The Zombies: Live at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London
Forty years after their groundbreaking, wonderful, alternatively-spelled Odessey and Oracle, Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent form a cheesy Zombies cover band.
The blitz of new material by long dormant, legendary artists and bands has brought some great surprises -- Vashti Bunyan, Mission of Burma, Radio Birdman, Dinosaur Jr. -- and some disappointments (ahem Stooges). Despite radiant renditions of their early hits, this live album from the revivified Zombies has to count on the negative side, larded as it is with dreck from the post-glory years.
That's disappointing, but not surprising, given the band's unusual trajectory. The Zombies were, for a long time, one of the great lost bands of the 1960s, progenitors of a British Invasion pop-psychedelia that would become hugely influential to genres ranging from paisley pop to psych-leaning garage. During their heyday, the band made only two full-length albums: the self-titled debut which gathered a handful of singles and covers, and the career highlight Odessey and Oracle, still considered one of the landmarks of 1960s melodic rock. The band broke up before the 1968 release of this album, and both Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent continued to make music, Blunstone with a series of solo albums, and Argent with his eponymous hard-rock band.
Nothing the two of them did subsequently, however, had anything like the impact of their early work with the Zombies, and the later you go in their respective catalogs, the more hideous it becomes. They recorded a non-Zombies album together called Out of the Shadows in 2002; then, in 2004, released the excrecable As Far as I Can See under their old band name.
The band sounds reasonably good. Blunstone's voice has been pretty much untouched by time, hitting the dizzying falsettos of "Say You Don't Mind" off his solo record One Year without any strain at all. Argent's keyboard work is still distinctive and good, as on the swelling organ solo in opening cut "Andorra". They're the only two original Zombies, however. Paul Atkinson, the guitarist, died in 2004, and his spot has since been taken by Wings' Keith Airey, who seems to have a penchant for 1970s guitar-solo excess. Bass player (and author of "Beechwood Park") Chris White is absent as well, his place taken by Argent's Jim Rodford, whose son Steve sits in on drums. The band is competent, but there's a sense of pushing too hard, of trying to force songs whose magic ought to sneak up on you. You hear it first on "Time of the Season", which is paced a little bit faster than you expect, and on "Beechwood Park", which plods just a little too heavily where it should whisper.
And yet, these songs -- nearly half a century old, some of them -- are the undeniable highpoint of an uneven album. Never mind that "She's Not There" is bloated with solos and orchestrated like a big band standard -- it's still got the bottomless mystery of the original. And "A Rose for Emily", with its intercrossing vocal counterparts and subtle piano flourishes, sounds as fresh and sweet as ever.
They're especially strong when you compare them to later career treacle like "In My Mind a Miracle", with its Vegas-y show biz excesses, and "I Want to Fly", which has the emotional honesty and resonance of a Disney cartoon ballad. (You know, one where the character singing actually could fly.) In fact, all the really awful songs on this disc come from one or another of the principals' solo work or their early 2000s reunion material.
A couple of the later songs work fairly well. There's an understated, tasteful rendition of Blunstone's Tim Hardin cover, "Misty Roses", where the strings support rather than slather on the sentiment. And Argent's big hit "Hold Your Head Up" is dated but enjoyable, with its very familiar guitar riff and organ fills. (Argent's other big song, "God Gave You Rock and Roll", made famous by KISS, is a 1970s overblown rock dinosaur by comparison.)
The disc reaches its peak near the end with a trio of the Zombies' best-known songs. "Tell Her No" is jauntier, jazzier than I remember it, but still has a skewed, slightly creepy pop charm (it's a bit of a stalker song.) "She's Not There" and "Just Out of Reach", are, arguably, the two best songs on the disc, with the Zombies' trademark, minor key organ trills and tight, wistful harmonies. There's a bit of a dip with bombastic "God Gave You Rock and Roll", not a terrible song, but far less subtle than anything by the Zombies, and then we close with "Summertime", the Gershwin song that the band covered on their very first album. It's a showtune, lightly accented with shimmering electro keyboards (the Doors learned a thing or two from the Zombies), full of vocal slides and drama, and not bad at all.
In addition to the two CDs, there's a performance DVD with highlights from the same 2005 concert. If you're curious what Blunstone and Argent look like these days, that's a valuable addition... or I could just tell you. They're old.
If you're a Zombies fan, you're much better off purchasing the band's limited discography, or perhaps Big Beat's The Singles Collection: A's & B's, 1964-1969. I hate to be the kind of person who "likes their old stuff better", but there's no denying it. The later songs are sentimental, awful tripe compared to what the Zombies did in the 1960s. Live at Bloomsbury Theater simply confirms that at some point in the 1970s, Blunstone and Argent transformed from Zombies into the walking dead.