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She’s Not There
The odyssey of The Zombies begins in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, England, a hamlet some twelve miles north of London. Rod Argent formed the first iteration of the group in 1961 from the student body of St. Albans School.
Argent (keyboards) and Paul Arnold (bass) were neighbors who knew each other from primary school. Argent recruited Paul Atkinson, who played guitar in a student folk music club.
Arnold approached Colin Blunstone (lead singer), who was then going on 16. “We sat in alphabetical order in St. Albans Grammar School, and ‘Arnold’ was in front of ‘Blunstone.’ Paul knew I had a guitar, and one day he turned around in his chair and said, ‘One of my neighbors is starting a band,’” Colin remembered. (1)
Searching for a drummer, Argent reviewed the school marching band and chose the drummer with the best sense of rhythm. That was Hugh Grundy. “And that was the band! It was a chance in a million that it all worked,” Argent recalled. (2)
Rod Argent remembered the first rehearsal. “This is where I met Colin, thinking of the band in a three-guitar format. Colin was supposed to be the rhythm guitarist, and I heard that he sang a little bit from a musical friend. We all got together, played a bit of an instrumental, and then in the first break, I wandered over to a beat-up piano and started playing Nut Rocker, the old B. Bumble and the Stingers hit. Colin ran over and thought it was fantastic. He said, ‘You've got to play piano in this band!’ And I looked him and thought, I don't know, groups are guitars - that's what we should be doing. I wasn't so sure about this.
Then about 20 minutes later, Colin picked up an acoustic guitar when we were having coffee and he started singing an old Ricky Nelson song. I thought it was fantastic. I can still hear Ricky Nelson in Colin's voice. I said, ‘My god, I had no idea you could sing like that. You've got to be lead singer,’ I said. ‘I'll tell you what, I'll play piano and you be lead singer.’ (3)
Calling themselves The Sundowners and then The Mustangs, they eventually settled on a new name — The Zombies. “Well, we chose that name in 1961 and, I mean, I knew vaguely that they were: sort of, you know, the Walking Dead from Haiti but Colin didn’t even really know what they were.” Argent explains. “It was (original bass player) Paul (Arnold) that came up with the name. I don’t know where he got it. I thought this was a name that no one else is going to have. And I just liked the whole idea of it. Colin was wary, I’m sure, at the beginning, I know, but I always liked it.” (4)
The band started slowly playing small venues near St. Albans trying to build a following. After a year or so, Paul Arnold was accepted into medical school at St. Andrews University. With the time needed for his studies, Arnold realized he couldn’t devote the necessary time to the band. “I didn’t tell the group I was going to quit until I found my replacement, Chris White,” Arnold said. Chris, a student at the local art school, had been a schoolmate of Arnold’s older brother, Terry, at St. Albans Grammar School. Paul asked Terry to introduce Chris to the band. Chris, who was two years older than the other band members, eventually brought the band an additional dimension as a composing collaborator with Rod Argent. (5)
With White on board, the Zombies toured locally £5 to £15 ($7-21 US) per gig. “That was a substantial amount of money for an 18-year-old in those days,” Atkinson said. “It was enough to enable us to buy equipment and sorely lacking instruments. We’d save up and buy an amplifier or guitar or one drum, one at a time, until we had a whole drum kit.” That money enabled Argent to buy a Hohner Pianet electric piano, which contributed strongly to the distinctive sound that the band evolved. (6)
In April of 1964, the band entered a talent contest in Hertfordshire called the Herts Beat competition. The grand prize was a demo recording session. Hugh recalled his apprehension about the first performance. “I can distinctly remember we were all very, very nervous. I was experiencing paralyzing fear and an overabundant use of the toilet,” Hugh chuckled. “That nervousness was dissipated from then on, because I thought, ‘Well, we’ve done that, and there can be nothing more nerve-wracking.” (7)
Backed by a throng of fans from the local villages, the Zombies won the competition and the recording session. Two songs were recorded at the demo session — Argent’s self-penned It’s Alright With Me and Gershwin’s Summertime.
More important though was the fact that several companies offered the band recording contracts based on their performance in the competition. Chris White’s uncle was a musical arranger and suggested they contact songwriter/producer Ken Jones for advice on their next move. Jones broke down the contract offers and explained them to the group. Decca Records offered a three-year deal and the Zombies became professional recording artists.
L-R: Chris White, Colin Blunstone, Rod Argent, Paul Atkinson and Hugh Grundy.
Photo courtesy Keith Waldegrave/REX/Shutterstock.
Their first recording session was scheduled on June 12, 1964 at the Decca studios in London. “The idea was that we’d record the Gershwins’ Summertime as our first single,” Rod Argent recalled, “but a couple of weeks before we were due in the studio, Ken Jones said, ‘You should really try and write something for the session’. I had only ever written one song before.” (8)
Argent found his inspiration for She’s Not There on a song from an album by John Lee Hooker. The song was No One Told Me. Argent applied the phrase to the first words of his song. “I really liked the rhythm of that phrase. I started with a minor-to-major chord sequence.“ (8)
With line and music in tow for an April 29th show, Rod said after the gig, 'I've got this song that we've been rehearsing' and he played it for Ken on the piano. He did the verse, and then the solo, and there was no second verse, and Ken said, 'Can't we go back to the beginning again?' So Rod had to write another verse, because it only had one originally." (9)
Argent finished the song and it was one of four that the band brought to the Decca Studios on June 12th, 1964. The session was memorable for more than just a hit song being recorded. The engineer had been to a wedding prior to work and showed up intoxicated. “He started insulting us as we were recording,” Argent recalls, laughing. “We were doing You Make Me Feel Good, and I sorta went ‘mmmm’ at one point, and he started yelling, ‘If you’re going to f***ing “mmmm,” we’re not going to do it, and don’t just stand there like a wuss.’”
As luck would have it, the engineer passed out. “Colin got hold of one arm and I got hold of the other,” Argent says. “Chris got hold of one leg and Hugh got hold of the other and we carried him out to a London Cab and sent him home.” The assistant engineer, also on his first-ever session, was the now-legendary Gus Dudgeon, who supervised a date that included the recording of Summertime, It’s Alright With Me, You Make Me Feel Good and She’s Not There. (10)
She's Not There was the second of four songs recorded by the Zombies at the session at Decca's West Hampstead Studio No. 2. The song's backing track necessitated seven takes. (11) “We recorded the backing track first, on two tracks—that would be the keyboards, the bass, drums and guitar,” Argent remembered. “And then we would do the lead vocal on a separate track. We would do the harmonies at the same time, but on their own track. As it was being mixed, we were able to add a little drum part, so it made it sound a lot better,” Argent said. “At the time there were only four tracks. You could go the extra track because when you reduced the four down to one track, you could add another part, so we added a little drum overdub, which made all the difference, which was on the original mono hit. And to my ears, that mono hit sounds miles better than any subsequent stereo mix that has happened, yet the only thing you ever hear these days is the stereo remix. It’s such a shame.” (10)
She’s Not There was released in late July of 1964 in both the states and the UK. The song entered the Billboard chart on October 17th and made a climb that landed at #2 on December 12th. (12) (13) At home, the single made it to #12 and that was because of some outside help. “There was this television show — I don’t know if they showed it in America — called Juke Box Jury, and four panel members would just listen to 30 seconds of a record and judge it to be a hit or a miss,” Blunstone recalled. “Well, they did She’s Not There, and George Harrison (of The Beatles) was on there, and he loved it! I remember he said, ‘Well done, Zombies!’ I’ll always remember that. When George Harrison said something was good, that was it. It was a hit.” (14)
The Zombies next release was Leave Me Be, a forgettable number in the UK. However, the band scored their second top ten hit in the states with Tell Her No, recorded on November 25 and released early in 1965. In the UK, the song reached a disappointing #42 in February of 1965. (15) It was just the start of a downward spiral for the band.
Though artistically sound, their next ten singles flopped. Some blame it on the fact their music became too adventurous for radio. The lack of sales took the wind out of the band’s sails and they were struck by the fact that maybe they were just one-hit wonders. By early 1967, their contract with Decca expired. They signed with CBS Records for a one-album deal knowing it would be their last. That album was Odessey and Oracle.
“At the time we were recording Odessey and Oracle it was already obvious to me that everyone wanted to break up. Nevertheless it was an album we wanted to record because both Chris and I wanted to produce an album ourselves before we stopped,” Argent said. (16)
The Zombies were booked into studio 2 at EMI Studios at Abbey Road in the spring of 1967, shortly after The Beatles completed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “We followed the Beatles into Abbey Road; in fact, we used the same engineers (including Geoff Emerick). It was a brilliant team working at Abbey Road. That was the place to be in 1967. In fact, John Lennon’s Mellotron (an analog predecessor of the modern synthesizer) was still in the studio and we used that,” recalled Argent. (17) But the work had to be done fast as CBS had the band on a minimal budget…1,000 pounds (a little over $1400 in today’s dollars). Blunstone added, “We rehearsed a lot, so we knew exactly what we had to do when we went into the studio.” (17) Even with planning, the session ran out of money. “That (budget) was just for the mono mix. Rod and I had to pay 1,000 pounds ourselves to mix it in stereo!” recalled Chris White. (17)
The Abbey Road sessions lasted from June through November in 1967. They were down to completing their final song, Time Of The Season. ”It wasn't one of my favorite songs on the album. It was the last song we recorded. It was written in the morning before we went into the studio. That afternoon at the session, I kind of struggled on the melody. Rod and I had quite a heated discussion – he being in the control room and me singing the song - and we were just doing it through my headphones. Because it had only just been written, I was struggling with the melody, and he was saying, ‘That's not quite right, Colin. Can you do it again?’
Photo from the Odessey And Oracle session at Abbey Road Studios in 1967.
Photo courtesy Keith Waldegrave/REX/Shutterstock.
This went on for some time and in the end I sort of said to him, ‘Listen, you're so good, you come in and you sing it,’ but with more flamboyant language. And he said, ‘You're the lead singer, you stand there until you get it right.’ It makes me laugh, because at the same time I'm singing, It's the time of the season for loving, we're really going at one another. But anyway, I'm glad I did stand there until I got it right - it sold about 2 million copies, or something. It was a huge, huge hit. (18)
Two singles were released from the album that went nowhere. Disinterested record buyers and unprofitable tours hit the band hard. They split in December of 1967 after a show at Keele University.
Argent and White formed another group, Argent. The other three members had to get jobs. “Paul went into a computer firm, Hugh went to sell motor cars, and I just phoned up an employment agency and got an office job in central London,” stated Blunstone. (19)
The LP did impress did Al Kooper, then an A&R man with CBS and later founder of Blood, Sweat & Tears. Kooper convinced Clive Davis, head of CBS at the time, to secure the rights for the US market. “Clive wasn’t overly struck by Odessey and Oracle. He passed on it. Al Kooper was the one who heard it and talked him into releasing it (in the United States),” stated Hugh Grundy. (17)
CBS had a number of mailings of the album to radio stations across the US. Nothing happened until a DJ, reportedly in Boise, Idaho, dropped the needle on Time Of The Season. Slowly, the song gained traction. Now it was on the radar of CBS. They released it as a single late in 1968. On February 8th, 1969, the single hit the Billboard chart. By March 29th, Season peaked at #3 where it sat for two weeks. (12) (13) Like their namesakes, the Zombies had risen from the dead.
The group was hot again and CBS wanted more product. Only the band members had moved on. Where a vacuum exists, some force will come along and fill it. Such was the case of Delta Productions.
There were two different fake bands touring the US in 1969 as the Zombies, one in Texas (two future members of ZZ Top, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard were part of this group) and the other in Michigan — both managed by Delta Productions. Delta also created fake touring versions of The Animals and The Archies. The masquerade ended supposedly when a member of a fake band was threatened. Argent recalled the story. “There was one story where this band was going around making money, and they were pretty terrible apparently. This guy in the audience got very frustrated - again we heard this story years later - and he went into the dressing room afterwards, confronted guy and said, ‘You're not Hugh Grundy.’ The phony responded, ‘Oh, yes I am.’ The first guy had a convincing argument for the phony. ‘Listen, you're not Hugh Grundy! and he pulled out a gun and pointed it at him. And the guy said, ‘OK, OK, I'm not! And we won't play again.’ That was the end of those fake Zombies apparently.” (3)
In 1997, the five original Zombies reunited in November to promote the release of Zombie Heaven, a 120-track CD compilation of their previous work. In 2000, Blunstone and Argent reunited under their names. In 2001, they moved to the US. In 2004, they re-billed themselves as the Zombies. Paul Atkinson joined the group for a benefit performance at the House Of Blues in Los Angeles. It was his last performance with them as he died from liver and kidney disease on April 1, 2004.
In 2011, Argent and Blunstone released an album titled Breathe Out, Breathe In and toured around the world to promote it. In 2015, the Zombies announced another tour to promote the live performance of the Odessey and Oracle album. In 2017, the four surviving members of the Zombies reunited for a tour of the 50th anniversary of the release of Odessey and Oracle.
That's Johnny Holliday introducing the Zombies on the premier episode of Hullabaloo dated January 12, 1965.
CBS This Morning ran an excellent feature recently on The Zombies.
She's Not There has a life today in a TV commercial.
1) Childs, Marti. Where Have All The Pop Stars Gone? (Kindle Locations 4004-4007)
2) Childs, Marti. Where Have All The Pop Stars Gone? (Kindle Locations 4008-4009)
3) Catlin, Roger. Songfacts, Interview with Rod Argent of the Zombies, Link.
4) Macek, J.C. III, Pop Matters, "There Are No Half-Measures": An Interview With the Zombies' Rod Argent, November 3, 2013, Link.
5) Childs, Marti. Where Have All The Pop Stars Gone? (Kindle Locations 4035-4038)
6) Childs, Marti. Where Have All The Pop Stars Gone? (Kindle Locations 4046-40497)
7) Childs, Marti. Where Have All The Pop Stars Gone? (Kindle Locations 4053-4058)
8) Simpson, Will, Classic Rock, The Story Behind The Song: She's Not There by The Zombies, April 2, 2008, Link.
9) Songfacts, She’s Not There by The Zombies, Link.
10) Flans, Robyn, Mixonline, Classic Tracks: “She’s Not There, The Zombies, June 2, 2015, Link.
11) Johansen, Claes, The Zombies: hung up on a dream, 2001, Pages. 74–75, 80–81.
12) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 786.
13) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties.
14) Wildsmith, Steve, The Daily Times, Fifty years after success of ‘She’s Not There,’ The Zombies rock on, April 9, 2014. Link.
15) Wikipedia, Tell Her No, Link.
16) Childs, Marti. Where Have All The Pop Stars Gone? (Kindle Locations 4185-4186)
17) Runtagh, Jordan, People Music, The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle: An Oral History of the ‘60s Rock Masterpiece That Rose from the Dead, April 17, 2017, Link.
18) Wiser, Carl, Songfacts, Interview with Colin Blunstone of the Zombies, September 25, 2015, Link.
19) Krakow, Paul, Chicago Reader, Colin Blunstone of the Zombies on fake bands, fake names, and how he’s kept his amazing voice, March 15, 2018, Link.
Photo courtesy of Malay Mail Online.
© 2018 Jerry Reuss