Silicon Insider: Why Old Rockers Sound Better Than Ever

They Might be Eligible for AARP, But the Old Folks' Tours Still Make Big Cash


Dec. 20, 2007 —

If there's one place in the world I'd like to be the first week of March 2008 it would be the Shepard's Bush Empire Auditorium in London. And that's despite being thoroughly sick of visiting London over the last six months.

That night, the surviving members of the Zombies -- Colin Blunstone, Rod Argent, Chris White and Hugh Grundy -- will hold a reunion to perform the album "Odyssey and Oracle." They will also be performing "other solo tracks" with a string quartet, which no doubt means that Blunstone will be singing works from his solo albums. And no doubt Argent and White will be doing their big Argent hits from the '70s.

I know this sounds like the wheezings of yet another old baby boomer lost in nostalgia for his past. But bear with me for a few minutes, because I'm actually going somewhere with this.

First, the Zombies and their extraordinary album.

Of all of the great albums of the British Invasion, none is more unusual, both in content and history, than "Odyssey and Oracle." Always ranked among the 10 best Britpop albums of the era -- pretty heady company when you consider that list also includes "Meet the Beatles," "Revolver," "Out of Our Heads," "Something Else " and "The Who Sings My Generation" -- "Odyssey and Oracle" had the unhappy distinction of being released after the Zombies broke up. So there was no tour -- and those millions of listeners who were enchanted by the album's masterpiece, "Time of the Season," never actually got to see the band perform it.

This bit of bad luck was of a piece with the rest of the Zombies history. The band never fit any of the usual molds. They were neither working class heroes nor aristos, but just public school kids from the unlikely location of St. Albans. They didn't sound like any other band either: classically structured songs driven by Rod Argent's keyboards and featuring one of rock's greatest treasures: the mysterious, breathy vocals of Colin Blunstone. The band had two huge hits, "Tell Her No" and "She's Not There," both usually listed in Rock's Top 100, and successfully toured the U.S. to the sound of screaming girls.

With this success, the band went for it all, producing "Odyssey and Oracle," an album of complex lyrics, melodies and instrumentation every bit as ambitious as "Sgt. Peppers" or "Days of Future Past." The album came out in early 1968 to some acclaim … and nobody bought it. Even more embarrassing, when the album appeared on the shelves the title was misspelled as "Oddessey and Oracle."

But it didn't much matter, because by then the band had already broken up in frustration over its bad luck. A year later, the single "Time of the Season" was released and rocketed up the charts all over the world. When the band was approached to tour behind the record, it refused, so the record company just sent out phony bands bearing the Zombies name.

And that's how it went. Argent and White went off to have a gold record hit with Argent's "Hold Your Head Up" and Blunstone created two of the most beautiful albums in pop music history: "One Year" and "Ennismore," the latter containing the classic "I Don't Believe in Miracles."

And that was that. Argent and White cut a number of albums over the subsequent decades, and Blunstone's voice was always in demand by everyone from the Alan Parson's Project (his "Old and Wise" is the high point of "Eye in the Sky") to Dave Stewart. But, like most aging rockers, they fell off the radar for an entire generation.

Now they're back, and both old fans and that lost new generation will finally get to hear the Zombies play "Odyssey and Oracle" -- and if Argent's and Blunstone's recent tour is any indication, it will be a stunning experience. I bought the CD of that tour just to see if the pair could still sing. I was driving in the truck with son Tad, Mr. Indy Rock, and put on "Miracles." Blunstone's voice was older and darker than those ethereal pipes of forty years ago, but he still had the chops. Then he hit that song's famous stratospheric last note … I winced in anticipation, but he hit it clean and perfect. I turned to Tad and said, "And that's a 60-year-old man, son."

"Jeez," Tad replied, incredulous, "He sounds like he's nineteen."

And that got me thinking. There are two great forces that seem at work today in popular music: technology and medicine. And at the intersection of the two, remarkable things are happening.

For a long time, I used to look in dismay at the fact that some of the most popular bands around, even for young people, were musicians from my generation. Didn't kids have the own music?

I asked, and it was easy to fall into the old trap of believing in the lost paradise of your own you, and to assuming that everything had gone to hell since. But I've listened lately to a lot of contemporary music -- and I'm convinced that the stuff being put out today by musicians as diverse as Wilco, the Shins, Arcade Fire, the Decemberists, Dashboard Confessional, Bright Eyes, the White Stripes, even a rapper like Lupe Fiasco, is as good -- and often better -- as the music of my generation, Rock's so-called golden age.

So why were the biggest tours of 2007 those of the Police, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and the Eagles -- and that doesn't even count the Led Zeppelin reunion -- all of them eligible for AARP membership? Surely it isn't just Boomers filling those big halls to wallow in nostalgia. So why are people still showing up to see these guys, or stripping the Starbuck's rack of the new Paul McCartney album?

The obvious answer is that these bands are good. Really good. If Jimmy Page, Joe Walsh and Nils Lofgren were great guitarists in 1980, how good must they be after a quarter century more of practicing and gigging? And if Sir Paul, Brian Wilson and Don Henley can still (pretty much) hit those high notes, how much richer must their vocals be with decades more wisdom behind them?

That, I think, is where modern medicine comes in. Until just the last decade, most singers -- from Satch to Ella to Crosby to Clooney -- began to sound old by age 55. Elvis seemed ancient in his forties. Many had health problems, most had to change their style to match their growing physical limitations.

They sounded different -- short of breadth, limited in range, talking as much as singing -- and as time went on, that made them increasingly obsolete to all but true fans. But that no longer seems the case: if you don't manage to overdose or drink yourself to death at a young age, and take reasonable care of yourself in middle age, nowadays you can probably still be performing at a very high level of virtuosity well into your seventh decade -- and longer.

And what time has taken away from you -- like Brian Wilson's falsetto -- can now be restored on the computer; meanwhile you've gained all of the wisdom and experience of those years to add a depth to your music that would have been impossible as a callow youth.

A few years ago I interviewed John Lee Hooker. He was well into his 80s, but still sartorially resplendent in a sharkskin suit, sunglasses and homburg. Had he stayed in the Delta, or working in that Detroit automobile plant, he would have been a very decrepit old man. Instead, he handed me his newest CD, recorded with Carlos Santana. B.B. King, despite his diabetes and the need to perform while sitting down, is still robust at an age when Muddy Waters was long in the grave. Johnny Cash's last recordings are among his greatest. And who believes that Keith Richards would still be alive without modern science?

Like the rest of us, musicians are living longer, they're taking better care of themselves -- and when they don't, modern medicine can often correct their mistakes. So can recording engineers. Add to that the rise of MP3 players and shared music files, which makes old music now seem indistinguishable from new; after a digital clean-up, Love's "Alone Again Or" sounds like a new release, while Amy Winehouse could be a rediscovered singer from the 1940s. And suddenly age seems a minor factor.

So, it's not only unsurprising, but actually welcome news, that the Stones have a new concert film coming out directed by Martin Scorsese, that Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks are teaming up once again on a new concept album, and Steve Miller is back in the studio. But won't this crowd out the younger generations of musicians? Not in the age of iTunes and YouTube.

And, in the long run this can only be good news for younger musicians. I won't live long enough to see it (or maybe I will …), but it'll be fun in thirty years for Tad and his generation to take their kids to see Robert Pollard in a long white beard leading a reunited Guided by Voices through a 200-song medley, or Eddy Vedder looking just like Neil Young today, or a group of anonymous old senior citizens taking the stage as the reformed Pavement.

And I'll bet they'll all sound better than ever.

This work is the opinion of the columnist, and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News. Facebook and ABC are partners in a political content application.

Michael S. Malone is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the Silicon Insider columnist since 2000.