Rock immortals and RockHall nominees The Zombies more alive now than ever
The Zombies (original lineup, courtesy of The Zombies)
Janet Jackson and Stevie Nicks predictably got the biggest media play out of last week’s 2019 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations announcement, but really, they’re just baby acts.
Not only did The Zombies keep up with their fourth nomination in five years, the immortal British Invasion band from St Albans, England, whose chart-topping 1964 U.S. debut hit “She’s Not There” was revived just last year in a Kohler commercial (its 1965 B-side “I Love You,” later a 1968 hit cover by People!, was used in a “Got Milk” spot earlier this year), is no less hale and hearty careerwise.
Well into their sixth decade, in fact, The Zombies have never been more alive. Having already celebrated the 50th anniversary of their landmark 1968 album Odessey and Oracle (hailed as a masterpiece by both Tom Petty, who covered their 1965 hit “I Want You Back Again“ on his Live Anthology album, and Zombies superfan Dave Grohl, who said its track “Care of Cell 44” changed his life), the group, now comprised of original lead singer Colin Blunstone and original keyboardist/vocalist Rod Argent with guitarist Tom Toomey, drummer Steve Rodford and bassist Soren Koch, is more active now that at any time in their career.
A big jumpstart occured in 1998, when Blunstone, who had performed with artists including the Alan Parsons Project after The Zombies broke up in 1967 (before Odessey and Oracle—and its chart-topping 1969 hit “Time of the Season” was released), reteamed with Argent, who had likewise achieved ensuing success by way of his band Argent and its enduring 1972 hit “Hold Your Head Up.”
The reformed band has since toured the U.S. consistently while developing a fervid all-ages fan base. Last year brought a round of Odessey and Oracle anniversary performances—and publication of a related coffee table book The “Odessey” The Zombies in Words and Images. This year has seen a 23-date North American tour and full U.K. run, plus a few select West Coast U.S. dates, with a major tour of Germany still to come.
Additionally, the band is writing new material to follow up their acclaimed recent studio albums Breathe Out, Breathe In (2013) and Still Got That Hunger (2015).
But it’s The Zombies’ historic initial recordings, of course, that have long merited Rock and Roll Hall of Fame enshrinement while transcending generations of fans.
“Their music blew my mind,” their contemporary Brian Wilson has stated, while fun’s Nate Ruess has said that when he began writing music, Odessey and Oracle changed his life—and that he “pretty much listened to nothing else for an entire year.” Cage the Elephant’s Matt Shultz called it “one of the greatest records ever made” and The Zombies “one of the single most impactful groups” on his band, while Portugal. The Man extols Blunstone as “the greatest singer in the world.”
Such accolades, notes Zombies co-manager Chris Tuthill, only adds to the significance of their latest RockHall nomination.
“It says a lot in that they’ve been eligible since God knows when [the ‘60s Zombies—Blunstone, Argent, bassist Chris White, drummer Hugh Grundy and late guitarist Paul Atkinson--became eligible in 1989], so to have four nominations now in such a short space of time means that their impact and influence are being felt more now than even 10 years ago,” says Tuthill. “Colin and Rod are together and at the top of their game, making new music and touring nonstop and promoting themselves in this new day and age, which is highly unusual 50 years after they started.”
Cindy da Silva, Tuthill’s partner at The Rocks Management, also observes that “people are finally becoming hip to The Zombies,” and sees their initial showcase in Austin at the annual South by Southwest music gathering in 2013 as a turning point.
“I’d already been there 12 times and knew what it was like to get attention for baby bands,” says da Silva, “and now I actually had a band that they wanted more than others! But there was a certain mystique about The Zombies: They’d been out of the spotlight so long—as they broke up before ‘Time of the Season’ became a hit—that they were kind of an unsolved mystery, and far ahead of their time.”
But time was ripe for catching up, for within a few weeks, ”everything in Zombies World changed.” South by Southwest generated “a tremendous amount of press in outlets like Paste Magazine,” da Silva notes, as their showcase at Waterloo Records “blew everyone’s minds.”
“No one expected them to play a record store at noon on Saturday,” she continues, “but over 2,500 people were at that show and spilling over beyond the barricades and into the next parking lot.”
Meanwhile, Tuthill was fighting to get the band on their first cruise.
“It was the Moody Blues Cruise, with another 2,000 people—but these were Moody Blues fans,” he says. “The sound man listened to everybody’s soundcheck on the outdoor pool stage, and said the only way we could win everyone over was to blow the crap out of the bass and make the ship feel it. Imagine the whole ship shaking to ‘Hold Your Head Up’!”
Sound aside, The Zombies won shipmates over personally as well.
“They were staying on the regular deck and eating in the cafeteria like commoners while the Moodies were locked in their compound,” says Tuthill. “So people fell in love with The Zombies musically, then realized they could see them at breakfast! They became obsessed with their music, and with them as people.”
In fact, “at every show after that we’d see a whole section of blue t-shirts from the cruise, and the same people going from city to city and show to show to see them.”
The Zombies quickly followed up their South by Southwest and Moody Blues Cruise appearances with a showcase at the Austin Psyche Fest.
“Suddenly we started seeing young people at the shows,” says da Silva, “and we started a merchandise line. What we had up until then was hideous: Rod and Colin used to be embarrassed to see people wearing Zombies t-shirts, they were so bad! So I made new shirts and suddenly their wives and daughters wanted them.”
Da Silva has now created 92 pieces of Zombies merchandise over the last five years, notably including “an awesome blanket” that she gratefully thanks Heart’s Ann Wilson for wrapping herself in one and putting a photo of it on Instagram while she and The Zombies participated at this year’s 30A Songwriters Festival in Florida.
“A few ladies own every single piece!” she says, noting that the “She’s Not There” black-and-white t-shirt featuring a “retro ‘60s woman with bouffant hair” outsells everything, much thanks here to Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz, who saw a grey-and-blue version and said he’d wear one on stage if it came in black-and-white—which da Silva saw that it soon did.
She mentions another noteworthy piece, a limited edition Odessey and Oracle viscose scarf based on illustrator Terry Quirk’s famous album cover and designed by Winter Design Group, which works with numerous museums.
“We went from very minimal business to almost $400,000 in merch sales last year,” says da Silva, “amounting to $10.62-a-head--off-the-charts considering a lot of bands doing bigger shows do $3 or $4.”
And as for Zombies shows, The Zombies have been touring the U.S. now as many as three times a year, whereas they were part of a Dick Clark Caravan package tour in 1965 and toured here one other time prior to their regrouping.
“They were barely visible in America for 50 years, and now they’re a staple,” says da Silva, “so much so that when they were crossing the border recently from Canada, Rod turned to Chris and said, ‘It feels good to be home!’”
“We’ve been going for as wide a variety of venues as possible,” says Tuthill. “Different venues—and even cities—offer different demographics and perceptions. Playing a casino in the suburbs in the summer gets a certain segment of an audience that might not go to a rock club in a bigger city—but you won’t get 20-year-olds going to casinos in the summer when they can see you with a cool young band opening in a big city. So you don’t want to alienate anyone, but reach everyone.”
Rocks Management also looks for mixed-seat “ideal situations” like San Francisco’s Fillmore, Minneapolis’s First Avenue and Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club, which offer seated balconies at a higher price for fans who prefer comfort, and less expensive open floor admission for younger fans happy to stand and dance.
After their forthcoming tour of Germany (and Scandinavia) as special guests of Uriah Heap in December, The Zombies will play a memorial tribute show at St Albans Arena on Jan. 20, one year after the death of their longtime bassist (and Steve’s father) Jim Rodford. Blunstone will then commence a brief solo U.S. tour in February prior to the band’s participation in the Justin Hayward Cruise that month, to be followed by shows in Florida, New Orleans and Texas through March. And while summer touring plans are being formulated, they’re writing songs on the road for the new album.
But also in the works is a Zombies documentary being developed by Emmy Award-winning cinematographer Alan Sterling Deutsch.
“They had a huge impact, then came back decades later and not only lived up to their legend, but exceeded it,” says Tuthill. “They’ve created new music that’s relevant, and really embraced today’s music industry paradigm with crowdfunding as well as live-steaming shows on Facebook. They understand how to connect with their fan base—especially this year, considering that they’ve been handicapped by being the oldest band nominated for the Hall of Fame, with older fans who might not be as tech savvy.”
Then again, The Zombies are currently in fifth place (of the 15 nominees) in the online fan vote for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, well ahead of Janet Jackson in sixth.
“They’re even ahead of Radiohead!” says Tuthill. “How is that possible?”
He suggests that the support of The Zombies’ peers is partially responsible for their resurgence, as does da Silva.
“Eminem based his ‘Rhyme or Reason’ from The Marshall Mathers LP 2 on ‘Time of the Season,’” she says, “and Post Malone’s recent Beerbongs & Bentleys track ‘Same Bitches’ uses its famous line ‘What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?’ It’s become an iconic saying in pop culture, from an album that mostly got ignored when it came out, yet somehow ended up No. 100 on the Rolling Stone ’500 Greatest Albums of All Time’ list.”
Over five decades later, The Zombies remain “reluctant rock stars,” marvels da Silva. “They don’t understand how much they’ve affected others, but see themselves merely as people doing what they do for a living and still acting and behaving as themselves.”
Both Blunstone and Argent were humble indeed in reacting to The Zombies’ latest Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination.
“When the band first started way back in 1961 I would never have dreamed of this kind of recognition and even after all these years it’s still a thrill to be nominated by such a respected and revered institution!” said Blunstone.
Added Argent, “The last 12 months have been extraordinary, and we've had a panoply of lovely comments, written or delivered in person, from so many favorite and iconic artists, many of whom have taken the trouble to come along to watch a show in one of the four U.S. tours we’ve undertaken during that period.”
Many of those comments, he added, ”to our amazement, often [cited] us as a major influence!”
Argent concluded: “As always, we’re looking forward to constantly creating, recording and performing new music, and along with the undimmed pleasure of performing our early catalog, to breaking new ground--which gives us the same buzz as when we first started all those years ago.”
The Zombies (current lineup, photo: Payley Photography)