These two men and the British Invasion band they formed in 1961 have made history; together with The Tremeloes, The Merseybeats, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Animals, Christie and of course, The Beatles, The Zombies reached worldwide success in the mid-1960s and went on tour in the United States performing their smashing hits Time Of The Season and She’s Not There overseas.
As most Swinging London fans will already know, The Beatles did actually bring The Zombies luck when – after famously recording their signature album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the London Abbey Road Studios in 1967 – they left behind a mellotron; the musical instrument belonged to John Lennon and was later used by The Zombies to record their fortunate second studio album Odessey and Oracle, which was also made at Abbey Road.
In a career spanning over 60 years which culminated in their induction into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside Janet Jackson, Radiohead and The Cure in 2019, the St Albans-born band has published a plethora of studio and live albums and is regularly touring and recording new music.
The release of The Zombies’ 2023 album Different Game presented a chance to interview The Zombies’ founder and keyboardist Rod Argent and The Zombies’ lead vocalist Colin Blunstone about their invaluable music legacy.
Colin, Rod, how was The Zombies’ induction into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
The Induction Ceremony of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019 was a magical experience. There were over 17,000 people at The Barclay Centre in Brooklyn, New York, and we shared the ceremony with Stevie Nicks, Janet Jackson, The Cure, Radiohead, Roxy Music and Def Leppard. It was so great to know our work had been enjoyed by over 300,000 fans in the public vote and that our peers, the members of The Rock Hall, had found us worthy of induction.
Yes, it was a real honour. We had a great time and we were able to play in the induction concert with The Cure, Def Leppard, Radiohead, Stevie Nicks and Janet Jackson, and everyone was fantastic. It was a beautifully-mounted concert, it was just great; HBO aired it nationally, and it went out to thousands of people, and the quality of the technicians is something you always worry about because you don’t know how you are going to come across, but they did a really great job on television. They really knew what they were doing, and that is great. The TV show was actually a very big accomplishment: the sound was terrific, the visuals were terrific, and the whole thing was really beautifully put together. That was great. The other thing that really surprised me is how lovely all the other inductees were. Even people I would never imagine, ever members of The Cure I would never have thought that would see us as any sort of influence, said “Oh, we just wanted to tell you that we have always been influenced by you”, and I think this is really lovely. Everybody said that, and Def Leppard asked Colin and me to join him on stage for the last song at the end of the whole evening, and so we joined him to play All The Young Dudes to finish the show. The whole thing was just a really lovely experience, it was great.
There have been lots of different rumours over the years about where the band name originally came from; so, how did you come up with The Zombies?
All bands have to find a name!! For a very short time in 1961, we were The Mustangs before another short burst as The Sundowners. No one was particularly thrilled with these offerings when our very first bass player Paul Arnold came up with the idea of The Zombies. I’m not sure how many of the band really knew what a zombie was but it was catchy and it stuck!
So, when we started, back in 1961, it was really hard to get an original name and the first couple of names people came up with were very boring, very ordinary. For a couple of weeks, we were called the Sound Albans, and I’m sure at least half a thousand other bands were being called the Sound Albans at that time because it was the title of a movie. Then, eventually, the only guy ever to leave the band in that first incarnation came up with the name Zombies. Back then, nobody actually knew what a zombie was because there were no zombie films in 1961, but I sort of basically knew what a zombie was. And I loved it because I thought that first of all, it sounded a little bit exotic, and secondly, I thought that if you think of The Beatles, no one really thinks of insects running across the room, or even a play on the word beat: they just think of John, George, Paul and Ringo. And I thought that if we were lucky enough to get a little bit of success, then people would think about the name Zombies in a way that nobody else would have it, and that would be a name that people would just associate with the guys in the band. And that’s exactly what happened, so it worked really well for us!
The Zombies recorded their second album at the London Abbey Road Studios in 1967, and you guys used a mellotron which had been left there by John Lennon after The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band two months earlier in that same studio; are there any memories you would like to share about it?
I think The Beatles had finished Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band only a couple of days before we started Odessey and Oracle in Abbey Road. We were huge Beatles fans and were amazed to find percussion instruments left behind by them and, even more importantly, John Lennon’s mellotron which Rod used on many of the tracks on our album. Odessey and Oracle has been named by Rolling Stone as one of the best 500 albums of all time, but it would have been a very different album if John’s mellotron hadn’t been left behind!
It was a wonderful experience recording there, particularly because we had become very frustrated about the way our singles were being produced. The two writers in the band, which were myself and Chris White very much wanted to produce by ourselves so we could get our own ideas about how our songs should sound on record. And that’s what we did, even though the album wasn’t successful at first, it took a long time to sound mature. And strangely enough, it sounds more like this now than when it first came out, even with the fact that Time Of The Seasons became a number-one record in many places in the world, the actual experience of recording was terrific. And there was a very strange coincidence, which was that we recorded as you said at the Abbey Road Studios and we used John Lennon’s mellotron, as it turned out that the studio where we were recording was designed acoustically by the same guy that designed The Beatles’ studios, so that’s a real coincidence!
You are musicians, singers, songwriters… what is your favourite role?
For me, the perfect situation is to write and record new material and then perform it in concert. I have always enjoyed playing our classic hits, but all of The Zombies are incredibly motivated by performing new material, too!
Out of those, my favourite role is definitely being a musician, but also producing – as long as I’m producing my own stuff. I’m lucky enough to have had some success producing other people, and I really enjoyed it at the time, I produced the first Tanita Tikaram’s album and the second Tanita Tikaram’s album, which sold a massive number of copies, but that’s not something I would like to do anymore: I’m too selfish! I just want to give all my time to producing stuff I’ve written myself now, haha.
Rod, what star sign are you?
I’m a Gemini.
Does it? Haha.
What was your dream job as a child? Did you have a plan B if you didn’t make it into the music industry?
I was always very involved in sports in my formative years so I would have very much liked to be a professional sportsman but it was only ever a dream. Once I became a professional musician in 1964 I hoped it would last forever and certainly never had a plan B.
I wanted to be a musician. Really. From the age of about eight or nine, I wanted to be a musician. When, in 1956, I heard Elvis Presley singing Hound Dog, I was completely blown away by the early rock ‘n’ roll – Elvis, Little Richard and so on. And then very quickly after that, I went into blues, particularly Ray Charles, his early stuff and many of the great black singers – I really enjoyed them. At the time, I was also very much into jazz, even while I was passionate about rock ‘n’ roll, and then I got passionate about the most favourite groups of that time, of around 1958… so it sounds like a very rich life in the sense of being able to love all those different sources of music… so that’s definitely what I’ve always wanted to be. And when it comes to finding a plan B, well, yeah, I had the normal sort of schoolboy’s dream to be a footballer when I was about 10 or 11! I enjoyed playing football very much and I actually had a place at university when I left school and I would have gone on studying Literature as this was my sort of plan B… but I really wanted to become professional with the group first. Apart from music, the only flair that I had was writing, so that’s the only other thing I could imagine myself doing, maybe being an English teacher or a journalist. I actually love good journalism, it’s fantastic, and I’m not putting down that career at all. It’s just that for me, my passion was music, but I love good journalism and I love reading great writing and novels, but for me, my passion was always one thing, so if I could, I wanted a career in music. And I’m really blessed that I’ve been able to live a good life all my life playing music. It’s such a privilege.
What do you think of talent shows like The X Factor?
They seem to be more about the judges than the performers and can be very insensitive at times. I just hope none of the artists gets traumatised by the experience!
I never watch them because I don’t really like them very much, to be honest. Maybe I’m too old. I think in a sense if you just ask anybody who was in music when I was young – if you went into a classroom or something like that – and said to people “What would you most like to be?”, people would say something like: “I want to be a rock ‘n’ roll musician”, or “I want to be in the best band in the world”, and that sort of things. But these days, if that question is asked, people would say: “I want to be famous”: this seems to be what people want more than anything else now, and for its own sake, rather than being famous as a result of being fantastically good – in your imagination – in what you want to do. So that’s a real difference now, and it seems sometimes that people in The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent just want to be famous for doing just anything, and that is the goal in itself. I think it’s insane.
What should people expect from your live shows?
The Zombies always play a high-energy-committed performance of worldwide classic hits coupled with lesser-known tracks from our vast repertoire whilst emphasising several tracks from our album Different Game which was released in 2023.
What you get is the mix we always sought we could give, so all the big hits that people imagine – we’re still into them – such as Time Of The Seasons and She’s Not There, probably Tell Her No, and also my own song Hold Your Head Up. Then we would always do some very abstruse Zombies’ songs that often are not played, and maybe three or four songs from Odessy and Oracle, but then also, probably three songs from our album Still Got That Hunger which came out in 2015 – plus the songs from the new album, so it would be a mixture of all our material.
Would you like to say anything else at all?
Neither Rod nor I expected to be touring at this time in our lives and are eternally grateful to be still performing in this “autumn of our careers”!
I only want to say that all of us in the band are really only doing this for one reason, and that’s because we still love creating music and one of the biggest parts is always playing something new at a live show and seeing the audience’s reaction, but this doesn’t mean that we don’t like to play any of our old songs… we do. But, as we would say when we were 18 years old, there’s nothing as exciting as getting up on stage and playing something you’ve just put together, so we are still excited and passionate about the new stuff, and I just wanted to mention that!
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