Songwriter Interviews

Colin Blunstone of The Zombies

by Carl Wiser

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It's fitting that The Zombies did indeed rise from the dead. After scoring a huge hit with their debut single "She's Not There" in 1964, the subsequent album petered out, and they were dropped from their label. With a new record deal, they recorded their second album, Odessey and Oracle, at Abbey Road studios in 1967 immediately after The Beatles wrapped their Sgt. Pepper sessions. Using the mellotron John Lennon left behind, they created a strikingly original album that is now hailed as a classic. But even as they were recording it, The Zombies were planning their split.

Released in the UK in 1968, the album tanked and the group disbanded. It was Al Kooper who dug up the grave; the Blood Sweat & Tears founder was working for CBS Records in America and found the album on a trip to London. CBS released Odessey Stateside in 1969, and when a DJ in Boise started spinning "Time Of The Season," the album took off.

By this time, their keyboard player and main songwriter Rod Argent had formed his own group (Argent), taking bass player Chris White with him. Lead singer Colin Blunstone, who had taken a job in insurance, launched a solo career. The Zombies were not reanimated until decades later, starting with a 1997 reunion and picking up steam with their 2011 album Breathe In, Breathe Out, a vibrant effort lauded by fans and critics alike.

In 2015, the band recorded a new album, Still Got That Hunger (release date: October 9 - pre-order it here), and on September 30 they begin a tour of the United States where they will play Odessey and Oracle from start to finish.

On the line from the outskirts of London, Blunstone talked about the new album and looked back on some of the Zombies songs that are now rightfully regarded as classics.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): I gave a good listen to Still Got that Hunger. it is really quite an accomplishment.

Colin Blunstone: Oh great, I'm glad you like it. You've heard the whole album have you?

Songfacts: I did. I was fortunate to get a preview of it. A lot of bands get stuck in the past and can't move forward, but this is contemporary and it's also refined. It's really something special.

Colin: Fantastic, well, thank you very much. I'm really, really pleased you liked it.

Songfacts: Now, which of the songs did you write on this one?

Colin: Well, I only wrote one actually: "Now I Know I'll Never Get Over You." I think it's the third from the end.

You know, Rod has always been the dominant writer in The Zombies, and we've continued that from the way it was with the original band. I still do solo albums as well, so most of my songs get filtered onto the solo albums, and it seems to work quite well.

Songfacts: Well, I know that in many cases you write songs about relationships, like you did on the last album with the song "Any Other Way." Can you talk about what inspired you to write "Now I Know I'll Never Get Over You"?

Colin: I can tell you exactly. Not all, but most of my songs are just line-for-line what's happening to me at the time. I don't know how much to give away here really, but when we're touring for so many months in the year it can get quite strange when you get home and suddenly it's all very different to being on the road. Sometimes a strange atmosphere can build up because you've got this wandering minstrel who's just burst into a loving home and he's probably a little bit wild. It can be a little bit of a tricky situation.

That's what was happening. If you read it line for line, that's me just arriving home - but probably a little bit exaggerated. You know what artists are like, they sort of exaggerate a bit, but that's where the inspiration comes from in a way.

With my songs, the basis of them is usually something that's happened to me, but you have to just go with the flow a bit when the feeling comes.

Songfacts: Well, you wrote a song way back in '64/'65 called "Just Out of Reach" which is one of those Zombies classics. Tell me about writing that song and what that was about.

Colin: Well, that was writing for a deadline. That's slightly different. What happened was, Otto Preminger wanted us to sing and record some songs for a film called Bunny Lake Is Missing with Laurence Olivier and Carol Lynley. They wanted new songs - basically because the movie company wanted a share of the publishing, so it had to be new songs - and they wanted them written and recorded in something like ten days. It was sort of, "Can we have it done in a matter of days?" And everybody just put their shoulder to the wheel and tried to see what songs they'd got.

In fact, Rod is the most prolific writer in The Zombies, but he didn't have any songs. Chris White had got two, and I think he probably wrote them in those ten days - I'm not sure, but I certainly did.

So, I can't say that's really about anything other than trying to meet a deadline. But it's a good fun song - I really enjoyed playing that. We still play it with this incarnation of the band. Not every night, but we do play it sometimes. We do that really well, as well.

Songfacts: Now you've found yourself suddenly singing the Odessey songs once again to wonderful effect. I can't imagine 50 years ago you ever thought you'd be singing these again, but when you do these songs, are there any that you particularly connect with?

Colin: Well, I think most of them. You know, when we recorded it, I remember feeling that this is the best we could possibly do. And when I heard it back, when it was finished, I thought that's the best we could possibly do. So, I'm very fond of just about all the songs really. Most nights we play "Care of Cell 44" which I think is just a wonderfully well-put-together song. It's a wonderfully crafted song. I think it's got an incredible lyric, wonderful chord sequences and a great melody - it's just got everything. So that is a special song.

We play "A Rose for Emily" most nights, that's a really good song. "This Will Be Our Year" was written by Chris - it's a really good song. So, really it'd be three favorites.

I really like "Hung Up on a Dream" but we don't play that very often. On the next tour we're performing the whole album in its entirety, so obviously we'll do "Hung Up On a Dream." Rod always feels we need some extra people to do that – extra keyboard, extra harmonies, that sort of thing, and so we don't normally play it in our show.

Songfacts: When you sing the lyric "Who's your daddy?" in "Time of the Season" is that a literal thing or does "daddy" mean boyfriend?

Colin: Rod wrote the song, but as I remember it's not meant to be anyone, it's just a phrase. It's a little nod to "Summertime." [sings] "Your daddy's rich and your mama's good looking." [The Zombies recorded the Gershwin song "Summertime" on their first album.]

I think that's where it comes from - it's just a little nod to that song. It's not meant to be literal, it's not really a story song.

And I must admit, it wasn't one of my favorite songs on the album, "Time of the Season." It was the last song we recorded. It was written in the morning before we went into the studio in the afternoon, and I kind of struggled on the melody. Rod and I had quite a heated discussion – he being in the control room and me singing the song - and we were just doing it through my headphones. Because it had only just been written, I was struggling with the melody, and he'd be saying, "You know that's not quite right, Colin. Can you do it again?"

This went on for some time and in the end I sort of said to him: "Listen, you're so good, you come in and you sing it," but with more flamboyant language. And he said, "You're the lead singer, you stand there until you get it right."

It makes me laugh, because at the same time I'm singing [sings], "It's the time of the season for loving," we're really going at one another.

But anyway, I'm glad I did stand there until I got it right - it sold about 2 million copies, or something. It's a huge, huge hit.

Songfacts: Not only that, but it's also a song that has been sampled and redone over and over – Eminem did a very prominent one. What's it like having your voice repurposed like that?

Colin: Well, it is kind of strange, but in a way it's rather exciting. You feel there's still a relevance to what you did, there's still a musical relevance today, and that the basis of what we did can be integrated into a very cutting-edge and commercially successful project like that. I don't see a downside to that. To me it's fantastic.

In addition to the Eminem song "Rhyme or Reason," many other songs have sampled from The Zombies, including "What's Your Name (Time Of The Season)" by Frost, "Don't Look Back" by Miguel, "Rich Like Me" by Yelawolf, and "Rolling Stone" by ScHoolboy Q.

For his song "About Her," Malcolm McLaren reworked "She's Not There" into a mashup with Bessie Smith's rendition of "St. Louis Blues." This version was featured near the end of the 2004 Quentin Tarantino film Kill Bill Vol. 2.
Songfacts: What did you think when you heard Malcolm McLaren do the variation on "She's Not There" that was used in Kill Bill?

Colin: Oh, now that was interesting. I really like that. Was it Bessie Smith?

Songfacts: Yeah.

Colin: That's a great female blues singer who he has duetting with me. Yeah, I thought that was really impressive that track, I really liked it.

Songfacts: A lot of songs were written specifically for your voice because it's such a unique instrument. When you recorded the Alan Parsons' song "Old and Wise," how was that chosen?

Colin: Well, Rod often says that he learned to write songs with my voice subconsciously in his mind. You know, he learned to write songs for my voice. And in the same way, I would say that I learned to sing professionally singing Rod's songs. Some of them are quite demanding, Rod's songs. They're quite intricate, and I think we both, if you like, learned our craft, me on his songs and him with my voice. So, it's quite an interesting thing and it sort of binds us together now.

And it's quite interesting because recently we've done a lot of two-man shows, and most of the songs he's written work very well with just keyboards and voice. It reminds me of when we were first rehearsing the tunes. When we go out to an audience, there's just the two of us, but we've been singing together since we were 15 and we kind of know what each other is thinking, so it makes it comparatively easy to convert these songs from a band situation into a two-man show.

But, going on to the Alan Parsons thing, I've known Alan for some time - he was one of the engineers who worked on Odessey and Oracle actually and that's when I first met him in Abbey Road. It happened that he lived near me as well, so I used to see him socially after that. I got introduced to Eric Woolfson, who is just a wonderful writer, and Eric wrote "Old and Wise." Eric was the sort of silent partner in the Alan Parsons Project - he wrote most of the material. And he's the only guy I knew who was a fantastic writer but he was also a very good businessman. He completed all the deals with regards to the Alan Parsons Project.

I was talking to Eric one night in Abbey Road and he said, "I'd like to play you this song" and we walked into a deserted Studio Three - Alan Parsons usually used Studio Two, which is the same studio The Beatles used most of the time – but we walked into Studio Three, which is where The Zombies recorded "Time of the Season." Eric sat down and played me that song on the piano, and I thought, "That's a wonderful song." He said, "Well, we'd like you to have a go at putting a vocal on it." And that's what happened.

So the first time I heard it was Eric playing the song live in its entirety in Studio Three in Abbey Road. I just thought it was a wonderful song. Still do.

Songfacts: You said that many of the songs Rod writes are very demanding songs. What are some of the most demanding songs to sing from the Odessey and Oracle album?

Colin: I couldn't tell you honestly. I haven't sat down and really listened to it recently. That's one of the things I've got to do.

But at the moment, the ones that are more demanding are the ones that I don't sing regularly because I have to kind of relearn them. I know that sounds bizarre, but if you don't sing something for years...

Most of these songs we never played live at all. We just played them in the studio, and then bizarrely the band disbanded before the album was even released, so it was a strange situation where we'd never played these songs live.

Well, I suppose "A Rose for Emily" is quite demanding because you're very exposed, but I'm lucky in that we play that regularly on stage.

"Maybe After He's Gone," that can be a bit tricky because we don't play that regularly and it's got a little trick ending on it which is really where in the old days they used to cut the tape. There's a little cut on it that sounds quite effective, but when we have to perform that and give it that sound effect, it can be a little bit difficult.

"Changes." Lots of harmonies in "Changes," and it's another one we don't sing regularly. They're the most demanding ones really. Most of the others we play regularly so I'm OK on those.

Songfacts: Well, that's an interesting thing you mentioned that you didn't actually perform these songs live for decades. When you did go to perform these live for the first time, were there any that hit you in a different way?

Colin: Well, "Maybe After He's Gone" is a song I hadn't really thought much about. We learned it and recorded it in 1967, so it's nearly 50 years ago. That surprised me, how good a song that is. I hadn't given it much thought.

Again, "A Rose for Emily," I was very apprehensive about performing that, just because I'm so exposed, and it has got some quite challenging notes in it. But it's OK as long as you really know that song.

It makes a huge difference to me if I really know a song. That might be an obvious thing to say, but to really know a song you've got to have performed it live a few times in front of an audience, and then you get right inside a song.

An interesting song is "Butcher's Tale." Chris White eventually sang it – it's his song and he sang it. They wanted me to sing it, and I just couldn't. I'm not sure what we were listening to at the time, but I imagine it could have been "Friends of Mine," which is a real pop tune. A really good song, but it's a pop tune. And I just said to them, I can't see this "Butcher's Tale" fitting on this album. It's the only song ever that either Rod or Chris wrote that I said, "Look I just don't think I can sing this." I never tried.

I don't know if you've ever listened to the lyric, but it's pretty dark stuff. People thought it was about Vietnam but really it's about the First World War, and I just couldn't see how it could fit on the album. But I was wrong. Everybody plays the album through, and I've never heard the running order questioned ever.

So, originally I was going to sing that, but I thought it was too dark for me, especially at 19. I could handle it now, but at 19 I just thought it was a bit dark.

When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played the Beacon Theater in New York City in May 2013, Petty introduced their cover of The Zombies song "I Want You Back Again" by saying:

"We want to salute one of our favorite groups that meant a lot to us. They weren't the biggest group in the world, but back in the '60s there was a group called The Zombies. [cheering crowd]

The first concert I ever went to, The Zombies were on the show and Mike [Campbell - Heartbreakers guitarist and co-writer of many songs for the band] happened to be at the same concert. Riding back from the show to go home, I heard this song on the radio and it stuck with me ever since. I tracked it down - I found the song and I learned it. Then The Zombies came to see us play in England, and it really made us scared. And they said, 'Hell man, you do it better than we do.' But that was not true."
Songfacts: Why did you do a new version on this album of "I Want You Back Again"?

Colin: We heard a really great live version that Tom Petty had done. Sometimes when someone does a cover of a song that you've originally recorded, you see it in a different light. Because of that cover, it just made us think about what a good song "I Want You Back Again" is.

We started then including it in the live show and people loved it. Then we were in the studio and we thought, "Well, let's try it." It was the first thing we recorded, and it was quite a spur-of-the-moment, spontaneous thing. I think it worked really well.

We also play "I Love You," which was a hit single many years ago for a band called People. It was written by Chris White and it was a B-side for us, and when we came to look at it again it was quite interesting because People had used our version to do a cover but they changed it slightly, and we took on board a lot of what they'd done. So, in fact, we were doing a cover of a cover of a cover. So if you hear us do "I Love You" it's quite complicated the way that came together because it's not the same as The Zombies did in the first place.

On the song "New York" from Still Got That Hunger, Colin sings, "City of a million dreams, you gave one up to me," and goes on to describe some fond memories of The Zombies' formative trip to the city when they were still teenagers. A highlight: getting to know Patti Labelle & the Bluebelles.
Songfacts: Colin, I'd like to get your take on the song "New York," which describes in pretty vivid detail being 19 years old in the city - Patti LaBelle even gets a mention. Rod wrote the song, but you also were part of this experience. Can you talk about that?

Colin: Well, that is a song that's line-for-line what happened to us. We got to know Patti LaBelle & the Bluebells quite well. We were very young. We were just 19, and they sort of took us under their wing and introduced us to the music of Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone.

There were lots of wonderful people that we met over that Christmas period and it was a very exciting time. We played the Murray the K Christmas show at Brooklyn Fox and most of the time, as I remember, we only played one song. Nearly everyone just played one song, but there were 15 or 16 acts on the bill. So the show took an hour or so to run through, but then they played a short film and did the show again, so we would be doing five or six shows a day. We'd get there at 8 o'clock in the morning and leave at 8 or 9 at night - we were there all day.

And of course backstage there was a lot of time to meet with people like Ben E. King, The Shirelles, The Shangri-Las, Dionne Warwick - loads of wonderful, wonderful artists and it was just a great experience for us.

September 25, 2015.
Get tour dates and more info at thezombies.net.
Photos: Jacob Blickenstaff (1) Andrew Eccles (2)

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Comments: 1

  • Dan from BostonWonderful interview! I learned so much about The Zombies and Colin. Thank you.
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