Of all the mop-topped bands storming our screaming-girl shores in the early ’60s, the Zombies might have been the most musically sophisticated.
Their hooks — “You Make Me Feel Good,” for example, or “She’s Not There,” a monster (!) hit in August of 1964 — were built around distantly related chords, bluesy or baroque melodies and unconventionally stacked vocals the Beatles, Stones and Kinks wouldn’t discover until later in the decade. Sure, they wrote love songs, like everyone else. But the Zombies were far from predictable, blurring the boundaries between Brill Building pop, Romantic-era classical music, jazz, R&B and early rock ‘n’ roll.
“In general, the whole band had a very wide spectrum of musical influences,” singer Colin Blunstone told the Advocate by phone from his Albany, N.Y., hotel room. “You can hear those influences in our music. I think that in Rod Argent, in particular, we had a very sophisticated musician in the band who could encourage and help us explore areas that perhaps some other bands didn’t explore.”
Blunstone and Argent founded the Zombies in 1962 with Chris White, Paul Atkinson and Hugh Grundy. Argent, Blunstone said, was the visionary. “He sang for many years in a cathedral choir,” Blunstone said. “So on top of being a wonderful keyboard player, he understands vocal harmonies very well.” They also had two outstanding writers (Argent and White) and a primo vocal interpreter (Blunstone).
But if one alternative version of music history has the Zombies topping the charts for decades, the reality is that the Zombies were ahead of their time. Odessey and Oracle (the word “Odyssey” was misspelled on the album cover by their record company), their 1968 masterpiece, was commercially dead on arrival, although a single, “Time of the Season,” reached number 3 on the U.S. Billboard charts in March 1969, a year after the album was released. The failure of Odessey resulted in a Zombie apocalypse.
“Personally, my feeling was that it was a good album,” Blunstone said. “I thought it was the best that we could do. And if we couldn’t get a response from what I considered to be the best work we were capable of, it seemed as though life was giving a very strong message, and that’s in fact what happened: We all moved on. We decided we’d taken the band as far as we could go, and perhaps, if we had gotten the response that we get now back in 1967, maybe the band would have gone on far longer. Maybe it would have continued to this day, in its original incarnation. Nobody knows, do they? But there’s a chance.”
In the 1970’s, while Argent was getting stoners off with hard-rock anthems like “Hold Your Head Up,” Blunstone turned inward, recording several gorgeous solo albums of chamber pop. (Listen to “Caroline Goodbye.” Seriously.) He recorded tracks with Dave Stewart (a remake of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” in 1980) and the Alan Parsons Project (that’s his voice on “Old and Wise,” from the 1982 Eye in the Sky album). In 2001, Blunstone and Argent reunited for six shows; they weren’t billed as the Zombies, but they were soon overrun by Zombie requests.
“It was only a chance thing, when Rod and I got back together again,” Blunstone said. “At the first concert we played, we knew that there was something special happening. After that, we never discussed the fact that we were supposed to finish after six concerts. In fact, we kept going for another 13 or 14 years [laughs]. We just kept going. It seemed so natural. It seemed as though we’d played the week before, but in fact there was a huge gap.”
Around that time, people started buying copies of Odessey and Oracle, more than ever. Much more; the album had become a cult classic, eventually landing on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. A number of contemporary rockers — Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson, Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, Paul Weller — have come forward to cite the Zombies as a primary influence.
“I think it’s just beginning to dawn on us,” Blunstone said. “We’re learning day-by-day. If you’d asked me a few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that we had been an influence on many people... I think, for us, it’s been a wonderful surprise. It’s not false modesty or anything like that. We honestly didn’t realize that Odessey and Oracle was held in such high esteem and that so many — especially the younger bands — feel that we have been an influence on their careers. It’s a wonderful thing, actually. I think it’s the most exciting thing that can happen to a musician, is when you get peer-group acceptance. And that’s something that I’ve always wanted. It’s been my goal in life, in my career. It seems that rather late in our careers we seem to be achieving it. It’s really exciting. We don’t take it for granted at all.”
The new Zombies — Blunstone, Argent, guitarist Tom Toomey, former Kinks bassist and Argent co-founder Jim Rodford and his son, drummer Steve Rodford — play a free show at Town Center Park in Hamden on July 5. Unlike a lot of reformed ’60s bands, the Zombies incorporate new songs — some from their 2011 album Breathe Out, Breathe In, and some more recent than that — into their sets. And the older songs, because they’ve never been played to death, still sound pretty novel.
“People sometimes say to me, ‘Doesn’t it get boring singing these same songs for all these years, night in and night out?’” Blunstone said. “But we haven’t. There’s a huge gap in the middle when we weren’t playing... So a lot of those songs we recorded all that time ago: they sound as fresh and relevant today when we perform them as they did when they were written, nearly 50 years ago.”
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The Zombies, July 5, 7:30 p.m., free, Town Center Park, 2761 Dixwell Ave., Hamden, hamdenartscommission.org