Out of the darkness

The Zombies‘ masterpiece, Odessey and Oracle, nearly never saw the light of day, and lead singer Colin Blunstone never wanted to record its biggest hit, “Time of the Season.” Both only surfaced at the urging of CBS Records executive Al Kooper, but by that time, the band had broken up.

The split lasted over 20 years, a period in which Blunstone did some work with Alan Parsons Project and enjoyed a long solo career. His partner, Rod Argent, enjoyed modest success throughout the ’70s with his own band, Argent.
The Zombies, reunited again, make their way to Birmingham this month. Blunstone spoke to Weld about why the record almost didn’t happen, why he didn’t want to record the band’s biggest American hit and what to expect from their live performance.

You split before Odessey and Oracle was released. Were you already playing those songs live or were they never heard until you reunited years later?

I think that we might have played one or two. I seem to remember playing “A Rose for Emily,” but if we did play any tunes, it was one or two songs maybe played once or twice. In general, we didn’t play any of those songs in front of an audience until Rod and I got together again in 1999.

You released New World 22 years after Odessey and Oracle. Why and how did that come together then?

Rod was very much on the periphery of that; he wasn’t really involved in that one. It came about in a strange way, in that there was a band playing, mostly in America, although they were a British band, and they were claiming to be the Zombies. From a personal point of view, I would say that I was encouraged to go back into the studio and play with some old friends and have some fun, but one of the main motivations was to secure our hold on the name the Zombies. I’m no expert on the law, but we were that if we weren’t using the name the Zombies, then anyone else was entitled to use it. So we thought we could combine reasons to get together — have some fun, write some tunes, but also, hopefully, secure our rights to the name.

 The band that was touring as The Zombies — were they impersonating you? Playing your songs?

Absolutely, yeah. One of them was actually using our drummer’s name. I think his second name was actually the same as our drummer. This guy was a bass player calling himself “Hugh Grundy,” and Hugh Grundy was the drummer in our band, so it was a bit silly. We did try to do whatever we could to discourage them. In the end, I talked to the musician’s union in this country and one or two other institutions to try and establish whether or not there’s anything we could do. I laugh at myself, really, because I guess I thought I did something, because they did stop.

But I heard a wonderful story that a Zombies fan went to see them play, and I don’t think they were very good. And he went into the dressing room — this was in America — he went into the dressing room and he pulled a gun on them and he explained that he didn’t think that they were the real Zombies. Because he emphasized it whilst waving a gun in their face, they stopped playing. And that was it.

[Laughs] I like to think it was me that did it, but I don’t think it was! It’s a bit of scary story, but it was told to me as a true story.

How did Al Kooper become such a fan of your music that he pushed for the release of Odessey and Oracle after you had already left?

Al Kooper was in London and he brought a whole stack of albums — this would have been 1967, because Odessey and Oracle had just come out, and it came out in 1967 in London — and he just started working for CBS and he took a stack of albums back to London from New York, and to him, Odessey and Oracle really stood out as a special album. I think it was on his first day of work at CBS. He went to Clive Davis and said, “Whatever we do, whatever it costs, we have to get this album!”

And Clive Davis said, “We already own this album, but we weren’t going to release it. We were going to pass on this album.” But Al managed to pressure him into releasing it.

Odessey and Oracle was a strange album because everything was against it: CBS wasn’t going to release it. They released three singles before “Time of the Season” and none of them really did anything. Then they released “Time of the Season,” and slowly but surely, it started to pick up radio play. Over a period of months, the plays started to spread across the nation, and it eventually started moving up the charts. It ended up, I think like our first single, “She’s Not There,” as I recall, it got to number one in Cashbox and number two in Billboard, so it was a huge hit, but it certainly took its time. I think it took about two years from the time we recorded it before it was a hit in America.

Why did you not want to record it?

I would say that — not many people will admit things like this after it becomes a huge hit, but I’ll tell you the truth: I didn’t particularly like the song when I first heard it. It was the last song that we recorded on the album, it was a little bit rough, it wasn’t really finished until the morning. Then, in the morning, we recorded it — at Abbey Road. I can remember Rod and I having some quite fierce words about it because I wasn’t really familiar with the song — it had literally just been written. And he was talking from the control room to me saying, “It’s not quite there, you haven’t got it quite right.”

Quite an atmosphere built up and ended up with me saying, “Listen, if you’re so good, you come in here and you sing it.”

And he said to me, “You’re the lead singer in this band, you stand there and do it until you get it right.” [Laughs] So it was getting quite heated and it always makes me laugh, because while we were talking to each other like that, I was singing, “It’s the time of the season for loving.” And we were practically coming to blows while we were doing this vocal.

So that’s the story of “Time of the Season,” really. It was the last song we recorded and it was a rush job. And I was struggling with the melody of the song; I just wasn’t familiar with it. But in the end, it all came together, and I’m really glad that I did stand there until I got it right. And the track ended up being a huge hit. It’s used in commercials and films all the time, and Eminem, on his latest album, he sampled our track, “Time of the Season,” it’s the third track on the CD, called “No Rhyme, No Reason.” He sampled the song, “Time of the Season,” and he put his track on top of it. So it’s continually being reused in film commercials and samples for other artists.

Did you ever admit to Argent that you were wrong?

I think it comes up every now and again. I have no shame. I’m just really glad that it was a hit and that people really liked it. I don’t mind. I think of the hits we had, and out of the records that I sang on after the Zombies, I probably am no better than 50 percent of the time right on even what the single should be, let alone what’s going to be a hit.

I did spot “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No.” I did think those would be hits, but I didn’t spot “Time of the Season,” and there have been other songs that I have been involved in that I didn’t think stood a chance, [Laughs] but it’s been much more exciting…when a track’s released and you think, “This doesn’t stand a hope in hell,” and it’s a hit and it’s a wonderful surprise. I don’t mind having a little laugh at myself if I get it wrong. It’s fine.

Was the friction over that recording what led to your first split?

Oh no, that was forgotten as soon as we finished the track. It was just a bit of fun, really. I think one of the problems we had was that communication in those days was so poor compared with today. You know exactly what’s going on all around the world today. We didn’t realize that the whole time we were together we had a hit record somewhere, in one territory or another. We had a hit record the whole time, at least one. Because we were going through a period where we weren’t particularly successful in the UK or in the States, we perceived ourselves as being unsuccessful. If only a year or so later, we realized that that wasn’t true. We were having many hits around the world. Possibly, if we had known that, maybe the band would have stayed together.

What was it like working with Laurence Olivier on Bunny Lake is Missing?

Well, I’ve got to be really honest and admit that, unfortunately, we didn’t meet him. We recorded our bit separately. We were invited to a party at the end of the film where all of the stars were going to be there, and again, sadly, we were touring in America. So we didn’t meet him or Carol Lynley or Keir Dullea, who was the other star of the film. Our little insert was recorded separately. We did meet Otto Preminger, who was a bit fearsome, and a bit demanding and aggressive, and that was interesting to work with him.

You had a long solo career with several albums — will you perform any of those tunes or any Argent songs or Alan Parsons Project or any Kinks songs?

We will do some of those things. That’s very interesting that you say the Kinks, because obviously Jim Rodford was in the Kinks for 18 years, but we’ve never played a Kinks song in this incarnation of the band, and maybe that’s something we should think about doing. But most of the time we’ll be playing Zombies tunes, but we will play, I think, one song from my solo career and one song from the Alan Parsons Project and either one or two songs from Argent, it varies from evening to evening. We try to give people a fair representation of what we’ve been doing over the years, and I think people are often quite surprised how many of the songs we play that they know. They may not know that it was us that recorded them, but I think people are often quite genuinely and very pleasantly surprised when they realize how many songs we’ve recorded they’re very familiar with.

You’ve laid low the last 10 years or so. What have you been up to?

I’ve always been recording, but unfortunately, I’ve never had much chart success in America, so it’s not that I haven’t been making records and traveling around playing. Since 1999, I’ve been touring constantly with the Zombies. Before that I was touring a little bit as a solo artists, and I still do. When the Zombies are not touring, I’ll take my solo band out and we’ll do some concerts. At the end of this Zombies tour, I’m going to do five or six solo concerts in America, mostly in the Northeast. So that’ll be the first time I’ve played in America with my solo band since 1973, I think.

It just happens that probably the one place I haven’t had chart success as a solo act is in America. It’s a shame. I wish I had managed to have a bit more success as a solo artist there, but that’s the way things work out.

I’ve enjoyed your solo work, and I also liked the last Zombies record, Breathe Out, Breathe In, a lot, too. Do you have plans on following that up?

Absolutely. We’ve already started recording the next album. We’ve recorded two or three tracks for the next album. Obviously, we have to put that on hold now because we’re going to be in the States for  a month, then I’ll be there an extra two weeks as a solo band. So through the summer, we’ll be recording. I would hope that by the autumn, we’ll have a finished album.

Who are the top five American rock bands of all time?

Oh, crikey. I’d say first of all that I tend to listen to singer-songwriters rather than bands. But the Beach Boys would be my favorite American band. I always go back to bands when I was young: Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills and Nash. I really enjoy the Eagles, actually, a fantastic band. So, I only got to four, didn’t I?

My mind goes blank when someone asks me specific questions like that. So I’ll leave it at four.

The Zombies with Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent will perform at Iron City on April 23. Hollis Brown will open. Doors open at 7 p.m., while the show begins at 8 p.m. General admission tickets are $25, while VIP, Meet and Greet tickets are available for $50.

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