Inspired by the human cost of IRA violence, the Dolores O'Riordan-penned hit has become the first Irish song to pass a billion views on YouTube, writes Ed Power
On March 20, 1993 two IRA bombs detonated on a busy shopping street in Warrington. The blasts were a minute apart - calculated to cause maximum devastation. The first explosion was outside a Boots, the second near an Argos. The incendiaries had been placed inside cast iron bins, so as to inflict extensive shrapnel damage.
As the IRA had planned, many of those fleeing the first bomb ran straight into the path of the second. Three-year-old Johnathan Ball was killed at the scene; five days later 12-year-old Tim Parry died from injuries sustained in the assault.
Two hundred miles away, Dolores O'Riordan - who passed away suddenly in 2018 aged 46 - listened to reports of the attack and shared in the universal horror and disbelief.
Her band The Cranberries were midway through their biggest UK tour and, as the bombs went off in Warrington, were counting down to a gig at the 1,200 capacity Portsmouth Pyramids Centre. They'd already packed venues such as Sheffield Leadmill and University of London - staging posts for an outfit on the rise.
Terrorist attacks by republican and loyalist paramilitaries were almost run of the mill by the early 1990s - yet even by the jaundiced standards of the time, Warrington was deemed an outrage too far. Being Irish, O'Riordan was appalled, by the Provisionals' assertion that they were carrying out these atrocities in the name of her nation.
When the tour wound down and she found herself back at her pokey Limerick apartment, alone with just her guitar and her roiling feelings about Warrington, she strummed the instrument and the chorus poured out: "In your head, in your head… zombie… zombie."
"That song came to me when I was in Limerick, and I wrote it initially on an acoustic guitar, late at night. I remember being in my flat, coming up with the chorus, which was catchy and anthemic," she said in an interview.
"I remember at the time there were a lot of bombs going off… I remember being on tour and being in the UK at the time when the child died, and just being really sad about it all. These bombs are going off in random places. It could have been anyone, you know?"
The urgent, grungy cadences of 'Zombie' came as a shock - to fans and media alike. With early hits such as 'Dreams' and 'Linger', The Cranberries had carved out a safe space as ethereal rockers - they were considered a provincial indie band fronted by a punk-pop Enya. Now the wallflowers were roaring.
It was a turn of events that left reviewers generally stumped. The Chicago Tribune dubbed the song, not entirely approvingly, as "grungy" and "overplayed", while praising the "newfound directness " that brought The Cranberries "back to earth".
"The sweetness of the debut has been replaced by a stodgy adult bitterness, like tea steeped too long or porter gone sour," complained Rolling Stone, reviewing 'Zombie' and follow-up album, No Need to Argue.
The feeling was The Cranberries should stick to what they knew and leave the fashionable angst to others. But the public begged to differ and 'Zombie' became a sensation. Through the autumn of 1994 it was ubiquitous on radio, O'Riordan's banshee caterwaul drifting from the windows of passing cars, over the speakers in shops and cafés. A swampy dirge inspired by a terrorist atrocity became the smash of the season.
"I took it into rehearsals, and I picked up the electric guitar," O'Riordan would say of the group's sudden shift. "Then I kicked in distortion on the chorus, and I said to Ferg [Fergal Lawler, drums]: 'Maybe you could beat the drums pretty hard.' Even though it was written on an acoustic, it became a bit of a rocker."
The heavier sound was O'Riordan's idea. The last to join the line-up, she had never been entirely on the same musical wavelength as her bandmates. O'Riordan had grown up in Ballybricken, a rural townland 11 miles from Limerick while the rest of The Cranberries were from Moyross.
The distance was just a few minutes by car - but brought a profound gulf in perspective. By the time The Cranberries were writing their second record, O'Riordan was eager to mix up the formula.
"I always liked harder rock bands," she said. "Perhaps I took the band too much in that direction. I always liked the harder stuff. We got it out of our system… all that anger out of our system."
"If it was soft, it wouldn't have had the impact," added guitarist Noel Hogan. "They wouldn't sit together… Up until that point a lot of our songs would have been softer - stuff like 'Linger' had that sound. This was a new direction for us. It would stand out in the set because of that… I don't think any of us has any idea it was going to be as big as it was."
The provenance of the "Zombie" reference in the lyrics was never expanded upon by O'Riordan, though the assumption is that this was a commentary on how blindly cleaving to centuries' old prejudices can reduce one's capacity for independent thought.
Surprisingly, for all its ubiquity, 'Zombie' was only a modest hit at the time. Recorded at U2's old stomping ground at Windmill Lane in Dublin, it peaked at 14 in the UK and never actually released as a single in the United States.
This was regarded as a somewhat cynical attempt to drive sales of the album No Need to Argue. If that was the case, the gambit was stunningly successful with the LP selling 17 million copies worldwide - more than every significant Britpop album combined (Oasis's era-defining (What's The Story) Morning Glory?, by comparison, shifted a mere 4.7 million units).
And it has had an enduring appeal. In recent days, 'Zombie' has become the first music video from an Irish band to reach one billion views on YouTube.
With its invocation of bombs, guns and tanks, the song made an immediate impact - particularly in the US where it was received as spiritual successor to that other enduring Troubles anthem, U2's 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'.
An eye-grabbing video heightened the impact. The promo saw O'Riordan covered in golden body paint wailing from beneath a crucifix as children, also obviously covered in gold paint, writhed and looked perturbed.
Intercut was menacing black and white shots of British soldiers patrolling inner-city Belfast - footage which the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders had permitted to be used on the understanding it was for a documentary about their day-to-day duties.
The Cranberries' superstardom was sealed by a November 1994 rendition of 'Zombie' on David Letterman. "Do welcome - and just in time for Thanksgiving - The Cranberries," jested the host. It was a dark, sludgy appearance, topped off by O'Riordan's stunning transformation from indie urchin to blonde-dyed rock chick in high boots.
Even more tightly-wound was the version belted out on Saturday Night Live on February 25, 1995 - a show with resonances for Irish artists ever since Sinéad O'Connor had ripped in half a picture of the Pope in a 1992 broadcast.
The episode, hosted by George Clooney, came a week after record producer Denny Cordell, an early mentor to The Cranberries, had passed away and the performance has the rawness of early grief. Rolling Stone would later declare it one of the greatest SNL turns.
'Zombie', it should be pointed out, was not universally loved. In Ireland, it drew criticism both sides of the border. In the Republic, the feeling was that O'Riordan was dabbling in "Troubles chic" - cashing in on the stereotype of Ireland as perpetually conflict-wracked in the order to appeal to Americans on whom the nuances of the Northern Ireland situation would be lost.
In the North, many were stunned at the presumptuousness of musicians from Limerick - universes removed from the sectarian tensions - presuming to speak on behalf of the warring sides.
As with much of 1990s popular culture, the single would go on to have an unlikely afterlife. The American rapper Eminem crowbarred 'Zombie' into his recent comeback LP Revival.
"There are songs we've had over the years and you think it's going to be a big hit and it wasn't," Noel Hogan reflected in 2012. "And then songs you don't think are going to be hits are massive. ['Zombie'] is still getting played. I wouldn't say a month goes by that I don't hear it on some radio station somewhere."
"What sticks to the wall and what doesn't stick to the wall... I can never tell," O'Riordan said. "Maybe that's when you're an artist - you can't really judge your work. That will be your downfall... to judge yourself.
"I knew that would be the angle of the song, because it was controversial," she added. "But, I suppose I was kind of taken aback with the success of the song. I didn't know it was going to be that successful."
As well as being the first Irish music video to achieve one billion views, 'Zombie' is only the third video from the 1990s to hit that figure, following on from Guns N' Roses' 'November Rain' and Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. The Cranberries drummer Fergal Lawler was naturally delighted with the accolade.
He wrote on Facebook: "Thank you so much to all our fans around the world for supporting us over so many years. Hopefully you are all safe and well in this bizarre time and managing to find some hope and positivity in our music.
"We are sure Dolores has a big, proud smile on her face, too."
© The Telegraph