“Time of the Season” may have been one of the Zombies’ biggest hits, but timing was never good for the British group, which first hit the charts in 1964 with the urgent “She’s Not There.” Heading into the Abbey Road studio to record its ambitious “Odessey and Oracle” album in 1967, the band was on the verge of breaking up. And by the time the “Time of the Season” made it to No. 1, its members were scattered onto other projects.
The album’s reputation grew over the decades as other acts covered, sampled or otherwise extolled its songs. But it wasn’t until 2008, when keyboardist Rod Argent and lead singer Colin Blunstone, who had been recording and playing together again for more than a decade, convened the original band to perform the album in London. That concert was the first time the band performed live some of the complex songs from “Odessey” (famously misspelled in the psychedelic album art and left that way). Now the Zombies — minus the late guitarist Paul Atkinson — are doing an “Odessey” tour for the first time.
We talked recently with Argent, 70, about the album and the tour, which stops at the Lincoln Theatre on Oct. 8.
How much of the concert is “Odessey and Oracle”?
The idea is to reproduce a re-creation of the album note by note in the second half of the concert with the original players, augmented by others. And then on the first half, our current incarnation will be playing a set that includes, as well as obvious Zombies hits, less well-known Zombies stuff from our albums, as well as songs from our new album, “Still Got That Hunger,” coming out Oct. 9.
The band was breaking up as it recorded “Odessey”?
My memory is that it was in the air that we might be heading toward a breakup. Not that we weren’t getting along, but it was a financial thing. The two writers, Chris [White] and I, had money coming in from singles. There was always a hit somewhere in the world. But the rest of the guys were really living from earnings of what we were doing live.
We were based in the U.K., where we only had one hit, so the live income was really going down. The guitarist Paul Atkinson had gotten married and said, “Look, I’ve got to make some money; I have to move on, guys.” That’s why we split up. So at the time, we were desperate to get our own ideas across on these songs.
What was Abbey Road like then?
We walked in just after the Beatles got done recording “Sgt. Pepper,” so we benefited from their studio innovations. We were using more tracks than we were used to using. We were like kids in the candy store, overdubbing things for the first time, getting the harmonies we wanted and just being able to record things in the way we wanted to do it.
John Lennon left his Mellotron in the studio, and without asking him, I just used it. I think it might have been their electric harpsichord that they left in the studio, too. They forged some new recording techniques that we jumped on and were able to use because we were using the same engineers, Peter Vince and Geoff Emerick, wonderful engineers. It was actually a great experience. When we finished, we thought it was a really good album, but it didn’t sell anywhere.
Did “Time of the Season” stand out to you at the time?
It was the very last thing that I put on. I remember writing that, and I remember actually saying to Chris, “Look, I think this song could be a hit.” And we recorded it very quickly. Minimal rehearsal.
We liked the result very much. We had no idea when it was finished that it would be a hit eventually. And in fact, it was released as a very last gasp over in the U.S. We only put out one single in the U.K., and that was “Care of Cell 44,” which didn’t do anything, so we split up before the album actually came out.
Did you consider getting the band back together in 1969 when it finally became a hit here?
We honestly didn’t. By that time, I’d gotten guys together and we’d gotten enthusiastic about forming a new venture, which became Argent, and I didn’t want to let those guys down. It felt like the wrong thing to do just to throw everything away and capitalize what admittedly would have been a lot of money. I seem to remember being offered $1 million, which was a lot of money at the time, to put the Zombies back together and tour in the U.S.
And because we didn’t, other people went out and did it. It’s very amusing. I found out the other week that one of the fake Zombies groups out there was formed from two of the guys that became ZZ Top. Which I thought was really amusing, because I love that band.
When did you learn later that “Odessey and Oracle” was gaining cult status?
It wasn’t until 12 years later, I remember Chris White phoning me up, saying a lot of young kids were listening to it. Paul Weller, who was an enormous hit at the time in the Jam, started saying this was his favorite album and that he buys extra copies of it to give to friends who didn’t have it. From that time, it did start to gather momentum, other people started talking about it, and today it sells more than it ever did, even after “Time of the Season” was a hit.
Zombies in general are quite a current cultural phenomenon today through “The Walking Dead” and other things. How did you get the name ?
It came from our original bass player, Paul Arnold, who left to become a doctor in Canada, and we barely knew what zombies were. This was 1961, and I loved it immediately. I thought, this is a name nobody else is going to have. And it sounded faintly exotic in a distant way. We vaguely knew that it had something to do with creatures created by voodoo in Haiti. But that was about it. “Night of the Living Dead” didn’t come out until 1968. Colin and I have still never seen a zombie movie, which is certainly crazy. It’s quite amusing that it’s so universal now.
It seems as if you’re looking ahead on your new album.
Absolutely. But we’ve always felt that, honestly. The thing that’s exciting about being on the road, with what we consider a great band — the feeling is just like it is when you’re 18 years old. It’s not any different. When you get to our advanced age, you have to survive; you have to conserve yourself a bit after the show, and in your lifestyle. But when you’re onstage, you’ve got that joy of being able to experience things exactly as you did when you first started out playing. And that’s a huge privilege, and it’s hugely enjoyable. And then you get that back from the audience — it’s an experience you really can’t beat.
Catlin is a freelance writer.
The ZombiesOct. 8 at 8 p.m. at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. $45. 202-888-0050. www.thelincolndc.com.