The Zombies

AS ONE of Britain’s most undervalued and undeservedly unsuccessful groups, the Zombies have a lot of historical recompense coming. Furthermore, with two offshoots (Argent and Colin Blunstone) currently flourishing esthetically and/or commercially, and a general wave of British Invasion reassessment/nostalgia about to peak, the time is right for a look at the Zombies’ checkered career.

Rod Argent, Paul Atkinson, Hugh Grundy, Chris White and Colin Blunstone were schoolmates in St. Albans, Herts. (British spelling), and a rather sharp quintet at that, boasting what would later be considered by pop world an embarrassing amount of “O” Levels (highest honors). University seemed to be their destiny; but they did have a group, and happened to enter a newspaper contest called “The Hearts Beat Competition,” best original songs to be sent as a demo to Decca Records. On the verge of breaking up, the band was notified that Argent’s composition, ‘She’s Not There’, had won. They were accordingly signed to Decca, and (over the objection of the group, who wanted to release their version of ‘Summertime’) ‘She’s Not There’ was issued in August 1964, reaching No.13 on the British charts.

Surprisingly enough this superb single, with its slightly jazzy, minor-chorded structure and air of delicate melancholy a vastly different record from the prevailing chartbusters of the time, was the Zombies’ only British hit. But it caught on swiftly in the United States, hitting No.2; and spawning a Dick Clark Caravan Of Stars tour or two, an album, and a generally higher level of interest here regarding the group. With their shorter-than-usual hair and polite demeanor, they were looked upon as a different species of British pop star. One 1965 article gushed: “Their dress is immaculate, their speech articulate…they behave like gentlemen and shy away from boisterous and out-of-hand affairs.” Had they called themselves “The Five Scholars” or something slightly less gruesome than the rather incongruous “Zombies,” their popularity might never have slacked off.

Their initial album, The Zombies, featured a number of arresting originals (by keyboarder Argent or bassist Chris White), augmented by a few chestnuts from the songbooks of Solomon Burke, Muddy Waters, Smokey Robinson and George Gershwin. ‘Summertime’ was accorded a sensitive treatment by Blunstone, whose breathy, delicately hushed vocals were a prime factor in the group’s appeal; but the other covers (‘Can’t Nobody Love You’, also recorded by the Moody Blues; ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’, incorporating Sam Cooke’s ‘Bring It On Home’; and especially ‘I’ve Got My Old Mojo Working’, spotlighting Rod Argent’s rather inept Paul Jones vocal imitation) were pretty lame. But songs like ‘What More Can I Do’, ‘Sometimes’, and ‘I Don’t Want To Know’ (with an unusual 12-string arrangement) were excellent examples of the Zombies’ restrained brand of rock, with absolutely enchanting harmonies and intriguing keyboard solos; and the album as a whole is eminently listenable.

The British version of the LP, called Begin Here was issued some time later in ’65, and has five different tracks – a disjoined version of Bo Diddley’s ‘Roadrunner’, a somewhat heavy-handed treatment of Ray Charles’ ‘Sticks And Stones’, and three more originals. One of these, ‘I Can’t Make Up My Mind’ (never released in the U.S.), is perfectly lovely; and ‘Remember When I Loved Her’ and the half-acapella ‘The Way I Feel Inside’ were also superb.

The Zombies’ follow-up British single was ‘Leave Me Be’, succeeded by ‘Tell Her No’. Both of them missed, but Parrot in America combined the two and got another Top 10 hit out of ‘Tell Her No’, a catchy, relatively up-tempo number with rather enigmatic lyrics. In L.A., ‘Leave Me Be’ also got considerably airplay, and I liked it better, a quintessential slice of depressive adolescent trauma with a heartbreakingly haunting melody.

‘She’s Coming Home’, an uncharacteristically euphoric song, hit the middle of the charts in Spring ’65, but no more hits were forthcoming. ‘I Want You Back Again’ was a disconcerting, moody number with unlimited noncommerciality; and none of the Zombies’ subsequent releases, even those with more commercial coherence, could stave off the decline. For a period of three years they released (irregularly) a series of unsuccessful singles, among them some of their best work and some of the finest records of the time. ‘Just Out Of Reach’ (along with its pretty 3/4 flip ‘Remember You’ taken from the Bunny Lake Is Missing soundtrack) was a relatively aggressively foray into the realm of rock, featuring as unusually hoarse vocal from Blunstone (who also wrote it). ‘Whenever You’re Ready’ and ‘Is This The Dream’ were also upbeat, the latter sporting an oddly jagged keyboard break, attractive background “Hey Hey Hey”s, and an energetic vocal which at one point sounded quite a bit like the Guess Who’s Burton Cummings. ‘Indication’ was perhaps the most pounding rocker in their repertoire of the time; the album version (Early Days) has an eerie voice/piano duet which was edited from the single.

Then there were the memorable flip sides – ‘Remember When I Loved Her’ and the slow, pretty ‘How We Were Before’ never appeared on American albums (they’re available, if you can call it that – Zombies singles are exceedingly scarce and command extortionate prices in collectors’ circles – on the B-sides of ‘I Want You Back Again’ and ‘Indication’, respectively). ‘I Must Move’ and ‘Don’t Go Away’ (flips of ‘She’s Coming Home’ and ‘Is This The Dream’) are archetypal Chris White songs: sad, melodic, sung in a feathery melancholic tone by Blunstone, and among my favorite Zombies tracks. ‘I Love You’ is more desperate, a classic summation of tongue-tied anguish; the Zombies’ version (or versions; the flip ‘Whenever You’re Ready’ has a tougher sound than the Early Days cut) is less gimmicky and stresses the guitar more strongly than the 1968 smash by San Jose’s People.

Then there were even more obscure British- only singles like ‘Gotta Get A Hold On Myself’ and ‘Going Out Of My Head’ (a big hit in the Philippines, where the group was once held captive by a “gangster promoter,” according to the intriguing teaser on Argent’s All Together Now liner notes). The Zombies persevered through all the inattention and commercial failure; they switched from Decca to CBS, and promptly had another bomb with ‘Care of Cell 44’, an unusual song with the singer welcoming a girlfriend home after her prison sentence is up (something of a reverse ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon’). Finally they decided to pack it in, after recording one last album in early ’68 which was to be the pinnacle of their musical achievements.

Odessey (sic) And Oracle was rather overlush with strings in places and lacked much of the vitality and spirit of earlier days. But the melodies were generally first-rate (especially the choruses), and the harmonies were brilliant throughout – along with various ’63-’66 Beach Boys albums, O&O was one of the finest rock harmony records ever, and may as well be considered the Zombies’ Pet Sounds.

The songs were rather similar in texture and sound, and tended to blend together inextricably, especially side one which aside from the bouncy ‘Care Of Cell 44’ seemed to comprise a suite of refined and elegant melancholia. Side two ranged from slightly trivial but exuberant tunes like ‘Friends of Mine’ and ‘I Want Her She Wants Me’ to the harsh World War I tract ‘Butcher’s Tale’, an oft times clumsy but stark portrayal of that conflict from the standpoint of a hapless infantryman.

Closing side two was a track called ‘Time Of The Season’; with incandescent keyboard breaks, a hypnotic bassline and breathy background vocal riff, and an infectious tune, it seemed like a natural hit – that is, for any group but the commercially moribund Zombies. It was one of three singles Columbia’s Date subsidiary issued through ’68, the others being ‘Butcher’s Tale’ and ‘Friends Of Mine’; and it went nowhere (the original flip was a song called ‘I’ll Call You Mine’, perhaps their rarest track). ‘Season’ then became a hit in the Philippines, missed as usual in Britain, and was eventually re-released in the U.S. in late ’68. Following a tortuous route of secondary, tertiary, and quaternary radio markets, it gradually began to score solid regional successes, and finally broke nationally, winding up at No. 3 and selling around two million.

So justice had finally triumphed and the Zombies could at last reap the rewards of their extended trial by failure – except for one hitch; there were no more Zombies. True to their word, the group had broken up following Odessey And Oracle‘s completion. Argent had been rounding up musicians for a new band; Chris White had decided to affiliate himself with that new band in a non-playing role; Colin Blunstone had gone to work in an insurance office; and drummer Grundy and guitarist Atkinson had disappeared into a music-less limbo, where they still reside to the best of my imperfect knowledge. The Zombies were offered vast sums of money to reform, but stuck with their decision.

This caused all sorts of problems in America, of course. Foremost among these was the famed “Phony Zombies” caper, where a shady Michigan outfit called Delta Productions rounded up some out-of-work musicians, stuffed them into a psychedelic bus (with Texas plates), and sent them touring around the country playing for gullible promoters and usually not-so-gullible audiences (in L.A., our own Rodney Bingenheimer ran the first hot-off-the-press exposé in Go Magazine, blowing the whistle on the impostors’ Whisky gig with the assistance of the then-visiting Move).

Then there was the follow-up dilemma. Having released half of Odessey And Oracle on singles already, Date was understandably reluctant to plunder that storehouse of readymade material again. Eventually Argent’s embryonic band recorded a new song called ‘Imagine The Swan’, which became the next single (unfortunately failing miserably). A harpsichord-dominated number with a nice chorus, it sounded close enough to the old Zombies to pass successfully (in esthetic terms); the flip was a trivial instrumental called ‘Conversation Of Floral Street’. For their next attempt, Date somehow got hold of a ’65-vintage Zombies track called ‘If It Don’t Work Out’, originally written by Argent for Dusty Springfield (who recorded it on her Everything’s Coming Up Dusty album in Britain). It was not particularly distinguished compared to their contemporaneous material, but was quite nice; as was the flip, ‘Don’t Cry For Me’, which sounded like another Argent (the group) masquerade.

As a final consequence of ‘Time Of The Season”s fluke Top 5 achievement, London Records released a compilation package called Early Days. There were manifold annoyances surrounding it; the cover art was embarrassing, some of the tracks seemed to suffer from inferior remixes, and the song choices could have been improved – ‘She’s Not There’ and ‘Tell Her No’ were repeated from the first album, and countless truly stellar tracks were left off (many of the singles sides mentioned previously, as well as cuts like ‘I Can’t Make Up My Mind’ and the entrancing ‘Nothing’s Changed’ – available on the British low-budget World Of The Zombies, which also included ‘Just Out of Reach’ and a couple of tracks from the first British album). But overall Early Days plays better than any other Zombies album, with great selections like ‘Don’t Go Away’, ‘Leave Me Be’, ‘I Love You, and ‘I Must Move’, along with a few more relative obscurities – the mild rocker ‘She Does Everything For Me’, British flip of ‘Going Out Of My Head’; the amusingly awkward ‘You Make Me Feel Good’ (B-side of ‘She’s Not There’); and a lovely cut called ‘Kinda Girl’, originally on an early British EP.

‘If It Don’t Work Out’ was the last Zombies single, and the group members were able to pursue their individual goals. Blunstone was the first to record, having cut an overdramatic, over-orchestrated version of ‘She’s Not There’ in January ’69 as his return to pop from the insurance world, using the name Neil MacArthur for purposes of confusion and scoring a minor British hit. He recorded two other singles (all three came out on American and British Deram) in a heavily orchestrated pop vein, the best of which (besides ‘She’s Not There’, easily the strongest bit of material) were ‘World Of Glass’, the first record’s flip side; and ‘It’s Not Easy’, a pleasant Mann-Weill song previously recorded by the Will-O-Bees. The low point was the second single, ‘Don’t Try To Explain/Without Her’, with the Nilsson flip hitting the depths of MOR slush, salvaged only by Blunstone’s exceptional singing.

Rod Argent, enlisting Chris White as his co-producer and writing collaborator, gathered together a group consisting of Russ Ballard (guitar) and Robert Henrit (drums) from the final incarnation of Unit 4+2, and Jim Rodford, former bassist with the Mike Cotton Sound. Calling themselves Argent, simply enough, they rehearsed for a time (also cutting the odd Zombies tracks) and released their first album in December 1969. Mostly filled with short, catchy cuts, the album (Argent) bore a fairly close resemblance to the Zombies sound. Both Argent and Ballard possessed excellent high-pitched voices (although Argent’s was to deteriorate markedly), without the husky charm of Blunstone’s but close enough, and the band’s harmonies were impeccable. The songs were a bit heavier and more conventional lyrically, but many (‘Like Honey’, ‘Be Free’, ‘Schoolgirl’, ‘Freefal’l, and the mesmerizing ‘Lia’r, later of course a hit in Three Dog Night’s inferior but passable version) were first-rate. Occasionally a jarringly funkier feeling would predominate (‘Lonely Hard Road’), or a trifle more keyboard capering (‘Dance In The Smoke’); but Argent was a very promising debut.

Unfortunately it was downhill from there. Ring Of Hands had a few attractive songs (‘Rejoice’, ‘Pleasure’, and the foreboding ‘Sleep Won’t Help Me’, which sounded much like the weirder Pete Brown/Jack Bruce Cream collaborations – ‘Deserted Cities of The Heart’, et al.), but the tracks were usually overextended, overly funky (‘Sweet Mary’ an odious offender here), and featured excessive organic improvisations (especially ‘Lothlorian’) and a relative dearth of melody. By the time of All Together Now, the Keith Emerson syndrome had severely afflicted Rod Argent, as exemplified in the perfectly wretched ‘Pure Love’ suite in four parts, three of which spotlight ponderous organ extravaganzas ranging turgidly from classical to funk (the other section is an absolutely dismal heavy clichéd blues sequence which would be laughable if it weren’t so oppressive). Otherwise, the album was bearable, with their breakthrough hit single ‘Hold Your Head Up’ obviously standing out – with solid guitar riffing and effective organ/bass interplay worked in around a commercial tune, it was a fine 45. The follow-up single, ‘Tragedy’, was an undistinguished funk-rocker, a couple of pseudo-rock ‘n’ roll tracks failed to impress, and only the rather arresting choruses of ‘I Am The Dance Of Ages’ and ‘Be My Lover Be My Friend’ salvaged those two cuts. ‘Hold Your Head Up”s flip, ‘Closer To Heaven’, was not on the album, and was a tolerable rocker with Honky Tonk Women chords, with one real clunker thrown in for good measure.

In live performance Argent had always exhibited coarse tendencies toward interminable keyboard pretensions (one exception – an early attention-riveting long version of ‘Time Of The Season’); and they seem to have worsened in that department as the years pass by. In addition, their latest album, In Deep, is no improvement over the last one. The best tracks are probably ‘Candles On The River’, (which benefits from a full and mostly interesting production and nice guitar riffs, but eventually expires into aimless doodling) and the single, ‘God Gave Rock And Roll To You’, an obvious attempt to recapture ‘Hold Your Head Up’ glories. It isn’t nearly so catchy, but does sport a neat ‘Pinball Wizard’ intro and sporadic interludes of pleasant melody. ‘Losing Hold’ is also fairly melodic, but ‘It’s Only Money Pts. I & II’ are annoyingly funky and contain some pointless heavy adaptations of Barrett Strong’s related riffs. ‘Christmas For The Free’ has a very substandard tune, and ‘Rosie’ is entirely dispensable vaudevillian fluff. A major policy reversal would be necessary for Argent’s musical salvation at this point.

Meanwhile, after his three Deram singles, Colin Blunstone began work on a solo album, which finally emerged in December 1971, called One Year. Unfortunately it perpetuated the overly lush ambience of his singles; and in fact intensified it by smothering most of the songs in a saccharine coating of string quartet arrangements. Although most of the tracks were quite pleasant basically, the overall effect is entirely too slushy. ‘She Loves The Way They Love Her’ (written by Argent/White) is something of a rocker, and stands out in a manner disproportionate to its actual intrinsic appeal – it’s a good song but nothing outstanding compared to most Zombies records. And Denny Laine’s ‘Say You Don’t Mind’ is as string-drenched as the rest, but has a nice tune and ends with a spectacular final note, which Blunstone was quite chagrined about having to reach repeatedly when the song became a British hit.

His second album, Ennismore, is a considerable improvement, quite similar to the Zombies in spirit and execution, with fine harmonies, strong material and generally sparse arrangements with a relative paucity of strings. ‘I Don’t Believe In Miracles’ and ‘How Could We Dare To Be Wrong’, both minor British chartmakers, are enchanting songs; and ‘Andora’ and the “Quartet” of interrelated songs are also admirable. His new single, ‘I Want Some More’, is more upbeat than usual and is rather Zombie-like, a fine melody; but it doesn’t look like a hit.

Ennismore is a very encouraging portent; but Blunstone’s recent tour was a setback of sorts. He was in excellent voice, some of the finest singing I’ve heard in concert, but his band was seemingly absorbed in getting their funky rock off, to the extreme detriment of the rather delicate material. The nadir of the short set was a dramatically overblown version of ‘Time Of The Season’ which featured apparently interminable pseudo-Shaft licks and other funky indulgences.

So, at this point, although Blunstone is now excellent on record and even Argent still possess obvious potential, nothing satisfies like the original Zombies. The group was unique among contemporary compatriots, their refined, restrained, almost polite sound contrasting strikingly with the raw R&B derivations of the Stones/Animals/Them cadre, the sledgehammer hard rock of the Who of the Kinks, and the basically trivialized pop output of the Peter & Gordon/Billy J. Kramer crowd. Argent’s sophisticated keyboard fills, Blunstone’s fragile, husky vocals, and the group’s wondrous harmonies were without rival; and their songwriting abilities were perfectly suited to their capabilities and superb in their own right.

Very few groups covered Zombies songs; it would have been difficult to match the originals and those who dared try seldom came off too successfully (the Buckingham’s ‘She Makes Me Feel Good’, the Mindbender’s ‘I Want Her She Wants Me’, the People, etc.). The worst Zombies cover was no doubt the Road’s Vanilla-Fudge-like ‘She’s Not There’, which beat out the Neil MacArthur version in this country; the best were probably some of SRC’s songs, particularly on their second album Milestones – they didn’t cover any Zombies material per se, but Scott Richardson sounded uncannily like Colin Blunstone on many of the group’s records, dating back to early efforts on the A-2 and Hideout labels (the Golliwogs, later Creedence, also did a nice ‘She’s Not There’ imitation called ‘You Better Be Careful’).

Argent usually wrote the Zombies’ fast numbers (‘She’s Not There’, ‘She’s Coming Home’, ‘Whenever You’re Ready’); sometimes they were down in mood, sometimes optimistic, usually jazzier and/or more rock-like. White’s songs were usually slower, prettier, more ethereal, with real adolescent anguish squeezed into the grooves. ‘Don’t Go Away’ and ‘Leave Me Be’ were perhaps the best examples; occasionally Blunstone would work up enough energy to sound desperate, but more often he emoted a chronic depression, hopeless and sentimental (Argent was able to write skillfully in this vein as well, as ‘She’s Not There’ so readily attests, but he usually took a more hopeful view of life).

With this seemingly unbeatable combination of simple, powerfully expressed hearbreak-oriented themes and brilliantly-structured compositional and performance skills, the Zombies should have had hit after hit for years. Maybe they were just a bit too sophisticated or low-key, but at any rate they had to settle instead for creating some of the finest and most underappreciated British rock classics of the 60’s and some of the most elusive. Early Days seemed like a godsend at the time, and is still a nice collection for starters (if you can find it). But there is a wealth of material never released in this country or issued only on a miniscule amount of non-selling singles; all of it is on a level with the more readily available tracks, and some (‘I Can’t Make Up My Mind’, ‘Just Out Of Reach’, among many others) are among the group’s best work. A thoughtful, well-programmed reissue package would be an invaluable aid to assessing the Zombies career in perspective, and of course would not incidentally be among the most enjoyable albums ever released. Such a compilation, it seems clear, is long overdue.

© Ken BarnesPhonograph Record, June 1973

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