I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I only have enough time and money for one vice and one expensive hobby, and I’m sticking with scotch and visiting Disney World, respectively. For this reason, I’m not exactly a prolific concert-goer. But when I found out that The Zombies were on tour again and were headed to Niagara Falls, a mere hour and a half from my summer residence in Rochester, I had to buy tickets for my wife and I.
The venue was actually really cool. I am reluctant to see shows in casinos because they tend to lean on artists to shorten the set, in hopes that patrons will spend some time at the roulette wheel before bedtime. That happened when I saw Crosby & Nash and Three Dog Night at casino showrooms. (Geez…that last sentence made me sound rather elderly. Did I mention I’m only 32?) Happily, we got a full-length show in a venue called The Bear’s Den at the Seneca Niagara Casino that sat less than 500 souls and was meant for close encounters with great musicians.
This post isn’t quite intended as a concert review, but it needs to be said that The Zombies put on a great show. Their musicianship and craftsmanship was on display from the beginning, starting the show with a largely forgotten A-side, “I Love You.” I was impressed by Colin Blunstone’s stage presence: he was probably the most gentle and soft-spoken frontman I have ever seen, but he owned it and never seemed to want for energy. His voice lost a lot of the breathiness that made songs like “Time of the Season” so memorable, but Blunstone’s learned some tricks to keep his range and sustain in great shape. Rod Argent- what can I say? He’s probably my favorite keyboard player in the rock and roll pantheon, and I made sure we got seats near stage right so I could watch him play. So much of the dense, church organ sound that we associated with 60s psychedelia comes from Argent and his contemporaries, so it was great to see a master perform his trade. The rest of the band was very solid, including 75-year-old bassist Jim Rodford, who is not only Argent’s cousin but a longtime touring member of The Kinks.
Their setlist was also top-notch; they played their three big hits that everybody knows, of course. But they also ventured into some lesser known singles, some deep tracks from their magnum opus Odessey and Oracle, a couple wisely chosen covers, a few tracks from Argent and Blunstone’s solo careers, and the requisite tracks songs off their new album. I appreciated that, unlike many artists from their era, they never resorted to cliche. None of that “I can’t hear you” schtick with the audience. None of that “they told us Niagara Falls really knows how to rock” nonsense. Instead, they told us of the stories behind their songs. And they told us why they matter.
In essence, The Zombies concert was an articulate, and ultimately persuasive, plea for inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This was evident at the start when they were introduced as “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees, The Zombies!” Now, my wife saw Chic in Singapore last November. They sure as hell weren’t introduced as “ten time Rock Hall nominees– Chic!” And most of Argent’s and Blunstone’s stories were keen to name-drop, pointing out people who had covered their material, or credited them as an influence, or who opined a favorable view of their music. During the show, they referenced Tom Petty, Dave Grohl, KISS, The Jam, Paul McCartney, Patti Labelle, and countless others. And they even stressed how many indie artists credited them as an influence- and this is to an audience whose median age was probably in the early 60s, and whose demographics are not very indie-friendly. (I hasten to add that there were lots of under-40s there too, suggesting how well The Zombies have aged. Many of them were quite evidently admiring musicians.)
Essentially, The Zombies are one of the only artists from the 60s not in the Hall of Fame who really deserve to be there. They are on the Rock Hall’s radar, too. The band was nominated for the Class of 2014, perhaps partly on the back of an open letter they had written about how much they enjoyed their visit to the Rock Hall. Unfortunately, they didn’t get in– they were up against the most competitive ballot any of have seen for a long time, including Nirvana, Peter Gabriel, Yes, NWA, Linda Ronstadt, and KISS, among others. And I’m on record as a big fan and advocate of theirs: they were among my higher ranking Rock Hall Prospects when I explored worthy future additions to the Rock Hall.
This is all the more remarkable, given the band’s fairly limited output during their heyday. In their 60s’ prime, they only recorded one true studio album- their swansong, Odessey and Oracle. (Their other album, Begin Here, was essentially a compendium of singles and EP material, the Zombies equivalent of A Collection of Beatles Oldies.) That album happened to be one of the greats, one of Rolling Stone‘s 100 greatest albums actually. But their ticket was punched, historically, by the sheer volume of artists who were influenced by them. That, I think, is what elevates The Zombies beyond most of their British Invasion contemporaries like The Hollies or Herman’s Hermits or Gerry & the Pacemakers. Remember, The Zombies recorded the moody “She’s Not There” on the cusp of age 20, in 1964–when The Beatles were still recorded pop bonbons like “Eight Days A Week” and “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Instead, The Zombies experimented with minor keys, unusual modulations, and eventually psychedelic dreamscapes.
In the process, their inventiveness in the studio and jazzy psychedelia inspired their contemporaries, but eventually they became something of a grandfather to indie music. (Odessey and Oracle sold so poorly at first that it became the ultimate “I had this album before it was cool” record.) Charles Crossley, Jr., a Rock Hall watcher given to exhaustive research and record-keeping, lists the following artists as those who were inspired by The Zombies, or covered their songs, or collaborated with them in some way: Argent and Colin Blunstone, of course, as well as the Ventures, Love, Santana, the Bee Gees, Genesis, Electric Light Orchestra, Badfinger, Dinosaur Jr., Todd Rundgren, XTC, Matthew Sweet, Crowded House, the Beau Brummels, Procol Harum, Alan Parsons Project, Yo La Tengo, Eminem, the Monkees, the Modern Lovers, Dave Matthews Band, Sonny & Cher, Jonathan Richman, the Smithereens, the Left Banke, Aimee Mann, America, Dwight Twilley, DJ Shadow, the Shadows Of Knight, Belle & Sebastian, 10cc, the Posies, Gentle Giant, Vanilla Fudge, Supertramp, Family, Let’s Active, Boo Radleys, My Morning Jacket, the Youngbloods, Elliott Smith, the New Pornographers, the Beautiful South, the Shins, Ron Sexsmith, Spoon, Sufjan Stevens, Emitt Rhodes, Television Personalities, the Electric Prunes, Foo Fighters, 3rd Bass, Super Furry Animals, Eric Matthews, People, Game Theory, Smith, People, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Apples In Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel, Juice Newton, the Young Fresh Fellows, Kid Frost, Miguel, the Nylons, Superdrag, Neko Case and Nick Cave (duet), OK Go, Os Mutantes, Joe Byrd & The Field Hippies, Jellyfish, the Sea And Cake, Deerhoof, Olivia Tremor Control, Beulah, the Fastbacks, the La’s, Blue Ash, the Clean, Michael Penn, Malcolm McLaren, the Explorers Club, Kurt Elling, Roy Wood of the Move, Robyn Hitchcock of the Soft Boys, Susannah Hoffs of the Bangles, Sneakers, Brent Bourgeois of Burgeois-Tagg, Blake Lewis and Girl Talk, among many others.
That’s quite the legacy, isn’t it? Again- note the indie angle between Yo La Tengo, New Pornographers, Belle & Sebastian, Elliott Smith, Neutral Milk Hotel, and many more. Yet, they also inspired rockers as diverse as Todd Rundgren to Santana. The Zombies, in their brief run, showed us all the possibilities when you marry atmosphere to melodicism. Their songs’ jazzy timing and unconventional keys made a group of musicians initially dismissed as stiff mods deserving of a second look. And a third look. Until they became a rare creature, indeed: a band the wider public is aware of, but whose work is well loved and a shared common currency among musicians. In the end, The Zombies punched above their weight, and mattered in the long run more than most of their contemporaries. With any luck the Rock Hall will grant this St. Albans band their wish, and let them into their halls. This will be their year. Took a long time to come.