Interview with Zombie Heaven compiler Alec Palao

from Amplifier magazine, courtesy of publisher Joe Joyce

Suzie Racho chats with Zombie Heaven archivist Alec Palao

Swept up in the waves of the British Invasion, the Zombies minor key genius was introduced to America in 1964 with their first single, She's Not There. It was more than the five school friends from St. Albans could have hoped for. In the next few years, Rod Argent, Colin Blunstone, Chris White, Paul Atkinson and Hugh Grundy would see more ups and downs in their brief career than most bands. From management deals that left them broke while they were playing stadiums to experiencing racism first hand while touring with the black R & B groups they revered to the final irony of having their biggest selling record Time of the Season become a hit after the band had been broken up for nearly a year, the Zombies story is an interesting case study even without examining their music.

Even with a string of exceptional singles and two great albums, 1965's Begin Here and 1968's Odessey and Oracle, the Zombies would still merit a long footnote, but not a full chapter, in the history of rock and roll. But music archivist Alec Palao believes the Zombies' musical craftsmanship can be held up to the work of the Beatles and the Kinks in the pop's upper echelon. He makes his case convincingly with the recently released Zombie Heaven, a beautifully packaged and exhaustively researched four-CD set.

With Palao's background as a both a respected writer and musician, there could not have been a more perfect choice to chronicle the intricacies of the Zombies music and career. After leaving his native England for the Bay Area in October 1988, Palao put his formidable bass playing skills to work with the Sneetches just one month after landing. The band had already been covering You Make Me Feel Good, but through his influence, they began introducing Sneetches fans to little known Zombies songs such as Walking In the Sun, If It Don't Work Out and She Does Everything For Me. In 1991, he began chronicling the rich musical history of the Bay Area as the co-editor of the now-dormant Cream Puff War. The magazine was an encyclopedia of sorts, celebrating both the well-known and obscure scenes and scenesters of the 60s.

Palao is now Ace Records' west coast expert, continuing to document the 60s Bay Area scene in a series called "Nuggets From The Golden State". Big Beat has released 14 Nuggets discs so far, featuring artists such as the Beau Brummels, The Charlatans, Frumious Bandersnatch and Oxford Circle as well as CDs highlighting the Autumn, Hush and Scorpio labels. In the backyard of his El Cerrito home sits Ace Records' West Coast office, where we sat down, listened to a lot of music and talked about Zombie Heaven.

I just want to say on behalf of every Zombies fan everywhere, the box is just beautiful and amazing!

Well, thank seemed clear to me as a Zombies fan, I compiled it the way I would have liked to see it as a fan. Being something of a record collector, and knowing what was out there, I thought that their back catalog never got any sort of respect on CD. I mean the only thing that was given any sort of respect was Odessey and Oracle when Rhino reissued it. Working for Ace, I've been fairly heavily involved in doing reissues, and it seemed pretty obvious to me that these guys are songwriters, other people did their songs, everything I ever heard by them has been good, there had to be more stuff there of equal quality. But even I was amazed at how great everything I came across was. There was very, very, very little that I would not have considered using. My main brief initially was to include the versions as they were originally released on 45s by Decca in the U.K. when the band were around -- the original mono versions which were supervised by either the band or their producer Ken Jones.

I never had a real idea of the identities of the members of the Zombies. That's really one of the valuable things about the box set--you really get a clear picture of how the band developed and their personalities.

I think it's because they're 100% normal, sweet guys. No egos, no temperaments, no "rock star" behavior that would single them out as being notable. All their associates I talked to...all of them said, 'What a lovely bunch of guys, always loved working with them.' Never had a bad thing to say about them, everyone kind of comes up smelling like roses. I didn't encounter anything bad or any kind problems or egos anywhere down the line.

Do you think that hindered them?

Maybe, maybe they were just too sweet. It wasn't until after they split that people realized how solid and consistent they were. They didn't have any kind of gimmicks to hang things off of. No gimmick, outside of the shining quality of their music. There were definitely personalities in the band, but they were all friends. It really was like a bunch of guys at school just getting together and playing, it just so happened that they were amazing songwriters and amazing musicians and had an amazing singer. So many other bands don't have that same kind of chemistry from the get go, the way that they did.

What was the first Zombies song you ever heard?

The first time I heard the Zombies was in a really bad movie, from the mid 70s, called Stardust. There was a cheapo soundtrack album on KTEL or Ronco and She Not There was included on it. And I remember as a kid at school hearing that song from that album and thinking 'God, these guys sound so strange, really weird.' And down the line I discovered their other records, and I was just amazed every time I heard another song...I was discovering other music at the same time, so it wasn't like I was fixated on them in particular, but I always knew that when I picked up another Zombies record that I hadn't heard, it was going to be good, and they never failed me once.

How did the box come about?

It was quite simple. The people that administer their catalog, Marquis Music...their main thing is publishing and they also carry the publishing for Fantasy Records in Europe - or in England anyway. Ace Records is the licensee for Fantasy in Europe. So one day Roger Armstrong of Ace casually mentioned, 'Oh yeah, Marquis Music. By the way, you know they do the Zombies.' Straightway, I thought 'this is our chance.' Marquis is obviously familiar with Ace, so we can go in there with a box set concept. Straight off the top of my head, very easily I put together a working track listing and we approached them and they said 'fine, go ahead.' So basically I went through every single tape they had, went to Abbey Road and pulled tapes out of there. Eventually not only did I find the stuff that been released, but incredible unreleased stuff. I knew because they had written songs for other people, like the Mindbenders and Dusty Springfield, that they must have been into writing. And being a publisher, Marquis Music, still had all the details of the songs they had written. So they (Marquis) had a room downstairs in this great house they have in the Chelsea part of London, and they had all these acetates and I was pulling them out and playing them and it was like 'Gosh, this is unreleased Zombies music!' Which for me was really exciting. Then I got to talk to everyone in the band who were all 100% enthusiastic and cooperative, which really blew my mind. I figured that guys like Hugh and Paul may be even Chris would be enthusiastic, but I was amazed at how enthusiastic in and Rod were, because obviously they're always the ones who get asked about the Zombies, the Zombies, the Zombies.

We're you the one to approach each of the members about the box?

Well they knew about it because they were consulted when we made the original proposal, but yeah, I just got in contact with everyone and went over to England for a month and went and visited everyone...Hugh in his pub, Rod in his palatial manor... I made a tape for all five of them. One side was covers of Zombies tunes done by 60s bands, just to demonstrate to them how influential they were at the time. I don't think they realized how many bands went out there and did Zombies songs straight off, especially in America, garage bands. And on the other side I put Sneetches playing Zombies songs. And all of them in one way or another complimented me on the Sneetches doing Zombies stuff. In particular, Rod e-mailed me and said 'I was listening to the side with the covers and I thought this is kind of depressing, then I played the Sneetches side, great versions!' So that was really nice, but it shows you their appreciation and enthusiasm for their own back catalog. I'm sure I gushed a little bit, like 'you guys are like gods' but at the same time I demonstrated how much I knew about their history.... and as a musician how they put music together, and what was so special about it, and that bolstered their enthusiasm even more to the extent that Rod pulled out some more acetates of unreleased stuff and Chris went 'round to his ex-wife's place and went up into the attic and found all the four tracks for Odessey and Oracle and a whole bunch more demos.

The choices of Tom Petty and Lenny Kaye for the end pieces were interesting, since people might not associate them with the Zombies. Why did you choose them?

Well, Lenny Kaye is one of the few guys that has enough of a pedigree or enough of a history to be qualified to talk about music like the Zombies'. Lenny has enough notoriety on his own, and sure enough he came up with something great. Tom Petty, we were thinking about some big rock star name. And talking to the band they'd said Pete Townshend was a fan, McCartney's a fan...then I remembered that Tom Petty had been playing I Want You Back Again and Gotta Get A Hold Of Myself when he did that Fillmore residency (in San Francisco) last year. So I called his management, and they came back and said 'Well believe it or not, Tom doesn't like doing things like this, he gets requests all the time. But, he'll make an exception for the Zombies.' So that was really nice.

How long did the project take from start to finish?

Believe it or not, for a project of this kind, it's amazing actually. I handed my first track listing to Ace in November 1996, and literally it became available the next November. Which is very, very fast for a project of this kind, one that's as thorough as this. But at the same time, it was because of the amount of cooperation we got from the Zombies and the people that own their catalog that were able to do it so quickly. I casually asked them for memorabilia and Hugh handed over this dirty shopping bag full of huge bulging scrapbooks and everyone was real free with their time and all their associates were more than happy to talk about the Zombies. Plus, something that made it a little bit easier for me was the first guy I talked to was Paul Atkinson who lives in L.A. I went to his house and he pulled out a bunch a stuff and amongst it was this list of every single gig the band played. He was the band treasurer so he used write down how much they earned. And of course that was great 'cause easily I had a chronology. That was a very, very handy thing to have especially when I when I talked to the other guys. I wanted to be thorough but I didn't want to be anal about it.

In so many ways, this project couldn't have been done with any other band, from an aesthetic point of view, from a legal point of view, from a technical point of view. Every aspect was very, very easy and very natural. I didn't have to rewrite history because history very clearly... the only thing I was doing was maybe make a case for them as being up there close to if not on the same level as the Beatles and the Kinks, the top echelon. The only thing they didn't have was that extra personality factor that so many "rock legends" have. They weren't burnouts, they weren't into drugs, they weren't erratic geniuses, they were just a solid, competent, consistent conveyor belt of pop, pretty much.

Did you ever reach a point where you just couldn't listen to the Zombies?

I'm still listening to it now. I have a tendency whenever I do work on a project to really burnout on it. But the Zombies, I don't play it every single day, but it's never a chore to listen to.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about the Zombies?

Good question. I was just amazed at some of the weird things, like the success they had in places in the Philippines. Where they thought they were going to go over there to play in a foyer of a hotel for two weeks and they end up playing these huge stadiums. It kind of shows you how rabid people were for their music, even back then. But if you're going to say most surprising, it just what I said already that the fact they're such nice guys and they're still friendly with each other and there's no egos there...

One of my favorite parts of the box set is the a cappella version of The Way I Feel Inside. That is just so great.

Yeah, and the amazing thing is if you listen to the session tape, he does it over and over again exactly the same way. Colin really is one of the most under-appreciated singers in the history of pop music.

Do you have a couple of favorite tracks on Zombie Heaven?

One track I really love, I never get tired of listening to it, it was one of those things that in many ways prompted the idea of a box set is this song, I'll Keep Trying. I think I that's an incredible song and I can't believe they never did anything with it at the time. Something else that surprised me was this embarrassment of riches. I really liked the unreleased songs I found, like One Day I'll Say Goodbye and A Love That Never Was. When I first got copies of those I played them to death, 'cause it was like new Zombies music. That to me was thrilling. I like every cut.

The really nice thing about including the BBC sessions is you get to hear what a great live band they were. They don't sound much different from their records.

You're right. They worked hard, they really rehearsed hard. They were really into ensemble playing and they did tour a hell of a lot. The chronology I got from Paul ran out towards the end of '65, but they kept working all the way through '66 and '67. They were doing crappier gigs as they went on, but they worked solid. There were some songs that they did that I wasn't able to get out of the BBC because the tapes don't exist and no one else came up with copies. For instance, they do the Four Tops song Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever and Since I Lost My Baby by the Temptations. A lot of people might go 'these are just covers' and 'it's white guys trying to sound black.' But the Zombies weren't like that. They'd hear a great song and translate it into their style. Colin's voice is so expressive without sounding blackface. He's not like an Eric Burdon, trying to sound black, he's just sounding like himself.

So is Zombie Heaven the end for Zombies releases?

Well, we spent a lot of time and money and effort getting the very best possible quality transfers from the tapes. And even though the box set is kind of like a last word, a lot of people would like to have the stuff available separately, so it made sense with the 30th anniversary of Odessey & Oracle coming up. So we're going to basically overhaul their entire back catalog...reissue everything with the correct tapes and the best possible sound. With Odessey & Oracle, I've already talked to a couple more people involved with them back then, including the guy that signed them to CBS and Al Kooper, who helped the record get released in the States. Begin Here will have more stuff and we'll have it so you can program it to play either the English or American version. And then we're doing the Singles A's & B's, which will be the A and B sides of every UK single including the four that came out on CBS in mono as they were originally released, not remixes or anything like that. And then finally, the thing which is most exciting for me, was when I started going through all the Zombies tapes I came across a load of material recorded just after the band split but before Argent got formed. Basically Rod and Chris, who decided to stay in the music business were continually writing and demoing material, some of which featured Hugh. It's just some incredible, wonderful pop songs, very much Zombiesque. So there definitely a CD's worth of material there. The guys in the band are still pulling together some demo tapes and things. But I think that will be a really nice release because it ties up some loose ends and in some ways it kind of explains that period, being a forerunner to Argent.

What's the release schedule for these discs?

Odessey & Oracle will be out in April, which is the 30th anniversary. The other CD, we're gonna call it the Nexus album, because Rod and Chris' production company was called Nexus. In fact, that was what Argent were going to be called at one time. That probably won't be out until the end of the year soonest. The others, Begin Here and Singles A's & B's will probably be out later this year.

Any last thoughts about Zombie Heaven?

I think everyone in the band and Marquis Music, their administrator, is happy we're doing it. Maybe we didn't offer as much money up front, but they were glad for our attention to detail and enthusiasm for their music. People really still love their music. The fondness and devotion in America for Zombies music has never lessened. A lot of these letters I have had range from 'Oh yeah, I bought She's Not There when it first came out and I've been a Zombies head ever since' to 'I'm 16 years old and I've been listening to the Zombies since I was 10 and Rod Argent is my God.' It crosses all ages, all genders and all races, people just love their music. It's not quite as widespread a version of the love for Beatles music, people aren't quite as fanatical about the Zombies for obvious reasons. They weren't as successful and they have a much smaller body of work, and they probably don't have as great significance, but at the same time the Zombies small little catalog has in its own way has all the hallmarks as being as timeless as the Beatles.