Disciples of Sound

    The Zombies: As Alive as Ever

    Issue 165

    In 2019 when the Zombies took the stage at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to accept their induction and then perform a few of their biggest hits, they did so with an absolute joy that has rarely been seen at these ceremonies. They are a band that has a quality seldom seen in entertainment: the Zombies are not only adored by their fans, but equally loved and admired by their peers. This is the result of continuously creating timeless music and acting as considerate and fair-minded members of the rock community. They are “the good guys!” Their songs are among the greatest in the British Invasion and rock music: “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No,” “Time of the Season” and many deep cuts. Keyboardist and original member Rod Argent has had an equally successful solo career, with titanic hits like “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” and “Hold Your Head Up.”

    Across almost 60 years the band has kept their important body of work alive through various personnel configurations. Fresh off an intense East Coast American tour, the band, led by founding members, vocalist Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent, are about to hit the road again this month, and later this year will release another record of entirely new material. There they will again be joined by Steve Rodford on drums, guitarist Tom Toomey, and the newest member, Søren Koch, who joined the band following the untimely passing of their bassist Jim Rodford in early 2018.

    We had the opportunity to catch up with Colin Blunstone and discuss a whole host of things, not the least of which is an incredibly powerful new release, Live From Studio Two, which was recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios. The CD/DVD package of this private performance will be available only at Zombies live shows. The concert presents an energy and sonic brilliance that takes some of their best-known songs and makes them really rock, roll and glisten. Blunstone and I also had the opportunity to talk about the infamous “fake Zombies”; two acts that impersonated the group after they disbanded for the first time in the late 1960s (one of the impostor bands actually included future ZZ Top members Frank Beard and the late Dusty Hill).

     

     Colin Blunstone. Courtesy of Alex Lake.

    Colin Blunstone. Courtesy of Alex Lake.

     

    Colin is not only a terrific storyteller but a wonderfully nice person who, with care, describes how the band can continue to remain prolific as they enter the autumn of their career.

    Ray Chelstowski: How did this Abbey Road session come together? You all look like you are having the time of your lives.

    Colin Blunstone: It was. I think we were just trying to find a way to play for our fans in the middle of the pandemic. There just weren’t that many ways that you could reach out to people. Then someone came up with the idea of playing a concert at Abbey Road because we have quite strong connections there. In particular, the last Zombies album with the original band [Odessey and Oracle] was recorded there [and at Olympic Studios]. It is very interesting because there’s a definite feeling in the building because there’s so much history there. We actually did the show in Studio Two, which of course is where most of the Beatles recordings were made. So it creates an incredible atmosphere. It was quite an experience. The other side of the story is that we hadn’t played together for two years, so it was a little bit like stepping out into the void. We weren’t quite sure what was going to happen. Since then we have actually done an American tour. We came over and played all along the East Coast. We kicked it off in Miami and ended up in New York. It was great to be back on the road again and felt as if there hadn’t been a gap at all. We just needed a few shows to get what we call our “match fit.”

    RC: How did you decide what the set list for Live From Studio Two would look like? Was there a good amount of debate within the band on what would be included and how it would track?

    CB: It is very similar [to our live shows]. There might be two or three songs that are different. When you are a band that has a history there are certain songs that people expect you to play and they are very disappointed if you don’t. At the same time this is a band that has always enjoyed writing and recording new songs. So sometimes that makes things quite complicated. We typically play no more than four new songs [in a concert].

    RC: Your touring schedule is really intense, where you are doing shows on consecutive nights for weeks at a time. At this point in your career, what is the objective when you look at touring? Are there markets you want to play that you haven’t, or want to play again?

    CB: I think that in regard to American tours, our agent and our management company handle those decisions. We aren’t that personally involved as a band at that point because we don’t know America as well as they do. I would say that I did notice on the last tour that it was fairly intense, but generally speaking we play three shows and then have a night off. That really helps. We have to be careful about the singers, so that people don’t damage their throats, because that can threaten an entire tour.

    RC: Your voice is in remarkable form. How do you keep it in such fine shape?

    CB: We do play all of the songs in their original keys. I began singing them when I was 19 years old and I am just lucky that I have been able to keep my range. Two things help. One is simply common sense and living a sensible and well-nourished life while you are on the road. Most importantly, you have to stay hydrated. Then you have to get a proper amount of sleep, especially when you are in the autumn of your career. Secondly, I started with a singing coach when I was 45 or 50 years old. He would coach a lot of singers in the West End [of London]; your equivalent would be Broadway. They have to sing every night so their voices have to be strong and accurate. He just taught me about the technique of singing, what levers you need to pull to be able to control your voice. He also supplied me with some vocal exercises that I do twice a day when we are on the road. I do them once before sound check and once before the show. I find this all really helps me.

     

    RC: Are there any new songs that you perform live that are really connecting with the audience and surprise you each night?

    CB: There’s one track, “Different Game” which I believe will be the opening track to the new album. It seems to be getting on very well. There’s another song with a very strange title that we didn’t play on the last tour but we are going to try on this one. It’s called “Dropped, Willing, and Stupid.” That’s one to look out for.

    RC: What’s the most fun for you in all of this at this point in the game? In public you seem the happiest you have ever been.

    CB: Well, Rod is the predominant writer in the group. I write mostly for my solo albums. But I really enjoy the whole process of experiencing the spark of a new song and seeing where it comes from. Is it a story that happened to you, or a chord progression? Somehow it appears, and you watch it go through the process of recording where layers are added and it develops even further. Hopefully when you get a wonderful reaction from the audience you can remember the where and when of how the song first started. That really appeals to me.

    RC: You all have kept the band’s music alive all these years in one form or another. But it seems like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination really energized your resolve as a band, and in a way more formally relaunched your career.

    CB: Oh, I think so, yes. It was almost humbling, really. To be nominated and inducted by your fans and Hall members is just wonderful. It’s a confirmation that your body of work does have value. It did raise our profile and add a different energy to how people perceived us and to how actually we perceive ourselves. Without a doubt, the induction ceremony was the most exciting night of my career. But I’m really happy that this band that started in such a small way playing very small venues has built up quite a sizable fan base.

     

    RC: It seems as though acts from the 1960s and 1970s are now no longer under consideration by the Hall. Do you feel like you just made it in under the wire?

    CB: I agree. I was thrilled when we were just nominated. We [had been previously] nominated for four years out of five, and I began to think that we were never going to be inducted. Just being nominated was a very pleasant surprise. I had heard a general whisper that they would not go back to the 1960s again. Things can change but I did get the feeling that that was it for the ’60s. I’m just really happy that we cracked in just before they moved on.

     

    RC: The “fake Zombies” story is astonishing. After the release of Odessey and Oracle, the band broke up in 1969, and the Zombies’ US management company created a fake band to capitalize on their name. (Another fake group toured in 1988.) How did you learn about it at the time, and did you ever talk about it with either of the fake bands’ members at some point?

    CB: In all honesty I know that musicians need to work, and if that was all that was offered to them, there’s no ill feeling on our end. But it was a little bit strange because [original member] Chris White was in the Rolling Stone offices and they got him to phone the manager of one of those bands, and the manager presumed he worked for the magazine. So, [the manager] went into his spiel and said that they had formed the band to honor the late lead singer of the Zombies who was recently killed. It’s a very sobering experience (laughs) to [hear] your epitaph before you’re actually going through the motions of dying. I think [Chris] explained the situation to him and I think the guy almost died. It was kind of a strange experience.

    RCWhat does the current band lineup allow you to do that you might not have been able to do before?

    CB: It certainly is a different sound. I think there’s more energy on stage than there was before. We were always a very relaxed band in the 1960s. With the original Zombies the sum of the parts was greater than the whole. No one in the band, myself included, was particularly accomplished. We were also very young. But when we came together it somehow worked. It was always fresh and different.

    RC: What’s next after this tour ends?

    CB: At the end of this tour we will be looking forward to the release of the new album. But then we have another tour in the autumn where we will be going through Scandinavia, Holland and maybe Belgium. So, in the immediate future I’ll be looking forward to that.

    Header image of the Zombies courtesy of Alex Lake.

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