The Zombies Return With Different Game
Nearly 60 years on from their inception, this essential British band is as alive as ever
The Zombies are best described as veritable kings of the comeback, given how nearly 60 years after being in the first wave of the so-called “British Invasion” of the mid ‘60s, they’re not only back, but making music on par with their prime material.
Early hits such as “Tell Her No” and “She’s Not There” defined a sound that owed as much to jazz, R&B and cabaret as it did to rock and pop, but it was their 1967 opus, Odessey & Oracle, which coincided with the band’s break up, that’s stood the test of time. The upcoming documentary, Hung Up On A Dream, does a sublime job telling the story.
Given belated appreciation, it’s now come to be known as a masterpiece of similar proportions to The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, The Who’s Tommy and the Stones’ Beggars Banquet, an album that still sounds as fresh and captivating as it did on its original release.
In its aftermath, the band’s prime movers — keyboardist and songwriter Rod Argent and singer Colin Blunstone — soldiered on with careers of their own — Argent in the band that bore his name in addition to various collaborative projects, and Blunstone with a series of solo albums that kept his profile intact. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the pair reunited with a duo album titled Out of the Shadows at the turn of the millennium that the idea for a Zombies reunion took flight. Later, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the initial release of Odessey & Oracle, the band undertook a massive worldwide tour, one that included the band’s original surviving members — drummer Hugh Grundy and bassist Chris White — as well as a revamped ensemble that currently includes drummer Steve Rodford, guitarist Tom Toomey and the band’s most recent recruit, bassist Søren Koch.
As evidenced by their recent headlining appearance on the On the Blue Cruise, the band is still in peak form, the lapse of time between their initial break-up and their remarkable return having done nothing to dull their powers or prowess. Argent remains a gifted songwriter, as evidenced by their upcoming album Different Game (which they previewed to a group of lucky fans onboard the cruise) and Blunstone’s mastery of tone, technique and his uncanny ability to channel his vocals through its upper register. It wasn’t their first appearance on the cruise — indeed they’ve been regulars throughout the On the Blue trajectory — but clearly, the adoration that hold their fans in sway is clearly undiminished.
Rock & Roll Globe had the extraordinary opportunity to sit down with the two Zombies frontmen and chat with them about the unprecedented career that’s brought them from past glories to present acclaim.
One would be hard pressed to think of another band that 60 years after their initial entry, manages to be literally reborn like you have. Not only that, it’s almost like you’re beginning again, not starting over given the remarkable legacy that you have behind you, but in a sense reemerging in a wholly new way.
Argent: We were talking about this yesterday. There are bands that I revere and adore, but they all seem to have stopped.They’ve ceased carrying on with the same enthusiasm and energy. They’re not creating new stuff, which is the reason I’m in this right now — to carry on the creation part of this, because that’s so enticing. It’s so lovely. And to be, you know, 77 years old, and then told the other day that the algorithms show the main audience on streaming is between 22 and 37. That’s ridiculous, quite ridiculous.
And quite amazing as well…
Argent: It’s a unique situation. I wonder sometimes if it isn’t in some ways because the band is more appreciated in every other country in the world, more than it is in the U.K., which is where we’re from. When we got back together again, in 1999, I don’t think we really realized how revered the Zombies were honestly.
Blunstone: For me, just following up on that comment, the most interesting thing was that we also discovered that was a huge catalogue of Zombies songs that we’d never played. So it was a way of exploring that and seeing what we could get out of it. It was a new experience because we had split up and then there was this whole load of stuff to explore.
It’s an amazing sage to begin with, how you had recorded Odessey & Oracle but subsequently broken up before Al Kooper brought it to Columbia Records and encouraged them to release it in the U.S. So it remained one of the great undiscovered gems even though the band that had recorded it was no more.
Argent: “Time of the Season,” which was on that album, was probably the biggest single that the Zombies ever had, but it was never a hit in the U.K. It’s probably the only country in the world where it wasn’t a hit. And of course, that’s where we lived.
Blunstone: One of the funny things with that song is that it’s been in so many films. People from the States were telling us at the time, you know, your songs are really popular over here and this album is really revered. But you were never quite sure if they were just being polite, or just being good friends. Maybe they just want to be nice, because you’re 3,000 miles away. At that time, it wasn’t being revered in the U.K. in the same way as it was in the States. It’s different now, because there are people who champion it in the U.K. like those that championed it in the States, especially people like Tom Petty, who was one of the first ones to champion it over here. In the U.K., one of the first ones was Paul Weller, who still does so even today. There was a magazine article two or three weeks ago where he named Odessey & Oracle as his favorite album.
It’s remarkable you haven’t gotten more respect in your homeland, because in our opinion, you’re a quintessential British band.
Argent: We were known that way in the ‘60s. We’re playing in the U.K. the whole of April and it’s going to be very interesting for us because we haven’t toured in the U.K. for awhile due to the pandemic. It’s probably been five or six years since we toured there. So it’s a little bit of a step into the unknown. We’ll have to see what happens.
Was the impetus for the reformation the album the two of you did together at the start of the millennium?
Argent: It was. We knew there was a strong feeling between us, but we thought we shouldn’t use the Zombies name because there was only the two of us.
Blunstone: Throughout my whole career, I’ve never wanted to look back, and there was never any hint of us wanting to capitalize on anything. There really wasn’t. We weren’t doing it for that. I mean, we wouldn’t have reformed even if we had a number one million seller. There was a story that we were offered a million pounds if we would reform, but we thought, you know, it’s the wrong thing to actually do now because we’ve started on these separate paths, and other people have invested their time in them, and we’re making that work. So we’re not going to just abandon that, because otherwise we’re just chasing money. I mean, we all want to make money, but we don’t chase it. That’s not our primary motivation for doing things. It’s about what are you going to do with your life? What do you get out of life? When you get to the end of your life and you look back, you’ve got to think, well, I did give it my best shot. You’ve done what you can, and you’ve got the most out of life that you could creatively.
Both of you were very prolific. Colin, you’ve had a string of wonderful solo albums. And Rod, you were also doing solo albums and taking part in various concept albums that found you involved with different musicians. So what’s it like now to be back as the Zombies? It would almost seem like you’re living two lifetimes, that it’s a rebirth. I don’t know another way to describe it.
Blunstone: I think it was very natural for us. And I know that Rod has said that when we did a few initial six dates in 1999, it felt like we had been playing together forever. It really did actually, because it was really natural for us to work together. I put it down to the fact that we spent our formative years playing together from age 15 to 21 or 22. Rod learned to write songs for my voice. And I learned to sing professionally to Rod’s writing. So there’s a very strong connection there. And when we got back together again, it felt as natural as it did when we originally met in the ‘60s. It wasn’t as difficult or as challenging as you might think. It just felt very, very natural.
Argent: It clicked. The years of separation just vanished.
Colin, you seem to be singing better than ever. How have you maintained those amazing expressive vocals of yours?
Blunstone: Well, there are several things that I would always say to people. First of all, use your common sense, especially on the road. You have to look after yourself, and eat well and get plenty of sleep. And most importantly, hydrate. Drink lots of water. That’s just common sense. And then the other thing is, we both started training for a short time with a singing coach. Sadly, he’s no longer with us. He was based in London and he coached a lot of the singers in the West End, which would be our equivalent of Broadway singers. He taught singing technique, so that you understand how to produce your voice. And then he gave us both a set of singing exercises. And when we’re on the road, I do those exercises twice a day, once before soundcheck, and once before the show, so I will have done exercises for roughly an hour of exercises before we do a show. I find that that it helps me incredibly, it’s made my voice stronger, and it’s made my pitch more accurate. And I I don’t know if I could tour as we to if I hadn’t started with that regimen.
Argent: I did a solo album and I was a bit disgusted because I felt my voice wasn’t as strong as it should be. Andrew Lloyd Webber recommended me to that guy Colin mentioned. And I thought it was terrific. And my voice became much fuller, much stronger. It’s like everything else when you’re 18. Everything changes as you get older, particularly when you’re in your 70s.
It’s absolutely amazing to watch you up there and to hear you how remarkable this band sounds. I’m a writer and yet I’m at a loss for words in describing how amazing you sound. Colin, I can’t think of another singer, who has that control or that pitch that you possess. And Rod, your two voices are so in sync.
Argent: That’s extraordinary, isn’t it? They’re very different to each other, but when we sing together, it works. Absolutely.
Blunstone: It’s always intrigued me, that if you hear our voices separately, they’re very different. But it works. Sometimes we do acoustic concerts where it’s just me and Rod, and we’re doing a lot of harmony and that works really well.
The new album is amazing as well. It was great hearing you preview it the other morning, The songs are so exquisite and defined. It almost sounds like Odessey & Oracle revisited, yet with its own distinct songs.
Argent: It’s absolutely brilliant that you say that, and, and in some ways, maybe it’s not surprising, in that we’ve got the principal writer from the Zombies, and we’ve got the principal vocalist. And so perhaps you would expect there to be a link of some sort. But obviously, we’re not trying to copy anything. Still, it’s hardly surprising that there would be a link from what we’ve done in the past.
It’s almost like you’re looking back on another life. You were part of something really phenomenal.
Blunstone: In some respects it is. But at the time, when you’re 18, and 19 years old, you do tend to just accept things. I mean, we didn’t know any differently. We made a record and it was a hit. And then we started touring around the world. And then of course, you take one day at a time. I must admit, I never thought of the British Invasion as some great society happening. I didn’t think of it in those terms. I didn’t think of it as a great social movement. But in some ways, it was, because it triggered a lot of other things as well.
Argent: We were more concerned with our next record. And we were usually disappointed because the first recording session we did was fantastic, but it was never as wonderful thereafter. Strangely enough, the first song I ever wrote, ‘“She’s Not There,” is still on Spotify as one of the most played songs. It’s just ridiculous.
Blunstone: I think, for me, just thinking about those days, if I’ve got a regret about what happened at that time, was that if we knew then what we know now, things could have been very different. Because for one thing, the record company, Decca, wanted a new single every six weeks, while we were out on the road playing. How are we going to get a chance to write and record new singles? So it was almost like a self-prophesied no-win situation.
Argent: We didn’t like most of our singles.
Blunstone: It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. They kept pushing you to put out a single every six weeks, and when that’s the case, you know that 99.9% of bands are going to fail quite quickly.
I was gonna say, the one thing I think I would change would be if I knew that being in the music business could be a lifetime career. I think there was a popular misconception in the ‘60s that bands had a two or three year run, then they got on with the rest of their life. I just wanted to be in it for life. But I didn’t know that the opportunity was there. I’ve heard Jagger talk about that. I felt the same. I think that if I’d have known that there was an opportunity to have a lifetime’s career music, I might have approached it in a slightly different way. I might have thought about it a bit more seriously. It was a wonderful way of life to be sharing the world with your mates and making the music. I loved it. What can be wrong with that? But if you thought about, that’s the beginning of a lifetime’s career, maybe you would you would just behave and think about things in a slightly different way.
Did that have anything to do with your break-up?
Argent: The breakup was a financial issue, because Chris White and I were doing absolutely fine as the writers in the band. We often had hits in France, in the Philippines, all over the world, which we didn’t know about. But eventually the publishing royalties came in. And so Chris and I always had a very healthy income. Not so much for the other guys because we were so badly managed in many ways. We headlined with number one records in the States, and we only broke even for our live work. We never made any money. And so there was one day when I remember [guitarist] Paul Atkinson coming in and saying, “Look, guys, I’m getting married, I’ve got no money, I’m gonna have to move on.” And the other guys felt the same way, in the sense that they didn’t have any money even though Chris and I did. But we were always thinking of carrying on so Chris and I immediately formed a production company. We loved the experience of producing Colin’s first album, One Year. He was still working out what he wanted to do. But he very willingly did One Year, which is a beautiful album, and it spawned a huge hit in the U.K., which was the Denny Laine song “Say You Don’t Mind.”
They recently reissued that album as a double CD.
Blunstone: The second album is all demos that were recorded at the time. I had no recollection of those tracks. Chris White’s sons were going through old reel to reel tapes that were in Chris’s attic, or somewhere like that, and they found these things and started playing them for me. I thought, well, that sounds like me, but I don’t remember the songs. I don’t remember the sessions. So it’s nice to rediscover these tunes.
So what’s it like replaying these songs from decades past? How do you find new ways to keep the material vital and inspiring?
Blunstone: People often ask me, how does it feel to sing “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No” time and time again? Those are magical songs, and in some ways, you’re still discovering little nuances years and years later. I never tire of performing them. I think they’re as fresh and as relevant today as they were when they were originally recorded.
And do you still enjoy performing in general?
Argent: I live much more of a quiet life now obviously, but for that hour and 40 minutes that we’re onstage, it feels the same way it did when I was 18, particularly if you have a younger audience, which we often do have nowadays. I’m not being ageist about that; we don’t mind who comes to our shows. It’s just great to have people around us all with that wonderful enthusiasm. But if you do get a young component as well, you got tremendous amount of energy coming back to you. So it doesn’t really feel any different now.
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