Cult clas­sic keeps Zom­bies go­ing

Cham­ber-pop al­bum Odessey and Or­a­cle, meant to be band’s last, to be per­formed at the Dan­forth Mu­sic Hall

Toronto Star - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - NICK KREWEN

What an “Odessey” for the Zom­bies.

Fifty years af­ter the U.K. pop quintet’s in­flu­en­tial sig­na­ture al­bum Odessey and Or­a­cle was de­clared a com­mer­cial flop that forced the band’s breakup, Rod Ar­gent finds him­self recre­at­ing the project with most of the orig­i­nal lineup on a North Amer­i­can tour that comes to the Dan­forth Mu­sic Hall on April 2.

“It’s a bit of a mir­a­cle on sev­eral lev­els,” notes Ar­gent, down the line from a West Vir­ginia stop, weav­ing a tale that in­cludes a post-mortem hit, a cou­ple of fu­ture ZZ Top mem­bers and the weighty in­flu­ence of mod rocker Paul Weller.

The story be­gins in St. Al­bans, Hert­ford­shire, Eng­land, in 1963, with the lineup of key­boardist Ar­gent, singer Colin Blun­stone, bass player Chris White, gui- tarist Paul Atkin­son and drum­mer Hugh Grundy win­ning a lo­cal band com­pe­ti­tion.

“The prize was a sin­gle re­lease with Decca Records,” re­calls Ar­gent, 71. “We were go­ing to record ‘Sum­mer­time’ — the Gersh­win song — but our pro­ducer Ken Jones said, ‘Why don’t you try and write some­thing for the ses­sion?’

“Chris and I wrote a song each. I wrote ‘She’s Not There’ and it was pretty much the sec­ond song I’d ever writ­ten.”

The in­fec­tious mil­lion-seller took Amer­ica by storm, hold­ing at No. 2 for a cou­ple of weeks dur­ing the sum­mer of ’64.

A year later, an­other snappy Top 10 hit — “Tell Her No” — fol­lowed in the U.S., but the band couldn’t repli­cate its suc­cess in its home coun­try.

“We were based very much in the U.K. and we only had one hit there,” Ar­gent ex­plains. “In those days, you were very much based where you came from and the gig money was go­ing down.”

By the time 1967 rolled around, pop and rock mu­sic had ex­panded its imag­i­na­tion be­yond the three-minute ra­dio-friendly sin­gle, so the Zom­bies de­cided to go for broke, ar­tis­ti­cally speak­ing.

“It’s a re­mark­able story re­ally . . . it sells more every year than it did when it first came out . . . It seemed to re­late to a younger gen­er­a­tion as well, which com­pletely knocks me out.” ROD AR­GENT ON ODESSEY AND OR­A­CLE

“We did the al­bum be­cause it was in the air that the Zom­bies might split up, re­ally for com­mer­cial rea­sons,” he ex­plains. With a lim­ited bud­get and Ge­off Em­er­ick, fresh from record­ing Sgt. Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, on board as en­gi­neer, the 12-song cham­ber-pop al­bum Odessey and Or­a­cle was recorded within three months.

Af­ter the first sin­gle, “Care of Cell 44,” was pushed down the chute with lit­tle re­ac­tion, both gui­tarist Atkin­son and singer Blun­stone told Ar­gent, “Look, we need to make some money. We’ve got to break up.”

The band dis­solved in De­cem­ber 1967; Odessey and Or­a­cle was re­leased posthu­mously, so to speak, in 1968.

“We were very happy with it,” Ar­gent re­calls. “It got great re­views, but it didn’t sell any­where.”

Rod Ar­gent im­me­di­ately formed his name­sake band Ar­gent and founded a pro­duc­tion com­pany with White that ended up pro­duc­ing Blun­stone’s solo ma­te­rial, ini­tially is­sued un­der the pseu­do­nym of Neil MacArthur.

In the mean­time, Al Kooper — the Blood, Sweat and Tears founder and Bob Dy­lan ses­sion man — had be­come a staff pro­ducer for New York’s Columbia Records and was told to head to the U.K. to find new acts. One of the al­bums he stum­bled across was Odessey and Or­a­cle. In 1969, the la­bel is­sued “Time of the Sea­son,” which be­came a world­wide smash and a No. 1 hit in the U.S.

“But then, even with the hit, the al­bum didn’t even re­ally sell in Amer­ica at that time,” Ar­gent re­calls.

All the same, “Time of the Sea­son” in­spired sev­eral il­le­git­i­mate U.S. bands to tour as the “orig­i­nal” Zom­bies, in­clud­ing a con­fig­u­ra­tion that in­cluded ZZ Top’s fu­ture rhythm sec­tion.

“Just a cou­ple of years ago, we were amazed to learn that Frank Beard and Dusty Hill from ZZ Top had ac­tu­ally formed a fake Zom­bies. They ad­mit­ted it in an ar­ti­cle. It just amused me. I thought it was great. I said to Colin, ‘When we fin­ish our tour, we have to go out as a ZZ Top trib­ute band and re­pay the com­pli­ment.’ ”

De­spite the be­lated suc­cess of “Time of the Sea­son,” Ar­gent said there was no in­cli­na­tion to re­form the group.

“We never wanted to. I was al­ways proud and grate­ful of what the Zom­bies did, but that was the past to me,” says Ar­gent, who scored a Top 10 hit in 1972 with “Hold Your Head Up” and then con­tin­ued on as a ses­sion man, play­ing pi­ano for some of the Who’s Who Are You ses­sions and An­drew Lloyd Web­ber’s Vari­a­tions.

White and Blun­stone con­tin­ued as solo artists. In­ter­est in Odessey and Or­a­cle wasn’t res­ur­rected un­til the late ’80s, from what Ar­gent says was an un­ex­pected source.

“When Paul Weller was the big­gest thing in U.K. mu­sic and had sev­eral hits in the Top 10 with the Jam, he com­pletely blew us away by say­ing his favourite al­bum of all time is Odessey and Or­a­cle,” Ar­gent re­mem­bers. “Later, Tom Petty and Dave Grohl said great things about the al­bum.

“It’s a re­mark­able story re­ally, be­cause it’s never go­ing to sell like Dark Side of the Moon, but it sells more every year than it did when it first came out . . . It seemed to re­late to a younger gen­er­a­tion as well, which com­pletely knocks me out.”

When Ar­gent and Blun­stone re­u­nited in 2000 for “a half a dozen gigs for fun,” the duo found they couldn’t es­cape the Zom­bies tag. Af­ter re­al­iz­ing that they had rarely played any Zom­bies ma­te­rial on­stage back in the day, Ar­gent and Blun­stone re­u­nited with White and in­cor­po­rated more of their old band’s songs into their set.

“It felt nat­u­ral,” Ar­gent says, adding that the re­vamped lineup that in- cludes ex-Kinks bassist and Ar­gent cousin Jim Rod­ford on bass, his son Steve Rod­ford on drums and Tom Toomey on gui­tar, has re­leased two ac­claimed al­bums, 2011’s Breathe Out, Breathe In and 2015’s Still Got That Hunger.

The Dan­forth Mu­sic Hall show will fea­ture both ros­ters: the con­tem­po­rary one will per­form dur­ing the first half of the show, with four-fifths of the orig­i­nal lineup (gui­tarist Atkin­son died in 2004) per­form­ing Odessey and Or­a­cle dur­ing the sec­ond half.

Ar­gent says that af­ter this tour, Odessey and Or­a­cle will be put to bed, but the Zom­bies will soldier on.

“If it felt like things were de­clin­ing, I wouldn’t want to do it any­more,” Ar­gent says. “I don’t need to. I’ve been very lucky with some of the songs I’ve writ­ten, but it’s such a joy to be on that stage and feel that vi­tal­ity still. It’s the most ex­cit­ing thing to write and cre­ate; oth­er­wise you feel like you’re dead.”

Rod Ar­gent, front cen­tre, leads the Zom­bies as they recre­ate the band’s Odessey and Or­a­cle project at the Dan­forth Mu­sic Hall on Sun­day.

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