To coincide with the Zombies’ long-overdue induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this month, a new vinyl box set, The Complete Studio Recordings, collects (almost) all of the music from this era. The set reformats material that made up the Zombies’ entire ’60s run—which has previously been excellently compiled on the comprehensive Zombie Heaven CD box set—as a series of five discrete full-length vinyl albums.
There’s some revisionism here, to be sure, and while most people interested in this new set will likely already own some portion of it (Odessey and Oracle should be a fixture of any self-respecting music listener’s shelf), the chance to gather vinyl editions of (almost) everything this superlative band recorded in their first incarnation—before their latter-day reunions—should be celebrated. To be certain, there are some small problems with The Complete Studio Recordings, but hey, nothing for the Zombies ever went smoothly.
The Zombies had as many weapons packed in their arsenal as any other band from the crowded UK music scene at the time. They boasted two dynamite songwriters in Rod Argent and Chris White, and singer Colin Blunstone’s breathy sensuousness made him one of the finest vocalists in a very crowded field. Argent’s chorister background lent the band a crisp, classical element to their harmonies (upholding the age-old English choral tradition) and his fluidity on the organ and electric piano gave the Zombies a jazzier, looser sound than many of their contemporaries.
Between those absurdly wide parameters—English choral music and American jazz—the group filled the space with fashionable pop, beat, blues, and a Beatlesque version of R&B, but their disparate influences put them in a particularly good position when the psychedelic movement (and its corollary, baroque pop) blossomed. The Zombies’ 1968 album Odessey and Oracle is one of the absolute best of the era—a perfect blend of churchboy voices, absurdist humor, sunshine pop, ghostly mellotron, and leonine lushness that transcended its Aquarius-Age era, perhaps because it stood from the outside looking in.
That album is, of course, included in The Complete Studio Recordings, as is the American version of their 1965 debut album (called either The Zombies or Featuring She’s Not There/Tell Her No, depending on how literally you take the cover text). That and Odessey were the only two proper full-lengths released during the Zombies’ initial tenure, and the box set’s three remaining discs are filled with singles, B-sides, EP tracks, and (some of) the outtakes from this period.
Each disc is treated like a separate album: There’s a 1966 Swedish compilation album of vital singles tracks, retitled I Love You for this set; a posthumous compilation called R.I.P., meant to replicate an unreleased album originally planned to follow Odessey and Oracle; and a clearinghouse roundup called Oddities and Extras. Not present is the UK version of the debut (which, there, was titled Begin Here and remains the superior collection), and while many of the tracks overlap, two Begin Here songs—“Road Runner” and “Sticks and Stones”—are not to be found anywhere on this box, rendering the “Complete” portion of this package’s title erroneous. A few outtakes and alternate versions are also missing.
It’s a small quibble, maybe, but it feels like a missed opportunity, considering that, apart from Odessey and Oracle, all the discs run scarcely longer than half an hour, so there certainly would’ve been room to fit everything. (Not to mention “She’s Not There” appears here twice.) There is also the question of stereo versus mono—generally speaking, the earlier stuff is in mono while the later stuff is in stereo—which means there are some period mixes not included here; an even smaller quibble, probably, and one only to be raised in response to the set’s “Complete” appellation.
Fortunately, what is here is exceptional, across the board. The weakest disc, somewhat surprisingly, is the 1965 debut, in which raucous but ordinary covers and blues workouts fill space that would eventually be taken up by the smart pop songwriting that Argent and White would demonstrate in the years to come. The two big singles, “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No,” are both wonderful, but the rest of the album doesn’t meet their standard, although it is a vivid snapshot of a lively young band, with talent to spare, finding their footing.
I Love You and Oddities and Extras are interchangeably arbitrary collections made up of the various singles that the Zombies recorded in addition to their two official albums. These discs contain more than enough to make a classic ’60s LP on the level of Rubber Soul, Face to Face, or Aftermath, but the Zombies struggled to get back on the charts and their label never gave them the chance to put out a second full-length. (They only got the chance to record Odessey and Oracle after switching from Decca to CBS.) But in whatever format they were initially released, these are great songs: “Is This the Dream,” “She’s Coming Home,” “Whenever You’re Ready,” “She Does Everything for Me,” and Indication” epitomize the overused term “lost classics.” It’s baffling to think that none of these grabbed listeners’ ears the way the Zombies’ breakthrough singles did.
As such, it’s great to have them all in one place, but I wish the box set’s producers had compiled this era in less haphazard way (for instance, Oddities and Extras has some cursory liner notes, while I Love You does not). A more effective presentation might've been to spread these tracks in chronological order across two LPs with detailed liner notes and session information, to properly chart the band’s noteworthy artistic development during their brief lifespan.
The R.I.P. disc is also much better than it has any right to be, considering its unusual backstory: The Zombies broke up after completing Odessey and Oracle, and only when “Time of the Season” belatedly became a hit in the US at the end of 1968 did their label ask them for more stuff. Argent and White, without the rest of the band, quickly recorded six new songs; to round out the album, they also put overdubs on six older outtakes from 1964 to 1966. It’s an uneven assortment, with one or two of duds, sure, but much of the newer material (“Imagine the Swan,” “Girl Help Me”) is awfully good, and the resurrected older stuff, including “I’ll Call You Mine” and “If It Don’t Work Out,” hardly sound like barrel scrapings. Of course, this album was doomed to stay unreleased until eight of the songs made their way onto a 1973 compilation album, Time of the Zombies. Only in recent years has R.I.P. been assembled and released as a stand-alone, although its status as a proper Zombies album should be accompanied with a sprinkle of salt, or a few footnotes at the very least.
Which brings us to Odessey and Oracle, the crown jewel of this set and indeed of the entire 1960s pop canon. “Time of the Season” is almost a cliché at this point, but listened to in context as Odessey’s closing track, it never fails to stun. “Care of Cell 44” is the wonderfully upbeat also-ran that has every first-time listener wondering how on earth it never became a hit, and “This Will Be Our Year” has slowly but surely become a wedding favorite over the years. But the entire album is stuffed with miracles from start to finish, including “Brief Candles” and “Hung Up on a Dream,” which have to be two of the greatest songs from the first psychedelic era.
The set is released on Varese Sarabande, and all told, it’s a somewhat curious package, considering that a UK vinyl box set with a different title and artwork, but all of the same tracks (plus a few that this box missed), was issued by Demon Records at the same time. As for this set, the vinyl is not without its flaws. A couple of the discs in my set are pressed slightly off-center, and some of them have an occasional faint crackle in the right channel. The sound is clear and clean, if a trifle harsh on the treble end; without any mastering information provided, one has to assume the set was assembled from digital transfers, although due to the age of the material, that may have been unavoidable. The absence of more comprehensive liner notes, too, is a real shame—if you’re looking for the Zombies’ story beyond the music itself, you’ll have to do your own research.
But that music is wondrous, and this assembling of (most of) their ’60s run proves that the Zombies deserve to be in the ranks of the Kinks, the Stones, the Animals, the Beatles, and the other giant bands of the British Invasion. While the extent of their legacy for years was boiled down to three big hits and a lauded if slightly obscure album, The Complete Studio Recordings prove that the Zombies deserve to be remembered for much, much more. It's about time the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame finally caught up.