Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
Living Legends: Zombies Singer Colin Blunstone Explains The Miraculous Second Life Of The Classic ‘60s Group
Popular 1960s Baroque-pop pioneers the Zombies had their biggest hit two years after they broke up — but 50 years later, it’s still their season. Zombies frontman Colin Blunstone reflects on their enigmatic success and what's next.
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. GRAMMY.com sat down with singer Colin Blunstone of 1960s psychedelic rock band the Zombies about the band's unlikely success and his career as a solo artist.
Colin Blunstone was fresh out of school when he recorded one of the 1960s’ most enduring hits — and a disaffected Central London office worker by the time the song broke.
"Who would have ever thought? This history is not typical of bands," Blunstone says over Zoom from his hotel room in Massachusetts while on the road with the Zombies. "Two years after the band finished, no one's working the product. It's not being promoted. It's not being marketed. And 'Time Of The Season' goes No. 1 on Cashbox, and I think No. 2 or 3 on Billboard."
That "Time Of The Season" became a hit at all was something of a miracle — and more than half a century later, Blunstone feels no less blessed. The Zombies’ other hits — "She’s Not There," the band’s first single, released in 1964, and the hypnotic "Tell Her No" — remain timeless classics, while their final album, Odessey & Oracle, celebrates its 55th anniversary in 2023. For nearly two decades, the Zombies have been bringing their hits and new works on the road; the U.S. portion of their tour concludes July 30.
"It has been a strange story. The first incarnation of the band finished in 1967, and we started quite by chance in 1999," Blunstone says. That year, he called up founding keyboardist Rod Argent to fill in on six solo gigs. "But he enjoyed it so much,” he adds, “that those six dates have grown into 23 years."
After a two-year break from the road due to COVID, the Zombies are in the middle of an international tour with stops in New York, California, northern Europe and the U.K. Before hitting the road, the band — which now consists of founding members singer Blunstone and Argent, drummer Steve Rodford, guitarist Tom Toomey, and Søren Koch on bass — recently finished recording a new album and are doing interviews for a documentary.
The Zombies’ particular alchemy is a meld of catchy songwriting with surprisingly complex arrangements — a creative fusion of rock, jazz and classical influences with a baroque bent. True to their name, the group has had something of a second life in the new millennium.
At 76, Blunstone is also experiencing renewed interest in his solo work. His 1971 debut solo album, One Year, was championed for its sensitive lyricism and largely considered a follow-up to Odessey. The album — which celebrated its 50th anniversary with an acclaimed reissued — launched a prolific solo career.
In this edition of Living Legends, GRAMMY.com spoke with Blunstone about his history with the Zombies and solo efforts, and how a Zombie stays fresh for decades.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How has this tour been and where in the world are you now?
I'm in Northampton, Massachusetts. [The tour has] been fairly extensive, but it's been fun. We started off on a cruise in the Caribbean, [and] three of the guys got COVID. And so, Rod and I had to get a two-man acoustic duo act together in his cabin an hour before we went on.
We really enjoyed it, but it was scary. Because we'd only played one concert: a live stream concert from Abbey Road in November last year. Otherwise we haven't played for two and a half years. So the first time playing was this acoustic duo on a huge cruise ship; we played to about 1,000 people and it was great. We really enjoyed it. But it certainly keeps you on your toes.
Why do you think you've been bigger in the United States than in the U.K.?
I don't know for sure, but I suspect it's the way we started. We were right out of school, and the record company presented us as school boys when bands like the Rolling Stones were starting at the same time. We were presented as teenagers — I don't think we ever quite got over that.
And the other thing is that "Time Of The Season" was never a hit in the U.K. People don't realize that even in the UK because it's been used in many commercials. … When we came to America, there was a whole new fan base for us… it was a really lovely surprise. And we've just sort of built up this fan base by playing continually. We’ve probably toured America more than anywhere else.
But the most exciting thing has been to see this incarnation of Zombies grow in stature — and not solely through chart records, though our last album did get into the top 100. It's just been through continually playing live and word of mouth.
And of course, eventually, we were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was exciting.
What is unique about this incarnation of the Zombies?
They're incredible players. Both Rod and I would say that there's more energy on the stage with this incarnation of the band [when we’re] probably in the autumn of our careers. There's more energy on stage now than there was with the original. And I think people respect that.
They also respect the fact that we're still writing and recording new material; there aren't many bands from the ‘60s that are doing that. So, it puts us in a small group of bands that are still writing and recording new material. And of course we can always play a collection of songs from Odessey and Oracle, which Rolling Stone named as one of the Top 500 Albums of All Time.
It really helps us to get across to established fans, but also to new fans. And people are always amazed when they come to our concerts and they see a cross section of ages there.
I did notice that at the New York show. Speaking of, the band sounded so great — and your voice in particular is incredibly strong. At 76, you’re doing three-part harmonies and touring the coast. Some might say that’s a young man's game.
With regard to the voice, I think that I started for a short time, as did Rod, with a singing coach called Ian Adam. You have to find the right coaches — not just go to a coach for the sake of it. Ian Adam didn't try to change his students’ voices; he tried to make their voices stronger.
And he also gave me some singing exercises, which, when I'm on the road, I do twice a day. It’s 30 minutes before soundcheck and then 35 minutes before the show. So I will have sung for probably an hour and a half or more before the show starts — so my voice is really warmed up.
I was probably in my late 40s or 50s when I started, before that it was just what I was born with. So, that has really helped me to keep my voice strong and very accurate.
For guys of our age, one of the really big things is to hydrate. And then, at the end of the show, when we were kids, we'd be hoping there'd be a party, but now there's a huge rush to get back to the hotel to get to sleep. Things have turned around. There is really an avalanche of people to try and get [through before we go] back to the hotel.
It's just common sense, really. Moderation in all things.
I'd love to learn a little bit more about the new album you're working on. I believe you had just finished recording before heading on tour.
I would take a guess and say it'll be [released] immediately after the summer. It's 10 new songs; Rod wrote nine of them and I wrote one of them — that's often the way we do things. There's a lot of rhythmic songs on there. We’re playing four songs on tour now from the new album, so there's no way people can hear these songs anywhere else in the world other than coming to our show.
And it’s not all ballads. There’s some good grooves in there – "Merry Go Round" and "Different Game," that’s probably my favorite track on the album. And it’s a rhythmic song; I don’t know whether it’s a rocker or not.
You’ve been working with Rod Argent since you were a teenager. How do you keep that music-making process fresh after so long?
I think it's an advantage because, first of all, I feel more confident when I'm working with Rod because I've worked with him for so long. He writes with my voice in mind. Rod is very careful about keys, because we both like my voice when it's singing quite high. We always work on the songs together, just him and me before we present to the band.
One of the ways that we can keep that fresh is Rod likes to challenge himself; he's always trying new things. And he pulls me along with him. He is a genius as a musician… and if you hear him playing the most complicated classical pieces, you know this is a special player. And he's [not] content with just playing the same old stuff. I mean, of course, we always play our hits and I think we're quite lucky in that our hits do have a timeless feel about them.
But we always play new stuff as well. We're always looking for deep cuts — some of the tunes that everyone's forgotten, probably including us!
Then, we'll play new songs that have just been written and you have to work on these songs…especially Rod’s songs because he's got a talent for writing songs that sound simple…[but they] are sophisticated chords. They're not C, F and G. It’s challenging material and that helps to keep it fresh, because it's not easy to perform the songs and you're always challenging yourself.
And I imagine that keeps you from just being a greatest hits band or an oldies group.
We couldn't do that. I don’t think Rod or I would be interested in doing that. We physically couldn't fulfill these kinds of tours if we were just rolling out the same old tunes. The interest, the energy and the excitement comes from the new material.
You mentioned your classical influence, which I think is an element that's across all of the Zombies' work. But did you try on any new inspiration on this upcoming record?
This was done in the pandemic, so we did have to modify things. Luckily, Rod had just built a brand-new studio in his house, and first of all, we had to make the studio work and we didn't know if it would work. He built it in an outhouse in his house; his house is a converted barn, and the studio is a converted dairy. It was starting from scratch.
Once the studio was established, Rod got into a really hot writing stream. I live about an hour away from Rod, I get the phone call: "I've got a new song. You free to come down?" He has the kettle boiling as I walk through the door, so we have a cup of tea and sit down, and we start with a piano.
Some of them are easier than others but a lot of them are quite sophisticated. And we just have to keep hammering through it. And the intriguing thing is that often I get the more complicated songs faster than I get simple ones. There's one really simple song on the album and I really struggled — he thought I would get it in five minutes.
Do you have any plans for an original lineup tour? Next year will be the 55th anniversary of Odessey and Oracle….
I didn’t realize that, but I don’t think so. I think [bassist/singer] Chris White and [drummer] Hugh Grundy have been magnificent because neither of them have lived the life of professional musicians. Chris had not picked up a bass since 1967. When we did the first celebration, I think it was the 40th anniversary of O&O, Hugh played in amateur bands, but Chris hadn't played at all.
Rod and I were saying "Before we commit to this 40th anniversary where Hugh and Chris play, we ought to all get together and just see if they can play the play." Rod and I were actually on tour and we met up with Hugh and Chris and played through the album.
Hugh and Chris were note perfect. Obviously they'd rehearsed and rehearsed and they've got it. Rod and I, the professionals who have been on tour, hadn't rehearsed at all, and we were awful, really hopeless. It was embarrassing! So that told us it would be OK for the 40th anniversary.
Originally in 2008, we were only going to play one show. And that led to three sell-out shows in London. And then people asked us to come back the next year and play across England. We weren't expecting this honestly, we were just going to do the one show, and then we came to America, and then we went around to Europe.
So, it grew into something that we really weren't expecting.
I just don't want us to overdo it [with Odessey and Oracle]. Paul Weller said to Rod in a very friendly way: be careful not to make it lose its specialness too much.
We've played Odessey and Oracle a lot of times — the last time was when we toured with Brian Wilson. I wanted him to do Pet Sounds very bad; he said he'd done it too many times. And we played Odessey and Oracle. So that was the last time we did it's a bit hard to sort of beat that.
This really did get me close to tears: I was invited to sing "God Only Knows" with Brian Wilson. He was playing piano right next to me at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles and in Seattle. That was a highlight I will never, ever forget that was incredible. But daunting. One of the greatest songs ever written — what a thrill.
So to go back a few decades: The Zombies broke up in ’67 and "Time Of The Season" became a hit in 1969. Why didn't the band get back together?
We were all committed to other projects; it was kind of too late for us to get back together again.
Rod and Chris in particular were in such a rich writing vein at that particular time. [Odessey and Oracle is] 12 tracks and every song is an absolute classic — I would have been interested to know what we might have done next, but I know that the other guys didn't have any interest.
The general feeling was that the band had run its course and that we'd gone as far as we could. And it was time to move on. There was no acrimony. There was never even a discussion of whether we should reform. It was just a wonderful miracle [that] "Time of the Season" was a hit.
Two years after we broke up — who would have ever thought? There’s a kind of a mystique about the band; here we are 60 years later, still touring three or four major tours a year. I'm not quite sure how that happened. But I'm eternally grateful that it did.
It's a strange alchemy you have and maybe it's the name itself: You have multiple lives. But moving on to your career as a solo artist — where you were in your life when you wrote and recorded One Year?
[Zombies guitarist] Paul Atkinson, Hugh Grundy and myself were with a management company who were either inept, or something much darker. Having had many hit records around the world and toured as headliners around the world, we managed to be completely broke. When the band finished, all three of us had to get jobs immediately. There was no sitting at home dwelling, and in a way I think that helped me.
I went to work in a really busy office in the middle of London, and I didn't have time to dwell on the sadness of the band breaking up. After about a year, "Time Of The Season" started going up the charts in America, and that meant I started getting offers to record. A producer called Mike Hurst had just recorded the Cat Stevens' record Matthew and Son and he convinced me to go off to work at Olympic Studio in Barnes — the Stones used to record there — and I recorded a few tracks under a pseudonym, Neil McArthur. This record was released and it was a small hit.
And then I didn't have any choice: I was back in the music business. After that, I was coming home from a party with Chris White, the original bass player, [who] said "Rod and I have a production company. We've got to deal with CBS Records. Why don't you come and record?" Ros, Chris and I got back into Abbey Road’s studio three, where we'd recorded Odessey and Oracle, with Peter Vince engineering, who'd engineered most of Odessey and Oracle. It was like getting the whole team back together again.
And that's how I recorded my first album, which is called One Year. I was used to recording very fast, but for one reason or another — mostly because Rod had commitments with his band Argent — the album actually took us a year to record it. I couldn't believe that we took that long to record an album, hence the title.
You mentioned earlier that it typically is Rod writing most of the songs and you'll come in with a couple. But you wrote a majority of the tracks on One Year — were you always writing? How were you able to create something so prolific and meaningful?
Well, you know, everyone has to start somewhere! [Laughs] I was intrigued and thrilled when I realized that Rod and Chris could write. We'd been an amateur band for, I think four years before either of them acknowledged that they could write songs. Two or three days later, Rod had written "She’s Not There" and Chris wrote "You Make Me Feel Good," which became the b-side.
Watching them develop as songwriters was really inspirational. And I thought well, at least I could try!
The first song I wrote "How We Were Before;" we recorded it and it did go on an album or a b-side. Then we did a film called Bonney Lake is missing. We had to magic up some tunes and … I wrote another song quite quickly and it was called "Just Out Of Reach." So that was kind of the beginning of my writing career.
I kept on playing and kept on writing, so that I had quite a selection of songs. One Year has just been re-released to celebrate the 50th anniversary, and recently, they discovered 14 demos that I've completely forgotten about. I was a little apprehensive how people would react to these 14 demos… but the reaction has been great.
I've been encouraged, and I think I'm gonna take one or two of those ideas and expand them into proper songs and put them on a new album.
What are some of your other favorite projects you've worked on as a solo artist?
When I was working in the office when the Zombies finished, I used to have to commute. And I didn't like to talk in the morning. I'm hanging on these little strap handles and a guy I knew came up to me — I didn't even know he was a musician — He said, "Colin, I've just written a rock opera." I’m like, It’s 8 o’clock in the morning. Rock operas have tried and failed many times. "And we based it on the life of Jesus Christ."
We got together with him and his partner afterwards, and it was Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. So I was going to be Jesus Christ on the original album, but I just signed a deal with Rod and Chris with Epic Records. And they wrote to me and said, hey, you've just signed a deal with us. So we want your first release to be on CBS and Jesus Christ Superstar is going to be on MCA. So we won't give permission for you to do it. So Ian Gillan did it and he did a great job, he probably did a much better job than I would have done!
I sang on many of the Alan Parsons Projects, and Alan [Parsons] was an assistant engineer in Abbey Road when we did Odessey and Oracle so I got to know him. In New York the other night I think we would have played "Old And Wise," which is from the album Eye In The Sky, that is my favorite one that I sang [with Parsons].
There was a period in my life where I was doing quite a few jingles and commercials. I always say to people, if they're coming into the business, don't shy away from that. You learn — I wrote quite a few jingles, and you have to get a message over in 30 seconds. It's a craft, and I enjoyed it.
And you gotta eat as a working musician.
Neither Rod nor I are particularly motivated by money and we both turned down things that would have been worth a lot of money. But the other side of it is, yeah, we do need to eat. We’re really fortunate that we can tour as much as we want to, and we never have to think about how we're going to pay the rent.
But believe me for most of my life, I know what that’s like! [Laughs]
When you’re not recording with your friends and bandmates, or talking to journalists, what do you like to do with your free time?
Well, I love being at home. We've got a beautiful garden that I like to get a little bit involved in. And we've got a canal that was built in 1700 at the end of our garden, so I can go to the end of the garden and watch these canal boats going by, which is really lovely. I like to walk; I do draw and paint a little bit. I like to keep fit, although in the last few years that's gone out of a window.
When I get back… I just want to enjoy being at home. Just absorb the wonderful atmosphere, and then maybe get out in the garden.
Gavin Rossdale of Bush
Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images
GRAMMY Museum Releasing Archival Never-Before-Seen Content Featuring Bush, The Zombies And More In May
Check out what the GRAMMY Museum has in store this month
The GRAMMY Museum may be closed, but the music programming continues through its digital program series. In May, museum fans can expect content with their favorite artists, including some never-before-seen content featuring Bush, Trey Anastasio, Claudia Brant with Cheche Alara and Moogie Canazio, Jordan Davis and the Zombies.
The free online programming is a mix of archival programs taped at the GRAMMY Museum's Clive Davis Theater in Los Angeles and its new digital series featuring up close and personal interviews with musicians and artists done via Zoom. See the full schedule below:
DIGITAL PUBLIC PROGRAMS
*a never-before-released Program from the Museum archives
In addition, the GRAMMY Museum will release new content every day: GRAMMY In The Schools Mini-Lessons (Sunday and Tuesday,) Digital Public Program Series (Monday, Wednesday and Saturday) and Digital Exhibit Series (Friday). The museum will continue to release educational content and lesson plans as a part of the GRAMMY In The Schools Knowledge Bank, whose mission is to pay homage to its musical heritage while bringing community together.
On Thursdays, the museum will release programming exclusively for members, including an Album Club, which is an interactive experience similar to a book club, except members listen to music instead of reading books.
If fans are looking for new playlists, the GRAMMY Museum staff is also releasing daily staff-curated playlists. All programming can be found and explored at the GRAMMY Museum's website here.
Colin Blunstone of The Zombies performs in 2019
Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
The Zombies Announce Spring 2020 World Tour, Confirm New Album
The U.K. rock legends are currently in the studio working on their first full-length since 2015's Still Got That Hunger
U.K. rock legends The Zombies have announced a spring 2020 world tour. The trek kicks off in late March in Miami, Fla., where the group will perform at sea as part of the Flower Power Cruise, and will then travel across the U.S. and Canada throughout April. In May, the band then heads to Europe for a run of multiple shows in their native England as well as gigs in Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
In addition to the forthcoming tour, The Zombies have confirmed they are currently working on a new as yet untitled album, which will be their first full-length since 2015's Still Got That Hunger. The group verified the news in an Instagram post shared earlier this week (Feb. 10), which showed members of the band in the studio with the caption, "New album in the works."
Originally formed in 1962, The Zombies are best known for their classic songs "Tell Her No" (1965) and "Time Of The Season" (1968), the latter of which became a No. 3 hit in the U.S. and has since become one of the defining songs of the '60s rock and psychedelic era.
Their 1964 debut single, "She's Not There," became a No. 2 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and reached No. 12 in the UK Singles chart. The song was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 2016.
In 2017, The Zombies visited the GRAMMY Museum to talk about recording "She's Not There" and delivered an intimate performance of the song.
"It was our first time in a professional studio and it was thought to be very cool to record in the evenings," Zombies singer Colin Blunstone joked. "Unfortunately, the engineer… was absolutely, paralytically drunk. And he was also very aggressive. It's sort of ironic that having been in the business for 50 something years, in that first session I knew that, with this madman in the studio, the music business was not for me."
The band recently shared a video of them performing "Time Of The Season" in Los Angeles in 2019.
"It's now 51 years since 'Time of the Season' reached No. 1 on the U.S. single charts," Zombies keyboardist Rod Argent told Rolling Stone in an interview. "Unbelievably, it's a song that feels just as much a joy to play now as it did all those years ago!"
Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
Brian Wilson And The Zombies Announce "Something Great From '68" Joint Tour
GRAMMY winner Wilson will primarily perform material from The Beach Boys' 1968 and 1971 albums, 'Friends' and 'Surf's Up,' while the British psych rockers will play their classic 1968 LP, 'Odessey and Oracle,' in full
GRAMMY winner Brian Wilson and British psych-rock group The Zombies have announced a joint tour aptly titled Something Great from '68. The 15-show U.S. trek kicks off in Las Vegas on Aug. 31 and wraps up on Sept. 26 in New York City.
We're so excited to return to the US we’ve scheduled 2 tours in 1! We start in August with our own headline shows before meeting with Chris & Hugh in September to tour with fellow @rockhall of Famer @BrianWilsonLive! Full tour dates: https://t.co/hR4LXQ0TOi pic.twitter.com/8Q0usENTGG— The Zombies (@TheZombiesMusic) May 7, 2019
Wilson will perform primarily Beach Boys material from their 1968 album Friends and 1971 LP Surf's Up. The albums were the pioneering surf-rock group's 14th and 17th studio albums, respectively. He'll be joined on stage by former bandmates Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin for the full tour.
The Zombies, whose current touring lineup consists of founding members Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone, will open each show by playing their classic 1968 LP, Odessey and Oracle, in full. The British group's sophomore album includes songs like "Time Of The Season" and was recorded at two iconic London studios: Abbey Road and Olympic.
Beginning with the third show, in Pala, Calif. on Sept. 7, the pair will reunite with fellow co-founding band members Chris White and Hugh Grundy. The quartet will perform together for the remaining dates, which include stops at the historic Greek Theater in Los Angeles on Sept. 12, the intimate Fox Theatre in Oakland, Calif the following day, and a final tour stop at New York City's Beacon Theatre on Sept. 26.
"It's been quite a year and I'm ready to go out and tour some music that makes everyone have a feel good vibe. The Friends album has always been one of my favorites, and I love the music from that time in history," Wilson said in a statement on his website.
Photo (L-R): Ria Mort, Thanos Poulimenos
Global Spin: Katerine Duska And Leon Of Athens Premiere "Babel," A Bilingual Tale Of A Love Lost In Translation
Frequent songwriting partners Katerine Duska and Leon Of Athens grapple with a relationship full of miscommunication in this emotional duet, which they debut with a powerful Global Spin performance.
"Can I love you a little more clearly?" Katerine Duska and Leon of Athens sing in the emotional chorus of their new song, "Babel." "Can we get it right? Can we talk another night away?"
In this episode of Global Spin, the two pop singers — and frequent songwriting partners — effortlessly trade off between Greek and English in a compelling performance. But as beautiful as the bilingual, harmony-driven duet may be, "Babel" chronicles a fraught relationship where, ultimately, the love gets lost in translation.
"Babel" brings the two lovers back to where they started: Frustrated and failing to see eye to eye, but still invested in one another. That narrative pairs with an equally passionate, string-filled sonic backdrop in this song, which Duska and Leon of Athens premiere on Global Spin.
The song's visual component further underscores its message. Duska and Leon of Athens perform the song from a bed, surrounded by candles and rippling water. As they wrestle through their disagreements — both lyrically and physically — the two artists make an attempt to find tenderness, but their best efforts dissolve into frustration and disconnection.
The bilingual duo have co-written several times in the past, and they're no strangers to performing together, either. Their first duet, "ANEMOS," came out in 2019; a year later, the pair released another collaboration, "Communication."
Press play on the video above to get a first look at the latest collaboration between Katerine Duska and Leon of Athens, and keep checking GRAMMY.com every Tuesday for more new episodes of Global Spin.