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With Birchmere show, The Zombies will celebrate 'Odessey' while plotting new music

Fifty years ago, the Zombies entered Abbey Road studios to create their pop masterpiece.

Already, the first-wave British invaders had produced the classics “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No.” Now came “Odessey and Oracle,” an astonishing collection of anthemic pop, psychedelia and straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll, of a piece with “Pet Sounds” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

It would be decades before it would get its due.

The first singles — the jaunty “Care of Cell 44” and the sing-along “Friends of Mine” — sold few copies, and by the time the album was released in 1968, the Zombies had broken up.

In the years since, “Odessey’s” reputation grew — first as a cult record, championed by the younger musicians it had influenced; now as a widely recognized classic, and a perennial entry on all-time Top 100 lists.

In this 50th anniversary year, the Zombies have taken the album out for a victory lap. The surviving members — singer Colin Blunstone, keyboardist Rod Argent, bassist Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy (guitarist Paul Atkinson died in 2004) — regrouped this year to play the album in its entirety on a tour of North America.

Now the current lineup — Blunstone, Argent, Jim Rodford, his son Steve, and Tom Toomey — is in the region tonight with an appearance at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., playing songs from “Odessey” alongside material from 2015’s “Still Got That Hunger.”

We caught up with Argent last week to ask about the odyssey of “Odessey” and the need to keep creating new music. This interview, conducted over the phone, has been edited and condensed.

Where were the Zombies at in 1967, when you entered the studio to make “Odessey and Oracle”?

My memory is that it was in the air that we might be breaking up. We were very frustrated with the production on our recent singles. We had a very autocratic producer [Ken Jones], very talented man, but he always saw things his own way. And the songs weren’t turning out in the way that we envisioned them.

And the second factor was we weren’t getting a huge amount of money. We’d only ever had one hit record in the U.K., and this was three years after “She’s Not There” was a hit.

Chris and I, because we were the writers, were getting a very good income, because we usually had a hit somewhere in the world. But the other guys — I remember Paul Atkinson, who was getting married, came up to us. I mean, we were still getting on great together, but he said, “Listen, guys, I’ve got to move on. I’m getting married and I’ve got no money.”

So we were all a bit depressed. And Chris and I said, listen, if it’s in the air that we may be breaking up, we have to try and get an album together that we’ve produced ourselves. And that we get our own ideas down on how our current songwriting should sound.

So you’re walking into Abbey Road as the Beatles are coming out. You played some of their instruments on “Odessey and Oracle” — John Lennon’s mellotron, an electric harpsichord, percussion instruments — and you worked with Geoff Emerick and the Beatles’ engineers. Did going into that situation have any influence on the record that you were making?

It’s so hard to say, but I’m sure what was in the air at the time did permeate our consciousness. The spirit in the air for music was so great at that time, and we were just very lucky to be around and feeling extremely creative at that period, and to have the right tools to complete what we wanted to do.

When we started recording “Odessey and Oracle,” we hadn’t yet heard “Sgt. Pepper,” because it hadn’t been released. And we’d loved that record, of course, as we’d loved everything the Beatles did. I mean, they were just so wonderfully inventive and creative and intuitively fabulous musicians.

One thing that did inspire us — in an indirect way, I must say — was [the Beach Boys’] “Pet Sounds.” We had been knocked out with it. And particularly with the first single, “God Only Knows.” But the rest of it as well.

The way things were structured on “Pet Sounds,” and the way Brian [Wilson] developed the basslines, which I’d always done instinctively in my own writing. I mean, with “She’s Not There,” I started the song in my head with that opening bassline. But it made me want to develop that side of things, really.

Did you go in with a batch of songs that hung together thematically? Or was it just a group of good songs?

It was a group of songs that were being written as we recorded. I don’t mean as we were in the studio. We prepared each song before, because we didn’t have much money. But one of the things we inherited from the Beatles was some technology whereby effectively we could have more than four tracks for the first time.

So it meant that we would go in and record as we normally did. And then we tried things. I remember on “Changes,” beautiful Chris White song, I remember saying to Chris, “I can hear a little counterpoint at the top, where it goes [singing] Da da da da — tee.” And he says, “Well, whiz in there and do it.”

So you make this record, it’s fantastic and everyone knows that now. It got good reviews, but it didn’t sell very well, it wasn’t coming out in America and the group disbands. What was going on at that stage?

Well, we had our supporters. But don’t forget, again, we were based very much in the U.K., and we hadn’t had a hit in three years. There was almost no radio coverage for pop music.

[Influential London DJ] Kenny Everett interviewed us as soon as we’d finished the album. And by that time, “Care of Cell 44” had come out, and we thought we would give it the first single, to see what the reaction would be. We got some lovely reviews on the album. But there was no real national interest.

And Kenny said, “You’ve just made this lovely album, and you’re breaking up? Wouldn’t it be wise to put the album out first, before you break up?” But, you know, we’d already made that decision.

But then you have this groundswell for this record growing –

About 10 years later, yeah [laughing].

So, it finally gets this audience, and that audience includes, famously, Paul Weller, but also Robert Plant, Tom Petty, Dave Grohl, into today. I have to tell you, my daughter adores this record. She’s 8 years old, and it’s her favorite record.

Do you know what? That gives me shivers. We are finding this quite a lot, that people from the current generation, and people as young as your daughter, somehow the music is relating to them. To think that what we did all that time ago can seem to be still relating, emotionally, to a current generation is something which pleases me more than anything I can imagine.

What has it been like for you to see that following develop over time?

It came from absolutely nowhere. Chris’ sons were a bit younger than my two kids. And I remember him phoning me up around the time that I suppose that Paul Weller had started to talk about it. He said, “Do you know what? I’ve just got to tell you that amongst the university crowd, you know, there’s a real groundswell, this is becoming a cult record.”

And I said, “Oh yeah? Oh yeah? OK.” And I put the phone down, and I said to my wife, “No, it’s not. He’s completely deluded.” [laughing]

You had limited opportunity to play these songs after you recorded them. What has it been like to reconnect with the material?

Well, we didn’t play it at all during the first period. We hadn’t played it with the original members ever until 2008, when we did what was supposed to be a one-off show in Shepherds Bush in London. But when Colin and I got back together around the year 2000, we started to realize we’d never played any of the tracks, and we investigated some of the tracks, and they sounded great. And we eventually started calling ourselves the Zombies again, because it felt like a real band again.

Chris used to come and see us. He said, just before 2008, “Listen. We’ve never played this album.” He said, “While most of us are still alive and kicking, you know, why don’t we do a performance?” And that turned into three nights. And then our American management said, “Listen, we’ve always had a dream of mounting this in the U.S.A.”

The idea is that we’re going to finish that at the end of this year, and that is supposed to be it. Because, the thing is, I love “Odessey and Oracle.” And it felt great playing it again. And it feels both emotionally and musically lovely to hook up with Chris and Hugh again. But it is 50 years ago, and it’s not something I want to do for the rest of our creative lives.

Playing with Colin and the current lineup, you made the decision to put out new music as the Zombies. Did that require any deliberation? Or did it just flow naturally?

No. It felt natural. Because the thing is, by that time, the band was feeling absolutely great onstage. It’s a band which listens and responds, and is a current and changing creative force.

And, you know, it’s tapping into that creative energy that is the only thing that means anything, really. I mean, it’s lovely to look back on what you did 50 years ago, and I’m not looking down on that at all, and I still love playing all those things, but it gives me more pleasure than anything else when we’re on tour to play particularly two of the new songs that we do, “I’m Moving On” and “Edge of the Rainbow,” and also a song called “Chasing the Past,” because they feel so vital, and they go down so beautifully as well with the audiences.

Can we look forward to any new Zombies music coming?

Absolutely. I mean, that’s just a very important thing for me. And I’ve got two or three songs just starting to germinate in my head a little bit. I can’t write when I’m on the road, and we’ve been very intensively on the road this year. But in the second half of the year, I’m hoping to start crystallizing a few ideas and start looking forward to the next album.

If you go

The Zombies perform tonight at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, Va. Don DiLego will also perform. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. $55. Call 703-549-7500 or go to birchmere.com.

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

@matthewhaybrown

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