Published in the Gaudie, Spring 2014
Talking about Swinging London, band impersonations and hormonal teenage fans with Colin Blunstone of The Zombies.
Talking to Colin Blunstone, lead singer for the world-famous 1960s pop group the Zombies, is a wonderfully soothing experience. His velvety-soft voice has been the band’s aural fulcrum since their inception, although after over fifty years in the business it is now a much richer and raspier affair than the breathily ethereal tones which appeared in their early hits such as 1966’s The Way I Feel Inside. Blunstone appears to relish this observation, musing that “a lot of people say that it hasn’t, but I think my voice definitely has changed over the years. In some ways it’s stronger and more accurate now than it was – I started with a singing coach about twelve years ago and now I always do half an hour’s warm-up before we sound check, and before the show as well. I think it’s also just a question of everything evolving as you get older. Rod [Argent, the Zombies’ lead songwriter and guitarist] always says that he learnt to write songs for my voice, and in many ways I think I learnt to sing through his songs. His songs were always consciously written with my voice in mind, and it’s been that way since 1964.” He and Argent have indeed been working together for over half a century now, and even on their separate projects (such as Blunstone’s acclaimed 1971 solo album One Year) they always seem to come back to one another for production, musical accompaniment and backing vocals, working as musical advisors and support for one another.
The band’s long and strange history is one that Blunstone is happy to relay, as I ask if it is true that he was working in an office as an insurance clerk when Time of the Season hit number one in the U.S. in 1969. “Yes it’s true! We formed the band in 1961, while we were all at school together. We started getting small gigs, and then won a rock competition in the spring of ’64, which made us consider the possibility of actually becoming professional musicians. Shortly after that we were offered a record deal with Decca Records and one of the producers mentioned that there was a session was coming up, so maybe someone should write a new song for it. Days went by and I of course completely forgot about it, but Rod went away and wrote She’s Not There, which changed our lives. It went on to be a U.S. hit, and we played all over the globe constantly for the next three years. We then recorded Odessey and Oracle [sic] which was not a commercial success at all. We decided it might be time to move onto new projects, after having been together for seven years at that point. Two years later, in 1969, Time of the Season became a huge number one hit in America. By this point Rod and Chris White were actually quite financially secure due to song-writing royalties, but the other three members (myself, Hugh Grundy the drummer and Paul Atkinson the guitarist) were struggling because we hadn’t been protected or well advised by our management. I phoned an employment agency because I had no money, and they set me up with a job in the centre of London, in insurance. It was a very busy office, so that kept my mind from dwelling on what might have been. A year later, Time of the Season became a huge hit. When it hit number one in the US I was a clerk in an insurance office. The story of the Zombies is generally a bit bizarre.” This statement is certainly true: at one point there were at least three bands touring under the name the Zombies, pretending to be Blunstone and co. in order to take advantage of a number one hit by a dissolved band. “Not only did this happen in the 60s, but it also happened in 1990 when we got back together. Years later I heard a wonderful story – I don’t think the band playing under our name were very good, and one night they came off stage and in their dressing room was a disgruntled fan, who recognised they weren’t us so produced a gun and threatened them with it. Anyway, they stopped after that.”
One of the most fascinating things about the Zombies is their sheer longevity – this is a band who recorded at Abbey Road and dated Bond girls, who have played shows with the likes of Drifters and Dionne Warwick, but who continue to write original material and release new albums. It’s impossible not to question Blunstone about what it was like to be young and famous during such a dynamic period. “It was a wonderful adventure, that’s how I saw it at the time. It wasn’t until later when I looked back that I properly realised there had been an artistic movement. I mean of course I was aware of the music and records, but we also had fashion with Mary Quant, theatre with John Osborne, films with Michael Caine, England won the world cup in 1966 – everything seemed to centre on England and London, so it was a very exciting time and place to be growing up.” He tells me that, contrary to the wonderfully dreamy and spaced-out aesthetic of their first two albums, no-one in the band ever even took drugs during the 1960s. “I think it’s quite important that the band finished in 1967. In the late 60s and early 70s people experimented a lot more with drugs. But I can assure you, it didn’t even occur to us at the time in the Zombies. It was actually quite an innocent time, in many ways. The 40s and the 50s were even more austere than the war years, and as we came into the 60s it suddenly seemed as if anything was possible, all the restrictions were being lifted.”
The phenomenon of getting mobbed by thousands of hysterical teenage fans is something else that is thought of as a peculiarly 1960s occurrence (although members of modern boybands would perhaps disagree). “That was a feeling that not that many people have experienced – 10,000 people all up on their feet, screaming and trying to rush the stage. I used to joke that it wouldn’t have mattered what I sang at all in the first three years, as no-one heard anything anyway!” He laughs. “What was actually scarier was getting spotted outside. You had to try not to make eye contact and not to run for it, because if they were sure it was you you’d have a few hundred girls chasing you and trying to rip your shirt off. They would try to cut your hair, so there would be pairs of scissors flying past your eyes. I always used to say, if they mobbed me one at a time, I’d enjoy it a lot more… In a pack, they really seemed like they would rip you to shreds.”
It is cheering that Blunstone is so open and amusing about all his experiences after so long in a notoriously cutthroat industry. He offhandedly mentions that “we were young and badly managed at the beginning, which is true for many bands of the 60s. It is amazing, if you talk to bands that were really successful about that period, they quite often tell you they were utterly broke at the time. We certainly were.” He is clearly a man driven by his overarchingly fierce love of the music itself, who has consistently adapted to the ever-changing entertainment industry even as he remains fond of the old ways of doing things, commenting that “recording techniques now are incredibly sophisticated compared to how simple they were in 1964. Nowadays, things are recorded on much more complex digital technology, but you can’t make those same warm, rich sounds that we had in the 60s because the old machines don’t exist anymore.” He also muses on “the irony of the British invasion… all we were really doing was playing American music to Americans, but they saw us as doing something new and different. When we first started playing my influences were Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard: all those rock and roll greats. I sometimes wonder if the music that was really important to you in your teenage years maybe just always remains the most important to you.” Listening to the man whose silken, hopeful voice encapsulated the adolescence of thousands of people during one of the most significant and optimistic cultural eras of the modern age, I really can’t help but agree with him.
The Zombies will be playing with the Yardbirds, the Animals and others at the Ultimate Rhythm & Blues 50th Anniversary tour, Saturday 15th February at Aberdeen Music Hall