April 19 – Their Band Was Buried, But Zombies Rose Up

Maybe they should have consulted their oracle more. He might have told them to stick at it a bit longer. Because while The Zombies album Odessey & Oracle (yes, that wasn’t a typo, that was the spelling) wasn’t a real posthumous hit, it was in the sense that the band was kaput by the time most heard it. It came out in Britain this day in 1968.

By then the Zombies had been around for almost the entire decade. However, they had put out only one full album prior to this, supplemented with several standalone singles. They scored hits with “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No” off the first album, but their star was falling by the time this one arrived. The quintet, led mainly by lead singer Colin Blunstone and keyboardist Rod Argent , had begun work on this one in the summer of ’67 at Abbey Road studios, using the same equipment the Beatles had made Sgt. Pepper... on. Fitting perhaps because not only would this one eventually be judged The Zombies best, it like the Beatles opus, was decidedly psychedic-tinged and varied in influences and sounds. For a couple of weeks they had to relocate to the also impressive Olympic Studios in London, eventually delivering the 12 song package to Columbia Records British office early in ’68. Around the same time, tensions were running high in the band and the realization that they were being booked into smaller clubs to play live than they’d done three or four years prior made them break up before it actually hit the shelves. Which, coupled with the psychedelia made Columbia North America, led by Simon & Garfunkel-boosting Clive Davis, refuse to put it out for over a year, thinking it had no commercial potential at all. In terms of the actual LP and its store sales, Davis was correct. However, it did spawn one hit single worldwide and has grown in critical acclaim through the years to when it is now considered among the best of the decade.

The quintet, while not necessarily a conventional “democracy”, did share duties. While Blunstone was lead singer on most tracks and bassist Chris White wrote more than any of the others, they all had at least a part of the songwriting and all did some vocals with Blunstone, Argent and White all singing lead on at least one track – something sure to confound their record label bosses despite the obvious parallel with the Beatles sharing the mic. And varied too were the song inspirations – while there was a typical “hippie love” song (the hit “Time of the Season”) and a couple more love songs, there were ones about being buddies (“Friends of Mine”), a timely anti-war one set in WWI (“Butcher’s Tale”) and even one about a loved one who’s in jail (“Care of Cell 44”) …probably the only such pop song until Dawn’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” five years later. Curiously enough, although “Time of the Season” did end up being a hit, it was the song that might have driven the final nail into the Zombies coffin at the time. Apparently Blunstone hated the song, written by Rod Argent, but Argent insisted not only on having it on the record but getting the other to sing it.

Butcher’s Tale” and “Care of Cell 44” were put out as singles but flopped. And it would appear few publications at the time really even took note of it when it came out, perhaps because as Pitchfork later suggested, it was “decades ahead of its time.” “Time of the Season” was put out as a single in 1969 upon constant urging from Columbia exec Al Kooper. Although it still never made an impact in their homeland, it took off over here, going to #3 in the U.S. and #1 in Canada.

Since then, the album has grown steadily in praise, but not so much in sales – Rolling Stone still put it under half a million copies ever sold. Nonetheless, it’s had impact. Paul Weller puts it as one of his all-time favorite albums, and as Rolling Stone point out, Beck and Fountains of Wayne both cover several songs off it in concert. Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet covered “Care of Cell 44” and say they are both huge fans of Colin Blunstone’s singing. This century, the BBC has declared it “among the top three albums of the Summer of Love,” and suggested “on ‘A Rose for Emily‘ they proved to be every bit the equal of the Beatles.” Q ranked it as the 26th best British album ever. Allmusic rate it a perfect 5-stars and suggest “aside from the Beatles and perhaps the Beach Boys, no mid-’60s group wrote melodies as gorgeous as the Zombies” and call the record “pleasing, surprising and challenging.” Rolling Stone have ranked it as high as #80 on their list of greatest albums of all-time, pointing out “its baroque-psychedelic arrangements continue to exert a powerful influence.”

One might have thought that with the single’s success, the Zombies might have thought it was “the time of the season” to get back together quickly, but that wasn’t the case. Rod Argent had some success out of the gate with his new band Argent and it took two decades before they re-formed. Currently they’re still performing with Blunstone and Argent in the lineup, but they’ve only put out one album of “new” material since Odessey & Oracle, and that one was merely outtakes and scrapped tracks from 1960s sessions.

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14 thoughts on “April 19 – Their Band Was Buried, But Zombies Rose Up

  1. I was reading up on these guys awhile back. Very talented group of fellows. It’s too bad they were one of those bands that didn’t get promoted like they needed to be. Imagining being told your beautiful music has, “no commercial value at all.” I love the music of The Zombies and also Argent.

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  2. When I was just a nipper and caught up in all the Glam Rock stuff, I was also on the look out for ‘grown up’ music! I actually listened a lot on the radio to Colin Blunstone and Argent were one of my favourite rock bands. Still are – I play their CDs quite regularly. (Russ Ballard was also a favourite at that time.) I knew nothing of The Zombies at that point.
    Funny how tastes in music always find a commonality / link. 🙂

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    1. I knew Argent’s name as a kid but only recently ever heard of Blunstone, though I remember hearing the Zombies hits as a kid then later on the ‘psychedelic Sunday’ classic rock show .

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  3. Badfinger (Max)

    Care of Cell 44 is like another “Good Vibrations” to me. It’s so layered with different elements. They were a musicians music band…
    Odessey & Oracle is one of my favorite albums ever. I wish they would have gotten notice at the time and not a year later. That album had so many good songs…

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  4. The Zombies were very refined, very British. I loved their music back in the day. I remember around 69 seeing a band at the Dunes Danceland in Port Aransas Texas. The band was called “Argent” and they all sounded like Brits, so it must have been his band. For a while in Texas, there was a group of musicians that toured the southern states calling themselves The Zombies. The bass player was Dusty Hill before his ZZ Top fame. Some promoters in Houston came up with the scheme and it lasted about a year before they were sued. One of the great bands I never heard live.

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    1. they put out some great songs… I didn’t realize how few records they had actually. Never knew that about Dusty pre-ZZ Top. Do you recall Argent being really good on the organ or other keyboards live?

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      1. I saw them that one show and recall they were a good band. Possibly Argent was the only Zombie member and on keys. The fake Zombies also had the ZZ Top drummer and a local guitar slinger Saab Meador from Dallas. In the 60s, this was a trick the record companies and promoters used. Hill said they didn’t make squat for the tour. After that, he and the drummer joined ZZ Top. I have a Zombies album, somewhere and now will spin it. Good article as always. If you can find time, could you do one on The Mona Lisa Twins or First Aid Kit. Two sets of sisters that sweat the 60s mersey beat and American folk music.

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  5. From today’s perspective, it’s really hard to understand why the release of this album was delayed. “Time of the Season” is one of my all-time favorite ’60s tunes. While that tune perhaps was the obvious hit, though strangely not in Britain, there are other great songs like “Care of Cell 44”, “A Rose For Emily” and “This Will Be Our Year”.

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