Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone — two of the principal members of British invasion group The Zombies — performed last night (May 12) at Rough Trade. The band first encountered success in the second half of 1964, but it’s best known for Odessey And Oracle, an album released in 1968 with a misspelled title. Odessey hinted at a more focused (or affordable) version of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Club Hearts Band template: whimsical, resolutely melodic, and stubbornly English, driven by electric pianos and harmonies. The circumstances around the release — by the time the album came out, the band had already disintegrated — and the fact that Odyssey spawned the band’s best known single, “Time Of The Season,” causes the record to overshadow the Zombies’ previous work.
Those early singles should not be neglected, though: try “Tell Her No,” which may be a songwriting miracle: just keyboard and rhythm section and charmingly ragged harmony delivering a marvelously jealous tale in a mere two minutes and eight seconds. It’s a truism that today’s pop songs have to deliver a payoff immediately, but few recent songs accomplish as much in as little time as this one. Two-line verses represent true economy.
After dissolving, the group has functioned in various iterations. In 1991, the Zombies released an album mostly without Argent (he contributed to one song); a 2004 effort was attributed primarily to Blunstone and Argent. The band put out another album in 2011, but Argent was adamant in interviews that last year’s pointedly named Still Got That Hunger — a crowd-funded effort — was a true approximation of the original group dynamic.
The Zombies were once again winnowed down to Argent and Blunstone at Rough Trade, but this was not a problem — in fact, it’s hard to imagine a more pleasurable performance from a band that first encountered success five decades ago. The two blitzed quickly through a 30-minute set, never threatening to overstay their welcome. Blunstone is still in remarkable voice, even more so when you consider many of his ‘60s peers, and the spare setup — one keyboard, two singers — illustrated the enduring power of their songwriting.
Though he wore a requisite leather jacket and black V-neck, Blunstone sang with the zest of a Broadway star, making use of an operatic quaver and inviting the crowd into his set with arms spread wide. His smile mirrored his limbs, radiating outward from his cheekbones. Argent, in stubble and t-shirt, frequently played keyboard solos, but he kept a gimlet eye on his partner, locking in for handsome harmonies.
These harmonies still maintain a remarkable quality, a slack naïvete that creates an appealing — and false — illusion of sloppiness, as if the two men hadn’t sung these songs together hundreds of times and determined the exact formula for wrenching hearts. Though you encounter this type of mixed vocal on crucial early singles from seminal girl groups and the Beatles, as well as several tunes in The Zombies’ catalog, they have largely been ignored by post-‘60s pop, which tends to prioritize a more technically correct approach to unison singing.
The performance was unfailingly good-natured. “We chose the next one ‘cause it was in the same key as the first one,” Argent informed the crowd after “Tell Her No.” (He annotated the song selections throughout the fleeting set.) As he laid out the melody for “Time Of The Season,” he kindly slowed the pace so the crowd could gain the most satisfaction from the iconic hook.
Graciousness extended to the set list as well — though Argent said the pair would only play a lone cut from Odessey, they quickly changed their mind to play a second. He informed the crowd that the set would stop after “She’s Not There,” but then relented for a wondrous rendition of “Summertime.” It’s not surprising that a group that demonstrates the immense possibilities of a two minute single can make a half hour performance feel generous.
The two men also made room for a pair of recent cuts, “Edge Of The Rainbow” and “Moving On,” both of which appeared last year on Still Got That Hunger. “Moving On” offers a rebuke to the nostalgic instinct that often brings bands together five decades after their formation: “I won’t cry for the past/ For I’ve refound my freedom at last.” In this rare case, the words had the feel of truth.