Story by Dennis Diken
Photos by Rahav Segev
Grundy’s uncommon rhythmic inventions drive the Zombies’ two U.S. number ones: “She’s Not There,” their maiden single, and “Time of the Season,” which closes Odessey and Oracle, the group’s 1968 farewell album, ranked by Rolling Stone magazine at number one hundred on its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. Grundy reunited with the surviving members of the original band to perform the LP in its entirety to rapturous crowds in 2008 and 2009 in England, and again in 2015 in the U.S. (Recent recruits, bassist Jim Rodford, drummer Steve Rodford, and guitarist Tom Toomey, perform the group’s current material.) In the spirit of rediscovery of a band whose recorded output and musical skills are far too often overlooked, let’s turn our attention to Mr. Hugh Grundy and how he magnificently made the Zombies tick.
Hugh Birch Grundy was born on March 6, 1945, in Winchester, England (celebrated in a hit 1966 novelty song for its famous cathedral), and brought up in Hatfield. His musical interests were sparked in the ’50s by the American rock ’n’ roll records he heard on Radio Luxembourg. “There was a lot of talk at school about what was obviously a new type of music coming in,” Grundy recalls. “My father played violin and wanted me to learn, but I thought, This is not the way forward in modern music.”
Shunning sports, Grundy took up the bugle in the school corps. “But from a vanity point of view,” he says, “I realized the drummers who were in front were getting much more attention from the spectators— the young ladies—so I changed to drums and realized that to me they were easy to play. Life-changing moment, I think.
“I really learned by watching any group I saw on TV and listening to everyone with complete enthusiasm,” Grundy goes on. “I started copying the drummers’ movements, on the tables and chairs at home. I used to drive my mum mad.” With a few theory exams behind him and a bit of coaching from Jim Rodford—future bassist for Argent and the Kinks in addition to the reconstituted Zombies—Grundy switched from his military method to a basic rock ’n’ roll feel. “As Rod says,” the drummer shares, “within an hour I had coordinated independence.”
The Zombies formed in 1961 in St. Albans, a town forty minutes north of London, where the original members attended school together. Their collective countenance was not unlike a jolly, bookish chess team—with several bespectacled boys in the lot—but their sound was smart and modern, thanks in large part to the jazz and classical leanings and prowess of keyboardist Rod Argent, Rodford’s cousin. Argent and Chris White, a fluid, melodic bassist, were the chief songwriters. Lone guitarist Paul Atkinson concocted lyrical lead and rhythm parts, while frontman Colin Blunstone sang with a highly expressive voice that ranged from gossamer and breathy to wailingly yearning. Underneath it all, Grundy forged well-constructed architecture, played impeccable fills at all the right spots, and deftly addressed the renowned minor-major key shifts that graced many of the group’s songs.
Several years of playing R&B, early rock ’n’ roll, soul, and Beatles covers at college dances, youth-club socials, and the like whipped the players into shape, and in 1964 they won the prestigious London Evening News–sponsored Herts Beat competition that sought “the top beat group of the country.” Decca Records offered a contract on the spot.
The Zombies soon joined the scores of young British groups that were making their bones on the concert stage as their songs climbed the charts. Debut single “She’s Not There” was released in July of ’64. Stark and haunting, and highlighted by Argent’s frenetic Hohner Pianet solo, White’s sinister bass line, Blunstone’s urgent delivery of the intriguing lyrics, and the ensemble’s spirited group harmonies, the song stood apart from many of the era’s more typically guitar-driven recordings.
The overdubbed drums doubtless caused some head scratching for young sticksmen of the day. A verse snare/hi-hat bossa nova pattern is met by flammed snare accents on beat 4, followed by a straight but groovy feel on the B section, with 2-and-4 snare overdubs. The C section is fired by a snare riding four to the bar, and the solo part rages with Latin-flavored tom-tom fills. It’s a breathtaking example of thrilling dynamics and textbook song drumming.
“She’s Not There” is one of the earliest fusions of jazz and rock stylings created by a pop group, and it helped open the door for the experimental bent of Pink Floyd, Genesis, Procol Harum, and other progressive bands that came along later in the ’60s. The song would see many covers, Santana’s 1977 version being among the most popular.
Despite George Harrison’s praise for the tune on the BBC’s Juke Box Jury, “She’s Not There” made it only to number twelve in the U.K. However, in the U.S., where it was released on the London Records subsidiary Parrot, it topped the Cashbox chart in late ’64. This warranted the guys a trip to New York to play the influential DJ Murray the K’s Christmas show at the Brooklyn Fox, where they shared a bill with some of their American idols, including Chuck Jackson, Ben E. King, the Drifters, and Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles. Grundy was “blown away” by a compliment on his bass drum work paid by the event’s house drummer. “I thought, These are the guys I got it [from], and he’s saying this to me?”
The following year saw the rise of Zombiemania in America, with the number-six single “Tell Her No,” a debut LP (in England it was titled Begin Here, while in the States a modified version called The Zombies was issued), and major TV appearances on Hullaballoo, Shindig!, and The Red Skelton Show. On the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars tour, the group was mobbed by rabid fans, recalling the hysteria that surrounded the Beatles’ stateside visits.
While an additional stream of live dates in the U.K., Canada, and Europe proved exhausting, the work helped to tighten the combo’s playing considerably. And with Argent and White’s proficiency as ascending songwriters, the band set estimable standards for the pop gentry with consistency and excellence in its recordings. Some say it took the Beatles a few beats to catch up to the Zombies’ compositional and harmonic sophistication.
Certain cuts that illustrate Grundy’s versatility are well worth checking out. The band’s fêted ballads, such as “Leave Me Be,” “Nothing’s Changed,” and “The Way I Feel Inside,” are studies in understatement. (On “The Way I Feel Inside,” in fact, Grundy lays out entirely.) Meanwhile, irresistible rockers “Is This the Dream,” “Don’t Cry for Me,” and “She Does Everything for Me” stomp and roll with purpose and controlled abandon. And Grundy’s natural-sounding but well-studied swing elevates numbers like “Remember You,” “I Want You Back Again,” and an airy take on Gershwin’s “Summertime.” “We used to go to the jazz club in Hatfield,” Grundy recalls, “and I’d listen, keeping an eye on the drummer.”
Another ’60s English beatkeeper who had a jazz flair cast his spell on Grundy. “One of my early influences was Bobby Elliott of the Hollies,” Hugh explains. “He was really good and always looked the part when he was playing, always had a flashy move or two. To this day he is top of my list of favorites.” Grundy also still holds Buddy Rich, “all of the great jazz players,” and Ringo Starr in high esteem—though his admiration extends well beyond drummers he discovered back in the day. “Thomas Lang, Mike Portnoy, Steve Gadd—there are too many to mention,” Grundy says.
End Here…and Begin Again
Though the Zombies continued to ride a creative high and receive exposure on British TV programs as well as Otto Preminger’s feature film Bunny Lake Is Missing, the band was unable to light any real fires in its native England after 1965. In ’66 the Zombies saw falling fortunes in the States, dwindling recordings, choice gigs becoming scarcer, and a fiasco with an unscrupulous promoter in the Philippines.
In 1967 the band members decided to call it quits, amicably, but first they would make their second and final LP. Sessions were held in London at Abbey Road—directly following the Beatles’ recording of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—and at Olympic Studios. In April 1968 British CBS released the self-produced Odessey and Oracle, a kaleidoscopic song cycle rife with adventuresome writing, ornate harmonies, pensive themes, and vital playing.
Grundy is firmly at the helm, with a crisp, commanding, orchestral presence amid the Mellotron-led baroque landscape. His lock with White, though well established from the get-go, had matured. “What can I say about Chris—he was and still is my best friend,” Grundy says. “We played off each other and somehow became the best rhythm section you can get.” “Care of Cell 44,” “Brief Candles,” and “Hung Up on a Dream” bear witness to this claim. The celestial “Changes” finds Grundy on bongos and features his only vocal (low notes) on a Zombies record.
Despite its eloquent majesty, the album tanked in the U.K. and saw release in the U.S. only thanks to the urging of “musical Zelig” Al Kooper, then an A&R staffer for Columbia. While the LP met a similar fate stateside, its closing number, “Time of the Season,” was released as a single, and in the spring of ’69 it topped the Cashbox chart. Grundy’s tom-led groove, in lockstep with the bass, furnished the million-seller with an unshakeable rhythmic hook. “I dubbed an extra low tom-tom during the last keyboard solo,” the drummer reveals, “to fatten it up.” Blondie’s powerhouse drummer, Clem Burke, who recalls the smash from his first combo’s repertoire, says, “Hugh’s playing was elegant and hugely influential, in a band with a high level of musicianship among all its members.”
“At the time,” Grundy recalls, “I don’t think any of us thought that Odessey and Oracle was going to be huge, but of course now it’s one of the most highly respected albums of all time.” This most enchanted and timeless encapsulation of the Summer of Love, a work often mentioned in the same breath as pop masterpieces like The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, is revered by the likes of Tom Petty, the Foo Fighters, Fleet Foxes, Weezer, Wilco, Matthew Sweet, the Bangles, and so many others. Paul Weller says it’s his favorite album and claims it was the reason he pursued songwriting.
But, alas, the Zombies were no more. Rod Argent and Chris White formed Argent, which scored a top-five smash with “Hold Your Head Up” in 1972. Paul Atkinson eventually became an A&R man (and, sadly, passed away in 2004), and Colin Blunstone sold insurance before embarking on a distinguished solo career. As for Grundy, “I went to work with CBS Records and played on quite a few sessions, which was great fun.”
Though, remarkably, Grundy never had any formal drum lessons, during a particularly trying period while he was in his thirties, he decided to take the plunge. “I studied for two years with a guy called Mike Grigg,” he says, “which focused me through those troubled times. After that I played in several local dance bands, including the Kingfishers, Tongue ’n’ Groove, and then Fugas—‘four ugly gits and a singer’! I’m now living in Menorca, one of the Balearic Islands, happily married to my wife, Tracy, with four wonderful daughters. I play with a top local band called the Flaming Geckos, so happily my chops are up to scratch.” All one need do to validate this last statement is check Grundy’s drumming on the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle (Revisited): The 40th Anniversary Concert CD and DVD releases—the man has totally still got it.
Since 1999, Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone have been gigging and recording new music as the Zombies, with Jim Rodford on bass and his son Steve on drums. The group’s sound continues to captivate listeners old and new.
For the Odessey and Oracle “reunion” dates, musical wizard Darian Sahanaja of the band the Wondermints, who’s also acted as Brian Wilson’s musical director since 1999, was enlisted to play additional keyboards and help bring the album’s essence to life for the stage. Not surprisingly, he has high regard for Mr. G: “Hugh comes from a generation where the ultimate appeal of a drummer was his ability to swing,” Sahanaja explains. “Even when playing the steadiest of rock grooves, he swings hard. His fills on even sparse tracks like ‘Beechwood Park’ are unique and burst with personality. And that personality couldn’t be any more humble; I asked him how his first tour meet-and-greet with fans went, and he said to me with an astonished look, ‘I can’t believe these people want my autograph.’”
And how cool is that?
Tools of the Trade
Grundy’s original Zombies four-piece Ludwig kit was typical of the time. “I thought if Ludwigs were good enough for Ringo,” the drummer recalls, “then that’s what I wanted. I still have my original snare signed by all five of us, and it’s now in storage. [In the early days] I had one Zildjian cymbal, a 20″ ride—which I still have and use all the time. It’s mellowed with age, I think. I also had Paiste custom Formula 602s [including a 20″ crash/ride], which I still have, but I’ve bought many various Zildjians since then. Currently I have 14″ hi-hats, an 18″ China, and a 16″ crash, as well as some Paistes, though I’m going to treat myself to 16″ and 18″ Medium A Zildjian crashes, which I played on our tour of the States in 2015 and loved.”
The new-era Zombies drummer can boast direct lineage to authentic British Invasion musicality.
There’s nothing like a good Zombies apocalypse. Especially when it’s led by Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone, who just won’t let the heart of a legendary band they cofounded in 1964 stop beating. In 1999—some thirty-two years after the original lineup dissolved—the keyboardist and singer enlisted some new blood and went on to tour with great success. Highlights included an L.A. Santa Monica Pier show attended by a crowd 20,000 strong and a headlining gig at New York’s Central Park. The band’s latest CD, Still Got That Hunger (the fourth featuring the revamped lineup), was recorded live in the studio and saw the Zombies triumphantly return to Billboard’s Top 100 album charts in 2015.
While Hugh Grundy manned the throne on select dates for the Odessey and Oracle tours with the re-formed combo, the pulse has otherwise been kept alive by Steve Rodford. His father, Jim Rodford, also happens to be the Zombies’ current bassist. Jim held the bottom end for another renowned ensemble that made waves in the ’70s. “Being that my dad was in Argent,” says Rodford the younger, “I got to watch their amazing drummer, Bob Henrit, at rehearsals and gigs, starting when I was about nine years old. It was then that I knew I just had to be a drummer! For years I tried to copy everything he did, eventually depping [subbing] for him occasionally when I was about sixteen. He and John Bonham remain my main influences.”
Rodford’s rhythmic versatility is informed by his myriad other talents and activities. “I also play bass, guitar, and piano,” Steve explains. “I’ve had small successes with stuff I’ve written and produced for TV, and I’ve produced and engineered other bands and writers. I love the studio and have been writing and recording since I was a teenager.” Rodford’s impressive résumé includes Rio, Mick Abrahams, Obsession, Kick (with Leo Lyons of Ten Years After), Don Airey, and John Verity.
And, of course, the Zombies. “It’s a total privilege to be part of such a great band,” says Rodford, who’s joined in the current lineup by guitarist Tom Toomey. “On stage we play the classics along with their newer material and a few of Colin’s solo hits. Plus we include a few Argent things. With my dad in the group it feels like a continuation of both bands to me.”
Rodford uses a Yamaha 9000 Recording Custom set, with a 20″ bass drum, a 12″ rack tom, a 14″ floor tom, and a standard-size snare. “It’s a small kit,” he says, “but it sounds amazing miked up through a big PA. I have a D6 mic mounted inside the bass drum, and I absolutely love my Porter and Davies BC2, which goes everywhere with me. Changed my drumming life, that thing! And Zildjian cymbals always!”
Unsurprisingly, Rodford has high regard for his predecessor. “Hugh is such a lovely guy and a great drummer,” Steve says, “more towards the Mitch Mitchell jazzier style than me. And he gives those early records such a unique feel. On the Odessey and Oracle tour in the States, we closed the show with us both playing “She’s Not There,” two kits side by side, which was such fun.”