Colin Blunstone should need no introduction. As the honeyed voice of the Zombies, he lent his distinctive pipes to some of the most beloved songs of the 1960s British Invasion, including “She’s Not There,” “Time of the Season,” and “Tell Her No.” Blunstone has since had an epic solo career, and lately he’s been performing and recording again with the Zombies. In 2015 they released a new album called Still Got That Hunger, and twice since the fall of that year they’ve thrilled audiences on the road by playing the entirety of Odessey and Oracle. The band broke up before that LP came out in 1968, and it was hardly an immediate sensation—but 50 years later, it’s considered one of the classic records of that impossibly rich decade. The Zombies almost made it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year, and that “almost” should tell you everything you need to know about how flawed that institution is—especially when Dire Straits and Bon Jovi actually were inducted.
All four surviving original members went on the Odessey and Oracle tours in 2015 and 2017, but this time around the only founders in the road lineup are Blunstone and the similarly vital Rod Argent. During a two-night stand at City Winery on Monday and Tuesday, March 19 and 20, they’ll perform material from Odessey and Oracle as well as other 60s Zombies favorites, plus deep cuts, some songs off Still Got That Hunger, and a few surprise covers. Sadly bassist Jim Rodford, who’d been aboard since 2004, died in January, so Danish bassist Soren Koch will fill his spot. Rodford was Argent’s cousin (he joined the post-Zombies band Argent in 1969) and had been friends with the group since the beginning; in the late 70s he began a nearly two-decade tenure in the Kinks.
I was honored to speak with Mr. Blunstone, and I found him to be a humble, witty, and gentle soul. And luckily, he was extremely willing to answer my fan-boy questions.
Colin Blunstone: I never met them. I like to see musicians employed, so absolutely no hard feelings from my end. I’m glad they went on from that, formed their own band, and were hugely successful. I think it’s tremendous. In fact, in the 60s there three quite well-documented Zombies bands. There was one later on I did have a bit of a smile about—this isn’t a time to be making light of guns, but if we take things out of their present context . . .
There was a band impersonating the Zombies that were English, and they were very bad. I think I contacted the musicians’ union and a couple other people just to see if there was anything we could do. Suddenly they stopped playing, and I rather foolishly thought something I’d done had something to do with it. Then I was told they were so poor, a fan had come along into their dressing room and actually threatened them with a gun. They then packed up and came home.
Wow, they must’ve been really bad.
They were. And they actually found someone named Hugh Grundy, who obviously had the same name as the original drummer in the Zombies. Unfortunately, he was a bass player—and he was like five foot eight, and Hugh is like five foot eleven or something like that. That they were so pleased to have found someone with the same name was so bizarre—on the wrong instrument—and on top of that they couldn’t play.
You know what they did? We had a company called Zombies Limited, and we discontinued the company. And the manager of that band bought the name—which gave them the right to be called “Zombies Limited,” but not “the Zombies.” Up to a point I just think, good luck to anyone, because you’re not going to be successful if you take that kind of path in your career—I mean, the two guys in ZZ Top were only successful when they left and started their own band. It’s only something that might tide you over during a difficult period, and as such, I wish them good luck.
You’ve covered a lot of artists, like Denny Laine and Tim Hardin—did any of them influence your vocal phrasing?
I may have absorbed some subconsciously, but I’m not conscious of having tried to. After about age 19, I don’t think I was really influenced by anybody—because especially working with Rod Argent, he’s very specific about how he wants his songs, the forms. Especially now, we’ll be sitting around the piano writing some songs, and we just go through phrasing line by line. So in one respect it’s not a spontaneous performance; it’s quite thought-out. But I like that. I like the phrasing to be precise and specific.
You’ve been doing your thing for so long, I’m sure you listened to all the greats when you were young and you were on your way.
In my teenage years it was Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and later on Ricky Nelson. And then when the Beatles came out, everybody was influenced by them. By the time we started making records a year or two after the Beatles had hits, I think we were starting to establish our own musical identity.
I don’t think the Zombies’ sound could ever be confused with the Beatles—you’re unmistakably you.
Absolutely. You can like the Zombies or you can loathe them, but I do think we have a unique sound.
No one loathes you!
Speaking of your precise phrasing, how do you keep your voice in such amazing shape? You sound like you haven’t aged a day since 1966.
Well, I do try to look after it. Both Rod and I started with a singing coach—not when we were really young, probably ten or fifteen years ago. He just taught us a little bit about vocal technique. In my teens I just sang—I was just natural. But as you get older, it really does pay to learn. The coach also introduced me to a set of vocal exercises, which when I’m on the road I do religiously. I’ll do them before and during sound check and then before the show, so I would’ve done at least an hour to an hour and a half of exercises before the performance. I used to like to drink a beer before a show, but I don’t drink alcohol at all anymore, so I am at long last looking after my voice.
I’m really lucky—we sing all our songs in the original keys. I tended to have a high voice when I was young, and I’ve managed to hold onto it. I think a lot of it is luck.
So when Zombies ended initially, you embarked on a solo career under the name “Neil MacArthur” and covered “She’s Not There” with some smoking fuzz guitar on it—why did that happen, and who played guitar on that?
The producer was on rhythm guitar, and on lead was a guy named . . . Big Jim . . . ahh . . .
. . . Sullivan, session man supreme?
Yeah! I just blanked on the name. In those days, about 1969, there were two guitarists on all the sessions—there was Big Jim and Little Jim, and Little Jim was Jimmy Page. I think it was done in one take too, and he certainly didn’t break a sweat or anything. It was really easy for him.
How it all happened was that when the Zombies finished, the three nonwriters—myself, Paul Atkinson, and Hugh Grundy—had absolutely no money. That’s a conversation in itself, and I don’t want to slander anybody, but we had a manager and an agent who . . . were slightly creative with our finances. As a contrast, our publishers were wonderful, and the two writers in the band, Chris White and Rod Argent, had done really well with the songs they’d written—the difference in our finances was just chalk and cheese.
So all three of us had to get jobs. Paul went into a computer firm, Hugh went to sell motor cars, and I just phoned up an employment agency and got an office job in central London. So I was just working there, and like a year later “Time of the Season” had become a hit everywhere but England. Suddenly my phone started ringing with opportunities to become a singer again. No one was interested when the band finished.
One of these people was a producer called Mike Hurst, who had produced the early Cat Stevens records. I don’t know that they were hits in America, but over here they were—songs like “Matthew and Son,” “I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun,” and “I Love My Dog.” I loved those records, so when Hurst called me, I thought, “Well, I’d love the chance to work with him.” But I wasn’t sure I wanted to get back into the music business, as I’d been so devastated by the end of the Zombies.
So what he said was, “Come after work to the studio in the evening, and we’ll lay down some tracks.” It was his idea to do “She’s Not There” again, and it seemed slightly strange to me, but I did it for the fun of it. And where “Time of the Season” was never a hit in England, this version of “She’s Not There” was! So that opened the door to coming back into the business, and I did three singles as Neil MacArthur, which was Mike Hurst’s idea—I’m not really sure why. But it was an opportunity for me without committing to a full-time career, so I went along with it.
Then I ran into Chris White one day, and he said, “Why don’t you just forget the Neil MacArthur thing and come and record with Rod and me producing you, and let’s start fresh.” So we recorded the album One Year, and there was a track on that which became a very big hit in the UK, “Say You Don’t Mind.”