The Time Of The Zombies

The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone talks with Pollstar about the band’s early days, his friendship with Rod Argent and the current tour featuring a start-to-finish rendition of one of the group’s most acclaimed albums.

A funny thing happened when a teenage band walked into a recording studio for the first time during the early 1960s.  Planning to record covers of R&B songs, the group ended up doing its own material.  Plus, the rhythm guitarist became the band’s lead singer.

The band was and “She’s Not There” was the song that came out of those sessions.  Released in 1964, the single quickly climbed the charts, and would eventually earn position 297 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time.

Other hits followed, including “Tell Her No” and “Time Of The Season,” the latter hailing from the band’s epic album, Odessey and Oracle.

Although The Zombies broke up before those songs became international hits, the band’s music lived on, and seemed quite at home in the progressive rock era as well as in the soft rock years of the early ’70s.

Singer Colin Blunstone and keyboardist Rod Argent have kept the band’s legacy alive during the past decade.  The current tour also includes bassist/co-songwriter Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy, marking the first time in five decades the surviving members of the 1962-1967 lineup have toured together in the U.S.

And there is a most excellent reason for the reunion.  The Zombies are performing Odessey and Oracle in its entirety on the current tour.  But don’t expect the shows to be total classic rock experiences.  The Zombies have a new album.  Arriving Oct. 9, Still Got That Hunger (available here) sounds as fresh and contemporary as any disc released this year.  But then, The Zombies’ music has always been timeless.

Photo: Andrew Eccles

Do you and Rod Argent have any idea as to how many bands the Zombies might have influenced over the years?

To be absolutely honest, no I don’t, but I have to say it is one of the biggest thrills of any musician’s career to think there are bands that have been influenced by us. I know lots of bands have cited us as an influence.  Dave Grohl, Tom Petty … I know, in England Paul Weller is always talking about Odessey and Oracle.  He always says that if he talks to someone about Odessey and Oracle and they don’t know it, he goes and buys a copy for them.

When artists of that caliber mention that they’ve either been influenced by us or show an interest in what we’ve done, it’s an incredible thrill for all the band.  I think peer group acceptance is one of the most exciting things that can happen to a musician.  We’re all hoping that musicians who we really rate will one day say something encouraging about what we do. 

“She’s Not There” was released in 1964 but always seemed at home in the early progressive rock era that would  began a few years later.  Did you and the rest of the band ever feel as if you were ahead of your time?

When we recorded that track we were 18 years old and we were just so excited to be in a professional recording studio; it was all new to us.  That first session was very dramatic because we were produced by a great producer called Ken Jones.  About two weeks before the session he said to us, “Of course, you can always write something for the session.”  We were just going to do some R&B standards.  Then he went on and talked about other things.  It didn’t make a big impression on me at all.  But Rod Argent went away and two days later came back with “She’s Not There.”  I mean, where did that come from?  I didn’t even know he could write songs.  We all knew it was a special song, right from the beginning.

When we were first in the studio, all we were doing was finding out about how a studio worked.  We weren’t in a position to think we were ahead of our time or we needed to get more out of the studio than was currently available.  That first session was an evening session. …  The recording engineer was a fine engineer but he had been at a wedding all day and he was fighting drunk.  It got worse and worse as the evening went on and he was very verbally aggressive.  A half an hour into my first recording session I was convinced the music business was not for me.  This guy was crazy.

Luckily, he collapsed and had to [be carried] out of the studio.  His assistant was Gus Dudgeon, who went on to be the main producer for Elton John. He produced David Bowie, Kiki Dee, and many other artists.  That was Gus’ first session and that was our first session. So there was a lot going on.

The original Zombies in the ’60s had about a three-year professional career, 1964-1967.  As time went by, we all felt Ken Jones was a great producer, but it became apparent to us that we needed to try something different.  Rod Argent and Chris White really wanted to be in charge of the production themselves.  One of the main reasons for doing Odessey and Oracle was for the band to produce itself with Rod and Chris in the producer’s chair.  That’s just something that evolved over three years.  We went from 1964 and never having been in a commercial studio, to 1967, with the help of the wonderful engineers at Abbey Road, Chris and Rod producing the band, producing Odessey and Oracle.

Didn’t the Odessey and Oracle sessions have its own drama?

All albums have drama. (laughs)

But there were disagreements about certain songs.

One song in particular. Over the three years, one of the things, I think, that fascinated us was … The Zombies always had a hit record … somewhere in the world.  It’s hard to imagine now but very often we didn’t know until a year or later that we’d had a hit record.  It’s kind of sad because if we had realized in an international sense, how successful we’d been, maybe the band would have kept going. But we tended to focused on the U.K. and U.S. charts.  I have to admit we hadn’t had a lot of success on [those charts], and that’s probably one of the reasons the band split.

And the other thing … the band made so little money from three years of continual touring.  We ended up with absolutely nothing.

At Abbey Road we had a very small budget. CBS agreed to give us £1,000, which even in those days was an incredibly small budget.  But on the other side of things we managed to get studio time at Abbey Road, which was very unusual because we were a CBS band and Abbey Road, as far as I know, was exclusively for the use of EMI artists up until that moment.  We [actually] followed the Beatles who had just come out having recorded Sgt. Pepper. We didn’t see them, but we were the next band in. And we were working with the same engineers, Geoff Emerick and Peter Vince, who were the best engineers in the world. So we were incredibly fortunate in that respect.  But because we had such a small budget, we had to rehearse extensively before we went into the studio.  We knew which songs we were recording and the arrangements were set.  When we went into the studio what we were looking for was a performance. We were not working out how to play a song.  We had to do it like that because we had such a small budget.  So it did get a little bit pressured at times.

The last song we recorded was “Time Of The Season.”  The writing of the song was finished in the morning before we recorded it in the afternoon.  I wasn’t that familiar with the song and this is where it started to get a little tense.  Rod was in the control room trying to help me struggle through singing this song that had just been written. … I was taking a bit of time.  Rod was saying to me from the control room, “You’re not singing it quite right.” And I’m trying to get it right and it got to the point where I more or less said to him, with very colorful language, “If you know the song so well, you come in here and sing it.”  And Rod is saying to me, “You’re the lead singer in the band. You stand there until you get it right.”

The thing that makes me laugh is that at the time I’m singing, “It’s the time of the season for loving.”  And Rod and I are practically at blows while I’m singing this profound song about the beauty of love. …  But I’m eternally grateful that I did stand there until I got it right. And I think that single went on to sell more than 2 million copies, so it was worth it.

The recording went quite well. There wasn’t a lot of dramas in Odessey and Oracle as I remember.  We just had to really focus on recording it because we didn’t have any time to spare.

When someone brings you a song to record, how do they convey the melody, phrasing and other aspects of the composition to you?

Rod will always say he learned to write songs [by] writing for my voice. Even if he’s involved in another project he’ll be hearing, subconsciously, my voice.  And it’s the same the other way around. I learned to sing professionally [by] singing Rod’s songs.  So we have a very straightforward system.  Rod is a wonderful keyboard player, he’s a very good singer.  We will sit down together and he will play me a song and that is how I will learn it to start with.

In the past, although he’s played it to me, he’s made a CD of the song and I’d go away and learn it like that.  More recently we don’t do that.  It’s all done around the piano. We’ll get together as many times as it takes for me to get that song into my mind.  Because we’ve been working together for such a long time, it usually comes quite quickly.  He can probably play me the song three or four times and I’ll more or less be singing it after that. 

I think your relationship with Rod and the recording process you work through is what makes Zombies songs so special.

We do discuss phrasing.  It’s not just the melody and lyrics.  The phrasing is incredibly important.  We will discuss every single phrase in a song.  It’s not just a line and not just a verse.  We break it right down so that we know exactly what was in Rod’s mind when he wrote the song.

What you just said I think I could apply to every Zombies song and what made those recordings unique.

I joined the band as a rhythm guitarist and it was just chance that I ended up as the lead singer.  At our first rehearsal I didn’t know Rod.  I knew one of the guys in the band who actually left.  He was the original bass player, Paul Arnold.  He’s the guy who thought of the name “The Zombies,” but he very much wanted to become a doctor and his studies didn’t allow him the time to rehearse and commit to the band.  So he left and Chris White took his place long before we ever made a record. At our first rehearsal I didn’t know the other guys.  They went to another school.

We took a break. We had just played an instrumental called “Malaguena.”  That’s the first thing we ever played.  Rod was going to be the lead singer so he actually hadn’t done anything.  We had a coffee break and Rod went over to an old broken down piano that just happened to be in the corner of this rehearsal room.  He played “Nut Rocker” by B. Bumble and The Stingers.  It’s quite a complicated, sophisticated piece and I was absolutely amazed that he could play that.  I said, “You have to play keyboards in the band. That’s sensational.”  But he really fought that because he felt a rock ’n’ roll band should just be three guitars, and not [have] a keyboard.  Eventually we talked him around to playing keyboards.  He will always say that at that same rehearsal that he heard me singing a Ricky Nelson song. We’ve never remembered what the song was but it might have been “Poor Little Fool.” He said to me, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll play keyboards in the band if you’ll be the lead singer.”  And that’s how I became the lead singer in The Zombies.  It was never my attention.  I thought I was going to stand at the back of the stage and play a few chords very quietly.  I ended up at the very front but I was a very unsophisticated singer.  I had to be led a bit and shown, especially in the early years, what was needed. … We discussed every single phrase, every line, every nuance.  Nothing was left to chance.

The name of the band has a different meaning than it did at that time. What kind of mental image did the name inspire in your mind when the band was starting out?

I think Rod had sort of a vague idea of what a zombie was.  I’m not even sure I knew what a zombie was when I was 15.  I kind of knew it was what you might call a dead … voodoo-ish person.  I had a vague idea.  The main thing was we were desperate for an original name.  In the very, very early days we had been The Mustangs for about a week, and we had been The Sundowners for a couple of days.  This was right at the very beginning in 1961.  No one was very happy with those names.  Then Paul Arnold came up with the idea of The Zombies.  Some guys in the band might have had more of an idea of what it meant than others.  I don’t think I really understood what it meant.  But it sort of stuck.  It was more important that it was a memorable name than what it really meant.  I think  there is kind of a … dichotomy between the kind of music that we played and the image the name “The Zombies” conjures up.  There’s a huge difference, I think, between the kind of music we’re named for and the rather savage, dangerous thoughts that the Zombies name brings up.  We all work on the theory that once a name is known by the media and public, no one stops to think about what it means.  It’s just the name of that band and they make these records.  We don’t analyze the name. … With The Zombies, I don’t think there was a lot of deep thought about what zombies are or what they represent.  It was a catchy name that just stuck. … Of course, there’s a whole zombie culture now that didn’t exist then. So we were ahead of our time. (laughs)  It’s interesting how things go.  People now probably think that we thought of the name because there were loads of zombie films, magazines and TV series, but there wasn’t any of that then.  It was really an imaginative idea, but it wasn’t mine.  It was Paul Arnold’s idea. He’s a doctor in Edmonton.

Do you stay in touch with your former Zombie bandmates?

Yes. Paul was in England about three weeks ago and I had dinner with him and his wife. When we play up in Edmonton he always comes to the show.  We always introduce him to the audience and he takes a bow.

Sadly, Paul Atkinson, our original lead guitarist passed away, but I’m in contact with his widow, who lives in Los Angeles.  We’re just embarking on a tour now with the other two original members. Chris White, who took over for Paul [Arnold] very early on, and Hugh Grundy, our original drummer, is coming over.  And we’re going to play the whole of Odessey and Oracle.  In the first half we’re going to feature our new album, Still Got That Hunger, and we’ll be playing five songs from [that].

Do you see The Zombies as sort of a prelude to the progressive rock era?

It’s very difficult to judge yourself or judge your own work.  We were just playing the music that came naturally to us without an awful lot of deep questioning or deep thoughts about why we were doing it or what it meant.  We found that we had two prolific and sophisticated writers in the band in Rod Argent and Chris White.  In a large extent we were trying to make the best we could of their songs.  That was kind of the way the band worked, the modus operandi.

Do you have a favorite Zombies song?

I think I have many but “She’s Not There” will always be very special because it was our first record and it changed our lives.  “Care Of Cell 44” is probably my favorite track on Odessey and Oracle.

The business of marketing music has changed dramatically since The Zombies made their first record.  What do you see as some of the biggest changes?

In 1964 and probably up to 1990 or something, you would tour to support an album. Album sales were huge and they were one of your main income streams. Now … there are very few retail outlets. There are no record shops.  It’s hard to sell records.  Instead of touring to promote an album, it’s in reverse. You make an album to promote a tour, pretty much.  Record sales have gone through the floor. What you have to think about now is the total package.  You really have to write the material yourself.  Yes, you make records, but you must be a touring band as well. It’s very important to tour.  Whereas before, you could just make records and you could be a credible artist, and be financially secure.  I don’t think that’s possible anymore.  Of course, you have to get into things like merchandising.  There was no merchandising in 1964 [and] there was very little merchandising in 1990, but now it’s incredibly important.  You have to be in control and be active in all areas of your music career.  Which wasn’t true then.

Are you doing the VIP experiences, the meet-&-greets – the value added tickets?

We are doing that. … We don’t arrange it.  It’s done separately for us.  Maybe other bands do get involved with [the planning] but for us, we have to focus on the show, and how we’re going to get to the show. We’ve got to fly a lot of people from Europe to the States.  That’s a mammoth operation just to start off with – work permits, hotels, travel.  We are on the periphery of the arrangement of all that kind of thing.  But VIP and meet-&-greet, we tend to leave that to our agency.  It’s great for us to meet people who are interested in the band and the show. It’s a perk for us.

What do you see during a Zombies performance when you look out into the audience?

We see an audience of extremely mixed ages, from very young kids in their teens right through to people who have followed us from 1964. I find that really heartening that there’s such a wide cross section of ages in the audiences.  We see people who are thrilled to hear those classic hits like “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No” and “Time Of The Season.”  We see people who are thrilled to hear tracks from Odessey and Oracle, but we also see people who are thrilled to hear brand new songs. We’ve always written new songs, always.  We’re not a band that would just go out there and play old records. It’s amazing that the new songs seem to fit so well in a show that will feature some songs that are 50 years old.  Another thing that is so heartening is that the new songs get such an incredibly warm reaction from the audience.  Sometimes the reactions to the new songs are just as strong as it is to the songs people are really familiar with.

Is there anything you’ve wanted to tell the world about The Zombies but no one has asked you the right question?

I went out for a walk with Rod this morning and we stopped and had a coffee.  We talked about something, I won’t say it never comes up [in an interview] but it comes up very rarely.  Because people like to talk to us about the ’60s, the British Invasion and the big hits. … For both of us, one of the things we’re most proud of are the advances we’ve made with this incarnation of the band since we first started coming back to the States around the year 2000.  We’ve come a long way with the help of [management company] TCI, and without a hit record we have built quite a new career for ourselves.  And that career has been built, primarily, on live performances.  It’s really heartening to know we’re getting through to people. … The audiences have been steadily growing, year after year. To us, that is as big a thrill as recording “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No,” “Time Of The Season,” or Odessey and Oracle.  To know that at this time in our careers, the autumn of our careers, shall we say, we’re able to build a whole new audience based purely on live performances.

Photo: Photo by Andrew Eccles
“We were just playing the music that came naturally to us without an awful lot of deep questioning or deep thoughts about why we were doing it or what it meant.”

The Zombies’ upcoming shows:

Oct. 3 – Provincetown, Mass., Provincetown Town Hall
Oct. 6 – Boston, Mass., The Wilbur
Oct. 8 – Washington, D.C., Lincoln Theatre
Oct. 9 – New York, N.Y., The Concert Hall At The New York Society for Ethical Culture
Oct. 10 – Cranston, R.I., RI Center for the Arts at Park Theatre
Oct. 11 – Glenside, Pa., Keswick Theatre
Oct. 13 – Ridgefield, Conn., Ridgefield Playhouse
Oct. 14 – Munhall, Pa., Carnegie Library Music Hall Of Homestead
Oct. 15 – Kent, Ohio, The Kent Stage
Oct. 16 – Merrillville, Ind., Star Plaza Theatre
Oct. 17 – South Milwaukee, Wis., South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center
Oct. 19 – Denver, Colo., Paramount Theatre
Oct. 21 – Seattle, Wash., Benaroya Hall
Oct. 22 – Portland, Ore., Revolution Hall
Oct. 24 – Beverly Hills, Calif., Saban Theatre
Oct. 25 – Sacramento, Calif., Crest Theatre
Oct. 26 – Redding, Calif., Cascade Theatre
Oct. 27 – San Francisco, Calif., The Fillmore
Nov. 10 – London, England, The Forum
Nov. 20 – Barcelona, Spain, Bikini
Nov. 21 – Madrid, Spain, Sala Arena
Nov. 22 – Bilbao, Spain, Kafe Antzokia
Nov. 24 – Marseille, France, Espace Julien
Nov. 25 – Vaulx En Velin, France, Centre Charlie Chaplin Culturel
Nov. 26 – Amneville, France,  Seven Casino
Nov. 27 – Paris, France, La Maroquinerie
Nov. 28 – Guyancourt, France, La Batterie
Dec. 1 – Brighton, England, The Haunt
Dec. 2 – Cardiff, Wales, The Globe
Dec. 3 – Bristol, England, Bristol Fleece
Dec. 4 – Birmingham, England, Library Theatre
Dec. 5 – Norwich, England, Norwich  Open
Dec. 7 – Leeds, England, Brudenell Social Club
Dec. 8 – Glasgow, Scotland, Oran Mor
Dec. 9 – Manchester, England, Club Academy
Dec. 10 – Liverpool, England, The Arts Club Loft
Dec. 12 – Newcastle, England,  Riverside 
Feb. 26-March 1 – Miami, FL  Norwegian Cruise Line – Norwegian Pearl (The Moody Blues Cruise)

For more information, please visit The Zombies’ website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, Instagram account and YouTube channel.