/ Whenever you’re ready, Decca, 1965
Anyone who came of age musically speaking during or just after punk would probably have had their first indirect exposure to the Zombies via the unprepossessing medium of the UK Subs, who scraped a top forty hit with the sixties’ act’s debut single ‘She’s not there’. Released in 1964 while the Beatles were riding high with ‘A hard day’s night’, Rod Argent’s magical multi-paced original, its mystery enhanced by Colin Blunstone’s gorgeously cool voice, peaked at number 12 in the UK. YouTube immediately allows the retrospective comparison that would have been tricky both logistically and financially in 1979, and of course there is none. The Subs butcher the magic out of the song, while the elfin Blunstone epitomises an other-worldly understanding of it, his alien poise exaggerated by the relative normality of the groovy squares who are the other Zombies. Blunstone’s singing is invariably described as breathy, but to my ears it’s the absence of wind – as if he has no need to breathe – which makes him such a unique singer.
And now to a confession: the Subs’ version was the second single I ever bought, after ‘Here comes the summer’ by the Undertones. While I loyally followed Feargal and the boys to their end and beyond, I somehow swiftly intuited that the UK Subs’ sole moment of imagination was covering a great sixties pop song; they never made it into my developing record collection again. And with every week throwing up a new group to care about, neither was I going to go out of my way to track down such traces or remnants of the Zombies as might have existed in the late seventies, nor even in the early eighties as a result of the exceptional voice of Colin Blunstone resurfacing alongside Dave Stewart (the Hatfield And The North one rather than the Tourist / Eurythmic) for a synthesized cover of Tamla Motown classic ‘What becomes of the brokenhearted’.
My next encounter with the Zombies was the definitive one, and it came courtesy of the fourth issue of Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs’ Caff fanzine. They only mentioned Odessey & oracle in passing, but the glowing praise was enough to encourage me to borrow what may have been the 20th anniversary vinyl reissue from Islington’s Central Library. And I was as wowed by it as so many others have been with each successive decade’s re-release. I never thought to check out what preceded it, partly because I supposed that nothing could top it, and partly because I never came across any encouragement to look a little further back.
It took a chance meeting in a charity shop with a dirt cheap copy of The singles collection: As & Bs 1964-1969 to complete the picture (give or take their covers-heavy debut LP Begin here) I had of the Zombies. Here finally was the way ‘She’s not there’ should be heard, plus 19 other cuts from singles preceding their canonical classic LP, itself represented by five songs, with a further three dating from after their demise. And it just may be that I’ve lived too long with the most famous spelling mistake in the history of pop, and that I’ve come to tire of the kitsch excesses of late sixties baroque pop, for the preceding singles, more straightforward, less flowery, though recognisably the same group and hardly to be described as raw (except on out-and-out raver ‘She does everything for me’), seem to me at least Odessey and oracle’s equal, and yes, occasionally do indeed top it. True, the influence of the Beatles looms too large early on, but more often than not – Chris White’s ‘I must move’ is the prime example – the tints of Scouse sweet and sourness that originated in Lennon’s quarter of the Beatles work to the Zombies’ advantage. That minor chord moodiness verging on drone has been a staple of Liverpudlian pop ever since; you start to wonder if Shack and the La’s took as much from the Zombies as from the Fabs. Yet the Zombies’ origins could not be much further from the Northwest, culturally speaking; they were school boys from St Albans, which possibly accounts for their choral purity, but not much else.
Discographically book-ended by two big hits, ‘She’s not there’ and the posthumous ‘Time of the season’, it’s a surprise that almost all of the rest of their singles were misses. Perhaps, as happened to sixties groups desperately looking to rediscover a magic formula, some fatal hesitancy was exhibited about which side of a single was which; ‘I love you’’s structural inversion of chorus and verse makes it both a dramatic and memorably harmonic B side, trumping ‘Whenever you’re ready’’s more traditional delights and wig-out organ, while the ice-cool Beatles mannerisms of ‘I must move’ easily give it the edge over the big beats and Spectorisms of ‘She’s coming home’. Lennon wasn’t the only one who could portray male reserve, impenetrability, lack of susceptibility, and nonchalance, all embodied in – and sweetened by – melody and mood. (On the 1966 single ‘Indication’, Rod Argent’s opening lines are: ‘It’s not that you’re wrong / It’s just that I’m right’.) Commitment is the problem on ‘I love you’, but at least on this occasion Chris White admits it. Of all the many songs which share its title, there can’t be many which focus on how difficult it can be for a young man to say those words.
Certainly Odessey and oracle offers a more rounded view of the world alongside its bewitching mix of melody, harmony and mellotron. The school boys from St Albans had grown up, and impatient to stretch their wings after an ultimately frustrating five years as Zombies, they put their liberated all into that last hurrah together. Put the beginning and the middle together with that end, and you have what salvage operation Big Beat had every right to call Zombie heaven.