Monday, February 21, 2011

The Zombies

          What? Who? Oh yeah, those preppy English guys who dished out a couple of cheesy, flash-in-the-pan hits in the mid-60s and promptly exited stage right... well, not exactly. Next to the Beatles, the Zombies may have been the most mature and sophisticated songwriters of the early British Invasion. If this sounds like a wild overstatement, break out your guitar and try to play their stuff. Unlike competing acts like the Kinks and the Yardbirds, the Zombies actually knew the meaning of the terms minor key and modulation. This was a big deal back in late 1964/early 1965, when the Zombies were briefly thrust upon the international scene with two smash singles - "She's Not There" and "Tell Her No." Admit it, one or the other or both undoubtedly are going through your head at this very moment.

           Alas, after striking gold with two of their first three attempts, the Zombies went on a nightmarish losing streak, releasing eight flop 45's in a row. With the band losing money everywhere and the record company unwilling to back them any further, the group managed to record a second and final album in the summer of '67 and then called it quits. Carefully produced despite a shoe-string budget, it too was a flop, and it wasn't even released in the U.S. until some months later when Al Kooper heard the record and intervened on its behalf. Somehow, the single from that LP - "Time of the Season" - slowly but inexorably took off and became a major hit, more than a year after the group had already broken up. And strange as it may seem, the minimally produced Odessey and Oracle turns out to be one of the best albums of the 60s.

          The Zombies were led by keyboard whiz Rod Argent, but about half of the songs (and some quite good ones!) were written by bassist Chris White. Frontman Colin Blunstone contributed fantastic white-soul tenor vocals, and Argent's vocal harmony arrangements were superb. But the group lacked a strong soloist and had an excessively mild-mannered rhythm section, and by 1967 rock fans had lost their patience with English schoolboys posing as R & B'ers. Perhaps the band should have salvaged their image by urinating on some gas station attendants, a la the Stones.

           In late 1968 Argent formed a band of that name, which until breaking up in 1976 did enjoy some commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic - their big hit was 1972's "Hold Your Head Up." White was heavily involved as a producer and songwriter, but didn't perform with the band. In the early 70s Argent and White produced a pair of solo albums for Blunstone called One Year and Ennismore; both of them featured the Argent band members on the backing tracks. These are clearly the closest thing to a legitimate Zombies reunion record you'll ever come across, but I've never seen them in the stores, and I don't think they're available on CD. Argent also sang backups on a 1977 Blunstone record. Blunstone has continued to cut solo albums to this day; the title track of his 1976 solo album Planes was written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. He has frequently sung a track or two on Alan Parsons Project albums, and in 1984 Parsons produced Keats, an album by a one-shot band of that name featuring Blunstone on lead vocals and many of Parson's regular players on the backing tracks. Meanwhile, Argent has become a soundtrack writer and music store owner, and has put out an occasional solo record of his own.

          The Zombies has undoubtedly influenced many old and new bands alike, and played a large role in the early British Invasion. I would give this band a 9/10.