Perfect Sound Forever

The Zombies

This Will Be Our Year
by Milo McBride
(February 2011)


The Zombies were a classy troupe of British mods. Dressed in nerdy, constricting black suits and pointy, constricting leather boots, they seemed almost like a parody of the Beatles. But their sound evolved into something unique. They looked up to and lived in the shadows of the Fab Four; their energy, rhythm, and drive were fully comparable. But tonally, the Zombies were of a different school. While the rest of the British Invasion acts looked back to blues and r&b, the Zombies took from the likes of jazz innovator Bill Evans and impressionist emperor Claude Debussy. Their understanding of chromatic harmony and modal changes generated moments of true greatness when their music ranked with the most enduring work of their contemporaries. Unfortunately, the Zombies' complex approach to composition was also their Achilles heel. Their music is prone to melodic non sequiturs, redundant drum fills, and misleading key changes, motifs too intricate for the average consumer. In ten years of hard work, the band produced three hit singles and one full album, Odessey and Oracle.

The Zombies were from a suburb half an hour north of London called St. Alban's. Like Oxford and Cambridge, its one of those quiet little British towns on a hill that radiates history, even Roman history. The cathedrals and town square gave the impression of ongoing stability, both culturally and economically. Traditionally, St. Alban's had been inhabited by the middle class. But, during the war, most of the male inhabitants began working at the nearby aircraft factory in DeHavilland. Three out of five of the Zombies' fathers had abandoned their decent-paying lives as barbers and bakers for a struggle through grease and fumes.

While the parents and guardians of the Beatles all embraced the difficult reality of their working-class backgrounds, the families of the Zombies resented it. For them, it was very much a story of paradise lost. As lead singer Colin Blunstone told their biographer, Claes Johansen: "We may have been middle class by aspiration but not by income." Blunstone remembers not having a car or proper heating, and yet he was immersed in a town that strives for what Argent once described as a "BBC-esque" accent. The Zombies' lack of childhood comfort proved crucial in the development of their elegant appearance, musical complexity, and air of intellectual elitism in a craft as working class as rock ‘n roll.

Colin Blunstone claims to have been raised almost entirely without music. His only musical experiences as a child were singing at Christmas with his extended family. Although both Blunstone and eventual pianist Rod Argent had fathers who worked in the airplane factory, Argent's father was a pianist by night. While Blunstone's first musical memory was of Christmas carols, Argent's was of Tchaikovsky. This dichotomy in experience and taste significantly influenced the eclectic ascetic that the Zombies would later develop.

When the boys were roughly sixteen, Argent and Blunstone teamed up with a crew of local musicians to form a band. The other members were Paul Atkinson on guitar and, initially, his father on drums. As the group continued, they picked up St, Alban's classmate Hugh Grandy to replace Atkinson's dad. The most significant and last addition was Chris White. Several years older than the rest of the boys, White was a local bass player who ended up being a crucial songwriter for the band.

First called the Mustangs and then the Sundowners, the Zombies got their permanent name from White in 1961. According to Blunstone, "The Zombies just sounded like something out of the ordinary, different. In those days it was quite an unusual word." For the next three years, the boys continued their studies in St. Alban's. By 1964, they had been playing together for nearly four years and any dream of pop stardom had begun to fade. According to Chris White, none of them ever thought of music as a career. But at this moment they got their first and only break. They played a local beat band contest at the Watford Town Hall and killed it.

As if straight from a movie (actually, all too reminiscent of Tom Hanks's That Thing You Do!), the band's victory scored them a recording session with Ken Jones, a producer at Decca Records. Jones dared Rod Argent to write a hit song that utilized his jazz-tinged piano as a leading motif. Given the basic British invasion sound, this seemed like a risk. The British and American audiences both wanted jangly, driving guitars. But with nothing to lose, the Zombies went in for their three-hour session and fuck, did they deliver.

In the summer of 1964, the band released their first and most successful single, "She's Not There." It's by no means my favorite Zombies track but it sure as hell shows their potential. The record opens with a dreamy Rhodes piano line somewhat reminiscent of Gershwin's "Summertime," which they would cover a year later. As the drumbeat solidifies, Blunstone's cool, breathy vocals enter. He is poised and in control. During the verse he nonchalantly describes the devilishness of a girl. But by the chorus, Blunstone and White break out in a neurotic harmony (apparently recorded in one take) that sits in perfect unison with the rough garage drumbeat. The musical chaos evokes the troublemaker he is singing about. In this moment the Zombies transcended the bubblegum of their contemporaries, and elegantly became proto-punk. To be blunt, the song has balls.

Initially, "She's Not There" did not get much hype. Decca still had their knickers in a twist from failing to sign the Beatles two years before, and lacked the confidence to fully promote the single. Only praise from George Harrison, the supposedly "quiet Beatle," that garnered the record the publicity it deserved. Soon after, the song hit #12 in the UK (their only Top 40 hit there) and would go on to reach #2 in the States.

What at the time looked like a blessing actually contained the seeds of downfall. Where the Beatles had broken over nearly a year, the Zombies' first record was a transatlantic phenomenon. But unlike the Beatles, the Zombies lacked a manager with foresight. In the years before Beatlemania, Brian Epstein pushed his boys to master their craft as performers. They practiced their mop-top head bobs and unison bows meticulously. Sure the Zombies had bought the matching black suits, but they were deficient in both stage experience and public persona.

Nonetheless, Decca sent them to tour the UK, the States, and, most significantly, the Philippines, where they had their biggest following. In the States they were overplayed--seven two- or three-song sets at the Fox Theatre in Brooklyn in just one day. The tour concluded with their first and last TV appearance. On January 12th, 1965, The Zombies performed their recent hit on NBC's Hullabaloo, introduced by Brian Epstein. In retrospect, it was sad moment for the band. The TV show would fold a year later, the man who introduced them would die in two years, and their record contract would be gone soon after.

On their return to England, Decca sent the boys back into the studio to organize the release of their first LP, a compilation of singles called Begin Here, and their follow-up release. The song they chose was "Tell Her No," a catchy, yet powerful pop tune that surpasses "She's Not There" with its sophisticated juxtapositions: a ferociously syncopated drum part, a sweet and melancholy guitar, and a vulnerable vocal that squeals "don't hurt me now" during the bridge.

From a marketing perspective, it seemed the perfect follow up. The track's relentless "Tell her no! No! No –oh – oh –oh!" was infectious. Furthermore, the track had that jangly electric guitar line that every teenager wanted to hear. But to the band's dismay, "Tell Her No" never made it to the Top 40 in the UK: it stopped at #42. Although it did reach #6 in the US, it was at this point that Decca began to question the longevity of the act and ponder the possibility that the Zombies might be just another one-hit wonder.

Despite all this, the two years that followed "Tell Her No" were the most fascinating of the Zombies' career, as they recorded a plethora of singles in an attempt to find themselves artistically. While some of the songs are abstract and embark on dissonant tangents, there are moments of true ingenuity. It was a difficult dynamic for the band, who lacked a facilitator and visionary like George Martin. In most cases, primary songwriter and pianist Argent acted as the producer. So it's no surprise the singles are marred by gratuitous piano solos and off-putting cadences. It seems that all the band needed was someone who could tell them no and give the music the brevity that it demanded.

Of all of these singles, the chef d'oeuvre is "The Way I Feel Inside." The first verse is carried solely by Blunstone's voice. It is his greatest moment as a vocalist; his control and emotion act as one. Usually the sound of an unaccompanied vocal makes me cringe. But for some reason, Blunstone has the opposite effect. This is his most vulnerable moment as singer and his nudity conveys the utmost sincerity. The lyrics make clear that Blunstone will always be too shy and ambivalent to tell his love his true feelings, and yet he confides openly in his listener. As part of the audience, I am enamored by the persona behind the melody.

As the song progresses, only bass and organ are added, preventing the track from really developing. But it is this simplicity that makes it so sophisticated. While many of the other Zombies singles betray Argent's need for superfluous decorations, "The Way I Feel Inside" is a testament to what they could have been if they had always practiced such conciseness and restraint. The song was released in the UK in September of 1966 as a B-side and never released in the States. One of their greatest achievements, it would go unrecognized until it surfaced in Wes Anderson's all too forgettable The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.

Too many of these experimental singles, however, show great promise and then crumble into sophisticated banter. A prime example is "She's Leaving Home," completely different than the Beatles' song. The song's intro is captivating, as if Brian Wilson had covered the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," but, when the chorus arrives, the soulful pulse and cadence are destroyed. In moments like these, I question the Zombies' intent. Were they trying to embrace dissonance and obscenity like their contemporaries the Soft Machine? More likely the answer is less their admiration for the avant-garde than their well-established need to strive for sophistication, fueled most significantly by Argent's zealous, convoluted conception of composition.

All criticism aside, an abundance of exceptional singles--including "Whenever You're Ready" (which reached #110 on the US charts) and "You Make Me Feel Good"-- exemplify the group's gradual discovery of their own aesthetic as pop rather than jazz musicians. "You Make Me Feel Good" has the drive and intensity as "She Said She Said" only it's fueled by romantic infatuation, not LSD. Love songs were always a strength for the Zombies--Argent told an interviewer "The whole drug thing absolutely passed us by . . . drugs were never something anyone [in The Zombies] got into." But the temptation to go psychedelic became more and more apparent in later releases like "Is This the Dream," a whimsical pop tune whose background vocals uncannily recall Serge Gainsbourg's garage homage "Qui est in qui est out" but whose chorus reeks of a summery acid trip in northern California. This stylistic tension would intensify in their final days.

By November of '66 the Zombies had released their last singles with Decca and were dropped. Disillusion settled in and hopes began to wither. Remember that only two of the band members, Argent and White, were getting royalties for the songs. Even lead singer Blunstone was struggling financially. They knew the Zombies were a dying breed and that days were short. But, instead of saving their last pounds and retiring back into the servitude of everyday life, the Zombies made one last stab at greatness.

What differentiates the career of the Zombies and all those disposable Nuggets II acts was their valiant push to record Odessey and Oracle. It was this record that allowed them to be remembered as artists with historical reach. Without label support or representation, the group asked CBS Records for a mere £1000, rented out Abbey Road Studios, and hired Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. Blunstone recalls that time was of the essence and that they had three hours to track each song. Without proper funding for an orchestra, Argent utilized a Melotron, an early synth that Lennon had pioneered on "Strawberry Fields Forever." Defying adversity, the Zombies poured their heart and soul into what they knew would be their final creation.

Regardless of the record's later critical acclaim (Rolling Stone listed it as #80 record of all time), I don't love Odessey and Oracle in its entirety. It's filled with holes that, at times, could be a castrati's take on Syd Barrett's years with the Pink Floyd and Brian Wilson's salvaged recordings for Smile. Half the record consists of dreary storytelling, tracks like "Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914)," "Hung Up On a Dream," and most notably, "Changes." It's just not the Zombies—it's them pretending they were part of the whole flower-power fiesta. This divergence in craft and aesthetic is mostly attributable to Argent's and White's divergent approach to songwriting. For the first time, White was more prolific than Argent, and thus his lackluster attempts at simulating the Beach Boys' baroque pop came to the fore.

Though White was a fine bassist, Argent was the true voice of the Zombies. Songs like "Care of Cell 44" and "I Want Her She Wants Me" are vivid examples of the Zombie flavor. Like their earlier singles, Argent's songs on Odessey also venture moments of tonal abstruseness, but within reason. There never comes a moment when a chord change threatens the flow and pace of the song. Instead, there are moments of harmony that recall Pet Sounds and bursts of energy that rival Revolver. It is in these tracks that Argent's songwriting ability becomes what it always wanted to be: pleasingly sophisticated. Although most critics would judge "Time of the Season" the most cogent track on the record, I find it somewhat contrived and all too cliche. For me, it's always been about "This Will Be Our Year." Between the rejoicing horns and uplifting vocals, this bittersweet waltz is one the greatest breaths of hope I know in pop music.

After reluctantly tracking "Time of the Season," Blunstone and Atkinson had left the group for good. White and Argent pooled their last bits of royalty money and mixed Odessey. Once it reached CBS, Clive Davis immediately shut it down. Almost a year went by before CBS a&r rep and session musician Al Kooper found the hidden gem and demanded it be promoted. In 1969, "Time of the Season" went to #3 in the States. Back in England, however, the band had already dispersed. Rod Argent had began a trivial solo project with several former members of the Kinks and other Zombies were settling down with families. The recognition came too late for any chance of a reunion. Unlike real Zombies, the band couldn't be resurrected.

While it is widely believed that Odessey was the band's final work, several unfinished tracks were recorded for what would be a follow-up album. These demos they tracked make my throat burn and eyes water up. It's what should have been Village Green for the Kinks, Parachute for the Pretty Things, and what Let It Be wanted to be for the Beatles: a profound summation of a complex time. The most compelling demo is "I Could Spend the Day," a summery track that sounds like what David Bowie was listening to when he lost his virginity. While many critics argue that the Zombies' influence lay dormant until a recent indie revival, I cannot help but hear a correlation between these final recordings and the London glam scene that would emerge several years after their demise. But where the Zombies' theatrics convey innocence, Marc Bolan's radiate sexuality.

Although the Zombies failed as a marketable act, they achieved moments of undeniable greatness. In retrospect, their band dynamic made it nearly impossible for them to achieve the success of their contemporaries. Blunstone's pipes were buttery sweet, but, he lacked the vision and persona a pop idol needs. And while they are generally regarded as a branch on the Beatles' tree, it is essential to acknowledge that the Zombies spent their careers trying to exist as something more. Obviously, they didn't surpass the innovations of the Beatles. But nobody else did either, and anyway, that was never really the point.


Also see PSF's other Zombies article


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