Return of The Zombies
Revered cult faves for decades, the British Invasion band is finally enjoying their Time of the Season
Formed in 1962 and disbanded less than six years later, the original incarnation of the Zombies only released two full-length albums. Their first was a mixture of their singles, padded out with choice R&B covers. The other, Odessey and Oracle - released after the band had already disbanded in 1968 - was an initial commercial failure which slowly evolved into an influential cult favorite.
Until ten years ago, The Zombies was an oft-cited, though seldom-seen entity as its members had splintered into various other projects. Now the current line-up anchored by founders Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone with bassist Jim Rodford, guitarist Tom Toomey and drummer Steve Rodford are on the road for a show that features the band’s excellent 2015 release Still Got That Hunger.
For the second half of the show, original co-founders Chris White (bass) and Hugh Grundy (drums) join the ensemble to painstakingly recreate the infamously misspelled Odessey and Oracle in its entirety. This tour will mark the fiftieth-year anniversary of the album’s recording sessions, originally tracked in Studio 3 at Abbey Road during the storied Summer of Love, 1967.
Chris White recently spoke at length with INsite by phone from a tour stop in Virginia Beach.
When the Zombies’ 40th anniversary tour happened, everything just exploded for the band. Ten years later, you’re still celebrating.
It’s weird. Forty and now 50 years later, we’re suddenly getting rewarded and recognized for what we thought nobody wanted all those years ago. It’s been very strange but for me it feels like justification for what we did at the time. Luckily what we did 50 years ago has turned out to be a little bit timeless, which is very lucky for us because most rock music sooner or later becomes dated.
Now you’ve been back with these reunion tours for longer than the actual band was together during the original run.
(Laughs) Yes, that’s true! But the nice thing is now Rod and Collin have the current band who are great and doing new things. Then we’re also looking back on what we did in the past. It’s a double-edge sword, to be quite honest, to be going forward and celebrating the past at the same time. We’re very lucky.
The familial thread of community has been a constant for the band since the very beginning. Every piece is somehow related.
I think it happened because we grew up together. You learn things together and then people get married and have offspring and they become musicians and sometimes even the wives work with us. My wife is working with us now on stage with backing vocals and she illustrated the new book. I mean it’s just a pleasurable thing for us. And to have [Rod Argent’s cousin, bassist] Jim [Rodford] on stage, along with his son Steve, who is the drummer. I mean, what more could you ask for?
Are you and Jim splitting bass duties?
Well the way we’re doing this tour is the first half of the shows the current band the current lineup which is great in the second half is purely Odessey and Oracle, presented start to finish, exactly in the same sequence as the album. So it’s us, with the addition of Darian Sahanaja from Brian Wilson’s band, who probably knows it better than we do. He can tell us what we’re doing wrong!
People like Darian, artists from a whole different generation, have been influenced by the record for many years. During The Zombies’ downtime, that record really lived on.
Yes that’s quite true, people like Tom Petty, Dave Grohl and many others are saying that it influenced them when they were starting out, and that’s a great pleasure for me. I’ve described it like, we learned from American records and then we sold it back to America. It’s like learning a language or a currency. So now we’re getting stuff back from America and other countries as well.
In 1964, the beat group movement was going crazy around the world and American roots rock and R&B were key ingredients of that sound.
Yes and of course over in England we got it straight from the source. Because in American radio, there were race stations and white stations and one didn’t really listen to the other. But we got the music straight from the source, directly from the records. They came back with sailors and servicemen and things like that. So we went right back to the source for that sound and we played it back to the American musicians. From that, they sort of discovered their own roots. We were very lucky to get back to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll - even before some of the Americans did!
It’s strange how sometimes culture needs to be re-packaged so people can truly appreciate it.
Yes! I remember we did the Dick Clark package tour in 1965 and there were all sorts of acts on it, including the black acts and we would all travel on the bus and sing. We were a little embarrassed that some of the English groups were covering the black acts. We wondered if they were in any way upset by it. But they said oh no, because until the English started covering the songs, the Americans didn’t discover the originals. So all of a sudden they got more work.
Begin Here, The Zombies’ first album, as did many from the period - even from the Moody Blues and early Beatles - included a fair amount of R&B covers.
At the time, albums or LPs weren’t really the thing, you did singles. We had our first recording session and the song [“She’s Not There”] went to number one on Cashbox in America! When we had to do the album, the record company said, “Well, just put some things together, some covers that you’re doing on stage.” That’s what happened in those days.
Soon you had more than enough material and you didn’t need the covers anymore - but the sales were declining.
Yes during that time we just kept on trying to do new songs and trying new things. We always wanted to do things differently; we never wanted to fall into a pattern. But record companies always want you to do exactly what you just did before. Eventually we lost our record contract and we decided we wanted to produce ourselves. That ended up eventually as Odyssey and Oracle - which was a failure at the time but now it’s recognized. It’s quite an odd story.
But Odessey and Oracle was made from a rare place in that era, complete artistic freedom.
Well it was, simply because no one else really wanted us! CBS offered us 1000 pounds toward an album and we were one of the first non-EMI groups to record in Abbey Road Studios. Since the budget was so limited, we rehearsed the songs very thoroughly before we went in to record. The studios were very unionized then and there were strict, three-hour sessions. So we’d try to do three backing tracks in one session.
Late 1966 through the middle of ’67 was such a crazy time for music. You were knocking ‘em out.
We had to! It was a matter of finances, really. And we inherited the Beatles concept of bouncing tracks so we were able to experiment as we went along.
It was and luckily, the Beatles had just recorded Sgt. Pepper’s and John Lennon had left his Mellotron back in the studio, so we utilized that. It was so regimented there the engineers all wore white coats. It was just an incredible time to be making music, with Sgt. Pepper’s of course and the Beach Boys had Pet Sounds.
A number of those now-classic records are celebrating 50-year anniversaries. Proof that good music is timeless.
Well, it’s like Ray Charles said, there are only two types of music: good and bad. What’s been so incredible is now we’re getting children coming along to the shows - nine and ten years old - who know every word, they just know it inside out. It’s a strange phenomenon and very heartening for us.
It really does have a timeless quality to it; even the other big records of the time have a bit of a dated feel, no matter how good they are. But Odessey and Oracle seems to live in its own little insular world.
It’s nearer to a garage band than some of the others, I think. It was what we could do with what we could afford to do. It’s as simple as that, really.
Yet it maintains a very specific sound. Did you craft it to be such a cohesive psychedelic statement of the times?
I think I call it the Rod-Colin-Hugh-Chris-Paul sound. We had no plan at all, it just worked out that way. It was like, “Well what songs have we got? Ok, let’s try it.” We used to rehearse the songs on-stage in the halls, so it was basically born from the live shows. If you find your own limitations and write things toward what people are capable of doing, it’ll find its own identity.
The Zombies perform at the Variety Playhouse Saturday April 8 at 8 p.m.Visit variety-playhouse.com for more information.