The Zombies 'Still Got That Hunger' for the NYC of the Sixties
Photo by Andrew Eccles
I walked into the Brooklyn Fox
That snowy Christmas Day
Patti and her Bluebells simply stole my heart away
She took me to Aretha Franklin, showed me so much soul
And helped us join the party with our English rock and roll
- “New York,” by The Zombies (2015)
Rod Argent, the 70-year-old founder and keyboardist of The Zombies, is in a unique position to reflect on New York in the Sixties: His was the second British band after the Beatles to score a number one hit in America, with “She’s Not There,” in 1964. The Zombies’ new album, Still Got That Hunger, on which the above lyrics can be found, comes out Friday, when the band will play the New York Society for Ethical Culture Concert Hall near Lincoln Center. The evening offers more than songs from the latest release, as the four surviving members of The Zombies (Argent, Colin Blunstone, Chris White, and Hugh Grundy) will also perform their now-legendary 1968 album Odessey and Oracle in its entirety.
“We’re doing it because we still want the privilege of being able to get excited about getting up onstage and working up a sweat,” says Argent, speaking from Dallas, where he and the band were practicing the Odessey section of the show before kicking off the tour last week. “We’re doing it for the excitement it gives us, and I hope that some of that transmits itself to other people, as well.”
Performing Odessey and Oracle live on this tour marks another first for the band in America, a country that has long held special significance for Argent. In the song “New York,” he writes:
America, America, where all my heroes lay
The land of Miles and Elvis, Jerry Lee and Ray
“That song is an absolute snapshot of when we first entered America,” he explains. “I grew up for the first ten or eleven years of my life only really liking classical music because the pop music of the very late Forties and very early Fifties was pretty anodyne, actually. And then one day, I heard Elvis sing ‘Hound Dog,’ when I was eleven — along with people like John Lennon, many other people of my generation had the same experience. It completely turned my world around, and I just wanted to hear the rawest rock and roll I could find for about six months, to my parents’ horror.”
He delved into the roots of rock, seeking out Big Mama Thornton’s original version of “Hound Dog,” then ventured into blues, Motown, and jazz, the influences of all of which can be heard in The Zombies’ music. “Of course all these people hailed from America,” he says, “and it seemed in those days like an absolutely mythical, magical world and something that was so removed from our lives in Britain.”
The "Brooklyn Fox" in the lyrics refers to the opulent Fox Theater. Formerly at 20 Flatbush Ave., the Fox was first a 4,305-seat cinema, before it was converted into a music venue in the Sixties and ultimately demoed in 1971. “We were really nervous about stepping into the Brooklyn Fox, six shows a day starting on Christmas Day in 1964,” remembers Argent, “playing in front of some of our idols, people like Ben E. King and the Drifters, the Shirelles, Chuck Jackson, Patti LaBelle. We thought, ‘What are they going to think of us? We’re basically bringing our version of American music back to America.’” Much to his relief, “They took us to their hearts,” he recalls. “They seemed to really like what we did, and they welcomed us into the party with our English rock and roll.”
The song about New York, he says, is the only “fully nostalgic” track on the new record, though the album art was created by the same artist, Terry Quirk, who designed the famously misspelled cover of Odessey and Oracle. “It seemed like a lovely way to make a connection with the past,” says Argent, “but I knew it wouldn’t just be parasitic on the past because Terry’s got a lot of integrity as an artist. I knew he was into graffiti a lot at the moment, and he’s based the new cover on graffiti, but of course all the swirls and everything have got a very nice connection with the slightly softer psychedelia that’s on Odessey and Oracle.”
Interestingly, psychedelics were not something the young band of teenagers partook of in the Sixties. One gets the impression that the handful of years when the band formed and wrote their hits were a very focused time. They rehearsed extensively for their studio sessions in the Argent family home. (“Dad was in a semi-pro dance band, from the age of 17 to the age of 83, so there was a piano in the house,” says Argent.) And while the youngsters weren’t completely straight-laced with their alcohol indulgences, “We weren’t really around at all for the real explosion of drugs,” he recalls, citing the band’s break-up in 1967. “That really happened maybe a year later and over the next few years.” However, when he took to the road with his eponymous band in the Seventies, “It was just endemic. There were just drugs everywhere, and by that time, I wasn’t really interested.”
Another thing that wasn’t prevalent in popular culture, at least not to the extent that it is today, was zombies. The band came together in 1961, before Night of the Living Dead brought the concept of reanimated corpses to the fore seven years later. After trying out names like the Mustangs and the Sundowners, the group landed on one that stuck. “I thought it was a name that no one else would have,” Argent says. “It had overtones of being exotic. I vaguely knew that it had something to do with Haiti and the walking dead, but that was about it.” He adds, “I’ve still never seen a zombie movie.”
The Zombies play the New York Society for Ethical Culture Concert Hall on October 9. For ticket information, click here.
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