Yesterday, Zombies’ lead singer Colin Blunstone gave us the inside scoop on what makes the band’s Odessey and Oracle a cult favorite and how the band utilized the same recording techniques for their new album, Still Got That Hunger. In the second portion of our interview, we continue speaking with Blunstone about the Zombies’ original run in the ’60s, his solo career, and what in the world that cameo in Bunny Lake is Missing was all about.
REBEAT: Since the Zombies were formed so early on in the ’60s, do you think that allowed you to form a more distinct sound that was not as heavily influenced by other British Invasion bands?
COLIN BLUNSTONE: Well, in 1961, we were 15 years old. You know, we weren’t professional musicians at that time, but that’s when the band first got together. The very first rehearsal, I was the rhythm guitarist and Rod Argent was the lead singer, but we swapped ’round very early on. I heard him playing piano, and even at 15, he was sensational as a keyboard player, and I said to him, “You have to play keyboards in the band.” And then he heard me singing a Ricky Nelson song and said, “Well, okay, I’ll play keyboards if you’ll be lead singer.” So right from the beginning, we were a keyboard-based band, which was quite unusual in those days, when you think of it. It was a time of three-guitar bands, but we had a keyboard-based band. And also, we always tried to include harmonies in everything that we did, which again, was quite unusual for bands, and that was from the time we were 15.
We were very aware of the Beatles and thought they were absolutely fantastic, but up until our first recording session, we played the same thing: rhythm and blues classics. In fact, the Zombies were at one time called the Zombies R&B. But just before the first session, which was at Decker Studios in West Hampstead in London, our producer, who’s called Ken James, he was having a chat with us and just said, “You could always write something for the session if you wanted,” and then went on and talked about other things. It wasn’t a big speech. Quite frankly, I’d forgotten he even said it. But Rod just went away and wrote “She’s Not There” and came back about two days later and said, “Guys, I’ve got a song. Listen to this.” And I think we all knew that it was special as soon as we heard it. And Chris White wrote the B-side, “You Make Me Feel Good.”
I didn’t know either of them could write songs. I was in deep, deep shock when they came back with these songs written. And so, from then on really, we sort of trod our own path because, up until then, we’d been using the same influences that most of the other bands of the British Invasion were using. The Beatles, the Stones, the Yardbirds, the Animals: they were all using rhythm and blues classics as the basis of their songs, and we were doing the same thing, but in a very amateurish way. We were still very young. But as soon as Rod and Chris started writing, that really was our musical identity. Whether you like the Zombies or not, we weren’t like anybody else because we had these two prolific and quite sophisticated writers in the band, and we followed their songs.
Another thing about the Zombies was that, and this is partly to our advantage, and in some ways it might have been a bit of a disadvantage, but we took our influences from a very wide spectrum of music. From classical music, modern jazz, rhythm and blues, the blues, rock and roll, it’s all in there. And I think that also helped to make us sound very different, but then I think sometimes we slightly confused people because they couldn’t categorize us. We didn’t really sound like anyone else, and that can be a disadvantage in a radio station, wondering whether they should be playing you or not. Even magazines might wonder, just because they’re not quite sure if you fit into the kind of music that they’re exploiting.
Your singles seemed to do better in the US overall than they did in the UK, which is interesting because it’s usually the opposite for British bands. Why do you think this was the case for you?
No one really knows why these things happen, but I think because we were very young when we started, and you know, we lived in the country. We weren’t city boys. We just got no experience in the music business. We had two or three photo sessions very early on, which were very poor, and the publicity department at Decca Records chose some very strange angles to publicize us as well. The trouble is that those initial photographs, they follow you around. The photos you had taken when you started, they still crop up now sometimes. They just were very amateurish and poor, and I think it damaged us a lot. But we were successful in America a little bit later, sort of six months later. And by then, we were more on top of things.
I think obviously you should be grateful for any success that you get at any time. But if we had a choice, it probably would’ve been better for us if our success had come a little bit later, when we were a bit older and we understood the music business a little bit better. And I think we could’ve handled the whole thing a lot better. I think that’s why we didn’t make so much of an impact in the UK because we were actually successful here first.
“She’s Not There” was released in July of 1964 in the UK, and it was released in September or October in the States. So even just having that three months on the road, it really helped us when we came to the States. We were determined to be a professional group before we even made a record, so if “She’s Not There” hadn’t happened, we would’ve just been out on the road, playing whatever gigs we could get. But we would’ve been learning our craft, and if we’d of had a year on the road or two years on the road and then had a hit record, I think it would’ve been a very different story. But you know, I’m not saying I’m not grateful for the success we’ve had. Of course I am. But in an absolutely ideal world, it might have suited us more to have just waited until we were a bit more worldly than we were when we started.
What was it like being a British band coming to the United States in the ’60s?
Well, for us, it was incredibly exciting because, this is one of the ironies of the British Invasion, just about every band that came over to America was totally influenced by American artists. We were still playing some rhythm and blues classics because Rod and Chris had only just started writing. And people would say, “Oh, this is a great song! I really enjoy this.” And I’d just think, well, this is an American song. We are basically copying American artists. And then I guess it does go through several filters when another band gets hold of it, and it comes out with a slightly different interpretation. But basically, it was American music that we’d come to America to play to Americans. And some nights, I did honestly feel a bit guilty. It wasn’t a secret. I mean, I would talk to anyone who wanted to talk about it because it fascinated me. But I always wanted to stop the show and say, “Hey, this is American music we’re playing. It’s not that different.” It’s all out there, you just have to go find it.
I think we did give a unique twist to the songs, but I just want to emphasize that, certainly for us, and I’m sure for all the other British bands, to go to America was the thing because it’s the land of Elvis, the Beach Boys, Muddy Waters. Rock and roll and the blues came from America. We were all looking towards America for our influences really. And to get the chance to come and play, let alone have a hit record, was incredibly exciting.
I remember reading somewhere that some people at the time thought the Zombies were a little pretentious because you had these nice country accents. Is that true?
It could well be true because we never falsified our accents. Accents to a large extent are geographical. You could say they’re also to do with class, if you want. But in our case, it was just geographical. If you came where we came from, you would speak like us. I think the Stones are really sharp because they spoke like us, or Mick Jagger did, but he speaks with, they call it “Mockney.” So he speaks in kind of a Cockney accent, but because he’s not Cockney, they call it Mockney because he’s mocking the Cockney. I think he was really sharp because he adopted that accent. And we didn’t. We just stuck with the accent we were born with. And I think in England especially, people did get the wrong end of the stick because we didn’t, in any way, come from a wealthy background, absolutely not. But I think sometimes people felt we were pretentious, yeah, and also what we would call in England “posh” and upper class. I heard that said. It’s really strange and ironic because we didn’t come from that kind of background at all.
Of everything the Zombies put out, is there anything you’re particularly proud of, aside from Odessey and Oracle?
Well, I think “She’s Not There” is a timeless classic. “I Remember When I Loved Her” is a good song. “She’s Coming Home” was a single that we had in the early part of ’65, which I think was a good single. It wasn’t recorded very well, you know. We were having problems quite early on with the way the records were sounding, and I think if that had been recorded in a different way… I think it got into the top 30, but I think it could have been a much bigger hit.
We did a version of Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Going Out of My Head.” That was the last thing we recorded with our producer because our version left a lot to be desired [laughs]. Because there was a restriction on how you recorded, we only had four tracks to record on, and he wanted to put some brass on that. We were out of the country, and he recorded the brass on my vocal track, so it meant that, once he’d recorded the two things together, he couldn’t alter them. And the brass was far too loud, and it’s so obvious when we heard it, and it was just a bit of a mess. And that was the end of our relationship, and then after that, we recorded Odessey and Oracle. But that was a really good song, and I think it could have been a great record. But it got lost in the studio, as some songs do.
There are some little gems, I think. But for the most part, I think the best material was right at the beginning with “She’s Not There” and right at the end with Odessey and Oracle.
I sometimes think it would be interesting if Odessey and Oracle had actually been a new beginning for the Zombies. Here we are, three years into a professional career. We knew a little bit about the business. We knew a little bit about performing and about writing. And if we’d have gone on from Odessey and Oracle instead of ended… I’m the only one who thinks like this. The rest of the band all think it was the right time to end, but I’m just curious what might have happened.
I think we were a bit impetuous really. Again, we were still very young, and the band had only been together for three years. This incarnation of the band’s been together for 15, but it seems like a lifetime! When you’re 19, 20, 21, three years seems like a lifetime. It just seemed like it was time to get on with new projects.
I don’t think our management or ourselves, and also a lot of bands at that time, really understood the importance of image. It’s with bands like the Who that I think they really understood. I mean, they’re a brilliant band anyway, but they understood about image, and it certainly comes over that way. And to a degree, I think the Stones did as well. With the Beatles, they did have a strong image, just the haircuts, and the Liverpool accent, and they had very sharp wits. But I don’t think we ever fully understood that, and maybe if we’d have kept going, we would have understood it a lot better.
What do you think the Zombie’s image would have been like if you’d developed one?
Well, of course, the time was getting into flower power, wasn’t it? Maybe we would’ve been drawn into all that? There’s a song called “Hung Up On A Dream” on Odessey and Oracle, and the lyric is “I stood astounded, staring hard/at men with flowers in their hair,” and maybe we would have had our caftans on and flowers in our hair perhaps. [laughs] To be honest, I don’t know. But it certainly didn’t happen after the band finished. None of us got drawn into that, but maybe we would if we’d have kept going.
I’ve often wondered if we’d have gotten back together again, could we have had more hits? And then I think, what would my life have been like? The music business was getting into such a period of excess, especially in the early ’70s. I’m not sure I’d be still be here. That’s my thinking anyway. That if we’d have gone on and been super successful, I would’ve got into a life of excess with very little difficulty and probably never come ’round from it.
Do you think you would have ended up in a music career if you hadn’t been a part of the Zombies first?
No, I don’t think I would have been in the music business if it hadn’t been for the Zombies. It was just a chance thing at school. The guy who sat in front of me knew these other guys who were getting together to form a band, and he just knew I had a guitar. I used to sit at home strumming tunes, and he turned around said, “You’ve got a guitar, haven’t you?” And I said, “Yeah, I have.” And he said, “Well, do you want to be in a band?” And that’s how I got into the band. So I didn’t see any great vision of me being a performer or being in the music business. It happened to me. I didn’t go looking for it. So I was just extraordinarily fortunate.
You took a break from the music business right after the Zombies broke up. Why did you ultimately come back to music?
Well, I had to take a break. First of all, I was very sad and disappointed that the Zombies had finished, and it’s not easy to just go from one band into another band. And another sad part about the Zombies is that the non-writers, so that would be Paul Atkinson, Hugh Grundy, and myself, we’d never really made any money on the road. Bands rarely make money, or certainly in those days, rarely made money on the road, whereas writers did. So Chris White and Rod Argent were in a totally different financial division to us, and all three of us had to take jobs. It’s not that we particularly wanted to, but we had to take jobs. I just took an office job because I didn’t have any money.
After about a year, as “Time of the Season” started going up the American charts, suddenly, in my little office where I was working, record companies and producers were just ringing all the time. In the end, I got an offer to start recording again. I was a bit reluctant, to be honest, because I was still feeling pretty beaten up about what happened with the Zombies, but I eventually did make a record. I didn’t quit my job. I was just recording in the evening. And one of those tracks that we recorded was a small hit. It was a top 30 hit in the UK, and at that point, it was impossible to keep my job going really. And I was very happy to get back into the music business. But it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I was going to get back into the business because I still felt very bad about the way the Zombies finished.
What are you most proud of regarding your solo work?
Well, I really like the first album I did. It was called One Year. It was quite successful. It had a huge hit single over here that wasn’t a hit in America. It’s so funny when you go from country to country, and you have to try and remember what was in the charts and what wasn’t. “Time of the Season” was never a hit in the UK, never, and it’s been released three or four times. And it was a #1 in Cashbox, #2 on Billboard.
A song from my first album called “Say You Don’t Mind” was a big hit here. I like some of the stuff I did with the Alan Parsons Project, in particular a song called “Old and Wise,” which I sang for them, and I think that’s a really good piece of work. And then I really like some of my more recent albums. They haven’t been particularly successful commercially, but I really like them. There’s one that was released in the ’90s called Echo Bridge, and my last one was called On the Air Tonight, again which I really liked. It did creep into the charts in Europe. It wasn’t a hit in the UK. I think probably about half the albums that I’ve recorded have worked really well. And it intrigues me because I put the same effort into all the albums that we recorded, but some have certainly been much more successful than others, artistically and commercially. You don’t know when you’re recording them. It’s pretty strange looking back, and you realize that you gave so much of yourself to one project that was probably completely unsuccessful and exactly the same on the next one, and it was a huge success. Who knows why?
Is there anything that you’re currently working on independently of the Zombies?
Well, I have a solo band that I record and play live with when there’s a gap, when the Zombies aren’t working. And then, in Europe, I had a hit album a few months ago, but it was a very well put together thing. It’s not just a “best of” or a “greatest hits.” They called it Collected, and it has examples of every period of my recording career. So I do do things when the Zombies are being quiet. I will be touring with the solo band. We’re doing three dates in January, ten dates in February, and about seven or eight dates in April next year. We’ll be touring in the UK and in Holland.
This is kind of a random question, but I’ve always wondered about that strange cameo that the Zombies had in Bunny Lake Is Missing where you are seen performing on a little TV in the background of a scene. How did you come to be involved in that film?
I know, it’s bizarre, isn’t it? I think it just came about because Otto Preminger, who was the director, wanted to get a British band into the film. We actually auditioned for him. I remember going into a club in the afternoon, and there’s Otto Preminger and all his crew from the film, just watching us audition. And what he said was, look, we need three new songs, and basically that’s because the producers, the record company, wanted a share of the publishing, and to get that they had to be new songs. So we had to write three new songs within ten days and record them. And that’s what we did. We had no idea how they were going to be used. That was totally in Otto Preminger’s hands. Whether he knew in the beginning that we were going to be on the TV screen, I don’t know. But if you blink you might miss it! [laughs] I think it took two days to film that, and we’re on the screen for about 10 or 15 seconds.
I just wish they’d given us more time. We might’ve been able to come up with some stronger material. It was written incredibly quickly. Unfortunately, Rod, who wrote all the hit singles, didn’t have any new material. So it was kind of just writing to a deadline really, and one of the songs was mine, “Just Out Of Reach,” and two of Chris’. They were just the only new songs we had available at the time.
Did they even tell you what the movie was about?
No, I don’t think they told us! [laughs] It was a bit random! And I know we got equal billing with Laurence Olivier and Carol Lynley, and then the Zombies! Hey, they’re really going to do something with us! It’s a bit tragic really. [laughs]