We’re delighted to announce that Iconic British psychedelic pop legends The Zombies will be appearing at Wickham Festival 2023 on Sunday 6th August. A part of the historic 1960s British Invasion, they were the second U.K. band following the Beatles to score a #1 hit in America. They will be celebrating the release of their latest album, Different Game, which features new tracks Merry-Go-Round and Dropped Reeling & Stupid.
Rod Argent got in his car recently and eagerly asked Spotify to play “Dropped Reeling and Stupid.” The song had just been released as the latest single by the Zombies. That’s the group the keyboardist and singer Colin Blunstone co-founded as schoolboys in the English town of St. Albans in the early 1960s and still lead. The song was out in advance of the group’s new album Different Game.
It was a thrill to hear the song blasting out of the car speakers, he says. But he was in for a bit of a shock with what the streaming service’s algorithm pulled up next.
“It was the very first song I ever wrote, ‘It’s Alright With Me,’” he says, delightedly. “It was the very first song we ever recorded in our very first recording session.”
What really got him going was that hearing them back-to-back like that, something came through wonderfully: a common spark.
“I thought, ‘My God! Colin sounds exactly the same!’” he says. “It’s obviously a very different song, but they both sound absolutely from a similar mold. And it was because they were both written from the same excitement, the same wish to make something work. And I think that’s true of the whole new album.”
Indeed it is. The inventiveness and spirit that have made the Zombies’ classic, enduring hits — most prominently “She’s Not There” or “Tell Her No” or their biggest, “Time Of the Season” — flourish anew in Different Game.
That spark is in the stately organ progression that kicks off the opening title tune, the gut-punch of the single, the wistful lilt and chiming harmonies of “Rediscover,” the boisterous rock stomp of “Merry Go Round,” the breathtaking beauty of the strings-and-voice showcase “I Want to Fly.” That excitement, that creative energy connects the then and the now, infusing Argent’s inventive tapestries of jazz, pop, rock and classical modes and Blunstone’s angelic voice and entrancing phrasing with fresh power.
Those musical signatures made the group a singular force in the ‘60s British Invasion, an enduring legacy that has seen the Zombies influence artists from Tom Petty to Pat Metheny. The hits remain cherished favorites for fans cutting across generations, and the band’s second album, 1968’s ambitiously sweeping Odessey and Oracle, is a perennial high pick in fans’ and critics’ rankings of essential releases of its era. These innovations and achievements saw the Zombies honored with a 2019 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Different Game is the Zombies’ first album since that induction. It’s also the first, sadly, since the death in 2018 of bassist Jim Rodford, who as Argent’s older cousin had helped turn him on to rock music in their youth and joined the band in its 2001 resurrection after a three-decades hiatus. His spirit remains strong in the power of the music, as well as in the presence of his son, drummer Steve Rodford, who also joined in 2001. Tom Toomey, who joined in 2010, continues to provide the sharp, lyrical guitar at the core of the sound, while Søren Koch, who stepped in after Jim Rodford’s death, anchors the band on bass. And giving added dimension to many of the songs is the presence of the Q Strings quartet, with stellar arrangements mostly by Argent. It’s a touch that expands and enhances the emotional depth of the songs.
Through touring and now recording together, Argent, Blunstone, Rodford, Toomey and Koch have become a lively, versatile unit that draws on the past while moving forward in great leaps. Key is the vibrant immediacy in the album. The basic recordings, produced largely at Argent’s custom home studio by him and Dale Hanson, were done with the five Zombies together in the room in straight takes — even Blunstone’s vocals.
“The guys say it helps them, and it certainly helps me,” Blunstone says. “It’s totally different to sing with a band, live with all that energy in the studio. It lifts you up. I really enjoy it. And often we keep those live vocals.”
“We did it with quite a few on this album,” Argent says. “With ‘Dropped Reeling and Stupid,’ that’s pretty much one vocal. They were only meant as guides, but they work so well. Something about the chemistry with what is all happening together. And we intended to replace the solos too, but often we didn’t. On that song that’s the solo I played when we were all together, one take. It’s the way we used to record, because in those days there was no other way of doing it.”
The electricity was palpable and inspiring from the moment they first got together to record new songs in late 2019, still soaring from the Hall of Fame honors. But that, along with the rest of the world, came to a sudden halt with the pandemic. As frustrating as that was, it provided an opportunity: With the unexpected luxury of time, Argent set about scoring string quartet backing for several of the songs. Hanson connected the band with the Q Strings, four women who have worked with Jeff Lynne’s ELO.
The strings and the band make a perfect blend right off from the title song, a blend of all the inspirations that moved the Zombies through the years. There’s the rock and jazz, of course. But “Different Game” kicks off the album with the spirit of a different lifetime musical passion: Bach. Argent wrote it after he and his wife attended a performance of the composer’s Mass in b minor shortly before the pandemic hit. At home he went to work out the chords of one passage.
“And I started writing a song around it,” he says. “That was the whole opening sequence and became the verse. So that was the musical beginning of the album.”
Blunstone was quite taken with this bit of Bach ’n’ roll on first hearing.
“I felt I could sing it quite naturally,” he says. “I felt an affinity to it.”
As for the words, it’s a call to take stock, to look around and to celebrate the many riches of life and to embrace changes it brings.
“The original trigger to ‘Different Game’ was a situation where somebody actually in a band — I’m not going to say more than that — started to become very disenchanted and blamed everyone else around the band,” Argent says, cryptically. “But in truth it was him growing older and life changing from what it had been when they started. That was just the trigger, but then I felt it could be looking back over the years, life seems such a different game.”
The theme of embracing life’s changes is a thread through the album, culminating with the breathtaking, heartrending finale of Blunstone’s “The Sun Will Shine Again.”
“It is a love song,” Blunstone says. “But it’s a love song from a parent to a child. My daughter was going through a difficult period a few years ago and that’s what triggered this song. But it’s not specifically about me and my daughter. It’s about all parents everywhere, really — the love that you have and the challenges that you go through as you bring up your child and how that relationship changes. And of course it ends with them leaving,”
“Oh, it sounds really sad,” he says.
“It’s beautiful, Colin!” Argent interjects. “I loved it the first time I heard it.”
Just as beautiful are the wordless, layered harmonies that open “Rediscover,” recalling the Beach Boys’ glorious chorales. It was, in fact, written while the Zombies were on tour with Brian Wilson and Al Jardine of the Beach Boys in 2019.
“I had a piano in my hotel room and the next morning after one of the gigs I was just messing around, and then I had this song written,” Argent says. “And just for fun I scored a basic version of that opening eight bars where it does sound Beach Boys-ish.”
Blunstone laughs at how this song brings back memories of the early Zombies days again, the group’s distinctive set of roots all flowering anew here.
“Rod’s a very good harmony arranger,” he says. “He was in the cathedral choir at St. Albans. It’s a huge cathedral. And until he was 18 he was singing in the choir. Sometimes we would go pick him up right after evensong at about eight o’clock in the evening and go very fast to the rock ’n’ roll gig we had. There weren’t many gigs on Sunday nights, but it did happen. And I think it gave Rod’s voice a bit of a bashing.”
He continues, to Argent: “I remember you were a bit hoarse after you’d done evensong, and then there would be all the songs we used to scream when we were 16 or 17!”
That is just about the Zombies in a nutshell.
“Yes!” Blunstone says. “Evensong to Bo Diddley!”
Harmonies mark several other songs, particularly “Love You While I Can,” on which Toomey plays an almost Spanish-style fingerpicking part around which Argent built the song, but playing the tricky passages on an electric guitar. Blunstone also rose to a challenge as the melody, too, has some surprising twists.
“There are some quite intricate songs on the album,” Blunstone says. “But the toughest one for me to sing was this one.”
The rock ’n’ roll part of the mix comes to the fore in “Got to Move On,” a bit bluesy with electric piano with maybe a nod to Ray Charles, Argent says, plus something unexpected.
“I played what I’d started to write to my wife and she said, ‘Why don’t you play harmonica on it?’” Argent says. “I said, ‘I haven’t played harmonica for about 50 years!’ But she said, ‘Have a go.’”
On “I Want to Fly,” though, the music is stripped down just to the string quartet brings the strings behind Blunstone’s plaintive singing, and it is breathtaking. The song was originally on 2004’s As Far As I Can See, but with a bigger arrangement. Blunstone and Argent felt that it deserved a new life, and this one handed over the arranging duties to Christopher Gunning, whose ties go back to arranging strings on Blunstone’s cherished first solo album, 1971’s One Year. The connection comes through strongly and gorgeously.
“It could have been done at the same time,” Argent says. “And Colin’s voice could have been done at the same time. I mean, he’s 77, as am I, and his voice is just as strong as it was then, stronger in
Having the strings realizes something left unfulfilled in the original Zombies’ 1960s run, particularly on Odessey and Oracle.
“We had a very small budget back then,” Blunstone says of the 1968 session on which they used a Mellotron — the same one the Beatles used on Sgt. Pepper. “We couldn’t use strings and we had to
record very quickly.”
It’s fulfillment and full circle.
“Different Game was completely an in-house production,” Argent says. “We worked within our small group and even the strings were recorded in my place here. And that’s exactly what we did with Odessey and Oracle. We produced it ourselves because we wanted our own stamp on it. I’m really pleased. I think it’s the best album we’ve done since Odessey and Oracle. It’s the most whole and musically successful, and it’s reflecting how we are on stage, how things are now.”
The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs, inducting Blunstone, Argent and co-founders Chris White and Hugh Grundy at the Hall of Fame ceremony, cited the innovation and impact of the group’s hits, but focused on the deep personal meaning it had for her.
“It never fails to touch me, inspire me, excite me and dazzle me, to make me feel less alone, to lift me when I’m down,” she said. “And even when their music moves me with it’s poignancy to tears, it reminds me of what it is to be alive, to be human and of the power of song and music to connect us all.”
She is hardly alone. Tom Petty was, famously, as big a fan. He and the Heartbreakers often did their own version of the Zombies’ 1965 rocker “I Want You Back Again” in concert, and he wrote the forward to The “Odessey”: The Zombies in Words & Images’ , the 2017 book detailing the band’s history. Dave Grohl and Paul Weller are among the many others who have explicitly cited the Zombies as a crucial, beloved influence on them. And it’s hard to imagine the jazz mystique of Steely Dan or the poetic chamber-pop of Belle and Sebastian without the Zombies having paved the way. On meeting Argent in the ‘70s, innovative jazz guitarist Pat Metheny exclaimed that “She’s Not There” in particular was an epiphany that unlocked his own musical ambitions.
It’s a rather heady legacy for a band formed in 1962 by schoolboy friends in St. Albans, about an hour’s drive from London. What became the classic lineup of Blunstone, Argent, bassist Paul Atkinson, guitarist Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy quickly won notice locally and, signing with Decca, well beyond, with “She’s Not There,” their first single, going top 20 in the UK and No. 1 in the US. Months later, “Tell Her No” did nearly as well. Various followups failed to break through, though, but that only spurred the band’s artistic ambitions, realized in the glorious songs and arrangements in Odessey and Oracle, its second album, recorded in 1967.
When the album was met with little support from their record company, though, the discouraged quintet broke up, only to have “Time of the Season” rocket up the charts. They declined offers to regroup to tour behind this success (though fake versions of the band were put on the road by unscrupulous promoters). Argent formed the band bearing his name, which would have the global smash “Hold Your Head Up” in 1972, while Blunstone started a solo career. But even through that, the Zombies were present, as White worked with the band Argent as a non-performing songwriter and Argent, & White both were integral contributors to the Blunstone’s One Year.
The formal reunion started casually, when in 1999 Argent was playing at a concert in tribute to English jazz musician John Dankworth and, seeing Blunstone in the audience, called the singer on stage to perform a song with him. After doing some shows as Rod Argent & Colin Blunstone, they brought the Zombies back to life with the Rodford’s father-son pair and guitarist Keith Airey. Through four albums and various tours, the “new” Zombies solidified and grew. Some of the concerts featured appearances by the surviving original members (Atkinson died in 2004), particularly shows built around complete performances of Odessey and Oracle celebrating the album’s 50th anniversary.
That momentum powered Different Game.
“When we started, I thought, ‘I don’t want to make an album that is a typical “vintage” album where people seem to tone down the energy, give you a quieter, more laid-back version of what they’ve done in the past,’” Argent says. “I wanted to reflect the energy and commitment we have on stage. How we really psych ourselves up on stage is by going out on a limb and expressing a lot of energy. At the same time there are four or five tracks that do really romantic things and they make a beautiful contrast.”
At the heart of it all, what really keeps them going, is the relationship that has continued to grow with their fans.
“We always remark on this, particularly in America,” Blunstone says. “But wherever we play there is a real cross-section of ages at our concerts, from teenagers up to the people who have followed us from the very beginning. There’s a huge energy from the audience that comes back and really lifts us. It’s been a wonderful experience to see the band grow a second time. I think it’s probably what I’m most proud of what we’ve achieved.”