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By this stage of the rock ‘n’ roll plot, most bands that made their first mark in the 1960s are either at home tending their gardens or peddling nostalgia to finance their ex-wives. Very few are enhancing their legendary reputations with new releases, fresh songwriting and tireless touring. That’s where the Zombies come in.
Underpinned, just as they were in those early days, by the individual and collective brilliance of vocal craftsman Colin Blunstone and keyboard virtuoso Rod Argent, the Zombies are simultaneously celebrating the past and seizing the future. Not for them the option of sitting home and spinning yarns, as they’d be quite entitled to do, of making their undying hit singles, sharing UK bills with Dusty Springfield, US shows with the Beach Boys, or following the Beatles’ Abbey Road sessions for Sgt. Pepper to make an album that would reverberate for generations to come.
“Last year,” says Blunstone, “we played in the UK, US, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Holland, Japan and the Philippines. It was incredible.” 2013 contains a new live album, three separate American tours in it (not to mention a festival in Central Park, a cruise with the Moody Blues and much more) and the group are constantly in demand for the prestigious US network television music shows, interviews and radio sessions. Talk about just desserts for dues paid.
The amazing new chapters that the Zombies have added to their story in recent times have created a momentum that gets greater by the year. The group have finally received their due as the great undervalued masters of the original British invasion, with rave reviews and acknowledgements about their influence from an inventory of modern artists, from Paul Weller to Dave Grohl.
But far from resting on those laurels, the band are forging ahead, with a bulging 2013 datebook and an enthusiastic commitment to start work – just as soon as there’s time – on the 2014 release of what will be the much-anticipated follow-up to 2011’s Breathe Out, Breathe In.
Meanwhile, there’s The Zombies Live In The UK, a new ten-track collection recorded on the road last year, and released in May to coincide with the British leg of their 2013 itinerary. Sony Music release a similar live album in the US as part of their Extended Versions series around March 2013.
“We’re very excited about the way the band’s playing,” says Argent. “Colin’s voice is as strong as it ever was, and I feel that my voice is better than it used to be, because I’ve worked on it. Our chops, both playing and singing, are better now than they were before.”
When you think about the history of the Zombies, that’s some statement. The group who famously split up not knowing they had made a future classic album, have had a unique journey.
Argent, Blunstone and fellow originals Chris White, Paul Atkinson and Hugh Grundy formed the group as teenagers in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, in the days when the Beatles were still sweaty wannabes at the Cavern Club. After the thankless groundwork of endless local touring, they stormed the charts in 1964 with Rod’s She’s Not There, a UK top 20 hit that went to No. 2 on Bilboard’s Hot 100, and No. 1 on the rival Cashbox listing.
That timeless and much-covered gem retains its energy and relevance, and its place in the modern-day Zombies’ set, to this day. It’s there alongside other great creations from their all-too-short first run, such as Tell Her No, I Love You, Indication, early covers that showed their sheer breadth of ability (from Little Anthony & the Imperials’ Goin’ Out Of My Head to George Gershwin’s Summertime) and of course Time Of The Season.
The combination of R&B, jazz and even classical undertones with Blunstone’s immediately distinctive, delicate vocals created a sound unlike any other in the charts. Or, indeed, out of the charts, and thereby hangs the tale of why the Zombies’ first chapter ended all too soon.
The relative and unjust UK failure of the singles that followed She’s Not There made the group think they were missing the mark, unaware of their pre-eminence elsewhere. “If we’d have realised how many European countries we’d had hits in, we could have toured all over,” says Argent. “It was all there for us,” Blunstone muses. “We felt we were unsuccessful, but we should have thought of ourselves as being in an international business.”
If only social media had been around then to give the guys a true sense of their worldwide achievements, they might never have split after the recording of Odessey & Oracle, the peerless 1967 album that took a quarter-century to become the classic it always deserved to be.
As any Zombie-watcher knows, the group called it a day soon afterwards, soon to pursue highly successful solo and collaborative endeavours, Argent with the experimental rock band named after him among many other projects, Blunstone with a bespoke solo career, on which he has often collaborated with his former bandmates and other cohorts. The work they did in those years is also celebrated in the modern Zombies’ set, truly a jukebox of hits from Say You Don’t Mind to Hold Your Head Up and What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted to God Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll To You.
It was that very “gone too soon” feeling that has fuelled the extraordinarily enthusiastic embrace for the group’s latter-day return. The scene for that reunion was set by the late 1997 release of Ace/Big Beat’s exemplary four-CD compilation Zombie Heaven, around which all five original members reunited for a supposedly one-off show at London’s Jazz Cafe.
But Argent and Blunstone couldn’t resist seizing the moment, with the Out Of The Shadows album and tour under their own names in 2001 and then, ultimately, to new studio and road work under the Zombies name. That produced the acclaimed albums As Far As I Can See… in 2004, Breathe Out, Breathe In in 2011.
In 2001, Foo Fighters and former Nirvana figurehead Dave Grohl told the NME that he wished he’d been at Abbey Road with the Zombies for the recording of Odessey & Oracle, describing it as an “amazing album.” In 2003, Rolling Stone placed it at No. 80 in their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and before long, the record’s place in the rock pantheon would be secured.
In 2008, to mark its 40th anniversary, the Zombies performed the album in its entirety as part of three Shepherd’s Bush Empire shows, Argent and Blunstone rejoined by White and Grundy, with Keith Airey taking the place of the much-missed Atkinson, who had died in 2004. They became you-had-to-be-there nights.
“They were very special,” Argent remembers. “People kept coming to the dressing room saying ‘Do you know who’s here tonight? Paul Weller…Snow Patrol…Robert Plant’s in, he’s going to come back and say hello.’ One date turned into three, because it sold out. I must admit we were panicking, but I tell you, within 30 seconds, I thought ‘This is going to be fabulous.’”
Those of us lucky enough to be in the audience could confirm that it was, and the accolades for the album have kept coming, from classic rockers like Tom Petty to the new bands who keep discovering it, like the Vaccines.
The 21st century Zombies have racked up the airmiles as never before, but then their lead singer is blessed with the ability to power-nap anywhere. “I’ve slept through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, I’m afraid,” he laughs. They continue to freshen the live set, both with their latest material and by digging deeper into their great catalogue.
“We’re rediscovering these songs along with the audience,” notes Blunstone, and Argent agrees. “I love playing Breathe Out, Breathe In on stage, and A Moment In Time and Any Other Way, I enjoy them as much as anything. And so many people, especially in America, come up and say they can’t believe how the new stuff fits in seamlessly with the old stuff.”
That’s the Zombies, past, present and – especially – future. “There’s a feeling that we’re still relevant,” says Rod Argent with the group’s trademark understatement. “it’s never felt as good as it does at the moment.”