Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone, two true stalwarts of classy English pop, have reunited after three decades under the moniker of their former outfit, The Zombies. Their reunion has been enthusiastically embraced by the public, thanks to a hot band, some superlative new material, and a stage repertoire that draws heavily upon their much-cherished catalogue of The Zombies and solo hits.
In their day, The Zombies were one of the few English bands of the 1960s that enjoyed true global popularity, with two American number ones, chart records throughout the rest of the world, and a deep and lasting affection for their music. For instance, in early 1967, at a time when their career had almost ground to a halt in the UK, the band played to crowds of over 30,000 in the Philippines. And ironically, right after the band split, their final single “Time Of The Season” quickly became their biggest record – US radio plays for the latter song recently passed the four million mark. The Zombies’ first two American singles, “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No”, also remain two of the most-heavily spun vintage hits on American classic-rock radio.
But beyond the statistics, The Zombies had several remarkable attributes that set them apart from other artists. The sheer consistent quality of Rod Argent and Chris White’s songwriting is rivaled only by Lennon and McCartney. Building upon the standard R&B and rock’n’roll influences, The Zombies introduced class and sophistication into a genre not noted for either, and in the most natural, unselfconscious way possible. And the songs were lent an extra dimension by the voice of Colin Blunstone, widely acknowledged as one of the finest singers Britain has ever produced. Rod Argent’s keyboard work is regarded as some of the most accomplished and inventive in rock. The Zombies’ canon belongs on the same shelf as the other major players of the mid-1960s such as the Kinks, Yardbirds and Animals; from their debut “She’s Not There” onwards, there was never at any point a drop in quality. The Zombies’ records are some of the best produced and distinctive in all pop music.
More importantly, the popularity of The Zombies’ music, in keeping with their name, shows no sign of dying. Their unsurpassed oeuvre continues to influence musicians around the world, whether they be original fans the stature of Tom Petty or Pat Metheney, or relative youngsters like REM, Beck, Pavement and Paul Weller. And contemporary cutting edge American and UK acts such as Fountains of Wayne, Spoon, Badly Drawn Boy, Belle & Sebastian and Super Furry Animals are just the latest in a long line of musicians to play homage to The Zombies, for thanks to high profile reissues like the definitive 1997 box set Zombie Heaven, each new pop generation has been able to discover for themselves the undiluted magic of the band’s catalogue.
In recent years, when The Zombies have been feted by pop’s hip aristocracy, it has been largely for their swansong, Odessey & Oracle (famously misspelled by the cover artist), from which “Time Of The Season” was taken. It was their second and final album, recorded in 1967 before they went their separate ways, and remains perhaps their greatest artistic statement. Odessey presents an evocation of memory that maybe has yet to be surpassed in pop music, with a peculiarly English yet universal slant on dreams, childhood and the attendant loss of innocence that derives from the passing of both. And it is a record today as celebrated and influential as the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds or Love’s Forever Changes, recently ranked #80 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and #32 by the U.K.’s New Music Express in a similar list of British albums.
Upon the demise of The Zombies, Rod Argent went on to form the eponymously named band Argent, who had further success in the United States during the 1970s with the anthemic hits “Hold Your Head Up” and “God Gave Rock & Roll To You”. He has since had a varied and successful career in the field of record production, as well as frequently scoring for television and stage. Colin Blunstone meanwhile has remained a familiar chart presence in the UK and Europe through hits like “I Don’t Believe In Miracles” and “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”, while his back catalogue, studded with gems like the album One Year, boasts a solid cult following amongst musicians and fans ‘in the know’ (in addition to The Zombies’ material, Rod and Colin feature excerpts from both of their solo careers in the current show).
In 1998, these two exceptional musicians decided to join forces again after thirty years, cognizant that their musical partnership is far more than the sum of the parts. They also have the added benefit of a splendid, entirely complementary band, which includes former Argent and Kinks bassist Jim Rodford, his son Steve on drums, and acclaimed session player Tom Toomey on guitar. In 2001, Blunstone and Argent released the first recorded fruits of their collaboration in the album Out Of The Shadows.
This was followed up in 2004 with As Far As I Can See…, released in the U.S. by Rhino Records. Featuring 10 new tracks, plus a re-working of Blunstone’s hit “I Don’t Believe In Miracles”, the album is colored by The Zombies’ trademark minor-key melancholy along with Blunstone and Argent’s explorations of new musical territory.
This is also the first new recording released under “The Zombies” name since Odessey & Oracle – a move Argent had resisted for years, in respect to the band’s legacy. “Ever since The Zombies split up in 1967, we have always resisted re-forming despite being offered lots of money,” explains Argent. “We didn’t put the band back together then because we have always wanted to look forward, and it has always seemed wrong to put the band back together again simply to make a quick buck.” However, commenting on the new album, Rod reveals that the specter of The Zombies is a natural result of his and Colin’s renewed partnership: “When we played the first mixes back, Colin and I were surprised to hear many resonances of our first band on the record, because they weren’t achieved consciously,” says Argent. “Suddenly, and for the first time in all these years, it felt honest and right to include the name ‘Zombies’ somewhere on the album. It still feels important to include our own names as well – a way of expressing something about the future as well as acknowledging the past.”
The album has another special connection to The Zombies’ storied past. Paul Atkinson, one of the group’s original guitarists and a legendary music executive, earned a special A&R credit on As Far As I Can See…for his efforts championing the album. Blunstone and Argent recently played a benefit concert at the Los Angeles House of Blues to honor their friend and bandmate, who sadly died prior to the album’s American release. The album also features former Zombies member Chris White contributing guest vocals on three songs: “Memphis,” “I Want To Fly,” and “Look For A Better Way.”
Their return to the concert stage is of particular importance to fans, since many never had the opportunity to see the band live during its brief existence in the 60’s (especially since a large number of their fans were born after the original line-up disbanded!). Their live performances were recently captured on a double CD and DVD, Live At The Bloomsbury Theatre (released in the U.S. by Rhino in 2007), and their appearances in North America have included the “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” and “HippieFest” tours, as well a stint for Rod Argent in the 2006 line-up of Ringo Starr’s “All-Star Band”.
March 2008 marked a true celebration of joining the old and the new, when the current Zombies line-up was joined onstage by the other surviving original members, bassist Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy, for a series of special concerts at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire, which featured the first-ever live performances of Odessey & Oracle in its entirety. This momentous event, awaited by many for decades, was filmed for a future DVD release, and was attended by fans ranging from Robert Plant to members of Snow Patrol.
The Zombies are cited by the mercurial Courtney Love; and as influences by Badly Drawn Boy, Paul Weller, Super Furry Animals, Magic Numbers, Billy Joel, She & Him, Foo Fighters, Fleet Foxes, The Vaccines and the Arctic Monkeys, among others. Recorded for their Golddiggers album, The Beautiful South released their version of “This Will Be Our Year” as a single. Just recently, Neko Case and Nick Cave recorded “She’s Not There” for the premier episode of HBO’s ‘True Blood’ fourth season. The Zombies’ songs are regularly covered live by such varied artists as Beck, She & Him and Belle & Sebastian, and used in films and TV shows (‘Dear Wendy,’ ‘Awakenings,’ ‘Kill Bill 2,’ ‘The Simpson,’ among others – evidence that their music really is as fresh and relevant today as it ever was.
The Zombies’ touring band features original members Colin Blunstone (lead vocals) and Rod Argent (keyboards & vocals), plus Jim Rodford (bass), Tom Toomey (guitar) and Steve Rodford (drums). They played live dates in the UK in 2009 and again in 2010, also touring that year in France, Spain, and the USA. They kick off a U.S. tour in September, 2011.
This year, The Zombies, helmed by founding members Rod Argent and singer Colin Blunstone, are marking the group’s half century with a stunning new album – Breathe Out, Breathe In.
I recently chatted with Rod Argent about the upcoming tour and The Zombies.
How did you get into music?
For the first 11 years of my life, I only really loved classical music. Then, in 1956, I heard Elvis sing “Hound Dog”, and my life changed in an instant. The guy who played it to me was my cousin, Jim Rodford. He’s three years older than me, and played bass in one of the earliest electric bands in the south of England. I went along to hear them, was knocked out, and vowed to have my own band one day.
What prompted you and Colin to form The Zombies?
I hadn’t even met Col until we had our first rehearsal! I heard a guy playing good guitar in a folk club at school, and asked him if he wanted to be in a band. When he said yes, I then actually asked Jim Rodford ( later a founder member of “Argent”, for twenty years a member of “The Kinks”, and now playing bass in the current line-up) first to be the bass player Jim, being in a top local band, declined, so I put the question to one of my mates from another school, Paul Arnold. Paul was building his own bass guitar, and said he sat in front of a certain Colin Blunstone, who played guitar and sang a bit. That left only a drummer, so that Friday, I stood in front of the school army corps marching band, and chose the side drummer who seemed to have the best sense of rhythm – and that was The Zombies formed! Then I met Col for the first time at our first rehearsal. At the time, I was supposed to sing lead, and Colin play guitar. In the first break, I wandered over to a beaten up old piano and played “Nutrocker”, the old B Bumble and the Stingers hit. Colin said ” You have to play piano!”. Just a few minutes later, he sat down and played a recent Ricky Nelson song. I couldn’t believe how good it sounded. I walked over to him and said “Ok – I’ll play piano, but you’ve got to be lead singer!
After so many years, how does it feel to be back touring together?
Completely natural. We’re honestly not doing this to make a buck. It’s just such a gas to be at this stage in our careers and to feel that paths are still opening up! The band we have around us is so good – totally energized – and it’s a joy to be playing.
Why did you guys decide to work together again and record a new album as well?
It happened completely by accident. In 2000, I did a charity gig for a good friend, John Dankworth, the jazz musician (now sadly passed away). Colin was in the audience, and on the spur of the moment got up and sang “She’s Not There” and “Time Of The Season”. It felt as if we’d been playing together only a couple of weeks before, instead of the actual gap of 33 years! After the concert, Col suggested putting a band together, and playing half a dozen gigs for fun. Those six gigs have turned into twelve years of touring around the world!
Recording is a natural adjunct. We’re not interested in just being a nostalgia band, and while it feels great to play the old stuff, it’s totally necessary for us to feel the challenge of writing and performing new stuff as well.
How do you think you’ve grown as a band since the 60′s?
The overall criteria have remained remarkably similar. We always tried to construct songs from the point of view of following musical ideas that excited us – and not, for instance, to reach the chorus in thirty seconds! We still do. We always believed that capturing performance was everything on record, and still work to that.
Colin’s voice is remarkably intact. There is of course some change, but in some ways it’s stronger than ever. His range is totally there, and we still do everything in the original keys. I feel I’m a better keyboard player, and certainly a better singer now. After “Argent” split I decided I really needed to strengthen my voice, found a voice coach and worked really hard at it. I introduced Colin to the same guy – in his case, not to change the character of his voice, but to help maintain it and give it stamina. I actually believe you can keep hold of, and even improve, your chops as you get older, but you have to work at all the aspects. When you’re 18 there are a lot of things physically which are going to disappear if you don’t work at them!
Why did you decide to form Argent?
I never wanted The Zombies to break up, but totally understand the reasons why – Chris and I, as writers, had a good income, but the other guys were very short of money. We were pretty badly ripped off from many points of view.
When we split in ’67, Chris and I immediately wanted to move ahead with another band and musical venture, but Chris no longer wanted to play. So we formed a production company together,”Nexus”. “Argent” was our first project, and Chris’s role was co-writer and co-producer with me. I’d already decided to start the band with Jim Rodford, and within a short space of time we’d found Russ Ballard and Bob Henrit to complete the band.
On Breathe Out, Breathe In, you wrote a Christmas song “Christmas for the Free.” Why did you decide to incorporate that on this album?
“Christmas for the Free” was actually one of two songs on “Breathe Out” that started life on an Argent album. I’d always liked the song very much, and wanted to hear Colin sing it – as simple as that. The other song was “Shine On Sunshine”, and this has a completely different story. This was a song which always felt half completed to me, and I’ve meant to revisit it for more than 30 years! So I rewrote chord progressions, lyrics, and completely revisited and changed the whole middle eight. I’m finally much more happy with the whole song!
Odyssey and Oracle has come to be seen as the definitive Zombies album. How do you feel about where it’s come today?
It took 12 – 15 years for O&O to finally start to gather momentum, and start to pick up sales. It now sells more, year in, year out, than it ever did when it was first released! I’m really proud of the fact that it’s appeared in so many different all-time top 100 charts, and knocked out that so many contemporary artists continue to name it as their favourite album.
What made you decide to release Classically Speaking, and how did that come about?
Around 1999 I decided I’d had enough of producing other artists, which I’d been doing pretty much non-stop for about 12 or 13 years. I was grateful for the income that’d was brought, and the success – Tanita Tikaram’s first album, for example, had sold 4.5 million records in Europe – but I really wanted to concentrate on my own artistic projects again. A great friend, who is a classical musician, suggested I make a solo piano classical album. I said that, as a self-taught musician, I didn’t really think it was possible. He said, “I’ve heard you half play so much stuff – why don’t you do some real work, and make a record?” So I did! I had some time, so I spent 3 hours a day practicing, and then made “Classically Speaking” I’m proud of the result, and the fact that some classical musicians have said that they love it.
Who are your influences as a songwriter and performer?
I honestly can’t think of a keyboard player that I tried to copy. I listened to so many kinds of music all the time when I was young – rock’n'roll, jazz and classical music, and loved many different kinds of singers and instrumentalists. I was besotted with Bill Evans playing with the Miles Davis group of about 1959,though, and was knocked out when I heard Jimmy Smith – I guess indirectly they were kind of influences. In fact, I loved the whole Miles Davis band of that time – loved the musical lines of Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly.
As a songwriter, I have to say that, along with just about every other writer of the time, the Beatles were the biggest presence and influence. But I guess I automatically drank in all those other different influences as well. For instance, I remember Pat Metheny saying to me that “She’s Not There”, with it’s modal characteristics, was one of the reasons he felt he could pursue the musical direction he chose. That startled me – until I thought about it, I didn’t even realize there was anything modal in it ….I was certainly not thinking about Miles when I wrote that song, but, indirectly, he was making himself known!
Why did Argent break up in 1976?
I felt we’d reached the end of a natural cycle. The specific moment came after a pretty chaotic US tour during which we almost wrote off the Winnebago we were traveling in, and due to some canceled gigs, found ourselves 50,000 dollars in debt! Also, I personally felt that I’d been on the road long enough at the time, and wanted to explore some other musical avenues.
Will there be another album soon from The Zombies?
Absolutely. This band is having a great time playing together. The last album was a joy to make, and we’ll definitely start to work on ideas for the next one pretty soon.
What can fans expect at your concerts on this tour?
A real mix. You’ll hear loads of vintage material like “Time of the Season”, “She’s Not There”, Tell Her No” and definitely some other early Zombies material. Maybe 5 songs from “Odyssey and Oracle”. Some material from Colin’s solo career. Some Argent stuff – certainly “Hold Your Head Up”. And certainly 4 or 5 songs from “Breathe Out”, as well.
What is your favorite album that you’ve recorded?
I’ll have to break that down-
Zombies: “Odessey and Oracle” and “Breathe Out, Breathe In”.
Argent: “Ring Of Hands”
What is your favorite song you’ve written?
That’s really an impossible question. I’m fond of many different songs in different ways. But if you force me, I’ll choose “She’s Not There”, because of the sentimental associations, and because it was the one that got everything started!
Make sure to catch The Zombies performing at Viper Alley in Lincolnshire on July 31st at 7:30pm. Tickets available here: http://www.viper-alley.com/calendar/details/499. The Zombies will ALSO be performing at Mayne Stage in Chicago on August 1st at 8pm. Tickets are available here: http://www.maynestage.com/Zombies.aspx