The Zombies - The Zombies , I Love You And R.I.P. Music Album Reviews


 A trilogy of reissues tells the story of a brilliant, unconventional, yet luckless British Invasion band let down by an industry that didn’t know what to do with them.

At the peak of British Invasion fever, a quintet of bookish St. Albans teens intimated that the future of the UK “beat music” craze might sound less like the hyperactive R&B that made screaming Beatles fans so ecstatic and more like the stuff entrancing hipsters at the coffee shop. The Zombies’ first two singles, the noirish jazz-fusion psychodramas “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No,” hit the Billboard top 10, making them instant stars—even bigger in the U.S. than the UK. “The Beatles had just broken America wide open, and there we were to trot along behind,” lead songwriter Rod Argent recalled. But lasting fame was not to be: After spending the next two years trying and failing to duplicate that success with little support from their label, Decca (the same company that infamously declined to sign the Beatles), they took an advance from CBS and holed up in Abbey Road Studios—in the hours that the Beatles weren’t recording Sgt. Pepper—to record their magnum opus, 1968’s Odessey and Oracle. Poorly promoted, the album tanked on both sides of the Atlantic, and Argent dissolved the band.


A year later, when Odessey single “Time of the Season” shot surprisingly up the American charts, Zombies lead singer Colin Blunstone was back in England selling insurance, and Argent had formed a new band, simply called Argent. Americans who tried to see the band on tour in 1969 came away even more addled when a dodgy American company sent two impostor bands on the road to perform as the Zombies, one of which included two future members of ZZ Top. Meanwhile, UK music fans were treated to a newly recorded version of “She’s Not There” by someone called Neil MacArthur, who was actually Blunstone. The Zombies were the band that wasn’t there: too far ahead of the curve at the start of their career, and too far behind it four years later.

For two decades after their dissolution, the Zombies’ were remembered mostly for their three classic singles: The first were two key historical markers of the British Invasion, the last a groovy reminder of the 1960s’ hippie-dominated denouement. The record industry’s non-stop cycles of reissues and remasters patched together the band’s legacy: Rhino’s 1987 CD reissue of Odessey and Oracle helped solidify the album’s rightful status as a psych-pop classic—Rolling Stone called it “a dazzling pop fantasia ripe for rediscovery” —and the 4xCD 1997 box set Zombie Heaven provided a long overdue and illuminating career retrospective for the rest of the band’s output. In 2019, Varese Sarabande re-compiled their recordings into a 5xLP vinyl set, and the same company has now repackaged much of the same material as individual albums—their self-titled 1965 debut, 1966’s I Love You, and R.I.P., which was recorded by Argent and White in late 1968 and soon shelved. Those who already own Zombie Heaven or the vinyl set, or anyone seeking new information about the band or alternate takes, will be disappointed in these spartan, low-budget reissues, each of which has already been re-released as Record Store Day exclusives. Essential they are not, but they do offer an opportunity to re-approach one of the strangest trajectories in rock history: the singles-and-filler first album, the second LP sold only in Europe and Japan, and the unreleased final album, recorded mostly without the lead singer in the wake of the group’s dissolution. Together, they trace the arc of an incredibly talented group that was done a significant disservice by an industry that could’ve made them stars in their own time.

The Zombies were formed in 1961 by Argent, who’d grown up listening to Stravinsky and Bartok before being bowled over by Elvis Presley and then jazz pianists Bill Evans and Jimmy Smith. Keen on the electric piano, Argent recruited some St. Albans pals—White, Blunstone, drummer Hugh Grundy, and guitarist Paul Atkinson—to start playing R&B covers at art schools and music halls around the city. Argent’s classical and jazz-informed piano approach instantly distinguished them, and Blunstone’s downy tenor—discovered during an early practice, when Argent pushed him to the front—proved the group’s secret weapon, capable of grinding out a cover of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” then slipping into George Gershwin’s tranquil “Summertime.” In April 1964, the same month that the Beatles held down the top 5 spots on the Billboard Hot 100, the Zombies won a local songwriting competition, which led to a Decca contract and the opportunity to cut “Summertime” and three originals: White’s Beatles-influenced “You Make Me Feel Good” and rumbling surf-rocker “It’s Alright With Me,” and a new Argent-penned track called “She’s Not There.” The band considered “Summertime” for their lead single, but wisely settled on Argent’s composition as their public debut.

George Harrison was an early fan, raving about “She’s Not There” on the British music show Juke Box Jury, and with good reason. Like the rest of the British Invasion groups, the Zombies started with the blues—Argent borrowed a key lyric from John Lee Hooker’s “No One Told Me”—but added several twists. First, there was Blunstone’s calm, Chet Baker-esque croon, which seemed to belie the anxieties of Argent’s lyrics: was a woman merely ghosting him, or might she actually be a ghost? As Argent winds his Hohner pianet through White’s deep bassline and Grundy’s stilted drumming, which reels toward a hard hit on the fourth beat of each measure like a detective drugged by an evasive suspect, “She’s Not There” dials in on the uncanny unknown. The pre-chorus shifts into major-key panic mode and Grundy locks into a 4/4, setting the stage for Blunstone to soar up to a high A for the shrieking, unresolved climax.

Immediately, Decca sent the group off on a UK tour opening for Dionne Warwick, whose magnificent 1964 Bacharach/David collaboration inspired the band’s follow-up single, “Tell Her No.” Dialing back the dynamic extremes of “She’s Not There,” Argent created a song that brought rock ’n’ roll into dialogue with the moment’s most bewitching pop tunes: Warwick’s “Walk on By” and “A House Is Not A Home,” along with 1965’s Grammy-winning Record of the Year, “The Girl From Ipanema.” Blunstone’s vocal is at its most lustrous and vulnerable on “She’s Not There,” especially when he emerges out of the staccato chorus to coo, “Don’t hurt me now”—aimed not toward the woman of his dreams, but anyone else who might submit to her numinous charms. Few bands have ever started a career with as much out-of-the-box success—they were a rock band, first and foremost, but their skill with rueful, spooky melodrama suggested that they were destined for something much stranger.

Decca packaged the two originals with their version of “Summertime” onto 1965’s The Zombies (issued as Begin Here in the UK, with a different tracklist), along with White’s “Alright,” a few lesser originals and a handful of covers. A good version of the Miracles’ live medley connecting “You Really Got a Hold on Me” to Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” is balanced out by serviceable takes on Muddy Waters’ “Got My Mojo Workin’” and Solomon Burke’s “Can’t Nobody Love You.” From the moment that “She’s Not There” hit #3 on Billboard, Decca shot the band out of a touring cannon, and they wouldn’t land for another two and a half years. When they weren’t recording sets for American music shows like “Hullabaloo” and “Shindig,” they were shlepping their own gear into and out of venues on city-to-city package tours like Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars. They followed “Tell Her No” with four singles in 1965 alone, each of which peaked at a lower spot on the Hot 100 than its predecessor. The circular logic of the record business took over from there: Without a hit single, Decca wouldn’t foot the bill for album recording sessions.

Perhaps because they assumed that the Zombies had outlived their profitability in the States, Decca released the 1966 singles and B-sides compilation I Love You only through the label’s Dutch and Japanese divisions. This is a shame, because I Love You actually holds together quite well as an album, and shows that the Zombies had grown significantly as songwriters and instrumentalists. It opens with the short, mostly a cappella “The Way I Feel Inside,” a lovely showcase for Blunstone’s maturing voice, which segues into the singer’s first self-penned recording, the lush and dreamy ballad “How We Were Before.” White was coming into his own as well: His “You Make Me Feel Good” and “Don’t Go Away” are no less intoxicating for their obvious Beatles influence—he even nods directly to John Lennon with a few languid “ohhhhh” phrasings on the former. The Motown-flavored rave-up “Is This the Dream” and “Whenever You’re Ready,” which contains a potent Blunstone vocal and Argent solo, fizzled commercially in the U.S., as did the buttoned-up garage rock of Argent’s “Indication,” which Argent ended with a quasi-psychedelic organ solo—a major no-no for Top 40 DJs with quick trigger fingers. Perhaps Argent was ready to hop aboard the psych-rock train, if given the chance—or maybe he and the band were finished trying to meet the market on its own terms.

By mid 1967, the Zombies had come to realize just how much touring revenue they were losing to their management, and how little they’d been able to grow as recording artists by working with the same producer on every single. Finished with their Decca contract, Argent and White were eager to test their mettle in a heady new post-Revolver era, and they signed a one-off contract with CBS to record and produce Odessey and Oracle at Abbey Road. Argent and White’s songs were magnificent, but Blunstone had soured on the music business—Argent had to coax him through “Time of the Season” measure by measure—and when the band learned that the Odessey songs were nearly impossible to pull off live, they called it quits, playing their last show in December 1967.

While Blunstone went back to hawking insurance, Grundy took a job at a car lot, and Atkinson started training to become a computer programmer, Argent and White formed their own production company and recruited a few other players—the core of what would become Argent—to join them in the studio. Sessions from mid-December 1968 yielded the final single billed to the Zombies, the stately White composition “Imagine the Swan.” Revealing the prog-rock bedrock underlying Odessey, “Swan” borrows the chord sequence from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” and the intricate harmonies of the Mamas and the Papas, topped with a mannered-yet-brassy Argent vocal that, in retrospect, sounds a lot like a young Freddie Mercury. Backed with the rococo instrumental “Conversation Off Floral Street,” the single hit the market and flopped. The Zombies were dead.

Or were they? Fittingly for a band that seemed to haunt the rock establishment even while it was a going concern, Argent and White concocted a post-mortem Zombies LP titled R.I.P. that would not see the light of day for decades. During the same December sessions that produced the final Zombies single, they cut Argent’s jaunty “She Loves the Way They Love Her,” White’s flute-and-harpsichord-haunted “Smokey Day,” and Argent’s mid-tempo ballad “I Could Spend the Day,” with a stately ascending melody anticipating the sound of British arena prog. Along with the new recordings, the duo resurrected a handful of tracks from a few years earlier, adding vocal and string overdubs to Argent’s “If It Don’t Work Out” (given to Dusty Springfield in 1965) and White’s magnificent “I’ll Call You Mine,” perhaps the band’s most flawless pure pop single, which had been collecting dust on a studio shelf for more than two years. Toward the end of Side A came the band’s other great lost work, the gothic acoustic “Girl Help Me,” with a stuttering rhythm and perfectly arranged harmonies that suggested the band knew exactly how to build on the foundation of “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No,” but never got the chance. While the newer recordings occupied Side A of R.I.P., the polished-up early tracks were saved for Side B, giving the album a strange Benjamin Button vibe—as you listened, the band aged backwards. By all accounts, R.I.P. was ready for retail, but Argent shelved it to focus on his new band, which released its first album in 1970. Cold comfort for sure, but R.I.P. is one of the era’s great lost albums.

The Zombies got their official industry due in 2019, when the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs inducted the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The choice of Hoffs—who started out in L.A.’s Paisley Underground scene in the ’80s—was a commemoration of Odessey and Oracle’s impact on multiple generations of psychedelic pop bands. But such institutions are, by their very nature, bound to misrepresent careers like the Zombies’, focusing on the high points instead of the truth of a frustrating, mismanaged five-year existence. In their time and beyond, the Zombies are the rare Hall of Fame inductees who were viewed as a cult band for the majority of their time together. In a way, that makes this latest crop of reissues, which wrongly presents them as an album-centric band for their entire career, as strangely appropriate as it is inessential.
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The Zombies - The Zombies , I Love You And R.I.P. Music Album Reviews The Zombies - The Zombies , I Love You And R.I.P. Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Monday, August 10, 2020 Rating:

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