The Zombies: The British Invasion Group That Almost Wasn't There
Portrait of British group The Zombies taken in the 1960's.; (Photo by King Collection/Photoshot/Getty Images)
The Zombies gave us three hit singles that rank among the classics of the '60s: "She's Not There," "Time Of The Season" and "Tell Her No," and the group's 1968 album Odessey And Oracle is one of the secret masterpieces of its time (though it's a secret that seems to be getting out more and more). It's true that The Zombies didn't generate the teen ecstasy of Beatlemania, nor did they have the longevity of the Rolling Stones, but who does? They were a vital part of the British Invasion.
Except they more or less missed out on the whole thing. The Zombies gave us a few dozen classic tracks, but were plagued by some extremely bad timing, and when the moment arrived for them to get the recognition they deserved, they'd already ceased to exist.
Zombies Weren't Even A Thing In 1962
The Zombies formed in 1961 -- as with many British Invasion groups, it's a story of schoolboys getting together to jam on early rock and American R&B tunes. There were five Zombies at the start: Rod Argent, Paul Atkinson, Hugh Grundy, Colin Blunstone and Paul Arnold. Arnold was a guitarist, and he didn't stick around long, but before he gave the band something priceless: their name. Though our Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, I Am Legend etc. era has saturated us with the concept, the idea of living dead corpses called "zombies" was not really part of the pop culture of the time. The movie that gave us our modern idea of zombies, George A. Romero's Night Of The Living Dead, would not be released until 1968. It was an exotic, possibly puzzling name, but it worked -- it's arguably the best name of the British Invasion. And it beats the hell out of the name they had been using, The Mustangs. Every band just starting out, it seems, calls themselves The Mustangs for at least a couple of weeks.
Paul Arnold left The Zombies before they saw any success, and was replaced by Chris White.
They Were Going To Be A Rock Group -- So What's With The Piano?
The Zombies have a fundamentally piano-driven sound, which made them unique among British Invasion groups, and pretty rare in rock music since the reign of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Rock 'n roll was guitar music, that was the prevailing wisdom. Argent recalled the band's first real session for Pop Matters:
I envisaged myself as the lead singer. I wasn’t even going to play piano. I thought piano wasn’t something that, you know, in 1961, that groups basically had. To me, groups were bass, rhythm guitar and lead guitar. That was the sort of lineup, you know? In this first rehearsal we started off actually, strangely enough by rehearsing an instrumental. ‘Malagueña’. And we rehearsed this for about 20 minutes I guess. [Then] we stopped and I wandered over to a beaten up old piano in the corner and I played ‘Nut Rocker’ an old rock and roll record by B. Bumble and the Stingers. And Colin [Blunstone] came running over and said ‘That’s amazing!’ He said ‘You’ve got to be playing piano in the band.’ I said ‘Well, it’s not set up like that, is it? I can’t. You know, you don’t have pianos in bands!
Then Argent heard Blunstone sing, and it was all over.
About half an hour later we had another break for a coffee and Colin picked up a guitar and started playing and singing an old Ricky Nelson song. It might have been ‘It’s Late’ or it might have been ‘I’ll Never Get Over You’ or something like that. ... I just thought it sounded fabulous. And I went up to him and said ‘Look, okay, you be the lead singer and I’ll play the piano, but you’ve got to be the lead singer.’ And it was as easy as that. And that decision was made on our very first day of meeting.
'She's Not There' Was The Beginning And End Of Their UK Success
The Zombies honed a pretty good live act and managed to get themselves signed by Decca. In the summer of 1964, they recorded "She's Not There," a piano-driven pop gem that rose to the #12 spot on the British pop chart. And that, folks, was it for the Zombies in terms of the charts of their homeland. They never again had a song in the top 40 in the UK.
"She's Not There" played the long game in the U.S. (the Zombies' entire career as a group could be called the long game) -- it was released as a single in the first week of September in 1964 and three months later peaked at #2 on the Billboard pop chart (behind "Mr. Lonely" by Bobby Vinton) and #1 on the Cash Box chart. It also reached #2 on the Canadian pop chart. It didn't take a genius to see that The Zombies would soon be touring America to play their hit for the people who actually liked it. In the final week of 1964, the group released the single "Tell Her No," which saw little interest in the UK but was another top-10 performer in the States. In January 1965, the Zombies played the TV music show Hullabaloo and, like any British Invasion group, were serenaded by the screams of young girls.
The Zombies were going to be huge, it seemed -- maybe not in the UK, but Americans loved them.
'Begin Here' Seemed More Like An Ending
In April 1965, The Zombies released their debut album, Begin Here. To this day, it's a puzzling record -- not a bad record, but a head-scratcher. Half of the songs were covers of well-known R&B tracks, which seems a strange choice given the success The Zombies were having with their original material. Their contemporaries were moving away from covers -- consider that in 1965 The Beatles released two albums (Help! and Rubber Soul) of entirely original songs. Begin Here was only released in the UK; in the U.S., Parrot Records released a self-titled debut Zombies album which included both of their chart hits and numerous covers.
After Begin Here, and despite the group having had two top-10 singles in the States, Decca more or less sat on The Zombies. The label declined to release a follow-up album. At all. In 1965, '66, and '67, The Zombies continued to work together as a group, and recorded a bunch of non-album singles that failed to chart (or were simply not released), but there was no album. That's a long stretch to go without an LP, and what's more, it's exactly the period when pop music was changing from being a singles-driven industry to one that concentrated on albums. Revolver, Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper, plus entries from The Byrds, Rolling Stones, Cream and Bob Dylan in '66 and '67 made clear the change in the industry, but The Zombies were stuck with Decca releasing a single every three months.
The Zombies' 'Masterpiece' Was Too Little, Too Late
By 1967, the group was depressed, despondent, frustrated -- you name it. It had been over two years since the release of their debut album; they'd written and recorded plenty of material for a follow-up but Decca had passed. The group signed with the UK CBS label and in the summer of '67 were in the studio, and not just any studio. They were at Abbey Road, where The Beatles had finished recording Sgt. Pepper just a couple months earlier.
Unfortunately, the group was so drained that they went into the sessions for Odessey And Oracle feeling it was the last hurrah. Argent explained their mindset to Aquarium Drunkard:
If we are going to break up we have to get a record deal where we can produce our own songs just so we can get our own ideas about how the songs should sound, on record, because it was driving us crazy. ... We went to CBS and they gave us a very small amount of money to make an album and we were like kids in a candy store. For the first time, we went in there and the songs were coming out the way we heard them and all the people in the band loved the album when it was finished. We’d done what we wanted to do. We’d gotten our songs down in a way that sounded great, but if that’s it, that’s it."
And that was it.
"The Zombies were finished in 1967 and I think in general we considered ourselves unsuccessful at that time," Blunstone said. "It is unfortunate that we considered ourselves unsuccessful, when that wasn’t the case."
The Zombies Made One Of The Great Albums Of The Late '60s
Sessions for The Zombies' second and final album began in June 1967 and ended in November. On the plus side, they'd rehearsed the material thoroughly and knew exactly what they wanted to do. CBS had them on a tight budget, so there wasn't a lot of working things out on the fly -- and after their years in the wilderness, they were fine with that. Unfortunately, they were also just generally unhappy. The sessions were tense, and the band members argued. It's a testament to their greatness as a band that the album is both tight and timeless -- every song on Odessey And Oracle is a little gem of psychedelic pop. And it is pop music, the songs are catchy as hell and most clock in under three minutes in length.
In November 1967, "Care of Cell 44" was released as a single in the States, and got no traction. "Friends of Mine," another single, suffered the same fate in the UK. The Zombies played their final concert together in December 1967.
The band was history -- ancient history -- by the time Odessey and Oracle was released in April 1968.
'Odessey And Oracle' Wasn't Appreciated Until Years Later
In April 1968, Odessey And Oracle was released by CBS UK, but the American office of the label decided against releasing it at all. Al Kooper, a session musician turned producer, bought the album in England and brought it home to New York. "The first day I went to work at CBS, I took it with me," Kooper recalled in his autobiography, Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards. “I made an appointment with Clive Davis and put the album on his desk . . . he took one look at the cover and replied, ‘We already own this album and I was just about to sign off on our option to release the album domestically.’”
Odessey And Oracle wasn't a hit album, but that's hardly surprising -- there was no band to promote it, after all. A third single, "Time Of The Season," had been released in March 1968. It didn't catch on, not at first. A full year later, in March 1969, "Time Of The Season" peaked at #3 on the Billboard chart and hit the top of the Cash Box chart.
Odessey And Oracle had a similar delayed success. "Nothing happened for about eight years," Colin Blunstone told People, "but then gradually it started picking up incredible reviews and huge artists started to cite it as an influence; in particular in the U.K., Paul Weller [of mod-punk group The Jam]. It just started to sell like eight or nine years after it was released."
The album gained a cult following among musicians, with the likes of Tom Petty and Brian Wilson singing its praises. Today, critics consider it one of the greatest albums of the late '60s, and regularly place it in lists of best albums of all time.
The Impostor 'Zombies' Hit The Road
There remained one more chapter to the saga of The Zombies -- call it either a comical footnote or insult-to-injury. With the success of "Time Of The Season," there was demand for Zombies live shows, but there was no more Zombies. For the American outfit called Delta Promotions, that wasn't a deal-breaker. Delta claimed to have acquired the rights to the Zombies' music, and sent not one but two ersatz Zombies acts out on the road. That's right, you could buy a ticket to see The Zombies in 1969, and go to a concert where Zombies hits were played by musicians who claimed they were The Zombies but were no such thing. In fact, one of the fake Zombies acts included two musicians who would soon be famous in their own "Z"-mendous rock group: Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, who'd form ZZ Top.
The Zombies Did Eventually Return, To Much Fanfare
Members of the group pursued their own careers and interests through the '70s and into the '80s, sometimes collaborating in pairs but never as The Zombies. Then, beginning in the late '80s, some of them began to hook up and play the old Zombies tunes, billing themselves as The Zombies. They were in the strange situation of having to learn some of their own songs -- because they broke up before Odessey And Oracle was released, they had never actually played some of the material outside of the recording studio. In late November 1997, nearly 30 years after their last appearance, the full lineup of The Zombies united to play "She's Not There" and "Time of the Season" to promote a box set that was being released. Throughout the 2000s, the band periodically reunited for special performances, to much acclaim -- it turns out there was still a lot of love for The Zombies. Guitarist Paul Atkinson died in 2004.
In hindsight, The Zombies have only come to be appreciated more and more, and the bad timing and luck that stunted their career is largely forgotten -- "She's Not There," "Tell Her No" and "Time Of The Season," plus Odessey And Oracle are all hall-of-fame material, and The Zombies were indeed inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2019.
Tags: The Zombies
Like it? Share with your friends!