The Zombies in their own words

The Zombies recorded their last album in 1967, released it with a spelling mistake on the cover, then split up. But Odessey & Oracle has become such an acclaimed classic, the band are reforming. Dorian Lynskey hears their story

Chris White, bassist/songwriter
We were going to split up in 1964 but a contest came up at Watford town hall. When we won we thought we'd try it for a year. We didn't think of it as a full-time career. With She's Not There we were in the right place at the right time with the right song. It went to number one in the [US] Cashbox charts. We kind of took it for granted because we were so young and naive.

Colin Blunstone, singer
You should be extremely grateful for whatever success comes your way, and of course we were, but it would have been better if our chart success had come a couple of years later. We really were thrown in at the deep end.

Rod Argent, keyboardist/songwriter
In England we only had one hit record, She's Not There, and it was downhill from there. Around the rest of the world, we were considerably more successful.

Hugh Grundy, drummer
We got booked to play the Philippines [in 1967]. We got there early one morning and there were crowds of people lining the roofs of various buildings. And we thought, Good Lord, I wonder who they're waiting for? We had no idea it was us. So as we stepped on to the gangway they started screaming like mad. We were somewhat bemused. It got a bit hairy towards the end. We got offered another gig and they said, 'You can't because you're exclusive to us,' and we did it anyway. We learned later that the place we'd just played had burnt down the following night. Strange, that.

RA A lot of the live work we did was in England so the income for most of the band was based on that. But because of the success that we were having around the world, the publishing income was filtering through at a very healthy rate to me and Chris. The other guys in the band were on their uppers. I thought we might not have too much longer together.

CB The three non-writers [guitarist Paul Atkinson died in 2004] were all living at home so we didn't have huge expenditures but it was all very tight. Throughout that summer, we were running out of money.

RA Our producer did a very good job on She's Not There, but we felt he mixed some of the balls out of the subsequent singles. Chris and I desperately wanted to produce an album ourselves before we finished so we went to CBS and asked for a small amount of money. I remember being given £1,000, which wasn't very much.

CW Rod and I were sharing a flat in North Finchley and writing in rooms next to each other. We'd play the songs to each other and then go and rehearse in a village hall in Wheathampstead.

RA We were the first band not signed to EMI that was allowed into Abbey Road. So we very much benefited from some of the technical advances the Beatles had made with Sgt Pepper. They walked out and we walked in. We would go in with a basic arrangement worked out and then throw things on which were virtually improvised. We were kids in a sweetshop. It made everything seem possible. The whole of the 60s were a brilliant time to record because everything was exploding and there was such a feeling of positivity in the air. People were willing to embrace any ideas and see where they led.

CW I think the word psychedelic is confused with experimental. None of us ever took any drugs. In fact the only person who smoked cigarettes was the drummer. I just think the ideas were pouring out of us anyway.

HG In those days the session would be three hours and that was it; you had to shut down for lunch. It's not like today where you can sit in the studio for hours, being creative.

CB We were doing some live vocal harmonies on Changes and at one o'clock two guys walked in wearing long brown coats and started moving the grand piano. I watched in amazement as they manouevred it out of the studio and we just kept singing. Whether that's actually on the final take, I don't know.

RA Time of the Season was the last thing to be written. I remember thinking it sounded very commercial. One of my favourite records was George Gershwin's Summertime; we used to do a version of it when we started out. The words in the verse - "What's your name? Who's your daddy? Is he rich like me?" - were an affectionate nod in that direction.

CW All the songs are little stories but they're not about anyone specific - except Friends of Mine, which has a list of friends of ours chanted in the background, most of whom are dead or separated now. Beechwood Park is a real place. My father owned a general store in Hertfordshire and he used to deliver to a private girls' school called Beechwood Park. I remember driving round there and seeing steam rising off the road in the summer after rain.

RA The album title's slightly high-flown, isn't it? As is the quote from the Tempest on the back. It was a very flowery time in all sorts of ways. Me and Chris shared a flat with a guy called Terry Quirk who was a very talented artist and he came up with this beautiful, florid cover that we adored. We didn't notice that the word odyssey was spelt wrongly, to our eternal embarrassment. For years I used to say, "Oh that was intentional. It was a play on the word ode." But I'm afraid it wasn't.

CW He became a lecturer in animation. He's now in charge of putting a full-sized mammoth statue on one of the roundabouts in Ilford.

RA Chris and I were very excited about what was going on. I suppose we could afford to be excited because we still had a decent income. Even while we were recording, some of the band were feeling disaffected and restless. Paul was about to get married and I remember him saying just after we finished the album: "Look guys I'm gong to have to move on, I've got no money." And Colin said, "Well, I feel the same."

CB People remember things differently. I was very excited, and at the end of the album, I did genuinely think that this was the best we could do. We were all very disappointed when the single [Care of Cell 44, 1967] didn't make an impact on the charts. I feel that everyone lost heart but I know Rod thinks it was particularly me and the other non-writers. We didn't have a manager, an agent or a producer so we felt a bit rudderless.

HG Morale did suffer, to the point where it became obvious that we were going to split up, which was sad. I think if we had carried on, we would have weathered the storm. But there you go.

CW There were no fights or anything like that. It was a matter of financial survival. And a breaking of hope. If you've got excitement and hope then you can survive but not when two things come together like that: discouragement and financial problems. We were disappointed when it didn't take off and it was only Al Kooper in America who forced CBS to put it out. Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914) was the first track the Americans put out as a single, which totally surprised us. I think it was to do with the Vietnam war but it wasn't written as an allegory.

HG We have a lot to thank dear old Al Kooper for. Time of the Season became a hit in the backwoods of America - Boise, Idaho, I think - and it got on the radio there and it spread and spread until eventually it became number one. Sadly it was too late.

RA By the time Time of the Season was a hit in the US it was 1969, so quite a lot of water had gone under the bridge. It didn't feel right to get together 18 months down the line just to cash in. Chris and I had decided to keep working together and produce some albums. We'd already talked about producing Colin's One Year, which turned out to be a cult album in its own right.

CB I was prepared for the fact that I might never make a record again, so I phoned an agency and the first job that was available was at an insurance company, Sun Alliance. After a few months, Time of the Season started to take off and I got lots of calls at the office asking if I'd like to make records again.

CW Even till the late 70s we were seen as a curiosity - a band who never quite made it - and then slowly in the 80s and 90s you found young bands quoting it as an inspiration. [Fans include Alex Turner, Gruff Rhys, Badly Drawn Boy and Elijah Wood.] It's quite surprising to me to find that this album nobody wanted 40 years ago has become an icon. Some people have said it's their idea of the perfect album. It's all quite strange for us to be honest.

CB It was a wonderful surprise and it's helped to validate what we did and to take a bit of the edge off the sadness of the band having to split. It made us feel like we were on the right line with what we were doing because at the time I'm not sure we felt that we were. We didn't get the reaction we were hoping for, so you start to doubt yourself but now, at this late date, you sort of think, Well we weren't so far off.

CW Last year, three people covered This Will Be Our Year. It's ironic: "This will be our year, took a long time to come." Well it certainly did: it took 40 years.

· The Zombies play Odessey & Oracle at Shepherd's Bush Empire on March 7, 8 & 9. Odessey & Oracle: 40th Anniversary Edition is released on Repertoire on March 3


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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