There are enough injustices in pop music to fill Tiger Stadium, but the fact that I saw the Zombies play a tent – a nice tent, yes, but a tent all the same – on Cape Cod a couple of years ago is right up there.
If you know a smidge about ’60s pop music, you will understand that the Zombies were the best of the best. They had hits – “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No,” and “Time of the Season” – as well as stunningly bad luck. Take their masterpiece, “Odessey & Oracle,” a baroque pop masterpiece up there with anything the Beatles or Kinks put out. The record was even recorded at Abbey Road.
These days, “Odessey” is on every best-of-all-time list, but when it came out, the Zombies were actually no longer a band. They had given up, discouraged by commercial failures, their lead singer searching for temp jobs. Now, 48 years after they recorded their masterpiece, the original Zombies – minus the late guitarist Paul Atkinson – are doing an “Odessey” tour for the first time. Colin Blunstone, 70, the velvety lead singer, spoke with me from a hotel in Dallas.
Q: It’s interesting that you’re touring behind “Odessey” now. This isn’t the 50th or the 40th anniversary. I guess it’s the 48th.
A: It’s not really celebrating anything but I guess we’ve got to get out on the road while we’re still around. I think really the main motivation came from our managers. They came and saw us do it when it was the 40th anniversary. We were going to do one night at Shepherd’s Bush and we ended up doing three nights. But it’s quite a large show to put on when you’re on the road. We need extra people when we’re doing it. We’ve got the present incarnation of the band and we’ve also got the original surviving members. So it becomes quite a big show to move around the country.
Q: You and keyboardist Rod Argent are the only original Zombies part of the regular band. But for this, you’ll have Chris White and Hugh Grundy. Does everybody play or do they switch off?
A: What we’re going to do is play the first half with the current touring band and we’ll feature five tracks from our new album. The second half, we’ll feature the original band but we’ll be supplemented by the touring band. We also have Darian Sarahanaja. We were really fortunate that he was available. He obviously knows “Odessey and Oracle” better than us.
Q: “Time of the Season” is obviously the best known song on the record. It’s ‘the time of the season for loving,’ right, yet I hear you were fighting over the vocal on that song.
A: We were definitely. Things got quite tense. Mostly it was because we had such a small budget and we were in a very expensive studio and everything had to be recorded very quickly. The song had been finished in the morning and I was putting my vocal on in the afternoon so I didn’t really know it that well. Rod was trying to guide. It’s a very simple vocal but I’d only heard it a few times and it got to the point where I sort of shouted, in pretty strong language, I won’t embarrass you, ‘Listen, if you’re so bloody good, you come in here and you sing it.’ He screamed back, ‘You’re the lead singer, you bloody well sing it.’ This was the only friction we had on the album. But anyway, I did stand there and I did get it right in the end.
Q: What does it feel like to have your best-loved record, a record that lands on all best-of lists, be a record you put out after your band dissolved?
A: I think it’s a strange thing. At the time, the market was a very single-dominated market. We’d released the first single in the UK and hadn’t done anything. Everybody thought it’s time for us to move on. Looking back, it does seem strange that we would finish the band before the album was released. But we had been touring continuously for three years and we were all very tired. Our manager and our agent was the same person and we’d had some extreme difficulties with this person which kind of ended up with us not earning any money. So we were poor and tired. We were broke and tired and released a single and nothing happened. It just seemed somebody was trying to tell us something.
Q: Were you actually working as an insurance salesman when “Odessey” came out?
A: What happened, when the band finished, the three non-writers had to get jobs. We had no money. In my instance, I found an employment agency. I didn’t know what to do. The first job happened to be in insurance. I never sold insurance. I didn’t know anything about it. I was just a clerk in an office.
Q: In the nightmare I imagine, you’re filing documents as “Time of the Season” comes on the radio.
A: They never had the radio on. It was like a Dickensian office so they would never play music. But what did happen is I started getting call after calls from record companies and producers. People were trying to get me back in the music business. I recorded under the name of Neil MacArthur.
Q: How do you deal with songs like “A Rose for Emily”? I’ve heard Art Garfunkel drop down on “A Bridge Over Troubled Water,” sat nervously as Brian Wilson reaches for specific notes on “Pet Sounds.” Yet when I heard you sing that song a couple of years ago, you were silky smooth.
A: First of all, all our songs are in the original keys. Rod and I went to a singing coach 10 or 12 years ago and we were given a series of exercises to strengthen our voices and hopefully make them a little more accurate. I found it invaluable to know a little about the process of supporting the diaphragm. I have a series of exercises I do before sound check and before the show. These exercises tend to stretch your voice at the top of your range. I think it’s quite unusual – Rod and I are both 70 – and we are both performing in the exact same keys as before. And the interesting thing is Rod wrote high for me in my range when I was 19 or 20.
Q: You recorded much of “Odessey and Oracle” at Abbey Road. You had Geoff Emerick, the Beatles engineer, on the board. Did you have any interactions with John, Paul, George or Ringo?
A: It was a very near miss. Geoff Emerick and Pete Vincent were the engineers and they had just worked on “Sgt. Pepper.” The Beatles left before we went into the studio but a lot of the instruments were around, including John Lennon’s mellotron. Rod started using this mellotron. It was a little bit cheeky because he didn’t ask. But if you listen to “Odyssey and Oracle,” there’s a mellotron because John Lennon had left it behind. And during the time of “Sgt. Pepper,” there were a lot of technological advances in Abbey Road. Principally that you could record on 8 track. When everything in the past had been recorded on 4 track. We came in just after they did that. Suddenly, for the first time in our lives, we had extra tracks. That’s why we’ve sometimes got two keyboard tracks and the vocals were double tracked as well.
Q: You talked about not feeling the band was quite finished when it broke up, though the others did. Has that sense of artistic business being taken care of happened through recording these new Zombies records with Rod?
A: I don’t think we’ve ever talked really. There wasn’t a great conversation about ending the band. It was a very short conversation. We haven’t talked about it since. When “Time of the Season” was a hit, there was no conversation about the band reforming. We stayed in touch but we just felt the race was run. Rod and I got together just to do six concerts. I was quite surprised that he said he’d do it. That was 1999. It wasn’t as if we hadn’t spoken. We started with basically the same band. We started just for fun with no intention of reforming the Zombies at all. We toured as Colin and Rod Argent. We didn’t play many Zombies tracks but people kept asking for Zombies tunes and we realized there was a huge interest in the Zombies repertoire. So we started playing more Zombies tunes and promoters would start billing us, even if they’d been told not to. After a while, we decided it would be best if we toured as the Zombies. It was never our intention in the first place. It was something that naturally evolved. It feels quite natural now.