The Real Deal
The year is 1961. Rod Argent (keyboards), Paul Atkinson (guitar), and Hugh Grundy (drums) were in school in Hertfordshire, England, and they found themselves jamming out together. They clicked immediately, and started crafting their collective pop rock/psychedelic pop sound. They recruited two other classmates, Colin Blunstone (vocals) and Paul Arnold (bass), to join them and started playing music together as The Mustangs. After they realized there were at least two other English bands called The Mustangs, they needed a new name. Paul Arnold, the bassist, suggested The Zombies, and though Blunstone didn’t care for it, the name stuck.
Arnold, after supplying the name, actually decided he didn’t really want to pursue music as a career, and soon quit the band to become a physician (#GFS). They picked up a new bassist named Chris White, and after winning a competition hosted by the London Evening News, they signed a recording contract and busted out their first hit, “She’s Not There.”
The song was released in the middle of 1964, and it quickly gained popularity, peaking at #12 in the UK Top 40. More importantly, it was a massive hit in the US, and was the #2 single in America at one point in December, 1964.
The band then followed the typical British Invasion formula, and toured the US heavily to follow-up on the song’s success. From 1965–1967, they played a ton of US shows to crowds of “screaming, hysterical teenage girls” and churned out new music. They recorded “Tell Her No” (#6 in the US) and a slew of other singles. Beyond their two hits, however, they weren’t getting a ton of traction in US, and after their initial success with “She’s Not There,” none of their music was well-received at all in the UK.
In 1967, they recorded a full album for CBS Records. By this time, however, the band was low on motivation, money, and popularity. The album was set to be called Odyssey and Oracle, but when they asked an art teacher to design their album cover, he misspelled it Odessey and Oracle, and none of the band members cared enough to change it. So, Odessey and Oracle it was. The band trudged through the recording process, and were tapped out by the end of it. When the album was finally released in April 1968, the group had already essentially been broken up for four months, with some members moving on to new bands and others finding random day jobs. The album sold very poorly in the UK, and The Zombies were left for dead.
The American Vacuum
A year after Odessey and Oracle was released in the UK, an American musician named Al Kooper, signed to Columbia Records, stumbled onto the album in early-1969. He loved it, and pushed his label to get the US distribution rights. They did, and a couple months later, one of the singles on the record, “Time of the Season,” had taken the nation by storm, checking in at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. (Odessey and Oracle was also eventually named the 100th best album of all time by Rolling Stone)
1969 was a different time than now, and The Zombies were totally unaware of their abrupt revival in the US. Americans (read: screaming, hysterical teenagers) were clamoring to see The Zombies in concert again, but no one was getting this message across to the boys back in England.
Enter Delta Promotions, a particularly shady barnacle on the underbelly of the 60s and 70s American music scene.
Delta’s business model was simple — identify bands that broke up too soon (while there was still touring demand), put together an impostor band, and trot them out around the country as if they were the real thing, while taking 50% of the proceeds. If fans were disappointed or eventually figured it out, in the slightly adapted words of Andy Samberg, “doesn’t mater, (got paid).”
Delta had tried out this model with some smaller American bands, but The Zombies was a much bigger fish. Inexplicably, rather than trying to put together a well-formed fake band that may at least fool the most gullible fans, Delta put together *two* impostor bands and had them tour the country simultaneously.
One fake band, “The Michigan Zombies,” were vaguely similar to the real thing, and their rendition of “Time of the Season” was apparently excellent and pretty convincing.
The other fake band was another story entirely — it was a truly bizarre effort from Delta. They somehow decided their best bet for the second band was a blues group from Texas. As a test run, Delta sent these four guys — Frank Beard, Dusty Hill, Mark Ramsey, and Sebastian Meador — on a tour, pretending to be Rose Garden, a recently disbanded folk-rock group. Hilariously, on this tour, the Texan boys only learned *one* Rose Garden song, and then filled the rest of the show with random blues songs. Imagine going to a Head and the Heart concert, and not only is the band made up of a bunch of randos you’ve never seen before, but after they play a shitty version of “Rivers and Roads,” they yolo play the rest of the set as heavy metal or something.
Even better than this pure yolo-ness, the band Rose Garden had a female lead singer. The four blues boys from Texas did not have a female lead singer. Dusty Hill recalls that “people did start asking where the girl was but we still did OK.” lol.
This gave the Texan blues boys confidence that their “Zombies” tour could actually work. Even better, they could do it without a keyboardist, because apparently American fans back then were so out of mind at concerts that they wouldn’t notice/care about things like that. The “Texas Zombies” launched their nationwide tour, playing 7 shows a week, and telling the occasionally curious fan that the keyboardist was missing because “he had gotten busted and was stuck in jail somewhere.”
To add even more absurdity, Delta refused to pay for clothes for the Texas Zombies that could have made them look the part a bit more. Compare this picture of the actual zombies…
To this picture of the Texas Zombies (aka The Original “Zombies”, notice the quotes):
A couple months after this whole ruse started, it started to feel the heat. One night in June 1969, the Texas Zombies were touring in Saginaw, and the crowd was particularly keyed in to the massive red flags about this cowboy-hat wearing group of impostors. According the Saginaw News:
The band was especially disappointing and the crowd began to leave during their fourth tune. The band didn’t sound like they did back when they were selling millions of records, likely due to what appeared to be a complete transition of band members. When their 40-minute set was finally finished…there was no applause — nothing but dead silence.
The managers of Delta Promotions, after catching too much flak about this ragtag group they were rolling out, made a bold move — they said that the Texas Zombies were legit, and had new members because “the lead singer for the Zombies was killed, and the other guys left.” This wasn’t true in any way.
There was also a show in LA in October 1969, where some friends of original Zombie Paul Atkinson showed up at the show. The friends started heckling the Texas Zombies, asking them why the guitarist was going by the stage name Hugh Grundy (who was actually the real Zombies’ drummer), and why he was now 5'6" when Hugh Grundy used to 5'10".
Finally, in December 1969, the jig was up. Chris White, the bassist from the real Zombies wrote an article for Rolling Stone, absolutely ripping the impostors for “taking money from our fans and dragging down our reputation.”
About a year later, Delta Promotions was done too. They had invited too much scrutiny through their greedy Zombies plan, and a couple lawyers applied pressure until Bill Kehoe, the top dog at Delta, shuttered the business, packing up and shipping out to a small Michigan town. Interestingly enough, Kehoe’s obituary doesn’t mention any of music business dealings, leaving a sizable gap in the recounting of his life’s pursuits.
The Texas Zombies and Michigan Zombies headed back to their respective states and so ended the wackiest troll job in the history of rock music.
All this would be outrageous on its own — but I have a little bit more for you. The Michigan Zombies went home and didn’t really re-surface in the public spectre for the rest of their lives. The Texas Zombies largely did the same — Sebastian Meador played a couple more albums for The Werevolves, and Mark Ramsey went to college, became a teacher, and gave up rock ’n’ roll.
What about Frank Beard and Dusty Hill? While Meador and Ramsey freely admit their involvement in the Texas Zombies, Beard and Hill are much more guarded about it, often deflecting questions by saying “It was the 60s, bro.” In fact, neither one acknowledged it until mid-2016. What are they up to now? Do those names ring any bells?
The ended up forming a little-known, Texan band with a distinctive look…