Graded on a Curve:
The Zombies,
The Complete Studio Recordings

Celebrating Rod Argent, born on this day in 1945.Ed.

With three enduring hit singles, the last of which derives from a classic album that’s as redolent of its era as any, The Zombies aren’t accurately classified as underrated, but it’s also right to say that the potential of much of their catalog went unfulfilled while they were extant. Since their breakup, subsequent generations have dug into that body of work, which has aged rather well, and right now nearly all of it can be found in Varèse Sarabande’s The Complete Studio Recordings, a 5LP collection released in celebration of the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For anyone cultivating a shelf of ’60s pop-rock vinyl, this collection is a smart acquisition.

The Zombies began cohering as a band around 1961-’62 in St Albans, Hertfordshire UK. By the time they debuted on record in ’64 the lineup had solidified, featuring lead vocalist-guitarist Colin Blunstone, keyboardist Rod Argent, guitarist Paul Atkinson, bassist Chris White, and drummer Hugh Grundy. That’s how it would remain until their breakup in December of ’67. Rightly considered part of the mid-’60s British Invasion, The Zombies’ stature in the context of this explosion basically rests on the success of two singles, both far more popular in the US than in the band’s home country.

Those hits, “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No,” each made the Billboard Top 10 (the former all the way to No. 2) and respectively open sides one and two of the US version of their first album, a move suggesting confidence on the part of their label Parrot that, as the needle worked its way inward, listeners wouldn’t become dismayed or bored by a drop-off in quality.

That assurance was well-founded. While “She’s Not There” is an utter pop gem, thriving on perfectly-judged instrumental construction (in its original, superior mono version with Grundy’s added drum input) and emotional breadth that’s found it long-eclipsing mere oldies nostalgia, and “Tell Her No” a more relaxed yet crisp follow-up, their talents were established beyond those two songs, even if nothing else on The Zombies quite rises to the same heights of quality.

The album sequences a version of the Gershwin chestnut “Summertime” directly after “She’s Not There,” dishes a medley of the Miracles’ “You Really Got a Hold on Me” and Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” (pretty sweet in its transition), adds a likeable, unstrained reading of “Can’t Nobody Love You” (recorded in ’63 by Solomon Burke) and concludes with a take of Muddy Waters’ “I Got My Mojo Working” that’s solid if not mind-blowing. Still, interpretation and R&B-sourced gusto wasn’t where The Zombies’ strengths lied.

It was located instead in worthy original material that combined pop savvy with hearty delivery, a mixture that could get them into the rockin’ R&B-ish neighborhood of “It’s Alright with Me” and the proto-garage soul zone of “Woman” but more often just flaunted Blunstone’s abilities as a pop front man; see “Sometimes” and “I Don’t Want to Know.” Integrating rich harmonies from Argent and White, “What More Can I Do” is a swell realization of their pop-rock potential, while instrumental “Work ‘N’ Play” is far from a tossed-off space filler with Argent’s better than blues band-aping harmonica.

The period immediately after The Zombies’ release is often undersold as producing a bunch of singles that stiffed, but that’s really in relation to their initial level of success; the harmony-infused bold production of “She’s Coming Home” and the urbanely bluesy “I Want You Back Again” both made Billboard’s Hot 100 (at 58 and 95) while the considerably Nuggets-tinged “Just Out of Reach,” one of three Zombies tracks included on the soundtrack to Otto Preminger’s classic Bunny Lake is Missing (in which the band appeared as themselves in decidedly non-cheesy fashion), bubbled under (at 113).

All three of these cuts, plus the other two Bunny Lake selections (“Remember You” and “Nothing’s Changed”), are included on this set’s Oddities & Extras, along with the well-formed “Kind of Girl” from their 4-song ’64 EP (not released in the US; the other tracks are on The Zombies), the worthy B-sides “I Must Move” and (the nicely atmospheric) “I Remember When I Loved Her,” the rocker “I’m Going Home,” and the nifty “I Can’t Make Up My Mind” from the UK version of their debut Begin Here.

Due to their declining commercial fortunes in the US and UK, the Zombies’ second LP was only released in Continental Europe and Asia. It originally seems to be an eponymous effort (sometimes considered a third variation on their debut) designated here as I Love You (courtesy of side two’s track four), and it’s more indictive of the band’s pre-Odessey & Oracle sound as it focuses on original material, with only two redundant selections with The Zombies, “Woman” and “She’s Not There,” which closes the record.

Contemplative numbers like the short opening near-a cappella Blunstone spotlight “The Way I Feel Inside” and “How We Were Before” (composed by the vocalist) alternate with energetic movers a la the Motown-esque “Is This a Dream” and the instrumentally progressive “Indication,” while the balance of the rest integrates consistent songwriting and Blunstone’s lead prowess with sharp group dynamics (Whenever You’re Ready” and the title-track stand out) as Argent is appealingly noodle-prone (at least at this point in his artistic trajectory) as a keyboardist.

It makes for a strong LP and surprisingly so, as the songs were never conceived with the format in mind, a situation that also applies to Oddities & Extras, though overall, that one’s a smidge lesser.  Naturally, listeners can engage with the albums in The Complete Studio Recordings any way they see fit (sweet freedom), but here’s a case where jumping ahead chronologically to Oddities & Extras pays off, especially as side two offers the ’67 45 “Goin’ Out of My Head” b/w “She Does Everything for Me” (the A-side a Little Anthony & the Imperials’ cover) followed by closer “A Love that Never Was.”

That last one is something of an Odessey-forecaster, which brings us to the doorstep of The Zombies’ epochal doozy. But first, let’s observe that a pleasing element in the band’s ’60s lifespan was a lack of desperation in the attempt to follow up their early success. This applies most beneficially to Odessey & Oracle, which has been reported as an intended statement of finality after signing to CBS for an album deal as they recognized that things were likely winding down for them.

Perhaps for this reason and the tight budget they were given (though they recorded at Abbey Road studios), the LP, made over a few months in the summer of ’67, is ambitious without ever becoming ridiculous, obviously influenced by The Beach Boys and The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s, natch) while avoiding rip-off moves and establishing a rewarding, highly influential album personality of its own.

It opens with the gorgeous vocal sweep of “Care of Cell 44” into the sublime piano-based twee transcendence that is “A Rose for Emily” and on the back end dishes the proto-singer-songwriter nugget “This Will Be Our Year” and the war ballad strangeness of “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)” (taken by some then and since to be commentary on the Vietnam conflict).

Altogether, it’s a baroque masterpiece, released in ’68 to no fanfare, the record only catching on in a big way the following year when CBS (at the apparent pestering of Al Kooper) issued “Time of the Season,” as a single. It was soon to become one of the defining songs of the ’60s. Naturally, after it climbed to No. 3, the label wanted to cash in, which is where this set’s R.I.P enters the picture, though the results weren’t released as an album until 2014.

Assembled from some post-Odessey singles stabs made at the behest of CBS by Argent and White (the band had broken up), efforts that stiffed (which is why it didn’t come out back then), combined with enhanced outtakes, R.I.P. is about as good as any release assembled under these circumstances has any right to be, and not much better. Given the above observation that folks will listen to the LPs in The Complete Studio Recordings any way they please, it still seems good advice to cue up R.I.P. last. At least the first time through.

A quick note: The songs “Roadrunner” and “Sticks and Stones,” both cover tunes opening each side of their UK debut, aren’t included, which makes this box set’s title inaccurate. This is hardly the first time a release claiming to be complete hasn’t been, so this fact didn’t figure in the cumulative grade below. It’s just that for folks desiring to own everything by The Zombies, a copy of Begin Here, either original or reissue, is in their future.

The Zombies

I Love You

Odessey & Oracle


Oddities & Rarities

The Complete Studio Recordings

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