Colin Blunstone and the bizarre history of a great band, the Zombies
Colin Blunstone has one of the most distinct voices in rock, and the Zombies, one of my favorite bands, has as strange a history as any group out there.
The Zombies formed in the early 1960s while its members were still in school outside London. Keyboardist Rod Argent and bassist Chris White wrote while Colin Blunstone sang, Paul Atkinson played guitar, and Hugh Grundy played drums. Their first song, Argent’s “She’s Not There,” got them a recording contract with Decca and was their first big hit. It’s no wonder. Released in late 1964, it’s got a jazzy swing and cool quality that set it apart from the bulk of British Invasion releases.
One key element was Colin Blunstone’s intimate vocals. He could sound sweet, whispery and wistful, then would add grit for the R&B covers that the Zombies, like just about every British Invasion band, were doing.
Still, it was the originals such as “The Way I Feel Inside” and “I Remember When I Loved Her” that stood out. Those two were on the band’s 1965 British debut, Begin Here, and the American version of the album included another hit single, “Tell Her No.” Yet it wasn’t until 1968 that the band’s second album, Odessey and Oracle, was released. The Zombies had kept busy all that time, but Decca would release only singles, not albums, and almost none of them were successful.
This seems crazy because songs such as “Whenever You’re Ready,” “I Love You” and “Indication” feel like obvious hits—and the band People later had a hit with “I Love You.” Colin Blunstone has thoughts on why these songs didn’t break through—and the role that the production and mixing may have played.
Odessey and Oracle was the one time the band entered the studio with the intention of making a cohesive album, and they did so at EMI Studios on Abbey Road with Beatles engineers Geoff Emerick and Peter Vince at their side and John Lennon’s mellotron at their disposal. But the first single, the ultra-catchy, tongue-in-cheek “Care of Cell 44,” was another flop, as was the second single, “Friends of Mine.” The disheartened band broke up before the album even was released in April 1968.
The third U.S. single, Chris White’s harmonium-led anti-war song “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914),” also went nowhere. It wasn’t until February of 1969 that the fourth American single from Odessey and Oracle debuted on the Billboard chart: “Time of the Season.” It became a smash, peaked at No. 3, and gave the band and album new life.
Yet the Zombies were no more. Rod Argent and Chris White had formed a new band, Argent, and Colin Blunstone took a job in an insurance office. To exploit the success of “Time of the Season,” fake versions of the Zombies began touring the U.S., including one featuring future members of, yes, ZZ Top. The band Argent also recorded some new songs under the Zombies name for an album that went unreleased for a few decades.
Blunstone launched a solo career, with songs written and produced by Argent and White, and a bit more than 20 years ago, Blunstone and Argent began performing together again. I saw them at the Abbey Pub in Chicago, and their band played an assortment of Zombies, Argent and solo songs. The next time I saw them, they were billed as the Zombies and focused more on that classic material. Blunstone says he hadn’t realized how beloved those songs were. Now he knows.
Odessey and Oracle is often considered among the greatest albums ever made, and the Zombies were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019. The band has a new album in the works and is touring the U.S. this spring and summer, including dates in New York, Chicago (July 1 at the Old Town School of Folk Music) and Los Angeles.
Colin Blunstone is gracious, good-humored and candid as he walks us through the Zombies’ bizarre history in our Caropop conversation. Was the band influenced by the Beach Boys’ use of harmonies? How on earth could “Time of the Season” not have been the obvious choice for a single? Why didn’t Colin Blunstone like it at first, and what were he and Rod Argent fighting about when they recorded it?
How is it that the Zombies’ three non-writers emerged from the band broke, and does he think bands need to come up with a more equitable way to share publishing revenues? How does he keep his voice sounding so strong? And which Zombies song has Colin’s daughter demanded that he sing at her wedding?
The Zombies had a short career with a surprising, gratifyingly long encore. I love listening to Colin Blunstone, whether he's singing or speaking, and I hope you do too.