When EP last spoke to Colin Blunstone he was preparing to head out with The Zombies on a world tour marking the 50th anniversary of their classic album Odessey And Oracle.
Barely had he returned those dates, when he was out on the road again with his solo band, the UK leg of which kicks off on April 20. Oh, and there’ll be a Spring Zombies tour to follow that too!
It’s all part of an extraordinary late career renaissance for the singer, who famously gave up music to work in insurance when the original incarnation of the Zombies split in late 1967.
Back home in Woking for a few days break after US dates, a slightly jet-lagged Colin spoke to Matt Catchpole about his UK tour and upcoming solo album.
He spoke about the bitter sweet experience of his comeback hit What Becomes of the Broken Hearted with Dave Stewart (not the Eurythmic) and the late ’60s alter ego he adopted when deciding whether to give the music business another go.
Colin also paid heartfelt tribute to Zombies’ and former Kinks’ bassist Jim Rodford, who died after a fall last year.
Your UK tour starts on 20 April – you seem to be on the road constantly – do you enjoy touring and playing live?
I Just got back from the States this morning so I’m a bit spaced out, but it’s all part of the adventure. It’s really nice to be home. I love playing, I love touring, but it’s always the same – we were there for four weeks and for me that’s long enough. We seem to be forever going to The States, which is great because there’s a huge demand there for the Zombies. The last 10 years we’ve done three full tours there a year.
Are you looking forward to playing in the UK again?
It’s always great to play in the UK, we’re starting in Derby and carrying on pretty much to the end of April. I think it’s going to be fun. The solo band is a really good band, they’re really nice blokes. Good blokes to travel with.
Can you give us an idea of what will be in the set?
As ever I think fans expect to hear the hits, but I try to make the solo band as different from The Zombies as I can, so at most we’ll only play She’s Not There and Time of the Season. There’ll be I Don’t Believe in Miracles, Say You Don’t Mind, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted and a bit of Alan Parsons and then some more obscure tracks, things that it’s nice to give an outing to every once in a while.
Any personal favourites you’ll be playing?
There’s an Alan Parsons song called Old and Wise that I really like and I know that for a lot of people that’s a really important song. It’s full of memories and meaning for a lot of people. It’s a hugely revered song in Holland. I didn’t write it so I can say this – I can often see people in tears in the audience. I actually feel quite a responsibility singing that song just because I know it means so much to so many people. And in some ways it makes it a more challenging performance, so the pressure mounts to not get it wrong. I always enjoy She’s Not There, it was the first song I ever recorded and it does sound of the ‘60s, but it also has a timeless feel about it which quite fascinates me. I will be singing a few of my own songs, which we don’t do with the Zombies. That’s one of the reasons I continue to tour as a solo artist – I want to play my own songs.
You have a new solo album planned for next year – are all the songs written?
We’ve actually recorded six or seven songs, but only to a very limited level – three or four of whom will actually go on the album – we’re making progress. It’s incredible to have the opportunity to tour in the way I am at the moment, the only downside is it limits the amount of time I can get into the studio. I’m constantly trying to explain to managers and agents and record companies that I can’t guarantee a release date, because I’m just not in the country that much this year.
Will you be writing all the songs on the new album?
I would hope to write about half, but I’ve got a list of songs I would like to try and a lot of what I’ve recorded so far is songs by other people and I think I’ve found some very strong material. But it is very important, I think, to write about half of the songs. I didn’t have a guitar with me when I was in America, so it’ll be a good opportunity in the next week to try and get a couple of songs going. I think I might have to start travelling with a guitar and trying to write on the road, but I don’t think that’s easy.
Does songwriting come easily to you?
There are two extremes when I write songs. Occasionally I write quickly, but in general it takes time for me to write a song and I think a lot of that stems from the fact that, despite playing the guitar all my life, I never progressed into a rounded professional guitarist and so I struggle with the melody side. I’m limited by my own guitar technique. Sometimes – and I can’t even explain this – I write songs that are actually quite complicated and then when I play them to people I have to play them in bits, because I can’t play it wall the way through. People have to put on their imagination hat and hopefully they’ll go ‘Oh I see what you’re trying to do now’ and, if they’re good players, they can take it from there.
You had a big comeback hit with What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted with prog keyboardist Dave Stewart – how did that combination come about?
Like a lot of things in life it was chance. Dave Stewart had already recorded the track. He’s a really fantastic keyboard player and also a great authority on sound. He’d got a vocalist on it and I don’t think he’d got much of a reaction. He was also recording with a singer called Barbara Gaskin, who later on he had a big hit [It’s My Party] with and she happened to come from the same town as me. She was quite a bit younger than me but went to the same school. And her sister actually was in my class. She suggested to Dave ‘Why don’t you try and get Colin Blunstone?’ He got a lot of his keyboards from Rod Argent’s shop in Denmark Street, so while he was in there he asked if he could get a message to me. The minute I heard the track I absolutely loved it and said ‘Yeah! I’d love to do it!’. It was recorded about a year before it was a hit. Then one or two DJs just started playing it. And it started to pick up plays on radio. Dave Stewart was in America and I called him and I said ‘We’re getting massive airplay, but it’s not being shown in the charts”, because the label it was on was not very strong. He said I can’t do anything for two weeks, but when I get back I’ll sort it out and he went straight from the airport to Stiff Records, they signed it and the record zoomed up the charts. It got to about 14 or 15 which is fantastic, but I think it would have been a top five single if we could have got it onto Stiff Records earlier.
Was it a surreal experience appearing on TOTP?
No I wouldn’t say It was surreal, but it was interesting because there was girl singer, Amanda Parsons playing and singing and Dave Stewart was there. What happened with that record was I’d had a falling out, a legal misunderstanding, with CBS Records and there was talk of a lawsuit. So I said to Dave that it should be his record with guest vocals by Colin Blunstone, so it was billed in a funny way. I was hoping in that way I could put CBS off their legal approaches, but it didn’t work and as a result of that record I was actually sued by CBS, which meant I was very limited in what I could record after that, because CBS were claiming rights to my records. It was very exciting to have that hit with Dave, but with it came this unbearable legal struggle, which took about three years to resolve. In a way my record career never really recovered, because it’s very hard to sustain a career without recording. And when I was free to record again in many ways I had to start from scratch. That would be about the mid-‘80s and I didn’t really get things going again until the mid-‘90s when I started playing live. Don Airey the keyboard player in Deep Purple – we’d met a few times – took upon himself to start calling me and reminding me that I should really be out there playing. He put a band together for me and in 1997 I started playing live again and in 1999, when Don had moved on to other bands, I asked Rod Argent if he’d be interested in going on the road. I’d just got a short mini-tour of six dates. He said well look I’ll do those six dates, but I’m not really interested in touring full time, because he was a very successful producer then. But he enjoyed those six dates so much that bizarrely we just kept going and we’ve actually been working together in this incarnation of the Zombies for 19 years. It’s just strange the way things work out. It’s been a wonderful adventure, especially as it was so unexpected. We’ve been to America, to the Far East, we’ve been all over Europe, to Scandinavia – and I thought my touring days were long gone!
Do you find that you’re attracting new audiences. I noticed at the Palladium show there was a real mix of ages?
It varies from country to country, but especially in America there’s always a young element in the audience. There are people who’ve stayed with us right from the beginning, but there’s a lot of teenagers and people in their early 20s who are interested and probably fascinated with how we’ve managed to keep going all this time. I’m quite interested and fascinated myself to be honest! We’re just relishing every tour and every concert we do. Both bands are really sophisticated musicians and they’re lovely people.
You seem equally comfortable performing other people’s songs as well as your own – do you approach your own work in the same way as you do other writer’s songs?
I work much harder on other people’s songs because my songs are completely natural. In particular with the Zombies I work with Rod Argent on the phrasing for all those songs and we’re really quite meticulous about it. I’ll go through a song quite a few times until I’ve got it set in my mind. I do a lot of preparation before I perform a song live. Even recording, although you can stop and do it again, you really should know a song well enough that you can go out and do it live. On the Zombies’ last album [Still Got That Hunger], to all intents and purposes it was a live album played in a studio environment because we’d rehearsed extensively and we went into the studio and we played it live. I sang the vocals live and the solos were all live as well. The only thing they overdubbed was vocal harmonies. Not only is it much faster to do it that way, I find it more enjoyable. But you’ve got to rehearse beforehand. Generally speaking nowadays everything is done in bits, you may never meet the other people on an album, but I like it if the whole band’s in the studio at the same time, because you work off one another.
Is it helpful to see the other musicians?
I think it is. There’s an energy in the studio with all the musicians playing together that is not there if you do it all separately. It’s much more fun and it’s much more fulfilling, I think, if everyone’s there at the same time and people have got to be good players to do that as well. So far on the solo album it’s been sort of 50-50. Two of the tracks were recorded with me not even there and I added my vocals afterwards and three of the tracks I recorded with other musicians in the room and I sang live.
Who’s idea was it for you to adopt the alter ego Neil McArthur at the end of the 1960s?
When the Zombies finished the three non-writers myself, Paul Atkinson and Hugh Grundy – had made no money on the road at all. And all three of us had to get jobs and I went and just worked in an office. Then belatedly the Zombies started having hits and particularly one hit – Time of the Season – and there was the opportunity to record again. But I was so devastated by the end of The Zombies that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to commit to being in music business again. A producer called Mike Hurst convinced me to start recording. So, in the evenings after my job finished, I’d go to Olympic Studios in Barnes. He suggested – and I don’t really know why – that I record under another name, which I did for about a year. One of those records was quite a big hit – a re-working of She’s Not There. For me it was all an experiment just to see how I’d react to being in the studio again. At the end of that year Chris White suggested that he and Rod Argent work as co-producers on a project and forget the Neil McArthur thing (chuckles) and I was back to Colin Blunstone. I made One Year and from that album there was a hit called Say You Don’t Mind, so in many ways that’s where my solo career started.
How did you come up with the pseudonym?
I don’t think a lot of thought went into it. It was going to be James McArthur right up until the last minute. It was pretty casual and I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to a career, so I just went along with it really.
The Zombies had just returned from dates in Florida when news broke of the death of Jim Rodford. That must have been a terrible shock?
I was absolutely devastated. I think we came home on a Tuesday and he died on the Friday night. I don’t think anyone really understands the precise details of what happened, but he had a bad fall on the stairs at home. I was talking to him on that Friday night at about 9 o’ clock – he was the last person I spoke to that night. And the first person I spoke to in the morning was his son Steve Rodford – who’s the drummer in The Zombies and the solo band – at about quarter to nine, telling me that Jim had had an accident. It’s just dreadful, such a wonderful person, a musician’s musician and a true gentleman. He’d been a cornerstone of this incarnation of The Zombies for the last 19 years. After this devastating news we had to make an instant decision – are we going to do the next tour? Because it was only like three or four weeks off. We said well I think Jim would want the show to go on, so then of course we had to find someone to fill his shoes. You’re not going to find another Jim Rodford, but we found a wonderful bass player in Denmark, who we were introduced to through friends of friends. He’s called Soren Koch. He’s a wonderful musician and he knew all the Zombies’ songs. With just one play through the set, we opened in New York and he was fantastic! As I said we’re not looking to replace Jim Rodford, there’ll never be another Jim Rodford, but Soren is a wonderful bass player and a great harmony singer as well, so we were very very lucky to find him.