My second-favorite British Invasion band, the Zombies, got their shot at the big time by the agency of my first-favorite British Invasion band, the Beatles. A quintet of childhood friends from St. Alban, the Zombies landed a spot on a populist talent recruitment television program (Hertfordshire’s Got Talent?) on the week that George Harrison happened to be among the celebrity judges. With the Beatle as opinion-leader, the Zombies won the contest and were awarded the studio time and industry bandwidth to release a single. That single, their first, would become an immediate hit and one of the two songs for which they are most-known: 1964’s delicate, Rod Argent-penned British R & B-inspired smash “She’s Not There,” later tragically covered by Santana and made a hit all over again.
Newly minted hitmakers on the basis of a 1.000, one-for-one batting average, the Zombies went all-in and suffered through several years of declining chart fortunes (scoring their modest third hit on paper and occasional oldies novelty “Tell Her No” somewhere in there) before agreeing to call it quits in 1968, when hard rock and hippie-rock and country/rock and everything except wannabe R & B and brainy Baroque/pop were taking over the big stage. But before calling it a day, this exceptionally gifted group of players and writers – fronted by rock’s own Mel Tormé in the figure of velvet-voiced Colin Blunstone – made their first proper full-length (they were among the last of the true singles bands), which was also their swan song: 1968’s Odessey and Oracle, an exquisite, ultramusical tour de force of swanky, sophisticated psychedelic pop the likes of which even the Beatles and the Kinks are hard-pressed to equal.
But they were done, and they stayed done even when Odessey and Oracle’s closing track and the last song the original Zombies ever recorded – the brilliant-but-unrepresentative R & B throwback “Time of the Season” – became a major hit several years later. They began with a hit and ended with one.
But as the years wore on, the Zombies’ reputation only grew. Their masterwork asserted itself like a time-release capsule in the bloodstream of pop culture. Suddenly, in the music and explicit endorsements of 21st-century thought leaders like the Shins and Of Montreal, the Zombies emerged as a major player in a reconstructed (and corrected) past. And Rod Argent, who had always politely refused reunions, finally relented. Lacking only the late guitarist and record company executive Paul Atkinson, who died in 2004 after a long illness, the Zombies hit the road in the early 2000s, and the shows from this period reveal an astonishing fact: Colin Blunstone had lost precisely nothing as a singer. It defies explanation.
And they’ve remained active since, releasing new music, mounting Odessey and Oracle tours and finally reveling unambivalently in their influence, their achievement and the outright drooling adoration of people like me. The Zombies are a two-songwriter band: Keyboard whiz Rod Argent wrote their big hits and is the principal harmony vocalist and occasional lead singer, but bassist Chris White wrote a very large share of the band’s best songs, including the late-acting hit (and quite possibly their most beloved song in the present), “This Will Be Our Year.” Odessey and Oracle was ranked #100 in Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of all time; I’ve got it Top 10.
It sorta blows my mind to tell you that the Zombies are playing at the Levon Helm Studios on Friday, March 9 at 8 p.m., and that there are still some standing tickets left at $70. Levon Helm Studios are located at 160 Plochmann Lane in Woodstock. For more information, visit www.levonhelm.com.