Given that the Zombies had only two UK hits and released just one LP during their three years of 60s stardom, it’s all going rather well for them. The band are back with a critically-acclaimed album, Different Game, while officially being a museum attraction.
Four original members were welcomed into the Georgian splendour of St Albans Museum for an evening of chat and acoustic music on Friday, marking the opening of The Zombies Come Home, an exhibition that harks back to their 1961 formation as schoolboys in the city.
It’s been a curious, roller-coaster career. The band split at the end of 1967, notching up their biggest hit two years later.
A six-date reformation of singer Colin Blunstone and keyboard player Rod Argent in 1999 never ended and now they’re a transatlantic force – inducted into America’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2019.
The exhibition, initially stymied by Covid, is now more deserved than ever.
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“It’s great!” Argent, 78, says cheerfully. “My parents always lived in St Albans and I was a choirboy at the cathedral. My cousin, Jim Rodford” – bassist in Rod’s post-Zombies band Argent and for the Kinks for 19 years – “turned me on to rock‘n’roll by playing me Elvis’s Hound Dog when I was 11, in 1956.
“It turned my world around and made me feel that as soon as I was old enough I had to form a band.”
The schoolboys got together, creating intelligent R&B pop combining Blunstone’s delicate vocals and Argent’s dancing piano runs. Their first single, the classic She’s Not There written by Argent, made the Top 10 at home but topped the US Cashbox charts, spawning huge American tours.
“It became the first self-written Number One single by an English group in America after the Beatles,” says Argent. “We were touring there and, 19 years old, I’d called my mum. She said, ‘You’ve just been on the Nine o’Clock News’.”
Those days were a fairytale. “Just eight years after I’d first seen Elvis, Colin and I and the rest of the band wandered up the drive at Graceland and knocked on the door. We were like kids wanting Elvis to come and play. But his dad said sorry, he’s away filming but he loves you guys.
“Much later, a DJ told us that Elvis had three of our songs on his jukebox!” Yet the only other single to trouble the charts at the time was Tell Her No, also in 1964.
The band – Argent, bassist and other main songwriter Chris White Blunstone, guitarist Paul Atkinson and drummer Hugh Grundy – were musically gifted, but “were not well managed,” says Argent. “The two writers had a very good income yet the others didn’t get anything like what they deserved. Then Paul said ‘I’m getting married and I’ve got no money – I’m going to have to leave and get a job’.”
Preparing to record their second album, they decided that if they didn’t get another hit they would call it quits. There was no hit and they’d walked away before the album, Odessey and Oracle (the mis-spelling by the psychedelic cover’s artist proved too difficult to alter), was even released.
It didn’t come out in the US until producer Al Kooper (who had played on Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde) championed it and picked a single, Time Of The Season, which shot to No 1 there.
“In fact,” says Argent. “It became a No 1 pretty much all over the world except the UK. Here it’s been out five times but was never a hit. Extraordinarily, even if we play to a really young audience, everybody knows it!
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“We were offered a million dollars to tour and could’ve got back together – but we wanted to move forward, not rake over the coals.”
Blunstone, 78, says: “Rolling Stone named it one of the 100 top albums of all time. It was a strange situation, we’d all moved on to other things.
“That was 1969, well after we’d split up. Rod had formed a production company with Chris and they produced my first solo album, One Year, with the hit single Say You Don’t Mind.”
Unscrupulous US promoters then created fake Zombies to cash in. One of the touring “Original Zombies” combos featured Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, later of hairy Texan blues rockers ZZ Top.
“The original tribute band!” laughs Argent, whose own band, Argent, by 1972 had hit the US Top 5 with Hold Your Head Up and later created rock anthem God Gave Rock And Roll To You.
The Zombies didn’t carve out a new career until the 21st century, becoming a regular in colourful spots like the Boom Boom Club at Sutton United’s Surrey ground, before winding up with US management and huge US concerts.
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It was still very much a St Albans affair, featuring Jim Rodford until his death in 2018, and his drummer son Steve. And there have often been two Zombies side-by-side. In 2008, the 40th anniversary of Odessey and Oracle, the four surviving original members (Atkinson died in 2004) reconvened.
“We’d never played it live. We were going to play one night, but that grew to three. Then more, and we took it to the States…”
Says Argent: “On the first night our manager said, ‘Oh, Paul Weller’s in the queue outside’. I said for goodness’ sake invite him in! He came all three nights, singing along, and bought us a magnum of champagne. Robert Plant was there too.”
Now, though, the band concentrate on their music of today with Different Game, a psychedelia-tinged album complete with string quartet. That doesn’t mean they can’t revel in the exhibition. So what’s in it? Well, not Blunstone’s Aran sweater – that’s still at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
“They’d asked for anything from the early days,” he says. “I found this old jumper. I was wearing it when we recorded Odessey and Oracle, lush, pure white, long on the hips, it was at the bottom of a cupboard, shrunk out of all recognition, no longer snow white!”
But there is a statuette marking their original US No1, and which has been in the Hall Of Fame. From this year another statuette comes from South By South West, the influential festival in Austin, Texas, celebrating their career.
There are guitars, including a replica of one Buddy Holly played.
“It’s a wonderfully engraved guitar, presented to us by Buddy’s widow after we became ambassadors to the Buddy Holly Educational Foundation,” says Blunstone.
The Zombies story is told in new cinematic documentary Hung Up On A Dream, directed by Robert Schwartzman, nephew of Francis Ford Coppola and cousin of Nicolas Cage. Tom Hanks is executive producer. The film has been screened at the prestigious Woodstock Film Festival in New York. Only a week ago was a highlight of the Doc’n Roll Festival at London’s Barbican and got a last-minute St Albans showing last night – TV streaming to come.
Today there is an exhibition of the work of Odessey and Oracle artist Terry Quirk and Vivienne Boucherat, wife of original bassist Chris White; a jazz brunch with current guitarist Tom Toomey and a blues evening in memory of Jim Rodford.
There’s also a walking map of the city featuring Zombies landmarks – and even a stall on the market. A spring UK tour is about to be announced and they have secured the rights to all their early recordings, meaning stylish re-releases are on the cards.
“Who’d have thought we could be museum pieces?” laughs Blunstone.
“But we try to get people to understand that we get our energy out of what we’re doing now.”
- The Zombies exhibition is open now (stalbansmuseums.org.uk). Different Game is on Cooking Vinyl Records. Tour updates: thezombiesmusic.com
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