Night of the Living Dead

One of the greatest injustices of 1960s rock history is that the Zombies aren't mentioned in the same breath as the other top British Invasion bands. Best known for three U.S. hits ("She's Not There," "Tell Her No" and "Time of the Season"), they nonetheless produced a stellar body of work, one that seems all the more impressive when you consider that they released only two albums during their brief life span.

But recent times have seen an amazing resurgence of Zombies interest. Their masterpiece, Odessey and Oracle, was named one of the Top 100 records of all time by Rolling Stone and Mojo magazines. A reissue of that record, plus the compilation Singles A's & B's and boxed set Zombie Heaven, have won new fans. And acts from Super Furry Animals to Beck to Tom Petty sing their praises.

"It's really been extraordinary, and the attention grows all the time," says leader/keyboardist Rod Argent from his home in England. "I'm quite bewildered, but also extremely gratified."

Argent and original singer Colin Blunstone are now resurrecting the Zombies and playing material that hasn't been heard live in almost 40 years. Far from the usual classic rock nostalgia-tour cash-in, it's finally earning them the props that should have been theirs long ago.

Schoolmates in the London suburb of St. Albans, the Zombies formed in 1962 with Argent, Blunstone, drummer Hugh Grundy, guitarist Paul Atkinson and bassist Paul Arnold, who was replaced almost immediately by Chris White. They managed to score a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic right away with their 1964 debut single, "She's Not There." It was one of the first songs ever written by the 18-year-old Argent. ("I thought this was supposed to happen all the time!" he says with a laugh today.) A compact pop masterpiece, the song is driven by Blunstone's breathy vocal, the maniacal chorus and Argent's inventive electric keyboard work. And it would prove their only bona fide hit at home.

After that auspicious beginning, why didn't the Zombies break bigger? Hindsight offers plenty of explanations: Their name was weird; two members wore glasses; their music featured minor keys, diminished chords and modal something-or-others understood only by musicologist geeks. The Zombies were also a keyboard-driven, singles-based band at a time when guitar heroics in long-playing albums were becoming the norm.

But biographer Claes Johansen, who wrote The Zombies: Hung Up on a Dream, offers up another idea: that much of the blame falls on Ken Jones, the group's Decca producer.

"I'm afraid that I do agree with that theory," Argent says flatly. "Ken was a talented producer of the old school, so after we had success with our first session [with 'She's Not There'], he just looked for the 'gimmick' to reproduce. We were really dismayed."

In an era when the producer reigned, the band was also not allowed to participate or even listen to mixing sessions, often resulting in a final product quite removed from what it put down. The sessions were usually rushed, and, unlike Beatles producer George Martin, Jones discouraged creative growth within the band.

Despite all that, the Zombies still managed to release single after single of great music in 1965 and '66: "Whenever You're Ready," "Just Out of Reach," "I Love You," "Indication" and "Gotta Get a Hold of Myself" are lost gems. And all were stiffed commercially.

Swept up in the post-Beatles wave of enthusiasm for British Invasion bands, the Zombies found a better reception from the start in America. "Our first U.S. gig was doing the Murray 'the K' Christmas concerts in 1964, eight shows a day doing two numbers," Argent remembers. They also did two tours of duty with the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars, and were bowled over by soul singers Dionne Warwick, Chuck Jackson, and Patti Labelle and the Blue Bells -- and not just during the show.

"We only got to stay in hotels every other night, so it would be 3 a.m. on the bus and someone would start humming, then another voice would join in, and it would just become this huge gospel sing-along," Argent says. "The hairs would stand up on the back of my neck, it was fantastic!"

By mid-1967, frustration was beginning to show. Since songwriters Argent and White earned more money, envy started to tear the band apart. Seeing the inevitable end, the Zombies parted with Decca, thus ridding themselves of producer Jones, and set out to create a swansong on their own terms.

The result? The year 1968's Odessey and Oracle (the misspelling an error of the cover artist) is one of the greatest records of the era, a pop/psychedelic masterpiece on par with Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper's. The material showed astounding creativity, maturity and variety, from the oddly cheery "Care of Cell 44," which recites a letter from a young man to a female lover in prison, to the swirling, atmospheric "Beechwood Park," to the eerie, horrific World War I battlefield track "Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914)." But it was the closer, "Time of the Season," that gave the band its best-known U.S. hit -- long after they'd already broken up.

The single and the album were embraced by stoners and trippers around the world, who would most likely be shocked to learn that Odessey's creators didn't partake. "We were never into drugs, and I've never taken LSD -- although I don't object to others doing it," Argent says. "Drugs just weren't the right thing for me, and I guess the rest of the band as well."

Were it not for keyboardist/producer Al Kooper, who got ahold of a copy and waged a one-man war to get CBS to release it, Odessey might never have been released stateside. The initial single tanked, but when FM stations began to play the second shot, "Time of the Season," it caught on fast, scaling the charts and becoming a radio staple. Argent fielded some frantic calls around then -- promoters and label suits begged him to re-form the band. But it was no longer the time or the season; the Zombies had already moved on. The posthumous success was its own reward and nothing more. "It was like a great bonus," Argent says. "But every band has a natural life cycle, and we split exactly when we should have."

As a result, a series of completely bogus "Zombies" bands would tour even into the '80s. As for the genuine article, Blunstone had a semi-successful solo career in the UK, and Argent formed his own band, Argent, which gave us the classic rock chestnut "Hold Your Head Up." Since the 1976 breakup of that band, Argent the man has mostly produced records and written film and TV music.

Still, even after all these years of inactivity, the Zombies' reputation and fan base grew, which spurred some tentative steps toward a reunion. In the early '90s, several members participated in a short-lived reincarnation and issued New World, on which Argent and Atkinson's minimal participation earned them only "special guest" billing. All five original Zombies reunited for a brief set at a London club in 1997 after the release of boxed set Zombie Heaven -- which was likely the last time, as Atkinson is ill with inoperable cancer.

But it wasn't until Blunstone joined Argent on stage at a one-off charity gig sometime later that the pair began to think about working together again more permanently. Two years ago, as "Colin Blunstone & Rod Argent," they released Out of the Shadows, and this year, a live DVD and a CD featuring songs Argent wrote "specifically for Colin's unique voice" will both come out -- this time, under the Zombies flag.

"I resisted using that name many, many times over the years, but it feels right this time, like a group," Argent says of the band, which includes bassist Jim Rodford, Jim's son Steve on drums and guitarist Keith Airey. The elder Rodford is a longtime friend of Argent's who turned down the chance to be in the original Zombies lineup, though he later played in Argent and then the Kinks.

It's the boon of the CD age that virtually any music ever recorded is now readily available -- without having to sift through dusty used record bins or pay insane prices on the collector's market. And that makes the return of the Zombies something bigger than a decent B-movie title.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero