Colin Blunstone of The Zombies: 'To have a unique sound can be a great plus, but it also can be a disadvantage'

He might have carved his own place in pop music history with timeless hits such as She’s Not There, Time of The Season and Say You Don’t Mind, and been inducted alongside his bandmates in The Zombies into the US Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But Colin Blunstone seems wryly amused at the thought of now being a museum exhibit.
Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent of The Zombies. Picture: Alex LakeColin Blunstone and Rod Argent of The Zombies. Picture: Alex Lake
Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent of The Zombies. Picture: Alex Lake

“It’s a little strange, I was certainly never expecting it in my early life,” says the softly-spoken singer, contemplating the fact that his band have been commemorated in their home city St Albans’ museum and art gallery. “But it does make me smile because I can remember when I bought my first guitar with my parents and that guitar is in the exhibition. It’s called a Framus Atlantis, it was made in East Germany and it was an acoustic guitar.

“It was difficult for them to afford to buy me a guitar and I remember my dad saying to me on a serious note, ‘If you can just learn a few chords on this’. He was worried that it was going to be a three-day wonder and I would lose interest in it. I’m still playing guitar 60 or 70 years later, but if he’d have known then that that guitar was going to end up in a museum I don’t think he would’ve believed it. Neither would I.”

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Blunstone feels The Zombies have hit their creative stride again with Different Game, their fourth album since Blunstone and Argent reunited at the turn of the Millennium. “It has changed a few times since we started again in 1999, but I think this incarnation of the band is very special,” says the 78-year-old.

“The reactions we get in concert are phenomenal. We did tour in the UK last year but the majority of the tours we’ve done since we got back together have been in America and we’re really seeing something very special build over there.

“We got a sense of it when we toured in the UK in the spring last year, we were getting reactions that I don’t think we’ve ever got before and it’s really exciting to be in a situation like that because we haven’t really had any big hit records...It’s been word of mouth. The majority of concerts we’ve played have sold out and that’s very energising again. People are interested, it’s wonderful.”

Being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the US, the country where they had their greatest success in the 1960s with the number one singles She’s Not There and Time of the Season, was another feather in their cap. “It’s incredibly prestigious in America,” he says. “I know that it doesn’t mean quite the same thing here, but it’s something I’m thrilled to have been involved with. On the night of the induction we played in front of 17,000 people at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. We were inducted along with Janet Jackson, Stevie Nicks, Roxy Music, Radiohead, Def Leppard and The Cure. It’s a night I’ll never forget.”

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This year is the 60th anniversary of The Zombies signing to Decca Records and releasing She’s Not There. Being part of the so-called British Invasion of the American charts did not strike Blunstone as exceptional until years later, he admits.

Colin Blunstone of The Zombies. Picture: Alex Lake/WWW.TWOSHORTDAYS.COMColin Blunstone of The Zombies. Picture: Alex Lake/WWW.TWOSHORTDAYS.COM
Colin Blunstone of The Zombies. Picture: Alex Lake/WWW.TWOSHORTDAYS.COM

“It’s funny but when you’re young I think you tend to accept the things that are happening far more naturally than you do when you’re older,” he says. “I think you question things a lot more when you’re older. So I look back and I’m intrigued that we very much took it day by day.

“In the spring and early summer of 1964 we were playing local venues in and around St Albans and by Christmas 1964 we were playing in New York at the Brooklyn Fox with some of our American heroes – although that show did keep us on our toes a bit. We had to follow Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles and I have to tell you they were sensational and they brought the house down. There were a few moments of concern in the wings before we went on but it went incredibly well.

“A lot of the shows then were package shows – we’d already done one in England with The Searchers, the Isley Brothers and Dionne Warwick in the autumn of ’64 – and then we went to America and played with The Shangri-Las, The Shirelles, Dionne Warwick again, Ben E King – so many wonderful artists.

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“I think when you’re young you make that adjustment in quite an unquestioning way, the thought of doing it now, going from local gigs to playing in these huge, prestigious venues I don’t quite know how we did it, but we did.”

With their music somewhere between the beat groups, R&B, psychedelia, baroque pop and proto-progressive rock, The Zombies were a difficult band to pigeonhole. Blunstone believes that’s where record labels struggled to market them. “It wasn’t easy to describe our kind of music,” he says. “To have a unique sound can be a great plus in a career, but it also can be a disadvantage because if people don’t know how to describe your kind of music, you’ll find that the media gets confused. Magazines and radio stations don’t know whether to include you because they’re not sure in what category to put your music, so it was an intriguing situation.

“The other thing I’ve often thought about was we won a big rock ’n’ roll competition locally, there were 100 bands went into this competition and it was sponsored by the then London Evening News, and that led us directly to the record contract with Decca and our first record, She’s Not There, was a hit which meant that unlike most of the bands at that time, especially bands that were interested in rhythm and blues, we didn’t play the London club circuit.

“The Stones did, The Yardbirds did, Brian Augur did, The Who did – most of the bands of the time played that circuit of the Marquee, Klooks Kleek, Eel Pie Island, there were many London clubs where the learned their profession, we missed out on that and do sometimes wonder if it would’ve been better for us if we’d done the same.

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“It wasn’t out of choice, we had a hit record, an agent and a manager who saw a different path for us and we didn’t know enough about the business to question them. I don’t know if there was a choice anyway, we had a big hit record and it was an accepted route that we joined those package tours.”

The band began to fall apart during the making of their second album Odessey and Oracle at Abbey Road Studios in London in 1967. By the time it was released in April 1968, Blunstone, Argent, Paul Atkinson, Chris White and Hugh Grundy had gone their separate ways and were unable to promote the single Time of the Season, which became their second US number one. Nevertheless Blunstone is heartened that decades later the record has become an acknowledged classic.

“You feel justified in what you were doing at that time, we realised that it did have a value” he says. “At the time that album to large extent was ignored. I remember we had two allies: Kenny Everett (then a BBC Radio 1 DJ), who was a huge fan of that album, and there was a journalist called Penny Valentine, who gave it an incredible review in Disc magazine. But otherwise to a large extent both here and in America and around the world it was ignored. It was heart-breaking, really, and I think that it was the final blow to the band.

“We famously split up after the first single (Care of Cell 44) was released. It was a very singles-orientated industry at the time in 1967, a little bit later people were far more interested in albums. When we released Care of 44 it didn’t get any attention at all and we’d had a few disappointments before that and I think we just ran out of steam and we decided it would be the end of the band. And then of course ironically the last track on the album, Time of the Season, went on to be a huge hit in America but it so nearly couldn’t have been, there were so many obstacles that came to try and stop it.

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“To start with, Clive Davis, who was the head of CBS, didn’t think the album was commercial, or that there were any singles on it, but Al Kooper, who’d just had huge success with Blood, Sweat and Tears and had just been taken on as a producer at CBS, went in to see Clive Davis and said, ‘whatever it costs, we have to get this album’. He’d been in London and heard a load of albums and Odessey and Oracle stood up for him. Clive Davis said, ‘Well, we own this album but we were just about to pass on it’. It was because Al Kooper fought for that album that it was released and then he had to fight for Time of the Season to be a single.

“It still didn’t get any airplay. One DJ in Boise, Idaho started playing it and would not stop, and in a way that could not happen now, DJs around Boise started playing it and then aroudn Idaho and so on across the country. It took five or six months and then on the Cash Box chart it was a number one, but by then, I think it was two years after the band had finished, and most of us were committed to other projects and it was never even discussed that we would reform the band.

“With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I’d pushed my idea (to reunite). Even if it was a farewell tour I think it would’ve been such great fun to put the band together and to end on a high promoting Odessey and Oracle.”

Later championed by musicians such as Tom Petty and Paul Weller, the album has found a much larger audience. “Rolling Stone named it as one of the top 100 albums of all time,” Blunstone notes. “That’s quite an accolade, isn’t it, when you think how many albums are released every week.”

The Zombies play at Leeds City Varieties on May 27.​​​​​​​

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