We've been taken for rides by more bands than the average groupie has. There's the endless out-of-retirement tour (the Grateful Dead); the coffer-fattening spectacle (the Rolling Stones); the just-got-out-of-rehab rehabilitation (Stone Temple Pilots); the excessive baby boomer nostalgia trip (the Who); the one-trick-dog-and-pony show (Molly Hatchet); the Ever-Get-The-Feeling-You're-Being-Cheated-Redux swindle (Sex Pistols); the way-to-destroy-your-legacy tour (Pixies); and the flat-out con job (CCR).
One band you won't find on that list of shame is The Zombies, who make a surprising but welcome visit to Charlotte at Amos' Southend Friday. The reasons why are straightforward: it wasn't The Zombies' idea, and the real push behind the reunion comes from a demographic not even born yet when the group broke up in 1967.
Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent are the two remaining members of The Zombies on this tour, but they've been writing and playing together and on their own for years as non-Zombies. Even when they began collaborating again a few years ago (resulting in 2002's Out of the Shadows), the duo refused to cash in on their famous name and toured under their own.
"We were often billed as The Zombies whenever we turned up, but we weren't actively encouraging anyone to say we were The Zombies," said the 58-year-old Blunstone by phone from his country home in Surrey. "Using the name "Zombies' has been kind of forced on us."
Because he and Argent have been playing together again for some time, and because former Zombies' guitarist Chris White has added his voice to the duo's upcoming release, it makes more sense to return to The Zombies moniker, Blunstone said.
But it's the band's heritage, relatively small by many 60s icon standards, that's drawn masses of new followers to their back catalog. With Argent and White writing most of the songs, The Zombies' sound before their demise was as adventurous as any British band except The Beatles. The Londoners relied on Argent's classical and jazz keyboard inflections, as well as Blunstone's breathy vocals and memorable harmonies, to create melodious, off-kilter pop that inexplicably never reached the same popularity as their British Invasion compatriots.
"The rules were being written as we went along," Blunstone said of the era.
One rule in effect then, as now, is that record companies like their bands to sell, and The Zombies fell victim to the bottom line. That's the lesson of Odyssey & Oracle, the band's 1967 swan song. Although they had charted well in the States ("She's Not There" reached No. 2 in the US), British indifference kept Decca from renewing their contract.
Luckily for The Zombies' legacy (and the band members' residuals), CBS stepped in to sign the band to a one-record deal. But the label wasn't exactly visionary; they gave the group 1,000 pounds to make their new record, a miniscule amount even by paltry 60s standards.
Because of the lack of funds, the band rehearsed quite a bit before entering the studio, and the work paid off in spades. Odyssey & Oracle was a near-perfect slice of pop psychedelia that, like the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, was simply too far ahead of its time for most pop fans. Shortly after the release, The Zombies were no more.
"We went into the record full of enthusiasm and I remember thinking that that was the best we could possibly do," Blunstone remembered. "But it didn't sell in the numbers that everyone was hoping for. Consequently there was no enthusiasm at the record company, we'd lost our manager and our agent, and it just seemed as though things had come to a natural end."
Like the demise of so many other bands, The Zombies seemed to ride off into the sunset unnoticed. Improbably, two years later the single "Time of the Season" was released almost as an afterthought and bolted to No. 1 in the US charts. But the band members had already gone their separate ways.
"There was a lot of pressure on us to reform and go out and play live, and we turned down every offer that was made to us, and some of those offers were considerable," Blunstone said. "The difference now is that we're allowing people to bill us as The Zombies; we're not denying our heritage, which is what we were doing before."
British Invasion heroes The Zombies play Amos' Southend Friday. Tickets are $19.50 in advance, $25 at the door, which opens at 8pm.