Colin Blunstone talks to Music Republic magazine editor Simon Redley about the band’s fascinating history, revealing some interesting ‘secrets’ and the plans for a momentous concert at London’s Palladium: ‘Celebrating the 50th anniversary of ‘Odessey and Oracle’, uniting all four surviving members of the group.
Colin Blunstone on lead vocals, Rod Argent on keyboards/ vocals, Chris White on Bass/ Vocals and Hugh Grundy on drums will perform their iconic album – ranked by Rolling Stone, Mojo and NME as one of the ‘Greatest Albums of All Time’ – in its entirety for one final time.
The Zombies are an iconic British 60s band with such global smash hits as “She’s Not There” and “Time Of The Season”, songs that remain timeless as part of the soundtrack to millions of people’s lives growing up, mine included. A star studded line-up including Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone. But the original band were only active for three short years and actually called it a day before their final album was released.
Some 50 years after that album, now rated as one of the 500 best albums of all time by Rolling Stone magazine, was recorded, the full original line-up is reuniting to perform the record in its entirety at London’s hallowed Palladium this month (September 2017).
Lead singer Colin Blunstone – who has such a unique and very distinctive voice and really is one of the best male singers to come from the UK – reveals some amazing facts about the band’s start and its history, including how he was never supposed to be the lead singer in the band, and the fact that Rod Argent was not going to play keyboards and rejected the idea out of hand originally. Colin takes up the Zombies fascinating story:
“I sang once when I was five or six years old at school in front of all the school and parents. I used to love to sing, and would always sing when I was walking along the road all the time. When I got the opportunity to join The Zombies, I joined as a rhythm guitarist.
“Rod Argent was going to be the lead singer and we actually played an instrumental in that first rehearsal, we didn’t play a song. It was called ‘Malaguena’. In this coffee break, Rod went over to a broken down old upright piano and he played ‘Nut Rocker’, by Bee Bumble and the Stingers. It’s quite a sophisticated piece; a rock and roll take off of a classical piece, and when Rod played it, I could not believe it. We were OK, but we weren’t really great players, the rest of the band. But even as a 15-year-old, he was an amazing keyboard player.
“I had only met him at that rehearsal, and I went over to him and said, you have to play keyboards in the band. But he was very reluctant, as he wanted it to be a rock and roll band, and he perceived a rock and roll band as having three guitars, not keyboards. It wasn’t really fashionable at the time, so he declined to play keyboards. But later in that rehearsal, I was just singing to myself because it is something that I did. It was definitely a Ricky Nelson song, ‘It’s Late’ or ‘Poor Little Fool’. Rod heard me and said, I’ll tell you what, if you’ll be the lead singer, I’ll play keyboards, and that’s kind of how the Zombies were born from that moment.
“And from that moment, I suppose I knew I had got some kind of voice. When I joined the band, I wasn’t thinking I was going to be the singer at all, and then I just had to develop it from there. To a large extent, if you ask Rod about writing songs, he will say that subconsciously, he always has my voice in his mind when he writes songs. He learned to write for my voice and I learned to sing, singing his songs. Because Rod is very keen on phrasing, we always go through a song really thoroughly, before we play it on stage and we will discuss the phrasing line by line”.
Colin Blunstone was born in Hatfield, Hertfordshire in 1945. He went to school in St Albans where he was introduced to the other members of The Zombies. After attracting a large local following, the band were offered a record deal with Decca Records. Their first single, ‘She’s Not There’ became a world-wide hit. Three years on the road culminated in The Zombies final album of only two before they split, the acclaimed”‘Odessey and Oracle”, but the band called it a day even before it was released. Their debut album dropped in 1965 and then “Odessey and Oracle” in 1968. They released four more albums with a new line-up in 1991, 2004, 2011 and 2015, plus four live albums and many compilations.
After The Zombies packed it all in, back in 1968, Colin’s solo career began in earnest with ‘One Year’ on Epic Records, from which the hit single ‘Say You Don’t’ Mind’ was taken. Two more albums on Epic followed, ‘Ennismore’ and ‘Journey’ which spawned the hits, ‘I Don’t Believe In Miracles’ and ‘How Can We Dare To Be Wrong’. This was followed by a short spell based in California where he signed for Elton John’s label, Rocket Records and released three critically acclaimed albums, ‘Planes’, ‘Never Even thought’ and ‘Late Nights in Soho’.
Returning to the UK, Colin supplied the vocals for Dave Stewart’s hit version of ‘What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted’ followed by further hits with Smokey Robinson’s ‘Tracks Of My Tears’ and The Alan Parson’s Project’s ‘Old And Wise’. These tracks were followed by three further albums, ‘Greatest Hits’, ‘Echo Bridge’ and ‘The Light Inside’, before Colin decided the time was right to play live again, where he was joined by fellow Zombies founder member, Rod Argent.
2015’s Zombies album ‘Still Got That Hunger’ saw the band back in the US charts almost 50 years after their first singles. They have also received their second nomination for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, have appeared over two consecutive years at Glastonbury, given an acclaimed performance on the BBC TV show “Later….with Jools Holland”, performed for BBC’s Children In Need.
The band has toured across the USA and many other countries, and had extensive support from BBC’s 6 Music radio station. The band are cited as an influence by the likes of Neko Case and Nick Cave (who recorded ‘She’s Not There’ for the popular HBO series True Blood), Paul Weller, The Vaccines, Beck, Belle and Sebastian, Fleet Foxes, The Temples, The Beautiful South and Eminem. They are heard on Coco Chanel’s worldwide ad’ campaign, featuring Kiera Knightley.
So what does Colin think makes the Zombies special? “How they have survived and stayed in demand. I am eternally grateful we are in demand all around the world, 50 years after the original band recorded our last album. Our first single was in 64, so that’s 53 years since our first single. I think there is a bit of mystique about the band, perhaps the way it ended before the album was finished. I think it intrigues people.
“In America, they would say we were part of the first wave of the British Invasion, which was a huge cultural revolution to them, but doesn’t mean as much in the UK. As we were part of that British Invasion, that interests them as well.
“It intrigues me really. Both Rod and I were both surprised in the interest in the Zombies when we got back together again. We didn’t perform as The Zombies and we didn’t play many Zombies songs, but it soon became apparent from the audience, that people wanted to hear the Zombies repertoire, and bit by bit we introduced Zombies’ songs over a period of years, until it got to the point where we were playing a Zombies’ concert.
“At that point, we talked it over with the other two guys, Chris White and Hugh Grundy, asking how they would feel if we used the name The Zombies and they were fine with it. It was seven or eight years after we got back together again that we first used the name The Zombies. It’s been a wonderful surprise to us; I think people genuinely love the Zombies repertoire and I get to go around the world with my mates, playing music that I love. What more can you ask for?
“This band has been together for 18 years now and the irony is; the original band was only together professionally for three years. 1964 – 1967. We were together at school, but as a professional band, it was only for three years”. The line-up today sees Jim Rodford on bass and his son Steve on drums, join Rod and Colin, plus guitarist Tom Toomey.
So, the album “Odessey and Oracle”. What makes that one so special and important enough for them to dedicate an entire concert to all of its material , at London’s prestigious Palladium on 29th September?
“People’s response to that album makes it special. It is unique in as much as it seems it wasn’t discovered until about 10 years after it was recorded. When it was released, it was not a commercial success at all. Slowly over a period of years, sales started to increase until now it sells more and more year on year all the time, vastly outselling what it sold when it was first released.
“I think one of the real secrets of the album, is it is such fine song writing; songs written by Rod Argent and Chris White. 12 songs and all mini-masterpieces I think; wonderful songs. Recorded in Abbey Road, all but two tracks. All mixed in Abbey Road, with fine engineers Peter Vince and Geoff Emerick . With the writing and the wonderful Abbey Road engineers, it had a lot going for it.
“The Zombies had been together on the road for three years, and I think it had probably taken pretty much that long for us to really become a tight knit professional outfit. The playing on it is very good as well, and that is as a result of playing continually for three years on the road, all round the world.
“What intrigues me is it was almost ignored when it was first released and now, Rolling Stone has named it as one of the top albums of all time. Continually being cited as a major influence by people like Paul Weller and Tom Petty. Tom wrote the foreword to the recent book, and we have met him when he has come to our gigs – he is a genuine fan of this album”.
Odessey & Oracle’ The Book, includes anecdotes from the songs and their recording sessions, by the original members, as well as reflections from Brian Wilson, Nate Ruess, Clive Davis, Carlos Santana, Susanna Hoffs, and many others. The Foreword was written by Tom Petty. A re-mastered, special edition of the album is scheduled for release later this year.
The band played this album through in full only once before, that was 10 years ago for its 40th anniversary, at Shepherds Bush Empire in London. Why again a decade later? “There’s such a mystique about this album, we are continuously being asked to pay it and we realised that 2017 was actually the 50th anniversary of us recording the album.
“It depends on which country you are in, as to what year it was released, but this is when we recorded it, 50 years ago in 1967. There has been so much interest in the album, we thought we’d play it again, but this will be the last time we play it in the UK”.
Colin has appeared once before at The Palladium. As guest vocalist with The Manfreds, on a package tour with them, Chris Farlowe and Alan Price, the final night of a six week UK tour.
I am probably the odd one out…
He explains what the album “Odessey and Oracle” means to him, personally. “At the time, I thought it was the best we were capable of. So, it was very disappointing when it wasn’t a commercial success, because I really thought that was the best we could do. We would never try to record a commercial album; we were literally trying to record the best songs we’d written in the best way we could.
“I hoped and I think we all did, that would make it a commercial album and it absolutely wasn’t a commercial…. so it was very disappointing. I think that really was one of the main factors why the band finished.
“There had been some other disappointments as well, but when this album came out….It was very much a singles market. The first single from the album was “Care Of Cell 44” in the UK, and it didn’t get any airplay, and that’s when the band finished before the album was released. So that shows you what a singles-dominated market it was. Looking back, you’ve got to doubt the wisdom of finishing a band before their latest album was even released. That does seem not very well thought out, but at the time, it seemed like the right thing.
“There was never any row or bust up. It was all pretty amicable really. We had played continuously for three years all around the world, and I think we were all very tired and in hindsight; it might have been a good idea if we’d just had a rest, a couple of months off and maybe reviewed the situation with fresh minds. It might have all looked different. But at the time, it seemed to all of us to be the right thing to do, and everyone still sticks by that now.
“I am probably the odd one out, in that I am curious to know what we might have done next. Rod and Chris got into a brilliant song writing period, and it would have been interesting to see what they would have come up with next. The others have no regrets at all”.
After the band split, Colin went on to have his own very successful solo career, with many hit singles and albums. Rod of course formed the band Argent, and they stormed into the charts with the classic rock hit “Hold Your Head Up”.
I asked Colin to spill the beans on any behind the scenes anecdotes he recalled about recording “Odessey and Oracle”, and he laughed out loud at the memory of these two tales.
“We were recording ‘Changes’, the first track on the second side, really enjoying recording at Abbey Road at the time, in eight-track. They had managed to put two four-track machines together, so we could add harmonies and over- dub keyboards.
“It meant we could get everyone singing harmonies. So, it was the only time it happened; getting everyone round two mikes. So Huge Grundy and Paul Atkinson were singing, and I don’t think they sang on any other song.
“We over-ran studio time; Abbey Road was very strict, you started at 10 in the morning and you stopped at one o’clock for lunch.
“Even though the red light was on as we were recording round these mikes, we were actually standing right next to the grand piano in studio three; two guys came in, in long brown coats – the guys who moved things around always wore those long brown coats.
“We were actually recording and these two guys walked in and wanted to move the piano. We just kept singing while they carried on….and I like to think you can hear them: ‘To me ‘Arry’, on the track on the album! We had a very tight budget and we didn’t dare stop. So, we kept recording while they moved the piano. I remember it was a very funny episode, and we just ignored them.
I got more and more upset, until a huge barrage of four letter words came out…
“The other thing I remember; ‘Time Of The Season’ was the last track we recorded and the last track written for the album. Rod only finished it in the morning before we recorded it, and when it came to do the vocal, I wasn’t completely confident in the melody of the tune, or the phrasing of the tune. It started to get a bit tense, again as we had a tight budget we recorded very quickly.
“Rod was in the control room trying to guide me through this vocal and I wasn’t getting it, and he was being really patient. But with the red light on and a big clock ticking round in front of me, I was very aware we were running out of time. I was starting to get really tense.
“He was talking to me through the headphones and I was talking to him on the mike, and I got more and more upset, until a huge barrage of four letter words came out and amongst these four letter words, I was saying to him: ‘If you’re so clever, and you understand this song so well, you come in here and you sing it’. And Rod with the same four letter words, said back: ‘You’re the lead singer in this band, you stand there until you get it right’.
“It was all forgotten after the session, but it was a little bit loud and outrageous, and what makes me laugh is; at the time when all this was going on, I am actually singing, ‘It’s the time of the season for loving’. At that time, I am using the worst language possible to address Rod, while he is using the same language back, so there is a slight irony in that”.
Another revelation Colin makes in this fascinating chat, will stun loyal Zombies fans who have believed for nigh on five decades, that the different spelling of the word “Odyssey” on the album’s title, spelled as “Odessey” was deliberate. Colin explains: “I had nothing to do with the sleeve. Terry Quirk is a fine artist who painted it while we were away and made this spelling mistake, and Rod and Chris spotted it and told CBS.
“But it had already gone to the printers. Nothing anyone could be done. Rod and Chris concocted this strange story, that it was done on purpose. It didn’t really make any sense, this story; that it was a play on words .
“But what makes me laugh; in an interview, Rod admitted they made this story up just to cover the simple spelling mistake. He said this in an interview only about four years ago, so for 46 years he has been telling me, it was done on purpose. I had to stop the interview and say; ‘hold on a minute, you’ve been telling me, let alone the public and the media, it was done on purpose’.
“He said, ‘I know, it was a spelling mistake!’ The artist who did it, went to my school and I can’t spell either, so I blame the school. I was amazed Rod lied to me; not for 10 years or 10 months, but for 46 years!”
Does it seem like 50 years ago? “Sometimes it is like yesterday and sometimes it is like another lifetime. I’m really glad we made it. I’m proud of it as a piece of work. It really excites me that it has got the recognition it has, even though that has come to a large extent, a long, long time after it was recorded.
“I rarely listen to anything I’ve sung on. The only time I listen is when we have a show or tour coming up. I know the songs, but I have to remind myself of the arrangements and phrasing. So I’ll be listening to this album again nearer the show date”.
Obligatory question for an artist who has had smash hits in an iconic band and as a solo star: What’s your favourite track from each career? “I’ll always have a special place in my heart for ‘She’s Not There’, because it was the first song we recorded and it changed all out lives. I will always have a warm spot in my heart for that song.
“My favourite song on O&O, ‘Care Of Cell 44’. Musically it’s quite sophisticated, but it’s just got such a killer lyric’; it’s so unusual. A love song written to a girlfriend who’s in prison, and is just about to be released. Such a unique idea for a lyric.
“My favourite solo track: ‘Say You Don’t Mind’. It might be an obvious one, but a big hit changes so much in your life, that it does mean a lot to you. A wonderful song and a great arrangement; Chris Gunning wrote the arrangement, and Denny Laine wrote the song.
“I knew that song in the original Zombies, we used to play it up to 67, and when recording my first solo album. I remembered ‘wow that was a great song and maybe we could do it in a different way’. That’s where Chris Gunning got involved and did that great string arrangement.
“Another favourite song is ‘I Don’t believe In Miracles’. Russ Ballard wrote that song. I remember going round to his house and he said, I have this great song I think you might like. A wonderful performer Russ, and he sat down at the piano and played it to me, and I loved it straight away. Oh yes, I am now reminded of another song I really love, from the Alan Parsons project; I sang a vocal for them on ‘Old and Wise’, it’s on ‘Eye In The Sky”.
“Eric Woolfson wrote that song, and we were in Abbey Road and both left together, and he said let’s nip into studio three; where The Zombies used to record. He sat me down at the piano and played me ‘Old and Wise’, and I absolutely loved it and that lead to me recording it with the APP”.
The best thing about being Colin Blunstone? “Well, I’ve said to you before, it is wonderful to get to travel round the world, playing music that you love, with your mates. So, from a career point of view, the best thing about being me is that I have got a fantastic job. On a personal level, I am very much a family person, and I love to spend time with my wife and my daughter. Also, that’s an incentive to keep working, so I can support my family and keep us safe and give us occasional treats”.
What would the older Colin tell the younger 1967 Colin? “That it is possible to have a lifetime career in the music business. I don’t think anybody realised it in 1964; careers in the music business were genuinely thought to be two or three years long. I certainly didn’t realise that I would be able to sustain a career for fifty something years. I think I might have approached it in a slightly different way; perhaps a bit more serious.
New Zombies album and new Colin Blunstone solo album on the way, folks…
“I loved music, I loved being in the band, but I thought it was just a wonderful adventure that was bound to come to an end”. No signs of that happening any time soon, methinks. Colin reveals that Rod has already begun writing for the next Zombies album which they are contracted to deliver, and Colin has already cut a few tracks with the idea of a new solo album.
Colin sets out on a nine-date UK tour with his solo band in November and again across Europe in Spring next year, and the Zombies are hitting the road in the USA in January.
The Zombies toured in America earlier this year to great acclaim, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the album. The format for the Palladium show will be the current line-up doing the first half, and then the original line-up comes on, supplemented by the current line-up, for the second half.
They then play “Odessey and Oracle” straight through. They are able to recreate the record just about note for note, even the over-dubbed extra harmonies and extra keyboard parts in the concert, with Darian Sahanaja from The Brian Wilson band playing keyboards with Rod on stage.
At 72-years-old, is it harder touring today? “I used to say the evening began when the show ended. As young boys, we were always open to a party or some kind of adventure after the show, but we have to pace ourselves a bit more now. In many ways, it’s better organised now, we travel in a more comfortable way now than we did then, so in some respects it is easier now. But physically, you have got to look after yourself. Eat well and make sure you get your sleep”.
Sex and drugs and rock roll, and excess all areas may have been the order of the day for the likes of The Stones and other Zombies’ contemporaries back in the day, but Colin never touched drugs in his entire career. “They were different days. There was a bit more partying that went on. But after the show now, there’s a rush to get back to the hotel to get back to bed!”
When he’s not on the road with the band or his solo career, that theme of getting some kip is prominent again: “I sleep a lot, I’m knackered”, he laughs. “I love being at home, as I’m not at home a lot. I am a sports nut, I support Chelsea. I collect water colours. I used to paint when I was younger and keep promising myself I will get back in to it, so I’ll have to write a list for Father Christmas to bring me some paints and stuff”.
Colin lives in Surrey with his wife Susi, a former Purser for British Airways who used to fly Concorde, now semi-retired and works in a school. They have been married for 30 years and have a 29-year-old daughter Rosy, who qualified as a doctor just over a year ago.
- Tickets for the Zombies show at London’s Palladium on Friday 29th September can be purchased here:
www.alttickets.com/ Rutlive.co.uk/ Gigantic.com
By Simon Redley
Black & white photo of Colin Blunstone (top) copyright: Geoff Carverhill – taken at the official CBS launch of his solo album “Ennismore” in London, 1972.