Among the legends of Rock & Roll, The Zombies occupy a unique position with an unusual story. The band formed in 1961 in St. Albans, UK when all its members were in their mid teens. They experienced early success with their hit single "She's Not There," which led to years of touring and recording with Decca Records, but as the 1960s stretched on, their rise to fame lost some steam. In late 1967 they decided to break up, but not before recording on final album, Odessey and Oracle. That album was released in 1968 to critical praise but didn't sell well and went largely unnoticed until one of its tracks was released as a single in the U.S. That track was "Time of the Season" (you know it, the song that asks, "What's your name? Who's your daddy? Is he rich? Is he rich like me?" amid popping claps and sensual breathing) and while it took some time to catch on, by 1969 it became a colossal hit, topping out at #3 on the Billboard charts. "Time of the Season" has since become the soundtrack for the intense and turbulent decade that followed. Over the years, listeners began to explore Odessey and Oracle as a whole and it eventually came to be considered a seminal album of great importance, ranked along side those being put out by The Beatles and Beach Boys around that same period. This is an indisputable success story with a happy ending, right? How could it be viewed as anything else, but when "Time of the Season" first started attracting this overdue praise and attention The Zombies hadn't been a band for close to two years. The band members had gone their separate ways, some to other recording careers, one was selling cars, while its original lead singer, Colin Blunestone, was working in the claims department of an insurance company when his voice began to echo across the air waves of the United States.
On the Tuesday before they kicked off their present tour, starting in Los Angeles, I had the opportunity of catching up with Colin Blunstone over the phone, asking him about this sleeper success story and where it has brought him today...
Culture Catch: You're starting your tour on the West Coast of the United States and then you head off to Europe, do you have a favorite city or venue that you're particularly looking forward to?
Colin Blunstone: That's an interesting thought. I love playing on the West Coast of America. I love playing in America all together. The business is very professionally run over here, I think, so it's always a pleasure to come here and do our show. The whole process is quite sophisticated compared to some countries, so it's a pleasure to work in The States. Of course I like performing at home in the UK. I particularly like playing in Holland, but you asked for specific dates, didn't you? I think I'm looking forward to playing at the Troubadour in L.A. because I first played there in the early '70s as a solo artist and so it's got quite a lot of history. I've since played there with The Zombies and this time we're going to be playing there for two nights... I'm looking forward to that one.
CC: The Zombies have a very unique sound. I've heard it called Baroque rock... it almost has an Elizabethan sound to me. It almost sounds like if Shakespeare had an opening band for his plays you guys could have done it, with the flutes and period sounding percussion... What do you think of the sound of The Zombies?
Colin: First, let me say we could have never opened for Shakespeare. He's a lot older than us, but... I'm being serious now... it's very difficult to describe what you do yourself. With The Zombies it was very natural... I didn't write any of the songs on Odessey and Oracle but I was there when the songs were being written. It's a very natural way of writing songs, arranging, rehearsing, & recording, that's the five of us being together, that's the sum of what was happening in our musical world. There's one thing I would say about The Zombies is that we had many influences when we first got started, but by 1967 we weren't particularly influenced by anybody. You can like The Zombies and there are people who don't like The Zombies, but they're [The Zombies] different, so whether you like them or not they definitely are different. I think one of the reasons is that in our formative years- we first got together when we were fifteen and we were all interested in so many different kinds of music and such a wide spectrum of influences from classical music, modern jazz, blues, rhythm & blues, rock'n'roll, standard pop music- we loved pop music, and all those influences come together. I can hear them all on Odessey and Oracle and that's how we arrived at the kind of sound that The Zombies made. We weren't directly influenced by anyone in particular but we did take influences from lots of different types of music and it came together through our filter, if you like, to sound like Odessey and Oracle ... Also we had these two quite sophisticated writers in that band and that really took me by surprise when I was seventeen... we got a deal with Decca Records and we were introduced to a producer called Ken Jones, but before that first session he was giving us a bit of a pep talk and he said to us 'You know you could always write something for this session', it wasn't a big deal, he just dropped it into the conversation and Rod [Rod Argent, Zombies keyboardist and singer] went away and wrote "She's Not There". He came back two or three days later and played us this song and I was absolutely amazed. I had no idea he could write songs. It was a big shock and I think we all knew that it was a special song. So we were so fortunate to discover, it seems to me almost by chance, because Chris White also developed into a fine writer as well- our original bass player. But we had these two writers and that was a big change for the band... I think Odessey and Oracle was the culmination of those seven years we were together.
CC: Speaking of Odessay and Oracle, this album is epic in many regards, both in its qualities and it's unlikely success story. Your'e still there, but the band's long-since over when the album hit. What was it like watching that happen in delayed action?
Colin: It was very, very strange. I have to say that there was never any conversation with anyone about reforming the band. There was absolutely no interest. Everyone was committed to other projects and we watched it with great interest. It's always been a bit of a mystery to me. I don't mean that in a dismissive way. I find it fascinating how that could happen, because it shouldn't happen. Record companies put such promotional interest on current records that you would think that a record that had already come and been released and then been ignored wouldn't stand a chance. So it shouldn't have happened that "Time of the Season" should have been a big hit or even, years later, that Odessey and Oracle would sell truck loads of albums. I don't understand it but I find it fascinating and really interesting but it's a huge mystery to me. But going back to the time, it was a fascinating experience to watch this thing grow because we weren't supporting it. It almost felt like an album that was recorded by other people because two or three years had gone by and suddenly this single is a huge hit and led to me coming back into the music business. Because I was really, really disappointed when The Zombies finished and I wasn't sure I wanted to stay in the music business, but with "Time of the Season" being a huge hit I got a lot of offers and slowly but surely I just dipped my toe into the waters of the music business and I think I fully committed with Rod and Chris again when they produced my first solo album... I think there was a three year gap for me in all by the time I had a really big hit in the UK again.
CC: You have a very positive attitude towards the experience.
Colin: For me the thrill and the pleasure and fulfillment is writing and recording records and then going out there and performing and if anyone is familiar with any of the work I've done I'm eternally grateful. I don't expect people to know everything I've done in my life... I'm very happy to talk about the past but the important thing is what comes next. We need to be writing new songs, we need to be back in the studio... where are we going to be touring next year? What's happening? We're really happy to play- we'll always play three or four tunes from Odessey and Oracle. We play "She's Not There" and "Time of the Season", songs that people know... and maybe some Argent hits, because obviously Rod is a founding member of Argent, but one of the really rewarding things is that the new songs get as good a response as the old songs. I can imagine that some times it can happen that the new songs could be greeted by absolute silence but that's not the case with us... One runs into the other really naturally and it's very rewarding when we get up there and we realize that we play songs that perhaps they're not familiar with and the reaction has just been fantastic and that's very fulfilling.
CC: Now I know you guys are looking to the future, I can't help but look to the past still. In researching about The Zombies I came across a story of your touring in the U.S. and you guys playing seven shows a day at the Brooklyn Fox Theater and that's amazing to me because I've only ever heard stories like this when I see documentaries about the Beatles touring in Germany- that era of bands pumping out performances, twelve hour days that is just unthinkable today. No one would do that. Do I have that information correct? Did you really play that many shows in a day?
Colin: Well we did, but whereas The Beatles were playing non-stop. It was a tradition. By the time you were on one of these American shows you would have a lot of artists playing just a few songs. When The Beatles went to Germany they were playing in clubs and they were expected to play for six or seven hours a night and they would play for a couple hours and take a break. It's quite different when you do these tours... we played the Brooklyn Fox, Christmas 1964 into 65 and we opened on Christmas day but we only played a couple of songs as did the other acts... and so we would go on and sing a couple of songs and then we'd just have to wait around. I think what happened at the end of the show they played a short film and then it all happened again. So we would start at ten o'clock in the morning and the last show would be seven or eight o'clock at night. But it wasn't physically demanding show like that but you had to be there all day just waiting and also we couldn't go outside at all because there were thousands of people around the theater. There was an hysteria about music then that probably happens today but I don't think it happens so much. I know that Paul Atkinson, our lead guitarist, went out of the stage door once while we were there for ten days and the weight of people just came forward and pushed him up against a plate glass window and he lost his shirt and the police came in and got him and just said, "Listen. We'll do this once, but we're not going to do it again". And that meant we had to be back stage the whole time until all the crowds went home, so it led to a long day... but I'm just trying to say it's not the same as what The Beatles did when they went to Hamburg. We decided to become a professional band in 1964 before we recorded "She's Not There" and if "She's Not There" hadn't been a hit we probably- there's quite a good chance we would have ended up in Germany or in Europe playing those kinds of hours to just get the band together but because we had a hit we took a different route. We didn't choose that, it just happened to us.
CC: Still that is an amazing moment in music history to have been a part of. Any particularly fun backstage stories from that time that you'd like to share with us?
Colin: A lot of the ones that are more interesting I can't tell. It would be extremely indiscreet if I were to go into too many details of what was going on... (Laughs) I'm trying to think of something that would be good. The thing is you have to remember, these stories- it's fifty years ago. If I stay here for an hour or two I could probably come up with a few good stories... I remember we did Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars -- it's a terrible name. There was quite a well known female artist on our bus who drew a gun- I mean I'd never seen a gun before. But she drew a gun on someone on the front of the bus and I just remember her being forcibly ejected off the bus and I felt really sorry for her. We drove off -- this is a hit artist and we drove off leaving her standing by the side of the road with her suitcases.
CC: And her gun.
Colin: And her gun! (Laughs) Oh, dear... We made a point of going to the back of the bus with all the soul artists and they would sing for hours through the night and we just loved it. And then I think we were pretty much accepted, you know we were English, for a start, and we were very young and they got to a point where the said, "OK. Now you sing." And we had to stand up and sing in front of all these wonderful soul artists. We were really a bit apprehensive, but we got threw it and we were accepted after that.
CC: To say you've seen shifts in the music scene would be an understatement. You've seen whole paradigm shifts in the music industry from being a young man touring with The Zombies, through your solo career, and up to this present tour. How has the music industry most changed through your career?
Colin: Well, can I give you two answers? The first one is a light-hearted answer but there is a degree of truth in it. I found the music industry intriguing but a bit of a mystery and its been through many, many changes. You know it's going through changes week on week at the moment, but it's still a mystery to me. In some ways I'm quite fortunate because it never changed for me. It didn't understand it in 1964 and I don't understand it now. So, in many ways, there's no difference, its just a different kind of mystery. I don't pretend to understand the music industry and I'm not really interested in the music industry. I'm interested in the creative process. I love the idea of writing and recording songs and performing, that's where I get my energy from. But how you market a record or how you promote your record and whatever else you're suppose to do to records... my eyes glaze over. I try and be interested and I try to be polite if people want to tell me... but I'm not really interested. On a more serious note, one of the things that intrigue me is that you use to -- record sales have fallen through the floor. Quite a few people would sell a million records in 1964, well that's a real achievement now to have a million-selling record. So you used to tour to promote records. It was quite straight forward, you got a record coming out, you needed to tour. But now it is practically the other way around. Records don't make money. Very few records will make enough money to pay back the costs of making the record. Unless, sometimes with a first or second album, you might make them at home quite inexpensive, but if you'r using commercial studios and even then, you still got to pay for marketing and all the other things that come with it... art work. It's quite hard to earn the money back that it costs to make a record. It's almost now as though records are released to promote tours whereas it was completely the opposite when I first came into the industry. Tours are far more important now. Before, to a large extent, they were promotional vehicles for records but now the tour is the focal point and records pretty much promote the tour. I think that is one really big change that's happened in the music industry.
CC: That's interesting. I never thought of it that way, but that's absolutely right. It's almost like it's an excuse to go on tour and hopefully -- if you're selling something you're more likely to make money off of t-shirts or something then you are off of the album itself.
Colin: But you know it's quite often true. I'll tell you what's a really good one: posters. If you've got a good poster... I remember we were touring in Japan and they made a special poster for the tour. I mean how much- obviously you have to have the poster designed, but it costs about a penny or two pennies to print a poster and I know in Japan if they're signed you can get serious money... fifty dollars or something. I actually said this to Rod, we shouldn't make records. We should forget this records thing. We should become a poster company and just do posters. (Laughs)
CC: (Laughs) I think sadly a lot of bands have gone that way...
Colin: I know. The merchandise side of the industry, it just didn't exist when we started. It's so funny that side of things just didn't exist and now it's so important. But, you know, again, I watch that side of the business with interest but from a distance. You don't want to get too weighed down with that stuff.
CC: No, because that isn't why you got into the music. It wasn't to make money off of posters-
Colin: Absolutely not. You know, to a large extent we didn't get into the business to make money either. We all love music and we got together to have fun and that's what we're still doing. I don't think anyone I've worked with over a long period of time has ever been particularly motivated by making money. If you make music well... if you're good musicians and you put on a good show, with a little bit of luck you will make money. But that's a big difference from coming into the business to make money or even to be famous. Heaven help us, I never ever thought like that. I really just want to learn my craft and be the best I can.
CC: I think that's the spirit where the really good music comes from and I think it shows in your work.
Colin: Oh thank you. Even taking us out of the equation, I agree with you that that's where the good music comes from and I think people get it terribly wrong when they come into the industry because they want to be famous and they want to make a lot of money. No one can be really famous- with one or two exceptions, no one is really famous for years and years and years so it always ends up with sadness and desperation and depression and usually dependence on some kind of stimulus, you know, and it usually ends badly. But if you're just trying to write songs and perform well, maybe have some good fun at the same time with some other good musicians, with a little bit of luck you can have a fulfilling and happy career. That's my aim anyway. That's what I'm trying to do.
CC: I know because you guys disbanded before your music was as big as it would later become I've heard stories that there were a lot of fake bands claiming to be The Zombies trying to capitalize on that. Do you have any fun stories about that?
Colin: Well that's very true. I think in the 60s- it happened later as well, about 1990 there as an English band touring America claiming to be The Zombies. But in the 60s there was a time when there were three bands going around it and it was funny because Chris White was in America, he was in Rolling Stone's office and they got the phone number of the manager of one of these bands and they phoned up and put Chris on the phone to this guy and Chris asked him to explain about this Zombies band. And the manager of the band said it isn't the original Zombies but the lead singer in the band was killed in a car crash and this is our tribute to The Zombies... and I happen to be the lead singer in The Zombies. It was on the front page of Rolling Stone and I read about this with great interest.
CC: I'd imagine you would. You'd want to know about your death.
Colin: I know. The news of my death has been greatly exaggerated, I hasten to add. And, also, in one of those bands- two of ZZ Top were in one of those bands. More recently they've talked about it. Listen, I want musicians to work, I want them to be able to get work. Good luck to them. If that was what was on offer at the time, take it, of course, we weren't using the name and they've gone on and done wonderful things. The later band that was more around 1990, we did try to stop that band and they did stop. And I in my naive world thought I had contributed to that stop, I had phoned the musician's union, I'd spoken to lawyers, and I thought well they've stopped, maybe something I've done has resulted in them stopping, but if we go back to one of of our previous topics what happened was they were an English band, playing in America, claiming to be The Zombies. They'd found a guy named Hugh Grundy, the same name as our drummer but he was actually a bass player and he was also about four inches shorter than Hugh, but apparently they weren't very good and they came off stage, they're in their dressing room, and one of the guys from the audience went into their dressing room and pulled a gun on them and said "You are not The Zombies" and obviously scared them to death and they never played again.
CC: I guess, I don't know if the guns worked out in our favor that time around...
Colin: Maybe that was one of the better uses for a gun, I'm not sure that it should always be used in a dispute about a band's name, but...
CC: No. Probably not. I just can't get over the irony that that one band gave your band's name more a layer of validity because you now are the living dead. You are the singing, living dead.
Colin: That is true. (Laughs) I don't want anyone to get too carried away with that aspect of our band's name because they may want to take it a stage further and we're just nice guys that go out and play tunes. I don't want anyone to look too deeply into that.
CC: Exactly. But you already died in a car accident and you're still singing, so The Zombies are real.
The Zombies @ The Neptune - 9/18/2018
That was the end of my conversation with Colin and on the Tuesday following this interview my wife and I got a chance to see The Zombies perform live at The Neptune in Seattle. Colin was telling the truth when he said that they really just love to play music and they did so without pretense, despite the legacy they've already left us. The new songs were great, these guys are clearly continuing their musical explorations and working to ever-improve their ample skills, but hearing them sing their old songs, those twelve timeless gems from Odessey and Oracle along with some of their other, older hits... it was pure time warp. Colin's voice has maintained and strengthened fantastically. He sings with power and control, hitting notes with the same purity and beauty that he hit them back in 1967. His falsetto hums and his tone is impeccable... at moments I closed my eyes and felt transported to an era I've only ever been able to experience through my imagination, but having his voice and those musical sounds to accompany my imagination brought a unique level of clarity to the vision. Rod Argent, the other founding member still touring with The Zombies, also hasn't missed a beat with his runs on the keyboard. Both Argent and Blunestone clearly love what they're doing and it was a pure pleasure to watch and listen to them do it. Anyone with an appreciation for solid rock & roll, from any era, should take the opportunity to catch these masters as they both remind us of the magic they've woven in the past and introduce us to the new wonders they're imparting us with today.
The Zombies will be on tour in the U.S. & Europe through to February 17th, 2019.
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