While re-formations and re-unions are the order of the day in the nostalgia-hungry 21st Century Rock’n’Roll world, it must be said that THE ZOMBIES have been enjoying a remarkably fertile second life.
While they are rarely mentioned in the same hallowed breath as Britpop’s original 1960s frontrunners like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who or The Kinks, the original quintet – with drummer Hugh Grundy, bassist Chris White and now sadly deceased guitarist Paul Atkins joining prime movers Rod Argent (keyboards/ vocals) and vocalist Colin Blunstone – were actually a fully operational beat combo back in 1961, even before terms like ‘Merseybeat’ and ‘Beatlemania’ were introduced to the lexicon.
The band’s original incarnation enjoyed a chequered career which yielded classic hit singles like the evergreen ‘She’s Not There’ and a remarkable second studio album ‘Odessey & Oracle’, but by the time of the latter’s release in 1968, the band had decided to split, disillusioned by the sordid business-related side of life in the music industry. Little did they know that that off the back of the single ‘Time of the Season’, ‘Odessey & Oracle’ would take off commercially in the States. By then it was too late. Despite offers of lucrative tours, they had gone their separate ways. In Colin Blunstone’s case, he even left the business for a while, becoming a computer programmer for several years.
In time, Colin would be enticed back into music to begin a successful solo career, while Rod Argent (still writing with Chris White) would found the hard-rocking, anthemic Argent. The Zombies, it seemed, would remain little more than respected historical footnote until the year 2000 when Argent and Blunstone decided to get together to do some gigs.
“No-one’s more surprised than Rod and I when you consider what’s happened since,” says Colin Blunstone, still sounding slightly incredulous when he ponders this a decade later.
“Initially, we’d only intended to do five or six shows playing some Zombies material, but we were adamant it was meant to be billed as Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone. We didn’t want to use The Zombies name, but of course promoters began using it anyway. Before we knew it we’d become The Zombies again!”
Since then, Colin and Rod have had to get used to receiving the plaudits, not least for the remarkable ‘Odessey & Oracle’ album. Over the past few years, luminaries like Paul Weller, Badly Drawn Boy and Dave Grohl have cited it as one of the greatest albums of all time and its’ critical re-appraisal was celebrated with the ‘original’ Zombies touring the album in its’ entirety on the record’s 40th birthday in 2008.
“It struck us that we needed to mark the anniversary of the record’s release, though we weren’t sure how it would feel playing with the original guys,” says Colin.
“It was really funny because Chris White’s been a really successful writer and producer since The Zombies, but he hadn’t picked up a bass guitar since The Zombies finished at the end of 1967. Hugh Grundy had carried on playing drums, but only in local bands. Rod and I wondered if they’d still be able to play the songs, but of course they’d been rehearsing the songs like mad. They were note perfect and Rod and I were all over the place,” he laughs.
Rather like Love’s seminal ‘Forever Changes’, there’s something dreamily alluring and other-worldy about ‘Odessey & Oracle’. It’s a psychedelic pop classic which inhabits its’ own space. I ask Colin why he feels the album has been enjoying such a remarkable afterlife.
“The album really intrigues me too,” Colin replies.
“Recording it was a blast because somehow we got to record in Abbey Road in St. John’s Wood. It was literally just after The Beatles had finished ‘Sergeant Pepper’ and we inherited their engineers including the highly respected Geoff Emerick, not to mention some of the same instruments. I don’t know how we got the studio time there because Abbey Road was exclusively an EMI studio and we were on CBS!”
“Maybe some of The Beatles’ stardust rubbed off on us,” he continues, all too modestly.
“We’d never had the luxury of recording with 8 tracks at the time. It was the first time we could track harmonies and extra keyboards. When we did the tour playing the whole album in 2008, we got in extra backing singers and extra keyboards to reproduce it as exactly as we could. It was exhilarating because we never had the chance to tour the album the first time around.”
“As to the way people have re-discovered the album,” Colin considers, “it’s been one of those organic word-of-mouth things which started about 15 years ago. From there on, it’s sold in considerable numbers and...Well for it to be cited as an influence by people like Paul Weller and Dave Grohl has just been phenomenal. What’s interesting is that often it’s all young guys at the shows now and you just know a lot of them are in the local bands coming up. It’s brought us a lot of respect we never had before.”
“Ultimately, I think there’s some seriously good song-writing on ‘Odessey & Oracle’ from both Rod and Chris White, that’s why I think it’s stood the test of time. With hindsight, of course, that album should have been a brand new beginning, not the end of a cycle. We’d learned a lot about stagecraft by 1967 and Rod and Chris were both writing at the peak of their abilities.”
Thankfully, the re-animated Zombies have been able to make the most of their second coming. May 2011 brings us the release of their third new album since those fateful shows in 2000. Called ‘Breathe Out, Breathe In’, it’s a typically consummate set full of sublime melodies and topped off by Blunstone’s transcendent vocals.
I ask Colin whether touring ‘Odessey & Oracle’ in 2008 had been the catalyst for the new songs.
“Not really, because we’re always working on new things and writing songs for a new record tends to be a two to three year cycle anyway,” he reveals.
“Rod tends to be the catalyst. He’s very much the leader and the band’s driving force. He had worked most of the songs up in demo form and presented them to us with sampled guitar and bass parts and that formed the basis.”
The present touring line-up of The Zombies also featured on the new album. Father and son rhythm section Jim and Steve Rodford have been working with Rod and Colin for a long time now, although guitarist Tom Toomey has been on board for about a year, taking over from Keith Airey. How do the guys take to Rod’s almost ‘complete’ method of demo-ing the songs?
“They’re absolutely fine about it,” says Colin.
“They’re masters of their instruments. They listen carefully and quite often suggest variations on Rod’s ideas and those variations are usually taken on board. All three of them are brilliant and bring colours of their own to the songs.”
How does it affect Jim and Steve being father and son? Does Steve call Jim (also Rod Argent’s cousin) “Dad”?
“No, no,” laughs Colin. “They’re more like mates, but then they’re so tight as players and they work together all the time anyway, they do a thing called ‘The Rodford Files’ and play with lots of other people outside of The Zombies. They know each other inside out. You can’t believe the head-start that gives us as a band.”
While many of Rod Argent’s songs – including ‘She’s Not There’ and ‘Time of the Season’ - are regarded as classics, Colin Blunstone can also pen a mean tune. One of the new album’s stand-outs is his ‘Any Other Way’ which originally turned up on 2009’s Blunstone album ‘The Ghost of You & Me.’
“Yeah, it’s very different on the new record,” Colin notes.
“The original version was recorded with a string quartet, whereas it has a totally different quality with the band, although I like it a lot. I think people often assume I don’t play guitar because I just sing with The Zombies, but I write on guitar quite happily. I’m not as prolific as Rod, but I know he always liked ‘Any Other Way’ and we’d been playing it live for at least a year before we recorded it. The lyrics are mostly autobiographical, though it’s based upon bits of three or four events, so it’s not that straightforward,” he finishes, laughing.
Elsewhere, The Beatles subconsciously still influence The Zombies music. The new album’s hardest rocker ‘Play it for Real’ seems to refer to the Fab Four’s ‘Hey Bulldog’ while the dreamy, Mellotron-infused ‘Shine on Sunshine’ isn’t a million miles from the band’s ‘Sergeant Pepper’-influenced ‘Odessey & Oracle’ sound.
“Rod and I are enormous Beatles fans and the ‘Hey Bulldog’ reference has been pointed out to me,” admits Colin. “But it’s only a subconscious thing. ‘Play it for Real’ is certainly not based upon it or anything. About a year back, we did listen to ‘The White Album’ a lot which probably made a difference to the way ‘Play it for Real’ ended up.”
“’Shine on Sunshine,” was originally one of Argent’s (the band – Ed) songs, but we’ve re-worked it and a lot of the chords have been changed around. I think Rod always felt it would be possible to get a lot more out of that song and also ‘Christmas for the Free’. As for me, I was always a huge fan of Argent’s music anyway, so it’s a challenge for me to bring something of my own to those songs, but I love singing them and getting right inside them.”
Colin Blunstone is one of Rock’s few 24-carat gentlemen and it’s been an absolute pleasure for W&H to speak with him. Before we go, however, we feel we must bring up the fact that it’s been a whopping 50 years this year since The Zombies first rehearsed together. Did he ever feel he’d still be here, playing with and talking about the band a startling five decades later?
“Not for one second,” says Colin flatly.
“I’ll tell you a secret. Until literally the last few years I’d be working or touring and I’d see adverts for jobs and think to myself “hmmm...I could get into that.” I’d always subconsciously been searching for my ‘proper’ job!”
“But you see,” he explains, “in 1964 when we had a hit with ‘She’s Not There’ a career as a recording artist was two to three years at the max. It wasn’t considered to be something you’d do for a lifetime. Sometimes I struggle to believe that I have been doing it for so long.”
However, if surviving the 60s and 70s has taught Colin, Rod and the boys anything it’s been to pace themselves.
“Yeah, we still play for two hours a night,” says Colin, “and we’ve still got lots of energy, but these days we don’t go to a party afterwards. We eat sensibly and sleep well. That way we can still give of our best.”
Wise words and professional to the end. That’s The Zombies and their longevity speaks for itself. All hail the return of one of Brit(ish) Pop’s very finest.
The Zombies online
Colin Blunstone website
Rod Argent website
**The Zombies new album ‘Breathe Out, Breathe In’ is out on Red House/ Absolute.