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The Zombies’ Chris White on the Roll Hall of Fame, Bringing Dave Grohl to Tears and More (The Interview)
Like their moniker, The Zombies are an unstoppable, undying musical force that refuse to go off quietly in the still of the night. Championed by the likes of Tom Petty, Paul Weller, XTC, The Bangles and countess others as a pivotal influence, The Zombies’ music continues to endure and flourish drawing in new generations of fans to their spectacular and creatively inventive body of work.
Fittingly, after years of being passed over, The Zombies were finally inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. A few days after the ceremony, we sat down with Zombies bassist, vocalist and principal co-writer, Chris White, for a look back and forward at a storied 50+ year career.
— Rock Hall (@rockhall) March 31, 2019
Rock Cellar: The Zombies has been up for induction into a The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for many years but were passed over again and again, were you optimistic or pessimistic that the band would eventually get the nod?
Chris White: Well, in my time of life, after 54 years of us being together I thought it was an honor just to be nominated, to be quite honest. But the actual induction was magical; it was justification of the music we tried to do. Cindy DaSilva, our manager, called me and let me know we were in. I was in disbelief.
I was astounded by the fans support. Also, to find out the musicians that we respect and are in awe of quote the Zombies as being influential on them was quite a surprise to me.
Rock Cellar: Who were some of those artists who cited the Zombies as a key influence?
Chris White: Well Paul Weller for a start. When we did the first Odessey and Oracle show to celebrate its 40th anniversary, Paul came to that show. I shyly sort of went up to him and shook his hand and said, “Paul, my name’s Chris White,” and he grabbed me in a bear hug and he said, “You’re the reason I started writing songs.”
I met Jimi Hendrix years ago when I was touring with Argent in Beverly Hills at Eric Burdon’s launch of his group, War. I was standing at the bar with him and and he said, “Oh yes, you did that song ‘Time Of The Season’” and then he started singing it to me. Dave Grohl did one of my song, “This Will Be Our Year” for a Record Store Day release.
He came a show of ours in Atlanta in 2015 and he didn’t come backstage, and we thought, “Oh, he didn’t like it.” Rod met up with him last year and he said, “I was too emotionally involved, I couldn’t have come backstage.”
His wife said he cried three times during the concert.
Elvis had records of ours on his jukebox. My wife and I are friends with Benmont Tench, Tom Petty’s keyboard player. When I met Tom at a show of ours in Los Angeles, according to Ben, he was speechless because we were one of the first groups he saw live. He said Tom never comes out anymore, and how he was so surprised by that. Benmont said all he could talk about were the Zombies.
Those are the things that shock us.
Rock Cellar: Bring us through the entire Rock and Roll Hall of Fame evening. What was the biggest high for you that night?
Chris White: Susanna Hoffs’ speech was wonderful. She gave a great tribute to us and that was very heartwarming and to see all the other English bands to be inducted as well. I had my three sons over and Hugh (Grundy) had his three daughters over. It was such an honor to be inducted among all the giants in rock and roll, our heroes as well.
— Susanna Hoffs (@SusannaHoffs) April 2, 2019
Rock Cellar: One of the songs The Zombies performed at The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremonies was a jewel from the Odessey and Oracle album, “This Will Be Our Year,” which you composed. What’s the back story behind that song and why do you think it still connected so powerfully with listeners?
Chris White: It was written before we did Odessey and Oracle and it was just a song of hope, to be quite honest. I don’t know where songs come from. I wrote that on keyboards. I’d always dabbled on the keyboards — I’d taken piano lessons, but it’s easier to carry a bass around. The song just came out of the chord sequence. It’s just a nice, positive song. Sometimes you get fed up about moaning about things. (laughs) It doesn’t really apply to anything; it just came out of a fun mood. Two of my sons are putting together my back catalog of songs and demos, which has never been released.
Rock Cellar: Yes, The Chris White Experience record, right?
Chris White: Yes, that’s right, it’s not my idea of a title but they’ve researched and we’ve got 50 boxes of tapes and they’re going through them technically. One of my sons, Matthew, is the technical one and Jamie is the one who has his own band so I’ve just left it to them to do it and let them choose what material is included. They’re songs that I’ve written with people like Matthew Fisher and Tim Renwick and several other people but these have never seen the light of day. They reckon they have enough material for seven records. I can’t do anything else, it’s what I do, write songs. My main writing instrument is keyboards. I can’t write songs on the bass. (laughs)
Rock Cellar: You played shows in America over 50 years ago, what are your most vivid memories of coming to the States for the very first time?
Chris White: There used to be a TV program over here called The Naked City, and it was a fascinating story– I thought it was so surrealistic. Then going to America was like walking into that show. There were sirens going and hearing guns. I was with Hugh and the Nashville Teens and we were in Times Square. There were these gunshots and there was somebody dead on the pavement. Of course being English and hardly ever hearing about that, the next day we looked into the papers and all it said was that eight people were killed in New York and nothing else was mentioned.
But it was magic coming to America. We were lucky that America took to our first single.
Rock Cellar: In the past 15-20 years, there’s been a tremendous upturn in The Zombies’ legacy and where you’ve viewed among your ‘60s contemporaries has gone up exponentially.
Chris White: That is a strange thing. The thing is, we were school kids when we started, so we grew together. Even after we stopped being together in 1967 we were still friends and still worked on different projects together. It’s a rarity for a ‘60s band to still like each other. (laughs)
Rock Cellar: That brings up the point, unlike many of your contemporaries where egos ran rampant, The Zombies were sensible and remained down to earth in spite of the success and fame you achieved, what do you attribute that to?
Chris White: I suppose education. Just liking each other although there were differences. I think it’s like having brothers. You might sometime fall out with them a little bit but they’re still your brothers. I think it’s that sort of feeling in The Zombies and the disbelief of the fact that we’re still alive (laughs) and we’ve just been inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.
Dave Grohl sort of said it best, you start out in a garage band and you suck when you first start out and then you grow together. I think the different talents of Rod’s leadership and keyboard skills and a voice like Colin’s, you can’t go wrong, so you write songs to fit those credentials. Given that, it makes you write better and we didn’t copy; we tried not to copy things.
Well, really, we didn’t actually try to do anything, it just developed. It wasn’t a conscious effort. I think the key to our whole success now is the Odessey and Oracle album, which Rod and I decided we wanted to produce. It was our first production. Just by sheer luck we got into Abbey Road and we had a publishing company that was behind what we wanted to do. So a lot of it has to do with luck.
Rock Cellar: It seemed the Zombies were a fated band, in the sense that when you first played together it felt right.
Chris White: Absolutely. I’d had little groups and worked on things before and it was so much fun. It was also so nice that they were working in harmony because Rod was very strong on harmonies. Colin had such a great voice. Rod was such a really good keyboard player. At that time he was only playing on an upright piano in those days. It just clicked and I loved it. It felt like coming home in a way.
Rock Cellar: The Zombies also had quite a unique look; everyone was well-educated and clean-cut and looked almost professorial. Did that look work for the band?
Chris White: I think basically it could have worked against us because of this unfortunate thing about GCEs — those were the equivalent of high school qualifications in England. You had to get good results to get into university. It was just a record company standard thing. There were lots of other groups around with degrees who were just as intelligent. They thought we were middle class and not from the streets. The fact is, we were all working class but we just took advantage of our educations. That was it, really.
Rod brought it up the other day, saying he sometimes gets fed up about this. All our parents were working class and it was just that we had good educations and enjoyed it. Therefore that did get in the way. A couple of people said we didn’t really have to work hard and all that sort of crap.
Rock Cellar: Perhaps what separates The Zombies from your other ‘60s counterparts is Rod Argent’s keyboard prowess.
Chris White: Rod was the leader — great musician, and he was inventive. He also always appreciated other people’s input. I think the keyboard to be the forefront thing — we had problems in the early days because he didn’t have a keyboard that you could amplify. We had to hang a microphone down the back of pianos when we were on stage. Most people didn’t have a piano up front because there wasn’t the amplification for them in those days, or at least not what we could afford.
Rock Cellar: Rod Argent told me that “Chris, in his heart, is a more romantic writer than me.” You and Rod were the chief songwriters in the band, can you characterize what distinctive sensibilities you each brought to The Zombies?
Chris White: It’s falling back on some of the great songwriters of the last century, people like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin. So it was those elements married with rock and roll, plus having the influence of Rod Argent around was incredible. Rod had written three of the biggest hits for The Zombies so when the band finished, he and I went on to work on other things together. We produced Colin’s first three solo albums and then Rod said to me, “Why don’t we put our joint names on everything we write because one song will keep us going” and that was very generous of him. Then the first big hit we had after The Zombies was “Hold Your Head Up,” which was my song.
Rock Cellar: “Hold Your Head Up” by Argent became a huge ‘70s rock anthem.
Chris White: Yes, it has become that and I’ve never regretted Rod getting half the writers share of that song because he made an offer from a position of strength. So we are very generous with each other and we’re also very critical of what we do so when we had new songs we used to throw them around and work on them. As for writing “Hold Your Head Up,” I was living in Spain with my first wife who was pregnant at the time. We were putting Argent together and the band was playing every night and had done some Zombies things.
Jim Rodford and Bob Henrit suddenly hit this rhythmic pattern on “Time Of The Season” and I liked it and thought it had a great feel. So I went back and wrote the guitar riff which originally going to be the tune but I thought that was too boring and too predictable so I laid it in a cassette player and wrote the melody on top of that. That’s how that was written. I like writing positive songs.
Rock Cellar: The Zombies only released two studio albums in the ’60s; the jump from Begin Here to Odessey and Oracle is miraculous. Looking back, are you amazed by the band’s swift progression as songwriters and record makers?
Chris White: We had a good producer in Ken Jones. He did some lovely stuff with us but we got a little bit fed up with not being able to go to the mixing sessions. As the songwriters, we got a little bit fed up with the treatments of the songs. We used to do go and do demo sessions before we did the recordings with Decca and we felt they were more like we intended. Rod and I felt like they were more edgy and Ken was trying to smooth things down a little bit and make it more palpable for what he thought we needed to sound like.
So when we came back from the Philippines, we had no manager and no record deal because Decca dropped us and hardly any money. So we said, “We want to produce our albums, we want to do our own thing.” Then our publishers said, “CBS has offered you a thousand pounds and I think we can get you into Abbey Road.” We were one of the first non-EMI bands to be able to record in Abbey Road. So what we did is we knew we couldn’t afford more than a few sessions so Rod and I wrote songs and we put songs forward and worked on them. We rehearsed and rehearsed as if we were playing live in a hall.
So when we went into the studio we sometimes did two songs in a three-hour session and we were only on four-track. So we had Geoff Emerick as our engineer, we had Abbey Road and The Beatles had just walked out doing Sgt. Pepper. We listened to Pet Sounds, which was another one of our favorite albums; the creativity and inventiveness was inspiring and we felt, we can do that. That’s how it happened. We were like kids in a candy store, to be quite honest.
Rock Cellar: Chris, you truly blossomed as a songwriter on the band’s Odessey & Oracle album, can you run us through the back story behind a few songs starting with “Maybe After He’s Gone,” a magical song with great harmonies and an amazing melody.
Chris White: I wrote that on guitar. Colin’s got such a lovely quality of his voice; it has melancholy bluesy touches to it. And it’s a totally original voice, although we spent years trying to convince him that he was a singer. (laughs) It wasn’t written specifically about anything — it was writing a song which would suit his voice, really.
“Beechwood Park” was written about somewhere, an image. There was a girls’ school up in the village called Beechwood Park. I remember walking around there because where I lived was slightly out in the country, and just that image of country lanes with the steam rising off after the summer rain. Again, that song suited Colin’s voice. He had the kind of voice you wanted to write for.
Rock Cellar: There were other great nostalgic songs that came out of the ’60s written about these idealistic parks and locales — “Strawberry Fields” and “Itchycoo Park,” for instance.
Chris White: Yes. I think of that era as basically — you could leave school or college and you didn’t have a problem getting a job. It was after the war and the hardships and rationing and everything, so life was enjoyable. No one had that fear of not getting any work like the kids do nowadays. I mean, the kids have a lot of trouble nowadays even having some hope in life. Some of them come out of school and they’ve just got a line of dole ahead of them. In those days it was hopeful, and the Beatles were at the forefront of that because there was so much fun in their music.
Rock Cellar: “Changes” and Brief Candles” are both very atmospheric and unique.
Chris White: “Brief Candles” was a nice idea about three different stories. In fact, I only found this out recently, that Rod did the same thing — he often used to get titles and use that as a starting point. But Brief Candles was a book by Aldous Huxley. I always liked the title of that; it’s such a nice image. It was like three stories, and Rod suggested that we each sing a verse and that just worked nicely as well.
It fitted in well the mere fact that the Mellotron was around as well, and Rod loved the sound of that. “Changes” was a great harmony idea and we wanted to use the least instrumentation as possible. I think it came out from the atmosphere at the time. It was at the tail end of flower power, which was a beautiful period and — it degenerated into all sorts of horrible things, but it was a time of hope and fun and that was the essence of it. I think I was always writing for Colin’s voice in mind. Sometimes when I’d sing it to the band my voice would be straining at the top of falsetto. (laughs) It always sounded funny if I did demos, but it was always with Colin’s voice in mind.
Rock Cellar: Unlike many of your ‘60s contemporaries, the Zombies own their catalog and exert complete control, creatively and quality-wise.
Chris White: It is total luck. We were gonna split up and we won this contest, suddenly got these offers from record labels. My uncle was an arranger with a big band. He worked for the BBC as an arranger. We went to see him and he said, “Go and see Ken Jones,” who later became our first producer. And Ken looked through these contracts and he said, “That’s a good clause, that’s terrible. Don’t do that, do this, do that.” And we said, “Well, can you offer us anything?” And he said, “Well, we’ll offer you all of the best of these contracts that I just told you.” As a result of that, he had the company and then we had half of the publishing company. He died and his partner died. But the secretary at the company, Carole Broughton, bought it. So when everything reverted back to us from Decca and CBS, all the rights go through them. The catalog is actually owned by Marquis, but they take a very small amount to administer it.
They’ve done an incredible job on it. And the people who own it are the people we started with.
Rock Cellar: Are there any plans for the original lineup of The Zombies minus the late Paul Atkinson to do any future show?
Chris White: Yes, I’m hearing rumors we might be playing again and doing a tour with Brian Wilson. I can’t give any more details now but I’m hearing some pretty good rumors. (laughs) I would look forward to that because anything Brian Wilson did was so inventive and Pet Sounds was one of my favorite albums.
Rock Cellar: Lastly, for you, what’s the greatest joy about this continued affection and acclaim for The Zombies work?
Chris White: For me, the creativity element of it. I always like it when young people ask for advice and I say, “the most important thing is to write and don’t try and copy; whatever you do, don’t try and copy.” I remember John Lennon saying the secret for him writing a song is you write a song and then people think you’re gonna say something and then you don’t do the obvious.”
I think that should apply to all songs. As I said in my speech at The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, songs are the bookmarks of our life. All of us have songs which echo with us during different periods of our life.