In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
Few Americans born after the decade might know it, but the British Invasion of the mid-1960s was a watershed. If it was sparked by a single musical appearance—the Beatles’ epochal performance on The Ed Sullivan Show on the evening of February 9, 1964—it was much more than a mere moment of mass hysteria. Long before there was an internet to shrink the globe down to seeming pocket size, and years before the term “underground” would become a marketing angle, the British Invasion was an atomic thunderclap, linking the youth cultures of the US and the UK and stoking what would become a global furnace of musical and cultural ferment.
The Beatles may have initiated the British Invasion, but they were far from the only game in town. The Zombies may have been one of the least-known bands of the British Invasion, but in their afterlife they would grow to become one of the best-loved.
This year, at long last, the Zombies will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Though their latter-day fame largely rests upon their final LP, Odessey and Oracle, long before its release they learned their trade the old-fashioned way: By covering other artists’ songs.
The Zombies hailed from St. Albans, a middle-class suburb northwest of London. Crucially, two of the original band members—lead vocalist Colin Blunstone and drummer Hugh Grundy—were choirboys there. This grounding in the precise architecture of classical choral works, along with the bucolic affluence of their surroundings, would lend a subtle but distinctive shading to their songs, and engender a lyrical and harmonic sophistication not often heard in the genre.
In the world of rock and roll, of course, that could be a liability. Throughout their career, the band would largely be perceived as cultured, bookish and effete; an early promo shot of the band clustered around a chessboard—several of them wearing thick spectacles—only served to fuel the perception that they gravitated towards intellectual rather than carnal pursuits. Whether this was actually the case or not, the material written by principal songwriters Chris White and Rod Argent, whose virtuosity as a keyboardist gave his instrument pride of place in the mix, was both exceptional and distinctive.
But like most of the British Invasion bands, the Zombies leaned heavily on other writers’ material, especially when they were contemplating the leap from being a competent “weekend” band to something more ambitious. And even when they plumbed the same musical wellsprings as their peers, their clever, keyboard-led arrangements and Blunstone’s breathy, intimate performances were always instantly recognizable.
Some of those treatments were compelling. After the Zombies’ first single, “She’s Not There,” went to #12 in the UK and #2 in the US, producer Ken Jones helped them scrape together an album half-comprised of cover songs, one of them being a languid and affecting take on George Gershwin’s deathless “Summertime.”
That said, not all these readings were entirely convincing. When the band took on rock ’n roll or hard R&B a la the Animals or Pretty Things, the former choirboys came off sounding a bit like, well, former choirboys, as they do on Bo Diddley’s “Roadrunner.”
Sadly, after the success of their first single, the band wouldn’t hit it big again until after they’d broken up. In the meantime, as they released a spate of excellent releases to diminishing commercial returns, two threads began to converge. For one, they began to reach deeper into other composers’ songbooks in the hopes of scoring another smash hit. For another, with their musical prowess growing in leaps and bounds, the band’s arrangements of other writers’ work began to approach their own in terms of its quality.
One of the best of these covers was Clint Ballard, Jr.’s “Gotta Get a Hold of Myself.” A musical prodigy originally hailing from Texas, Ballard would have a long and varied career, writing scores for musicals and songs for pop and soul stars including Frankie Avalon and Dee Dee Warwick. He had a special affinity for British Invasion artists, writing “I’m Alive” for the Hollies (the band’s first number one hit) and “Gotta Get a Hold of Myself,” which served as the A-side for the Zombies’ 10th single, in September 1966.
This rare color footage of the band is revealing. If the poor recording quality loses crucial details of the studio version,in particular bassist and arranger Chris White’s creeping fills, it shows the band in top form, with the spotlight on Colin Blunstone’s confident performance (and heavy makeup) despite the complete lack of monitors, characteristic of the day.
For another, the clip demonstrates how little say bands of the era had in determining how they were to be presented. That is, assuming the Zombies didn’t ask to be surrounded by a clutch of dancers in jarring burlesque gear…
The Zombies would release one more cover, a fine take on Little Anthony & The Imperials’ moody “Goin’ Out of My Head.” It’s an apt preamble to their next and final pre-reunion release, one that would largely be spurred by a general sense of frustration at their declining fortunes. The recording sessions would be marked by disillusionment and constrained by a limited budget, and the resulting album would sell poorly. Exhausted, the Zombies would disband, not even bothering to undertake a promotional tour.
As time passed, that album, Odessey and Oracle, would come to be regarded as a high-water mark of psychedelic chamber-pop, and for good reason. Lacking the label support to hire the session players needed to fill out their ambitious arrangements, the band instead made the most of their prodigious native talents as vocalists, instrumentalists and arrangers.
It shows. The vocal treatments on songs like “A Rose for Emily” are nearly peerless in their clarity and execution; “Changes” features bongo drums, jazz piano and soaring Beach Boys-like harmonies—if the Beach Boys were Gregorian monks—and yet manages to resist caricature at every turn.
Overall, the album has a striking, elegaic coherence; it’s a record that could only have been made in the era, and yet transcends so many of the tropes and pitfalls of the time. What’s more, the album’s final track, the eerie “Time of the Season,” would become the band’s biggest-selling release. But at the time, that was still to come.
Other artists have taken note. In the last two decades, artists ranging from the late Elliott Smith to Paul Weller to Foo Fighters have all covered Zombies songs. But even before their initial breakup, the Zombies distinctive songwriting was held in high regard by several of their contemporaries. Their 1965 B-side “I Love You” became a moderate hit for bombastic San Jose hipsters People! And Arizona garage rockers Phil and the Frantics covered the Zombies’ “I Must Move,” sort of. Reworked as “I Must Run” (and produced by Waylon Jennings), the song was not a carbon copy of the original (nor was it credited as such), but the similarity is rather striking, to say the least.
But the most flagrant appropriation was yet to come. Odessey and Oracle had yielded the Zombies one last smash hit, “Time of the Season,” but as it was a “sleeper,” not taking off for a good year—the band had long since parted ways. In those quaint pre-internet days, there were all sorts of opportunities available to enterprising promoters of, shall we say, less-than-pristine morals. Soon, not one, not two, but three bands had taken to the road claiming to be the real Zombies.
As described in a lengthy and highly entertaining BuzzFeed article, two of the imposter bands were American; one even sported future ZZ Top rhythm section Frank Beard and Dusty Hill. According to Blunstone, the third “fake” Zombies were English and “very bad,” despite the dubious draw of having a bassist who shared real Zombies drummer Hugh Grundy’s name.
After the multiple imposter Zombies had been driven offstage by legal pressure, angry fans, or their own incompetence, the real Zombies took to reforming from time to time. The current version of the band, including original members Blunstone and Argent, has been more or less active since the early aughts, staging at least two tours dedicated to the material on Odessey and Oracle (which the original band never performed live).
Now the Zombies have been granted perhaps the highest honor in the world of rock and roll: inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Like most of their peers, the band embarked upon their musical journey by learning the songwriters’ craft in the most time-honored way: imitation. But unlike many of those fellow-travelers, they would go on to forge their own very idiosyncratic, personal, and often underappreciated path. As the critical acclaim and outpouring of audience love surrounding the anniversary performances of Odessey and Oracle attest, perhaps the rest of us have only now just caught up with them.
There are more Zombies covers in our archives.