American music — especially R&B, jazz, folk and rock 'n' roll — lit a fire under Britain's youth in the early 1960s, sparking a proliferation of bands. The Zombies stood out from their peers with catchy songs that often had a dark edge, accentuated by Rod Argent's virtuosic jazz-inflected keyboards and Colin Blunstone's soulful yet ethereal vocals. Their first two singles, "She's Not There" and "Tell Her No," sold well enough, but the unique sound and approach that was key to their initial success made them difficult to pigeonhole, and sales declined as radio programmers, the day's key musical gatekeepers, passed them over for less complicated fare.
In 1967, The Zombies recorded their undisputed masterpiece, Odessey and Oracle, working mostly at EMI's Abbey Road studios just as The Beatles finished Sgt. Pepper's. The label's chosen singles tanked, and the group dissolved before the album was officially released. Over a year later, Columbia's new A&R rep in the U.S., Al Kooper, lobbied to release "Time of the Season" as a single, and it rode the Top 10 nearly everywhere — except the U.K., where it still failed to make an impact. Meanwhile, the former Zombies were already invested in other projects: Argent recorded his eponymous band and produced solo material for Blunstone, both efforts aided and abetted by bass player Chris White.
For all intents and purposes, The Zombies lay buried until Argent performed at a charity concert in 2000. Blunstone, who was in the audience, took the stage to sing "Time of the Season" and "She's Not There," and the thrill of that moment has turned into a renaissance for the group, including an Odessey and Oracle 40th anniversary tour in 2008. Re-learning material that was written, recorded and promptly shelved decades ago proved an exciting challenge, but soon enough, Argent and Blunstone began work on new material. The strongest effort yet from the reanimated Zombies, 2011's Breathe out, Breathe In, features the current touring band, with Argent, Blunstone, bassman Jim Rodford (who played bass in Argent and later incarnations of The Kinks), drummer Steve Rodford and guitarist Tom Toomey. Rather than a cringe-inducing attempt at Odessey and Oracle II, Breathe reveals mature artists reveling in their abilities.
"What we're definitely not trying to do is try and copy what we were doing in the old days," Argent tells the Scene. "[But we] tried to reproduce the performance element that we had all those years ago as much as we could. ... In the recording process, I've always believed 100 percent that it's about capturing the performance."
Breathe may not have the reckless edge of an album made by hungry youngsters, but the ability to subvert expectations that has served The Zombies since their first single is in full bloom. Argent's adventurous chord changes and trademark solos judiciously underscore big, complex harmonies that show off Blunstone's untarnished vocal abilities, especially on tunes like the Stevie Wonder-inflected "Shine on Sunshine" and the Latin groove of "Show Me the Way."
Though writing and rehearsing with the group organically produces different songs than it did when The Zombies were in their 20s, Argent says they're "not aiming at any particular age group. ... We do what's honest to us, and that's something we've always done. Sometimes the fact that you didn't get to the hook line in 30 seconds, or [the song] wasn't in an obvious formula, could work against you in the very short term. In the long term, it means things have a chance of standing up many, many years later, and people can still relate to them."
Though concert attendance is strong and their appearances on U.S. TV were well-received, marketing their music is still something of an uphill battle, as radio remains unsure of what to do with them. "Everything is categorized down to the nth degree with radio, and I think that's a real shame," says Argent. When Argent was on tour in the early days of FM, DJs exerted a greater degree of control in programming, and "the audiences really responded to the enthusiasm and honesty of what they were hearing ... and that built the audiences."
Despite O&O's initially meager sales, its decidedly un-precious pastoral psychedelia inspired a legion of loyal fans, and more than a few musicians. Though Blunstone and Argent could easily rest on their laurels with that, the pull of creating and performing is just too strong to resist.
"We're going out there because we still get a huge buzz out of playing live," Argent says. "The time that we're onstage feels exactly as it did when I was 18 years old. That's the joy of having a life in music — that really is a privilege."
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