Few musical careers have proven as paradoxical as that of The Zombies: working class St Albans lads who got lumbered with a toffee-nosed image, they scored the second US number one (She’s Not There) by a British act after The Beatles and topped the Billboard charts again with Time Of The Season, though by that time they’d broken up due to lack of commercial success. Their swan song album, Odessy and Oracle (a psychedelic milestone made without the aid of drugs) failed to sell on its release but is now regarded as an all-time classic. Despite the band’s critical stock continuing to rise in every successive year since the split, Singer Colin Blunstone and keyboardist / composer Rod Argent have stubbornly resisted every inducement to return as The Zombies… until now (2004). Touring heavily to promote the new album, As Far As I Can See, with a kick-ass band that includes long-time Argent associate Jim Rodford on bass, his son Steve on drums and Keith (brother of Don) Airie on guitar, Colin and Rod took time out to set the record straight.
Why revive the venerable name of The Zombies at this time?
CB) I know that Rod has thought this through very deeply… the most obvious reasons are that for the first time we’ve got the hit writer from the bad writing specifically for the person who did the lead vocals… we’ve also got a real band identity going, having played with these guys for two and a half years, now… also, when the new tracks were played back there seemed to be a thread linking them with the past, so it seemed like the right time. I’d been resisting the use of the Zombies name ever since we split up, but it suddenly seemed honest to acknowledge that connection. In some melodic terms and in terms of harmonies and chord structures, there were all these resonances from the early days. We try and make it very clear that this is our version of The Zombies, which is why own names also appear on the album cover.
Were any of the other founder members pissed off by this move?
RA) I was most concerned about Chris White, who did a lot of writing, particularly on Odessey And Oracle. I was very careful to explain to him what we were doing, he seemed OK with it and sang on three tracks. When the album came out he wasn’t happy about the way it was presented, but we’ve smoothed things over now. This hasn’t been a contrived thing, it’s very much to do with new material and the way the band has developed and the pleasure of being on the road with them. This is our take on The Zombies, just as Chris has his own take when he put together a different version of the band some years ago… the really sad thing is that our original guitarist, Paul Atkinson, passed away a couple of days ago.
The original zombies “were the unluckiest band in rock history”. Discuss…
CB) It’s obviously very difficult for us to judge our own position in the hierarchy of rock or whatever, but sometimes I do think there were so many occasions when we were unlucky … for instance, My Girl had been a big hit for the Temptations in America and we were very well aware of it because we were spending a lot of time there and we used to do it on stage. It had never been a hit here and we did a demo of My Girl, we were taking it to our producer Ken Jones when we put the car radio on and Otis Redding’s version of the song came on the radio so that was the end of that. Nobody’s ever been able to find that demo, whenever they’re putting together these complications and box sets, that’s one track they can never find.
RA) I think it’s an overstatement to say that we were unlucky. In some ways we were really lucky. When our first record – She’s Not There – came out, the timing was absolutely impeccable, just after The Beatles had kicked open the gates of America. We just trotted in behind them. George Harrison happened to be on Juke Box Jury when it came out and he loved the record. Stuff like that was extraordinarily lucky, but we should have been managed in a much better way.
CB) We were definitely unlucky when we toured, we weren’t particularly well advised. I could talk to you for hours about The Philippines, it was so weird. We were pretty much kept captive there, which was very unpleasant, playing to huge audiences… we’d agreed to do it, not knowing that we had about half of the records in the Philippines Top 10 at the time. We played to forty-odd thousand people for ten nights. Of course we were getting a pittance, and even though we were very young we could see that somebody was making a killing.
The Zombies’ problems are more usually attributed to what went on in the studio.
CB) Well, we came back from The Philippines to discover that we had a single out called Going Out Of My Head, and the mix on that had been done while we were away. It was really… what can I say? Substandard…
RA) Many of our records had the balls taken out of them in the mixing. We had a very good but very misguided producer, Ken Jones, who was just brilliant on the first session we did, Summertime and She’s Not There. Being of the old school, he tried to analyse what had made it successful and in his mind it was the breathiness of Colin’s vocals. Thereafter he emphasised that above everything else, rather than taking every song on its merits and getting the best out of it. When we tried to get in on any of the mixing sessions, he blew his top. Frustrating, but that’s the way the contract was set up.
CB) We had a manager, who was also our agent… if he’d planned more for the future, he’d have made more money too in the end, but he made a lot of very short term decisions, just took any work that was offíered, and as you say there was the lack of control in the studio. When we started in this business we were so young, I was only 19 when She’s Not There came out. Ken Jones was forever trying to recreate that first, million-selling single, but times had changed, so had we and we were growing up. Ultimately we reached a position where we could produce ourselves, Rod and Chris White were producing…
… and when you finally got off the leash you came up with what is now regarded as an all-time classic album, Odessey And Oracle.
CB) We went into Abbey Road, we were the next band in after the Beatles had recorded Sgt Pepper, and we worked with the same engineers, Peter Finch and Geoff Emerick. The very studio was like hallowed ground, it was just magical recording there. We used studio 3 and the Beatles had mostly used studio 2, but we were using a lot of the advances in technology that they had instigated, it was a very fortunate time to find ourselves there.
RA) Paul Atkinson and I saw the lash-ups the tape machines… as I recall it was two four-tracks that had been lashed together, one of the tracks was used as synch so it would basically have been a seven track machine. Immediately our eyes lit up, we said: “We’ll have a bit of that” and they were like: “Oh no, we’ve just been through all this for months!” Eight track machines already existed in the The States, we were way behind, but we definitely took advantage of the technical advances that had been worked out for Sgt Pepper.
You must wonder what you could have come up with then if you’d had the benefit of today’s technology.
RA) You use what’s there and sometimes the limitations themselves can be quite stimulating. For the first time we had control and we were the proverbial kids in the sweetshop, but everything had to be done very quickly. Even though we went into the sessions very well rehearsed… for instance on Changes, one of Chris’s songs, we did it as rehearsed and immediately on playback I heard all these extra harmonies in my head. These extra tracks immediately enabled to us to whizz back into the studio and put a whole counter-line onto it.
Is it true that you got the album down on a budget of just £1,000?
RA) A grand, yeah, but when we delivered it to CBS, who weren’t particularly excited about it, they said: “OK but you need a stereo mix to go with it.” Stereo was just emerging as a big deal in popular music, so we said we’d go back and do it, but we were told we’d used up our whole budget so Chris and I had to fork out another £200 for the stereo mixes. Even though it was a very long time ago, it still wasn’t a lot of money, I can tell you.
Odessey and Oracle is now regarded as some kind of psychedelic milestone, though I gather it was made without the aid of any psychotropic substances at all.
RA) Completely! The timing of everything is always very interesting with The Zombies… we recorded that album in 1967, and I had heard of LSD but only just. Dope was around but still very underground. Both of those things only became ubiquitous in the two or three years after The Zombies split, and Argent didn’t get going until 1970 when all that stuff had peaked.
CB) The album had a psychedelic cover, painted by our friend Terry Quirk, that in retrospect became kind of iconic for those druggy times, but in fact I never saw any drugs at all. We were a million miles away from that culture. The most decadent thing we ever did while recording it was to nip out to the pub at lunchtime for steak & kidney pie, mashed potatoes and a couple of pints! None of which is very good for your voice…
Colin, we’ve already mentioned that you’re renowned for your “breathy / delicate / intimate” singing voice… is any of that compromised during live performance by the need to project into the auditorium?
CB) I have fewer problems now than when I was younger. I’ve been working with a coach called Ian Adams who’s helped me to build up the strength of my voice, and you need that to sing for two hours, night after night. I mean, She’s Not There is written in A minor but on the top notes you’re sustaining an A, for like… forever1 In concert we acknowledge our history, including the Argent catalogue and some of those are quite tough rock and roll tunes so, you know, I have to really go for it on things like Hold Your Head Up and God Gave Rock And Roll To You.
Rod, we’ve talked about The Zombies being unlucky, but Argent have become a very neglected band… long overdue due for a critical reappraisal, I think.
RA) I really hope so, I think that Ring Of Hands for instance, the second Argent album, is as good as anything the Zombies ever did, but the ’70s are still not as fashionable as the ’60s. Also, The Zombies had a lease tape deal so the rights reverted back to us. Carol Broughton manages our catalogue, she’s constantly licensing and relicencing stuff. Unfortunately the Argent stuff is owned in perpetuity by Sony or CBS as it was… there’s not the same sort of cottage industry, hands-on approach that enables things to be built up lovingly over the long term. I don’t have any communication with Sony at all.
When Kiss covered God Gave Rock And Roll To You on the soundtrack of the second Bill & Ted film, how come they got co-writers’ credits with Russ Ballard?
RA) They cut Russ’s line ‘”love Cliff Richard but please don’t tease”, which I particularly like, and substituted something of their own, just changed those few words around and awarded themselves writing credits.
I thought that stuff went out with Chuck Berry!
RA) It still happens, you know? I won’t name names because I don’t want to fall out with people but they’re in a powerful position, they know the writer needs the financial benefit of them covering the song.
It was interesting to hear what Carlos Santana did with She’s Not There… it’s been suggested that The Zombies would have been more successful with a more upfront guitar sound.
RA) I never thought we could have gone that way, we were what we were… we were up against stuff like You Really Got Me, which has a more immediate impact, but our sound seems to have given us a great longevity. Every week I hear some young band saying something flattering about us and Rolling Stone recently voted Odessey and Oracle the #80 album of all time… it only charted at 92 when it came out!
CB) I think the success we had was down to Rod’s keyboards. Hopefully I contributed something, and we had two prolific and talented songwriters, but without Rod’s keyboards we would have sounded very ordinary.
Apart from guitar bands in the 60’s, the other thing that was in vogue was angry young men from the working class…
CB) They still are!
But you were lumbered with this image of being a bit “posh”…
CB) When we had our first record out, we went to to meet somebody in the Decca press office and I’m sure the poor bloke thought: “What am I going to do with this lot? They’ve just left school, they’ve done nothing!” so he went on about how many “O” levels we had…
RA) Half the population had the same amount of “O” levels… we were just working class boys, we all came from council estates. That story came out when we had our first hit but in this country we never had another hit, so the story just followed us around and around…
CB) The “O” levels just aren’t very important in the scheme of things… it’s like this other myth, about me being in and out of the industry, I mean I’ve spent about 18 months out of the industry in the last forty years! You asked if we’d have done better as a guitar based band, in fact the one thing I would like us to have done differently is for us to have had more control over our image. Some of the early photos that went out were just awful and they kept coming back to haunt us, no matter how hard we tried to retrieve them from photo agencies.
Despite the “O” levels you still managed to misspell the word “Odyssey” in the title of your masterpiece…
CB) Well Rod, Chris and Terry Quirk were mostly involved in the album sleeves, I really didn’t have any input at all and for years they told me that the misspelling was on purpose. It was only about 18 months ago that they owned up and told me it was a mistake… I was flabbergasted that they’d gone to all this trouble, I mean I wouldn’t have had a clue how to spell it!
So much for “O” levels… the band’s name proved to be rather prescient one considering that you had your biggest hit “from beyond the grave”, so to speak.
RA) It’s funny how things happen, you know, they often turn on one little incident. Time Of The Season came out in the States and was getting zero airplay, there was just this one guy, a DJ on a little station in Boise, Idaho or somewhere who kept playing it and over six months he worked it up into what became our biggest ever single, selling two million copies in America. In fact although it never did anything over here, it became a big hit pretty much everywhere in the world and despite that and the critical praise for Odessey And Oracle, the album never sold… its highest chart position in America was only about number 92! But 15 years after we broke up, for some odd reason, it gradually started to sell and now, year in year out, that album along with the rest of the zombies stuff, on compilations as well, sells really substantially. Which is bewildering but lovely because it gives us the financial cushion to go out and do what we want to do now.
CB) I know Rod feels we’d come to the end of our creative cycle and it was time to end the band but I think it would’ve been nice to have ended on an up rather than a down. When we finished it was very amicable but it was inevitable that we felt we finished at… not one of our most successful points, whereas if we’d managed to keep the project afloat for another year or 9 months, perhaps we could’ve finished on a big “up” with Time of the Season. By then everyone had got involved in different projects, it was never really ever considered to get back together which I think a lot of people find very difficult but it was just the way it was you know, people were just too involved in other things.
When Time Of The Season became a big hit in The States and internationally, The Zombies were no longer around to capitalise on it and you were faced with the same situation that Fleetwood Mac once encountered, i.e. bogus line-ups of the band going on tour…
CB) I used to have this clipping from Rolling Stone where they asked the manager of the bogus Zombies what was going on and he said that the lead singer of the Zombies – me – had been tragically killed in a car crash and they we’re trying to honour his memory. How weird to read that about yourself!
RA) I didn’t lose too much sleep about it. Some of the other guys got very upset though, particularly Paul Atkinson who resorted to litigation in the end.
CB) It’s very difficult to do that when these bands are on the move all the time. I think all the bogus Zombies just seemed to peter out at the end of the ’60s, although in the late ’80s there was another bunch of English guys touring America, pretending to be us.
RA) That’s why why Chris White put together his own New World Zombies or whatever it was called… I couldn’t be bothered, I think these things always get found out .
CB) With hindsight, we probably should have just let them truck on, because they were obvious impostors. In fact the story goes that they were so bad, a guy pulled a gun on them backstage and threatened to kill them. Apparently that was what made them stop, where all our litigation had failed. So perhaps the gun is mightier than the writ, after all.In his book on you, Claes Johansen postulated that The Zombies’ unique sound was a result of you aiming for jazz when you began the band but not quite having the chops to carry it off… according to him the result was that you evolved this very sophisticated rock sound instead.
RA) It’s an interesting take on us but I don’t agree with it, actually… I never thought for one moment that we were trying to incorporate Miles Davis influences into what we were doing, I just thought we were a rock and roll band and we just played what came out…
He did say very sophisticated rock and roll…
RA) I just wanted to be excited, I was caught up in the whole wave of rock and roll, basically, when we started the band. I’d always loved improvising and when we got to the solo on She’s Not There it was just a very natural thing for me to do, not one per cent of me was trying trying to emulate Miles or any jazz I’d ever heard, it just felt right for me on that record at that time. Back in the ’70s I went with Jon Hiseman to see Pat Metheney, who was just emerging as this incredible talent. We were introduced to Pat by Jeff Berlin, who had never heard of me and there was no reason why he should have, but he was amazed when Pat told me: “Oh man, She’s Not There, that’s the record that made me feel like I could go ahead and do whatever I wanted to do.” He was talking about the modal influence I’d had on him and I was thinking there’s nothing modal on She’s Not There but when I went back and listened to what I’d thought was a very simple A minor to D chord sequence, I found the way I’d actually played over those chords was indeed done in a very modal way. I hadn’t thought about it for one second but it probably was listening to all the Miles stuff, along with everything else, that made me fashion it in that way. That’s the way the influences came through, I think. I grew up liking classical music, the pop music of the time was people like Perry Como and when I heard Elvis sing Hound Dog my world was turned around but I didn’t stop listening to classical music and very soon after that, when I was about 14 years old, I bought Milestones and discovered Miles Davis, then the Beatles came along but I never stopped listening to or loving Elvis.
And allegedly the feeling was mutual…
RA) Allegedly… when we were promoting the Zombies box set in about 1998, I did an interview with a DJ in Ireland and I told the story from 1965 when we knocked on Elvis’s door and his dad answered and said he was filming but he would be really sorry he’d missed us because he liked our music and I thought that was just Southern hospitality, because he was a sweet guy and he showed us around the house and everything but I thought it had no more substance than that. But when I was telling this story to the Irish guy he stopped me and said: “Listen, I’m an absolute Elvis freak, and I can’t believe you didn’t know this but Elvis had all your singles on his home juke box”… absolutely amazing!
You also had a brush with film stardom, scoring and appearing in Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake is missing… alongside Laurence Olivier and Noel Coward, no less.
CB) Preminger was a very interesting character but he was a bit of a… he was quite aggressive towards us, but we treated it like water off a duck’s back, really. I did notice that he was an absolute terror to the people he was working with, I saw two or three of them in tears. He was a real shouter but we didn’t take that much notice because he wasn’t really in a position to influence our career very much… certainly an interesting character, though.
RA) I remember Otto Preminger being a complete bastard actually, which was really quite amusing in a way but I could see that he was screaming and shouting at people who depended on him for their income so they had to put up with it, nobody ever challenged him. I was thinking: ” I don’t have to kow-tow to this guy.” I remember one day, we’d endured a recording session that he’d come along to and spent being rude to us so the next day we were filming and when he started I stood up and said: “Don’t ever speak to me like that again, I don’t have to sit here and take all this shit from you” and there was a stunned silence. He jut smiled and he was fine after that, although there was only about another day of shooting left.
CB) The irony is that although we filmed for two very long days, we’re in the film for all of about 30 seconds. I still refer to the time when dear Larry and I were in a film together, we often crack that gag on stage but as I remember it, my face is on the TV in a pub and Olivier walks across the room and turns the TV off… he obviously didn’t think very much of us!