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The Zombies – Play It For Real, Once Again

Rod Argent of The Zombies

Rod Argent of The Zombies

The Zombies

Play It For Real, Once Again

by Ken Sharp

Copyright ©2011  All rights reserved. Posted: September 25, 2011.  

When a beloved band from your past reunites and records new music, lofty expectations are likely to be met by inevitable disappointment. Whether you’re The Rolling Stones, Moody Blues or any other legendary classic rock outfit, it’s an often impossible exercise trying to capture some of the intangible magic of a band’s most revered work. But somehow, against all odds, The Zombies have done it. The result is the band’s new album,Breathe Out, Breathe In that stands proudly against their most timeless work. It’s that good.

Graced with some of Rod Argent’s most accomplished songwriting since his halcyon days with Argent and The Zombies, the new album showcases a stunningly diverse and richly rewarding array of solid gold artistic handiwork. And when you’re sharing studio time and a stage with original Zombies singer, Colin Blunstone, one of music’s most dynamic vocalists, you’ve already landed at the finish line.

When constructing their new album, the band had their own concrete ideas over the overall sound they envisioned. “There was a clear brief,” affirmed Argent. “We wanted to use as many two and three part harmonies as possible and lots of Hammond organ, Mellotron and Memotron. We didn’t want to recreate the past, but we wanted to capture The Zombies’ essence and meaning. Our energy and enthusiasm for making music is the same as it was when we first started and the magic and mystery of the whole music making process, we are still thrilled by it all. So we thought it would be great to celebrate when that all began.”

With its distinctive Beach Boys vibe, the delicate “Shine On Sunshine,” awash in sumptuous melodic finery and Blunstone’s expressive voice, is spellbinding while the title track’s infectious jazzy Steely Dan lilt adds a new dimension to The Zombies expanding musical bag of tricks. The sweaty rocker “Play it for Real” revs up the excitement level, which cribs the riff from The Beatles “Hey Bulldog”. This one’s a cooker and promises to be an electrifying live track. “There’s no denying what an extraordinary effect The Beatles had, every band has a debt to them really, their music was so fresh and vital, it was like we were winning the world cup every week when they came about,” said Rod Argent.

Making success sweeter the second time around is the fact that these Zombies are in complete control of their artistic destiny. “The Zombies are like a cottage industry,” remarked Colin Blunstone. “We run our own label, we book our own gigs, we provide our own transport and hotels. Rod writes most of the songs, we record in his studio and he produces the record. It keeps it very exciting being at the center always of everything. We are still learning, and new discoveries energize us, it’s all part of being an artist, we are very proud of our achievement here. We hope it moves and touches people like it has us. The Zombies have been a fantastic journey, we’ve gone from playing in the back of pubs to headlining festivals and it still feels like it is just the beginning.”

The Zombies

The Zombies

Since reuniting, The Zombies have issued several studio albums. But the new album is far superior – standing up to the group’s storied ’60s work. Can you explain why the band has really hit its groove on this record? 

Rod Argent: We’ve done two other studio albums since Colin (Blunstone) and I got back together. The first one, Out of the Shadows, was just a toe in the water.  For the second one I deliberately wanted to do an album with Colin with strings, thinking about his One Year album. I just loved the timbre of his voice against string. That was less of a group album. With the new album the band has been together for quite some time – the only reason we’re still doing this is we have such a blast playing every night. The concerts create the energy from playing with such great guys. It makes all the tedium from traveling worthwhile.

When I listened to the tracks on the album, it’s obviously a studio thing and not a live thing. But I wanted to imagine myself standing on stage and feeling roughly how the band sounds playing live. I wanted to get those elements in the album. We deliberately eschewed any synth overdubs apart from mellotron. I wanted us to make an album as organic as possible. We wanted to record the way we used to record. I realized when I wrote the early stuff for The Zombies, things like the bass line of “She’s Not There” is integral to the writing of the song. It wasn’t something (Zombies bass player) Chris (White) came up with. I actually wrote that and the drum part as part of the song. I thought I’m going to try and do that again with this album. I’d demo all the songs. I wrote nine out of the ten songs on the album. I’d put down a sample piano and sing it and put most of the harmonies on although we always left room for some additions and spontaneity to the actual recording sessions themselves. I would also work out the bass parts too so things were pretty structured before we walked into the studio to do the real recording. Because they were so structured, when we came in most of the rhythm tracks were laid down in two or three hours.

That’s remarkable. It’s quite an album and is easily my favorite of the year.

Rod Argent: That’s very kind of you to say. There was an early review from Uncut magazine and they said “we should hoot and holler that these guys are doing this.” The writer of the review sent me an email and expressed it was his favorite album of the year. We’ve had quite a few people reacting that way and that’s absolutely wonderful and really gratifying.

The title track captures a jazzier side of The Zombies, to these ears it’s the best Steely Dan song since their ’70s heyday. 

Rod Argent: It wasn’t intentional for the song to have a Steely Dan vibe. I still don’t quite understand how that’s come through so strongly.  We did a song on our last album called “Mystified” which changed when we did it live and got even better. I always enjoyed doing that one and with “Mystified” in my mind I started to write “Breathe In, Breathe Out” although that was only the starting point. I guess the Steely Dan influence is cited because of the jazzy nature of some of the chords. Also, on this album I wanted us to explore harmonies in the way that The Zombies always used to. We tried to do that as well. I’m really pleased with the song and it’s great onstage. There’s only one track on the album that we would find very hard to do onstage and that’s “Shine on Sunshine.” All the other tracks are eminently playable onstage.

The Zombies

The Zombies

On “Shine on Sunshine”, a standout on the new album, you’ve created one of your most moving songs in your catalog, its chord changes reminiscent of classic Brian Wilson.

Rod Argent: It’s a track that I’d always had in my mind to redo since I got back together with Colin. It’s one of those tracks that I felt was only half fulfilled it with Argent. I revisited it and completely rewrote the chords and totally rewrote the mid-section and changed quite a few of the lyrics as well. The original version is hugely different. I thought that the chords in the Argent version were a bit ordinary. Generally speaking musicians have loved this album. I had a lovely email from two of the guys in the Brian Wilson band, Probyn Gregory and Darian Sahanaja, who expressed their delight of the new album. We honestly think the album is the best thing we’ve been involved with for years. Doing the Odessey and Oracle album on stage made me think we have to capture where we are live. As for a Brian Wilson chordal structure on the song I can hear where you’re coming from. The thing is a lot of Brian’s stuff had its roots in the Four Freshmen. They came from a jazzier era and he naturally has gravitated toward those lovely colored chord changes. I’ve always loved jazz – this morning I was listening to a Bill Evan album – and classical music as well. I’ve never stopped listening to it. It’s quite natural for me to enjoy some of those passing chords and that’s definitely what I wanted to involved in with “Shine on Sunshine.” 

Characterize the chemistry and connection that exists between you and partner, lead singer Colin Blunstone.

Rod Argent: There is a feeling we’ve always had between each other. The reason we’re back on the road is I did a charity show in 2000 and Colin got up and sang “Time of The Season” and “She’s Not There’ and I did feel that terrific natural connection again. Mainly, it’s because I grew up learning to write songs for Colin and he grew up learning to sing singing my songs. So that helped forge a connection right at the beginning. We’ve always been good friends even when we weren’t working together and it’s a very enjoyable process. When we do vocals I always set a day aside for Colin to do a lead vocal on a song. We never record it line by line. Colin may sing it 15, 16 times and it’s always a complete performance and I always try and create the best performance out of those complete performances. It’s always a performance we’re after. You’re getting the best out of your natural performance.

While Colin is rightfully recognized as among music’s most commanding vocalists, you take a rare lead vocal on the new album, “Show Me the Way,” where your voice sounds eerily similar to McCartney’s on the verses. I understand the musical signpost behind that song was Elvis’ otherworldly take on “Blue Moon.”

Rod Argent: Yes, the beginning of the song was influenced by Elvis’ version of “Blue Moon.” In fact, I wanted our drummer to overdub some coconuts because that’s what is used on the intro to Elvis’ version of “Blue Moon” but we didn’t have any coconuts so we used bongos instead (laughs). That’s why on the falsetto part in the beginning and end of that song we use a single repeat echo. I was trying to get the mood and recapture the feeling of Elvis’ version. The rest of the song was written very quickly and it’s a first or second take vocal. I was really pleased with how that turned out. I always used to sing a song on all the old Zombies album and I felt it should be mine rather than Colin’s because it suited me more vocally. We recorded that entire song really quickly; it was recorded in a day.

Speaking of Elvis, I heard that he was a Zombies fan and that he had a few of your songs on his jukebox at Graceland.

Rod Argent: Yes that’s true and it still gives me shivers but I only heard about this much later on. Elvis was the guy who turned me onto pop music. I didn’t like pop music until I heard “Hound Dog.” Then in 1965 The Zombies were touring and Colin and I decided to visit Elvis at Graceland (laughs). We were 19-years-old, we were just kids. We walked up his driveway at Graceland. There was no security and we knocked on the door and this guy came to the door who I think was almost certainly Vernon (Presley, Elvis’ father). We said, “Hello, we’re The Zombies from England, is Elvis in?” (laughs) He said, “Aww no, Elvis is away filming at the moment but he’ll be real sorry he missed you because Elvis loves you guys.” I thought he doesn’t know who the hell we are and it was just really nice Southern hospitality. And he let us look around. I was telling this story years and years later in the ‘90s to an Irish DJ. He said, “Hang on a minute; I can’t believe after all these years you didn’t know that Elvis had your songs on his jukebox.” I was completely shocked and it gives me shivers talking about it now. Knowing that the guy who turned my life around with his music had my songs on his jukebox was just extraordinary.

Lastly, you played keyboards on the Who’s ‘Who Are You” album. Share your memories.

Rod Argent: I’d just done an album with Roger Daltrey called One of the Boys and he asked me to play on their new album. I was booked for about a month. Keith Moon, strangely, was the only one who’d show up on time. He’d get there at about eleven o’clock in the morning. Never late and absolutely sober. Very quiet. None of the other guys had showed up just yet. I learned my lesson on that very first day. That first day he said to me, “There’s no one here, let’s go down to the pub and have a drunk.” We took off for this pub, which was in quite a rough area and there were these huge guys playing pool. As Keith walked past them this guy was about to take a shot at him. I made my excuses after about 15 minutes because I thought this could get really hairy. The rest of the band didn’t turn up until one in the afternoon and they immediately went into a meeting. We wouldn’t start recording until about two or three o’clock. Then they’d go home early to see their kids. Because of that I only ended up being on three tracks on the album – “Who Are You”, “Love is Coming Down” and John Entwistle’s song “Had Enough.” Unfortunately, I was already booked to play on an Andrew Lloyd Weber album called Variations, which turned out to be a number one album in the UK so I had to finish working with The Who. I remember Pete (Townshend) saying to me, “Well, which album would you rather be on?” (laughs) I said, “It’s not a question of that Pete, if I said I’ll do it. I’ve got to do it.” 

Celebrating their 50th anniversary as a band, catch The Zombies on the following U.S. dates:

9/26-Sep Mon City Winery, New York, NY 9/27-Sep Tue City Winery, New York, NY 9/28-Sep Wed State Theatre, State College, PA 9/30-Sep Fri Celebrity Theatre, Phoenix, AZ 10/1-Canyon Club, Agoura Hills, CA 10/2-Coach House, San Juan Capistrano, CA 10/5-McPhillips Station Casino, Winnipeg, MB 10/7- Casino Regina, Regina, SK 10/9-Century Casino, Edmonton, AB 10/12-Kamloops Convention Centre, Kamloops, BC 10/13-River Rock Casino Showroom, Richmond, BCPhoto Credits:#1 © 2011 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.#2 © 2011 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.#3 © 2011 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2011  All rights reserved. Posted: September 25, 2011.  

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