Despite having one of the most iconic singles and one of the very best albums of the late 1960’s, in “Time of the Season” and Odessey and Oracle respectively, The Zombies are little more than a footnote to the general music buying public. This might be due partly to the modest amount of music they released in their short time together, but it is also partially due to unfortunate circumstances beyond their control. It’s sad because the story of The Zombies isn’t even a cautionary tale for young up and coming beat combos; it’s just the story of a great little band that somehow got lost in the shuffle.
Their work pops into the public consciousness frequently, usually on movie or television soundtracks when the freewheelin’ zeitgeist of the Swinging 60’s need to be evoked. Even people who would not be able to identify The Zombies by name could recognize the opening riff to 1967’s “Time of the Season,” or the line “What’s your name?/Who’s your daddy?/Is he rich like me?,” which songwriter Rod Argent acknowledges as an affectionate nod to George Gershwin’s song “Summertime” (“Your daddy’s rich/And your mama’s good looking”).
The Zombies began playing together as high school students in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, a small town just north of London, where, unrelatedly, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick lived the last 20 years of his life. The Zombies formed sometime around 1961, and named themselves rather randomly, with no other consideration except that the name sounded pretty cool. At that time bands had names like The Shadows or The Crickets, so, one must believe, a name like The Zombies must have stood out when their appearances were advertised.
By 1964, beat combos had popped up all over England, due, in part, to the overwhelming success of The Beatles, but, by this time, the British Invasion had also began to take over America, due, substantially, to The Beatles and their February 9th appearance on the The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1964, The Zombies stepped into a recording studio for the first time, having won a Decca Records recording date from a talent contest in their hometown. The session produced their first single “She’s Not There.”
“She’s Not There” immediately reached #1 on both sides of the Atlantic and thrust The Zombies into the limelight. Not bad for a first effort. The song’s crisp production almost didn’t happen when the session’s producer showed up extremely drunk after a friend’s wedding, and, after hours of showering abuse on the startled musicians, passed out dead cold at the mixing desk. After the band carried the producer upstairs to a taxi, Decca engineer Gus Dudgeon was called in to salvage the session. Not only was this The Zombies’ first recording session, it was also Dudgeon’s first as a producer. He did go on, however, to produce David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” single in 1969, and all of Elton John’s best 1970’s work.
Zombies songwriter Rod Argent, under pressure to come up with a song for his first recording session, turned to John Lee Hooker’s track “No One Told Me” for inspiration. With understated English eloquence, “She’s Not There” announced The Zombies to the world as a musical fusion of beat pop with jazz overtones, a formula that would also serve them well for their last single “Time of the Season.” With “She’s Not There,” The Zombies became the second British band after The Beatles to have a #1 song in America.
The Zombies came to America to perform in Murray the K’s Christmas show in New York City with other musical acts such as The Shirelles, The Shangri-Las, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, and Ben E. King, among a total of 15 other performers.
This was followed by more singles, one of which “Tell Her No” made an impression on the charts, a couple more US tours, some television appearances, including the ridiculous British television Hippodrome appearance, where they were surrounded by feather boa wearing dancing models, a spectacle so embarrassing that it persuaded them to get drunk and swear off any future television appearances. In 1965, their singles were collected into an album, Begin Here, and filled out with cover versions, such as Bo Diddley’s “Road Runner” and Muddy Waters’ “Got My Mojo Working.”
And that’s about it, really.
Although The Zombies experienced moderate success in the UK, they were more successful in the United States and elsewhere. However, they were not aware of that, and saw very little money for their efforts, as their management was pocketing everything except for their songwriter royalties. Since keyboardist Rod Argent and bassist Chris White wrote all of their songs, nobody else in the band was making any money.
Being the practical young British men one can discern from their publicity photos and videos, all horn-rimmed glasses and schoolboy looks, they decided to give the music business one more shot and entered Abbey Road studios in June 1967, not long after The Beatles finished up their Sgt. Pepper album. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1967, with The Beatles’ Mellotron and engineer Geoff Emerick left over from the Sgt. Pepper sessions, The Zombies crafted Odessey and Oracle, one of the most evocatively British albums to come out of psychedelia’s Summer of Love.
The album sort of resembles what it would sound like if Nick Drake had lead The Beach Boys through Pet Sounds, or if Badfinger’s Magic Christian Music collided with The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society.
Before the album was issued, a single was released in October 1967 to alert the record buying public of the impending Odessey and Oracle. The song, “Friends of Mine” didn’t receive any airplay, and nobody bought the single. Next, the record company released the single “Care for Cell 44.” Again, nobody seemed to care.
Being the sensible young men that The Zombies were, they decided upon the second single’s failure to disband. In December of 1967, the group officially broke up. Odessey and Oracle hadn’t even been released yet. It would not be released until April, 1968. It would not even have been released in America if Al Kooper, most famous for playing organ on Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” and who was the head of A&R with Columbia Records at the time, hadn’t called his boss Clive Davis and insisted that the company release it. Columbia Records owned Odessey and Oracle in America, but had declined to release it when it was issued in England.
“Time of the Season” was released as a single around this time, but also failed to garner much interest. It wasn’t until a disc jockey in Boise, Idaho (!!!) started playing the single incessantly in March, 1969 that it received any large scale attention. Naturally, it became a huge radio hit! Unfortunately, The Zombies had already been broken up for over a year, and no offers of money were enough to bring them back together.
What to do? Zombies management sent fake groups of Zombies on tour around America to capitalize on the singles’ success. Really.
Rod Argent went on to have pretty big success with his own band Argent in the 1970’s, especially with his single “Hold Your Head Up,” which he co-wrote with fellow Zombie Chris White. Argent also went on to produce other artists, such as Tanita Tikaram, and he is also the piano player on The Who’s “Who Are You,” despite video evidence to the contrary. Bassist Chris White also had a long career in music following the demise of The Zombies, including producing Dire Straits’ demo tapes for their first album.
The Zombies’ legacy has grown over time, and from March 7-9, 2008 the surviving four members reunited in Shepard’s Bush to perform the entirety of the Odessey and Oracle album live for the first time ever. Since that time, Rod Argent and singer Colin Blunstone have toured the world as The Zombies, finally enjoying the adulation that was denied them almost 50 years ago.
The Zombies, truly, live again.
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.