Rock Hall Class of 2019: The Zombies Reanimate British Rock

Who would have thought the British Invasion would lead to a Zombie apocalypse? The Rock Hall of Fame did.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class of 2019 includes a witch, a Goth band which celebrated disintegration, and a reanimated squad of necromantic romantics who stormed America as part of the British Invasion. The Zombies should have been the retro rock band of the zombie apocalypse. The off-kilter drum, bass and breath which heralded the oncoming melodic horde of chords of the song “Time of the Season” perfectly suited the march of the undead which altered the world in World War Z. What could be more frightening than being out on patrol with Carol, the most adept walker deterrent on The Walking Dead, running into a bunch of munchers and realize: she’s not there? The band never truly embraced horror in a direct musical assault, but they put enough space between their instruments for the dead to float through.

The Zombies had the fever of life and admitted they liked “Walking In The Sun,” though they did it to a darkening sky when love cuts the soul like a blade of a knife. The Zombies released their debut album, Begin Here, on the Decca label in England in 1964, the same year as the black-and-white science fiction horror movie The Last Man on Earth. Based on the 1954 novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, it starred Vincent Price as a lone survivor of the first filmed zombie apocalypse. I don’t want to say Rob Zombie wouldn’t exist without the Zombies, but his band White Zombie doesn’t only owe its existence to Edward Halperin’s 1932 film of the same name.

The band got its name from their original bass player Paul Arnold, who only stayed for a while, opting to be a doctor and giving bottom duties to Chris White. They’d been calling themselves the Mustangs. Keyboardist Rod Argent, guitarist Paul Atkinson, and drummer Hugh Grundy first jammed on Easter in 1961 at St. Albans Grammar School in Hertfordshire, England. Singer Colin Blunstone and Arnold joined in April 1962. They used equipment from Argent’s cousin, Jim Rodford who was in the successful local band, the Bluetones, and rehearsed at the Pioneer Club on Hatfield Road. After graduation, Argent and Atkinson went to university studies, White enrolled at teachers college, Blunstone became an insurance broker, and Grundy got a job in a bank.

In 1964, they changed their name to The Zombies and entered a band contest sponsored by The London Evening Post. The Zombies won a recording contract with Decca Records, the same label as the Rolling Stones. The same one which passed on the Beatles, saying guitar groups were on their way out. Rod Argent’s keyboard work dominated the arrangements, adding sophistication. “She’s Not There,” which Argent had written quickly, was picked to be the first single. For the song, Argent adapted the feel of the chord changes to Brian Hyland’s “Sealed With A Kiss,” and married it to the yearning of John Lee Hooker’s “No One Told Me” from his 1964 LP The Big Soul Of John Lee Hooker. Carlos Santana did two blistering solos on Santana’s 1977 cover for the album Moonflower.

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On the strength of Colin Blunstone’s breathy yet strong vocals, “She’s Not There” charted at number two on the second week of December 1964 and sold a million copies in America. The Zombies were instant royalty in the British Invasion, along with the Kinks, Yardbirds, and Animals. Songwriters Rod Argent and Chris White and singer Colin Blunstone brought a new kind of class to English pop, merging jazzy licks, minor chords and syncopated rhythms into pop structures. They were nouveau riche rock stars who flashed cash their fans’ fathers couldn’t earn in two months. “What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?” could very well be a class conscious throw-down to an upper class British family from an upstart keyboard player with long hair and quick fingers. Just as much as it was actually a nod to the Gershwin song “Summertime,” which the band covered, pouring syrupy British soul all over the lines “your daddy’s rich and your mother’s good lookin’.”

The Zombies’ first British album, Begin Here came out in 1965. Mixing eight original songs and rhythm and blues covers. In a prescient nod to the lessons of Zombieland (2009), the band double-tapped the album for hits. They released “Tell Her No,” written by Chris White, as the follow-up single. It became their second American top ten hit, peaking at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in March 1965. It had “Leave Me Be” as the B side, a song which didn’t dent the British charts, just as “Tell Her No” fell just short of the British Top 40, peaking at number 42.

Further reading: Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request Not Just Sgt. Pepper Copy

While singles “She’s Coming Home,” “Whenever You’re Ready,” “Is This the Dream,” “Indication” and “Gotta Get a Hold of Myself” didn’t chart, Begin Here album included an exceptionally influential beat in a song clocking in at less than two minutes. Chris White’s “What More Can I Do” lays a similar rhythmic framework to Charlie Watts’s drumming on The Rolling Stones’ hit single “Get Off Of My Cloud.” The bassist also penned “I Can’t Make Up My Mind” and “I Don’t Want to Know” for the album. Ken Jones wrote the song “Work ‘n’ Play.” Other originals were “Woman,” “I Remember When I Loved Her,” and “The Way I Feel Inside.”

The Zombies had a successful live run in America, highlighted by being featured at Murray the K’s Christmas shows at the Brooklyn Fox Theatre. The Zombies performed seven times a day during the extravaganza. The band shared the bill with Ben E. King, The Shangri-Las, and The Shirelles. They spent a lot of time with Patti LaBelle & the Bluebells, who introduced them to the music of Aretha Franklin. On their 2015 album Still Got That Hunger, The Zombies recorded Argent’s song “New York” about the experience. The Zombies made their first American TV appearance on January 12, 1965 when they played “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No” on the first episode of NBC’s Hullabaloo.

Further reading: Central Songs from Sgt. Pepper’s Never Made the Album

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The  Zombies’ 1967 masterpiece and now cult-favorite Odessey and Oracle, was recorded for the CBS label at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios with engineers Geoff Emerick and Peter Vance.  The tracks were laid on the same Studer four track machine The Beatles recently used on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. According to Argent, he used John Lennon’s Mellotron, which was left in the studio, for some of the sonic distillery of “Care of Cell 44,” a song about a girlfriend in prison. The studio had also recently hosted Pink Floyd, who finished up The Piper at the Gates of Dawn there.

Under a tight budget, and with a goal of studio control, Argent and White took on the role of producing the new material. The Odessey and Oracle sessions were done quickly, after intense rehearsals. “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)” was captured in one take. “Hung Up on a Dream” was caught on take 3. Album cover designer Terry Quirk misspelled odyssey by mistake, but the band claimed it as intentional. Originally mastered in mono, Argent and White personally paid for the stereo mixes.

Further reading: Pink Floyd Members Reunite: Roger Waters Joins Nick Mason on Stage in NYC

The album, which is cited by rock keyboardists as very influential, includes the majestic “I Want Her She Wants Me,” based on a happy harpsichord riff. “The Way I Feel Inside” features the voice of Blunstone and a single, somber organ, which doesn’t make its appearance until halfway through the song. The album also included the songs “A Rose for Emily,” “Maybe After He’s Gone” and “Beechwood Park,” and the understatedly psychedelic “Hung Up on a Dream.”

American CBS boss Clive Davis initially decided to pass on the album but former Blood, Sweat, and Tears member and Columbia A & R man and staff producer Al Kooper persuaded US CBS/Columbia Records to drop it on the subsidiary label Date Records. Odessey and Oracle was released in the U.S. in June. The first single was the anti-war song “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).” Two singles released by CBS, “Care of Cell 44,” and “Friends of Mine” failed to reach the charts. Columbia re-released Odessey and Oracle in America in February 1968, the same year as George A Romero’s low-budget Night Of The Living Dead.

“Time of the Season,” written by Argent, dropped as a single in 1968 and peaked at Number 3 by 1969, selling over two million copies. By the time “Time of the Season” climbed the U.S. charts in early 1969, Rod Argent and Chris White were well into their new band, Argent. Odessey and Oracle is ranked number 100 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and was number 32 by on the New Music Express list of best British albums.

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The Zombies split after playing their final gig in mid-December 1967. In 1968 Argent and White recorded tracks for CBS records with Hugh Grundy on drums, Rodford on bass and Rick Birkett on guitar. The tracks were augmented by Decca out-takes and demos, which were enhanced at Morgan Studios in London, but the album, called R.I.P., was cancelled.

The band turned down offers to reform and tour America in 1969 but that didn’t stop booking agents like Delta Promotions from sending knock-off bands calling themselves “The Zombies” on tour, along with fake touring groups calling themselves “The Animals” and “The Archies.” One of the Zombies touring bands out of Texas featured bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard, who would go on to be two-thirds of the country rock trio ZZ Top.

Rod Argent formed the band Argent in 1972 with Chris White as a non-playing songwriter. They quickly scored the international hit single “Hold Your Head Up.” A cover version of their song “Liar” became a major hit for Three Dog Night, and Kiss had a hit with their cover of lead singer Russ Ballard’s song “God Gave Rock n’ Roll To You.” Colin Blunstone recorded for Epic Records under the pseudonym Neil McArthur and did studio vocals for the Alan Parsons Project.

But Zombies don’t stay dead. Blunstone, White and Grundy joined with guitarist/keyboardist Sebastian Santa Maria to record the album The Return of the Zombies, which came out in February 1990. The 1997 album Zombie Heaven was a 120-track compilation was released on UK Ace/Big beat that included the Decca/Parrot recordings in mono, the entire Odessey And Oracle album in stereo and the songs that would have been on the unreleased album R.I.P. On November 25, 1997, all five Zombies reunited at the Jazz Café in London’s Camden Town as part of a solo show by Blunstone to perform “She’s Not There” and “Time of the Season” to promote it.

Blunstone and Argent reunited in late 1999 when the keyboardist spotted the singer in the audience while playing a charity concert for jazz musician John Dankworth and brought him onstage. The pair recruited ex-Argent bassist Jim Rodford, his son Steve Rodford on drums and Keith Airey on guitar for shows in 2001. Rhino Records released the album As Far As I Can See… in 2004. The album contained 10 new songs and a re-working of Blunstone’s solo hit “I Don’t Believe In Miracles.” Rhino released the Zombies Live At The Bloomsbury Theatre in 2007. The Zombies also released the albums Breathe Out, Breathe In in 2011, and Still Got That Hunger in 2015.

Rod Argent played the piano on The Who’s song “Who Are You” off the album of the same name. He was part of the 2006 line-up of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. The Zombie’s fifth studio album Breathe Out, Breathe In was recorded at Argent’s Red House Studios. The lineup was filled out by guitarist Tom Toomey, bassist Jim Rodford and drummer Steve Rodford.

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In March 2008, the four surviving Zombies, augmented by keyboardists Keith Airey and Darian Sahanaja, performed Odessey and Oracle in its entirety for three shows at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London to celebrate the album’s 40th anniversary. Argent tracked down a Victorian pump organ made in 1896 to recreate the sound of White’s original organ for the song “Butcher’s Tale.”

The Zombies only released two albums during their initial run, but their ethereal sound and musical expertise impacted future generations as much as it helped transform the music of their contemporaries. The fourth season HBO’s vampire soap opera True Blood opened with Neko Case and Nick Cave’s rendition of “She’s Not There.” For the rest of us, The Zombies music will always be there.  

The 2019 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony airs on HBO on April 27 at  8 p.m.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.