The Zombies Are Still Looking Forward Even as a New Documentary Explores Their Past

Exclusive: The Zombies take some time to show us what you need to live with their new album Different Game.

SXSW The Zombies
Photo: Alex Lake

No matter the weather, it’s always the perfect Time of the Season for The Zombies. Their new album is called Different Game, and everyone plays like they were dealt a perfect hand. But it’s the fingers of founding keyboardist Rod Argent, drummer Steve Rodford, guitarist Tom Toomey, bassist Søren Koch, and the throat of original lead singer Colin Blunstone that propel the music.

Director Robert Schwartzman’s documentary, Hung Up on a Dream, which will have its world premiere at SXSW, looks back at The Zombies’ 60-year career: the first British Invasion band to write themselves into American pop history after The Beatles with “She’s Not There,” the Rock Hall of Famers’ Odessey and Oracle is in the Top 100 of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The group is looking forward. 

“So often, people at our vintage put out something which doesn’t have the energy of previous stuff,” Argent tells Den of Geek. “I want to reflect when we’re on stage. There’s always a young component in the audience. It makes you play with more energy.”

The Zombies never sit still, forever extending their Life Is A Merry-Go-Round Tour, co-headlining with The Brian Wilson Band, and playing cruise ships with the Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward for relaxation. They are performers, even while making an album. “We build it up live in the studio,” Blunstone says. “When Rod writes a song, he calls me. We routine the song, bring the band in, and record.”

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Not wanting to track new material virtually, the group was temporarily grounded by the pandemic. “Because of COVID, we hadn’t played together for two years,” Argent says. “But it gave me the unexpected benefit of being able to write nine of the ten songs.”

It also afforded more time for the arrangements. Rod, who formed the band ARGENT after the initial breakup of The Zombies, took an excerpt of a chord sequence from the piano solo of their biggest hit, “Hold Your Head Up,” for the new album’s “Love You.” The song’s soft opening didn’t fully work with piano.

“Tom worked it out note-for-note on the guitar,” Argent says. “It sounded beautiful. I could imagine Colin starting to sing and everything else coming in. There are real ballads contrasted with the energy songs. It felt like the right balance.”

The Zombies always maintained a steady equilibrium, shifting weight as needed. “When we first got together in 1961, I was the rhythm guitarist, and Rod was lead singer,” Blunstone says. “We swapped, but I still played. One of our covers, The Shadows’ ‘Wonderful Land,’ had a lot of chords, and I kept making mistakes. I could feel the natives getting restless, so I jumped before I was pushed and became an ex-rhythm guitarist.”

Signed with Decca after winning a London Evening News competition, the group’s first single was a hit, and its mysterious sound matched the enigmatic credit on the disc. “The name came from our original bass player, Paul Arnold,” Blunstone says. “I’ll confide in you; I had no idea what a zombie was.” Originally the domain of tropical island voodoo, George Romero redefined zombies with Night of the Living Dead, which came out the year The Zombies broke up.

“I still don’t know what a zombie is,” Blunstone admits. “Hopefully, you’ll think of ‘She’s Not There’ and ‘Time of the Season’ and more recent references to analyze it.”

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The Zombie apocalypse should be on record as an early wave of the British Invasion. “‘She’s Not There’ was the first British self-written No. 1 song in Cashbox after The Beatles,” Argent mentions. The achievement was as pioneering as the sound. The classic lineup, which included guitarist Paul Atkinson, bassist Chris White, and drummer Hugh Grundy, “was quite different from other groups,” Blunstone says. “We were a keyboard-based band featuring three-part harmony, which wasn’t fashionable at the time. Most bands were all guitars.”

The musical configuration confused network television. “Cameramen couldn’t get their heads around a piano player at all,” Argent laughs. “When we came to the solo, the camera went straight to the drums. In their heads, if it wasn’t a guitar, they didn’t understand what was going on.”

The musicians, in turn, had to get used to soundstages, precariously playing on risers while effervescent dance troupes shook the world below. “Oh my god, the very first TV we did, they put Colin, singing ‘Summertime,’ on the top of a huge ladder,” says Argent. “He hates heights.” 

It could have been worse. “Initially, they choreographed a full dance for us,” Blunstone says. “As rehearsals went on, they changed their minds. We tried. We gave it our all and failed miserably.” 

But The Zombies passed the audition for their seat on the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars, touring with other artists on the hit parade. “There were some wonderful singers on that Caravan,” Blunstone says. “They used to sing into the night. To be accepted, they wanted us to sing for them.” Blunstone and Argent chose the Beatles’ “If I Fell” because “we’d done it as an amateur band and knew if we sang it acapella, the harmonies would sound quite striking. Luckily, they enjoyed it.”

As the song “New York” from their 2015 album Still Got That Hunger celebrates, The Zombies also played the Brooklyn Fox Theater’s Murray the K Christmas Shows. “Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells brought the house down every time they performed, and we had to follow them,” remembers Blunstone.

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The band even visited Graceland, but Elvis Presley was shooting a movie. Elvis’ father told the musicians the rock and roll icon would have loved to meet them and invited them in. “We did it really quickly because we felt he was just saying that about Elvis to be nice,” Argent recalls. “But I found out it was true many years later.” Elvis had three of The Zombies’ singles on his personal jukebox.

Odessey and Oracle was recorded at Abbey Road Studios after The Beatles finished Sgt Pepper. If the song “Changes” sounds like it grew out of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” it might be because the roots are there. “It’s John Lennon’s Mellotron,” says Argent. “He’d left it in the studio. We were the next band. It was my first encounter with a Mellotron. I jumped on it and used it all over.”

It wasn’t the only toy left behind. “There was an electric harpsichord, bits and pieces of percussion that we picked up,” says Argent. The Beatles’ engineer, the late Geoff Emerick, was also still sticking around. “When Geoff engineered ‘Time of the Season,’ I remember at the time thinking immediately: ‘I don’t know what it is. It’s just the bass and tom-tom sound, but there’s something quite special about it.’”

Their best-known album, Odessey And Oracle, was released after the breakup of The Zombies, and the original band never got to play it live. “It was a bit frustrating,” Blunstone admits. “It would have been good to do a farewell tour on the back of ‘Time of the Season,’ but the other guys absolutely were not interested. They thought it was looking back. They didn’t want to go back. They wanted to think about the future.”

Cooking Vinyl Records will release The Zombies’ sixth album, Different Game, on March 31. Robert Schwartzman’s documentary Hung Up On A Dream premieres at SXSW.