8 Songs That Tell You All You Need To Know About The Zombies

For years, rock & roll has been dead. It has been supplanted numerous times by numerous shifting bodies, but the sucker is dead. Post-Beatles, it became something called rock music, which it may have been, but it did not ‘roll.’ The dance feel gave way to dunder-headed thundering (terrific in the case of Black Sabbath, embarrassing (at best) with Ted Nugent), or to stuff that DEMANDED heady listening though it had no wit. (Can anyone listen to “Karn-Evil 9” the whole way through? The last time I managed that was in college, when my pseudo-intellectual ego was unpierced by the fact that I cannot get a steady job.) Songs got longer, and consequently, more boring.

The Beatles are to blame. Kinda1 like how George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are to blame for the current blockbuster mentality, due to the big moneymakers they made in the 70s (e.g., Star Wars and Jaws). The Beatles’ high quality of work made it hard for others to do trad rock & roll with a similar sort of success – they tried for the experimental chops without the solid backing in rock that made everything The Beatles did palatable, even at its weirdest.

Rock & roll wasn’t fun anymore. It became a number of things, some laudable, some deplorable. But after the 60s, a corrupting sense of seriousness crept into pop music, which of course led to pomposity. Like any other band, Argent fell prey to this, writing songs about Lord Of The Rings and crafting silly headbangers like “Hold Your Head Up.” Argent was a repudiation of the legacy handed down by their progenitors, the Zombies.

From a historical point of view, the Zombies may be interesting, but I don’t much care. Their influence, it seems to me, begins and ends with them. Though their songs have been covered (extensively, in a few cases), their style is unique and uncopped. The band should be emulated on a grand scale – not to sell records, but to make something worth hearing. Listen to these songs (you’ve heard at least two. As for the rest, see if you can find them on the net. It’s like an adventure computer game – a lotta work for very little profit). You’ll get an idea of just how special they were.

“She’s Not There” – single, released July 24, 1964

The tune that made the band, and the one that best exemplifies their style: catchy yet slightly distancing, a minor-key melody that is filled with bone-cracking drums and horrorshow organ. Dig the chorus: The Zombies had some of the best harmonies of their time, and here, on the first single, they strip down and sing one note for eight bars (obsessive form following lyrics that are mysterious). Unforced oddity and tunefulness, a slightly shuffled beat, and a keyboard solo that starts somewhere and ends somewhere (which is unique in almost all of rock & roll). One of the great pop songs.

“Summertime” – Begin Here, released April 9, 1965

White boys do black music. And you say the Zombies are responsible for Justin Timberlake? Yo, these are upper middle-class Brits. Should suck, but here Colin Blunstone’s vocal shows its power, much more so than on the Decca rave-ups. Blunstone’s smoky voice has a melancholy tint to it, and he never oversings. Again, this is typical of the Zombies – holding back, using subtle touches, but never sacrificing energy.2

“Indication” – single, released June 17, 1966

Everything about the Decca years wrapped into one song. Opening with a quasi-classical organ that leads right into their hardest rock, the amazing bit comes at the end: a jazzy, minute-long keyboard improv with a post-punkesque guitar driving it all forward, skirting chaos the whole way down. Experimental, sure, but it doesn’t feel like a Beatles rip-off3. If anything, these aspects were wholly their own.

“Care Of Cell 44” – Odessey & Oracle, released April 19, 1968

Great opening to a great album. Beautiful, sunlit melodies and a none-too serious lyric, the track explodes with gorgeous harmonies on the chorus. The rock & roll harmony is a casualty of the Beatles’ experimental success – they went from group work to more individual sounds, and the rest of the world followed suit. The Zombies expanded the palette of rock, but they kept the harmonies, so their work has a consistent beauty.

“Time Of The Season” – Odessey & Oracle

The apotheosis of their R&B style, and you’ve heard it. The over-blues stripped away, the band is focused more on dark, erotic jazz qualities endemic to their work. Hugh Grundy, the sort of consistently interesting drummer who makes others seem woefully inadequate, sounds like he could escape the beat altogether, but then he brings it home. The song should have been the beginning of an amazing career. Of course, the Zombies broke up right after.4

“Imagine The Swan” – single, released April 1969

Beautiful, beefy, and melancholy – not Zombies. The band is Argent, but they released it under the more commercially viable name. Given the quality of the song (and of the similarly themed “Caroline, No” by The Beach Boys), one wonders why there aren’t more sad tracks about women becoming heartless bovine.

“I’m Going Home” (live) – recorded February 1965, released 1985

Never released, the studio version suffers from an overly mannered vocal – Colin’s work is emotional, but it has no punch. Live, however, it’s a different story. The vocal has a strength to match the superb backing (tight harmonies, a swift shuffling beat), and the elements hinted at in the Decca recordings are present in full swing.

“Look Of Love” (live) – recorded October 10, 1967, released 1997 on Zombie Heaven

(Preface: I believe that Burt Bacharach is one of the sappiest, most overrated and annoying songwriters. He may not be as execrable as the brain-baked Diane Warren, but he is like a spike in my eye.)
This rendition of the Bacharach tune5 is perfect: the dark sultry atmosphere recalls “Time Of The Season,” though it insinuates more than grooves, and the danceable shuffle is always there.

I wish the Zombies were still around. They were good.

Zombie Heaven

That rarest of things – a box set you can listen to, and enjoy, without skipping around. At least for discs 1, 2 and 4, which collect, respectively, all the studio releases and most of the extant BBC recordings. Also, there are the obligatory unused takes and demos, but these are confined to the third disc (so they can be ignored by all, except for oddballs like me).

1This may be a stupid footnote, but it’s something that I want to discuss: the use of low, middlebrow, or colloquial language in an essay format. The fact is, I’m probably the only person who will read this (except for Joe, who will shake his head, sigh, then turn around and tell me I did a great job. The lying bastard). Internet writing is often marked by informality, and I don’t mind that. What I do mind is that it is also given to mediocrity and cliche. It is difficult to balance between sounding human and sounding like a lunk.

2To hear what happens when they DO give up on subtlety, listen to the cover of “Goin’ Out Of My Head.” The live cover, sans horns, is OK. But the studio version, with a terrible brass section glommed on, is close to unlistenable – a rare bum note from these very consistent chaps.

3Of course, I’m not saying that the Zombies weren’t Beatles-influenced. But it should not matter, since I’m not trying to develop a history here. I just want to demonstrate that this is one of the great rock bands. But to appease you, here’s a quote from Rod Argent: “Like every other band around at the time, bar none, we were hugely influenced by The Beatles. I’d never heard anything like them. The trick was to let your own voice come through as well.”

4They planned their break-up in advance, so it was pretty amicable, and all of them worked together again, in various capacities.

5Yep, even better than Justin Guarini’s version.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email kentc@explodedgoat.com