‘People would run at us with scissors trying to get locks of hair’: The Zombies on their enduring legacy, passing on ‘Your Song’ and their new record

Ahead of the release of their new album, Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent of The Zombies speak to Chris Harvey about the British Invasion, surviving money-hungry agents, and why all the music in the UK now sounds ‘very mechanical and autotuned’

Wednesday 12 April 2023 08:30 BST
Zombies musicians Rod Argent, right, and Colin Blunstone
Zombies musicians Rod Argent, right, and Colin Blunstone (Alex Lake)

Their celebrity fans include Harry Styles, Dave Grohl, Haim and Jeff Lynne of ELO, who put it very simply when he said, “I love The Zombies.” Their 1968 album Odessey and Oracle is a psychedelic pop masterpiece, one of the most enduring records of the decade, yet by the time it was released, the band had already broken up, tired of being exploited by rogue promoters, and out of favour with Sixties pop pickers. When one of the singles from that album, “Time of the Season”, hit number three in the US Billboard charts in early 1969, the group’s singer Colin Blunstone, possessor of one of the most beautiful voices in rock’n’roll, had taken a job in an insurance company. “The first couple of days, there was a bit of pointing,” he recalls in the new Zombies documentary Hung Up on a Dream, “but that first day, I had to pick up the phone the same as everyone else, when someone would ring up and ask a question about insurance.”

Today, Blunstone is sitting on a wicker sofa in the garden terrace of an upmarket London hotel, opposite the keyboard wizard and band leader of The Zombies, Rod Argent. Blunstone is dressed more softly, longer haired; Argent, leather-jacketed, a rocker. It took several decades of cult acclaim to convince the pair to reform in 2004, but even though they’ve just released a superb new studio album, Different Game, they’re still pinching themselves. “When we did Glastonbury a few years ago,” says Argent. “We were in one of the smaller arenas. It was a marquee, and I guess it must have held up to 5,000 people, but when we started the set, there were just a few people in there, and I thought, ‘Oh God, I hope this is not going to be embarrassing.’ But when we started playing, it filled up, mostly with young people. And when we did ‘Time of the Season’, this huge audience of young people went completely crazy. And I said to Colin afterwards, ‘How do they know it? It’s never been a hit here.’”

How indeed? Paul Weller once wrote about Odessey and Oracle in The Quietus, “So many people that I talk to love that record, from all over the world. It’s amazing that it’s taken over 45 years for it to sink in. It’s probably my all-time favourite record.” Make that nearly 55 years now. It’s such a distinctive album, shot through with Blunstone’s gentle melancholy; it could almost have sprung from America’s West Coast but for its English pop sensibility; it’s bursting with melodies, and complex, classically inspired arrangements. Back in 1969, with no band to capitalise on their chart success in the States, fake groups claiming to be The Zombies filled the vacuum. One played the famous Whisky a Go Go club in Hollywood that autumn. In trying to reproduce Odessey and Oracle, though, the bogus Zombies must have faced the problem of how to recreate the three-part harmonies that the group had been developing since the early Sixties.

“I’ve had people come up to me, especially in America, and say, we’re trying to work out the harmony on certain tracks, and we just can’t work out what you’re doing,” Blunstone tells me. “I think this comes about because Rod was in St Albans Cathedral Choir, so he’s very good [at them]. Usually, he would say to me, you sing what you think the melody is, and because I’ve got a high voice, when it goes to the chorus, I would automatically go into a top harmony. Then Rod would give a comparatively easy harmony to Chris [White] because he’d got to play bass as well, and Rod would fill in all the parts we’d missed, which often meant his part was horrific – really challenging.” Argent laughs, “Well it didn’t sound very musical if you heard it by itself.”

They’re 77 now, but their friendship dates back to 1961, when The Zombies formed in the Hertfordshire city of St Albans, 20 miles north of central London, in the capital’s commuter belt. It was a serendipitous pooling of talent – original bassist Paul Arnold, who came up with the band’s name, had known Argent since primary school, but they had gone on to different secondary schools. At the local grammar, Blunstone tells me, he and Arnold had been forced to sit in alphabetical order, so they were thrown together. The 15-year-old Argent told Arnold to invite Blunstone, who played guitar, along to a rehearsal. And, at their very first meeting, after seeing Argent jump on a piano and belt out a rock’n’roll chart hit note perfect, Blunstone told him he really ought to play keyboards. Argent, who had intended to be the singer, convinced his new guitarist to take over vocal duties.

Their debut single “She’s Not There”, released in 1964, was a hit in Britain and America, when the band were still teenagers. They toured America and experienced the madness of the British Invasion, sparked by Beatlemania. “It was extraordinary,” says Argent. “You honestly couldn’t go out. People would chase you and try and get locks of your hair; they’d run after you with scissors.”

That December, they played the famous New York DJ Murray the K’s Christmas show as part of a roster of acts that included Ben E King, Patti LaBelle, and The Shangri-Las. “We would get there about 8 o’clock in the morning,” says Blunstone. “We had to stay in the whole time, because there were six or seven shows a day and we were just doing two or three songs. And Paul Atkinson, our lead guitarist, was the only guy who ever went out of the stage door, once, and a crowd got round him and pushed him up against a plate glass window, not meaning to hurt him, but that’s what happened. He lost his shirt. And [when the] police came in and got him, they said, ‘We are only doing this once.’ So we had to just lock ourselves away.”

On a similar package tour in the UK earlier that year, the band found themselves on stage for the first time with some of the American stars they had admired from afar, such as Dionne Warwick and The Isley Brothers. “I think nearly all of our idols were Black American,” says Blunstone. He remembers one of the Isley brothers, Rudy, chatting with him and Argent for hours one night, “He was telling us, ‘Be careful about the business – your manager, record companies, keep records of everything.’ And we were young kids, more or less implying, ‘Don’t worry, we’re on top of it.’ Were we ever wrong!”

The Zombies in 1964 (Davis/ANL/Shutterstock)

They had been taken up by the impresario Tito Burns, an old-school Tin Pan Alley agent, who set about getting as much mileage as possible from his new act… literally. “We were easy bait,” says Argent, who thinks the older generation of managers and agents thought rock‘n’roll would only last for a few short years, so they had better milk these cash cows while they still could. “The exceptions to that were the bands that were really, really successful, with great management of their own generation who knew what they were doing, like The Who [with Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp], or Andrew Loog Oldham with the Stones, who just fashioned their image completely. Most bands in the Sixties had a rough time financially. The irony is that rock’n’roll lasted longer than any other form of popular music.”

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Is the rock’n’roll moment finally coming to an end? “I don’t think it feels like that in America,” Argent says. “Over here, it feels to me like everything is so playlisted and it’s starting to sound very mechanical. Almost every voice I hear is autotuned to distraction. It seems to me that most songs that I hear – maybe I’m just not hearing the right things – but the feeling of inventiveness, of exploring new chord sequences and things like that, has completely gone out of the picture.”

Inventiveness has been at the heart of The Zombies from the very beginning, when they made keyboards the centre of their sound, very unfashionable at the time. Their career between “She’s Not There” (1964) and “Time of the Season” (1968) is filled with underrated pop gems, from the shimmering “Leave Me Be”, written by White, who did not return for the present incarnation of the band, to “Tell Her No” and “Whenever You’re Ready”.

In Britain, it feels to me like everything is so playlisted and it’s starting to sound very mechanical

Rod Argent, The Zombies

Their friendships survived the breakup, though. Argent and White (as a writer only) pushed on with their new project, Argent, developing a less poppy, progressive rock sound, while Blunstone resurfaced as a solo artist, first with the unlikely stage name of Neil MacArthur, then under his own name. Argent had success in the US with the singles “Hold Your Head Up” – a classic rocker – and “God Gave Rock’n’Roll To You”, later a hit for Kiss. White and Argent produced Blunstone’s lovely, introspective 1971 album One Year. It included the self-penned confessional “Caroline Goodbye”, written in the pain of Blunstone’s break up from Hammer horror scream queen Caroline Munro, who would go on to become a Bond girl in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). I wonder if he ever played it to her. “I never did,” he says. “I have seen her, but I was just saying hello, you know. I’ve always hoped that if she hears it, she enjoys it. It was heartfelt, and it was written with respect, it wasn’t meant in a negative way.”

In fact, he confesses, “I never intended for it to be called ‘Caroline Goodbye’. But the recording date came up, and I couldn’t think of another name, and I thought, no one’s gonna know, only my close friends will know. But someone got the story to the Daily Express. I know who it was. And they wrote a whole page in a national newspaper about that song, so my secret was out. But if you can think of another name…” he laughs, “it’s not too late.”

Another beautiful Blunstone composition closes the new Zombies album. “The Sun Will Rise Again”, he says, is about a parental relationship with a child. Blunstone wrote it when his daughter “was going through a very difficult time”. Personal songs from the heart are “the only way I know how to write”, he adds. “I get songs from publishers sent to me. And I can usually tell if it’s a professional writer, who’s writing his fifth or sixth song that week. It’s kind of a bit more of an assembly line.”

Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent of The Zombies recording at Abbey Road studios in 1967 (Keith Waldegrave/Shutterstock)

“Colin was once offered ‘Your Song’ at the beginning [of his solo career],” Argent notes. “He didn’t think it was commercial.” Blunstone famously didn’t think “Time of the Season” was commercial either, and the pair rowed when the band were recording it, against the clock, at Abbey Road Studios in August 1967. “I had a big clock right in front of me, and I knew our money was running out, and Rod was very kindly coaching me from the control room,” Blunstone says. “Just on phrasing, you know. I knew the melody vaguely. But he was just saying, ‘Can you get that on the beat?’ ‘Can you push this bit?’ … Things did get quite heated.” “He was actually screaming at me, ‘If you’re so f***ing good. You come in here and sing it,’” Argent recalls. “He said, ‘You’re the f***ing lead singer. You stand there till you get it f***ing right,’” adds Blunstone. They laugh about it now.

In person, Argent and Blunstone are two of the most easy-going rock stars you could hope to meet: upbeat and quick to praise others. Both lived through rock’s druggy peak without falling into its mind-altering acid canyons, cocaine blizzards or heroin swamps. Blunstone, however, who signed to Elton John’s Rocket Record Company label and moved to Los Angeles in the mid-Seventies, remembers the excess of the Hyatt House on Sunset Strip, the “Riot House” hotel frequented by touring bands such as Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. “I certainly saw some sights there,” he says.

Guitarist Atkinson is the only member of the classic line-up – Argent, Blunstone, White, Atkinson and drummer Hugh Grundy – not still around. At 58, he died of liver and kidney disease in 2004, long before The Zombies were inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 2019. White and Grundy still make occasional appearances with The Zombies, but Steve Rodford, drums, Tom Toomey, guitar, and Søren Koch, bass, have replaced them in the group that tours today.

Argent and Blunstone in 2019 (Paul Zimmerman/Shutterstock)

Their sound is still as multifaceted as ever. Argent takes the new album in many directions: classical, jazz, blues and big soulful ballads, but still creates a unified whole. The effect is uplifting. He tells me about the lyrical inspiration for the title track of Different Game; it’s about someone in a well-known band that he’s not going to name. “I was struck by the fact that as he got older, he couldn’t come to terms with how different he was feeling about things. And he started blaming all his bandmates around him.” It broke up the band, he says, and it struck him as a universal theme: how “as you age, you look back – and the bitterness and regret that you can sometimes feel. But you can’t blame other people for it”.

The song bursts into life with a blast of Argent’s keyboards. The chord sequence was inspired by a trip he and his wife made to the Leipzig Bach Festival, which traditionally ends with the Mass in B Minor played in the church where Bach was kapellmeister for 27 years. “Bach’s always been my favourite composer,” he says. “It was like a rock concert. People often think of classical music as ‘relaxing’, but this was with two organs, two choirs, orchestral musicians, and a chorus and soloists. And the volume of it was immense. And there was one little bit of chord sequence within it that blew me away. And when I got home, just for my own pleasure, I kept playing it. And then I went into my little studio, and started working out the chord progression in this, and I just loved it, and I found myself starting to sing a melody over it.”

Starting to sing a melody over it; Argent has been doing that for a long time, and the album is packed with memorable ones. The Zombies have also just started a UK tour, although Blunstone notes, “touring is very demanding… we have been thinking of slowing down a little…” “… but not creatively,” specifies Argent urgently. That’s plain to see.

The Zombies are currently on tour in the UK and ‘Different Game’ is out now via Cooking Vinyl Records

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