A Beginner’s Guide To The Zombies

As those of you who are friends of mine (I wrote this in two chunks when my head was up to it, and coming back to this I can’t believe I wrote that and didn’t see the pun…) on last.fm will know, I’ve been listening to rather a lot of the Zombies’ music since I saw them live the other week, and so I thought I’d put together a brief guide to the music of one of the more overlooked bands of the sixties.

The Zombies were a five-member band, but really had three important members. Colin Blunstone is one of the great pop vocalists of all time, and Rod Argent and Chris White were both exceptional songwriters in their prime. Argent is also an extremely talented keyboard player, and both Argent and White were pretty good singers.

The band’s first album, Begin Here, is a very typical early-60s album, of the type you’d imagine from a band who wanted to be R&B but were from St Albans and had A-levels. There are three great Rod Argent originals – She’s Not There, the band’s first and biggest hit single, and two gorgeous ballads, I Remember When I Loved Her and The Way I Feel Inside, but the rest of the album is filler, including deeply unconvincing versions of Road Runner and Got My Mojo Working which remind me of Sonny Boy Williamson II’s comment on British beat groups of the time – “those white boys want to play the blues so bad… and they play the blues so bad!”

There’s nothing on there as cringe-making as Gerry & The Pacemakers’ version of Little Walter’s My Babe (which may be the whitest record ever made), and they even manage to do a couple of decent soul covers (Solomon Burke’s Can’t Nobody Love You and Ray Charles’ Sticks And Stones – neither of course matching the originals, but both perfectly competent) but even the expanded CD version, which includes the band’s second hit Tell Her No, another classic single, isn’t really worth getting on its own, other than for a handful of tracks.

The Zombies recorded many non-album singles over the next couple of years, which are available on a variety of compilations, and most of which are very listenable, especially their cover version of Little Anthony & The Imperials’ Goin’ Out Of My Head. If you want to hear the early beat-group era Zombies records, a compilation of these singles is definitely the way to go, rather than that first album. Look for a compilation which contains The Way I Feel Inside, I Love You, Goin’ Out Of My Head, I Remember When I Loved Her and Whenever You’re Ready as well as the big hits.

They didn’t get to record another album until mid-1967. That album, Odessey And Oracle, is so different from their first album that it’s hard to believe it’s by the same band. Made up entirely of originals (seven by Chris White and five by Argent), Odessey And Oracle is one of the very, very few albums ever recorded where every single track is a good one – there’s not a weak song on there, and if you only get one Zombies album, that’s the one to get. A perfect encapsulation of everything that’s good about baroque pop, it’s as if someone distilled everything good about both the circa-1966 Kinks and Beach Boys into one album. Really that good.

The band decided to split before recording O&O, but a year later one of the singles from the album, Time Of The Season, became a massive hit, and so the decision was made to release a ‘new’ ‘Zombies’ album, RIP, which was put together by taking some unreleased early tracks and adding orchestral overdubs, and then adding in a few Zombies-esque tracks by an early line-up of Argent and White’s new band, Argent. This album was never released, but a few tracks from it are bonus tracks on the most recent reissue of Odessey, and they’re definitely worth listening to.

All the Zombies’ studio material (including RIP), along with a ton of outtakes and BBC sessions, was released on the 1997 box set Zombie Heaven. The strength and weakness of this set are the same – it’s compiled by someone who can say things like “While most collections of demos and ‘works in progress’ can be testing for the listener, in the case of the Zombies that maxim does not apply, for they could literally do no wrong.”

In other words, it’s a four-CD box set that should really be a three-CD box, and would be better for it, but it does contain everything, so if you see it going cheap it should be the one you go for. It is definitely worth owning – many of the outtakes and sessions on it are well worth listening to – but a bit overlong.

Paradoxically, however, given those comments, I would urge anyone who likes O&O to get Into The Afterlife, a compilation mostly consisting on immediate post-Zombies work by Argent, White and Blunstone. Containing Blunstone’s solo singles as Neil Macarthur (including his remake of She’s Not There, some of the RIP tracks with just the vocals and string overdubs, and some songwriting demos by Argent and White for what was to become Argent, one would imagine it would be awful. In fact it’s the second-best ‘Zombies’ album.

After the split, Blunstone, White and Argent continued working together on Blunstone’s early solo albums – White and Argent producing and contributing songs (though Blunstone grew a lot as a songwriter himself), and Argent (the band) acting as backing musicians. The first of these solo albums, One Year, is one of the all-time great albums – even Holly, my wife, who’s not a Zombies fan, enjoys Blunstone’s early solo work. For most of the album, the only backing is a string quintet, and the arrangements are some of the best I’ve ever heard on a rock/pop album – more Bartok than anything else, and working in conversation with the vocals rather than just backing. Particularly extraordinary is the cover of Tim Hardin’s Misty Roses, with an extended break just for the strings, and the cover of Denny Laine’s Say You Don’t Mind was a big hit, but the whole thing is essential – in a just world it should be rated as highly as Pet Sounds or Astral Weeks

Blunstone’s second solo album, Ennismore was also produced by Argent and White, and while it’s a more conventional-sounding album, it’s still extraordinarily good, containing the minor hit Andorra, the wonderful Russ Ballard song I Don’t Believe In Miracles and Blunstone’s own How Wrong Can One Man Be? (VERY obviously influenced by Tim Hardin, but no worse for that). On CD, it’s paired with Blunstone’s third album, Journey, which was produced by White alone. While decent, this is nowhere near up to the standard of the first two.

Pretty much nothing the Zombies have done together or apart since Ennismore has been worth bothering with (though I’ve bothered with quite a bit of it), but it’s worth getting the live Odessey And Oracle (Revisited) DVD, the soundtrack of which those of you on Spotify can hear here.

Spotify doesn’t have any of the Zombies’ studio recordings, although it does have some Blunstone solo stuff (and Blunstone/Argent reunion Zombies stuff) mislabelled as the Zombies. It doesn’t have the first two albums, but there are a couple of Blunstone best-ofs (like this one ) which are made up almost entirely of tracks from the first three albums and should give you an idea of their quality.

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4 Responses to A Beginner’s Guide To The Zombies

  1. James says:

    You *cannot* discuss One Year without mentioning the extraordinary “Caroline Goodbye,” certainly!

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Just did :-p
      There’s not a bad track on there – it’s one I’d like to do a fuller post about in the future…

  2. Peter Elliott says:

    An excellent assessment of The Zombies work. You’re spot on about “Begin Here” though I do find “I Don’t Want To Know” and “I Can’t Make Up My Mind” rather endearing. A complete singles collection is essential to sit alongside O+O… it pains me to think how these great singles – most with superb B sides – were ignored.

    I was stunned by “Into The Afterlife!” Some brilliant stuff in there highlighting Blunstone’s vocal talents and White and Argents’ superb songwriting – I do love Chris’ vocal on “Mr Galileo” and that demo version of “She Loves The Way They Love Her” with Rod’s vocal is utterly wonderful.

    “One Year” is extraordinary. Thanks to Argent and White’s sympathetic spareful production, and the imaginative arrangements (not to mention Colin’s beautiful voice!) it still sounds unusually fresh today unlike the vast majority of albums from that era. Like O+O, every track is great and works beautifully listened to as a whole entity. O+O may have been rediscovered and rightfully heralded as one of the all time great albums, but “One Year” also deserves that accolade.

    The Zombies clearly feel the same way about “One Year” as can be seen on the recent DVD of the 2008 O+O show with Blunstone performing three tracks with a string quintet that is utterly stunning. And sure enough, that DVD is a vital purchase in it’s own right. That’s been getting played heavily in my home lately – a superb show.

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