Immortal Technique: The Zombies’ Undying Odyssey with Chris White
by David Ma
Somewhere along the way, Chris White found out people were listening, that betting on himself months earlier wasn’t an act of ego. The Zombies, celebrated British group with glowing hits from 1965 (“She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No”), found themselves nearly jobless and broke by 1968. The misfortune began after they returned from the Philippines circa ’67, where, according to White, the band was “almost murdered.”
While they were overseas, Columbia Records, had lost all patience and wanted to move onward when “Care of Cell 44,” a sublime single from a year before, had failed to chart. It was a huge letdown given their previous successes and a vital one that in many ways led to the band’s eventual breakup. Once back in England, they too learned that their management and label had both left them and ceased all working relationships, respectively.
White, the group’s bassist and key songwriter, along with Rod Argent, continued as the Zombies despite the disappointments. They gigged and made demos and eventually signed with CBS Records’ U.K. division for their next long player, what would become their official second studio product. The three-month process that ensued, at its end, left bandmates at odds with one another and label execs heated. White was openly irritated with the label when he was barred from some of the final sessions. “We were fed up, really fed up with studio’s production team, because we were not allowed to be a part of the mixing,” he says. “We were at Abbey Road and we were thrilled. And we were with a great producer too, so that upset us even further. Some of the original band members eventually just left. We were about to toss the whole thing.”
Eventually they got a second shot at Columbia, which at that point was under new guidance from Clive Davis, who agreed to consider the new recordings. White and Argent in the meantime survived on small gigs, often with a swirling cast of sit-ins while CBS and Davis deliberated. Players on the new project, what was to be Odessey and Oracle, included Paul Atkinson on guitar, Hugh Grundy on percussion, and of course, Colin Blunstone on vocals. According to White, however, the response they finally got months later “was simply another tremendous letdown.”
Label brass wanted the album to be in stereo, not mono like it was originally intended. White and Argent once again dug into their own pockets, combining royalty checks from previous hits to fund brand new revisions. “So Rod and I scraped together some thousand pounds or so on our own and redid it again in stereo. And back then, that kind of work took a lot to get done properly. But when we were finally completed, after all the details and so forth, no one cared for it and it just kind of sat in limbo.”
By the spring of 1968, the Zombies had officially broken up. And it was then that Odyssey… took on a second life, being granted a small run on Date Records, a short-lived subsidiary of Columbia. As White and Argent moved on, working together on what would become 1970’s Argent album, their single, “Time of the Season” exploded globally, becoming an earworm that ubiquitously charted from the Netherlands to Africa, and other locales, seemingly all at once.
It had been more than a year since the Zombies even existed, as it was put behind them, but it wasn’t until now that they learned of its slow-build success. “It was eighteen months after we split up that we heard the song again on the radio. Then we heard it had become a worldwide hit. We couldn’t believe it. Then several fake groups even popped up and performed as “The Zombies.” The song got really huge, but we were no longer together at that point. It was just a weird time. But it was fantastic too,” laughs White. By 1969, “Time of the Season” reached stateside and was number three on the U.S. Billboard charts.
Odessey and Oracle is of course now a classic in the pantheon of masterworks; an orchestration of texture and harmony underscored by wide-eyed, illustrative writing. It remains immensely endearing and continually enduring, evidenced by the band’s recent and long overdue induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. White and Argent’s chemistry coupled with Blunstone’s voice has kept Odessey and Oracle in the public spectrum through the years, a no-fail mainstay on seemingly every rock “best of” list ever written.
Here, White recalls the arduous process behind their masterpiece, and remembers an era in which they were many times quickly dismissed—as purveyors of new and exciting art often are. The remaining band members, who are all in their seventies, recently performed together at the induction ceremony and joyously played their beatific hits (and Craft Recordings are reissuing three early Zombies albums). “I’m just so happy to see all my friends again,” said White.
You guys had a couple U.S. tour dates before all the issues with the label originally arose. What was it like being a part of the British invasion?
It was an absolute wonder, to be quite honest. I remember being in New York and playing a Christmas show and Ben E. King was there. So was Dionne Warwick and the Whispers. And the Shangri-Las, who were personal heroes of ours, were absolutely stunning. Whenever we played a city, we would stay for six, seven, or eight days at a time, so that was always very fun. The ’60s were an exciting time! We grew up on American music and we just tried to do our best interpretation of it.
What were your first impressions of the States?
It was like being in a real-life television program. [laughs] We heard things like gunshots and police sirens at night in Brooklyn. It was scary too but also incredibly thrilling. And the musicians we played with were all so fabulous. It became an education for us really. And we were simply excited because we were introduced to so much more American music.
Can we talk about your personal history a bit? Tell us about your start.
Of course. Really, I was just a student at an art college for years, just training. One of my school friends was the cousin of Paul Arnold, an original band member, and when Paul wanted to leave, they wanted a replacement. Simple as that. We were still school kids taking exams and doing what schoolboys do. My brother Terry asked me to join and I of course said yes. I had small groups and bands of my own but I dropped those and we just all started playing together right away.
Tell us about your early days playing bass. What sparked your interest in that rather than other instruments?
Well, my father was a semi-professional musician and he played bass. He also played guitar. And I always thought bass was less complicated because it had less strings. You can write a song on bass, but you cannot write a full song on bass by itself. I’ve always thought you also need a guitar and keyboard too. I guess you can argue songs need drums as well.
Do you have a favorite bassist?
My favorite bassist sadly died last year. He’s not a super big name or anything, he just played with us sometimes and was a cousin of Rod’s. He started by helping the band with equipment and later joined the reformed and touring Zombies. He was my all-time favorite because he could play anything, in any style, with so much style.
What kind of tunes were you into as a young lad?
For me, it started with American music, Elvis Presley then Buddy Holly. Of course Miles [Davis] and eventually all things jazz. The Zombies always had a mixture of instruments, so we wanted to incorporate them all into our songs, you know, try something a little different. And I think we took a lot of that from American music and sort of made that our motto.
Describe your working relationship with Rod Argent. Share with us, if you will, how the two of you came up with what you did.
Rod and I worked very closely together, and he was a great influence and teacher. Such a great keyboardist with a great voice. As his band mate, you cannot help but want him to write. We used to have rehearsals and we’d each come up with songs and take turns playing them. So by the time we ever went into the studio, we worked quite hurriedly because it was four-track recordings and we only had limited time to get it right. So it had to be tight every time. We were friends at the start and all worked well together. Rod was from one school and Colin [Blunstone] and I were from another. We started the rock band to be fun. Colin had a really great voice too. After working together, you just get to know each other’s different processes.
Besides delays with the label, why did the entire band split before the record was released?
Well, Paul Atkinson was getting married so that was a big part of it. But also, people don’t remember that we already had a couple singles off the album floating around. It just seemed long and indeed at the time nobody seemed to care, at least at that point. Rod and I wanted to keep working together and carry on the music is really all it was.
The first single that really bolstered your early career was “She’s Not There.” What do you recall most about making it? Was it really only the second song Rod had written at that point?
This was one of our first real recordings and was at Abbey Road Studios. Rod mainly wrote that one, and, yes, he had wrote that years prior and was an early number of his. We went into the studio to record four songs that day. It was a very tight schedule. I remember it being short sessions, which took place late at night. Basically, the engineer had been at a wedding all day, and it was nighttime, so he was out of his mind. [laughs] We were there for a mere couple hours and he was getting rather drunk and rude toward us. As we were readying to leave, he collapsed, and we all had to physically carry him out of the studio that night. [laughs]
“Care of Cell 44” wasn’t a major hit but, like the album, became beloved by listeners. Talk about how you guys came up with it.
I remember Rod and I standing around the piano and working out the harmonies together. Slowly and for quite some time. Rod was always very good with harmonies and had a knack for it because he was in choir. Even when we were making it, I thought that it was a bit of a different tune, so maybe that’s why people didn’t really catch onto it at first. I’m glad they eventually did though. Love that one, it’s a personal favorite.
We have to talk about the ever brilliant “A Rose for Emily.” What are your memories of it?
When Rod played it to us, we thought it was just fine, no big deal. It was a good tune but we weren’t impressed or anything. When we first recorded it, we did it very basic, just keyboards and all of us singing. We wanted it to be a little different, so we rerecorded it several times, each time with additional stuff. It was just fun at first but then being different sort of became what we lived by, for the entire album, really. As this one was being written, and finally played, we just found more ways to make it sound more full. We tried to do that for the entire album, just making things more special. That’s what I remember most about “Emily,” just doing it over and over—and over and over.
You’ve been asked this plenty I’m sure, but we’d be remiss not to mention “Time of the Season.” What comes to mind now about your biggest hit?
It was actually the very last song we recorded, and it turned out to be our most well known. To me, that song is all Rod’s writing. It also took a little while to get the drums to sound the way we wanted it to. Colin also took a while to nail the singing [laughs] and was quite frustrated in the process. So the entire song actually took us quite long from start to finish. We put a lot of time into “Time of the Season.”
Share with us how it felt to finally be a Hall of Fame inductee. I know it had been something that was teased for many years.
It was our fourth time being nominated, so it was very exciting. I mean, after fifty-five years to be recognized is simply amazing. And to be with everyone made it more special. The Zombies are friends and still are. And we’re just so lucky, to be quite honest. So lucky to be among the luminaries of the Rock & Roll world.
After all these years, how do you feel when you hear Odessey and Oracle? How does everything sit with you?
We always did what we thought was exciting for us even though it wasn’t always successful at the time. And now I’m in my seventies. I feel privileged. It’s wonderful to be recognized for something nobody wanted for so many years.
*In memory of Terry Quirk—Chris White’s “oldest friend” and artist behind Odessey and Oracle’s famous cover— who passed away recently on June 1 of this year.
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