Interview by Tom Hilverkus / Adrian Hextall
The Zombies formed in 1962 and quickly became part of the ‘British Invasion’, hitting America with their smash hit “She’s Not There”. Just before disappearing into obscurity like so many other bands at the end of the decade, they recorded their classic masterpiece “Odyssey & Oracle”. Whilst totally ignored at the time, it steadily gained a following amongst music lovers and made many people’s “best albums ever” lists. Due to increased interest, the band got back together again in 1999, and are touring the globe relentlessly ever since for their fans who see them as one of the best music acts Britain produced.
It therefore doesn’t come as a surprise that the band had been invited to a series of concerts called “Goodbye UK – and Thank You for the Music” in Berlin at the end of July, celebrating the best of British music in the light (or rather shadow) of Brexit.
Well into their 70s now, front men Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent, as well as other original band members such as songwriter and bass player Chris White played an energy laden set of songs spanning the band’s 56 year career as well as tunes from other projects the band members were involved it (including Argent and The Alan Parsons Project). However, the second half of the show was reserved for them to perform “Odyssey & Oracle” in its entirety – almost to the day exactly 50 years after recording the album at Abbey Road studios!
Tom Hilverkus attended the gig and – once back home in Blighty and together with Adrian Hextall – spoke to singer Colin Blunstone about the Zombies, their upcoming US and German tour with Uriah Heep in October but also Blunstone’s solo career.
TH: I felt the Berlin gig was rather special, starting with the venue itself, the “House of World Cultures” on the river Spree, just opposite the German Chancellery. But I think it was mainly due to the fact it was an open air gig on a perfect summer night. Absolutely fantastic performance by yourself and the rest of the band…
Colin Blunstone: Oh, thank you!
TH: … do you remember much of that night or was it just one of many, many gigs?
CB: Oh no, it was very special, because I think it was the first time we ever played in Berlin. We’ve only played a couple of times in Germany. It’s quite surprisingly because we played all over the world, and it’s not out of choice that we haven’t played in Germany, it’s just the way things have worked out. It was great for us and very memorable for us to be playing in Berlin. And it started with a magical night as well. There was something about playing an open air concert to a setting sun. It was all very magical for me.
If we ever play a festival and we have a choice, I would always pick that spot when the sun is setting. It just makes it a very magical experience. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I was very encouraged by the reaction we got. I am never sure because we haven’t played there very much. I am never sure what kind of reaction we would be getting in Germany and I hope this could be the first step in a series of concerts.
TH: The visuals and animations on screen in your Odyssey & Oracle live set were amazing as well – you mentioned on stage your background singer has put that together? Did you contribute with ideas?
CB: It is a bit more of a story than that in that Chris White, the original bass player in the Zombies, is married to – I mean her real name is White – but she works under the name of Vivienne Boucherat and she is an artist, and a songwriter and a very good singer as well. It was just by chance, she first got involved singing harmonies when we very first did “Odyssey & Oracle” in 2008. She is a wonderful harmony singer and she knows those harmonies if not better, so she takes a lot of the top harmonies. I didn’t know she was an artist and she came up with these ideas. Originally, she did some paintings for our last album and that led to her doing those drawings for the show. So she did the original artwork and then they were animated to work with the show. She is an extremely talented lady and we are very fortunate she is married to Chris White!
TH: Indeed! Talking about the album itself, as we all know, it was never a hit record at the time but only over the years got a following and people appreciating it. When did you first realise it had finally gained the attention it deserved?
CB: Well, I think it was certainly 10 or 12 years before we got any indication that there was an undercurrent of interest. It was a considerable period of time. And then it just gradually grew. It was slow but steady that you hardly noticed this interest. Eventually many named artists started mentioning it as an important album or an important influence in their development as artists, notably in America Tom Petty and in the UK Paul Weller. They both name checked it many, many times but there were many others as well.
I honestly thought – not in a bad way – the Zombies were forgotten. I wasn’t reacting to what I thought were people’s lack of interest in the band and I was very surprised to see this undercurrent of interest that developed over a period of time. I first noticed it about 10 years after it got released, so this was about in the late 70s and from there it just went from strength to strength. It is in my life, one of my life’s greatest mysteries! Because it was comparatively, if not completely, ignored when it first came out and now – I just don’t understand it! – and now it is treated as though it is a classic album. And the Rolling Stone has named it as one of the best album of all times! It’s a very strange story!
AH: I think as well, it also depends which era of the band that you are a big fan of. For me, the reason I went to see you when you guys played at Ramblin’ Man Fair for example I wanted to hear “She’s Not There”. That for me was the big thing that always took me back to the Zombies and wanting to hear that whereas when you are looking at the era that Tom relates to it is very much the “Odyssey & Oracle side of things, so I think there are definitely two camps of fans that look at two different eras of the band as well.
There might actually be three camps because the present incarnation of the band which got together in 1999 originally to play six concerts and we all enjoyed it so much we all kept going and it’s now nearly 20 years. There are many people – particularly in America – that probably came to enjoy the Zombies repertoire by seeing our band play live. We played continuously over the last 20 years, and again, in particularly in America, usually touring there at least three times a year, and a whole new wave of fans have been interested in the Zombies because of the current line up playing live.
TH: Yes, I remember when I first saw you playing. That was in Hamburg in 2004 when you released “As Far As I Can See…”, and I could hardly believe it that you and Rod got back together and recorded a new album.
CB: It is interesting, we have played a couple of shows in Germany, but this was literally it. We didn’t play in the ‘60s, we didn’t do any of the big TV shows, what is it, “Beat Room”?
TH: You mean “Beat Club”!
CB: Yes, that’s it, “Beat Club”. I think this was terribly prestigious and important TV show to get. And because we never played it, this has been a big factor in us not being known very well. [Check out the video below to see what Beat-Club was all about!]
Beat-Club even has its on YouTube Channel:
We are going to be touring with Uriah Heep in October and all through to November, and a lot of those dates going to be in Germany so this will give us a chance to play to big German audiences and hopefully this can lead to more dates in Germany.
TH: Yes, agree. “Beat Club” has been repeated on TV over and over again through the years still to this day. But going back to “Odysee & Oracle”, what do you think makes it such a special album in the context of other highly praised 60s albums? I mean, for many people, it is up there with The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” or The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and others, so in your own words, what defines the magic of the album?
Well, could I just say that it is very difficult to judge your own work… but I think if I was to have a go at judging “Odyssey & Oracle”, I think it is a wonderful collection of songs written by Rod Argent and Chris White. They wrote 12 new songs on this album, and they were just entering a new rich vein of song writing, because one of their next projects would be Argent, and of course there were some wonderful songs written for Argent and they wrote some wonderful songs for my solo album, which both Rod and Chris co-produced.
So I think the backbone of “Odyssey & Oracle” is definitely the wonderful song writing, and then again it is the first time that we were in the studio without an independent producer so that in effect Rod and Chris were producing the band. There wasn’t someone else there telling us what to do.
We also worked with wonderful engineers in Abbey Road. At the time Abbey Road was, I would have thought, undisputedly the best studio in the world. And we were very lucky to work with Geoff Emerick and Peter Vince who were top engineers at Abbey Road. And they just finished actually working on “Sgt. Pepper” when we arrived. “Sgt. Pepper” finished a few days before we went into the studio.
So, great songs, great technical side, great engineers and great studio!
Another thing, because we had such a limited recording budget, for the first time since we first recorded, we rehearsed really extensively before we went into the studio because we knew we didn’t have much studio time. So when we got into the studio, we knew the arrangement of the songs, we knew the key of the songs… we were just looking for a performance. There was no musical development, well very little, in the studio. The basis of what we were going to record was already decided because we didn’t have time to develop time in the studio.
Although of course, as we were using an 8 track machine for the first time – in effect it actually ended up as 7 track machine – but we were able to add a second keyboard and extra harmonies but they were done very quickly. But the basis of the songs were all set before we went into the studio, and I think that helped as well.
There were some other good songs from that early period, but I think there was a bit of a development period in the writers, and you can hear something is great is coming in the writing in the songs, for example in… what was it? [SINGS “She does everything for me”] … This was the B side of something, which was a great song. And in songs like that you can hear something is coming! And then with “Odyssey & Oracle” all the pieces fell into place.
And it has taken three years from ‘64 with “She’s not there” to the summer of ’67, and it’s taken three years of playing constantly. And for this development in song writing, it seemed it suddenly arrived. But actually, I think it developed over a period of time.
TH: For your live show, how important was it to recreate the sound of the original recording of “Odyssey & Oracle” as much as possible? You did fly in Darian Sahanaja [who plays in The Brian Wilson Band and the Wondermints] for the show. He knows every note played on the album so I assume this was important rather than trying new interpretations of the songs or show the album in a new light.
Yes, that’s how we chose to do it. The feeling in the band was if we were going to do it we would do it note for note how it was done in ‘67. I am not saying there is a right or wrong way to do it, but having decided how to do it, we were determined to play every part and sing every part exactly as it was on the album. All the harmonies were there. That’s why we needed extra people. As I said before, for the first time we were recording on more than 4 tracks, so we were able to add harmonies that we weren’t able to add before and so all those harmonies were there, with Vivienne taking most of the top harmonies and Darian singing some wonderful harmonies in there as well. And it was exiting when he got involved. He definitely knew “Odyssey & Oracle”, at least as well as we did, and as it became apparent in some cases he knows it better than us! He kept saying “I don’t think that’s what you played”. And I thought how does he know that but he certainly does!
TH: Yes, I was quite pleased when I saw the Mellotron on the stage, rather than a 60 piece orchestra!
Yes, that’s what we used. We used a Mellotron. Both Darian and Rod had Mellotrons on stage and they were taking it in turns to play the parts.
TH: One last question on “Odyssey & Oracle”. It was famously misspelled by the cover artist. When did you realise and what did you all do when you realised the error was there?
Yes, the answer is, it was after it had gone to the pressing plant. The sleeve was being pressed while we were on tour. And when we came back, Rod and Chris saw it first and they spotted it straight away, contacted CBS and they said “Well, it’s already been printed, so there is nothing we can do!”.
The artist was a chap called Terry Quirk who actually did the artwork for our last album, “Still Got That Hunger” and he is a friend of all of us. Chris White, myself and Terry Quirk all went to the same school… that’s how we all met, because we went to the same school in St Albans in Hertfordshire, just North of London. The other guys went to another school in St Albans. And between us, between the two schools, we got together formed the Zombies. Terry Quirk was sharing a flat with Rod Argent and Chris White and they introduced me to the set up and to do the artwork. Unfortunately, as I said we were away on tour and were unable to check and in those days of course it wasn’t a computer. It was a painting and it had already gone to the printer.
And the funny thing was that they made up this strange story that is was done on purpose, I don’t really know why, but they even told me the story in 1967 and I believed that it was being done on purpose. And about five years ago we were being interviewed on radio and Rod just confessed that his story was completely made up! I couldn’t believe it, he had been telling me that since 1967 – not every day but now and again – that it was being done on purpose, and then here we are, live on radio, he suddenly owns up and I said to him “I can’t believe it you’re telling me that strange old story and it was Terry Quirk and he couldn’t spell”.
And I blame the school! Because I can’t spell very well and obviously we went to the same school. So I think the misspelling in “Odyssey & Oracle” is the fault of our school, St Albans Grammar School. It doesn’t exist any more but I think they bred a generation of poor spellers!
TH: Well, that’s a mystery solved!
Right after the end of the Zombies you started a successful solo career and to this day you are still touring with a completely separate band.
I know you said earlier you didn’t want to judge your own work, but is there a solo albums you are you most proud of?
I would say possibly two I really like. I think “One Year” is the first one. Again, working with Rod and Chris. It is something that I am proud of and I think it worked out well. It is really funny, in some ways this is an album the Zombies could have done. There are a lot of string tracks on there and we were back at Abbey Road. We were using Peter Vince as the engineer. Rod and Chris were writing and producing the album. But it was sort of my album. There was a big hit single on it, called “Say You Don’t Mind”. I think it is a good album and if someone wanted to research my career, then obviously, the first album is a good place to start. And it also one of the better albums.
TH: Absolutely, it’s interesting you mentioned “One Year” as it is actually one of my favourite albums released in the 70s – not just by you but in general! There are so many great songs on there, like “She Loves The Way They Love Her”, “Caroline Goodbye”, “Misty Roses” and of course, as you say, your version of “Say You don’t mind” which was your biggest chart hit. How did you end up covering this song, of all the songs they were available and also make the decision to arrange it with strings only? No guitar, no drums, just strings, which makes this version very special and so different to Denny Laine’s version from 1967?
Well, absolutely, when you said “from all the songs available”, I think from memory, we were one track short and it was the last track we recorded. We loved Denny Laine’s version and played it in original The Zombies as a rock’n’roll tune. And I said let’s try this great Denny Laine song, and originally we tried to record it as a rock’n’roll song but it really didn’t work. But then someone came up with the idea, and I think both Rod and Chris in a light-hearted way would claim it was their idea but I can’t remember exactly, so we said let’s try it in a unique way with a string orchestra. We were introduced to a wonderful string arranger called Chris Gunning and he actually arranged all 4 or 5 songs on the album in the end. He did the arrangement for “Say You Don’t Mind” and he used a 21 piece string orchestra, and it really… it’s like nothing else we ever recorded, it sounds like a Bartók piece the way he arranged it.
TH: There is a clip on YouTube of you performing the song on “The Old Grey Whistle Test”. Is this Chris Gunning?
Actually, that was a string quintet and they were playing the parts. When we recorded it was a full orchestra, but they are playing the same part. It is just that the BBC could not afford a full orchestra, it would have been thousands of pounds! It was very effective though.
I was in a cathedral in St Albans six months ago with a string quintet of that show and also Rod. He started the show with the cathedral organ! It was a magnificent sound!
TH: You are still writing new songs – are you listening to a lot of music that inspires you? Are you inspired by anything contemporary or are you looking back in the past?
Well, I think it is very important to Rod and I that we do write new songs and it is all part of the way we look at this incarnation of the Zombies. If you come and see us play, as you did in Berlin Tom, I hope that you thought that there was a lot of energy coming from us!
TH: Absolutely, there was a lot of energy!
I know that sometimes band which have been around a while might just go through the paces a bit, and that’s not how we would never do it. And part of our outlook is energetic performances but also to write new songs and with the Zombies this was predominantly Rod, and with my solo band it would be me.
I don’t listen to much contemporary music as I should do. I know I don’t and I can’t really explain why. I think maybe I get musical overload from being on the road so regularly that I find it hard when I come home to listen to music in a way that I used to love to. It is a shame but you know we’re playing for month on end and when I come home I tend to… I play the guitar myself and sometimes all day long and I’m not really listening to a lot of contemporary music. If I do write then it is very often from some form of personal experience. Either things that have happened to me, or things that have happened to people I know, so that my songs, the lyrics, are quite often the story… which I know is not true with a lot of songs written. But that’s just the way I write.
TH: Well Colin, we don’t want to take I think this gives up enough for a feature, so thanks for your time and was a real honour talking to you!
The Zombies are currently touring the US and then are off to Germany with Uriah Heep with other dates across Europe as well. Click HERE for their current tour schedule.