Gary James' Interview With
Colin Blunstone of
They were one of the acts to come out of the British Invasion. In 1964, their song "She's Not There" became a hit record for the group. They would follow that up with "Tell Her No" and "Time Of The Season". The group's name was The Zombies.
Singing lead vocals then and still today is Colin Blunstone. Colin talked with us about The Zombies.
Q - We used to have this thing in the daily paper on page one called Chuckle Of The Day. So, back in 1964, a kid was quoted as saying he's looking for a name for his band, but all the good names, The Animals, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Zombies have been taken. As funny as that was at the time, there also seemed to be some truth in it. Did you ever think that The Zombies maybe wasn't such a good name?
A - Well actually, it was our third choice. We found it very difficult, like a lot of bands when you start out, it is hard to think of an original name. We had two other names before we were called The Zombies, but not for very long. Remember, we're just playing locally. We were just out of school. We were fifteen, sixteen years old. We were The Mustangs for about two weeks and then we realized there were lots of other groups called The Mustangs. Then we were The Sundowners. There was a film at the time called The Sundowners and we got that from that I think. Then, our bass player, Paul Arnold, came up with the name The Zombies. Then it was even more unusual than perhaps it would be now 'cause to my knowledge there hadn't been any Zombie films or Zombie magazines. It was a very unusual choice of name. I would say that everyone in the band really liked the idea of The Zombies probably, except me. I wasn't very keen, but I did think that probably no one else had used that name. So, it got the vote. I think the name of the band only means something up to a certain point. Once you start having hit records, the name is just an association with the band itself. It just means "She's Not There", "Time Of The Season". If you really analyze the name The Beatles, I mean, they're the best band in the world. Their songs are wonderful, but that name is not that great, really. It's a sort of play on words. The Beatles that's spelled like beat. It's not that great. I could probably say the same thing about our name. At least it was a name that no one else had, but it's probably the most important thing about the name of the band. Paul Arnold, who thought of it, is the only guy who left the band before we ever made any records. He wanted to be a doctor and his studies didn't allow him the time to rehearse, so he left and Chris White took his place on bass and he went on to be one of the main writers in the band. Later he wrote "Hold Your Head Up" for Argent and he wrote "I Love You" for People and he was a very successful writer. It just makes you realize how much of a band's fortune is bound to chance. Chris just came along. I don't even know who approached him to join the band. He just arrived one day. I recognized him 'cause I went to the same school as him. He was a couple of years older than me. He arrived and he was our new bass player. (laughs) I don't know how he got there to be honest. Obviously someone asked him along.
Q - Did Paul Arnold go on to become a doctor?
A - He did. He qualified as a doctor and he's now a doctor in Edmonton in Canada.
Q - What does he specialize in?
A - You know, I don't really know. I think he's in general practice. I think he's a doctor you go and see if you're not feeling very well, rather than a specialist in a hospital. But he usually comes to see us play when we're in Canada and we still see him in England. He's got family in England. But he comes over every now and then so we're still in contact with him.
Q - I wonder if he has any regrets leaving the band.
A - Oh, I don't think so for a minute. I think he's had a very fulfilled career as a doctor. I think it's probably a difficult choice. I think he feels he made the right choice.
Q - Were you aware in 1962, when The Zombies were coming up, of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones? Had you heard about other bands in other cities in England?
A - It was probably a little bit later. I think it would probably be in '63. We didn't know The Beatles because they came from the north of the country and we came from the south. We didn't know them until they had their first small hit. I believe it was called "Love Me Do". But the whole thing was mesmerized by The Beatles. We just thought they were absolutely wonderful. We bought all their record. We did go and see them play in a local town called Lewton and they played in a movie house, which is what bands used to do in those days. They were fantastic, but the screaming was so loud, it was little bit difficult to hear them at times, but they were great. We all thought they were the best band in the world. The Stones on the other hand came from the south of the country, quite close to where we came from. We first saw them in a very small club called Studio 51, Great Newport Street it was. I remember it. That would've been probably early '63 or '64. They just made their first record, which was called "Come On". Because it was a small club and there weren't screaming girls, it was absolutely packed. The atmosphere was wonderful. I have to say it was one of the most exciting concerts. It still gives me the tingles to think about it now. They were sensational. Absolutely sensational.
Q - Did you introduce yourself to The Stones?
A - Well, funnily enough, Chris White, our bass player did. I wouldn't have had the courage to go up to them. He did. We were so interested in their material. It was lots of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley. Rhythm and Blues classics. Some we were familiar with, but a lot we weren't. Chris went up and asked them where their material came from. And they had a chat with him. It was great. I'm afraid I didn't have the courage to go into it with them, but Chris did.
Q - Go back to The Beatles for a minute. When you saw them, how long was their set? 30 minutes?
A - I think it was 30 minutes because there were four or five other acts on before them. I remember The Fourmost were on. I thought they were very good. I don't remember the names of the other acts that were on. The Beatles went on last. The other bands probably only did three or four tunes, but The Beatles did a few more than that. Yeah, they were brilliant.
Q - Do you realize how fortunate you were? You were in the center of the universe back then. You were in the right place with the right stuff at the right time.
A - I know exactly what you mean. That was what was so exciting about being in and around London in the mid-'60s. As far as the acts were concerned, it did feel like that because obviously you've got The Beatles and The Stones, but in the theatre you had John Osborne and Michael Caine in films. Twiggy, David Bailey in photography. Mary Quant in fashion. It did seem as though London was the center of the Arts at that time. It was a time when it felt as though anything was possible. We'd come out of the austerity years after the war and in England it was a real struggle. Some people thought it rivaled how hard it was during the war. In fact, some people think it was harder. Obviously there weren't any bombs going off, but just in terms of living, it was very difficult in England after the war. I think towards the end of the '50s we were starting to come out of those difficult years. And by the time the '60s happened, everybody was full of life and energy and belief and dreams if you like and it did seem like anything was possible. Of course for us, in a way it was. We always thought of ourselves as a school band from the suburbs, really and we didn't even dare to think that we could ever be professional musicians and then we won what was quite a big competition and it was called the Herts Beat Competition, which is short for Hartsfashion, which is where it came from. There were ten bands every night and I think it ran for ten weeks, so there were sort of a hundred bands. We won our week and then we went into the final and we won that and that got us our first sort of national press exposure. Sometimes we disagree on what happened next. It's funny, when you talk to guys in the band about what happened forty years ago, everyone remembers it differently, but either through that competition or separately, we met a producer and he managed to get us a record deal with Decca Records and once we won the competition, I think we all started to think we could go professional and we could give this a try, because we decided to be a professional band before we made a record. I don't think we had a real plan. We went off and bought a very, very old truck. It was very slow and very, very cold. How we ever got anywhere I've no idea. It would only go about fifty miles an hour and the doors were on runners and they kept coming off the runners, so it was just cold air blowing in all the time. We used to travel inside sleeping bags with a hood pulled over the top 'cause it was so cold. But anyway, we got the chance to go to Decca Studios in West Hampstead with a producer called Ken Jones and it seemed like things were starting to happen. Ken Jones one day as just a quiet aside said "Listen, we've got this session in Decca Studios in a couple of weeks time. Remember, you could always try and write something for the session." Then he moved onto another subject and it was forgotten. About five days later, maybe even less, Rod (Argent) came back and had written "She's Not There". I was absolutely amazed. I thought that people who wrote songs were kind of in a different profession. I didn't realize that you could be in a band, and I know this sounds really naive now, but see The Beatles changed everything. People realized being in a band, you could write your own material. The Beatles had only just happened. So, it was a wonderful surprise. Rod came back with this song and Chris White came back with what became the B-side, "You Make Me Feel Good". The whole band was just shocked and very excited that we got the opportunity to record these two great songs and that's what we did in our first session.
Q - I often wonder why American bands did not grow their hair long, wear collarless jackets and high heel Cuban style boots before The Beatles came to America.
A - I know. You know, it's just funny how sometimes everything comes together in one small area. It's like surfing music came from L.A. and Tamla came from Detroit and there are many other types of music that have just come from quite a small area. It just happens. I think usually the most successful kinds of music evolve naturally. A lot of music business people try to make images and trends and it's very contrived. Usually that's not so successful. This just happened. Guys in England started growing their hair long. I think it all came from The Beatles really and it made a huge impact on people. When you look back now, you kind of wonder why. Is it so important how long someone has their hair? But at the time, it was.
Q - Your voice is very recognizable and the sound of the band is also recognizable. How long did it take you to find that voice? I'm talking about the voice we hear in The Zombies' hits. Did you sing other songs with a different voice?
A - I always just sang naturally. That's just how I used to sing.
Q - How did you find that voice?
A - I was born with it. More recently, say about ten years ago, Rod Argent and myself both studied with a voice coach, but this is comparatively recently. We weren't trying to change our voice at all, we were just trying to learn a little bit of technique to help us when we're on the road. Just to make our voice stronger and perhaps give us a bit more accuracy. I think we were taught by a fine teacher, Ian Adam. He used to teach all the people on The West End, which is like Broadway in New York. These people are in musicals and they have to sing night after night after night and their voices have to be tough. So, we learned some of the techniques he would teach those singers, but anyway, that's more recently. In 1964, with the original band from 1964 to 1967, we all sang and played naturally. We weren't trying to achieve a specific sound. It's just what happened. I think one of the interesting things is that in the band there was such a wide spectrum of musical influences, from church music, because Rod was in the local cathedral choir, to Classical music, Modern Jazz, Miles Davis in particular, the Blues, Rhythm And Blues, Rock 'n' Roll and Pop music. We used to use influences from all those different kinds of music. I think that did make us a little bit different to other people.
Q - When you first came over to the United States, you played the Brooklyn Fox Theatre as part of Murray The K's Christmas Show. You did seven shows a day. How long did that go on for and how many songs did you in a performance?
A - As I remember it, and again Rod and I remember this differently, I think sometimes we only played one song, maybe two songs. It wasn't like we gave a show or anything like that because there were fourteen or fifteen acts on the bill, The Shirelles, Ben E. King, The Shangri-Las, The Nashville Teens, Chuck Jackson, Patti La Belle And The Blue Belles. There were lots of fabulous artists on the bill. We used to start quite early in the morning. I think it was kind of ten or eleven in the morning and everyone would do one, two, maybe three songs. I think then they played a film, a short film and then we'd do the whole show again. (laughs) It was a good introduction into America, I think. It was incredibly exciting for us.
Q - When did the show stop?
A - I think it went on 'til about 8 P.M. And of course we opened on Christmas Day. So, it's not everyone's cup of tea. It's not everyone's idea of Christmas Day, to go to a Rock concert, but it sold out all the time. For us, it was especially exciting because we always looked to America for the Rock 'n' Roll greats, Elvis Presley of course, Chuck Berry, Little Richard. Those were the people we'd grown up listening to and for us to come over to America where Rock 'n' Roll started, it was incredible exciting for us.
Q - How many days were you at The Brooklyn Fox Theatre?
A - I think we were there a week to ten days, something like that. And then we did a TV show called Hullabaloo. It was the first Hullabaloo ever and Jack Jones was the compere. The New Christy Minstrels were on that and us. So, that was our first time on 'live' TV in America.
Q - Did Jack Jones like your music?
A - You know, I don't know. I don't think he knew of us. I don't remember any of us speaking to him. We were probably a bit in awe to be honest. And again, we were very young. I think I was maybe just about nineteen then. Some of the band were eighteen. I think we were relatively confident of what we did, confident in our music and our songs.
Q - After the Murray The K shows and the Hullabaloo TV show, did you go on to tour America or did you return to England?
A - We went back to England then. I think we came back and did probably two or three more tours.
Q - Where did you tour and who did you tour with? Were you the headliner or the support group?
A - The Dick Clark Caravan Of Stars is the first thing we came back and did. And again, we toured with The Shangri-Las. Del Shannon headlined. I think we were kind of second on the bill. The Ad-Libs were on there. The Velvelettes were on there. There were fourteen acts on there. I can't remember anyone else. I can see them. I can remember their songs, but they're the ones I remember anyway. We went all over the States. I think we missed the first week of the tour because we picked it up in St. Louis and then we went across the Southern states, ended up on the West coast and across to Montreal, Canada, where they sort of got all the top acts. There were two or three Caravan Of Stars tours out at the time. The top acts all got together in Montreal. There was Herman's Hermits. They were huge at the time. Tom Jones, and us. I can't remember who else was there. I remember the response to Herman's Hermits was phenomenal. It was actually a bit scary. It was one of the only times when I was backstage that I was a little bit concerned about what was going on with the audience. It looked like it was close to getting out of control. It was an interesting phenomenon.
Q - How was life on that Dick Clark bus? It's not like the tour buses they have today.
A - I have to say I wouldn't want to do it now. At the time of course it was very exciting for us to be seeing America, but there were no facilities on the bus at all. Because some of the opening acts weren't being paid very much, what they did was they would stay in a hotel every second night. So, one night we would drive through the night and arrive at mid-day and got into the hotel and we would stay in the hotel that night. Then the next night we'd drive through the night. We did that for, I think, about six weeks. At the end of that, you know you've been on tour. It was very, very tiring. And of course people are singing and talking on the night drive in the bus. Wonderful singing. But you do end up getting pretty tired. It was quite challenging, really.
Q - Were they singing your songs on the bus?
A - Well, no. I think the first night we were on the bus they said "C'mon Zombies. Show us what you got. Sing a song for us." And so Rod and I stood up. We don't agree what song it was. I think it was a Beatles' song. And we sang the song for them. I think they quite admired that we had the guts to do that. We were kind of accepted after that. It was quite a cool thing to do when you're just about eighteen years old, to stand up in the middle at the night in America and try to sing to people who are really wonderful singers. But anyway, we got away with it.
Q - And after that tour?
A - We certainly did another tour with The Searchers. We were managed by the same person as The Searchers. We also did two or three tours in the U.K. with The Searchers. Just The Searchers and us. I think at one point in Nashville we teamed up with The Beach Boys, which was great for me 'cause I'm a huge Beach Boys fan. That was great because we stayed there for two or three days. We managed to hang out with them, which was brilliant.
Q - Now, according to The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia Of Rock And Roll, "The Zombies had a frustrating career." Did you not have a good manager? Did the record company not do enough to promote you?
A - I certainly think we could've had better business advice. The Beatles had Epstein. The Stones had Andrew Loog Oldham. Often you find that the bands that really made it had someone who was really involved in their career and put a lot of thought in their career. We didn't have that. So that made things a little bit difficult. Our first record, when we first started out on the road, was a huge world-wide hit and of course you should be grateful for my success you have, but in an ideal world it might've been better if we could've had that hit a little bit later on when perhaps we'd found our musical identity. We worked on the road for three years, non-stop, and at the end of those three years we recorded "Odyssey And Oracle", our last album. I think perhaps with that album we had found our musical identity. But we felt that we'd been comparatively unsuccessful at that point. It was a general feeling in the band that we weren't being successful. Years later we realized that in the three years we'd been on the road, we always had a hit somewhere, but communications at that time were very poor. It took months, sometimes years, to find out if you were successful with a particular record in a particular territory. We felt we were unsuccessful. I think either one or two singles were released in the U.K. before the album was released. It seems a very strange way to look at things now. We decided it was time for us to go our separate ways and get involved in new projects before the album was actually released, although a couple of singles had been released. Quite well received by the press, but not commercial successes. And then a year after the band had split, "Time Of The Season" was a huge hit in America. By that time most of the guys were involved in other projects and didn't want to get back together again. It was sort of bad timing. It's a shame that "Time Of The Season" wasn't a hit while we were still together. Who knows? Maybe we could have kept going a bit longer. I, for one, would be very interested in knowing what we would have done next because I think Rod and Chris had both developed into serious writers and I would've loved to have known what we would have done next. I know the other guys all feel that was the right time to split and possibly it was, but I'm just curious as to what might have come next.
Q - Did The Zombies tour all over the world?
A - No. We did go all over Europe, especially Northern Europe, Scandinavia, France, Belgium, Holland. But I have to say when I think about it, mostly we toured in the U.K. and America and then the other place we went to which was a huge surprise to us was the Philippines and this was towards the end of our three years on the road. In my innocence I thought we were going there to play in a hotel in the evenings. I don't know where I got this from but this is how I pictured it, that we would play in the evenings in a hotel foyer and in the daytime we would be on a beach, and just have a nice holiday. Well, we arrived at about two o'clock in the morning in Manila, and there were thousands of people at the airport. Then we realized we got sort of five records in the Top Ten. Some of them were really obscure records, like B-sides or obscure album tracks. We only played them in the recording studios. We weren't even sure if we could play them 'live' and instead of opening in a hotel foyer, we opened in the Areneta Coliseum. The first audience was twenty-eight thousand people. It was a big, big shock. I mean, it's hard to believe that can happen. But again, the people that were looking after us should have prepared us for what was coming. And also there were terrible financial games going on, where we were being paid practically nothing and even we can work out at twenty-eight thousand people, we should be earning a little bit more than we were. We were getting pennies. So, that was an interesting adventure, I must say. We were in the Philippines for a couple of weeks. Wonderful people. Lovely people. I couldn't believe our position on the charts.
Q - OK. So, the first night you played to twenty-eight thousand people. What was the second and third nights like?
A - Well, that was a Friday night and then we played a matinee on Saturday to fifteen thousand. On Saturday night we played to thirty-two thousand. That went on for ten nights.
Q - You were the only act?
A - Well, we did the second half. But, there was a singer on before us and I think there might have been some dancers. But, basically it was our show, yeah.
Q - How long were you onstage?
A - I can't really remember. I would think about forty-five minutes. It may have been an hour. I think we used to do an hour then. It probably would have been about an hour. It was a real education, I have to say. And funny enough, we went back to the Philippines a few years ago and we played that same place, this is with our new band, Rod and myself and we're going back next April (2012) and I'm really looking forward to that. It doesn't hold those kind of people anymore. When we went there, it had changed completely. It had air-conditioning, which it didn't have when we went there the first time and had proper seating. They just had benches when we went there. And I think it only holds about twelve or thirteen thousand now.
Q - You probably didn't spend a lot of time in the studio recording those "hit" records, did you?
A - No. Not at all. The first session we did, we did "She's Not There", "You Make Me Feel Good" and "Summertime", the old Gershwin song. We recorded in the evening. So, we went in about seven and I think we were probably finished by ten, something like that and it was done. They recorded very, very fast in those days. I must tell you just one story. We got that session and we had a fine producer and engineer, but because it was in the evening, at lunch time, the engineer had been at a wedding. And he got very drunk. He also became very aggressive. We never met him before. I was thinking, 'cause he's shouting at us, this was the session we recorded "She's Not There", I remember thinking if this is the recording industry, I don't think this is for me. That was my first session. But we were quite lucky 'cause he passed out. Just out cold. And so four of us got an arm or leg and we had to carry him up a flight of stairs and put him in the back of a black London taxi. And off he went home. His assistant took over and his assistant was Gus Dudgeon and that was Gus Dudgeon's first session and our first session. And of course he went on to produce Elton (John), David Bowie, Kiki Dee and many others. I worked with Gus subsequently and sadly he's no longer with us. He always remembered that first session, and so did we. It was quite a fiery introduction to recording studios.
Q - After The Zombies broke up, you took a job in an insurance office?
A - Well, I mean, I had to take a job, because the three non-writers, Paul Atkinson, Hugh Grundy and myself, were pretty much broke at the end of The Zombies. The writers, Chris White and Rod Argent had a different income stream. We had a very good publisher. I wrote a couple of songs for The Zombies, but they were the main writers. Very good publishers. They were very active. Very honest. And so Rod and Chris were in a completely different situation than the three of us. I know it's been very well recorded that I did go to work in an office and it happened to be an insurance office. The truth of the matter is, I had to get a job and that's the first job I was offered. Hugh sold cars. Paul Atkinson worked in a computer company. They both came back to the music business and worked for C.B.S. Hugh didn't stay in the record industry that long, but Paul Atkinson, sadly enough he's passed away, but he was a very successful record company executive working in America. He ended up in Los Angeles. He was very, very successful. People make a big thing of this, I went to work in insurance, like I chose insurance over music. I chose to eat.
Q - I'm just thinking, after performing in front of twenty-eight thousand people in the Philippines and then going to work in an insurance office. It must've been quite a shock.
A - It wasn't really. Maybe when you're young, you just see things in a different light. I was very grateful actually that I worked in a big company. It was very, very busy and quite dynamic and it really kept me busy. I wasn't sitting, doing nothing. I was on the move all the time and it helped me get over the disappointment and sadness of the band finishing. I think if I had just sort of sat at home, I would've been a very unhappy person. Despondent. In a strange sort of way, I think it did me a favor.
Q - What did you do in that office? Answer phones?
A - Yeah, I answered phones. I did what everyone else did. I got a pile of post in the morning and I answered phones.
Q - How long were you on the job?
A - I don't think it was quite a year when "Time Of The Season" started to happen in America. I just got more and more phone calls from people in the industry asking if I was interested in various projects, getting back into the studio. To be honest, it just became impossible to work there because as I say, it was a very busy office and I couldn't really take other calls. It wasn't possible. And so a producer called Mike Hurst, who recorded the early Cat Stevens records, suggested I start recording some tracks in the evenings, after work, in Olympic Studios where The Stones recorded a lot of their tracks. I went down there and enjoyed it. We had a little bit of success, but I think in a way for me, just to see if I wanted to get back into recording again, and I enjoyed it. I had a little bit of chart success in the U.K., so I left the insurance company. Chris White, I think he was giving me a lift home after a party, he said "why don't you come and record with Rod and me?" And that's what I did. In a way, I think that's where my solo career started. I recorded an album for CBS called "One Year In England". It was really quite successful.
Q - As we speak, is there still a Zombies group that's together?
A - About ten years ago (2000) Rod Argent and I got back together again. Initially we were just performing under our own names. It was a very strange thing that happened. We weren't expecting it at all. Maybe we're naive. We didn't realize there would be as much interest in The Zombies. Remember, we're talking about the year 2000. This was nearly forty years before that we'd been in our band, The Zombies. But more and more as we played, promoters just billed us as The Zombies. We found that audiences were asking for Zombies' tunes. Rod and I both had solo careers, so we weren't particularly playing Zombies music. It genuinely took us by surprise, the interest in The Zombies. So now we tour as The Zombies and we've recorded three studio albums and two 'live' albums. When we perform, we perform a lot of Zombies material, some of the older stuff and then we'll do a little feature as "Odyssey And Oracle" because a lot of people remember that album. We've travelled all over the world. We're coming to Canada and America in September (2011). We've just come back from Japan and Rod and I spent a week in Holland before that. It's taken us by surprise, but we play all around the world. Earlier this year (2011) we were in Spain. We're going to the Philippines and we're going to Japan next year (2012). We may be going to Australia. So yeah, The Zombies live on.