Thursday, October 20, 2016

I Love This Freaking Band - The Zombies

I Love This Freaking Band
The Zombies

"This will be our year, took a long time to come.”

Some of my adventures from the music that I love flash by in the blink of an eye. Discover an album, fall in love with the music. You go see them live. In my case, you sometimes end up working with the band. Things move on, and the adventure ends. But some adventures evolve over time, and unfold as the years pass. The answers only reveal themselves when they are ready. And the journey makes you appreciate the music, the people and one’s own experience a little more than you might have when the journey began. One always begins an adventure with hope. Those aspirations are often tested, and can be lost, if not careful. But given time, luck and perserverance, any good that is there may still win out. The journey can take 20 years, 50 years or more. Yet the search for sounds unheard can lead you to the most amazing places.

In 1961, a group of kids in St. Albans, England decide to form a band. Colin Blunstone came to that first rehearsal intending to be their guitar player, but was soon switched to lead singer. The other bandmember that had planned on being their singer, Rod Argent, would have to be content with being their keyboardist and backing vocalist. When they realize that their original name of the Mustangs was already taken, the band decides on a new name that no one else is sure to have, the Zombies. The band eventually coalesces around Blunstone, Argent, guitarist Paul Atkinson, bassist Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy.

From the start, the Zombies were a little different. They were more influenced by jazz and R&B than their beat group contemporaries. Blunstone, Argent and White all sang, providing a strong three-part harmony to their songs. Argent and White also began their own songs, and were determined to get their songs recorded. When the band wins a newspaper competition with their version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime”, they bring two of their songs to their first recording session. White’s “You Make Me Feel Good”, and Argent’s “She’s Not There”. 

"She’s Not There” quickly becomes a breakout smash across England and Europe. By the fall of 1964, everything British and Beat Music was hot in America, and the Zombies quickly found “She’s Not There” becoming a top ten hit in the United States. The band’s popularity in North America would eventually eclipse their success in England, with their follow-up “”Tell Her No” charting higher in the States.

After “Tell Her No”, the hits dried up for the Zombies, despite a slew of great singles, and an excellent debut album, Begin Here. Over the next two years, the band toured the world over, trying to make a living and searching for that next hit single that never seemed to arrive. By 1967, the band was exhausted, and Decca had given up on the band. Undaunted, the band signed to CBS Records for just enough to get a new album recorded in just two weeks at Abbey Road Studios. 

That album, Odessey & Oracle, is now seen as one of the high watermarks of 1960s music. Both Argent and White wrote their best songs to date for the album, and unlike many other albums of its time, seems as fresh now as when it was released in 1968. Sadly, interest in the new album was hard to find, and the band quietly decided to call it a day. In 1969, a DJ in Idaho began playing the album’s closing track, “Time Of The Season”. By the end of 1969, the song had sold three million copies, and many discovered the album for the first time. Despite the success of the single, the members of the Zombies had already moved on to other projects, and the legend of the Zombies would left for future generations to find.  

For much of my young life, I didn’t know much about the Zombies, apart from those hit singles. Eventually, a friend gave me a tape of the Zombies singles, and I began to understand how many great songs they had. Despite that, I was initially turned off by the hype about Odessey & Oracle that had emerged in the years since from every music writer and record snob, and I didn’t give the band, or Odessey & Oracle the attention it deserved for a long time.

In 2003, a friend gave me a remastered CD copy of Odessey & Oracle. For the first time in my life, I was in the right headspace to devour the album in all of its beauty. All at once, I realized just how magical the album was. The harmonies, the songs of longing and hope. Songs of being hung up on a dream, which I still am. Songs of freedom from prison, tales of wars and roses, of friends of mine. The album finally spoke to me in the way that I now wish it had done many years before.

In 2004, Blunstone and Argent reconvened the Zombies name, and began playing shows in the United States. When the band played my home of Charlotte, NC, I was ready. I interviewed Blunstone and Argent via phone, and photographed their show with as much excitement as I’ve ever had for a show. Over the next few years, I saw the band on a few more occasions. Each time, the band began to play more songs from Odessey & Oracle, as they also began to realize the album’s impact on audiences.

In 2008, all of the surviving bandmembers (minus Atkinson, who had passed away in 2004) reunited for shows in London to play Odessey & Oracle in full. My wife and I used the money from our wedding a few months before, and bought tickets to the show. As exciting as it was to seeing and photograph the show, things didn’t work out the way they had planned. The venue was a problem, and I never got the photos I wanted. We had hoped to meet the band after the show, but another venue mishap prevented that. The sales that I hoped for the photos I’d taken never materialized. 

The trip’s mis-steps also reflected my own misgivings about where my career had gone during that period. For years, I got by on just enough work to keep going, and the woman I loved that kept me grounded in Charlotte. When we got married, my only request was that our first dance would be to “This Will Be Our Year”, a song that sits on side two of Odessey & Oracle. Even in my darkest of emotions, which I largely hid from everyone, I firmly believed that my time would finally come again, and I tried to hold myself again when I was down. Keep hoping, and keep going.

In the intervening years, the current iteration of the Zombies became even more popular, and toured even more than the original version of the band. I got to photograph Argent and Blunstone together with members of the Left Banke, my other all-time favorite group. I photographed them at a radio station interview where my friend literally used ever question I’d written for the band. Rod Argent congratulated my friend on his “good questions” after the interview, and I could only smile. They never remember me, or that I’ve met and photogaphed them several times, but that’s okay. They are rock stars now, playing to more people than ever before, and meeting all of those fans on any given night. All of whom have very similiar stories to mine. And the Zombies deserve that success.

As the fortunes for the Zombies continued to brighten, so did mine. The city I lived in, and had often given up on, began to open their doors to me. Success for me is knowing that I can take care of myself and my wife, and that the bills will get paid. I take more pride in that than photographing a hundred album covers, a hundred times over. This will be our year, indeed.

In the fall of 2015, White and Grundy reunited with the Zombies for a series of shows in the United States to perform Odessey & Oracle in full. For much of the tour, I thought my schedule wouldn’t allow me to see it. With one last possible date, I flew to Denver, Colorado with only my camera and photo pass in hand. I get three “dream goals” for the trip. Meet Hiugh Grundy and Chris White, who had written the song that I danced to at my wedding. Get posed shots of the original lineup, and get an album signed by the whole band. One by one, all three happened, and the show was fantastic. I walked out of the venue in a sleep-deprived state of euphoria. It had all come true. I was so happy, I was not even thinking about how and when I would find my way back to the airport, and the daylong journey back home. But I had come so far to reach that moment, and in that instant, I knew that it happened the way it was supposed to have happened. It just took luck, perserverance, and time. Of the season, and all of the seasons that had come and gone in the intervening years.

At any given moment today, someone will discover something that they will love for the rest of their life. A person, a form of art, a sound or vision. And the journey will begin here, again. And while their brightest moments may burn longer than others, that hope and quest for greater sounds unheard will lead them to their time of the season, their walk in the sun, and their year. No matter how long it took to come.

Here’s to hope. Here’s to discovery. Here’s to the Zombies.
-Daniel Coston

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