The Zombies were part of the first British Invasion, along with the Beatles, the Stones, et al. What made them stand out were the delicate vocals by Colin Blunstone on hits like “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No,” and “Time of the Season.” After recording the brilliant album, Odessey and Oracle (1968), now considered one of the masterpieces of the decade, the band members—Blunstone, Rod Argent, Chris White, Hugh Grundy and Paul Atkinson—initially (and amicably) went their separate ways. Blunstone pursued a solo career, releasing several albums with his own songs, and occasionally reunited with his Zombie bandmates for various projects. In recent years, The Zombies have begun touring again, most notably with Brian Wilson in 2019. They will perform a livestream concert on Sept. 18, and hope to hit the road again for real in 2022. Valerie Simadis spoke with Blunstone for PKM.
Colin Blunstone, lead vocalist of the original British Invasion band The Zombies, has been with the group since their humble beginnings at St Albans School.
“The strange thing about The Zombies was that it was a school band,” Blunstone recalled. “We went to one of two schools, all based in a city called St Albans, just north of London.”
Shortly after his meeting with classmate Paul Arnold, Blunstone became the rhythm guitarist, and eventual lead singer of The Zombies (then known as The Mustangs). The group became established in their hometown of St Albans, most notably playing the Old Verulamians Rugby Club. By 1964, The Zombies had built up quite a local following, and they entered a beat-group competition sponsored by The London Evening News – which they won.
The Zombies were offered a recording contract with Decca Records and produced hits such as “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No”, which were released in 1964 and 1965, respectively.
“She’s Not There” – The Zombies, on Hullabaloo TV show in 1965, replete with young women who are ‘not there’:
In 1968, The Zombies’ recorded Odessey and Oracle, the songs on which were written by Rod Argent and Chris White. It has since gained stature as one of the greatest albums of the decade, though at the time, Blunstone notes, “There were a couple of good reviews, but to a large extent, it was totally ignored. That the recognition came after 15 or 20 years, in a way, it was more exciting than if you’ve got recognition at the time.”
Indeed, The Zombies would receive further recognition for this masterpiece, and their entire recorded legacy, by being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019.
“Time of the Season” – The Zombies, performed at their 2019 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:
After his time with The Zombies, Blunstone released several singles under the pseudonym Neil MacArthur, and went on to record his first solo album (under his own name), One Year, in 1971.
The final track off the album, “Say You Don’t Mind” peaked at No. 15 on the UK Singles Chart. That album and his later solo recordings also allowed Blunstone to develop as a songwriter (he’d only penned two songs during his Zombies career).
The following year, Blunstone embarked on a solo tour, opening for Electric Light Orchestra on their very first tour. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, Blunstone’s distinctive feathery vocals were heard on some of Alan Parsons’ albums, including the singles “The Eagle Will Rise Again” (from the album Pyramid) and “Old and Wise” (from the album Eye in the Sky) which rose to No. 21 on the U.S. Billboard chart.
“Old and Wise” – The Alan Parsons Project, lead vocals by Colin Blunstone:
In 1984, Blunstone joined up with Ian Bairnson, Peter Bardens, and David Paton to form the band Keats. While the band was short-lived, they released a single, “Turn Your Heart Around,” as well as a self-titled album.
By the late 1990s, Blunstone embarked on a solo tour. “I got into a situation where I didn’t really have a regular keyboard player and I had six more gigs on the end of the tour,” he recalled. “I phoned Rod [Argent]—the original keyboard player for The Zombies—and I really didn’t think he’d do it. I told him ‘I’ve got six days coming up. Would you consider playing keyboards?’, and he said ‘Yeah, but I only want to do those six dates. I’m not doing any more after that.’ He enjoyed the tour so much, and I was enjoying it, so we just plowed on. That was 1999, and here we are 22-two years later and we’re still playing those six dates.”
I sat down with Colin Blunstone to discuss his early years with The Zombies, the making of Odessey and Oracle, and The Zombies’ “World Tour in One Night” live stream, which will be aired from Abbey Road Studios in September.
PKM: Tell me about your early days before The Zombies. Were you in any other groups?
Colin Blunstone: No. The strange thing about The Zombies was that it was a school band. We got together in 1961 when I was 15, and most of the other guys were the same age (one guy was younger, he was 14). We played locally and by 1964, we had built up quite a local following. That year we entered a rock and roll competition. We were up against a lot of bands, but we won the competition! Up until then it had just been fun, but now for the first time we started to think about becoming professional musicians.
As a result of winning this rock and roll competition, we were offered a recording contract with Decca. At that first session, we recorded “She’s Not There” which became a No. 1 in Cashbox and No. 2 in Billboard. It was a hit all around the world. So, we went from being a local band of young teenagers to touring all around the world. We were practicing and performing for four years, so it didn’t happen overnight, but we didn’t have a chance to get into other groups or even play all the clubs in London that a lot of the other bands did. For instance, there were a group of clubs that the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds played, and I always felt sad that we missed out on that. We went straight into what they call ‘package tours’ where you’re playing with eight or nine other artists. Our first package tour was with Dionne Warwick, The Isley Brothers, and The Searchers who were very big at the time. So that’s the route we took.
There were a group of clubs that the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds played, and I always felt sad that we missed out on that. We went straight into what they call ‘package tours’ where you’re playing with eight or nine other artists.
PKM: Did you go to the same school as your bandmates?
Colin Blunstone: We went to one of two schools, all based in a city called St Albans, just north of London. I was really fortunate because I sat next to a guy at school who knew the guys who went to the other school. I went to quite a strict school and you had to sit in alphabetical order, so I was put next to this guy. His name was Paul Arnold, and I was Colin Blunstone, A sat next to B, and he said to me one day “You’ve got a guitar, haven’t you?” And I said “Yeah, yeah I have got a guitar.” And he said, “Do you want to be in a band?” That was my audition. I was in. So that’s how I joined The Zombies. I joined as the rhythm guitarist, but I wasn’t a great guitarist, so eventually I became the singer.
PKM: Growing up, what music did you listen to?
Colin Blunstone: My interest in rock and roll started in the late 1950s with Elvis. Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry were the artists who first influenced me, and then later on there was a second wave of Ricky Nelson and Buddy Holly, people like that. Then the Beatles happened, and everything changed. The Zombies, like every other band in the U.K. were just incredibly influenced by The Beatles. The Beatles changed everything because before they came along there wasn’t a huge interest in British bands playing around the world. British bands mainly played in the U.K., but of course after The Beatles, everybody wanted British bands. That was wonderful for us because we started off touring and one of the first places we came to was America. For me it was an interesting thing because a lot of the music that we played was American music, sometimes obscure rhythm and blues tunes, and American audiences would really love it. I wanted to stop and say “This is your music!”
We have an expression here: ‘Taking coals to Newcastle’. [Editor’s Note: Supplying something for a place where it’s already plentiful.] I felt we were bringing your music back to you, but perhaps giving it a U.K. twist. I felt a little bit guilty about it sometimes, and I know other bands did as well. I think it’s important for Americans to realize that jazz, the blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, it all came from America. We just put our slant on it, really.
PKM: Where did you first tour in the U.S.?
Colin Blunstone: Our first gig was Murray the K’s Christmas Show at the Brooklyn Fox Theatre in 1964. Murray the K considered himself to be the fifth Beatle. I’m not quite sure how the Beatles felt about that, but he was the star of the show. There were 14 or 15 acts. Patti LaBelle, The Shirelles, The Shangri-Las…lots of wonderful artists. We would play six or seven shows a day because you just sang one or two songs and then another artist would come on. We opened on Christmas Day, so there was a great feeling of comradery backstage because everyone was away from home over Christmas. Obviously, we weren’t even in the same country! We were abroad. But even the Americans were away from home.
British bands mainly played in the U.K., but of course after The Beatles, everybody wanted British bands. That was wonderful for us because we started off touring and one of the first places we came to was America. For me it was an interesting thing because a lot of the music that we played was American music, sometimes obscure rhythm and blues tunes, and American audiences would really love it. I wanted to stop and say “This is your music!”
It was a good show to start with. I was just 19, and we were coming to the mecca of contemporary music. It was quite a thing for us to walk out on stage. We realized that wonderful artists who we worshipped had been on that stage, and it did take a bit of getting used to. All U.K. musicians certainly then and probably now too, look to America for their inspiration.
PKM: What other memories do you have of being on the road in the States?
Colin Blunstone: The main thing that comes to mind is that the distances are just so huge compared to what we’re used to. The second trip we did was for Dick Clark. He had The Dick Clark Caravan of Stars, and you’d be on a bus with 14 or 15 stars or groups and travel huge distances around the country. Some of the bands on the tour were being paid so little that they couldn’t afford a hotel every night. It meant that we would stay in a hotel every second night, and then the other night they would just drive slowly through the night, really slowly so that we arrived in time to book into the hotel at twelve o’clock the next day.
So that was a bit of an experience. At the end of six weeks of only staying at hotels every second night, even though we were young kids, we were pretty exhausted at the end of that tour. Over all, it was a wonderful experience. Del Shannon was on that tour, the Shangri-Las again, Tommy Roe, The Alley Cats…lots of wonderful artists. It was a whole new world for us. It was so exciting meeting all these wonderful artists and seeing America and playing to American audiences.
PKM: How does it feel to have Odessey and Oracle recognized as a 1960s masterpiece?
Colin Blunstone: It’s incredibly exciting for people to recognize it, but there is an element of mystification as well. There were a couple of good reviews, but to a large extent, it was totally ignored. It’s so difficult to understand why it would be ignored at the time, and yet recognized 15, 20 years afterwards. It’s great to receive recognition for your work. That the recognition came after 15 or 20 years, in a way, it was more exciting than if you’ve got recognition at the time.
The success of Odessey and Oracle has also given us the opportunity. Over the last few years, we’ve done two or three tours where we’ve gone out and played the whole album in its entirety with the original band (except our guitarist Paul Atkinson who sadly passed away.)
We would play Odessey and Oracle all the way through from track one to track twelve. I never in my wildest dreams ever thought we’d do that. It was really good. It was great fun!
PKM: From what I’ve read, without Al Kooper, Odessey and Oracle never would have been released. Can you tell me the story behind that?
Colin Blunstone: Al Kooper had already started Blood, Sweat & Tears, and he decided to take a production job at CBS. On his first day, he took Odessey and Oracle to the head of CBS, Clive Davis. He was very courageous because it was on his first day, and he went in to see Clive Davis, who is the most powerful guy in the record industry. Al told him “We have to sign this album. It’s phenomenal!” Apparently, Al Kooper had been in London and he had bought a pile of 200 albums, and he said “This album just stood out. It was wonderful.” Clive said, “Well, we own the album, but we weren’t even going to issue it.” Al pressured them to issue it, and even then, it was kind of slow. It was very slow! The Zombies never did anything in an easy way. I think they had three or four singles from the album before “Time of The Season” was released, but none of this would have happened without Al Kooper.
I think it’s important for Americans to realize that jazz, the blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, it all came from America. We just put our slant on it, really.
The fourth single was “Time of The Season” and there was a DJ in Boise, Idaho who would not stop playing “Time of The Season” in the States. During that time, if one DJ kept playing a track, it could spread. It would go to the next town, and then it would be in another state, and so forth. So, from that one DJ in Boise, Idaho it happened. I couldn’t believe it, because when “Time of The Season” was going up on the charts, the band had finished for a couple of years. I had given up all hope on anything like that. I think it went to No.1 in Cashbox and No.3 in Billboard. The thing about “Time of The Season” is, it’s been in so many films and many commercials. It’s not a record that was a hit at the end of the 1960s and then it’s forgotten. It keeps being revived. If they’re doing a film that’s got any reference to the 1960s, they think “Oh we need some music for this film, a song of the Sixties…”Time of the Season”! In some ways it’s the same as having a hit record, really. But do you know, “Time of The Season” has never been a hit in the U.K. ever. It’s been a hit in every other country around the world, but never here, and I think it’s been released three or four times. It’s very strange.
PKM: It’s rather ironic, considering The Zombies hail from the U.K.
Colin Blunstone: I know! It’s strange, isn’t it? People know it because it’s been in commercials and films here as well, but it was never a hit.
PKM: Odessey and Oracle was released under CBS Records. How were you able to record in Abbey Road Studios as a non-EMI artist?
Colin Blunstone: Well, I don’t think any of us have ever actually understood that to this day.
As far as I know, up until that point, no non-EMI artist had recorded at Abbey Road. I don’t know how we ended up there, but it’s a wonderful studio. At the time, it was without doubt the best studio in the U.K. We recorded in Studio 3 with two wonderful engineers Peter Vince and Geoff Emerick who had just been recording Sgt. Pepper with The Beatles. Although The Beatles used mostly Studio 2, they had just finished when we went in. They left the studio about three days before, so we never actually met them.
“Time of The Season” has never been a hit in the U.K. ever. It’s been a hit in every other country around the world, but never here, and I think it’s been released three or four times. It’s very strange.
The Beatles had used Studio 3, so a lot of the percussion instruments they’d been using were still laying around on the floor when we walked in. We were just such huge Beatles fans. John Lennon’s Mellotron (it was a very new machine at the time, and gave you a rough version of strings and wonderful rich sounds that were very cutting edge at the time) was left in Studio 3, and we used it on every track. Odessey and Oracle would have been a different album without it.
PKM: The band broke up before Odessey and Oracle was released. Was this due to tension in the studio?
Colin Blunstone: No. In those days the market was very much singles-oriented. In the U.K., we released “Care of Cell 44” which was the first track on Odessey and Oracle, and it wasn’t a hit.
“Care of Cell 44”-The Zombies:
I think there was a general feeling in the band that there wasn’t any interest in The Zombies or what we were doing. With the benefit of hindsight, of course, we should have stuck together a bit longer, but we had been on the road constantly for three years, we hadn’t been managed very well, so it had been physically very demanding, and with very little financial reward. At the time it seemed as though things were coming to a friendly, amicable conclusion. That’s really what happened. Just a couple of years later, albums were so much more important than singles. Singles were just a way to get attention for your album. But at that time, it was very much a singles market. The other thing is, because there was no internet we didn’t realize until much later that our records had charted all around the world. We were having hits in Europe, we were having hits in the Far East, but we were very centered on the U.K. market and the American market where we weren’t being very successful.
John Lennon’s Mellotron (it was a very new machine at the time, and gave you a rough version of strings and wonderful rich sounds that were very cutting edge at the time) was left in Studio 3, and we used it on every track. Odessey and Oracle would have been a different album without it.
PKM: In 1971, you recorded your debut solo studio album, One Year, which was co-produced by Rod Argent and Chris White. What was it like being in the studio with your old bandmates again? Was the energy different?
Colin Blunstone: It was pretty much like recording with The Zombies – up to a point, because we’d grown up together. We had been working together since we were 15 and, at this point, we were probably in our early 20s. But there is a difference and it’s very subtle, I can’t always explain what it is. When you’re performing as a solo artist, there’s a difference to performing in a group. You just feel the attention…all eyes are on you. I think I’m more of a band member, really, but since then I’ve always made solo albums, and certainly singles.
“Caroline Goodbye” – Colin Blunstone, from One Year, his first solo album:
I think there’s a slight difference between being in a band and being a solo artist. You have to make a lot more decisions yourself, and you have to take on a lot more responsibilities because
sooner or later you’re going to tour. So you’ve got a band to think about, you’ve got the crew, and the hotels to be booked. Although other people are probably doing it for you, when it really comes down to it, it’s your responsibility.
The first [solo] tour I ever did was with ELO, so it was their first tour and it was my first tour. One year I used a band and I also used a string quintet. So, I had a four-piece rock band, a five-piece string quintet, and a crew. All of these people need hotel rooms, and they’ve got to travel. At the end of the tour (this is no reflection on ELO, as this has nothing to do with them. They were just the headliners) the promoter said, “I’m not gonna pay you.”
PKM: And you said, “Oh, lovely. Thanks for that!”
Colin Blunstone: [laughs] I’ve got a nine-piece band and a crew, and a truck hire, and we were on tour for about six weeks. Could you imagine what that costs? I was very very fortunate that CBS Records came in and saved me. They took on the costs. I think the rock industry is still a little bit like that, but certainly in those days, there were so many rogues, so many crooks. You never knew if you were going to get paid. It kept you on your toes.
“She Loves the Way They Love Her” – Colin Blunstone, from One Year:
PKM: In 1982, you recorded the song “Old and Wise” with the Alan Parsons Project. What led you to this collaboration with Parsons?
Colin Blunstone: When we were recording Odessey and Oracle in Abbey Road, where Alan was an assistant engineer, but he worked on the album. We chatted, and we realized that we lived quite close to one another as well, so I would see him. There was a pub in Hampstead Village called The Flask and he would drink in there on a Saturday lunchtime and so would I, so we’d have a quick chat. When he started up the the Alan Parsons Project, it seemed the thing when they needed a guest vocalist for him to approach me. I didn’t sing on the first album because at the time I was living in California, but I sang on the second one. The first album is Tales of Mystery and Imagination which is great and the second one is Pyramid. Again, great album. I sang on a song called “The Eagle Will Rise Again”.
PKM: In 2000, you began to play shows with Rod Argent, and in 2001, you recorded an album (Out of the Shadows) together. What prompted this collaboration? I recall reading that you reunited at a charity concert?
“Home” – Colin Blunstone & Rod Argent, from Out of the Shadows:
Colin Blunstone: We did. In fact, we played at a couple of things. One was a charity concert that Rod organized, and one was the launching of a box set of everything The Zombies have ever recorded. I was playing there with my solo band, but all of The Zombies were in the audience. At one point they started moving towards the stage. Now, we had no rehearsals, and there was no agreement that they were going to play. I could see them coming through the crowd, and I couldn’t quite work out what was going on. We hadn’t performed together in 30 or 40 years, but we played “She’s Not There” and “Time of The Season” it was really good! I just couldn’t believe that with no rehearsals it would work, but it did. So we played together a couple of times.
The real clincher for me was (I have to say that Rod [Argent] and I remember this in a different way, but of course, my version is right and his version is wrong) the keyboard player Don Airey thought I should get back on the road and he kept calling me and saying, “Why don’t you get on the road? I’ll put a band together for you.” He phoned five or six times and eventually I said “Okay, well let’s do this!” He said, “I’ll rehearse a band. You just come along for a sing through tonight before our first gig.” And that’s what I did. I hadn’t been on stage since 1974, and now this is 1997, so it was 23 years that I hadn’t been on stage.
[laughs] It was an interesting experience. Over a couple of years, Don moved on to do other things, and I got into a situation where I didn’t really have a regular keyboard player and I had six more gigs on the end of the tour. I phoned Rod [Argent] and I really didn’t think he’d do it. I said to him “I’ve got six days coming up. Would you consider playing keyboards?”, and he said “Yeah, but I only want to do those six dates. I’m not doing any more after that.” He enjoyed the tour so much, and I was enjoying it, so we just plowed on. That was 1999, and here we are 22 years later and we’re still playing those six dates.
PKM: In 2019, The Zombies embarked on the “Something Great from ‘68” tour with Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. What was it like touring with Brian?
Colin Blunstone: It was an honor and a privilege to tour with Brian. On a couple of nights, they invited me to sing “God Only Knows” with them. I was standing right next to Brian Wilson playing the piano, singing “God Only Knows” and I thought “I don’t think there can be anything more special in contemporary music than this.”
“God Only Knows” – Brian Wilson, backed by The Zombies, live in Seattle, 2019:
PKM: In September you will be playing a one-off live stream concert from Abbey Road Studios. Can you tell me more about this event?
Colin Blunstone: We’re doing the concert from Studio 2, which is the studio The Beatles used to use. I know Studio 2 because Alan Parsons used to record there, so I’ve done five or six of his tracks and I was always in Studio 2. I think we’re going to do about an hour and a quarter. There’s quite a technique in getting the hits in there, as well as new songs. We’re recording new songs at the moment, and we’re about halfway through the new album. I’m in the studio tomorrow recording a new track.
So that’s what we’ll do. We’ll play some hits and songs from Odessey and Oracle because people really like to hear those songs, and then we’ll play some songs from the new album. I’ve never done anything like this before, so I think it will be exciting. I’m really looking forward to it!
On a couple of nights, they invited me to sing “God Only Knows” with them. I was standing right next to Brian Wilson playing the piano, singing “God Only Knows” and I thought “I don’t think there can be anything more special in contemporary music than this.”
PKM: Will there be a Sixties vibe associated with these new songs, or are you going for a modern approach?
Colin Blunstone: Well, I’m not sure that either of those approaches would be appropriate. We try to be really natural. I would say that the approach we use is we try to write the best song that we could possibly write, and we try to record them in the best way that we can. We’re not looking for any particular market, or to play in any particular style. We’re just trying to get that special performance. We are trying to play as live as possible. On our last album, everyone was in the studio at the same time and recording at the same time. Of course, with the Covid business, it’s been very difficult to do that. It seems to be freeing up here at the moment, and we’ll get back to having all the guys in the studio at the same time. We’re recording in a brand new studio that Rod’s had built in his house. It’s a really good studio and no one’s recorded in there before, so we’re finding our way as we go along.
PKM: What music are you listening to these days?
Colin Blunstone: I’ve got to be honest, the last few days and weeks I’ve been listening to songs that we’re going to be recording. I’ve put all my time into that, and I realize that I haven’t listened to a lot of new music recently. In terms of just relaxing, I tend to listen to singer-songwriters, and quite often, they’ll be the singer-songwriters that I liked in my formative years. I’ve got a theory that the music you listen to in your formative years is the music that’s really important to you the rest of your life. For me it would be Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor, people like that, I would listen to for pleasure at home.
PKM: What else have you been working on?
Colin Blunstone: I’m working on some solo tracks, but I think The Zombies album will be finished first. It’s good to keep busy especially in challenging times like these. I’ve been able to keep a bit of recording and writing going on. It’s so important to keep performing, particularly, I think for singers, because if you don’t sing, it’s very difficult to pick up where you left off. So that’s my thing of ‘you have to keep performing’. I try to keep singing, so having these projects to work on has been a godsend.
I’ve got a theory that the music you listen to in your formative years is the music that’s really important to you the rest of your life.
As far as touring, we made a choice. Tour dates were being rescheduled and canceled and we said “Look, let’s say we’re not going to tour until 2022.” So that’s how it is. We’re going to start off in February 2022 and it gives us the chance to concentrate on writing and recording. I didn’t want to keep disappointing people by rescheduling all the time. For us, I think 2022 will be a really busy year. I’m looking forward to it. I like touring, so I’m lucky.
The Zombies – Live from Studio Two: Legendary Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Return to Abbey Road Studios. Their First and Only “World Tour in One Night” Livestream September 18, 2021