Georgia got rock and roll second hand. Soviet Georgia was a very different place to the decadent West which spawned such music. Consequently Georgians don’t listen to rock and roll to relive their youth, as many in the West do. To hold the attention of Georgians, a band has to actually be good.
The Zombies have been around, off and on, since 1961. They occupy the same territory as The Beatles and The Beach Boys – writers and performers of finely crafted, radical, melodic music which did much to establish rock and roll as a credible form. They weren’t as successful as some bands because they were too clever for their own good – their music was so intelligent and sophisticated that people thought the band members should be lecturing on nuclear physics rather than demeaning themselves by joining the plebeian empowerment. No one lives in the sixties now, there is no social fashion to follow. Now The Zombies are judged on their music – and work as often as they want, playing all over the world to audiences of all ages and releasing acclaimed albums of new material. They are still led by two of the original members, twinkly fingered keyboardist Rod Argent, who writes most of their songs alongside original bassist Chris White, and Colin Blunstone, the butterscotch vocalist, still a heartthrob at the age of 67. Bassist Jim Rodford and his son Steve Rodford on drums, who’ve played with them longer than the original band did, and guitarist Tom Toomey long ago proved themselves worthy successors to Chris White, Hugh Grundy and the late Paul Atkinson.
On May 29th The Zombies played the Muni Arts Centre in Pontypridd, a post-industrial Welsh town reminiscent of Georgia in many ways. This is the birthplace of Tom Jones, who half the town seems to be related to and the other half thinks is their best mate. They could be marketed as living legends elsewhere, but not here. Tackling this head on, the band began with four classic songs one after another, before introducing themselves or making any sort of presentation. The Zombies have a quality live which is only hinted at in recordings and videos – they attack the songs with an essential urgency, because they know these are great songs, they are a great band and everyone else should think the same. No histrionics, just faith in the virtues of quality. There was too much amplification for this small venue and it wasn’t necessary. After this opening the place was heaving, and for nearly two hours a near capacity audience wanted nothing but The Zombies, teenage girls dancing in the aisles, people of all ages singing along vigorously, many word perfect, to a band who seemed to enjoy being there almost as much as the audience enjoyed them.
Indeed, before the band even came on, its values had been affirmed by its unheralded support act, Tinlin. These three young men write and perform intelligent songs full of modulation, minor keys and harmony – all characteristics of Zombies songs, but in no way a rip-off, as much original thought had gone into them. Other genres may come and go, but the essential values of Zombies music will endure generation after generation because they are true, just as Georgians remained Georgian regardless of which invader’s empire they were subsumed in. Tinlin were an excellent choice of support act and a pleasant surprise for an audience which would have happily sat through non-stop Zombies. When the main attraction came on after the interval you were left in no doubt that, even if you had never heard of them, this was a band of master musicians. Small details emerged which are not captured in a recording – the synchronicity of the band, the balance between solo and ensemble technique which Tom Toomey in particular expertly finds, the nuanced fluidity as well as sheer speed of Rod Argent’s playing and the fact that Colin Blunstone doesn’t just have tonal quality, he can project his way through a brick wall. Steve Rodford’s drumming provided a depth and inevitability to the most radical material while crafty Jim Rodford seemed to know exactly how each second of the concert would go, milked the audience shamelessly with his effects and then drew attention away from himself, like a Middle Eastern potentate calmly sucking apricots whilst his minions commit undreamed-of acts of heroism around him.
Near the end of an extensive tour, with a big London show a week away, a band can be forgiven for relaxing. It never crossed the mind of this quintet, who have nothing to prove but worked hard because the music and their own quality deserve it. The set comprised 23 songs, including the big hits “Time of the Season”, “Tell Her No” and “She’s Not There”, a mini-set of pieces from “Odessey and Oracle”, [sic] a copy editor’s nightmare but one of the three seminal albums of the 1960s, and also some from the 2011 album “Breathe Out, Breathe In”. Rod even apologised for this, despite the stellar reviews this album has enjoyed and the audience’s enthusiasm for the material, all the songs receiving standing ovations long before the end. The Zombies love rediscovering their old songs but in no way are they part of the nostalgia market. Their new material is as good as anything around today and if they were starting now songs such as “Any Other Way” and “A Moment on Time” would be the breakout hits “She’s Not There” was in 1964. All the band’s CDs and DVDs, and those of its individual members in their solo careers, were on sale in the foyer but a lot of the memorabilia didn’t stay there long.
In the 1960s Georgians were the same as Russians, Communism would never fall and the Soviet Union would never end. Now that fashion has gone and people marvel at what Georgia has to offer -the traditions, artistry, landscapes and food and drink which were there all the time. You may not seek the truth, but it will find you. More than any Georgian band The Zombies encapsulate what the country is about. The band has always had a hit somewhere in the world, even without knowing it, and is always looking for new markets. Georgians, like the Welsh, know their music and pride themselves on how good they are at it. This audience could not contain its superlatives, and neither would Georgians if they knew where to look.