Perfect Sound Forever

The Zombies Are Go

by Martin Sharp
(August 2007)

Anyone who listens to oldies radio has probably heard "She's Not There." Anyone who listens to classic rock radio has probably heard "Time of the Season." It's also probable that the above-mentioned radio listeners have heard "Tell Her No." These three songs--especially the first two--most likely constitute the casual rock fan's knowledge of The Zombies. I must count myself among those. The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, and The Kinks are the bands from the first British Invasion era that garner the most attention, and deservedly so. Bands like The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Searchers, The Move, and The Dave Clark Five undeservedly garner a little less attention. And there are still other bands that garner even less attention, some probably deservedly so, but that shouldn't be so with The Zombies. I had come to that conclusion after buying the CD version of The Zombies' U.S. debut album, The Zombies featuring "She's Not There"/"Tell Her No" (Varese Vintage).The music is as inventive and creative as anything produced by any band of the same era, yet The Zombies have been unfairly overlooked.

Why is this? It could be that The Zombies had inferior management. They didn't seem to have a Brian Epstein, an Andrew Loog Oldham (The Rolling Stones), a Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp (The Who), a Mickey Most (The Animals, Herman's Hermits), a Tony Secunda (The Move). And certainly the competition for radio airplay during the British Invasion era was fierce; besides the innumerable British artists, American artists like The Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Supremes, and countless others vied for air time. It could be, then, that The Zombies were simply overlooked, a footnote in the annals of rock: an unfortunate situation, but hardly a tragedy. But if they were so inventive and creative as I contend, then shouldn't they have overcome the competition and received more than just token AM radio airplay? Therein lies the rub; it is my contention that The Zombies' creativity worked against them. As creative as the other bands mentioned earlier were--and they were without a doubt creative--they also wrote and recorded fairly straightforward pop/rock. The Zombies were amazingly different. As correctly noted in the Encyclopedia of Rock, The Zombies' sound was "quite devastating for 1964" (479).Further, the late Lester Bangs is quoted as saying that The Zombies were "'apparently cursed by [their] own musical adventurousness" (qtd. in Markowitz 120).1

The Zombies were simply too good, too complex, too inventive. Because of these factors, The Zombies were/are not influential, and this fact has caused many rock fans and many critics to overlook or marginalize the importance of The Zombies' music.2 Such a reaction is, simply put, wrong.

For this article, I am focusing on The Zombies’ early recordings because I want to place the band within the context of the first phase of the British Invasion, a time when the pop single was an art form, a time when it seems like the bands were having fun, a time before rock became "progressive," serious, and "heavy." Odessey and Oracle, The Zombies’ last album, certainly shows the band moving beyond the pop single format.

Before we begin, some background information is necessary. The Zombies were formed in 1961 in St. Albans, London. Hugh Grundy played drums. Paul Atkinson played guitar. Chris White played bass and wrote several of the group's songs. Colin Blunstone handled the lead vocals. And Rod Argent played keyboards and wrote many of the group's songs, most notably the three songs mentioned in the introduction. Like many of their contemporaries, The Zombies culled songs from American R&B artists, as was de rigueur for the era. Unlike The Animals and The Stones, who were successful in appropriating black music, and unlike The Searchers and The Yardbirds, who successfully shaped their cover versions of R&B and blues songs to fit their decidedly white music, The Zombies didn't fare as well. Their medley of The Miracles' "You Really Got A Hold On Me" and Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home To Me" is interesting, but it isn't very good. Try as they may, there's not a lot of soul. Their interpretation of Muddy Waters' "I Got My Mojo Working" isn't awful, but it sounds about as convincing as a politician trying to get out of trouble. "Can't Nobody Love You" by Solomon Burke doesn't fare much better. Colin Blunstone is no threat to either Mick Jagger or Eric Burdon. The Zombies' jazzy take on "Summertime" is the best of their non-original efforts; Colin Blunstone's vocal is lazy like a summer's day and gentle and comforting like a lullaby. He seems to invest the lyrics of the song with the perfect aesthetic qualities.

So, how can I contend that The Zombies are unjustly overlooked by music historians, critics, and by most rock music fans? It's quite simple: The Zombies' right to acknowledgement lies in the strength of their original songs which blended jazz, pop, and rock. And it's the sum of all their parts that makes The Zombies' music so wonderful and worthy of serious re-examination.

We'll begin with Hugh Grundy. The Zombies' arrangements are often quite complex, and such complexity requires a drummer who can swing as well as bash. As much as I love Ringo Starr and Keith Moon, they were respectively, in reality, a timekeeper and a basher who nevertheless truly helped defined his respective band's distinctive sound. And I love The Beatles and The Who, but in all honestly, both bands' songs recorded during the British Invasion era didn't require a sense of "feel" from Starr or Moon. Starr does a great job anchoring The Beatles' rhythm, and Moon is simply Moon; there's no one else like him, but he's not very good at keeping time (that's John Entwhistle's job). Even Charlie Watts' drumming on The Stones' early recordings is fairly straightforward in terms of solidifying the rhythm. In other words, not many of the drummers really swing, with the exception of The Animals' John Steele. And the ability to swing is what sets Hugh Grundy apart from many of his contemporaries, and it's what helps make The Zombies' music so different and so much fun to listen to. Listen to Grundy's work on the aforementioned "Summertime"; not only does he lay down the beat, he also feels the depth of the song's melody and lyrics. The same is true of the brilliant "Leave Me Be." And his drumming on "She's Not There" is both subtle and insistent. And when straightforward timekeeping is required--such as on the beat classic "It's Alright with Me"--Grundy is right up there with the best. The rhythm is rock solid, and the song should have been a major hit.

When the great guitarists of the British Invasion era are mentioned, the late Paul Atkinson's name is never mentioned. Except for Dave Davies (The Kinks), Jeff Beck (The Yardbirds), and Eric Clapton (with The Yardbirds), most of the guitarists were fairly comparable. George Harrison, Hilton Valentine (The Animals), John McNally and Mike Pender (The Searchers), and even Keith Richards are all wonderful guitar players; but on their respective group's early recordings, none of their work--in retrospect--is draw-dropping stunning (except Richards' larger-than-life elemental riff on "Satisfaction"). They play to meet the needs of pop/rock music in order to get their group's records played on the radio.

But, as is the case with The Zombies in general, Atkinson's work is overlooked and quite superb. Listen to his guitar break on "Sometimes"; it follows and complements Argent's exciting organ solo. Listen to the guitar intro to "Woman" (not the Peter and Gordon hit) and Atkinson's subsequent fills. The song rocks, in no small part due to Atkinson's guitar work. Or listen to his work on the should-have-been-a-major hit "Tell Her No." Atkinson here uses acoustic guitar to perfection; his playing on this song is both tender and tough, like the song itself. The same can be said of Atkinson's 12-string guitar on "I Don't Want To Know" and the instrumental "Work ‘n' Play." I would argue that his work on The Zombies' early recordings is equal to or even superior to that of many of his more famous contemporaries.

Chris White's bass playing is also overlooked. Again, as is the case with Grundy and Atkinson, when White's work is compared to that of his contemporaries--Paul McCartney, Bill Wyman, Paul Samwell-Smith (The Yardbirds, and he's often overlooked, too)--he holds his own quite well. Listen to "I Got My Mojo Working"; White swings and rocks. The same is true on "Work 'n' Play," an undiscovered gem written by the group's "director," Ken Jones. For a fine example of laying down the bottom, listen to his rock steady playing on "What More Can I Do." Take time to listen to White's bass work on the delicious "You Make Me Feel So Good," another unfairly overlooked song. White does exactly what the song needs to be great. On "Tell Her No," White's bass plays against and with Grundy's drums, Argent's electric piano, Atkinson's acoustic guitar, and Blunstone's vocals to create a dynamic tension that is stunning. And we shouldn't forget White's unforgettable intro for "She's Not There," one of the most interesting and famous hooks in the annals of the British Invasion. Besides his bass work, White was responsible for several of The Zombies' songs. While Rod Argent penned the group's hits and other songs, White's contributions shouldn't be overlooked. "You Make Me Feel So Good," "What More Can I Do," "I Don't Know What To Do," and "I Must Move" are all superbly written, and it's a crime that none of them were hits. Another White composition ("I Love You") was covered almost note-for-note by People in 1969, which is the closest White came to a hit. It's the ultimate irony that it was a cover version that got airplay instead of The Zombies' original.

It was the vocalists of the British Invasion bands who stood out from their band mates, even if the band's image was promoted. It is in this area where clearer distinctions can be made between the great the very good, and the just-OK of the era. There are too many possibilities to discuss, but there were some marvelous singers who have been overlooked (Carl Wayne (The Move) or somewhat underappreciated (Alan Clarke (The Hollies), Mike Smith (The Dave Clark Five)). Colin Blunstone perhaps falls in both categories. Yes, those who listen to classic rock or oldies radio are familiar with Blunstone's work on The Zombies' hits; and as wonderful as his vocals are on "She's Not There," "Tell Her No," and "Time of the Season," there are many more reasons why Blunstone is truly one of the great and distinctive voices of the British Invasion era. It's true that his efforts at soul singing are not all that effective--see previous discussion concerning The Zombies' forays into the world of American soul and R&B--but those are rare missteps.

On the whole, Blunstone's vocals are often beautiful and more than convey the meaning of the song. Consider "I Don't Want To Know." Blunstone's singing conveys longing, pain, and toughness, which is just what the song needs. His vocals are ethereal and beautiful on "Summertime." There's a sense of pain and longing and sad resignation on "She's Not There." On "Tell Her No," Blunstone pleads, but he doesn't beg; he's in need, but he doesn't humiliate himself. And his singing on "You Make Me Feel So Good" is a revelation. On the chorus, the backing vocalists sing the title's words, while Blunstone counters with "Oh, oh yeah" in such a way that conveys a contented sigh, a post-orgasmic sigh, or both. Whatever is the case, Blunstone's singing--as it does throughout the entire song--takes the lyrics and music to exhilarating heights.

Listen closely to "She's Not There"; it doesn't sound like anything else from the same time. And that can be said of much of The Zombies' early work written by Rod Argent. In fact, it's safe to say that The Zombies' keyboard-driven music is what sets them apart, but that difference is exactly what contributed to the band's lack of commercial success and has contributed to band's lack of critical acclaim. They were too different for radio, and if they didn't have many hits, then they couldn't have been all that good, or so many critics seem to think (there were plenty of opposites, bands who were unashamedly commercial and are therefore not worthy to taken seriously by today's critics and historians, bands like The Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and The Dave Clark Five, but these bands produced some of the most endearing and enduring music of the era). And the difference in The Zombies' music propelled by Argent's jazz-influenced keyboard style also works against the band's legacy. They don't seem to have been influential on the musicians that came after--or even during--the era of guitar-dominated beat music. Guitar heroes of all stripes emerged because guitars were easier to transport, the player looked cooler, and guitars made a cooler noise. Guitars were cool.

It's true that some bands incorporated keyboards into their sound--The Dave Clark Five come to mind immediately--but, besides The Animals and Manfred Mann, The Zombies were the only band of note to use keyboards to shape their sound. Listen again to Argent's amazing piano break on "She's Not There"; had that been a comparable guitar solo, people might have written "Argent is God" on London's walls. Listen to his bluesy/jazzy piano on "It's Alright With Me," written by Argent. His playing transforms the song from a fairly typical beat rave-up into something different and fun. Listen to another Argent composition: "Sometimes." The chord changes are in places unusual and unexpected, especially for 1965, and Argent's organ there at first lays at the bottom of the song, quietly propelling the dynamics of the song until there's an explosion of sound during his solo. Argent's piano on the straight pop of White's "You Make Me Feel So Good" is in the background as Paul Atkinson's acoustic guitar takes center stage, and the song also demonstrates the band's dynamic ensemble playing. Listen to Argent's haunting organ on "Leave Me Be." The Zombies would likely have a different place in rock history had they taken the same approach of their contemporaries; but they wouldn't have left us such a rich legacy of exciting pop music.

It's a common story in the music business that some of the most talented and creative artists fail to be commercially successful. Very often, though, they at least receive critical acclaim to assuage any lack of commercial success (if they even care about commercial success). The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about The Zombies. In their heyday, the band scored some hits, but they have been unjustly ignored by critics and most rock fans. The Zombies deserved better then. But, the truth of the matter is, is that The Zombies were too inventive for their own good. It's true that radio in the 1960's played a variety of songs with a variety of styles, but different was often overlooked (unless one counts the occasional novelty song like Napoleon XIV's whacked-out marvel "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha! Ha!"). Furthermore, The Zombies otherwise deserve better now as well. For the most part, their music does not sound dated; it's transcendent, wonderful, and quite often stunning. Their overall contribution to the corpus of rock music needs to be reexamined; they should no longer be taken for granted, undervalued, or marginalized. They deserve better than being one of those charming and pleasant footnotes in pop music history. Retrospection would leave room for The Zombies to be included among rock's best.

The Zombies are go.




FOOTNOTES:

1 Ironically, The Zombies rate only a very short paragraph in Markowitz, a gross understatement that proves that The Zombies have been unfairly underappreciated and marginalized.

2 A cursory look at books like The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock, the Encyclopedia of Rock, the Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, and The Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock confirms the latter. Further evidence is found in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, in which The Zombies aren’t even given an entry. At least the entry in the Encyclopedia of Rock says that The Zombies’ singles were "underrated" and that their first British album Begin Here was "mixed, though at times adventurous" (479).


Also see PSF's other Zombies article



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