It’s the time of The Zombies

Colin Blunstone reminisces on his iconic band’s career, musical high point, 1967’s ‘Odyssey and Oracle', regarded as one of best pop albums of all time.

The Zombies 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Zombies 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
While The Zombies’ classic song “Time of the Season” was beginning to soar out of radio stations and fly out of record stores across the US and Europe in early 1969, its singer Colin Blunstone was sitting behind a desk in a London office job trying to make ends meet.
The distinctive voice in front of such heralded mid-1960s hits as “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No,” Blunstone, along with the rest of the British Invasionera band, had closed up shop the previous year, depressed over the relative lack of interest in their ambitious 1967 album Odyssey and Oracle.
While thanks to publishing deals, the band’s songwriters – keyboardist Rod Argent and bassist Chris White – had continued to reap in the profits from the band’s string of hits, Blunstone, guitarist Paul Atkinson and drummer Hugh Grundy had basically lived on whatever money they had earned from touring the world for three years since their 1964 debut.
“We hadn’t been properly advised as young 20-year-olds, and we were virtually penniless when the band broke up, so we had to go out and get jobs,” said the affable 67-year-old Blunstone, speaking from his home in Surrey a couple of weeks before he and Argent are due to bring a latter-day version of The Zombies to Tel Aviv for their Israel debut on August 23 at Reading 3.
“Paul was working in a computer firm and Hugh was selling cars. I thought that probably was it for me in the music business, but working in a busy office didn’t give me much time to dwell on it.”
Then cosmic occurrences intervened.
“Time of the Season” began to receive some radio airplay in the US after a DJ discovered it tucked away on Odyssey and Oracle. The band’s label, CBS, decided to release the song as a single and before long, it had climbed to the top of the Billboard charts, well over a year since it had initially appeared on the album.
“I couldn’t keep up with all the calls that were coming in – from newspapers, managers, producers – all day long,” said Blunstone with a chuckle.
“My career in the music business had opened up again, but I wasn’t so sure I wanted to go back. It had been so difficult that last period with The Zombies.”
The rest of the band evidently thought likewise. Argent was already knee-deep in his new project, the progressive rock band going by his own name which produced 1970s hits such as “Hold Your Head Up” and “God Gave Rock & Roll to You.”
And while other members did try to regroup under the “Zombies” name, they were never able to capitalize on the momentum. The inadvertent hit, however, did convince Blunstone to return to the recording studio, resulting in a solo album that launched a successful return to music, where he’s stayed ever since.
The irony of the whole episode is that today, The Zombies are considered to be one of the truly original bands of the British Invasion, mainly due to their emphasis on Argent’s sophisticated keyboards and arrangements which encompassed jazz, soul and R&B, and the Blunstone-led choral harmonies that rivaled The Beach Boys for innovation and complexity.
“I do think we forged a unique identity – partly on the strength of Rod and Chris’s songwriting but also because from the very beginning, we had a keyboard in the band,” said Blunstone.
“Almost all bands at that time had the requisite two guitars, bass and drums, but we had this incredibly talented keyboard player.”
AND STRANGELY enough, the original lineup of the band featured Argent as lead singer, and Blunstone, one of rock’s most celebrated vocalists, stuck behind a guitar.
“At our first rehearsal when we were still in high school, Rod was going to be the lead singer and I was going to play acoustic guitar,” said Blunstone.
“But during a coffee break, Rod went over to a corner and was playing on this really broken down piano – a song called “Nutrocker” by Bee Bumble and the Stingers. It was just breathtaking, and I said to him, ‘You have to play keyboards in this band, whether it’s fashionable or not.’ And he said, ‘I’ll take keyboards if you take over singing lead.’ And that’s what we did.”
“She’s Not There” made them overnight stars, resulting in three years of worldwide touring and acclaim. And their swan song Odyssey and Oracle which sank like a stone? Today, it’s considered a masterpiece – ranked 80 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and regularly cited by younger musicians ranging from Beck and Belle & Sebastian to Dave Grohl from The Foo Fighters and Paul Weller as being among their favorites – a quintessential dreamy 1960s magus opum.
“That does vindicate what we were doing in some ways. It wasn’t a great feeling finishing the band thinking that we were unsuccessful. The timing might have been off, but we now know that it was certainly a worthwhile piece of work,” said Blunstone, adding that he regretted that it was the band’s swan song.
“I think I’m the only band member who is curious as to what we might have gone on to do. The others felt and still feel that we had completed our journey and it was time for us to move on. But in some ways, I felt that we had done our musical apprenticeship in the glare of the spotlight because our first album was a huge international hit due to “She’s Not There.”
“It was very early in the writing careers of Rod and Chris and they spent the next three years finding their paths as songwriters, and it culminated in Odyssey and Oracle.
I would have loved to have known what we might have gone onto next.”
While Blunstone was never able to realize that ambition, he has been able to achieve the next best thing. He and Argent got back together and began to make music again in the late 1990s. In 2000, they decided to perform under the name Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone. However, the crafty promoters would invariably bill the show as “The Zombies.”
“The interest in The Zombies genuinely surprised us,” he said. “And it was reinforced when people kept asking for Zombies tunes. Rod and I were out here performing material from our solo careers and maybe two or three Zombies songs. It took us many years to agree to reactivate the Zombies catalogue and go out on tour as The Zombies. It took a long time to evolve and it wasn’t our idea in the beginning to reform The Zombies.”
By 2004, The Zombies were a working unit again, including Argent’s cousin Jim Rodford (formerly of The Kinks, and Argent), his son Steve Rodford on drums, and Keith Airey (brother of Deep Purple keyboardist Don Airey) on guitar (later replaced by Tom Toomey).
“We were aware that it was only two members of the original band, but it was almost inevitable and kind of forced on us.
People were interested in the Zombies repertoire,” said Blunstone.
The original five members did re-form briefly in 2004 at a benefit show for the ailing Atkinson who died shortly after. And in 2008, White and Grundy joined Blunstone and Argent and band upon Odyssey and Oracle’s 40th anniversary to perform the album in its entirety for a series of shows at Shepherds Bush Empire in London.
But while the latter day Zombies were clearly rooted in their past accomplishments, Blunstone and Argent were not content to only rest on their lofty laurels.
Earlier this year, The Zombies released a new album – Breathe Out, Breathe In which was lauded with very positive reviews in contemporary music magazines such as Q and Uncut.
“It’s always wonderful to receive critical acclaim, and we’ve also gotten praise from our peer group. Brian May [of Queen] was quoted as saying the album was great, so it’s really heartening,” said Blunstone.
“In many ways, for Rod and myself, it’s more exciting now than when we were teenagers. I don’t think we ever envisioned ourselves as being out on the road touring regularly again. When we got back together, it was after 20 years of working in the studio on records, films and commercials.
So this whole adventure, this incarnation of The Zombies, has been totally unexpected.
And because of that, it’s more exciting than if it had been planned.”
With zombies currently in fashion in all facets of pop culture, it should come as no surprise that it’s now the time of the season for The Zombies again.