COLIN BLUNSTONE: THE ZOMBIES’ HEAVENLY VOICE
By Paul Freeman [2006 Interview]
Since this interview, The Zombies have completed a successful 50th anniversary tour. They’ve also released a brilliant new album, “Breathe Out, Breathe In,” which captures all of the band’s original magic, while sounding fresh and contemporary. For the latest Zombies news, visit www.thezombies.net.
The aptly named Zombies created music that will never die.
One of the most distinctive bands to emerge from the British Invasion era, they've benefitted from a much deserved resurgence of interest in the past few years. They're best known for the hits "She's Not There," "Tell Her No" and "Time of the Season," as well as "Odyssey & Oracle," one of the best albums of the 60s.
The band's two front men, vocalist Colin Blunstone and keyboardist Rod Argent, are currently on tour. Their set includes a few songs from their distinguished solo careers and a couple of new songs, as well as classic Zombies material.
"We've started playing some of the very earliest songs we recorded," says Blunstone in his instantly recognizable, soft and soothing voice. "Songs like 'Sticks and Stones,' which is an old rhythm & blues classic and 'Cant Nobody Love You,' a Solomon Burke tune. Both of those are on our first album.
"'Im Going Out of My Head' was an early single for us, which we recorded after we played with Little Anthony & The Imperials. They had quite a big hit in the States with that tune. We loved that song. Until a couple of months ago, I hadn't sung it since 1967."
Because Argent and Zombies bassist Chris White's songwriting was in its infancy, the band began by relying more heavily on covers of American R&B tunes. Blunstone says, "Its been quite illuminating for us to go back, rediscover these tunes and realize what fabulous songs they are. Hopefully we can give them a little bit of a modern twist, but basically were playing them as we recorded them."
In addition to Blunstones gorgeous, ethereal voice, a multitude of influences gave the Zombies their unique sound. Elements of jazz, pop, classical, rock, pop and church music shone through, as well as R&B. Though the band members were mostly age 17 at the outset, the music was amazingly sophisticated, as were the haunting harmonies. Blunstone credits Argent, who had grown up singing in the cathedral choir in their native Hartfordshire, north of London.
"Rod really understands harmonies. I very much sang naturally. I didn't have any formal musical education at all. Rod would usually say to me, What do you hear as the melody? So I would sing what I heard -- which might be a mixture of a melody and a harmony. Then he would give Chris White an easy harmony, because he had to play bass, as well. Often it would be close to a single note. Then Rod would fill in all the other holes in the harmonies.
"So when people tried to copy our harmonies, they sometimes came unstuck," Blunstone laughs. "Normally when you do harmonies, someone takes the top harmony, someone takes the melody and someone sings underneath. We didn't do our harmonies like that.
Blunstone counts Ricky Nelson as a primary influence, along with Elvis Presley. Early Beatles and Stones performances also had an impact on the Zombies.
By '64, the teenaged Zombies were creating hits of their own. "It was very exciting. By the time we got to the States, I was just about 19. It was incredible. When you're that age, you very quickly start to accept that a way of life is normal. Very quickly, playing to thirty-thousand people and have everyone screaming, seems quite a normal way of life."
Blunstone and his musical mates didn't succumb to the pitfalls of rock stardom. "Because we grew up quite near to London, we all lived at home with our parents and our old school friends. So we didn't get too carried away with it, really. When you come home, you're shown reality. It probably wasn't as difficult for us as it was for some people, especially the bands that came from Liverpool or Manchester or Birmingham. They often had to come down and live in London hotel. I would think that they probably had to live the rock 'n' roll lifestyle a bit more than we did.
"Staying at home helped us keep our feet on the ground and be a bit more realistic about what was happening. But when we were out and all this craziness was going on, we accepted that, as well. So I suppose we had two completely different lifestyles."
Music, fashion, photography, art and film all enjoyed remarkable creative energy bursts in the 60s. "There was a very austere period in England after the war. This country was on its knees. If you see pictures of parts of London in 1946, you would think it was Hiroshima. The country was broke. Suddenly the sixties happened. I don't know what triggered it. The Beatles had a lot to do with it.
The Beatles changed everything. But there were other people like David Bailey, Mary Quant, all the playwrights, and in acting, Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, Albert Finney. There was this feeling in Britain, especially in England, that anything was possible. It didn't matter what your background was or how much money you had. When you start thinking positively like that, it happens. It's an interesting thought that, because I can sometimes be very negative. But I do believe that, if everybody starts to think positively, things happen. It was an incredibly exciting time. On the shirttails of all of that, we came along. But without the Beatles, none of the 60s English bands would have happened."
The Zombies reached their artistic pinnacle with the masterpiece "Odyssey & Oracle." "That was our first chance, and sadly, last chance to show how wed grown."
Three singles from the album went nowhere, receiving little airplay. They lost their management. Finally the Zombies broke up. "We weren't getting chart position. Consequently, the live work was drying up. Things had just gone very quiet. It really seemed to me as though life was telling us that it was time to go on and do other things.
"'Odyssey & Oracle' was so different from what we were doing before. I would like to know, if we'd stayed together, what we would have done next."
Ironically, two years after the recording was completed, "Time of the Season" from that album became a smash. But by that time, the band members were committed to other projects. Rod Argent formed a band that took his last name and recorded such hits as "Hold Your Head Up." Blunstone delivered several outstanding solo albums.
"Rod and I both came off the road in the mid-'70s and got involved in other things -- production, writing for films, jingles, commercials. I sang on many of the Alan Parsons albums."
A series of coincidences brought Blunstone and Argent together in the late '90s. They started playing live again. "We both realized how long it had been and how much we has missed it. It's funny. A year goes by and you think, 'I need a rest, I want to stay off the road.' Then two years go by and you find you've lost contact with your agent and your musicians. Three years go by and you've lost contact with everybody and at that point, it's difficult to get back on the road."
Blunstone and Argent have recorded two recent albums, both filled with marvelous material. Yet mainstream attention eludes them at this point. "I've got to be honest, it is frustrating in a way. But you adjust to it. The important thing for us is creating the music. If we don't get the backing of a major label or maximum airplay on the big radio stations, I suppose it's a shame in a way, but that was never what drove us on anyway. I'm not too worried about things like chart success. I want to be involved in making quality material and, at the same time, trying to earn a living. It's not easy. But that's what my aim is."
Blunstone is working on a new solo album and there are plans for another Zombies CD next year. "Both Rod and I love to write and to push back the barriers, to try new things."
Without pandering, this band for all seasons appeals to the current generation, as well as to the Baby Boomers. The old songs sound as fresh as ever. Young musicians constantly tell Blunstone how much his timeless work has inspired them.
Blunstone and Argent continue to tour the world. "The travel is tough. Its tough when youre young. It doesnt get easier as you get older, especially in Canada and America, where the distances can be very big. But the performance is what musicians live for."