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A Conversation with Colin Blunstone of the Zombies

This year marks 50 years since the Zombies recorded their landmark second album ‘Odessey and Oracle’ at Abbey Road Studios in London, just after the Beatles had completed ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. They broke up before the record even came out, following the failure of the first single ‘Care of Cell 44’. They have since reunited and released four more LP’s, the latest one being 2015’s ‘Still Got That Hunger’. On Friday 29th September, they are set to perform ‘Odessey and Oracle’ in its entirety at the London Palladium.

Although ‘Odessey and Oracle’ didn’t get many good reviews and didn’t do well commercially at the time of its release in 1968, it has since received the recognition it deserves. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it as number 100 on its “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list. The record’s groundbreaking sound is characterized by unique timing, phrasing and chord progressions influenced by jazz and classical music.

A couple of years after the Zombies had split up, vocalist Colin Blunstone embarked on a successful solo career that has produced 10 studio albums. He has also collaborated with many other artists, such as Dave Stewart and the Alan Parsons Project. He told 60s Today that he’s written and recorded a few songs for a new solo album, which he hopes to finish next year. We spoke to him about the story of ‘Odessey and Oracle’, his upcoming solo tour, and how music has changed since the 60s, among other things.

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When ‘Odessey and Oracle’ first came out, would you have thought that its 50th anniversary would be celebrated all around the world?

No, absolutely not. I think that most people in the early days of rock and roll thought that a career lasted for two or three years. I don’t think anyone was thinking in terms of what they would be doing in 50 years in the future. So it’s come as a wonderful surprise. It’s doubly surprising because ‘Odessey and Oracle’ didn’t really get a particularly good reaction when it was released, especially commercially. It wasn’t until 10 or 12 years after it was released that it started to pick up wonderful reviews and sell commercially, and other artists started citing it as a huge influence in their careers. And year on year, that’s been increasing until now. This album is a little bit of a mystery; it seems to have broken all the rules. But I certainly didn’t think that we would be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the recording and release of the record.

Is it true that you were offered a million dollars to reunite and tour with the album about a year and a half after it was released?

We were, yeah.

Why didn’t you take that offer?

To tell you the honest truth, it was never even really discussed, because we were never primarily motivated by money or fame as a band. We were just trying to write and record the best songs we possibly could. So the fact that it was a million dollars didn’t really matter. And, on top of that, we were all committed to other projects, and it wouldn’t have been impossible to just drop what we were doing and get the Zombies back together again.

At the time, it was a very singles-orientated market and albums were a bit of an afterthought. The first single that was released in the UK, ‘Care of Cell 44’, wasn’t a hit, and I think we all felt that perhaps it was time that we moved on. It just felt that we’d taken the project as far as we could take it. I personally thought that the album was the best we could possibly do, and if it wasn’t deemed to be a success and it wasn’t deemed to be worthwhile, then maybe it was time to move on and do other things. When the single failed, it seemed as though the whole project had failed. Looking back, with hindsight, I think possibly we should have stayed together for longer.

When was the first time you performed songs from the album live?

I think we’re all undecided. We might have played a couple of early versions of songs from the album in the 60s. I think we did, but I’m not absolutely sure what they were. Apart from that, we didn’t play them until Rod [Argent] and I got back together again in 1999. When we first got back together, it was quite by chance really, and we were going to do six concerts. We didn’t use the name “The Zombies” and we hardly used any Zombies songs at first, because we didn’t realize there was so much interest in the work we’d done with the band. Then we started adding more Zombies songs to a point where after a few years we realized we were actually playing a Zombies concert. It was about seven years after we got back together that we thought it was the right thing to use the name again, and so we became a new incarnation of the Zombies.

‘Odessey and Oracle’ has been described by critics as having a very unique sound. Did you try to do things differently while you were writing and recording it?

No, we’ve always worked the same way, just trying to write the best songs we can. We never followed trends, we weren’t trying to follow any particular kind of music. I think we were lucky that we managed to get into Abbey Road Studios. I think we might have been the first non-EMI artist to get into Abbey Road because at the time Abbey Road was called EMI Studios and it was for EMI artists. The Beatles had just finished ‘Sgt. Pepper’ a week before we went in. We were using the same engineers, the same desks, the same studios, and we even used some of the same instruments that the Beatles had left behind. We used John Lennon’s mellotron, and it is a major colour on the album, but if it hadn’t been there, we probably wouldn’t have used a mellotron. They also left some percussion instruments on the floor and we picked those up as well. And we benefited from some of the groundbreaking recording techniques they’d developed.

Do you give a lot of credit to the engineers for creating the album’s sound?

Absolutely. There were two main engineers, Peter Vince and Geoff Emerick, who worked on the whole of ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and then went on to work with McCartney as well. They were just fine engineers and they made it very easy for us.

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The cover of ‘Odessey and Oracle’ (1968)

The album’s title is also interesting. When did you realize that “Odyssey” was misspelled on the cover by the artist?

We had been away while the painting for the cover was being made. We knew roughly what it was going to be but we hadn’t seen it finished. When we saw it, we knew there was an error in the spelling, and we went to CBS as quickly as possible, and they just said: “It’s already gone to the printers, there’s nothing we can do.” So it was a genuine mistake. The artist who did the painting, Terry Quirk, was a friend of ours, and he’s a very-very good artist, but he made a slight mistake. For a long time, Rod Argent and Chris White used to tell a very complicated story about how that spelling mistake was put in there on purpose, and they even told that story to me and everyone else in the band. And then about 10 years ago, I was doing an interview with Rod and he admitted that it had just been a mistake. That was the first I knew, and I couldn’t believe he’d kept that secret for all those years without even telling me!

But you must have been happy with Terry Quirk’s work, because he designed the cover for ‘Still Got That Hunger’, too.

He did! And there’s a tie-up between the two artworks. There’s no spelling mistake though – actually, maybe we should have put a spelling mistake in there, it would have been a good idea. But there is a kind of a tie-up, you can see from his style that it’s the same artist. He’s a wonderful artist, and I’m really pleased that he did those two albums for us. 

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The cover of ‘Still Got that Hunger’ (2015)

A big jazz influence is evident in most of the early Zombies material. Did you listen to a lot of jazz in the 60s?

As a band, we did listen to a lot of jazz. In my mind, we took our inspirations from a very wide spectrum of music. And in some ways, that was a great strength of the band. We didn’t really sound like anyone else, because we were absorbing influences from so many different directions. But also, it was a bit of a weakness, because people in the media like to categorize what kind of music you play, and we didn’t really fit in to any category. We took influences from jazz, from classical music, from the blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll – it’s all in there. And I think it sometimes confused people, especially reviewers. And record shops need to know where to put your record. At the time in America, the rackers at the wholesalers, who sent the records out to the shops, didn’t know where to put our records. And, you know, simple things like that can create a problem when you’re trying to sell records. So I think that our love of jazz and all kinds of music was a big advantage for us, but at the same time it was a disadvantage as well.

Looking at the music industry nowadays, you don’t see many new ideas anymore. Are there any young musicians you like?

One of the things that I miss is the craft of writing songs. A lot of records nowadays don’t really have the structure of a song. People just put down a drum track, and then put a bassline on top of it, and sort of build up a song in the studio. Whereas I like songs that have got imaginative chords and beautiful lyrics. That’s what I find attractive, and I do miss that in some of today’s music. Having said that, there are some very good young singer-songwriters. I’m not going to be able to give you a long list of people, but Ed Sheeran is one of them, and there’s also Sam Smith and James Bay.

Do you think these people would also have stood out in the 60s if they had been around then?

Oh yes, absolutely. The very best of the singer-songwriters that are around at the moment I think are sensational. They’re really-really good. But there’s a lot of music that doesn’t have a lot of soul, it’s just music for music’s sake. And I find that a bit depressing really. But maybe it’s always been like that. People tend to romanticise the 60s, but there was a lot of ordinary music around in the 60s as well. But I think if you’re selective, there is some very-very good new music around. But I always go to the singer-songwriters because I like songs. My favourite artists would be people like Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder and James Taylor – people who write songs.

But would you say that the 60s were a better time to be a musician than nowadays? Or do you think that you would have wanted to do what you do regardless of when you were born?

I’m not sure that I would have found it as easy to go into the music business now. It’s much more sophisticated now, and I think it’s probably harder to get started in music now than it was in the 60s. And especially for me, most of it happened by chance. I just met people at school – we were in two different schools, not just one school, but through chance I met these people and we put a band together. And that was it, that’s the Zombies. But today, people have to audition, they have to really want to do it and put a lot of effort in just to get started. I’m not sure that I would have been driven enough or even had the foresight to try that. Getting into the music business is something that happened to me, I didn’t really go looking for it. I didn’t even know, as I said earlier, that you could have a lifetime’s career in music. I didn’t realize that option was available.

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The Zombies in the 60s

Let’s go back to your early work for a moment. You didn’t contribute a lot as a songwriter to the Zombies’ material in the beginning. Do you remember what the first song was that you ever wrote?

I do. It was for the Zombies, it was a B-side [to ‘Indication’, released in 1966] and it was called ‘How We Were Before’. In the Far East it was actually a big hit, but it was only a B-side here. And then I wrote a song for a film called ‘Bunny Lake Is Missing’ [released in 1965], starring Laurence Olivier and Carol Lynley. The Zombies actually had three songs in that film, but I wrote one of them. I only wrote those two songs for the Zombies at that time. I think that’s because Rod and Chris started writing before I did, and they established themselves as the dominant writers in the Zombies, and it’s always stayed that way. But when I started recording as a solo artist, I started writing more prolifically. 

Has the way you write songs changed over the years?

It hasn’t really changed. Usually, I write on guitar, and lyrically I would say that I write from personal experience. It may not be something that’s happened to me, it may be something that’s happened to someone I know. I’m somewhat limited in that I’m not really a very sophisticated guitarist, so I have to work very hard to get the chord sequences going and to establish a melody – that’s what I always find really difficult. But I love to write songs. For me, the real thrill in the music business is to write a song and see it develop from a germ of an idea. You watch in develop in the studio with wonderful musicians taking it to a new dimension. And eventually you go out and play that song that was just a seed of an idea a year ago. That’s the thrill, I think: to see that idea come to fruition as you perform it in front of an audience. 

Have you written any new songs recently?

It’s fairly slow-going at the moment, but I have recorded three tracks for a next solo album. Two of them are songs I wrote some time ago and one I didn’t write myself. When the Zombies have finished playing on Friday at the Palladium, we’re not playing again until January, and the solo band is playing in November, so that leaves me most of October and December to start to do some writing. I hope that I can get the juices flowing and that I can perhaps get four or five songs on the go. You just have to wait until these moments of inspiration come along and until the right musicians are in place. Anyone can record an album quickly – that’s not difficult. But I want it to be worthwhile.

Will there be another Zombies album, too?

I’m sure there will be, but it’s very-very early days at the moment. I was talking to Rod today and he’s got a couple of ideas for songs. He also moved quite recently – he used to have his own studio, and he’s now having one built in his new house. When the studio’s finished, which should be in about a month’s time, I think he will start to write again, and I’m sure we’ll have some songs by the beginning of next year.

You mentioned that you have a solo tour coming up in November. How do you compile the set list for those shows? You have a lot of material to choose from.

One thing I try to do is keep the Zombies separate, so there won’t be very many Zombies tunes. The backbone will be the songs that are associated with me. There are five or six hit singles that I’ll put in there, and then I look for new songs and some obscure songs. But they all have to be songs that I have a relationship with. I tend to pick songs that I’ve either recorded or I’m going to record.

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Colin Blunstone on tour with his latest solo album ‘On the Air Tonight’ in 2012

Are there going to be any new songs that you haven’t recorded yet on this tour?

I’m not sure. We haven’t had any rehearsals yet so at the moment I would say probably no. But if I can come up with something, then I’d love to do that.

When are you starting the rehearsals?

Well, in truth, the band will only get together the day before the tour stars. It’s one of the pressures of the business now, that most musicians have to be in more than one band. In the 60s, you would just be in one band. There was a lot more live work available, and it’s not there anymore, so most musicians are in three, four, five bands. And you don’t get the rehearsal time that you’d like. We will get together the day before and just have a play through of the set. We might kick around a couple of ideas for new songs, but there isn’t really the time to do as much in the way of introducing new material as I would like to be.

How is it different to be on the road today than it was 50 years ago?

It’s certainly more sophisticated now than it used to be. In the 60s there were no motorways – there was a little bit of M1, otherwise it was all minor roads, so it took all day to get anywhere. And we were travelling in a very broken-down old truck that would only go about 50 miles an hour. It was pretty basic. And when we got to the town that we were playing in, there was no internet, so someone would go out and try to find a bread and breakfast where we could stay. Today all this stuff is taken care of. We have a truck that’s being converted with airplane seats in it and the hotels are booked way in advance. Travelling is much easier these days.

And how about performing? Do you enjoy it as much as you used to?

I do, actually. And again, that’s changed an awful lot. Years ago, very often you couldn’t hear what you were doing, because the audiences were loud and the amplification wasn’t very developed. Nowadays, audiences tend to sit and listen and the equipment that’s available is just incredible. It’s out of all recognition to what it was in the 60s. And as a singer, what’s really a great advantage to me is using in-ear monitors, so that I can hear what I’m singing.

You have quite a few Zombies dates scheduled in the next year. Will you be playing ‘Odessey and Oracle’ at all of those?

What happened is, there are these huge musical cruises where they have about 15 bands playing, and the one we’ve played quite a lot is the Moodies Cruise. We’re doing another one in January, and they asked us to do ‘Odessey and Oracle’. In all honesty, I thought that the Palladium show would be the last one. So we’re going to do ‘Odessey and Oracle’ on the cruise in January, and then the boat will go into port in Florida, and we were told that venues in Florida are also interested in ‘Odessey and Oracle’. We have a much larger band when we play that album, because we have the original members and a couple of other people who supplement the band. That means that we’ll be together probably for the last time, and there was an opportunity to play some dates in Florida. But I think that will be it, I don’t think we’ll play ‘Odessey and Oracle’ again after that. It’s not something we want to keep coming back to, we just agreed to do it because there was an interest. When we go back to the States in March, we will be playing much more of our new albums, and we’ll probably play three songs from ‘Odessey and Oracle’, because there’s a lot of other material to play.


Visit the Zombies’ website to find out where you can see them live next. See ColinBlunstone.net for his solo tour dates.

 

 

1 comment on “A Conversation with Colin Blunstone of the Zombies

  1. Wow, this was a great interview! The Zombies used to be my favorite band back in the day.

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