Zombies in Manila! Not the mindless undead creatures of fantasy, often found on TV, horror films, or video games but rather the psychedelic rock band of the 60s. Resurrecting another era with a memorable performance at the Smart Araneta Coliseum on Friday July 12th. I was thrilled upon discovering my media pass was approved, on the other hand, didn’t want to get my hopes up. I’m often disappointed with the lackluster performances of bands “getting up there” in age. Usually very weak vocals, instrument skill levels falling short compared to nimbleness of their heyday, and just missing the “umph”, created on-stage with many of todays modern artists.
Now don’t get me wrong, I appreciated being offered the invitation, it’s always exciting to see musicains in action. But come on…really how good could it be? Colin Blunstone, the lead vocalist, just recently celebrated his 70th birthday! However, these gentleman are rock and roll legends, true royalty, pioneers in fact, so you’d think it would at least be worth an hour and half of my time to go check it out. And with incredible longevity, they must be doing something right, they’ve been performing since 1963, the year I was born, and their first concert in Manila was in the spring of ’67.
And in case you’re unaware, here’s a few stats with a brief history. The second UK group following the Beatles to score a #1 hit in America. With gorgeous melodies, breathy vocals, choral back-up harmonies and a jazzy influence, The Zombies ruled the 1960’s with hit singles like “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No”. Ironically, the group broke-up in 1968 just prior to achieving their greatest success with the chart-topping single “Time of the Season”, from their swan-song album “Odyssey & Oracle”. Blunstone went on to develop an acclaimed solo career, while keyboardist/songwriter Rod Argent rocked arenas in the 70’s with his eponymous band Argent. Over 30 years later, Blunstone and Argent have regrouped The Zombies, paying tribute to the group’s musical legacy and collaborating on new studio material.
Pleased to report, I was not only pleasantly surprised but impressed. As the group secured their positions on stage, from within the first minute or so, it was readily apparent that these five guys functioned as one. Granted, the stage show did not include any super high tech lighting or flashy stage props. Forgo the mind boggling videos with perfectly timed pyrotechnics and certainly no scissor jumps off amplifiers and drum risers. No need for all the fancy pants stuff, the music became the focus of the event and deservedly so. As the concert progressed, the audience was often engrossed, simply mesmerised with Colin’s smooth and soulful voice, an essentially flawless performance, instrumentally perfect, if they did make any mistakes, I missed them.
Enough cannot be said about the vocal performance of Colin Blunstone, I was floored! His voice seems to have been untouched by time, an unreal range, hitting crazy falsettos like going out for a walk in the park, showing no signs of strain. Rod Argent performs with gusto and style on the keys, his animated movements kept the crowd entertained. Magically able to create a distinctive old-school sound with the use of a Hammond organ, really nothing short of genius. The vocal harmonies throughout the evening were spot-on, dazzling to the ears. Bass player, Chris White was absent though, his place taken by Jim Rodford, formerly of Argent and The Kinks, whose son Steve sits in on drums. Paul Atkinson, the original guitarist, died in 2004, and his spot now competently taken over by Tom Toomey, certainly no slouch, making the guitar sing during his solos.
And as true performers do, in-between songs they shared many engaging stories. Colin told of an insightful tale, which began when they were just 22 years old, which garnered a reaction from the crowd, and Colin quipped, “even we were 22 once, you know.” Interestingly, they were actually scheduled in Abby Road Studios to record their critically acclaimed album, Odyssey and Oracle, right after the Beatles had recorded Sargent Pepper. Colin and Rod shared the story-telling duties with Rod speaking confidently while Colin presented a softer, more modest approach, his quiet demeanour had the crowd eating out of his hand. They spoke of their love of Manila, described how songs came about, and just so thrilled to be here. Which wasn’t just lip service, you could feel it in the show. Very rarely, can a person of any status fake sincerity, most people, almost immediatly see right through it.
Don’t take my word for it, Rolling Stone Magazine voted, Odyssey and Oracle in the top 100 records of all time, and NME lists it at number 32 of the top British albums of all time. The list of of accolades goes on and on. Don’t take the word some big-shot at a landmark music magazine either. Listen to other artists, imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery. Take notice of the bands that cover their music or when they mention their name, a jury of peers, so to speak.
What do the Foo Fighters, Beck and Santana have in common? You guessed it, all have covered songs by the Zombies. An eclectic mix of artists from every decade and various genres, although mostly rock: Dave Matthews Band, The Posies, Crowded House, Ok Go, Dusty Springfield, Pillowtalk, Neko Case, Juice Newton, Belle and Sebastian, Tim Curry, Tennis, Vanilla Fudge, and the list goes on and on. Hip-hop artists sample their work, Eminem being one of the most notable on his track “Rhyme or Reason”, sampling “Time of The Season”. There’s also a brilliant list of artists citing The Zombies as having an influence on their music, including Billy Joel, Badly Drawn Boy, Arctic Monkeys, Courtney Love, Super Furry Animals, Paul Weller, and The Magic Numbers. The Vaccines, a young English indie rock band collectively consider the Odessey and Oracle their all-time favorite album, in an interview with Rhapsody, Jay Jay Pistolet added “for me as a songwriter, it’s a master class in pop perfection and pop simplicity.”
The setlist included hits from the Zombies of the 60’s, tracks from the solo careers of Rod and Colin, and selections from their latest album “Breathe Out, Breathe In” released in 2011. Everyone was surprised, when Rod announced the upcoming release of a new unnamed album, which was just mastered the day before. You could actually hear, a collective low gasp of joy from the crowd with the announcement. They performed one of the songs from it, “Edge of The Rainbow,” a bluesy, piano driven number that had the crowd swaying in their seats. He added the album was produced by Chris Potter, who has worked with the Rolling Stones, U2, Blur, I am Kloot, Keane but well known as the long-term collaborator and producer of The Verve and Richard Ashcroft.
I learned something new about one of my favourites songs, “Hold Your Head Up”, a classic rock 70’s hit single from Argent. Rod explained how the song came about, then added, “I don’t know if you know this but most people over the years, when they’ve sung this song they’ve sung the wrong words, most people sing hold your head up “whoa”, the real words. believe it or not, are hold your head up “women” so if you’re going to sing long with us tonight, and I really hope you do, for God’s sake get it right.”
High quality, well-composed music never dies, outlasting the folks who created it, timeless really. Although, the Zombies were, for a long time, one of the great lost bands of the 1960s, a mixture of unusual musical paths has brought them back together, and like a fantasy Zombie, they’ll continue to infect others with their touch, no doubt alive and kicking.
A privilege to cover this one, always a pleasure to experience top level artists do their thing, really something special. If you get the chance to see them live, don’t miss it. Thanks going out to Steve O’Neal Productions and Smart Araneta Coliseum, nice work…