The future was about to get weird.
In the summer of 1964 the Psychedelic Wave had yet to arrive, as Timothy Leary’s acid experiments hadn’t made the leap of mass production, or caught on in the generation of hopeful mystics who believed, as Hunter Thompson said, “they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit.”
That was all later, as a great rising tide of half-melted imagery and swaying sonic reverb changed the culture of the West, signaled by everything from Peter Max’s sweeping color splashes to the Beatles auditory odysseys. Nations and people would find themselves awash in a kind of free-thinking blitzkrieg, all the rules of creation torn down at once, and impossible art swooping in to fill the void.
So what to make of a track like “She’s Not There,” which has the elements of the psychedelic sounds to come, but doesn’t burst forth from LSD laced minds or run off the influence of wild auditory experiments? It’s a pop record, but it feels different than anything else being recorded at the time. In the summer of 1964, it arrived like a short-range time-capsule, the kind of song you would have expected to grab airplay two or three years later, but which still felt revolutionary at the time.
You can hear what’s coming, though, and no matter how many times I listen to the track I’m still not sure how. Is it the echo in the vocals? The haunting tone shifts between the major and minor chords? Or some other indefinable thing?
And how did a bunch of drug-free kids from the London suburbs hit so seamlessly on a sound that would be echoed back to them by some of the most influential albums in rock history?
I think the key is in that statement right there. The Zombies were a bunch of kids, and they were naively confident enough to try something that sounded right, and tuned in enough to hear a signal the whole world was about to pick up on.
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Something about this has to do with England—the size, the scale, the proximity of one great artist to another. As T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan put it, “It’s all within five miles. You can get to meet anyone and they’ll go on your records gladly.”
The Zombies didn’t get the benefit of anyone famous going on their record, but they did get a recording deal from winning a local talent contest, and that in turn led to their song “She’s Not There” going on the British show Juke Box Jury. A clip from the song was played for the jury, which included George Harrison, who loved it, announcing “Well done, Zombies!” And just that quickly, five teenagers who went to school together in the town of St. Albans were rock stars.
The rise of the group was spectacular, but their greatest success would come after they’d already broken up. Despite “She’s Not There” going to number two on the U.S. charts (followed by another Stateside hit with “Tell Her No”), the Zombies struggled to build on their off-the-bat success. By the time they came together to record their second album, Odyssey and Oracle, they were already making plans to split up.
This is where the fact that they were just kids starts to work against them. The Zombies were still only 21 and 22 year old artists when they recorded Odyssey and Oracle, and so while they surely enjoyed their early success, they couldn’t have conceived of how influential it was. And so when the haunting three-part harmonies of “She’s Not There” and the soulful organ playing of Rod Argent start to creep into other revolutionary rock songs, The Zombies probably just assumed there was something in the air that unified those songs and albums, and never considering that the unifying thing was them.
Maybe I’m reaching a bit here, but I don’t think so. How many classic rock tunes put such an emphasis on the organ before “She’s Not There?” I can’t find many (my father points out The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” as a very notable exception). But look at how prominent the instrument becomes in the three years after this recording.
1965–Bob Dylan amps up Al Kooper’s organ part on “Like a Rolling Stone” (which is an amazing story all by itself) and the Beatles start experimenting with it on Rubber Soul.
1966–? and the Mysterians record “96 Tears,” while organ and electric piano wash through the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”
1967–Procul Harum use a church organ throughline on “Whiter Shade of Pale,” while The Doors release their first two albums, loaded with Ray Manzarak’s frenzied organ playing.
And you can hear the record’s profound influence on two of the most ambitious albums ever recorded–the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Beatles Revolver. Paul McCartney was a huge fan of the song, and John Lennon reportedly offered to manage the Zombies in an effort to keep them from splitting apart (Odessey and Oracle was in fact recorded at Abbey Road Studios).
And still, the Zombies broke up. Despite all the evidence of their influence and, most surprisingly, right before their greatest commercial success.
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In March of 1968, three months after the Zombies played what they thought was their final gig, “Time of the Season” hit the airwaves. The timing was perfect. The mix of ethereal harmonies, reference to nature, and flower-power bounce was a massive hit in the quickly receding wake of the Summer of Love. having helped build the ripples that turned into the Psychedelic Wave, the Zombies’ music was now a riding on its crest.
The accompanying album, by a now-defunct band, would go on to be a classic. By then, everyone in the group had gone their separate ways. Organist Rod Argent would soon form his own successful group (Argent) and singer Colin Blunstone would drop out of music altogether (working briefly in the insurance business) before launching a modestly successful solo career.
And that would have been the story of the group. But while the members of the band went off in their own directions, the reputation of their original work kept growing. In 1997, a four-disc box set of their recordings, Zombie Heaven, was released, including interviews with the group and stories of each of their songs. Six years later, Rolling Stone published their original 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and ranked Odessey and Oracle at number 100.
With the renewed attention and positive press, the surviving members of the band (guitarist Paul Atkinson died in 2004) reformed and began touring. Led by Blunstone and Argent, the Zombies released new albums in 2011 (Breathe Out, Breathe In) and 2015 (Still Got That Hunger), and after a string of TV appearances and tours over the last decade, the Zombies were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame in 2019.
That induction seems to hinge almost exclusively around Odessey and Oracle, which is now considered a cornerstone of psychedelic pop, and continues to grab attention today (the achingly hopeful track “This Will Be Our Year,” played over the closing credits of award-winning series Schitt’s Creek’s final episode earlier this year.)
But before the wave they helped generate–one so powerful they’re still riding it five decades later–came this one seemingly simple song. You could hear what was coming, like a shell that holds the sound of an ocean. The Zombies grabbed that developing sound out of the air and put it on a record that caught everyone’s ears. Maybe it’s better they didn’t know how fast everything was about to change. The ones who announce what’s coming rarely do. They just raise their horn and are surprised just as the rest of us when the air rattles.