Recently I was super lucky and super excited to have the chance to catch up with Colin Blunstone, lead vocalist of iconic 60′s band The Zombies. He is a mighty interesting chap! He took the time to regale me with the amazing story that is The Zombies, who managed to succeed when everything was against them! The Zombies shaped music history and their album Odessey & Oracle is highly regarded among the rest of the best. With Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent from the original line-up, The Zombies will be invading Leeds tonight for one night only! So if you are lucky enough to have bagged yourself a ticket to the show at Brudenell Social Club tonight, you are in for a treat!
STEPH: Firstly I’d like to talk about your album, Odessey & Oracle which is rated as number 80 on the top 500 greatest albums of all time… but then at the same time you are seen as one of the most underrated bands in rock history. Why do you think you were so unappreciated?
COLIN: Well I think it could be something to do with the fact that the band ended its career before the album was even released in the UK in 1967 and a year later in the Us. It was a funny way they did it, because a couple of singles were released off the album and they weren’t commercial successes and we just felt amongst the band that we’d gone as far as we could go… but when you look back with the benefit of hindsight, that we should end the band before the album was even released seems to a little bit premature really! Just, I think we had been on the road for three years, constantly. And I think probably everyone was a bit tired… in those days we literally travelled in the back of a very old, unconverted truck so it wasn’t very luxurious and I think it probably took it out of us! And we had worked continually for three years, we had been to America three times, we’d been to the far east, we’d worked all our way through Europe, soooo the feeling was that perhaps it was time we moved on and started new projects. So when the album was finally released in America, there was no band to support it…
STEPH: Constantly being on the road must be really hard!
COLIN: But there was a single on the album called “Time of The Season” which was never a hit in this country and it’s been release 2 or 3 times but it became a number 1 America! The record company to start with weren’t very keen on it, but one of their star producers called Al Kooper and he just thought it was a really special album and if it hadn’t been for Al Kooper it would never have been released in America, so you just get this feeling that this album and especially this single had a sort of a life of its own. Everything was against it! The band had finished, the record company wasn’t interested in it, and then ONE GUY on the staff of CBS really rated it, and he forced CBS into releasing the album and then ONE DEEJAY (I like the way he says “deejayy”!), in a place called Boise Idaho, started playing it and he wouldn’t stop playing this Time of The Season, and from that ONE DEEJAYY, it spread to the next state and then the next state, and then without anybody really promoting it or marketing it, it eventually over a period of months became a hit. It’s a phenomenal story really, because everything was against Time of The Season but somehow the single went on the sell a couple of a million copies, and the album, although it was never really a big hit at the time, sold consistently over the years, now its 40-something years and it probably sells more now than it did in 1967!
STEPH: That’s amazing! It does seem like it’s got a life of its own.
COLIN: Yeah, nobody really knows why, other than its just word of mouth.
STEPH: Yeah, that’s a shame that it was at the time when you were actually all together!
COLIN: Well its really funny, because I don’t think the other guys in the band really mind, they’ve always given me the impression when they talk about it that they thought it was time to move on and from the moment they decided that, that’s what they wanted to do and no regrets… I’m the only one! And I think regret might be too strong a word, but I am curious to know what might have happened…
COLIN: It seemed to me that particularly the two main writers, who were Rod Argent and Chris White, and they wrote the whole album… that they’d really come of age as writers, and I would have liked to have known what would have come next… in a way we know because they both wrote for me as a solo artist, and certainly my first two albums were really quite successful, and they wrote and produced those songs and of course then went on to form the band Argent, and they were a huge success in the early 70s as well… It might not have been quite the same as if The Zombies had stayed together, as soon as you change the dynamics of a band… so I think I alone am curious about what would have happened.
STEPH: I’m curious too!
COLIN: Yeah the thing is, having a number 1 single out in America and not being out there and touring… first of all its just great when you’ve got a huge hit, of course it is, and the other thing is that you’re helping the record and helping the album, and I think that’s the main reason why the album wasn’t really a big hit, even in America… Because there was no band!
STEPH: Well you recorded the album at Abbey Road Studios; a lot of artists have said that recording there it has a really magical atmosphere… Do you think that kind of added to how special the record was?
COLIN: I think it did add! The Beatles had just finished Sergeant Peppers… about a month before we went into the studio, it might have even been less, it might have been weeks. Sergeant Pepper’s was considered one of the best albums of all time and we inherited the same studios and the same engineers more importantly and they had instigated quite a few recording developments during that album and we benefitted from that. So we found that we were recording on 8-track machines, whereas we’d always been recording on 4-track before… whatever it was, at the time we were at the real cutting edge of the recording industry. No one remembers how we were lucky enough to be in there, because everyone wanted to record in Abbey Road, and generally as far as I know only EMI recorded in Abbey Road because they owned it! So I don’t remember and neither does anyone else, how we managed to get in there. But 10 of the 12 tracks were recorded in studio 3 in Abbey Road, and the Beatles did record some tracks in studio 3. We recorded with Geoff Emerick and Peter Vince, who were two of the Abbey Road engineers who worked with The Beatles, so we were very fortunate to be there at that time… Abbey Road is still one of the best studios in the world, but at that time it was probably the best studio in the world.
COLIN: Well Rod Argent and Chris White shared a flat with an artist called Terry Quirk, and myself, Chris White and Terry Quirk all went to the same school… so there was a connection from school really, so it was kind of natural to ask him to have a go at doing the artwork for the album… And in those days of course there were no computers, so it is actually a painting. It wasn’t discovered until it had gone to the printers that there was a spelling mistake in the word Odessey… and I wasn’t involved with the artwork at all but I am the world’s worst speller.
STEPH: Haha, so you wouldn’t have known anyway.
COLIN: Exactly, but the thing that really intrigued me is that Rod made up this really phony story about why it was done on-purpose… something to do with a play on the word ode and I can’t even follow it after that, but he also told it to the rest of the band! And then we were doing an interview about 2 years ago and Rod just said, “Yeah of course it was a mistake and we just covered it with this story”, and he had been telling me that for 40 years! I was absolutely gob smacked! And I stopped the interview and said, “hold on, are you telling me that after all these years of telling this story, you made it all up?” And yeah, he had to own up! So although it is a very striking cover, there is a little error in it… but in a way that actually added to the interest in the artwork. Its funny how a bit of a disaster at the time, can actually add a bit of mystery and a bit of intrigue about the sleeve.
STEPH: Yeah, good story! So the Zombies were one of the “British Invasion Groups”, and I heard that one point while you were touring America, you were doing 7 shows a day?
COLIN: That’s true, we were… If I could just say about the “British Invasion”, I don’t think anyone was aware of being a part of a musical movement at the time, I think it’s only afterwards that you can see, that yes there was a “British Invasion” and yes we were part of it… When we first went over we did a show in New York, called “Murray the K Show”, Murray was probably the most powerful deejay in the States at the time, and he used to put on a Christmas and an Easter show at The Brooklyn Fox, and we were there around Christmas 1964/65… that period, and it went on for 10 days. But in those days, very often, they would have a lot of acts on the bill… there were probably 15. When we were doing 7 shows a day, we were only singing two songs, but we had to be there from 9 in the morning till 7 or 8 o’clock at night. It was very interesting; we were playing with very big artists at the time… Dionne Warick, The Shangri Las, Patti LaBelle, The Shirelles, lots of big name artists, especially when you think just 6 months earlier we had just been a local band playing in pubs and clubs around Hertfordshire… and here we are in New York, playing with Internationally famous artists. It was a huge leap for us, very very exciting.
STEPH: Well that leads me on to my next question… you were a lot more successful in the US that the UK… Why do you think this was?
COLIN: Mostly what we think is that whoever it was in the press office, looking for some angle, thought that it would be a good idea to create this story about how we were really busy doing our A-Levels, which is just ridiculous. People want their bands to be wild and dangerous, they don’t want them to be academic geeks… at only 18/19 we didn’t know any better, we took their word for it and I think it really harmed the band… The other thing was that we had some really terrible photographs taken, from those first sessions that we did and they follow you through your whole career! We could be in the Far East or Scandinavia and we could turn up and see those photos from 40 years ago… and they are absolutely awful … So I don’t think it did us any good. Whereas America was 6 or 7 months later, so we had time to sort things out…
STEPH: Ha, sort your image out…
CHRIS: Yes! It sounds so contrived I know, but it is very important, especially how people perceive you right at the beginning of your career. I think it really harmed us, I really do.
STEPH: Well your melodies and musical brilliance have been compared to the likes of The Beach Boys and The Beatles, who have been hugely successful, when you were first starting out who influenced you musically?
CHRIS: Well I think that’s one of the strengths and the weaknesses of The Zombies, is that they took their inspiration from such a wide spectrum of music. I know that there are classical influences in the songs that we wrote and played… and Modern Jazz, Rhythm & Blues, The Blues, Rock & Roll and Pop. There were influences from all angles and that made the music very different, but especially for the media, it sometimes confused them. They like to align you with one specific kind of music and it was very hard to do that with The Zombies, so I think that sometimes went against us as well… But you can only be what you are, we were a very naturally evolving band, and we had to learn our music craft in the glare of world publicity. You should always be really grateful for whatever success you have, but if we’d have had a choice, it would have been better if it could have come a little bit later for us really, so that we could have made our mistakes outside of the glare of the International press. For instance it is well documented that The Beatles went to Germany and played the band in, in Hamburg…
STEPH: Even so, since you first started out you have influenced the sounds of so many bands like The Kinks, The Byrds, The Doors… other than yourselves are there any bands that you’d say have contributed to shaping music as it is today?
CHRIS: The Beatles. Head and shoulders above anybody else. Not only did they change the face of contemporary music, they established that a band could write their own material. They opened the door to the world markets, especially America, for all UK bands. It is very hard to get success in the states, The Beatles opened the floodgates and then of course you had “The British Invasion”. But The Beatles are head and shoulders above anybody else, absolutely.
STEPH: There are also loads of artists who’ve done covers of The Zombies’ songs; some really great ones like Elliot Smith, Tom Petty and Foo Fighters… do you have any favorites?
COLIN: Well I haven’t heard a cover of a Zombies song that I haven’t liked and you’ve named three artists there that I think are absolutely fantastic. I would just add Santana’s version of “She’s Not There”, which I thought was spectacular; I really liked that as well… But all the covers I’ve heard I’ve really liked!
STEPH: That’s good! There is a 20 year gap in the touring activity of The Zombies, have you noticed any stark differences between how it is to tour now, to how it was then?
CHRIS: I think there are huge similarities! Main differences… I think us personally, we understand the business a lot better now and we’re able to tour in a more comfortable manner to what we did then. It was really just thrown together in the 60’s and just hope for the best! So I think we have worked out a more comfortable way to tour, but otherwise it’s very similar I think. One difference is we don’t have any current hit records and of course we did in the 60’s, so there was more of a frenzy associated with our concerts in the 60s… we would hope for a good solid applause now, rather than a frenzy, but otherwise really similar!
STEPH: Well as part of a series of live shows you are going to be performing in Leeds at Brudenell Social Club, have you played in Leeds before and are you looking forward to it?
CHRIS: We have played in Leeds before and I’m really looking forward to coming back! But we haven’t played at this venue.
STEPH: Well it’s a really good venue, so you will have a good time definitely and I am super looking forward to the show!
THE ZOMBIES – Time of The Season… To get you in the mood for tonight, the song that had a life of its own!