When one thinks of the British Invasion of the mid ’60s, a handful of truly iconic bands come to mind immediately — The Beatles, of course, who kicked opened the door to America for their generation of talented young Beat band Britons, followed closely by The Stones, The Kinks, The Animals, The Who, and The Yardbirds, among others. Then there’s The Zombies. What always set the Zombies apart from their peers was a jazz-tinged sensibility of sophistication juxtaposed with a sense of yearning and oftentimes a melancholic, masculine vulnerability brilliantly explored in compact pop songs filled with stunning harmonies and beautiful melodies.
The band’s first single from 1964, “She’s Not There,” reached number one on the Cashbox magazine chart in the U.S, as well as number two on the Billboard chart, earning the group the distinction of being the first English band after The Beatles to score a number one original-composition hit record in America. Also released in 1964, “Tell Her No” was another big hit for the band, reaching number six in the U.S. And, finally, “Time of the Season” peaked at number three in the U.S. in 1969 — after the group had disbanded.
I recently spoke by telephone with vocalist Colin Blunstone in advance of The Zombies’ upcoming concert Sunday, September 4, at the Libbey Bowl in Ojai, about the band’s origin, early days and hit singles, its timeless and iconic 1968 psychedelic album Odessey and Oracle, and its latest fine release, Still Got That Hunger.
Regarding the choice of name for the band from St. Albans, Hertfordshire — which, in addition to vocalist Blunstone, originally included organist/vocalist Rod Argent, guitarist Paul Atkinson, bassist Paul Arnold, and drummer Hugh Grundy — Blunstone explained, “Like every other band we were trying to find something that was memorable and hadn’t been used before.” It was Arnold who came up with The Zombies as a name. “In those days — 1961 — there wasn’t a zombie culture, so it was an even more left-field name then.” Blunstone elaborated, “We got offered a deal with Decca Records principally because we won a big rock ‘n’ roll competition.”
The producer for their first recording session, Ken Jones, told the band they could come up with some original material, beyond the standard rhythm-and-blues covers, so Argent wrote “She’s Not There,” and bassist Chris White, who had replaced Paul Arnold, wrote the B-side “You Make Me Feel Good.” “As soon as [Argent] played it for me, I was absolutely amazed. … The Beatles already were writing most of — if not all of — their material, so they led the way in so many different ways that suddenly it was taken for granted that some or all artists would write their own songs,” Blunstone said. “So we took ‘She’s Not There’ into our first recording session in the spring of 1964, and we recorded three more tracks: ‘You Make Me Feel Good,’ ‘Summertime’ (the Gershwin classic), and another song which Rod had written called ‘It’s Alright With Me.’”
The British youth culture explosion and zeitgeist of London were at a zenith and had a ripple effect on Western culture in the swinging ’60s. “It was a very exciting time when it seemed that everything was possible, and it was a time when the arts world seemed to be centered on London,” Blunstone explained. “With photography, you had David Bailey; with fashion, Mary Quant and Twiggy; with films you had Michael Caine. … And every British musician wanted to play in America because rock ‘n’ roll started in America — so did blues, so did jazz — but it really did change with The Beatles because they were so innovative that for once Britain led in music as well as everything else. And we were fortunate enough to become part of that movement … the British Invasion … and all our dreams came true that we had hit records.”
The Zombies’ B-sides were, in many cases, as good as the A-sides: “The Way I Feel Inside,” “I Love You,” and “Don’t Go Away” are but a few examples. Many of them were written by White. According to Blunstone, “Chris is a very fine writer. In fact, on our final album (of the original iteration of the band), Odessey and Oracle, Chris White wrote more songs than Rod Argent. Chris was learning his craft for that three years we were together between ‘64 and ‘67. He also wrote for my solo albums, and for Argent [Rod Argent’s post-Zombies band] he wrote “Hold Your Head Up.” So starting in ‘64 and going to about ‘75, every song he wrote was a little masterpiece.”
Blunstone also wrote several Zombies tunes during the 1960s — “How We Were Before” and “Just Out Of Reach” for example — and blossomed as a songwriter when he began his solo career in the early 1970s, although Argent was definitely the main hit songwriter of the group.
Comparing and contrasting the Zombies’ first two records, Blunstone noted: “The first album, Begin Here, released in 1965, was a rushed affair. … Odessey and Oracle is a product of us being out on the road for three years, and Rod and Chris had become more sophisticated writers. They had a back catalog of songs … and the band was a lot tighter.”
The band rehearsed relentlessly before going into Abbey Road to record Odessey and Oracle in 1967. The Beatles had just finished recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and, as Blunstone explained: “John Lennon’s Mellotron was in Studio 3, and Rod used it extensively … but more important than that, we used the same recording engineers, Geoff Emerick and Peter Vince, and of course we benefited from that. We were recording on eight tracks instead of the [at that time] customary four tracks, so we could add things that we could never add before.” The album — featuring “Care of Cell 44,” “This Will Be Our Year,” and “Time of the Season” — stands the test of time, and both Paul Weller and Dave Grohl have extolled it.
Blunstone has always had one of the richest, most vibrant voices of any male rock singer, although ironically he first came into the group as a rhythm guitarist before it was decided he would be the lead vocalist. Surprisingly, he was essentially self-taught and a natural, though he (and Argent) did work with a vocal coach about 15 years ago. “In some ways Rod learned to write songs writing for my voice, and I learned to sing by singing Rod’s songs, because Rod has a definite idea of how he wants his songs to be sung. So I started to learn about phrasing and the more challenging parts of melody, as well. To this day, we will still work out a song around the piano before we present it to the band,” Blunstone said.
Although the original incarnation of The Zombies disbanded in 1967, there were various resurrections during the 1990s and early 2000s (and three more studio albums) before the current lineup gelled, featuring Tom Toomey on guitar, Jim Rodford on bass, and Steve Rodford on drums, as well as Argent and Blunstone.
The latest Zombies album, Still Got That Hunger, is a strong return to form. The song “New York” is a nostalgic look at the band’s first trip to the U.S., during which they met Patti LaBelle and other American music heroes during their participation on a Murray the K Christmas special. And “Maybe Tomorrow” salutes The Beatles with its coda — but almost didn’t make it on the record due to the use of a few Beatles lyrics. “Our management was able to get the track to Paul McCartney, and he downloaded it, listened to it, and approved it,” Blunstone explained. It was a touching gesture and a further intertwining of both bands’ legacies.
Blunstone noted he had good memories of Santa Barbara, but the band’s upcoming performance at the Libbey Bowl on September 4 will be his first time in Ojai. “We’re all looking forward to coming back to California,” Blunstone concluded.
The Zombies play the Libbey Bowl (210 S. Signal St., Ojai) Sunday, September 4, at 6 p.m. Call (805) 272-3881 or see libbeybowl.com.