Some songs provide the soundtrack for key moments of our lives, whenever they were written. And many of those on mine were penned before I was even born, including at least a couple from The Zombies.
I’m not quite sure when I first heard 1964’s She’s Not There, but I’ll just be one of the many who felt that song could have been written for me at some stage in the late ’80s. And while I was a few years longer in the tooth by the time This Will Be Our Year truly resonated, there was a similar effect. Yet the band behind both were initially only around for a short period of the Swinging ‘60s, despite their lasting impact.
While the former track – the band’s Rod Argent-penned debut single – was a hit, they split up within three years, critical acclaim for their second album, 1967’s Odessey and Oracle, coming too late to save them. As it turned out though, a whispering campaign followed, several big names in the world of music coming forward from then on to rave about the influence of the latter.
Believe it or not, lead singer Colin Blunstone went to work for an insurance company after the split, but by the turn of the ‘70s he was back, and 45 years later is touring the world with his own band and The Zombies too – and still refreshingly surprised and thankful for the continued appreciation of his craft out there. The year 2015 certainly brought huge success for Colin’s reformed first band too, with a new Zombies album, Still Got That Hunger, going down well on both sides of the Atlantic.
But let’s go back a bit, asking Colin, based just outside Woking, Surrey these days – barely a mile from my old family haunts in the town – about his first meeting with the band in their hometown, St Albans, Hertfordshire. Does he recall that first jam session – aged 15 – around Easter 1961?
“I do, it was a Saturday morning and we met outside the Blacksmith’s Arms, where there’s now a blue plaque on the wall. I used to play a lot of rugby, and had my nose broken so had two black eyes and strapping across my face. I think I fitted in very well for a Zombies band … although we weren’t called that yet! I think they were hoping I was just passing through – I looked such a state. But eventually the guy I knew turned up as well, and off we went for our first rehearsal.”
Three years later, The Zombies hit the ground running. Did She’s Not There’s immediate success work against you though?
“I’ve often thought about that. You’ve got to be grateful for any success that comes your way, and I’m eternally grateful for She’s Not There. It changed all our lives. But we’d already decided to go professional, and in an ideal world it might have been better if we’d had a year or so learning the ropes. There were parts of the business side we were very naïve about. If we’d had that time it could have helped us cope with that transition.”
“I think so, and very often you find it in people’s top 10 favourite tracks of all time. In terms of airplay though, worldwide, Time of the Season is much more popular. The irony is it was never a hit in this country – perhaps the only country where it wasn’t!”
Time of the Season, from Odessey and Oracle, was the band’s 14th single, and proved a commercial flop on release in 1968. However, a year later it was topping the charts in the USA and Canada. And the love for that second album remains to this day. Furthermore, a key factor in the re-emergence of The Zombies is down to continued critical acclaim for Odessey & Oracle, recorded in the summer of ’67 – just before I was born, I might add …
“I find things like that so strange. It was nearly 50 years ago! It’s hard to get my head around that. But it’s wonderful it has had this recognition. The bizarre thing is that it’s all come after such a long period – I’m not sure if there’s any other album like it in that respect.”
Indeed, and from what I can gather there were pretty much indifferent reviews first time around.
“There were really. Rod will always say there were some good reviews, but there certainly weren’t as many as we were hoping for. We were hoping it was going to be a commercial success. We weren’t thinking along the lines of it being a critical success. And we can certainly say, without doubt, it was not a commercial success!
“Yet two years after the album was finished Time of the Season went to No.1 in Cashbox in America, and No.2 in Billboard. That said, the album still only popped into the Billboard top 100 for one week – reaching No.98 … even with a No.1 record on it! Much of the problem here was that there was no band to promote it, help with marketing and all the things that a live band can do. That certainly didn’t help.
“After that, the whole Odessey and Oracle thing is still a bit of a mystery to me. I don’t think anybody actually understands it. About 10 years after it started to get critical acclaim, one review after another. A lot of big artists started citing The Zombies and particularly that album as a huge influence – people like Tom Petty and more recently Dave Grohl.
“And in this country Paul Weller has been fantastic. He’ll namecheck it as his favourite album, and if he’s out with friends and they haven’t heard it, he’ll go into a shop and buy it for them! He’s been sensational in his support.”
Colin’s not all about The Zombies though, as you might expect from an artist who made his own way soon after, scoring a few hits and recording plenty of revered material of his own. And you can expect only a couple of Zombies songs when he plays three dates in this country next weekend.
“With the solo band, the emphasis is very much to make the show something quite different, so the most we’ll probably play is a couple of Zombies tracks. But there’s a lot of other material from the last 50 years that are really good songs. And all of them have a very strong connection to me – I’ve either written them or recorded them.”
Despite his major input for The Zombies, it was only from around his first solo album, 1971’s One Year, that Colin started to prove himself as a songwriter for the Epic label.
“That’s true. I did write a couple of songs for the Zombies, but was very much finding my way as a writer. With One Year I had a few songs for the first time under my belt, and that was the case for the first three solo albums, covering Ennismore and Journey too. Since then I’ve always written, although I’m not the most prolific songwriter in the world.”
Did Rod have an influence on you in that respect?
“I think it comes easier to Rod as a world-class keyboard player and musician. I’m very definitely not! I can play guitar, but I’m quite an ordinary player, and think that always limited me a bit in terms of the quantity of songs I’ve written. Originally I was the rhythm guitarist for The Zombies, but we changed things around. Rod was going to be our lead singer when we first got together.”
Is that right that you sold insurance after the band split in 1967?
“Rod and Chris White wrote most of the songs so were in a totally different position to us – Hugh Grundy, Paul Atkinson and myself. We’d been very badly managed. We hadn’t had excessive lifestyles, but at the end of three years had absolutely no money, so all three of us had to get jobs. I phoned an employment agency and they had a job going in an insurance company. I wasn’t selling insurance – I didn’t know enough about it! It was just an office job, and I could have been doing anything.
“For me the sad bit is that the band ended – at the time I was devastated – and that the three of us had to get straight out and get a job. That’s an indictment of the people managing us.”
So remind us why that decision was made to go your separate ways?
“I think there was a general feeling in the band … remembering that it was a very singles-dominated market in those days …”
At this point, Colin seems to be struggling to find the right words.
“When I look back I blush with embarrassment – the album hadn’t even been released, but after the first single failed to chart there seemed to be a feeling of indifference towards the LP and towards the band. It was only later that we realized. It’s so difficult to imagine the world as it was then in that pre-internet age, but it was very difficult to find out what your records were doing in different parts of the world.
“It was around a year after the band finished that we realised we’d always had a hit record somewhere in the world. In part, this was us being naïve – we should have known that. Also I think we were concentrating too much on the American and the UK charts, but if you have a hit anywhere that’s enough to sustain a career for a couple of years or so.
“With the benefit of hindsight it would have been interesting to see what might have happened next. But there was a feeling in the band that we’d done everything we could do and we’d completed a musical circle, if you like. It was time to move on.”
You mentioned Time of the Season, which still – quite rightly – gets many accolades. But for me I’d mention This Will Be our Year too, which never fails to hit the spot for this scribe.
“It’s a great song, and one I’ve grown to appreciate more in recent years and appreciate how much it means to so many – people have it as their special song or the first song they dance to at their wedding. It was written by Chris White, who wrote more for that album than Rod – another thing I only realised quite recently. Chris was in a particularly rich vein of writing at that time and there are some really cracking songs that both of them wrote on that album.”
For all that, Colin’s not someone to just dwell on the past, and he’s still writing and performing new songs, just like his old band-mates.
“I think that’s what sets The Zombies and my solo project apart – there aren’t many people who started in that era still writing and recording new material. And our most recent album reached Billboard’s top 100!”
You’ve clearly still got a loyal fan-base, and you’ve picked up a lot of support via the recommendation of others over the years.
“Yes, and that’s true with both bands I feature in. We’ve got people who have followed us from the ’60s, and a new generation coming to see us. I think people are quite surprised when they see the average age at our concerts.”
Moving on to the solo career, is there a solo album you’re particularly proud of and can signpost new fans to, particularly those who have only recently discovered you via The Zombies?
“I’d say One Year is one of the best I’ve done, so I’d point them in that direction. There is another, a bit more obscure, 1995’s Echo Bridge. I’m very fond of that as well, although One Year is often cited as the best introduction to my solo career.”
Listening to One Year again, I can hear a natural progression to what you were doing with Odessey and Oracle in 1967.
“People say it almost seems like it could have been the next Zombies album, and in a way it almost was The Zombies under a different name – Rod and Chris produced that album and wrote quite a lot of the songs. And where a band is playing it’s Argent, so there are a lot of connections.”
You had a spell living and working in California and recording for Rocket in the 1970s. Did you get to know their label boss, Elton John then?
“We met a few times and had long talks, recording that first album, Planes, with Gus Dudgeon, his producer. The title track was a Bernie Taupin song, which Elton hadn’t released at that point. That was one of the advantages of being on Rocket.
“I did two more albums there, and Rocket was a wonderful company, very artist-orientated. They just wanted to give people an opportunity to do what they wanted to do. It was just unfortunate that I didn’t give them any hits in that period. That’s something I regret. Ironically, after my contract ran out, I had a big hit with Dave Stewart on What Becomes of the Broken-hearted. But that’s how things go sometimes.”
While One Year included Colin’s first top-20 solo hit, the splendid Say You Don’t Mind, written by Denny Laine (of Moody Blues and Wings fame), and 1973 follow-up Epic LP Ennismore included I Don’t Believe in Miracles, penned by Russ Ballard (Argent, Unit 4+2), he failed to trouble the top-40 again until that 1981 surprise hit for Stiff Records.
He’s retained something of a parallel existence ever since, between solo and group works, with The Zombies again and also with the Alan Parsons Project. Does that keep it all fresh?
“It does. There are a lot of insecurities in the music business, so even sub-consciously I’m thinking if one side of my career goes quiet, I’ve another side I can put the emphasis on until things pick up. Or I could go back to the insurance company!”
Do you think they’d still have you?
“I shouldn’t think so … not now. I don’t think I was very gifted in that market. As soon as I got the opportunity to record again, I was off like … well, like a rocket!”
Dare I ask what became of Neil MacArthur, your 1969 recording studio alter-ego in that period while you contemplated a comeback?
“It’s more of a mystery to me how he ever established himself in the first place! I was approached by Mike Hurst, who produced Cat Stevens’ first two albums and early singles like Matthew and Son, for Deram, a Decca offshoot.
“I loved those tracks so thought it would be great to record again, and did so in the evenings after finishing the office job, because I wasn’t sure – after the disappointment of The Zombies finishing – whether I really wanted to commit to get myself back in the music business.
“Mike suggested I re-record She’s Not There. I don’t really know why. He also suggested changing my name. I was going to be James MacArthur. It was a very casual thing, but at the last minute they realised there was an actor in Hawaii Five-O of that name. So we switched it.
“It was all a bit of an experiment as to whether I had the appetite for it, and I didn’t really think it through. She’s Not There became a small hit again, and for a year I stuck by that name. All a bit strange, to be honest.
“But I remember coming back from a party with Chris White, who was driving, and he suggested, ‘Why don’t you come and record with Rod and I? Forget about all that and record under your own name’. I jumped at that opportunity. And that was the beginning of the One Year project.”
And despite all the big label backing in the past, you’ve not been averse to new ideas, such as getting involved in crowd-funding projects more recently.
“The industry has changed out of all recognition, and it’s changing day by day in the last few years, let alone when I started out. You have to try these new ideas, because it’s very hard to stand still in this business. If you’re not moving forwards, you’re going backwards.
“It was very interesting to record with a pledge campaign, and hopefully we’ve kept the people involved informed of everything that’s been going on, including sharing clips of new songs and information about tour dates with ticket preference. It was a way of involving our fan-base in the whole project, with us learning as we went along. And to a large extent it worked, although if we do it again we could certainly do it better.”
So, 45 years on, Colin’s still going strong, with 2015 proving a very busy year. Any particular highlights spring to mind?
“It was certainly fantastic doing the Odessey and Oracle tour in America with Chris and Hugh Grundy, as it was here. We did around 20 dates, with people like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers coming along.
“Then we had Susanna Hoffs from The Bangles sing with us at our soundcheck, which was fantastic. And a little earlier we played Santa Monica pier to 22,000 people – really wonderful, even more so as all this is totally unexpected.
“I thought our days of touring finished many, many years ago. It’s just grown very naturally since playing six dates together in 1997, when we enjoyed it so much that we just kept going.”
You’re out on the road again, this coming week in the UK then next month in Holland, not so long after getting back from America with The Zombies. Is this how you stay so young?
“That’s rather a leading question! I genuinely do think music and performing help keep you young. Music’s a wonderful thing and affects the way you feel. And the way you feel is the way you look. Just being busy and travelling can be self-perpetuating and give you more energy. It’s all a bit of a circle really, and I think it does make you stay young.
“Certainly, if you look at the ages of the people in The Zombies, there are a few of a good age, and they have more energy than most 21-year-olds. I have to say though, with my solo band the average age is considerably lower than for The Zombies!”
Between all the band and solo engagements, Colin’s a committed family man too, with his wife Suzy 30 years, the couple having a 27-year-old daughter. Has she got a nice voice too?
“She has, and she’s a very good dancer, but she’s in her final year at medical school, so if all goes well she’ll qualify as a doctor this March. That’s very exciting family news for us.”
And while we’re talking medicine, I ask how Colin keeps that great voice of his in shape.
“It’s not for me to say if it’s great or not, but both Rod and I studied with a singing coach a few years ago, learning about technique, and have CDs of singing exercises, which I do twice a day when I’m on the road and a couple of times a week when I’m not. They really help. We recommend that to all singers – at any age, but particularly as you get older. It’s really important to learn those techniques and do those exercises.”
Colin Blunstone is at Wimborne’s Tivoli Theatre (www.tivoliwimborne.co.uk) on Friday, January 22nd, St Helens’ Citadel Arts Centre on Saturday, January 23rd (www.citadel.org.uk) and Skegness’ Rock and Blues Festival on Sunday, January 24th (www.bigweekends.com), before seven dates in Holland in February and a further eight in England from mid-April.