The Legendary Zombies Tell Us Why They Broke Up Before Their Biggest Singles Were Ever Released.
It’s remarkable to think that within, just a few months, two of rock music’s all-time greatest records were created in the very same studio.
In April of 1967, The Beatles wrapped up work on their eighth studio album at London’s famed Abbey Roads Studios. Two months later, the Zombies entered Abbey Road to record their second.
But where The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band became a massive hit by June of 1967, the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle almost never saw the light of day. In fact, by the time their biggest single, “Time of the Season” finally became a hit in America, the band had already been broken up for over two years.
Thankfully, it wasn’t the last time the world would hear from the Zombies. Rod Argent, the band’s original keyboardist and primary songwriter, and Colin Blunstone, the band’s original lead singer, have been touring together as the Zombies for the past 13 years, and they’ll be attending their first SXSW later in the week.
But, first, the band will be at The Kessler Theater tomorrow night.
With that in mind, we recently caught up with the Zombies vocalist Blunstone, who shared with us a few behind-the-scenes stories from Odessey and Oracle‘s recording sessions, among many other things.
So it looks like you guys are gearing up for South By Southwest. Is this going to be your first trip down there for that?
It is indeed, yes! I think one of our party — our sound engineer — has been there before, and so he’s given us a little background on what it’s like. I know there are many, many bands there, and I think it’s going to be very, very exciting, but probably a bit frantic. We’re looking forward to it with great excitement and maybe just a little anxiety, as well. It is a step into the unknown, but I think it’ll be fun. I’m sure it will be.
Why was SXSW something you guys wanted to do this year?
Basically, we play because we love to play. This incarnation of the Zombies has been playing together for 13 years, and we’ve played all around the world. We’ve played often in Europe, the Far East, North America and, of course, we’ve played in the U.K. many times. Really, we just love to play. We have a wonderful agent in America, and they suggested it would be a new adventure for us to come and play at South By Southwest.
The Kessler Theater, where you guys are playing in Dallas, is a pretty intimate venue. Is the size of the room something that really makes a difference to you?
To tell you the honest truth, I like to play a variety of different kinds of venues. It’s really good to play big venues because there are different demands on an artists and different satisfactions for artist in playing big venues. But it can also be quite challenging to play smaller, more intimate venues as well. So, on a personal level, I like a variety of venues. I really enjoy playing smaller rooms where the audience is right on top of you. It’s great. On the other hand, it’s great to play really big arenas where they appreciate you — just the volume of their appreciation is so uplifting. It’s a wonderful experience.
Have you been playing a lot of songs from [your 2011 album] Breath Out, Breath in on this tour? What is the audience’s reception to your newer material, as compared with the older stuff?
We’re playing three songs from the new album, and one of the really heartening things for us is the reaction we get from brand new songs. It’s just as strong as we get from the classic hits or Odessey and Oracle. And the other good thing is they seem to fit together so seamlessly; you don’t get the feeling that there’s a 50-year gap between the time when some songs were written and these brand new songs. It’ll be 50 years next year that we’ve been recording, although the band actually first got together in 1961. Those classic tunes from that era seem to fit very well with the brand new songs. I suppose, in a way, you can understand it because you’ve got the dominant writer from the Zombies in Rod Argent writing the songs and the dominant lead singer, myself, singing the songs. So you’ve got that thread that connects these new songs to the classic songs of the original Zombies.
I want to ask you about your band’s name. Zombie culture is really popular right now, but for the most part it didn’t really exist at all until the George A. Romero film Night of the Living Dead which didn’t come out until 1968. By then, though, you’d already had the name for several years. Where did it come from?
I sometimes say that we got it out of desperation because we were desperately trying to come up with an original name, and there wasn’t a zombie culture then as there is now. There weren’t zombie films and zombie magazines and zombie books. Our original bass player Paul Arnold just came up with the idea when we were just sort of brainstorming, trying to think of a name. And it just stuck.
That’s great. I mean, it pre-dated the whole zombie genre completely.
It is quite weird. There’s no way we could have known what was going to happen. I’ll tell you, for a few weeks, or maybe even just a week, we were The Mustangs. And then for maybe a couple of weeks after that we were The Sundowners. We got that idea from the film The Sundowners with Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr. But we never really settled on those names, and, as far as we could work out, there were many other bands in the country with those sort of names. We wanted something different and that’s how it came about.
I’d like to ask you a few questions about Odessey and Oracle, which is one of my all-time favorite albums. One of the things I’ve always read is that you guys sort of knew it was going to be your last album — or that you kind of knew going in that you’d end up breaking up soon after.
We remember these things differently. Sometimes, I find it very interesting. If you were to ask that question to the four remaining original Zombies, you may get four different answers. I certainly didn’t think it was our last album. I know we’ve been quoted as saying that, and I don’t know why. It was news to me. I didn’t go into that album knowing it was going to be our last album. I went into that album wanting to make it the very best that we could, and thinking and hoping that we had a future.
We had been through a very rough period. We’d been to the Far East and we had been very badly ripped off and there were some quite scary things that happened to us there. We came back to England and a single had been released in our absence. It was a cover of “Going Out of My Head” by Little Anthony & The Imperials, and the mix was absolutely atrocious. So we split from our producer, and, because of the trouble in the Far East, we split with our agent. Suddenly, we had no agent, no manager, no producer, and it seemed that there wasn’t so much interest in the band.
If only we had known the whole time the original band was together we always had a hit somewhere — communication was so poor in those days, there was no internet, and there was no way to know what was going on in other parts of the world — then, quite possibly, the band would have continued.
After we released Odessey and Oracle, a couple of singles were released in the UK and they weren’t commercial successes. It seemed to us there wasn’t the interest in the band that we had hoped for.
Rather strangely, the band finished before Odessey and Oracle was ever released. In the U.K., I believe, it was released in 1967. In America, it was released a year later and only by chance. Al Kooper, who had formed Blood, Sweat & Tears had become a producer at CBS, and he loved the album. It was only due to his enthusiasm that the album was ever even released. From that album, “Time of the Season” was eventually released as a single. It wasn’t the first single. So I think it was actually 1969 that “Time of the Season” was a hit in America — two years after it was released. I always think it interesting that people always say 1969 was the Summer of Love. Odessey and Oracle epitomizes that period, but it was actually recorded two years beforehand. So, in the same way that the name the Zombies was chosen before there was ever sort of a zombie culture, Odessey and Oracle was recorded before that Summer of Love in 1969.
After the band had been split up for a couple years and then “Time of the Season” was such a big hit, were there people trying to get you to reform?
That is true. To be honest, I don’t think it was ever even discussed among the band. I was aware that there had been some offers for us to reform, although, I first heard it third hand. I can’t say anyone actually phoned me directly. There was a feeling in the band that we needed to move on. At that time, most of the band was involved in new projects, and there was a feeling that they wanted to continue with those projects rather than go back to the Zombies. I’m probably the only one in the band that would have been curious to know what we would have done next because I felt that the songwriting from Chris White and Rod Argent had really come to fruition around the time of Odessey and Oracle. It’s such a rich stream of songwriting that I would have been curious to know what the Zombies might have done next.
But I have to say I am the only one that feels like that. The rest of them thought we had kind of completed our creative circle — especially Rod and Chris. By this point, they’d started their new band, Argent, and I think they felt committed to that project and they didn’t want to look back. And then Paul [Atkinson] and Hugh [Grundy] had already begun working in the A&R department at CBS in London. So it probably was a bit late — it was two-and-a-half years after we completed the album — and everyone was too committed to the new projects they were involved in. It was never really even a conversation that we should reform the band.
And it was at this point that you began working as an insurance salesman?
When the band finished, the two writers in the band — Rod Argent and Chris White — had a completely separate income stream from their writing. They were in quite a comfortable position and they wanted to stay in the music business. Well, we all did, but they were in a position where they could. The other three guys — Hugh Grundy, Paul Atkinson and myself — all had to get jobs. There had been so little interest in the band at the end that we didn’t have a choice but to get jobs. I literally phoned up an employment agency and said “Do you have any jobs?” There was, and that just happened to be at an insurance agency. It was just a job. I did that for nearly a year. It wasn’t that I felt that I had a vocation for insurance or anything like that; it was just that, like the other members of the band that didn’t write, I had to get a job. I had no choice.
At that time, were you still doing music as a hobby? Was the music business something you were still trying to get back into?
I’m not sure, really. I’ve always loved music and I was listening to music. I’ve always written a bit. Originally, I was the rhythm guitarist in the band, although I don’t play onstage anymore. When the band finished, it was a shock. I felt very disillusioned. I’m not sure that I was ever confident that I’d ever get back into the music business. I didn’t think there was any interest, to be honest, in the music business in me as an artist. I really thought that when the Zombies finished, that was probably the end of the music business for me. Eventually, Rod Argent and Chris White produced a solo album for me called One Year, and from that album I had quite a big hit in the UK as a solo artist. From there on in, I’ve always had a solo career, and I do right up until this date. I just had a solo album released last autumn called On the Air Tonight, and it got into the national charts in Europe. It didn’t in the U.K., and it hasn’t even been released in the States. There’s still a solo career there, and I find it very interesting to keep both things going.
As I understand it, at that point, since you guys didn’t reunite, there were a bunch of fake bands getting together and calling themselves the Zombies.
There were! I think there were many bands because in Cashbox, we were No. 1 and there was no band. It was an ideal opportunity for bands to go out and impersonate us, which certainly was the case.
I remember Chris White was in Rolling Stone‘s offices, and he phoned up the manager of one of these bands. I remember it really well. I wasn’t there, but they printed it in Rolling Stone. The manager started talking to Chris and didn’t know who he was. He said the lead singer of the band was killed in a car crash, and this is our tribute to the band to keep the music going. So Chris White said to him, “Listen, I’m the bass player of the band, and I can tell you the lead singer was not killed in a car crash and you’re a fraud.” So I had to read an article saying I’ve been killed in a car crash. I had that article for a long time because it was quite amusing and eerie as well.
But there were many bands. More recently — probably about 15 years ago — there was a band, they were English, and they were impersonating the Zombies. We tried to stop them as best we could. We used the musician’s union and a solicitor. In the end, they stopped and I felt really pleased that we’d managed to do this. Apart from the fact that they were impersonating us, from all the articles I read, they weren’t very good, either. So I was very pleased that we’d managed to stop them. And then I heard this story that a fan had walked into their dressing room and told them that they very obviously weren’t the original Zombies. Then he drew a gun on them and threatened them and they never played again.
So this is obviously the way to get people to stop impersonating you. It’s a little bit dramatic, but it certainly works.
That’s an amazing story! Getting back to Odessey and Oracle, the thing that really stands out to me is that, although the songs are kind of all over the place in subject matter, they’re all very optimistic. Even when they’re about a sadder subject like being in jail or dying alone, the lyrics seem to take an optimistic turn.
I think there is, in general. I was just thinking about “Butcher’s Tale,” and I don’t think there was much optimism in that. That was the one song — and I haven’t told many people this — Rod and Chris played me that I just couldn’t understand. Remember, at that time, the album wasn’t finished and I wasn’t listening to the songs in any particular order, but I was aware of most of the songs that were going to be on the album because I had already sung them. And then they played me this song and I said to them, “I don’t think I can sing that song.” In the context of this album, I don’t think it really fitted or that it was appropriate. If you think of songs like “Friends of Mine,” which is a really chirpy up song, and then compare it to “Butcher’s Tale” or “This Will Be Our Year,” it just seems so different. They were determined to do the song, and so Chris sang it instead. Originally, Chris wasn’t going to sing that song, I was. There wasn’t a real in-depth conversation about it or anything, I just said I don’t see this song on this album.
But I know what you mean about the rest of the songs. I think maybe to some extent that it’s got something to do with the age of the writers. There is a thing I call “the optimism of youth,” and I think that shines through on the lyrics on most of the album.
For sure, and especially on a song like”Care of Cell 44,” which I think is the only positive-sounding song I’ve ever heard about a person in jail. I’ve never really heard another.
I think that’s a brilliant song. This is one of the reasons I would never make it in an A&R department; to me, that’s the most commercial track on the album. But it was released as a single, and it wasn’t a hit. I think the lyric on that is absolutely brilliant. I think it’s a brilliant song. I didn’t write it, so I’m not saying it because it has anything to do with me. It’s one of my favorite ones that we ever recorded.
Speaking of that, what are some of your other favorites? What is your favorite song that you’ve ever done?
With the Zombies? That would be one of them. But I always come back to “She’s Not There,” because it changed all our lives. It was just a chance conversation. It started with our producer at the time, who was called Ken James, and we got our first session booked in a proper studio — Decca Studio in West Hampstead where all of the Decca artists recorded like Tom Jones, Lulu, and I think The Moody Blues too. Our producer came to us and said, “You’ve got a session booked in two weeks time. You could always write something for this session.” Then he went on to another subject. There was no big emphasis on that. To be honest, I forgot he even said it. Rod came back about two days later and he had written “She’s Not There” and Chris White had written the B-side called “You Make Me Feel Good,” which is another really good song. I was just absolutely amazed that they could write songs. I had no idea. Out of the blue, we had two really strong songs. We recorded four songs in our first session at Decca and “She’s Not There,” when it was finished, it was apparent that it was a standout track. It went on to be our first single and it went on to change our lives. So that will always be a favorite song of mine.
Another story I’ve heard told a few times — albeit it never straight from the horse’s mouth — is that there was some sort of argument that took place while the vocals to “Time of the Season” were being recorded.
That is definitely true. It was the last song that was written for the album, and it was only finished in the morning before the session, which was in the afternoon at Abbey Road. And I was still struggling to really know the melody, to really understand the melody. So while I was standing in the studio, Rod was in the control booth saying through the callback, “No, the melody doesn’t go quite like that, it’s slightly different.” And this went on for a few minutes. We had no budget, really, and we were really under pressure in the studio and it was getting more and more tense. It ended up with me saying to him something along the lines of — and with some very colorful language — “Listen, if you know this melody so well, you come in here and you sing it.” And he said to me, “You’re the lead singer in this band! You stand there until you get it right!” It was getting quite tense. In the end, I think the sort of ironic twist to this is, when I’m singing about the time of the season for loving, Rod and I were having quite an acrimonious argument. But, I must say, I’m really glad that I did stand there until I got it right. Of course, the song went on to become another hit. In Cashbox, it was No. 1. I know everybody always goes by Billboard now, though I think it was No. 2 or No. 3 or something. So I was really, really pleased that I stuck it out and got the melody right.
The Zombies perform Wednesday, March 13, at the Kessler Theater. Tickets to the show have sold out.