The Zombies are on the road again, after lying in wait for more than two years amid the global pandemic. For this latest round of shows, co-founding songwriters vocalist Colin Blunstone and singer and keyboard player Rod Argent are leading the group through a set of 1960s classics – “She’s Not There,” “Time of the Season,” and “Tell Her No” – along with a handful of newer numbers, including a few from a brand new album that’s in the works.
In the meantime, these shows also mark the release of Live from Abbey Road Studio 2, a deluxe limited edition recording that’s only available at these tour stops. Before the group heads to Atlanta for a show at Center Stage on Thursday, April 7, Blunstone took a few minutes to talk about the Zombies’ long strange trip hitting new career highs nearly 60 years after the group began.
How did the current era of the Zombies begin?
Rod and I got together again in 1999, originally to play just six dates. I had a keyboard player who kept disappearing while we were on tour. If anyone asked him to come play a show with songs he’d written, he would leave. It happened at a show in London. Suddenly we had no keyboard player.
I was gonna have a heart attack if I did another show like that. So I phoned Rod, who was a successful producer at the time, and asked, “Would you help me out? I’ve got six dates to go.” He said, “Okay, but only those six, I don’t want to do any more. But he enjoyed them so much we are still playing 20-some years later.
We came to the States and were surprised by the reactions we got. We didn’t realize that the Zombies were remembered, and that people were interested in the music. We didn’t even call the band the Zombies, and weren’t playing that many Zombie tunes — if any. We both have lots of solo things that we can do.
Gradually, it dawned on us that there was a huge interest in the Zombies’ repertoire. So we started adding tunes until it became a Zombies show. We got together with the surviving original members of the band and said, “There’s a situation here.” They gave their blessing, and so the present incarnation of the Zombies was launched.
Now we’ve played in some of the biggest venues in the world, and it’s been a wonderful adventure to see the band build, and to watch our fanbase build, without a hit single! We’ve had one album at the bottom of the Billboard chart. This has been word-of-mouth and continual touring. It’s been the most exciting part of my 50 or 60-year career to see this incarnation of the band grow organically.
I came up in an era when careers were launched with hit singles. There wasn’t another way to do it. And this has happened in a totally different way.
One Zombies record made the charts, but it wasn’t your most acclaimed album, Odessey and Oracle?
The album that made the charts is Still Got That Hunger from 2015.
Odessey and Oracle was recorded in 1967 and released later in the States. Rolling Stone has named it one of the top 500 albums of all time, but it was never a hit. It came into the Billboard charts at 98 for one week, and disappeared. But it’s sold solidly over a long period of time.
Al Kooper, who produced Blood, Sweat & Tears, had just started working as a producer at CBS Records. He’d been to London and came back to the States with about 200 albums that he’d picked up. He said that Odessey and Oracle stood out above the rest. It wasn’t a known album, and it was a brave thing on his first day at work. He went to Clive Davis, the head of CBS, and said, “We have to get this album! Clive said, “We already own that album. We weren’t even gonna release it.”
So without Al Kooper, Odessey and Oracle wouldn’t have been released. And that was just the beginning… The fourth single was “Time of the Season,” and a DJ in Boise, Idaho wouldn’t stop playing it. It took seven or eight months for it to show up on the charts. So about two years after the band was finished, we had a number one record in the States with “Time of the Season.”
I grew up with “Time of the Season” on classic rock radio. It’s always been canonized, from my perspective. It’s surreal that the whole album wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm upon arrival.
It was greeted with total indifference. The album’s first single in the UK, was “Care of Cell 44,” and it received no airplay. It just was not a success. That’s when we looked at one another and thought maybe the band has run its course. It’s time for us to try fresh projects. There was no animosity, just a feeling that the band was a failure.
If we’d known of the success that was coming with “Time of the Season,” maybe we’d have stayed together. The other way of looking at it is that the band probably had run its course, and it was best that we tried different things.
There was no promotion, no marketing for “Time of the Season” or for Odessey and Oracle, but it’s like they have lives of their own. They fought to get attention because no one else was promoting them.
A song that’s written as a letter from a friend in prison — “Care of Cell 44” — feels pretty radical for the time?
Between the subject matter and the chirpy melody — it’s a happy-go-lucky melody about quite a dark subject — there’s no denying it’s not a happy subject if you want to analyze it. It’s a Rod Argent song, and I think it’s a little masterpiece. I can say that because I didn’t have anything to do with writing it [laughs]!
The Zombies’ song “Breathe Out, Breathe In” was released in 2011. I think that really put the group on a lot of people’s radars, and made it clear that the Zombies are alive, this is no nostalgia act.
We would never be a nostalgia act — I don’t think anyone’s interested in that. We have to write and record new songs. That’s where we get our energy from. It’s incredibly exciting to see new songs taking form, rehearsing with them before going in the studio, and then that magic that happens in the studio. Then you perform it to an audience, and remember that first spark of an idea that happened months, maybe years before. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.
Do you perceive the band differently now than you have in previous eras?
Rod and I feel more energy on stage with this band. The years are advancing, and you would think it would be the other way around. In the early years, subconsciously, I thought this would be a three-four year adventure, traveling around the world with my pals, playing the music I loved. I didn’t think it would last. Most people at that time didn’t think that music would be a lifetime career. Also, we’re a bit more sophisticated in our attitude to touring and recording. Our first tracks have lasted nearly 60 years. I’m sure these tracks will do the same. It changes your attitude when you know that music lasts forever.