As lead singer of The Zombies Colin Blunstone achieved international recognition and acclaim. After the band split in 1967 he went on to achieve success as a solo artist having hits such as Say You Don't Mind and I Don't Believe In Miracles. The Zombies have had several attempts at reforming over the years with Colin and Rod Argent always at the helm. Their longest established line-up has existed since 2004 with only one personnel change, guitarist Tom Toomey, who joined in 2011. Their popularity has not waned over the years and has sustained a career that has lasted nearly 50 years.
The origins of a varied and colourful career go back to St Albans 1961. Rod Argent wanted to form a rock 'n' roll band had asked his cousin Jim Rodford if he would join. Jim was already in a successful local band called The Bluetones so passed up the opportunity to join Rod, but he did offer to help. Rod set about picking local lads to join his fledgling outfit from St Albans Boys' School. "Rod had chosen the people from a very interesting perspective. Hugh Grundy, our drummer, was considered the best drummer in the school army core. They used to march with a snare drum, so Hugh had never played with a kit of drums. Rod thought that Paul Atkinson, our guitarist was the best guitarist playing in their school folk club. Paul Arnold, our first bass player lived quite close to Rod, but didn't go to school with him, he was making a bass guitar in woodwork." Colin and Paul Arnold went to St Albans Grammar School, and by a strange twist of fate Colin sat behind Paul at school simply because the class were seated in alphabetical order. "Paul said to me 'haven't you got a guitar?' I said 'yeah.' He said' do you want to come to this band rehearsal?' and so I did."
The five agreed to meet outside The Blacksmith Arms public house and there Colin stood alongside three strangers, Rod Argent, Hugh Grundy and Paul Atkinson, Paul Arnold, the only person he knew was late! Jim came to pick them up and take them to the rehearsal in the nearby Pioneer Club, where The Bluetones used to rehearse. Jim has remarked that Colin looked like a bit of a ruffian when he first met him, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Colin comments "I had a badly broken nose and big black eyes. People said I looked a little bit like a zombie, but at that point we weren't called anything we were just five people meeting up to explore the idea of having a band." As it turned out Colin sustained his injuries by playing rugby and luckily it didn't effect his musical talent. "It's quite precarious how these characters were chosen and it makes the odds of it actually working as a band pretty long. Right from the beginning it worked pretty well."
Jim Rodford was, of course, there at that first rehearsal, to allow the group to borrow The Bluetones equipment. It was at that rehearsal where the band really came into being. "The Bluetones had all the latest Vox amplifiers and, of course, a full drum kit. Jim sat Hugh down for the very first time at that rehearsal and gave him his first lesson in playing the drum kit. Hugh picked it up immediately, but it was Jim who showed him how to play it in the first place." Hugh learning the drums wasn't the only discovery that they made at the Pioneer. "At the first rehearsal Rod had wanted to be a lead singer. We had a coffee break and Rod went over to the piano and played the Bee Bumble and The Stingers song, Nut Rocker and it took my breath away. Even at 15 Rod was a sensational keyboard player. I said you really should be in the band playing keyboards. But he always saw a rock band being three guitars and didn't see where a keyboard would figure. I sang a Ricky Nelson song, he liked what I sang and said 'I'll play keyboards if you be the lead singer.' That's how it stayed."
The discovery by the band that Rod was an exceptionally talented pianist, influenced by jazz and classical music would be a theme they would go on to use in their own music. This new style made The Zombies pivotal in the development of later sounds such as progressive rock which combined those influences and used keyboards. Latterly many rock bands used keyboards in their line-up, but back in the 60s when rock 'n' roll was moving towards the origins of rock music it was a rarity. The Zombies sounded like nothing else at the time. Like the venue they first rehearsed in, they too were pioneers. Despite these young wannabe musicians all joining together what happened next was nothing short of an astonishing display of serendipity. "It is down to chance. When I think back it's actually quite scary. That one meeting changed all out lives."
The 60s were a pivotal time, not only for social change, but London particularly was a hotbed of talent. "It was a wonderful time creatively. Britain was just coming out of a period of terrible austerity after the war and suddenly in the early 60s a whole new lifestyle evolved in Britain where it appeared anything was possible. Britain was the centre of the artistic world...London was a very exciting time artistically and we were starting a wonderful musical adventure. What could be better than playing music and touring the world with your mates! That generation was rewriting the history books. Nobody in contemporary music at that time knew you could have a lifetime career in music, but obviously you could."
The next big step for the band was taking part in the prestigious Herts Beat Competition held at Watford Town Hall. The competition was open to musical acts all over the country and took part in several heats – a bit like the battle of the bands these days. The grand prize was to record a demo at Decca Studios in Hampstead. The Zombies made it to the final and the realisation that a career in music could be a reality for the band suddenly set in. "It opened everyone's eyes. It had only been a dream to me up till that point that we could be possibly become a professional band." The notion of fame and worldwide success was still the furthest thing on their minds, Colin explains. "We decided to become a professional band before we had released a record. If we hadn't had a hit we would have gone out and got local gigs and try and spread out to the rest of the country if we could. We didn't have a master plan, we were just determined to be a professional band."
Eager to learn more about the industry they so wanted to be a part of, the band turned to a friend of current bass player Chris White's uncle who just so happened to be Decca producer Ken Jones. Jones agreed to produce the band's session at the studios. During one of their conversations before their forthcoming studio session, Jones casually suggested the band could write their own song. "We were going to record an R & B classic, which we played a lot of at the time, so I ignored Ken Jones' comments. It was the naivety of the time; I thought that people who wrote songs were totally different from people who played in bands who toured around playing concerts. I thought they came from a different part of the music industry, but Rod took that on board."
Rod arrived at the recording session with She's Not There, the third song he had ever written. Chris White also turned up with a song, You Make Me Feel Good, which became the B-side. All this time the rest of the band were unaware of the talent that they had within their midst. "I was amazed that we had two fantastic songwriters in the band, I had no idea that they could write songs."
At this time, most major artists had songs written for them. The idea of bands and singers writing their own material was almost unheard of at the time. " The Beatles were instrumental in this change, they opened the floodgates. Most artists didn't write, that wasn't the way things were done so they didn't even try to write." From Colin's own experiences writing your own material is not only an artistic coup but also a financial one. "It's so much better to write your own songs for so many reasons: One, it's better for your credibility. You become an artist rather than a singer, there is a difference. There's a depth of respect for an artist that isn't there for a singer. Secondly, you're not forever searching for songs. There's this huge financial advantage to writing your own song. Roughly, very roughly speaking, the money from a hit record you can divide it in half. The artist gets half and the writer gets half. A writer doesn't have much in the way of expenses. An artist will have to start with a manager, an agent, travel, hotels, sometimes a band. It amounts to absolute fortunes. If you can write it's such an advance on many different levels."
Time of The Season went on to be a massive hit in America and the band were soon to be travelling the world, but would need their parent permission to sign the record deal and tour. Prior to the band's formation, Colin had considered going to art school. "My father said, 'you are not going to art school. All they do there is drink beer and chase women.' It sounded wonderful, but that was the last word on art. Then he let me join a professional rock and roll band, which always amused me afterwards. When we signed our record contract in 1964 my father had to sign, I was 19 at the time. What was he thinking when he decided that he didn't want me to go to art school but he's signing these contracts to let me travel the world with my pals!" He says with humour, the irony of the situation is quite funny. "Having a career like that was more unusual than it is now. There was a slight lack of respectability of your children going onto the stage as a career, but all the parents were fantastic. I think all of us were thinking this would be a wonderful couple of years adventure. Most bands at the time typically lasted two or three years, so that's what we expected. I think subconsciously we were all thinking that.”
Their thoughts were correct, by 1967, after three years of touring the band had failed to have another single chart and were going to call it a day. Sadly The Zombies were musically before their time. In a world where chart success was everything, their music was, by and large, too avant guard for the mainstream. They decided to record one last album to round off that musical adventure. In 1967 they entered Abbey Road Studios to record Odessey and Oracle. The album was put out without any publicity of promotion thanks to CBS executive Clive Davis viewing the band as old news. The album, of course, did nothing. The band despondent and disillusioned split up in December 1967. Over the next few months, word of mouth spread the album and thanks to some airplay in the US, Time Of The Season became a massive sleeper hit for the band in 1968. Of course by this time the band had moved on. Rod went on to form Argent with his cousin Jim, Chris White continued to write and became involved in the record industry and although the remaining members would latterly go on to be involved in the music business, for now they just needed to get a job to earn some money. Despite their three years of success, the guys who didn't write were in dire straits (ironically a band White would go on to help discover.)
"At the end of The Zombies there was quite a difference between the people that had been writing and the people that hadn't been writing. Hugh Grundy, Paul Atkinson and myself were pretty much penniless at the end of three years of travelling the world and not being managed very well I'm sad to say. It's true of Many 60s bands. The three of us literally had to get jobs." Colin went into selling insurance for Sun Life. "I took the first job that was offered to me and people often talk about it like it as if it was a career choice, but it was the first job I was offered."
Today Odessey and Oracle is held up as one of the most seminal and acclaimed albums of all time and sells more year on year than it ever did. It also recently charted in the Billboard vinyl chart nearly 50 years after it was released! For an album to be regarded as such a success years after its release could make many artists resentful and forever ponder on the 'if onlys' and 'what ifs'. However, Colin takes this in his stride and is very philosophical about how things turned out. "The album did get some good reviews at the time but as a commercial project it was a failure. To a large extent it was ignored by the media. It does intrigue me how attitudes can change so much. But I'm never bitter or angry about it. I do believe if something had happened with that album, if it had been received as it is now, things would have been totally different and we would have been totally different people. I don't want to be a different person. I want to be where I am right now in my life." He is open about the fact that he has thought about this many times and is truly happy about how things have turned out, it's very inspiring to hear. "I'm very happy with my life at the moment and I'm a great believer that if you change one thing you change everything."
Of course, one song did change everything. Just when he may well have been selling insurance for the next 40 years, Time Of The Season was being noticed in America. Colin started getting offers to return to the industry. "I started recording with producer Mike Hurst. I was so sad and disappointed when The Zombies finished I wasn't sure I wanted to get back into the music business. So I just recorded in the evenings after work and I just followed Mike's lead and record several tracks including She's Not There, which was released as a single. Mike thought it was a good idea to release it under a pseudonym Neil MacArthur. It wasn't a secret for very long, people recognised my voice. That was a small part of my career that lasted for a few months." Colin still lived in the St Albans area at this time, so he would regularly see the others from the band. "I was coming home from a party with Chris White and he said 'why don't you start your solo career again and record a solo album. Forget releasing random singles and let Rod and I produce you. And I did." Colin went on to record his debut album One Year and from that came Say You Don't Mind which was a hit.
Colin then went on to work with The Alan Parsons Project. "Alan Parsons was an engineer when we recorded Odessey and Oracle at Abbey Road. He'd always said to me he had this idea of recording an album with the producer being the central figure rather than the artist." Colin worked with Alan on several albums and lent his vocal talents to well-known tracks The Eagle Will Rise Again and Old and Wise.
Since reforming The Zombies the band have gained more fans around the world, in part thanks to the resurgence of Odessey and Oracle. "People take the album very seriously and that gives interest to this new incarnation of the band." Their popularity has ensured that they can play the US at least once a year and regular tours in the UK and Europe. During their current American tour as well as playing tracks from their new album, Still Got The Hunger, the band joined with original members Hugh Grundy and Chris White to play through Odessey and Oracle in it's entirety, note for note. "In New York we got a standing ovation after every song! The album has a special place in contemporary music, it's iconic. It's up there with Pet sounds, Sgt Pepper's and Revolver." Unfortunately for fans, it may be the last time they played the album live."I don't think it's something we're going to make a habit of. We want to keep Odessey and Oracle special."
The new album Still Got That Hunger has been getting rave reviews, with some saying it's the best material to come from the band since Odessey. Rod has written most of the material, apart from one familiar track Now I Know I'll Never Get Over You, penned by Colin. The track appeared on his 2009 album the Ghost Of You and Me. It was originally recorded with a string quintet under Chris Gunning who oversaw Say You Don't Mind. Rod loved the song and wanted to give it a reworking on the new album.
Chris Potter took over producing duties from Rod and the band recorded the album at State Of The Ark Studios and Sugar Cane Studios in London. The band decided to approach the album the same way that they did with Odessey. “As we had such a small budget for Odessey and Oracle we rehearsed intently before going into the studio so that we knew the arrangements. All we were looking for was a performance. We did the same with this album. The band were all in one room together playing live. It worked really well for us and I'm absolutely sure we will do the next album in the same way. It was very exciting to record like that and it was fun. We did it quite quickly too, we did 4 or 5 takes of each track. The only thing we over dubbed was vocal harmonies."
Anybody who has heard the new album or seen the band perform live will know that Colin's voice is still absolutely incredible, but he has to work to maintain his range and tone. "As your voice gets older it gets lower I have to work hard to maintain that. I do singing exercises once before sound check then before the show and that allows me to sing all the material in the original key. Most singers the key starts to drop and my voice is a lot stronger so that I can sing night after night. Singing is very physical, especially in high keys and if you sing rock and roll. We do five nights then have a day off otherwise my voice will start to develop a roughness if you're not careful you can lose your voice." Now 70 years old Colin has a better voice than many of his peers who have lost their vocal range, which surely should prompt younger musicians and vocalists to look after their instrument in the same way to ensure their endurance as performers.
The album was also crown funded, allowing those loyal fans to get involved with the creative process. "Crowdfunding does give you more creative freedom. With this incarnation of the band we've always recorded independently of a record label. One of the main reasons that we did crowdfunding was to include our fans in the whole recording process. I hope the fans would agree that being involved in the project was interesting and worthwhile." From a fans point of view they can only be happy with the results, the cover is as instantly recognisable thanks to Odessey designer Terry Quirk, and the music inside is melodic, jazzy and has some great lyrics – everything you'd expect from a Zombies album!
For everyone involved in The Zombies, their passion for music is still very much prevalent. Like many bands of that period, age is not a barrier, they seem to relish in touring, making music and continue to look forward. After Colin finishes the current Zombies tour he's doing several dates on a solo tour before moving on the next chapter in The Zombies illustrious history. The lust for life and music that Colin and his band mates display is just as inspiring and uplifting as their longevity as one of the greatest British bands of all time.