The resurgence – I nearly said resurrection – of ’60s survivors The Zombies is surely one of the most wonderful stories in modern rock music.
Despite breaking up before its 1968 release, the band and their extraordinary album Odessey and Oracle were never forgotten.
They achieved instant success, forming part of the first wave of the British invasion on the back of high-flying debut single She’s Not There and performing on NBC’s Hullabaloo pop show to an audience of screaming teenage girls.
Subsequent singles fared less well in the UK and The Zombies disbanded, only to see Time of the Season top the US Cashbox charts shortly after their split.
Though key members Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent would go on to forge hugely successful careers as solo artists and in bands like Argent and The Alan Parsons Project – The Zombies remained dormant until the 1990s.
Re-connecting briefly on the album New World in 1991, Blunstone and Argent revived The Zombies in earnest in 2004 and they’ve toured and recorded with different line-ups ever since.
Not content to rely on their back catalogue, the band have continued to produce new material, with 2015 album Still Got That Hunger garnering rave reviews from fans and critics alike.
Now Blunstone (lead vocals) and Argent (keyboards/vocals) are re-uniting once again with original members Chris White (bass/ vocals) and Hugh Grundy (drums) for a tour marking the 50th anniversary of the release of Odessey and Oracle.
The one sad omission will be guitarist Paul Atkinson, who died in 2004, aged 58, after a battle with cancer.
Shortly before the start of the US leg of the tour, frontman Colin Blunstone, spoke to Matt Catchpole from a freezing New York, battling temperatures of 13 below zero.
Generous, genial and armed with a sackful of stories, the 71-year-old remains full of drive and enthusiasm, respectful of Zombies’ nostalgia but with an admirable desire to pursue new projects.
So Colin will this tour be the final live farewell to Odessey and Oracle?
We’re going to play this old album for absolutely the last time. Both Rod and I like to look forward – that’s where we get our energy. But there was so much excitement about this 50th anniversary that we thought we had to do something, but this will be the last time.
You must have been heartened by the way that Still Got The Hunger was received by both fans and critics?
Oh yes it was fantastic. It broke into the Top 100 over here. We really enjoyed recording it. Working with the producer Chris Potter, who was so good, we could just concentrate on playing. A lot of it was played live, I’d be singing what were meant to be guide vocals, but a lot of them stayed on the record. I’d come out of the studio and say to Rod: ‘Well what more can I do?’. It’s quite rare to record like that these days. A really good fun album!
Did you ever think when you were first recording songs like She’s Not There and Time of the Season that you’d still be singing them in 50 years’ time?
No absolutely not. I always thought music would be a two to three-year career and for a lot of artists that was true. The band first turned pro in 1964, so it’s actually been more than 50 years. I’m very surprised I have been given this chance and I am eternally grateful.
Did those songs feel special when you recorded them though?
She’s Not There felt like a special song – Time of the Season, not so much. It was the last song written for the album and it was a bit of a struggle. I did not really know the song that well when the time came to record it. Rod was coaching me on the phrasing through the headphones and it got quite heated. At one point, I said in less than complimentary language: “If you know this song so well, why don’t you come and sing it yourself?’ He replied: “You’re supposed to be the lead singer and you’re going to stay there until you get it right!” And it wasn’t just us. The control room was full of people and we were having this big argument in front of everyone and I’m meant to be singing: “It’s the time of the season for loving.” That song sold two million records. So I’ve always thought: sing a song you do not know and at the time you do not much like – that’s the programme for a smash hit!
The Zombies split up before Time of the Season went to No 1 in America – did you ever think: ‘Oh no! what have we done’?
Everyone was quite philosophical about it actually. It was a very singles-orientated market in those days and when our Care of Cell 44 did not sell many copies, we were all a bit tired and disappointed. I felt O&O was absolutely the best we could do. The band finished before it was even released, but it was never a hit in England. When Time… got to No 1 it did feel like it vindicated what we’d been doing. No-one else in the band says they wished we’d kept going, but I would have been curious to see what we might have done next. Particularly as Rod and Chris were in a rich phase of writing classic songs.
You went to work in insurance when the band broke up didn’t you?
The main writers (Rod and Chris) did well [when the band ended] because we were signed to good honest publishers, but we never made any money on the road. We were rather poorly handled in that regard. So myself and the other members of the band, Paul and Hugh, were pretty much broke after three years. I phoned an employment agency, when they asked if I had any experience I could tell them I was very experienced at being a Zombie, but not at much else. I went to work for a big insurance company and it was very busy, which helped because I did not have time to dwell on the sadness of the band ending. I was hoping that we would go on forever, so I was devastated when the band ended.
The album artwork for Odessey and Oracle carries that famous spelling mistake, when did the penny drop?
The artist was Terry Quirk and it was produced while we were on the road, so no-one saw it until it had gone to the printers. Rod and Chris made up a story about how it was done on purpose and the thing is, they told me this story too and I believed it. They told me ‘Ode’ was used because it was meant to be a story or something like that. Then a few years ago when were doing an interview Rod suddenly owned up. I turned to him and said: You’ve kept this from me for 45 years!’. Terry Quirk, Chris White and I all went to the same school. I can’t speak for Chris, but I have to confess that my spelling is atrocious. So maybe the quality of teaching at our school, St Albans Grammar, was to blame!
Being part of the first wave of the British invasion must have been a pretty special experience. What are your memories of those early US tours?
The first time we went over was Christmas 1964 when on Cashbox we had the No1 record. It was an unbelievable experience, full of hysteria. Particularly, as only six months previously we had been an amateur band. We spent the whole time in New York on a show with [DJ and impresario] Murray The K , who considered himself the fifth Beatle. I’m not sure The Beatles considered him the fifth Beatle, but he did. There were 14 or 15 acts on the show including the Shangri Las, The Drifters, Shirelles, Dionne Warwick – all these amazing acts. We did eight shows a day, including 8am on Christmas day in 1964. We also did Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars, touring all over the country with people like Del Shannon and Tommy Roe and the third tour was with The Searchers.
So was it the classic image of being chased everywhere by adoring teenagers?
Yes, it could actually get quite dangerous, we couldn’t go out anywhere, but there was wonderful camaraderie among the artists. Paul ventured out once and the crowds backed him up to a shop window. The police got him out in the end, but not before he had lost his shirt. We actually tour more in America now than we did then, but things are a little more restrained now…. a little more.
Do you think your voice has changed much over the years?
A lot of people say it hasn’t, but personally I think it has changed. I don’t think it sounds so boyish. Having said that I’m really lucky in that I can still sing all the songs in the original keys, so perhaps my voice has changed less than a lot of people’s.
Do you do anything to keep it in shape?
A few years ago, both Rod and I studied with a singing teacher, who taught us some very helpful exercises. When I’m on the road I’ll do them regularly, but when I’m at home I do them two or three times a week. I often do them in the car. I’m sure a lot of people think I’m completely mad! People pull up at the traffic light and notice the other driver doing these operatic exercises. I get a lot of stares.
Did it annoy you when there were bogus bands circulating purporting to be The Zombies?
In the ’60s there were two or three bands pretending to be The Zombies – one had a couple of members of ZZ Top in it. And in the ’80s there were others. But good luck to them, I want musicians to work. I did write a letter to the manager of one of the bands asking them to stop. They were an English band, I think, playing in America, but they weren’t very good. One night a fan went back stage and pulled a gun on them and said: ‘You’re not the Zombies!’. They stopped soon after that. I think it gave them such a fright that they gave up. I like to think it was my letter that made the difference, but really it was the guy with the gun.
The Zombies played Glastonbury twice in recent years, did you enjoy that?
It was magical! I loved it. I was bit nervous because there were lots of acts there with such a huge reputation. But it was very well organised, we got a great reception and everyone was really enthusiastic. I’d like to do it again.
Playing with the original Zombies line-up must bring back some amazing memories?
Yes it’s quite an emotional experience. These were the people with whom I spent my formative years. I’m thinking also of Paul who died at such a young age. All those memories flood through you.
You’ve encountered and worked with so many top artists in your career – has anyone left you awestruck?
Jackson Browne, I was awestruck when I met him… and Sting. I was on Elton John’s label Rocket in the ‘70s, but that was different. I just really liked him. He was always incredibly supportive, just a wonderful bloke.
A huge range of artists including Tom Petty, Paul Weller, Nick Cave and even Eminem have cited The Zombies as an influence, that must make you proud?
Every musician wants to gain peer group acceptance – I think it’s the highest compliment you can get. The music business is full of peaks and troughs, so hearing someone, especially someone you admire, say you have been an influence – however little – on them, that’s an incredibly nice feeling.
Will we be seeing any new music from you in the near future?
Actually, we are already thinking about the new record. I’m confident there will be a new Zombies album in 2018 or at the latest 2019. I have also started a new solo album, I’m hoping to have released in April 2018.
When you write do you compose songs with the Zombies or your solo work in mind?
No, I just write what comes. Rod has always been the dominant writer in the Zombies and I’m quite happy with that. My solo career is an outlet for my writing. I just write about what I’m feeling. If something I do happens to fit into what the Zombies are doing, that’s all the better.
Is it important to you to keep working?
Yes. I was touring with my solo band up until April and now I’m just about to go out on the road with the Zombies. It’s important to stay match fit. Singers need to keep singing.
Do you have a favourite song?
I think it would have to be She’s Not There – it changed all of our lives. From my solo carer there’s I Don’t Believe in Miracles and Old and Wise, which is a great song I recorded for the Alan Parsons Project, but if I had to narrow it down to one it would be She’s Not There.
Any last message before I let you go?
I would just say again that if anyone has a desire to see Odessey and Oracle played live – now is a good time to buy a ticket, because this tour will be your last chance.
- The US-leg of The Zombies’s tour kicks off on March 17 at Keswick Theatre in Glenside, Philadelphia.
- The only UK date yet announced will be at the London Palladium on September 29. Tickets are available from alttickets.com, rutlive.co.uk and gigantic.com
- A book The “Odessey”: The Zombies in Words and Images, featuring artwork by Terry Quirk and Vivienne Boucherat and contributions from the band and many others, including Tom Petty, Brian Wilson, Carlos Santana and Susanna Hoffs is released in March, published by BMG and Reel Art Press.