Colin Blunstone and the “Odessey” of the Zombies – Part One

81wleTX8qcL._SL1280_When the Zombies released Odessey and Oracle in 1968, they unknowingly cemented their place in music history with what would become one of the most highly praised albums of the decade. Unfortunately for the group, the album didn’t initially sell very well, and what’s more, they had already disbanded before it even hit the presses. Yet, what might have seemed like the end was really only the beginning for lead singer Colin Blunstone, who soon re-entered the music business as a solo artist in 1969 and would eventually enjoy great success in reforming the Zombies with original keyboardist Rod Argent. Now, it seems he has come full circle, as he and Argent have reunited with the other surviving members of the classic lineup to take Odessey and Oracle on the road starting this Wednesday, September 30.

So what does the voice of the Zombies think of their seminal album and the dedicated following they have gained over the years? We chatted with Blunstone himself to find out, while also discussing the band’s current incarnation, their newest record, and much more.

REBEAT: Of course, the big buzz around the Zombies right now is the Odessey and Oracle tour. What made you and Rod Argent want to get the rest of the band back together, and how did that process go?
COLIN BLUNSTONE: Well, we had already done it in the UK. There’s so much interest in this album, I think specifically because the band disbanded before the album was ever released, and so in fact, we’d never played most of these songs live as the original band. We actually recorded this album in 1967, and I’ve a feeling we might have done one or two of the songs onstage, maybe, but we certainly didn’t play them all. And so there was a huge interest in this country.

I think it was the 40th anniversary that we were celebrating, and we were going to play one show in central London at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and that grew into three nights because there was so much interest. Then we were asked to tour it around the country, so we did about five dates in major venues around the country after that. And then, over the last year or so, there’s been a lot of people asking us if we would take the show to the States. In the UK, it was quite a casual thing because we all live in and around London, or we did at the time anyway, and it was quite an easy thing to do. But when you start thinking about doing this in America, it’s a different thing because you’ve got to get everyone over there and get all the guys together. All that sort of thing. So it’s not something you undertake lightly, but there were so many people asking us about it, and it’s a thrill for us to do it. So it really came about just because there’s so much interest in this album and in hearing us, the original band, play it.

It was quite funny when we first got back together. I think it was 2009, and Rod and I have been playing regularly since 1999. We play all the time. And we just thought, you know, we really ought to get together with Chris White and Hugh Grundy, the bass player and drummer, and just see what this sounds like. I mean, we hadn’t played together since ’67. And what really made me laugh was that Hugh and Chris had obviously put quite a bit of time into the songs of Odessey and Oracle, and they were note perfect. And Rod and I just got along full of confidence! [laughs] We kind of knew it, you know, and we were making mistakes all over the place. So it really put us in our place, and we realized we had to do our homework because the guys who hadn’t been playing were note perfect. Rod and I definitely weren’t.

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What were Chris White and Hugh Grundy up to before they agreed to tour with you?
Well, Hugh is retired now, and I don’t think he’d moved at that point, but he’s living on an island in the Mediterranean, Minorca. So he has a lovely life, and I think he plays a little but just for fun. Chris is always writing and producing. Chris has stayed in the music business, but he doesn’t play, that’s the thing. So when we did that other thing over in the UK, I don’t think Chris had picked up a bass since 1967. So it’s quite remarkable that he just picked it up and played it note perfectly and knew all his harmonies. It’s quite remarkable, really.

You mentioned there’s a lot of interest in Odessey and Oracle now. How and why do you think its fanbase came about?
Well, I’ll be absolutely honest with you and say that, in some respects, it’s a bit of a mystery to me because it didn’t attract much attention when it came out. I thought it was a really good album. Not everything that I’ve been involved in would I say that, you know. I’m usually quite honest about projects I’ve been involved in. But I thought it was a really good album, and I thought it was the best we could do at that time. That’s what I remember of my feelings about the album. And I was desperately disappointed when it wasn’t a commercial success. I was really disappointed, and of course on top of that, it was compounded by the fact that the band finished as well. So it was sort of a very sad time, and what happened after that, to me, was a mystery. Nobody was promoting the album. Well, obviously “Time of the Season” eventually was a hit single, but even then, the album only just crept into the top hundred, #98 for one week, I think. So it was never really a hit. But seven or eight, nine or 10 years afterwards, it just started to sell, and I can only think that it’s word of mouth that did it because no one was promoting it. There was no marketing campaign. It just started to sell. And year after year, it sells more and more. It’s a very strange story. I don’t think there are many albums that have had that kind of reaction from the public without anybody working the product.

I mean, it is great to get this kind of reaction. I know it’s rather a long time after we recorded it, but it does kind of validate what we were doing, and it’s always wonderful to have your work appreciated, whether it’s at the time or whether it’s years later. It’s very uplifting to know that people are appreciating what you’ve done.

Do you think that if Odessey and Oracle had been more heavily promoted at the time, it would have had the kind of success it has now?
Yeah, I think if more work had been done on it, it could have been successful. And of course it would have helped if there was a band to promote it. It may well be that the record company thought, well, as there’s no band, we won’t get behind this album. I think if there’d been a band out there playing and promoting the product, I think it would have done something, definitely. And what happened after that, the way it’s got sort of this mythical place in people’s affections, that just happened naturally. No one knows how that happened.

When you were recording Odessey and Oracle, what made it different from your previous work and what influences went into that album?
Well, I think that we had two sophisticated writers in the band in Rod Argent and Chris the-zombiesWhite, and I think that you can hear their songs developing, especially Chris’ songs. If you just go back a few records, you can feel the songs developing. I think that their songwriting craft was developing, and suddenly, with Odessey and Oracle, we had 12 really, really strong songs. And I think it had a lot to do with them learning their craft over those three years on the road.

The second thing is that we decided we didn’t want to work with our producer who had produced us all the way up to that point, Ken
James, a very good producer. But we just felt it was time for us to move on. And we managed to get into Abbey Road, which was the studio of the time. I mean, it probably was the best studio in the world at that time, and they had some wonderful engineers. We worked with two of them, Peter Vince and Geoff Emerick, and both of them had worked with the Beatles, especially Geoff Emerick. He’d worked with them a lot, and he went on to work with Paul McCartney after the Beatles finished. And so we were in the right place at the right time.

Considering
 your budget was very limited when you were working on Odessey and Oracle, how did that affect the album, and how do you think it might have changed the final product if you’d had more money to work with?
To compensate for the small budget we had, we extensively rehearsed before we got to the studio. So by the time we got to the studio, we knew what we were going to do. And basically, the band just played live. They were all in the same studio at the same time, and then we did the lead vocal and the harmonies all at the same time as well. I’m not saying we did it in one take, but we would select one take. We probably did eight or nine takes, and then we would just select a complete take, rather than putting a performance together. And so there was a spontaneity and an energy in the way we recorded, but to a large extent, that was out of necessity. We had to record like that. I think that if we had a larger budget, it may have had a different feel to it because we would’ve had the luxury of trying to feel our way in the studio and debate about arrangements and so forth. But we didn’t have time to do that.

Do you think it was a good thing, in the end, that it was more spontaneous?
I think, in a way, it was. And what we decided to do it with the new album, called Still Got That Hunger, was to go back to how we recorded Odessey and Oracle. So we had most of the songs, and we extensively rehearsed them and played them as a band in the studio. I did the vocals live as well. It was a studio that was designed for doing that. You could get separation, so I could get into a sound booth to keep the drums out of my microphone and so forth, but I could still see the guys, and they could still see me. And that’s how we recorded the whole album. It’s basically live, except for the backing vocals. And hopefully, we’ve got that same energy and spontaneity on this album that we had on Odessey and Oracle. It was certainly recorded in the same way.

Still-Got-That-Hunger-Album-Artwork1You get involved in your experimenting when you’re rehearsing. You don’t do it in the studio. The arrangements develop and get fixed while you’re in the rehearsal, and by the time you get to the studio, all you’re trying to get is the performance. And that can be quite difficult, but it’s a lot easier than working out an arrangement and even developing the song in the studio if you really know the song and the arrangement when you’re going in and all you’re trying to get is the performance.

I’ll tell you, I think that you do get a different feel when you record like that, and on top of that, it’s so much more enjoyable. It really is. It’s exciting and it’s fulfilling and it’s thrilling to record like that. But if you record some entities almost one at a time, it can get to where you might have a keyboard, bass, and drums put down the basic track, and then everyone adds their part on top of it. You just lose the basic thrill of playing in a band.

How would you say Still Got That Hunger is different than your last album, Breathe Out, Breathe In?
You know, it’s funny because, in the same way that you can see Odessey and Oracle developing from the songwriting and performances with the original Zombies, there’s a little bit of that with the albums we’ve been doing recently. With Breathe Out, Breathe In, the guys decided that they would record as much as they could live as a band, but I didn’t do the vocals at the same time. Now we’ve just taken it a stage further so that we are playing in the same way we play on stage. So, in a way, Still Got That Hunger is a development from Breathe Out, Breathe In.

Does it surprise you that the Zombies have such a significant following so many years later?
It absolutely does. I’ll say to anyone that the music business to me is a total mystery, but in a nice way. It’s great, you just never know what’s going to happen. I can remember when Rod and I got together in 1999, and we very consciously didn’t call the band the Zombies. It was never our intention to reform or make a new edition of the Zombies. For years, we toured as Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent. We were playing really small places, playing quite a strange mix of tunes, not that many Zombies songs at all. We probably played “Time of the Season” and “She’s Not There.” That could well have been it. It just became apparent that there was a huge interest in the Zombies. People kept asking for more and more Zombie tunes, and we played more and more Zombie tunes. And it got to a point about four or five years ago when we thought, well, we’re playing all Zombie material (although we always write and record new songs as well), and it just seemed a little crazy. And also, a lot of promoters would bill us as the Zombies, even though they were not supposed to, contractually, but they still did. In the end, it just seemed crazy to keep fighting it really, and here we are: the latest incarnation of the Zombies. I would’ve never thought it in a million years.

I understand there used to be a lot of impostor bands out there touring under the Zombies’ name to capitalize off the demand for a reunion. What was your reaction to that at the time?
Well it started in ’60s, but it did go on and on. I don’t know. I felt quite detached from it, to be honest. It did kind of make me feel uncomfortable, and also, I read reviews of some of these bands, and they were really poor. Obviously, the principle is a bit unsettling anyway, just that someone is impersonating you, but it sort of compounds the injury somehow if they’re not very good as well. You’re being impersonated by second rate musicians. [laughs] It’s not very nice.

The last one I remember was probably in the ’80s, and they were very poor, and I don’t know if I read this or someone told me this, but they hadn’t gone down very well. And this fan went into their dressing room and said, “You’re not the real Zombies,” and they said, “Yes, we are!” And this guy just got a gun out and threatened them with a gun, and they never played again. That was enough for them! It was quite interesting because I had contacted the musicians’ union over here and had preliminary talks with a lawyer and, you know, just tried anything I could to discourage these people because they were English, this band I’m talking about, but they were playing in America. And I when they stopped impersonating us, I thought it was something I’d done. I thought, “Hey, whatever it was, it worked!” But then I heard this story about the guy with the gun, and I thought, nah, I think that would’ve convinced them. [laughs]

So what kept a reunion from happening for so long? Was it just that everyone was busy with their own projects?
Well, I think that was the main thing. Certainly, “Time of the Season” was a hit about two years after the band disbanded, and there was never any discussion at all about the band getting back together again. And I suppose if it was going to happen, it would’ve been then. But then we’d all split and gone our different ways. And also the other guys, including Paul Atkinson, who sadly passed away about nine years ago, they’d all taken jobs on the other side of the business. Two of them were in A&R, Paul Atkinson and Hugh Grundy, and Chris White was writing and producing, and they weren’t actively playing. It would’ve been quite difficult for them, I think, to get back into playing again. But to be honest, we never talked about it, and I don’t think anybody ever even thought about it.

Rod and I getting back together again was specifically for six concerts. Basically, I’d got these six concerts anyway, but I’d lost my keyboard player. I thought, I’ll give Rod a ring. I didn’t think he would say yes. He said yes, but he was very specific about only wanting to do six concerts, that’s it. But he loved it so much that here we are, fifteen, sixteen years later, and we’re still playing. So it was quite a charmed thing really, the way it all came together.

The last time I saw you and Rod touring as the Zombies, I thought it was great that you both personally signed all the merchandise that was for sale. It’s awesome how kind you are to your fans, whereas some artists might take their following for granted.
We know who’s the most important in this whole setup. Of course it’s the fans. We used to come out after the show and meet people and sign everything anybody wanted us to sign, but I remember there was one night where we stood and signed for two and a half hours, and we said, we can’t do this because we’ve got to play the next night. So now we sign everything, but we sign it backstage. It is our signatures, but we don’t come out. As you get into bigger venues, it can go on for a long, long time. And we always have to remember we’ve got to play the next night. It’s not just that night. Sometimes we’ll tour for five or six weeks.

It really is a stamina thing. You’ve got to try to take it easy. I think that’s one of the big differences between touring when you’re teenagers and touring now is that when you’re touring as teenagers, the evening begins when the show ends. You know, you want to go out and party and boogie. [laughs] But when our show ends, there’s a stampede to get back to the hotel to get to sleep. We know we have to do that. Bit of a shame, but that’s the way it is.

But you still enjoy touring nowadays?
Yeah, I really do enjoy touring, and I enjoy playing live, and that’s why we do it. We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t enjoy it. You know, it’s a little bit different. It’s less hectic perhaps socially than it was in the ’60s and the ’70s, but that’s no bad thing. We’re much more focused on the show now.

Click here to go to part two of our interview with Colin Blunstone!

About Gretchen Unico 31 Articles
Gretchen Unico is a 20th century pop culture fanatic and record collector from Pittsburgh, PA, currently breaking into a radio career in northern Ohio. Her favorite decades are the '60s and '70s, and she digs everything from bubblegum to hard rock. In her spare time, she enjoys watching old TV shows, movies, and rock docs, listening to and reading about music, and shopping for retro-inspired clothing, which she talks about on her fashion blog: The Retro Wardrobe.