In June 1967 five musicians went into London’s Abbey Road studios to record The Zombies‘ second album Odessey and Oracle.
Though not a success initially, the record came to be regarded as one of the landmark albums of the late 1960s, right up there with The Beach Boys‘ Pet Sounds and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.
Half a century later the surviving members of the group – Rod Argent, Colin Blunstone, Chris White and Hugh Grundy – returned to the capital to perform the album live from start to finish – almost certainly for the last time in the UK.
Matt Catchpole (words) and Sam Wells (pictures) were there.
Buskers may have been playing The Last Post as crowds gathered outside the London Palladium for The Zombies O&O 50th Anniversary Finale show on Friday, 29 September.
But from the moment the band took the stage, the mood was nothing short of jubilant as fans, including several famous faces, settled in for the historic performance.
The show was divided into two parts, with The Zombies’ current touring band taking the audience on a journey through their back catalogue, before the original 1960s line-up paraded Odessey and Oracle in all its psychedelic glory.
Ever present were band leader and keyboard virtuoso Rod Argent and lead singer Colin Blunstone, who took it in turns to introduce the songs.
Blunstone kicked things off, remarking wryly that I Love You – a 1965 track written by original bassist Chris White – was “a big hit for someone else” something he admitted to finding “quite troubling”.
Next up was I Want You Back Again described by Argent as “a Zombies cover of a Tom Petty cover of a Zombies’ tune recorded before any of you were born”.
They weren’t to know it, but the song would provide an elegant tribute to Petty, whose death from a heart attack, aged 66, was announced just three days later.
The song was the first of a trio of tracks from The Zombies’ 2015 album Still Got That Hunger, which Argent pointed out, saw them back in the US Billboard top 100 “for the first time in 50 years”.
Both Argent and Blunstone say they get their energy and inspiration from writing and performing new music.
And, you sense, that it’s this refusal to rest on their laurels that makes them such an intriguing live act, even after all these years.
The present incarnation of The Zombies are also a pretty tight unit, instinctively giving each other the space to show off their skills.
Sometimes part of the thrill of live performance is watching a band who look like they could lose it any moment, but in this case the opposite was true.
The quintet, featuring former Argent and Kinks bassist Jim Rodford, were in total control throughout the performance.
Blunstone’s voice remains undiminished by the years, whether soaring to the heights on Say You Don’t Mind from his solo album One Year, or howling the Blues on their dazzling cover of Bo Diddley‘s Road Runner.
The latter track also provided a chance for lead guitarist Tom Toomey to cut loose with some stylish and versatile fretwork.
Audience participation was encouraged for Argent hit Hold Your Head Up, though Rod had a note of caution for anyone feeling the urge to sing along.
“People always sing the wrong words,” he said, singing “hold your head up woah!” instead of the correct lyric “hold your head up woman!”
“For God’s sake, get it right!” he admonished jokingly.
By now, the crowd were really starting to really enjoy themselves, some even dancing in the aisles, much to the annoyance of the Palladium’s over zealous ushers.
Not surprisingly, the biggest standing ovation of the first half was reserved for a fabulous rendition of She’s Not There – the band’s 1965 US Cashbox chart No1.
The stage was then left to Blunstone and Argent for the touching The Way I Feel Inside – Blunstone’s voice sounding as youthful and strong as ever.
After a short interval, it was time for the main event as Blunstone and Argent were joined by their original bandmates White and Grundy to play Odessey and Oracle from start to finish.
Jim Rodford moved to backing vocals, while Toomey remained on guitar, filling the role left by founding member Paul Atkinson who died in 2004.
The other notable addition, on keyboards and vocals, was Darian Sahanaja of the The Brian Wilson Band, who played such a key role in resurrecting The Beach Boys’ famously uncompleted Smile album.
The opening track Care of Cell 44 saw Blunstone hitting the high notes again, with all the band joining in for the Good Vibrations-style harmonies.
It was nice to see Grundy – resplendent in a scarlet smoking cap – performing alongside the current Zombies drummer Steve Rodford.
A Rose for Emily bore more than a passing resemblance to the spacey psychedelia of Syd Barrett and early Pink Floyd, while Maybe After He‘s Gone floated by with a descending chord sequence that may well have been an influence on avowed Zombies’ fan Paul Weller.
Other highlights included Brief Candles, which saw Blunstone, White and Argent all singing a verse each, and the wistful Beechwood Park.
Argent gave his keys a solid hammering on the Sgt. Pepper-ish This Will Be Our Year, before Blunstone took a break, leaving Chris White to take the lead vocal on the haunting war epic Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).
With his glasses perched on the edge of his nose, White has the look of a congenial schoolmaster these days, but he remains in good voice.
His tremulous vocals, bringing another standing ovation, as he evoked the fear and confusion of a a bewildered young trooper in the trenches.
Like the other songs in the second half, the Butcher’s Tale was accompanied by animated sequences illustrated by White’s wife Vivian Boucherat, who also contributed backing vocals.
Completely abandoning all theatre decorum, the audience – including one man wearing a waistcoat and tie combo emblazoned with the O&O cover art – ditched their seats to get up and dance.
Though many had clearly followed the band from the outset, there were plenty of younger faces among the throng, singing and swaying to the music, totally lost in The Zombies’ world.
The stage was set for a big finish and the album’s closing number Time of the Season was just the ticket – the perfect climax to both album and concert.
A moving tribute to Atkinson followed, before Argent led the band through a wild re-working of She’s Not There, fingers flying across his keyboards, as all the band members took it in turns to strut their stuff.
The Zombies now march on to the North American leg of the tour and, as Blunstone told EP in an interview earlier this year, they are already working on a new album.
But if this was the last time Odessey and Oracle gets an airing in their home country – and the band insist it was – then this grand old album could not have had a better send off.
- For more information about the remaining tour dates visit the Zombies; Facebook site here