Return of the Zombies
Still vital, versatile, and very much undead.
Oct 3, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 03 • By DAWN EDEN
Silver Spring, Maryland
If you know nothing more about the Zombies than the fact that they were part of the British Invasion, you can tell that the members were all about 16 when they chose the band’s name. A group that intends to be taken seriously over a long and storied career generally does not adopt a moniker evoking flesh-eating undead. Yet, here we are, in 2011, and the Zombies are playing to a sold-out crowd at a 500-seat theater outside Washington, a few days after performing three songs on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” As the T-shirts on sale boast, the concert is part of the band’s “50th
Is the demand driven by simple Baby Boom nostalgia? For some, perhaps. But the kind of crowd that wants to hear the oldies normally attends jukebox-style package shows. By contrast, the Zombies attract fans not just for their hits but for their flops as well—particularly the songs that comprise Odessey and Oracle (1967), the second and last album of their original incarnation.
Odessey and Oracle, which barely dented the charts even after its “Time of the Season” was a belated smash in 1969, was rediscovered decades later to become a cult classic, its popularity paving the way for the Zombies’ reunion in the early 2000s. Critics usually mention the album in the same breath as the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, owing to its sparkling, multilayered vocal harmonies and intricate baroque-style arrangements. But whereas Pet Sounds carries the morbid undercurrent of Brian Wilson’s damaged psyche—bearing the scars of childhood abuse and substance-fueled self-indulgence—Odessey and Oracle is almost blisteringly sane. The Zombies’ avoidance of the drug culture that surrounded them enabled them to partake of the ear-candy elements of psychedelic pop—Hammond B3 organ, Mellotron tape-looped strings, staccato “Penny Lane” bass lines, onomatopoetic vocal “ba”s—without getting lost on a magic carpet ride. As a result, they were able to make an album that sounds not just arty but truly artful, even timeless—more John Dowland than John Lennon.
If anyone doubted that the remaining original members, lead singer Colin Blunstone and keyboardist Rod Argent, could still keep up a “Bandstand”-era beat, those doubts were erased with the first number, Ray Charles’s “Sticks and Stones” (from their debut album Begin Here). The test of any Zombies performance is the state of Blunstone’s voice: Can he still hit all the right blue notes? On “Sticks and Stones,” as well as on another soul cover from their early days (Solomon Burke’s “Can’t Nobody Love You,” for example), what was most striking was not only the still-impressive technical quality of Blunstone’s singing but his ability as a performer to put a song across.
One of Blunstone’s major influences was Nina Simone, and he continues to evoke her razor’s-edge balance of vulnerability and resilience. Yet, at the same time, he doesn’t just stop at getting the right sound: Without mugging or showboating, he uses vocal dynamics and tastefully subtle physical moves to draw in the audience so that they are not experiencing a mere song but a story. In many ways, Blunstone’s subdued style is a holdover from the age of smoky jazz nightclubs: You can see why it didn’t pull the Zombies over the brink of superstardom in an age when bands like The Who were destroying guitars and eardrums. Yet its refreshing air of mystery gives the Zombies’ already-strong songs new layers of depth with every hearing.
Rod Argent, for his part, showed on songs such as “Breathe Out, Breathe In,” the title track of the band’s latest album, why he is regularly ranked among rock’s greatest keyboard players—and one of the few capable of recording a classical piano album, as he did in 1998. The audience was also reminded that he enjoyed hits after the Zombies’ breakup with his seventies band Argent (whose bass player, Jim Rodford, is now in the Zombies) as the group performed the arena-rock classic “Hold Your Head Up.” Like all the evening’s songs, the tune was played without irony: The musicians simply delighted in revisiting it, and their joy was contagious. But the audience reserved its greatest enthusiasm for the Odessey and Oracle tracks, so much so that a fifth tune from the album was added to the four the Zombies had planned. (Oddly, given his masterly control on quieter numbers such as “A Rose for Emily,” Blunstone had a bit of trouble with the vocal jumps on the bouncy “Care of Cell 44.” But the audience wasn’t complaining, especially as Argent, Rodford, and guitarist Tom Toomey buoyed him with gorgeous, contrapuntal vocal polyphony.)
Called back at the end of the set for an encore, the Zombies pounded their way through the buoyant Argent classic “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” (better known in its cover version by KISS) before closing on a quiet note with the first song they ever recorded: the George and Ira Gershwin classic “Summertime.” For those final two-and-a-half minutes, as Blunstone cooed calmly over the band’s Brubeck-style backing, it was neither 1964 nor 2011. It was simply
Dawn Eden is the author of The Thrill of the Chaste.