Here’s a clip of underrated Hertfordshire natives and 60s British Invasion melodists The Zombies with their 1965 single “Whenever You’re Ready”, a smash hit that should have been. This lack of wider success is perhaps indicative of the Zombies career in general, all but for their later hit “Time of the Season”, the song for which they are best known.
These guys are often thought of as the runts of the British Invasion litter; a bit too middle-class, a little too English for an R&B beat group maybe, and too many members with NHS glasses, looking too brainy to really be dangerous rock stars. And it’s true that there was no Mick Jagger figure in this band to provide visual stimuli, no sexual provocateurs for parents to be afraid of, and for girls and boys to yearn for. Instead, these guys looked like hall monitors, or members of the school chess club. At least the Beatles had Lennon’s acidic wit and disregard for the establishment to offset the smart suits and clean hair of the early Beatles image. Yet, this band was about melody and tight playing, not the accouterments of pop star personas. Who knows; maybe their nerdy image is the only thing that stopped them. It certainly couldn’t have been the music.
“Whenever You’re Ready” is one of my favourites by this band, perfectly framing them as sensitive lyricists, and with tough playing, and fantastic singing that really sets them apart. Rod Argent’s jazz-influenced keyboard solo rips it up, and Colin Blunstone’s boyish-and-breathy lead vocal leaps from a whisper to a scream. Hugh Grundy’s latin-flavoured drumming on this tune alone makes him one of the most underrated drummers of the era in my book. As for the songwriting, this is a love song with a lot of tension, a break up song that infuses respect for another in with the hurt of separation, which was a fairly advanced idea to capture for writers as young as these guys were at the time.
The group had so many assets, with an ear for melody and the chops to deliver it clearly as their main strength. They had early success with the 1964 single “She’s Not There“, which is another tune of theirs which most casual listeners have at least heard, even if they don’t know who the Zombies are. Yet, their music scared record buyers and radio programers away like bug spray, particularly in Britain where they scored only one top 40 hit in “She’s Not There”. Maybe it was for the reasons I mentioned; that too many media outlets and labels were obsessed with image – who knows? They should have been A-listers. Yet, the stars just didn’t align for the Zombies.
Their most famous single almost sank without a trace. “Time of the Season” was recorded in August 1967 at Abbey Road, not too long after Sgt.Pepper was recorded there. This meant that the studio allowed the band to use the same set up that was put together for Pepper, to wit: use of a mellotron, and two four track recorders “lashed together”, rendering a more expansive sound than ever before. The song builds on what they’d done before with “Whenever You’re Ready”, with a similar “Stand By Me” bass riff, latin-jazz drumming from Grundy, and of course superb singing from Blunstone, only matched by Rod Argent’s jazzy organ breaks. When the single and the album Odessey and Oracle was completed, it was shopped to the States for a planned release through Columbia Records. The label turned it down, but not before Al Kooper, who had an ‘in’ with the label in the States as an A&R man heard it. He proclaimed that the label were “idiots” not to release it. As such, he set about making sure it would happen.
But, there was a problem – the group had broken up by the end of 1967. And who could blame them? After writing and recording fantastic singles that did nothing on the charts, they were burnt out. Yet, Kooper was right about ‘Time of the Season’. By early ’69, it was a North American hit, even if the album sold poorly. After the break-up of the group, Rod Argent and bassist Chris White worked to remix the album for a US audience, encouraged by the success of the single and it is now a classic of the decade, held in high esteem by every music publication who ever produced a ‘best albums ever” list.
But despite the success of the single, the band members had moved on. By the next decade, Rod Argent had formed his proto-prog band Argent (‘Hold Your Head Up” being their biggest hit), and the others went back to getting straight jobs. Colin Blunstone worked as an insurance claims clerk for a year, before getting back into a recording career with his classic, and underexposed, solo album One Year in 1971. In the ensuing years, a number of false Zombies touring groups popped up in an effort to take advantage of the success of “Time of the Season” and of the relative anonymity of the original band members who created it. The faux-Zombies were revealed to be frauds, and the original group remained on hiatus, despite offers made to them to reform.
More recently, Blunstone and Argent have reconvened as the Zombies, with a Zombies reunion performance at Sheppard’s Bush Empire in London which reunited all of the original members except guitarist Paul Atkinson who died in 2004. The show was in celebration of the 40th anniversary of Odessey & Oracle. Argent and Blunstone are currently touring as the Zombies with supplementary players.
For more music and information, check out The Zombies MySpace Page.