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Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Zombies: Begin Here

THE ZOMBIES: BEGIN HERE (1965)

1) Road Runner; 2) Summertime; 3) I Can't Make Up My Mind; 4) The Way I Feel Inside; 5) Work 'n' Play; 6) You've Really Got A Hold On Me; 7) She's Not There; 8) Sticks And Stones; 9) Can't Nobody Love You; 10) Woman; 11) I Don't Want To Know; 12) I Remember When I Loved Her; 13) What More Can I Do; 14) I've Got My Mojo Working; 15*) You Make Me Feel Good; 16*) Leave Me Be; 17*) Tell Her No; 18*) She's Coming Home; 19*) I Must Move; 20*) Kind Of Girl; 21*) It's Alright With Me; 22*) Sometimes; 23*) Whenever You're Ready; 24*) I Love You; 25*) Is This The Dream; 26*) Don't Go Away; 27*) Remember You; 28*) Just Out Of Reach; 29*) Indication; 30*) How We Were Before; 31*) I'm Going Home.

My own pet theory about why The Zombies failed to achieve the same commercial success as many of their far more lucky, but not any more talented peers is that they simply took a very stupid name for themselves. I mean, who on Earth would want to associate gorgeous, romantic, baroque-influenced pop music with the idea of zombies? Even «The Kinks» sounded less corny; «The Zombies» would inevitably bring on associations with horror films. Reportedly, the band members themselves had very vague ideas of what zombies are when they decided to take that name, largely out of consideration that this way, they would never have to be confused with any­body else. Well, they were not — they were simply shunned and ignored.

To be fair to the public, the Zombies were also a very average rock'n'roll / R&B band. Just listen to the first two tracks on their first album and then ask yourself whether you have preferred their treatment of Bo Diddley's ʽRoad Runnerʼ or George Gershwin's ʽSummertimeʼ — as far as I am concerned, the former, in terms of energy level, drags way behind The Animals and The Pretty Things, whereas the latter is sung and played quite beautifully, with a deep romantic undercurrent that no other British Invasion band circa late '64 / early '65 could boast. Yet, in the spirit of the times, The Zombies had to play many of those rowdy rock'n'roll numbers just in order to be hip. They probably liked this kind of music, like most young people in these days — they simply lacked the proper spirit to play it.

There's not that many R&B / rockabilly / blues covers on their first album, to be fair. Unimagi­natively titled Begin Here (and even less unimaginatively self-retitled The Zombies in the US and repackaged with a somewhat different tracklist), it consisted of recordings made at different points in mid-to-late 1964 and, by the time it was released in March 1965, already reflected a somewhat out-of-date version of the band. Bookmarked with two of the weakest tracks — the already mentioned ʽRoad Runnerʼ and a completely perfunctory, almost embarrassingly amateu­rish ʽI've Got My Mojo Workingʼ — it almost immediately makes you think that the people who assembled the sequencing were intentionally trying to sabotage the band. Somewhere deep in the middle rests buried the band's first glorious single, ʽShe's Not Thereʼ, but you have to wade your way up to it through such unnecessary oddities as the harmonica-driven pseudo-Stonesy ins­trumental blues jam ʽWork 'n' Playʼ and the lengthy medley of ʽYou've Really Got A Hold On Meʼ (sounding like an inferior copy of the Beatles version — it is possible that the boys never even heard the Miracles) and ʽBring It On Home To Meʼ that certainly posed no threat to Sam Cooke's popularity, not even posthumously.

One particular problem with these covers is that Colin Blunstone, the band's lead vocalist, while in possession of one of pop music's most haunting set of pipes, sucks real, real bad as an R&B screecher. Singing R&B requires a certain amount of «vocal muscle», but Colin's natural timbre is somewhat effeminate, and every time that he tries to sound nasty and/or self-assured, it comes across as an ugly whine: on ʽRoad Runnerʼ, he looks more like a drunk loser in the corner, double daring you in a stupid bluff, than a convincing British answer to the Big Black Threat of Ellas McDaniel. Pretty much the same effect happens on ʽSticks And Stonesʼ, where Ray Charles successsfully impersonated a bad luck guy ready to fight back with all he's got — in the Zombies version, all he's got is an awesome Hammond organ solo, whose smoothness, speediness, and near-psychedelic overtones kick the shit out of primary competitor Alan Price; unfortunately, the song is supposed to be much more than a great organ solo.

This is all the more unfortunate considering that the band, from the very start, had no less than two talented songwriters in its midst: keyboard player Rod Argent and bass player Chris White, the Zombies' own John Lennon and Paul McCartney (though it's fairly hard to decide who was who, since their songwriting styles are fairly similar). Only half of the songs here are original, but they are clearly superior to most of the covers, reflecting an early level of melodic and even spiri­tual sophistication that, one could claim, not only makes them stand up to The Beatles but in some ways make them the winners. Certainly ʽShe's Not Thereʼ, written by Argent in mid-'64, has something that no single song on A Hard Day's Night has. But what is it, exactly?..

The simple answer is that this is «art rock» (or «art pop», whatever) that preceded, by about two or three years, the baroque-pop boom of the mid-Sixties. It would be arrogant to say that without the early Zombies, there would be no Moody Blues, no Procol Harum, no Yes, no Caravan, etc., but if we want to draw slightly simplified chronological lines, then the whole thing about clas­sical influence on British pop music really begins with the Zombies. ʽShe's Not Thereʼ was, in fact, every bit as revolutionary as the much-more-often-talked-about ʽYou Really Got Meʼ that came out around the same time — only where the latter redefined the standards for contemporary rock'n'roll, the former thrust open the gates for new opportunities in the creation of three-minute pop songs. It is pop, but it is also jazz (the main piano riff and particularly Rod's convoluted, post-boppy solo), and also romantic-classical, if only in terms of atmosphere rather than actual melody. Throw in the strange, hard-to-decipher lyrics that may refer to the protagonist justifying the murder of a loved one — and you have here the oddest choice for a pop hit in 1964, though it sure is hard to resist the psychotic vocal build-up from verse to bridge to chorus.

And this is far from the only unusual song on the album. ʽThe Way I Feel Insideʼ begins with a few resonating steps towards the mike and then becomes a solo vocal test for Blunstone — quite a daring decision for a tune that almost seems to beg for a nice Merseybeat arrangement (it bears some melodic similarity to ʽDo You Want To Know A Secretʼ, but is far more complex). ʽI Re­member When I Loved Herʼ, with its acoustic guitar and hushed vocals, feels like a morose sequel to ʽAnd I Love Herʼ — in a world where everything has eventually gone dead wrong, and the singer's loving feelings are just memories, impersonated by Argent's evocative «puffy cloud» organ solo. Even Rod's single composition in the nasty-R&B genre, ʽWomanʼ, is still superior to the covers, as he cleverly fools around with the tempo changes and fuses together boogie-woogie, the Isley Brothers, and another Animals-style organ solo.

Next to Rod's, compositions by Chris White seem a bit less challenging and more dependent on traditional R&B cliches, but each of his three numbers is still catchy one way or another, my per­sonal favorite being ʽWhat More Can I Doʼ — a strange song whose main hook actually comes at the beginning of the verse (the desperately rapped-off "...what more can I do... lose myself to you..." segments), while the rest simply serves to build up some chaotic madness that would explode into another couple of organ / guitar solos, like on ʽSticks And Stonesʼ. (It is too bad, while we are on the subject, that the band's guitar player Paul Atkinson was, at best, merely com­petent — I cannot help but think how awesome it would have been for them to have somebody of Eric Clapton's stature in the early days, considering that in terms of technique and overall awe­someness, Rod Argent was probably the Eric Clapton of the Hammond organ back in 1964-65).

Most important of all, these Zombies songs are dark. Minor chords, moody atmospheres, a Lord Byron-styled lead vocalist, lyrics about lost love, constant desperation, depression, all the way to possibly implied murder — anything but a general feeling of the joy of life, as epitomized by The Beatles, or of grinning, arrogant, self-assured rebellion, as epitomized by The Stones. From that perspective, the Zom­bies probably had their precedents in the world of folk music, but what they are doing here is not folk-pop (they certainly sound nothing like The Searchers) — this is really the earliest form of «chamber pop» with a heavy streak of lonerism and a slight academic feel. So this is why they did not become popular, right? Well, yeah, but one should still not forget about how ʽShe's Not Thereʼ became a big hit for them both in their native country and across the Atlantic — and how it was eventually followed by ʽTell Her Noʼ, also included on some of the album's editions as a bonus track and featuring the same romantic desperation.

In fact, most of their singles that were released through 1965-66 are, if anything, less moody and scary than ʽShe's Not Thereʼ. Since the Zombies never got a chance at a second LP before the conceptual effort of Odessey And Oracle, these tracks are only available on various compila­tions and boxsets; there does, however, exist a special extended edition of Begin Here that more than doubles its length with seventeen additional tracks — A-sides, B-sides, and EP-only tracks from 1964 to mid-June 1966 — which, all by itself, would make for an awesome second album, far more consistent than Begin Here proper with its weak covers. All of those flopped singles are wonderful in their own right: ʽWhenever You're Readyʼ (such a great mix of reproach and tenderness!), ʽJust Out Of Reachʼ (blues-pop with a cool vocal hook), ʽIs This The Dream?ʼ (guitar-based power pop with an anthemic twist), and particularly ʽIndicationʼ, which starts out as a fairly ordinary pop rock number but transforms into a psychedelic jam for the third minute, with Atkinson and Argent both in transcendental raga mode.

As far as ratings go, I would say that Begin Here deserves a solid thumbs up even with all of its flaws — no album that has ʽShe's Not Thereʼ on it, one of the most unique pop creations of 1964, can get anything less than unconditional support, and then it does have all those other beautiful originals (and even some of the covers, like ʽSummertimeʼ, are still heavily recommendable). But if the album is seen in the context of its preceding and following singles, then the Zombies' overall legacy from 1964-66 should stand out as one of the top five or six greatest streaks of pop singles on the UK market, along with the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, the Who, and maybe the Yardbirds — and quite possibly, the single most influential streak for the development of the cham­ber-pop / baroque-pop  / symph-prog tradition. But even if that last point is highly debatable (after all, it is never clear just how many successful British musicians had even heard anything past ʽTell Her Noʼ, what with the awful marketing the Zombies got in their home country), that takes away nothing from the fact that this is just wonderful pop music, sounding every bit as fresh and lovely and coldly-romantic today as it did half a century ago. And special kudos to the album cover, featuring The Zombies as the nerdiest-looking musical group ever — I mean, two out of five band members wearing glasses? In an age when John Lennon would rather be caught dead than bespectacled, despite being blind as a bat, this may have been a braver act of defiance than urinating on a garage wall.

2 comments:

  1. I know George isn't the biggest horror connoisseur, so this might be worth mentioning. In 1965, the term zombie would most likely have been associated with the resurrected corpses that served as servants to Voodoo priests in any number of cheesy (and harmless) b-horror films, and/or a cocktail. Zombies weren't generally thought of as rotting flesh-eating ghouls until George Romero gave them those attributes in his 1968 film Night of the Living Dead; and he didn't call them zombies. That label was an imposition from confused audiences and critics who noted the superficial resemblance Romero's ghouls had to the Voodoo slaves. The latter creatures hadn't been scary since the 1930's, so in 1965 the band name 'Zombies' may have come off as more quirky than macabre. Still, it's an odd choice of name given the romantic baroque sheen of the Zombies' music. If they wanted to go with a horror-themed name, Vampires would have made more sense. That's a monster with nobility and class.

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  2. "hard-to-decipher lyrics that may refer to the protagonist justifying the murder of a loved one" I never listened to it from that angle but that actually opens a new level of darkness and complexity to an already brilliant single. So what's the subtext of Tell Her No? Obsessive love manifested in psychological manipulation of competing suitors? "Colin Blunstone sucks real, real bad as an R&B screecher...natural timbre is somewhat effeminate" So he would make a great psychologically fragile and dangerous stalker nerd with paranoid gender issues?

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