Imagine: you are in a band that has entered Abbey Road just after the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper, to cut your own classic album which will be released after you cease to exist, with very little in the way of promotion. The album will garner favorable reviews and few sales, but you will return, nearly 50 years later, to perform it in its entirety and release a new LP in one of the strangest, most stirring comebacks in the history of rock and roll.
Of course, were this happening to you, you'd likely be keyboardist Rod Argent or singer Colin Blunstone, founding members of the British group the Zombies, and musicians who know something about bouncing back from the dead, a process abetted by having a masterwork like 1968's Odessey and Oracle in your back catalog. Argent and Blunstone will reunite with the other surviving members, drummer Hugh Grundy and bassist Chris White, to perform Odessey on a North American tour starting September 30th. The shows will also feature the band's current lineup, sans Grundy and White, performing music from a brand-new Zombies LP, Still Got That Hunger — the band's first since 2011's Breathe Out, Breathe In — out October 9th.
"I didn't know [Odessey and Oracle] was going to be the Zombies' last album," Blunstone says now, looking back at the band's defining record. "Well, the last album for that phase. I think I would have found it very difficult to commit to the album if I knew that was the end. The single format was so dominant at the time. Albums were just becoming the thing."
And what a thing Odessey and Oracle is: a rock and roll LP that makes inroads into baroque music, with rich vocal polyphonies, luminous, deep-textured bass lines bolstered by the engineering of Beatles stalwart Geoff Emerick, and a song, in "Time of the Season," that is now ubiquitous, thanks to Blunstone's vocal.
"That was the last song to be written for the album," says the frontman. "It was written in the morning and then recorded that afternoon in Studio Three at Abbey Road. I wasn't really totally confident in singing it. Rod was in the control room encouraging me in my headphones. I still wasn't getting it right. I always have to smile because he was sort of saying, 'That's not quite it, Colin,' and it ended up with us shouting at each other. Funny. And there I am singing 'It's the time of the season for loving...'"
"[Odessey and Oracle] has its own sound," says Argent. "At the same time that that phase for the band was coming to an end, we were opportunists. We wandered into the studio just as the Beatles were coming out, having recorded Sgt. Pepper. There were things left around like John Lennon's mellotron. Which I used, just because it was there. Didn't ask anybody. And things that were also kind of in the mind. Beatles things. Like, 'The Beach Boys just did Pet Sounds with an 8-track; there are no 8-tracks in England — what are we going to do?' And the boffins at Abbey Road found ways to combine 4-track machines and we leapt on that, that Beatles way of thinking. We were very natural as well, getting excited about music and ideas, and that's something that's never left Colin and me. That's why we're still doing what we're doing together."
"We wandered into the studio just as the Beatles were coming out, having recorded Sgt. Pepper. There were things left around like John Lennon's mellotron. Which I used, just because it was there." — Rod Argent
Unlike the Beatles, recording time was finite — very finite — for the Zombies, so they rehearsed the Odessey and Oracle songs devoutly, the result being a compact process in the studio that, in some weird, alchemical way, played a part in their latter day resurrection, and ability to circumvent the normal constraints of time and eras.
"We never thought, 'Okay, what's a hit at the moment? Let's do our version of that,'" Argent says. "Never. And we've always been an organic band in the sense that we rehearse, we get into the studio, and we are ready to go. And that's how we did the new one. A similar approach, really, to the one from way back in '67 with Odessey."
That new one would be Still Got That Hunger, which features Argent and Blunstone alongside guitarist Tom Toomey and father-son rhythm section Jim and Steve Rodford. Yet as proud as the co-founders are of the new LP, they recognize that there's something special about the original Zombies lineup that will reunite for the upcoming tour.
"One time I was playing as a solo artist," Blunstone remembers, "and I was playing with my band, and they were really good players. Really hot band. And it was the end of the set, and everyone from the Zombies was at this particular party, which was for this box set [Zombie Heaven] that featured all of our material. And I don't know whose idea it was, but the original guys came toward the stage and I thought, 'My God, we haven't rehearsed anything — what are we going to play?' Look: I was playing with a really, really strong band, and yet, there's something special when the original Zombies play. We hadn't played together in, like, 35 years or something. Didn't matter."
In part because of Blunstone's cherubic vocals and Argent's keyboard wizardry, plus the baroque excursions of Odessey, people sometimes forget what a cracking hot ensemble the Zombies could be. Their BBC sides, with drummer Hugh Grundy coming off like a jazzier version of Keith Moon, are about as good as any airshots the Beeb turned out.
"We didn't always feel that our early singles captured our energy that you'd hear live," Argent says. "We'd put something down on demo, and we felt that the feeling was there. But before we did Odessey, with a new producer, something often seemed to go missing that we had when we played live. Things could be too sterile. Whereas with the BBC sessions, it captured some more of the honesty that was going on, what we were more about."
And as one thing the Zombies are about is going full circle, it makes a certain kind of pleasing sense that Odessey and Oracle cover artist Terry Quirk — who shared a flat with bassist Chris White, and was present when many of the Odessey and Oracle songs were being written and recorded — has been pressed into service for the Still Got That Hunger sleeve.
"We were sitting in Abbey Road in the morning. They were mixing. As they discussed [album] names and things, I sketched out the idea in my kind of visual style at the time. Of course, the big thing was the spelling mistake on 'Odessey.' I was so engaged with the visuals and thinking about the context of the songs and how the album art reflected that feeling, so I didn't realize until about two thirds of the way through that there was an 'e' where there should have been a 'y.' But it was too late then, with the deadlines. So, to be honest, we blagged it. We said, 'This is a time when lots of people are playing around with words.' For a while, everybody believed it. A long time later, I was teaching art in university, and a colleague walked in and said, 'Oh, Terry Quirk, you're the one we come to for spelling,' but having said that, probably the best thing I ever did."
"Of course, the big thing was the spelling mistake on 'Odessey.' I was so engaged with the visuals and thinking about the context of the songs and how the album art reflected that feeling, so I didn't realize until about two thirds of the way through that there was an 'e' where there should have been a 'y.'" —Terry Quirk
His follow-up effort harkens back to the original design, with its sea of psychedelic imagery and mottled blues, but with some of the visual vernacular of graffiti artists to lend a contemporary aspect that dovetails nicely with the band's perpetually fresh approach to recording.
"Each complete take on the new album was performed live," Blunstone enthuses. "We had the luxury of touching up some things, but in essence, it's live in the studio. Some of my guide vocals became the vocals."
"It's funny," Argent offers. "We rehearsed so much so long ago, and you have to wonder if the things you don't get, the limitations you have to work around, maybe make you better, maybe set you up for some kind of very good things that you wouldn't have had without having to work around those limitations."
A perfect Zombies sentiment.