How The Zombies' career was brought back to life
The Blues talks to Colin Blunstone, lead singer of The Zombies, about the British Invasion days of the 1960s and their revival.
In the summer of 1964, The Zombies became the second British group after The Beatles to have a No.1 single in the US chart with a self-penned song. The record in question, She’s Not There, propelled the five Hertfordshire teenagers to overnight success and they soon followed in the Chelsea bootsteps of the Fab Four and The Rolling Stones across the Atlantic.
The ‘invasion’ was a blast while it lasted but they were thrown in at the deep end with no time to think, let alone write more songs, says lead singer Colin Blunstone, on reflection. “I’m not saying that I resent having the success when we had it, I’m eternally grateful. We were finding out about the music business in the glare of international publicity... and making our mistakes in a very public forum. It might have been better for us if we’d done that more privately.”
Although they played to hordes of screaming fans in the US, Europe and even the Philippines, they failed to follow up their big hit in the UK and within three or four years their career had expired.
In what was almost their last gasp, in 1967 they went to the famous Abbey Road studios to record their ‘psychedelic’ album, Odessey And Oracle, but disbanded before it was released the following year to fantastic reviews but feeble sales. Disillusioned and skint, Colin Blunstone took a job in an insurance office while keyboard player Rod Argent and bassist Chris White, the two primary songwriters in the band, continued in the music business.
They all went their separate ways, but fate conspired to revive their career and put the original Zombies back together again in a manner that none of them could ever have envisaged back in the 60s.
Colin Blunstone – whose soulful voice is on a par with almost any of Tamla Motown’s finest and has even led to him being described as ‘the male Dusty Springfield’ – is decidedly upbeat when The Blues calls him, and buzzing with excitement about the prospect of another US tour and their latest album, Still Got That Hunger.
Formed in 1961, The Zombies fashioned their early sound on the blues and R&B coming out of the US, but they were never going to be the standard three-guitar rock’n’roll band, he says. “It really started when I talked my parents into buying me a guitar when I was 12 or 13 and there was a band being put together at school in St Albans. We sat in alpha order and the guy in front of me was Paul Arnold. He knew some of the other guys in this band and said, ‘You’ve got a guitar haven’t you? Want to be in a band?’ And that’s how I ended up on a Saturday morning rehearsal, not knowing any of these guys except one. At first I was gonna be the rhythm guitarist and Rod [Argent] was going to be the lead singer. We’d just been doing an instrumental called Malagueña and Rod hadn’t played at all, so he went over to this broken-down old piano and he played Nut Rocker by B Bumble & The Stingers. It’s quite something for a boy of 15 to be playing this and I was absolutely stunned. I just went rushing over and said, ‘Listen, you should play keyboards in the band.’ But it wasn’t fashionable to have a keyboard player in a rock’n’roll band at that time. Rock bands had three guitars. Rod was a bit reluctant but he said, ‘I’ll play keyboards in the band if you’ll be lead singer.’ It was a very short time between being someone who played a few tunes at home, to being the rhythm guitarist in a band, where I thought I could hide, to being the lead singer, right in the middle out front.”
There was a thriving rock’n’roll and jazz club scene in St Albans at that time, giving the young band members the opportunity to soak it all in. Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent, who had both been choir boys at school, absorbed influences from “classical music, modern jazz, the blues, rhythm and blues, rock’n’roll and pop”. Their musical education – both formal and informal – combined to give The Zombies an unusual sound, a little different to the straight blues and R&B that other groups were starting to discover, although they did share that same hunger for those hard-to-find records.