The Zombies were the only British group of the 60s who could have seriously given The Beatles a real run for their money.
Although comparatively unrecognised, their body of work is every bit as innovative, complex and appealing as that of the Fab Four. After The Beatles and The Beach Boys, no 60s group wrote melodies as gorgeous as those of The Zombies.
Dominated by Colin Blunstone’s breathy vocals, choral harmonies and Rod Argent’s shining jazz and classical-influenced organ and piano, the band sounded utterly unique for their era.
Without a Brian Epstein, a George Martin, and the marketing might of The Beatles machine behind them however, The Zombies (although hugely popular at their peak) have largely remained a closely guarded secret for the fortunate few.
Rod Argent, Paul Atkinson, and Hugh Grundy met at school in the outer London suburb of St Albans in 1961 and soon introduced Paul Arnold, who in turn introduced the others to singer Colin Blunstone.
The group began playing the 1950s standards which were common to bands everywhere in England at the time. Paul Arnold was replaced on bass by Chris White in 1962 and the band began playing shows around St Albans, building up a loyal following over the course of the next year.
In 1963 they entered a local band contest and advanced through the heats. Even before the final, they were offered a deal by Decca and then went on to win the contest, turned professional and in 1964 began recording. She’s Not There was released as the first single and was a worldwide smash hit. The tune made #1 in America making The Zombies only the second UK Beat group (after The Beatles) to have a US #1
The next single, Leave Me Be, failed to shake up the charts, while the third single, the sublime Tell Her No, was a minor hit in Britain and a Top 10 record in America. The Zombies then toured America where they played enormous halls and arenas to wildly enthusiastic fans.
Back in England, Zombies records failed to do as well and Decca (with a full roster of beat groups) were poised to dump them. But the band stayed alive, recording single after superb single that unfortunately failed to break through.
Their failure to achieve more widespread success is mystifying, perhaps explained by a few factors: while undeniably pop-based, their original compositions and arrangements were in some sense too adventurous for the radio. Indication, for example, winds down with a lengthy, torturous swirl of bitter organ solos and wordless, windblown vocals; Remember When I Loved Her, despite its beautiful melody, has downbeat lyrics that are almost morbid; and I Want You Back Again is arranged like a jazz waltz with the sorts of sudden stops, tempo shifts and lengthy minor organ solos found in a lot of their tunes.
The group were also, perhaps unfairly, saddled with a somewhat ‘square’ image, and much was made of their formidable scholastic record. Plus, they mostly didn’t align themselves with the R&B-based school of British beat bands, preferring more subtle and tuneful territory.
Disillusionment ultimately set in, and although the group managed to win a new contract with CBS Records, they decided to break up, but not before recording a final album, Odessey and Oracle (the misspelling was intentional) at Abbey Road Studios late in 1967.
This incredible LP was self-produced and more representative of the band’s real sound.
A masterpiece of pop/psychedelia, to this day it stands alongside Sgt Peppers and Pet Sounds as absolute milestone recordings of the Sixties. Almost as an afterthought, Time Of The Season was released as a single and one radio station in America fell in love with it and kept playing it.
Ever so slowly, it caught on, and then, overnight, it broke all over the country – becoming a Top 5 smash in late 1968 and early 1969. CBS clamoured for more product and promoters began offering huge sums of money for the band to regroup.
But it all came too late – It had already been a year since the break-up, and The Zombies declined all offers. Rod Argent and Chris had already begun work on the band Argent, and Colin Blunstone had begun a solo career.
The Zombies have since been recognised as one of the most underrated of the 60’s beat groups.
The band reunited in 2004 for the album As Far As I Can See. Guitarist Paul Atkinson died in Santa Monica, California on 1 April 2004.
The four surviving original members participated in a three-night series of concerts at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire Theatre between 7 and 9 March 2008 to mark the 40th anniversary of Odessey & Oracle.
A new studio album – Breathe Out, Breathe In – was released in 2011 and The Zombies continue to perform live.