Paul Atkinson

Lead guitarist with the Zombies on their million-selling single 'She's Not There'

Tuesday 29 October 2013 02:18

Paul Atkinson, guitarist: born Cuffley, Hertfordshire 19 March 1946; twice married (two sons, one daughter); died Santa Monica, California 1 April 2004.

Paul Atkinson was the lead guitarist with the Zombies, one of the most distinctive groups of the Sixties. He played on their million-selling singles "She's Not There" and "Time of the Season" and later became a record executive for CBS, signing new talent including Abba and Bruce Hornsby.

The Zombies were formed in 1962 at St Albans School by Atkinson, Hugh Grundy and Rod Argent. After a few changes, the line-up became Atkinson (lead guitar), Grundy (drums), Argent (keyboards), Colin Blunstone (lead vocals) and Chris White (bass). They would practise at White's father's shop and, as Argent sang in the choir at St Albans Cathedral, on Sundays the group could only play after Evensong.

The Zombies won the Herts Beat competition, which led to a recording contract with Decca and management with the legendary Tito Burns. Their first single was "She's Not There", written by Argent. Although recorded in one take, it was an elaborate production for a first single. The high-voiced harmonies were distinctive and the group had a magnificent lead singer in the young insurance broker Blunstone.

"She's Not There" had a mysterious, wistful quality and it remains one of the best début singles of all time. Blunstone said last month,

The instruments that we recorded that track on are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I am amazed that we did so well as they were made in woodwork classes and the like. We went professional and accepted an eight-week tour with the Searchers and the Isley Brothers largely because we knew we would then be able to afford proper instruments.

"She's Not There" entered the UK charts in August 1964 and climbed to No 12, and it nearly topped the US charts, reaching No 2. Realising that the older generation regarded pop music as moronic, Tito Burns stressed that the band possessed over 50 O- and A-level passes between them. It was good publicity and the group toured America working with Del Shannon.

Atkinson was the youngest member, but he was the most practical. The group often toured in an old ice-cream van and he would be the navigator. He was the group's handyman and was nicknamed "Droop".

Many of the standards the Zombies performed, such as "Love for Sale" and "Night and Day", were written in minor keys, unusually for a Sixties beat group. It came naturally to Argent and Chris White, the usual writers in the band. The Zombies' album Begin Here showed them recording the R&B favourites of the day, although their singles were invariably experimental. In "Tell Her No" they sing the word "No" over 100 times. Both Pete Townshend and George Harrison praised the single "Is This the Dream?" and the noted US rock critic R. Meltzer remarked,

"Whenever You're Ready" is an elucidation of the Zombies' comparative heart of jelly (introduced in "Leave Me Be"). It is replete with an invincibility, the source of which is complete vulnerability and precariousness on the brink of annihilation.

The Zombies themselves were dissatisfied with many of their records, as they were not allowed to mix them, and in particular they thought Decca had ruined "Is This the Dream?"

In 1965 the Zombies appeared in the mystery film Bunny Lake Is Missing, with Laurence Olivier, Carol Lynley and Noël Coward, but the main mystery was where they had got to. They were on screen for less than a minute.

Atkinson's guitar work is best heard on their whimsical "How We Were Before" (1966), but by then he was tiring of the group's lack of success and wondering where the money went. The Zombies moved from Decca to CBS and recorded a remarkable album of original material, Odyssey and Oracle (1968). It was ignored and the group disbanded.

A year later a track from the album, "Time of the Season", made the US Top Ten. Rod Argent and Chris White had already formed a progressive rock band, Argent, and there was no inclination for the Zombies to reform. A fake band took to the road in the US, touring with the equally fake Animals, but only until Eric Burdon of the Animals went backstage and threatened them with a baseball bat. "That's kept on happening," says Chris White,

Paul Atkinson sent me a tape a few years ago of a group that was claiming to be us and the radio interviewer says, "Didn't you used to be five foot ten?", as their lead vocalist was only five foot three.

Paul Atkinson and Hugh Grundy both got jobs at CBS when the band split up and, over the years, Atkinson signed Abba, Bruce Hornsby and Judas Priest. In 1991 he made a guest appearance on a new Zombies album, New World, and all five members reformed at the Jazz Café in London for the launch of a four-CD box-set, Zombie Heaven, in 1997.

Earlier this year, Blunstone and Argent organised a benefit concert for Atkinson, who was suffering with cancer, and he joined the Zombies on stage.

Spencer Leigh

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