Zombies Stalk Music Lovers

One of the great "almost" bands of the 1960s, The Zombies had a career framed by two massive number-one hits: "She's Not There" in the summer of 1964 and "Time of the "Season" in 1969. It would be difficult to believe that any pop-music lover reading this has not heard those haunting minor-key tunes. This 20-track compilation demonstrates that The Zombies had much more to offer in between, but getting it all in one place has been difficult--and this compilation, good as it is, misses a few gems. If you want it all, try to find a copy of the four-CD, 119-track box set Zombie Heaven (ZOMBOX#7) issued in 1997 by Ace in the U.K.

The group--a quintet of smart, college-bound, middle-class kids (Colin Blunstone was the first English rock star I noticed having good teeth)--only released two albums, one at the beginning of its career and one after it had already broken up. The other commercially available tunes were singles and b-sides, and, as the annotation points out, several of the tracks included on this hybrid SACD only became available on one side of the Atlantic or the other as parts of post-break-up compilations.

The majority of the tracks on this set, compiled and superbly mastered by Steve Hoffman, were recorded between 1964 and 1965 for Decca U.K. In America, The Zombies's music was issued by Parrot, a subsidiary of London Records.

What kept The Zombies from sustaining their success in the turbulent mid '60s had as much to do with image marketing as music marketing. They made great music but didn't have a compelling working-class story like the Mersey Beat crowd; they didn't cultivate a "bad boys" image like The Stones; nor were they rowdy like Ray Davies and The Kinks. And they never tried to sell the heartthrob angle.

What The Zombies had was a distinctive "sound"--and they had that right away (well, after a few years' practice above a garage). They won a song-writing contest (the Herts Beat competition), were quickly signed to Decca, and within a few days of its release, "She's Not There" shot to number one. Having George Harrison commend it on a popular U.K. TV show didn't hurt, but the song also went to number one in America, and they became a worldwide sensation, playing, for example, to more than 30,000 fans in the Philippines, of all places.

This set proves the staying power of The Zombies's music. "She's Not There," with fabulous vocal harmonies recorded live, is as spooky and mysterious as it was in 1964. Rod Argent's jazzy Hohner Pianet, Colin Blunstone's distinctive breathy vocals, and Hugh Grundy's syncopated drums set the clean, understated standard for much of what's on this disc, and the formula is repeated on "I Can't Make Up My Mind," "Tell Her No," and the slinky "You Make Me Feel So Good." Those harmonies in the latter tune still insinuate innocent sexuality almost 40 years later--I can remember dancing to the tune as a college freshman and lip-synching the words to what's-her-name.

There are no studio tricks or gimmicks on these recordings, which--though nothing more than basic two- or perhaps four-track productions mixed to stereo--are pristine, airy, and open as you'd expect from even the stingiest Decca U.K. budgets. Hoffman's EQ and mastering choices--especially on the SACD layer--have them sounding better than ever. The breathy delicacy of the vocal tracks particularly stand out. Songs like "Leave Me Be" and "I Love You" sound ripe for the picking for innocent-teenage-movie-soundtracks all these years later. A few songs (like "Sometimes" and "I Don't Want to Know") sound almost like parodies of the era or outtakes from an Austin Powers movie, but most of the Decca-era tracks still sound juicy fresh, and the musicianship soars high above typical pop/rock dross.

What happened next is the stuff of music legend: their contract with Decca expired, and before packing it in they signed to CBS U.K. under the proviso that they retain complete artistic control--this was 1967, the spring of Sgt. Pepper, after all--to produce an album of Rod Argent/Chris White originals. The result was the exquisite Odessey & Oracle (U.K. CBS S63280), recorded at Abbey Road by Peter Vince and Geoff Emerick shortly after The Beatles had finished Sgt. Pepper...in the same EMI studio. Tuneful, heartfelt, and Beatles-influenced, it's fair to describe it (as I and others have, over the years) as the group's Pet Sounds. The songs mostly deal with growing up and the loss of innocence, but an allegorical song about war crept into the album, and the opener, "Care of Cell 44," despite its cheery music, was about women in prison. Issued in the spring of 1968 in the U.K., the album went nowhere.

Though Columbia owned the rights, it (read: Clive Davis) decided to pass on issuing Odessey & Oracle in the U.S. Al Kooper, then an Columbia A&R man, had picked up a copy during a U.K. visit, and through his prodding Columbia finally issued it in late 1968--after the group had disbanded--on its obscure Date label with Kooper's liner notes. It sold respectably, though the first single stiffed. In 1969 Date issued as a single the LP's final track, "Time of The Season," and it became a number-one million seller. The album finally did chart--near the bottom.

In 1998 came a 30th-anniversary edition of Odessey & Oracle on vinyl (Big Beat/Ace WIKD 181), cut from the original analog tapes by Ray Staff at Whitfield Street (a mono mix of "This Will Be Our Year" was wisely substituted for the original LP's electronic stereo version). The anniversary saw an expanded 27-track CD with both mono and stereo mixes issued simultaneously, and both are highly recommended. The CD set's liner notes by Alec Palao are particularly worthwhile. (And yes, he used the Pet Sounds analogy in his notes, but I made it myself long before reading them. I've had the original CBS U.K. LP since it was first issued. Not too defensive of me, but this is Internet, after all, and you can never tell who's reading!)

Hoffman's SACD compilation wisely includes "Time of the Season," as no Zombies hits package could possibly be complete without it, but omits everything else from Odessey & Oracle, which is also wise. The album deserves to be heard complete. Palao's notes describe how, after mixing it in mono and using up the entire budget, the marketing folks decided stereo was the way to go, so Rod Argent and Chris White had to come up with the money for a new mix out of their songwriting royalties. This precipitated the group's breakup and explains why every original U.K. copy of the album I've ever seen has a "stereo" sticker affixed to it. The jackets had already been printed for the mono issue, which never came out. Even the Big Beat/Ace LP reissue uses a scanned original jacket with a sticker.

Get a hold of Odessey & Oracle--however you can find it--and this swell compilation, and you'll own the heart of the Zombies catalog. The Zombies Greatest Hits is the first release from Audio Fidelity, the new label started by former DCC Compact Classics founder Marshall Blonstein. It's an auspicious beginning, musically and sonically.