Saturday, December 09, 2006

"She's Not There" / The Zombies

This was the first single I ever owned, and yeah, okay, the mere fact that I remember owning a vinyl 45 dates me more than I'd like to admit. Still, I played this one over and over incessantly before I saved up enough allowance to buy my second 45 (which I believe was the Honeycombs' "Have I The Right?"). What I can't figure out is: Why this song? In a universe of bright, glossy, upbeat pop product (like "Have I the Right?," not to mention anything by the Dave Clark Five or the Searchers or dreamy Chad & Jeremy), why was a child like me drawn to this haunting minor-key song, with its hypnotic electric piano and breathy lead vocals? I haven't a clue -- but I'm pretty proud of myself for spotting quality at such a precocious age.

Being so young, of course, I didn't "follow" pop groups; I didn't know that the Zombies were nice suburban kids from St. Albans, with a choirboy named Colin Blunstone as lead singer and a keyboard prodigy named Rod Argent writing their songs. If I had ever seen a photo of angelic dark-haired Colin Blunstone I might have become a Zombies groupie, but it was 1964 and my heart was devoted to the Beatles (specifically, Paul McCartney). No, I liked this song because I liked this song. I liked its air of mystery, and the interlapping harmonies -- Colin's innocent high voice begins softly, "Well, no one told me about her" and the others chime in "The way she lied"; "Well, no one told me about her," Colin protests again, raising his voice in anguish, and his bandmates add, "How many people cried." The melody snakes around as the singers point out "But it's too late to say you're sorry," and solo Colin notes ruefully, "How would I know? / Why should I care?" (yeah, right); "Please don't bother tryin' to find her" the band declares, before punching out a dissonant crescendo on the climactic "She's not there."

The chorus builds in volume, chords keep modulating tensely upward, and the vocals get even more anxious and percussive -- "Well, let me tell you 'bout the way she looked / The way she acted and the color of her hair." Colin sucks in his breath desperately and goes on, "Her voice was soft and cool / Her eyes were clear and bright / But -- she's not there!" That quicksilver keyboard solo in the middle is slippery, too, dancing all over the scale and refusing to stay put. The sound seems to be bouncing off of empty city streets and blank walls and underpasses, the drum work tapping like bootheels on pavement, and the melody circles around relentlessly, as if the whole song is one obsessive late-night wild goose chase.

Even as a kid, I could tell this song was emotionally conflicted. The guy's disgusted with this girl, and disgusted with himself for being such a chump ("Well, no one told me about her / Though they all knew," he gripes in the second verse); but he can't stop thinking about her, either. He doesn't want to go after her, but he's miserable without her, too. Nothing gets resolved in the course of its two minutes and 24 seconds, but in terms of capturing a sliver of angst, it can't be beat.

This was the Zombies' first record, and perhaps their biggest hit ever (rivaled only by the equally haunting "Time of the Season" three years later, just as the group was disbanding). I listen to it now and it's still mesmerizing. When you start out with a gem like this, it's hard not to end up a true believer in rock and roll.

1 comment:

pplist said...

As soon as I saw the title of this post, I was back listening with my high school girlfriend and hearing her say how she loved the singer's quick inhalations between the lines in the chorus. As I read, I was wondering if you were going to mention that, too, so brava! An incredible song, movingly described.