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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"She's Not There" combines various influences into a stirring pop rock hit

The title of the Zombies' jumpstart single is an answer, but it, along with the rest of the song, only breeds more questions.

...wait, how have I gone nearly a whole month without writing about something from the 60s?

After my first four entries discussed tracks from the decade of my parents' birth, I haven't touched the 1960s since. Perhaps I subconsciously avoided that era in subsequent weeks in order to diversify the time periods covered in my posts, but I'd like to think that's not the case — I believe I was legitimately inspired to select the songs I did, and it just happened to be that they weren't from that decade.

On the topic of inspiration and the 1960s, after talking with a co-worker from this past summer, I remembered some of the songs that I commonly heard during my shifts at the coffee shop. While I most commonly heard 70s music — specifically, and much to my enjoyment, a lot of ELO — the song I first heard in my head was a pop rock song from 1964. "She's Not There," the debut single by Hertfordshire-based outfit The Zombies, is a haunting, ambiguous tale of the aftermath of a lost love that sticks out in my mind for a plethora of reasons. Let's start getting into them.

From its opening notes, "She's Not There" stands out. Chris White's active bass line is the first hint of the track's jazz influences, as he goes between the tonic of A and the fifth of E with a little ornamentation. White's bass is mostly in the left side of the mix, and that's because the right side is left to an instrument which even more defines the record: the Hohner Pianet, played by keyboardist Rod Argent. The Pianet cuts through the bass, drums, and Colin Blunstone's vocals thanks to its bell-like attack. Its syncopation locks in with White's bass and Hugh Grundy's drums; in particular, Grundy's snare drum accents Argent's chord changes.

Of course, we can’t talk about the track’s jazz leanings — or the track in general — without dedicating time to Argent’s solo after the second verse. It’s not a very long solo, but Argent squeezes out every last millisecond of his time that he can, rarely staying on one note for even half a beat. Leaning into a minor blues tonality, he take advantage of the E-flat tritone to bridge between tones from the pentatonic scale and give the solo a bit of bite that it wouldn’t have otherwise had. Just like the chorus, the solo ends on an A Major chord, adding a slight bit of brightness and finality to the section.

Apart from jazz, the biggest influence on "She’s Not There" comes from folk music and the emerging folk and country rock genres. The slowly moving, close vocal harmonies remind me of the Everly Brothers, but with more chromaticism that obscures the track’s tonality and adds to the its mysterious aura. I also hear folk and country impacting the song in the chorus, which breaks out of 4/4 time to fit the lyrics. Sure, the seven-measure chorus may feel a little off-balance to some listeners, but that comes from our expectations for a consistent form throughout a song, which is by no means a requirement or the most expressive option. Prioritizing the lyrics gave Rod Argent and his group more freedom of expression, and that freedom definitely yielded a more distinctive track than it would have been had the Zombies stuck to four- and eight-bar patterns.

There’s a lot to be gathered from what we can tell on the surface about "She’s Not There," but it’s also a track that leaves a lot of questions unanswered, primarily in terms of its lyrical content. Colin Blunstone seems to be singing from the perspective of a man freshly finished with a relationship, but his lyrics portray conflicting emotions about the situation. The verse suggests the narrator was scorned, and that he’s not alone to have fallen to such a fate from this particular woman. He looks back on the relationship with the refrain, "Well, no one told me about her," a John Lee Hooker-influenced line that implies both the cyclical nature of his ex’s exploits and his own inability to read into her actions. The pre-chorus then begins with "But it’s too late to say you’re sorry," which seems to be directed toward the people who didn’t warn him of the woman’s tendencies.

When the chorus arrives, the narrator’s feelings about his former partner become far less clear. His description of how "her voice was soft and cool / her eyes were clear and bright" leans toward positivity. In this moment the protagonist seems more frustrated with himself than anyone else, as if he was responsible for the relationship not working out, in direct contradiction to his blaming of the woman and his own friends verses. This change in perspective brings up the question of who really is at fault for the falling out. Are the verses and pre-chorus a projection of anger and denial at the breakup, or is the chorus the last remnant of the love the narrator once had?

Or, perhaps, is there something more sinister about the song's title line? Especially in the context of the pre-chorus line “Please don’t bother trying to find her,” another darker — in fact, morbid — reading of the song exists. This reading could also explain the chorus as one of obsession, to the point that even after disposing of his ex the narrator can’t seem to shake her from his mind. I find this interpretation a good deal more far-fetched than the others I mentioned in the last paragraph… yet there’s something so intriguing about it that makes it hard to forget once you first hear about it.

Between its various sonic influences and lyrical readings, "She's Not There" sticks with me because it's a track I rarely hear the same way twice. I love songs like that — songs that make me think when I hear them. Ambiguity can be beautiful, which is why I'm not forcing a reading on you; rather, I'm laying out all the things I've heard and read and letting you decide. This descriptive approach is ideal for talking about music and other arts, forms of expression which yield unique reactions and experiences for all who are subject to it.


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