Begin Here (Decca ‘65, Big Beat '99) Rating: B
Although remembered today by most people for their terrific triumvirate of top 10 U.S. hits ("She's Not There," "Tell Her No," "Time Of The Season"), all of which remain “oldies” radio favorites today, The Zombies deserved better. After all, at their best The Zombies had all the ingredients for greatness, including two superior songwriters in keyboardist/pianist Rob Argent (whose electric piano often acted as the band's lead instrument) and bassist Chris White, plus an excellent lead vocalist in Colin Blunstone, whose breathy, subdued vocals stood out from the pack. For their part, drummer Hugh Grundy and guitarist Paul Atkinson were capable musicians who contributed to the band's impeccable chemsistry. The band also boasted strong harmonies and were known for their unusual chord sequences, and their moody, sophisticated pop songs have an enduring, timeless appeal. So why only a B rating for this album, the band's U.K. debut? Well, as usual, circumstances did in the band, and unsympathetic producer Ken Jones did them no favors. What happened was that their debut single, "She's Not There," became a smash U.S. hit, so the powers that be decided to capitalize on the band's success by rushing out an album, much of which was comprised of garagey r&b covers that weren't in the band's best style. Talented though they were, The Zombies lacked the toughness of The Animals or The Rolling Stones and were better at mellower, more intellectual material befitting their middle-class upbringing and scholarly reputation. Even so, the band could've done better had Jones afforded them the time, but short term rather than long term goals were the order of the day, so the band sloppily rushes through several familiar ("Road Runner," "I Got My Mojo Working," "You Really Got A Hold On Me/Bring It On Home To Me") and not so familiar ("Work 'N' Play," "Sticks and Stones") songs, on which Blunstone's hyper vocals are often notably out of character. Fortunately, several of the band's own compositions, many recorded on the same day(!!), managed to salvage the record, of course including Argent's "She's Not There," an all-time classic notable for its moody, jazzy keyboards (including a solo section), its mysterious overall aura, and most of all its hooky, dramatic chorus on which Blunstone's desperation shines through. Other strong entries include White's "I Can't Make Up My Mind," which is a bit exotic and has an intensity about it, "I Don't Want To Know," an enjoyably naive pop nugget, and "What More Can I Do," which showed that the band were in fact capable of rocking out if given the proper chance. For his part, Argent also penned "The Way I Feel Inside," a mostly a capella showcase for Blunstone, the so-so "Woman," and "I Remember When I Loved Her," another moody, understated gem. Also notable among the covers was a stellar rendition of Gershwin's "Summertime," while "Can't Nobody Love You" contained sweet harmonies even if it wasn't a standout. Anyway, by and large this was a solid debut album, but it's definitely a hits plus filler affair and it could've been better had the long-term best interests of the band been put ahead of making a quick buck. Fortunately, the 1999 reissue adds eight bonus tracks, most fairly negligible but "The Kind Of Girl" sees Blunstone at his breathy best and "Tell Her No" was the band's second great hit single. Another exotic, jazzy pop number, with a typical lyrical theme about an untrustworthy temptress, Blunstone's vocals on the verses are uncommonly lovely, and as with (the admittedly superior) "She's Not There" the song features a suitably dramatic and singable (if overly repetitive in this case) chorus.
Odessey and Oracle (CBS ‘68) Rating: A+
Aside from “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No,” The Zombies mid-60s recordings were complete commercial failures, despite the band recording many other superlative songs that for whatever reason failed to capture the public’s imagination. Even the two big hits were much better received in the U.S. and elsewhere than in the band’s U.K. homeland, and on top of that the band had troubles with producer Ken Jones (who they felt didn’t bring out the best in them and didn’t give them enough input) and management, the latter most infamously on their Philippines tour where there were two sets of contracts, one for the band (£75 per show) and one for the manager (£1000 per show, plus he skimmed 20% off the £75 the band made!). Needless to say, these difficulties wore on the band, who decided to record one more self-produced album for their new label before calling it a day and going their separate ways. Inspired by recent recordings by Procol Harem (“A Whiter Shade Of Pale”) and Pet Sounds, and having absolutely nothing to lose at this point, the band’s second album, Odessey and Oracle (the misspelling was an error by the cover artist that horrified the band), has a go-for-broke sense of adventure that it might not have otherwise had. Spoken of by critics and knowledgeable music fans in the same reverent tones reserved for other "forgotten" cult favorites such as Love and Nick Drake (who likely was influenced by The Zombies), Odessey and Oracle was an absolute masterpiece that has some dated elements but which nevertheless exudes a timeless charm. As usual, the band’s sophisticated, delightfully dainty sound was centered around Argent’s distinctively jazzy keyboards (now played on a Hammond organ) and Blunstone’s breathy vocals. Argent also used a new toy, a mellotron, to ape strings, woodwinds, and horns, giving the band an exotic but radio friendly sound that was aided by consistently beautiful melodies and superlative harmony singing (Argent and White - who wrote seven of the album's 12 songs - also sang). The influence of The Beatles is apparent, but the band's ornate use of classical elements distinguished them from all the other British Invasion bands. One look at the album's cover art makes it apparent that it was spawned during the age of flower power, a point exemplified by sunny songs such as “I Want Her She Wants Me” (sung by Argent) and “This Will Be Our Year,” which have an uplifting innocence seemingly born of that era. However, other songs such as the bittersweet “After He’s Gone” and the hauntingly psychedelic “Hung Up On A Dream” are considerably less cheerful, as most of the album is tinged with a melancholic sadness. The band's lyrics are worth a mention as well, as they at times went well beyond the confines of the contemporary pop songs of the day. For example, the wonderful "Care Of Cell 44" is about welcoming a lover back from prison (!), the title of the pretty piano ballad "A Rose For Emily" was inspired by a Faulkner tale, and how's this for a powerful anti-war lyric (from "Butcher's Tale," sung by White who sounds like The Decemberists Colin Meloy): "and the preacher in his pulpit sermoned 'go and fight, do what's right,' but he doesn't have to hear these guns, and I bet he sleeps at night." Anyway, most of the rest of the album is far less weighty, and in fact that song is strangely followed by the album's lightest moment, "Friends Of Mine." Other highlights on an album full of them include the childhood reminisces of "Beechwood Park," the soaringly singable "Brief Candles," on which Argent, White, and Blunstone alternate lead vocal duties and chime in together on the chorus, and the much multi-tracked, utterly lovely "Changes," while “Time Of The Season” was the album’s smash hit single and the song that most people remember the band by. Never was the band better represented than by this classic song, with its catchy chorus (and equally catchy verses), breathy "aahs," and Argent's moody keyboard runs. Unfortunately, the release of the single was much delayed and the album itself was only released due to the tireless promotion of Al Kooper, as CBS was in no hurry to promote a band that no longer existed. Fortunately, the album and its attendant single eventually were released, but by then the band members had gone their separate ways (most notably Rob Argent formed the band Argent and Blunstone started a solo career), thereby ensuring that The Zombies would be but an important footnote in the annals of rock history. Which is a shame, 'cause they really coulda been contendas.
The Singles A's & B's (See For Miles ‘94) Rating: A
Still not convinced about the greatness of The Zombies? Then take a listen to this wonderful compilation, one of about a billion on the market but a personal favorite since it has no overlap with the original Odessey And Oracle and contains only six songs from Begin Here ("She's Not There," "Tell Her No," "Woman," "What More Can I Do," "I Remember When I Loved Her," and "The Way I Feel Inside"). Basically, this compilation, which covers all 22 of the A and B-sides that the band recorded between 1964-1967, works as a superlative companion piece to Odessey that makes Begin Here largely expendable for all but the biggest diehard fans and completeists. There are still some stellar Zombies songs missing, such as "I'll Call You Mine," "Imagine The Swan," "I Know She Will," "Don't Cry For Me," "If It Don't Work Out," and "Nothing's Changed," but other options for obtaining those songs and others are significantly expanded editions of both proper Zombies albums and the 4-cd box set, Zombie Heaven, released in 1997 (avoid the 2004 Argent/Blunstone comeback effort, As Far As I Can See, which never should've been released under The Zombies moniker). Yes, like many British Invasion bands The Zombies catalogue is a bit of a mess, but as the proud owner of the slightly expanded Begin Here and a non-expanded Odessey and Oracle, The Singles A's & B's does the trick for me. I mean, it's almost inconceivable to me that songs such as "Leave Me Be" and "Whenever You're Ready" weren't massive hits, and very few of these songs aren't at least very good, including their cover of Little Anthony & The Imperials' "Goin' Out Of My Head." Sure, there are several somewhat slight examples of simple, Beatlesque pop, and some of these songs, even the good ones, sound like they were recorded on the cheap (because they were). Still, there are too many terrific songs here for me to even mention - ok, among the songs not previously mentioned, "She's Coming Home," "I Want You Back Again," "Is This The Dream," "Indication," "Gotta Get A Hold Of Myself," and "She Does Everything To Me" immediately jump out at me from the track listing - and though Odessey and Oracle is still the essential Zombies album, The Singles A's & B's runs a reasonable second, and this compilation album further cements (in my mind at least) that The Zombies were among the very best bands of the British Invasion.