t now. We asked them where they got their material from and they were saying ‘Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley…’ and so forth. That influenced us as well and it intensified our research into these records.”

Performing a mix of Beatles covers and R&B standards (such as Jimmy Reed’s Baby What You Want Me To Do) The Zombies entered a battle of the bands contest at Watford Town Hall and won first prize – a recording contract with Decca. “We were caught in a strange situation because we’d been playing all these R&B classics then just before we went into our first recording session, our producer Ken Jones said, almost as a throwaway remark, ‘You can always write something for it if you want to.’ Two days later, Rod Argent came back and he’s written She’s Not There. From the beginning we realised that it was a special song.”

In composing it, Rod Argent turned to his collection of painstakingly acquired blues records for inspiration, and picked out John Lee Hooker’s No One Told Me, which became the opening phrase of the song which was to change all their lives.

The prize winners’ first experience of recording, at Decca’s West Hampstead studios, was somewhat intimidating, mainly because the engineer turned up howling drunk from a wedding. Eventually he became incapacitated and the band had to carry him down the stairs. Fortunately his assistant Gus Dudgeon stepped in, so The Zombies ended up cutting their first record with him, in what became the first step in an illustrious production career (Gus Dudgeon’s credits include John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton, as well as records with Ten Years After and Elton John).

The distinctive cool jazz tone of Argent’s Hohner Pianet (also used by The Kingsmen on Louie Louie) coupled with Blunstone’s haunting falsetto and the band’s harmonies helped make She’s Not There into one of the surprise monster hits of the year, topping the charts in the US and Canada, reaching No.12 in the UK and doing well across Europe. No one was more shocked by this than the record company and the band, who were barely out of their school uniforms.

They were under immediate pressure to come up with an album.

Colin Blunstone recalls the “air of desperation” around the recording of their debut long-player, Begin Here. “The success of She’s Not There took Decca completely by surprise, and they demanded an album and we really had to look around for songs,” he says. “Once we’d had a hit record, we couldn’t do those covers any more, in order to establish the careers of the writers in the band. But Rod hadn’t got a whole bunch of songs… I think that was only the second or third song he’d written. There wasn’t time to build up a catalogue.”

The first three tracks they recorded for their debut album were all R&B covers – Sticks And Stones, Road Runner (their show-opener) and Solomon Burke’s Can’t Nobody Love You.

As well as the demand to come up with more hit singles, the band encountered another problem – their image, or lack of one. The Stones and The Who had Andrew Loog Oldham and Lambert & Stamp respectively conjuring up theirs, but The Zombies were left at the hapless mercy of Decca’s publicity department. “We were labelled as academic geeks and I think it did us incredible damage. It can still rear its ugly head even now, 50 years later. We certainly weren’t geeks of any sort, it just happened we were so young, we’d just left school and they couldn’t think of anything else to say about us. We had some very flat, characterless photos taken in those early months that still follow us around. I think that the lack of image harmed us incredibly. I don’t like to talk about it too much because it opens the wound again and people will say ‘yeah I know what he means, that’s a weakness in that band.’”

While they were never going to compete with the bad boy image of the Stones and The Who, The Zombies had their share of tomfoolery on the road, especially when they supported the latter at Southampton University. “It was pretty wild backstage. Just before we went on, Keith Moon let off a tear gas gun. We were sharing a huge dressing room and the whole place was just full of smoke, we could hardly see but we got through it somehow.”

With much heady excitement, at the end of 1964 they were flown over to New York to play Christmas shows at the famous Brooklyn Fox theatre, hosted by DJ Murray The K, the self-styled ‘Fifth Beatle’. “It was incredibly exciting. America was the birthplace of rock’n’roll, it’s where all our heroes lived. For Murray The K’s shows in New York, the tradition was that you would only play a couple of songs but there would be 14 or 15 acts on the bill – so we played with The Shangri- Las, The Shirelles, Ben E King, Dionne Warwick, Chuck Jackson, Patti Labelle – absolutely wonderful artists. And to think a few months before we’d been an amateur band just playing locally and here we are playing in New York and we happened to have the No.1 hit record in the States at that time. We were playing to packed audiences, we would play five or six shows a day. They would start really early, first show at 10am, everyone would play two or three tunes and then they would play a short film and in that time the audience was expected to leave, but no one ever did, people would stay all day. We would play all day until about eight o’clock at night.”

Geeks or not, they were greeted with the same hysteria that had met The Beatles. Girls would come at them with scissors and cut off bits of their hair. “There were queues all around the block, you couldn’t go out of the building at all. Our lead guitarist, Paul Atkinson [who died in 2004] was the only one who tried to go out of the stage door. He was completely mobbed and he was pushed up against a plate glass window and lost his shirt. The police came and got him, he was just about to go through the window, and they said, ‘We’ll get you out once, but just tell everyone in the show we’re not doing this again.’”

A wider exposure in the US was to follow, with a cross-country tour as part of Dick Clark’s Caravan Of Stars in April 1965. This time they went on the road with around 14 other acts including Del Shannon, Dee Dee Sharp, The Ikettes, The Shangri-Las, The Ad-Libs and The Velvelettes. It was a real eye-opener for the Brit boys. “It got quite frisky on these buses sometimes,” Colin Blunstone told biographer Claes Johansen in The Zombies: Hung Up On A Dream. “When we played big arenas you would see the toilets were segregated. It was quite a shock, because our heroes were all black musicians, and we were touring with black musicians.”

Our guitarist was completely mobbed in America. He was pushed up against a plate glass window and lost his shirt.

One day, in their naivety, they walked off the tour bus and into a diner with their arms around a Velvelette each, completely unaware of the risk they were taking until a panicked tour manager ran up to warn them they could all be attacked by enraged rednecks.

Despite playing every night and sleeping on the bus, they only earned £500 each for the whole six weeks. They were mobbed by fans everywhere they went in America, but the two non-songwriters in the band were not seeing the fruits. “We would come home to England and be nobodies,” Paul Atkinson later remembered. “We’d be playing to 15,000 people in stadiums in America, then we’d come home and play to 200 people in a club.”

It was a similar story in the Philippines, where The Zombies’ arrival at the airport caused mass hysteria, with crowds of cheering fans lining the roofs of buildings. That was astonishing in itself, but then they played to arenas of 40,000 people for 10 nights but were only paid £80 a night.

Back in the UK, their prospects were fading, too. An EP released in early ’65, including their magnificent version of Summertime, flopped, as did subsequent attempts on the British charts. It was the era when a band was only as good as their last hit single. Colin Blunstone tried his hand at songwriting with the Nina Simone-inspired Just Out Of Reach, but chart success remained exactly that.

Patience and money were wearing thin for the non-songwriters, who were either living at home with their parents or wanting to get married. It was in this mood of growing dissatisfaction and tension that the group went into Abbey Road studios (a rare feat for a non-EMI band) to record Odessey And Oracle. It was far more complex than anything they’d attempted before, and in previous interviews Colin Blunstone has spoken of the ill- tempered exchanges during the session for Time Of The Season, where he struggled to nail the tricky vocal. The lyrics of the song were partly inspired by Summertime (‘What’s your name? Who’s your daddy?’) but the atmosphere swiftly became less about the time for loving and more pugnacious. “Rod kept correcting me through the intercom in the control room. It ended up with me saying, ‘If you’re so bleeping clever, you come in here and sing it.’ He said to me, ‘You’re the lead singer in this band, you stand there and get it right.’”

The commercial failure of the first single from Odessey And Oracle, Care of Cell 44, was the final straw for Blunstone, who decided to call it a day. He took a job as an insurance clerk (“My dad told me, ‘If you think you’re going to sit around the house all day, you’ve got another think coming.’”) and was still there some months later when Time Of The Season became a huge hit in the States, but by then The Zombies’ time had been and gone.

As the years passed, a new generation of musicians discovered Odessey And Oracle and hailed it as a lost masterpiece, with Paul Weller a particularly vocal advocate, helping to give the band an unexpected revival in fortunes. An album that was virtually ignored on its release was latterly recognised as Rolling Stone’s 100th best album of all time.

Our guitarist was completely mobbed in America. He was pushed up against a plate glass window and lost his shirt.

Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent were reunited about 15 years ago after a chance meeting at a Johnny Dankworth gig. The re-formed Zombies – now with Jim Rodford (bass), Steve Rodford (drums) and Tom Toomey (guitar) completing the line-up – now tour the US two or three times a year and made a triumphant appearance at 2015’s Glastonbury festival. The two surviving members from the 60s line-up, bass player Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy, will also be joining them for the Odessey And Oracle set on the current tour.

Their 2011 album Breathe Out Breathe In made Classic Rock’s Albums Of The Year rundown, and follow-up Still Got That Hunger (with artwork done by Terry Quirk, the same artist behind the famously misspelled Odessey And Oracle cover) looks set to be a contender for 2015’s ‘best of’ lists. As anyone who has seen them live in their revived form will know, Colin Blunstone’s voice has barely altered – if anything, it’s gained in strength, as evident on the solid bluesy groove of Moving On from the new album. The verse of another new song, New York evokes their heady British Invasion experience: (‘I walked into the Brooklyn Fox, that snowy Christmas Day/ Patti and her Bluebells simply stole my heart away/She took me to Aretha Franklin, showed me so much soul/And helped us join the party with our English rock’n’roll.’)

Whereas their early 60s R&B covers on Begin Here were weak compared with their own material and suffered from the hurried recording sessions, it seems Colin Blunstone has found the blues power in his voice on Still Got That Hunger. Ever the hard worker, in January 2016 he will be appearing on the Blues Stage at The Great British Rock & Blues Festival with his own band, on top of The Zombies’ touring commitments. “We’re always thinking about new songs and new ways to play them,” he says. “If we weren’t and if playing live wasn’t as exciting as when we first started, then we wouldn’t be doing this. Anyone who comes to our gigs knows that we really go for it when we play live and we’re not going through the motions. It’s something we still enjoy as much as when we very first started. I’d like to think that our performances are very energised and have an edge of danger about them because we are always trying to change things, you never quite know exactly what might happen next.”

Alternative takes of She’s Not There

Since its release in 1964, The Zombies’ debut single She’s Not There has been played an estimated 4.5 million times on US radio stations. Written by keyboard player Rod Argent, the lyric is said to refer to an ex-girlfriend who left him heartbroken when she cancelled their wedding at the last minute. Cooler and more emotionally detached than the average pop single of the time, it was partly inspired by the feel of jazz musicians such as Miles Davis, while the close harmonies are borrowed from the folk revival.

The song has since been recorded by other artists in numerous languages including Polish, Finnish and Czech. Perhaps the best-known cover is the version released by Santana on their 1977 album Moonflower, where it was reworked into a more conventional rock song with an opening riff (the guitars are barely heard on The Zombies’ original). Greg Walker’s soul-powered lead vocal is less fragile than Colin Blunstone’s falsetto. There’s the obligatory elongated solo from Carlos Santana and it’s heavily laced with Latin percussion.

A less likely tribute came from the British punk band UK Subs, who recorded She’s Not There as a single in 1979, reaching No.36 in the UK chart. Although maybe it’s less surprising when you know that frontman Charlie Harper was an original mod and veteran of the 1960s music scene. He formed UK Subs from his R&B group The Marauders, who were regulars on the mid-70s pub rock circuit.

Several US psych/garage groups tried to emulate the British Invasion sound and you can take your pick from the rather dirge-like assaults on it by Vanilla Fudge, Litter and Doves. The 2012 cover by The Black Angels, a psych band from Austin, Texas, is a far more ear-friendly attempt (and much closer to The Zombies’ original) than the rest.

Perhaps the strangest version is by Malcolm McLaren, who cut it up and called it About Her for the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino’s film Kill Bill 2. It’s a kind of trip-hop rhythm featuring samples of Bessie Smith singing St Louis Blues – harking back to The Zombies’ musical origins – interspersed with Colin Blunstone’s slightly slowed-down vocal.

Lastly, if you’ve ever listened to She’s Not There, and thought, ‘What this song needs is more Cajun accordions’, then Nick Cave and Neko Case have obliged with their version recorded for True Blood, the hit TV series about vampires.

Still Got That Hunger is out now via Cherry Red. Visit www.thezombies.net for more information