On a spring day in 1961, five teenagers met outside a pub in St. Albans, England, with plans to form a rock band they expected to last two, maybe three years.
More than a half-century later, it comes as a "wonderful surprise" to Colin Blunstone to still be performing the music of The Zombies for audiences across the globe.
"When the band started, the thought that there was a career path in music that could last a lifetime, it didn't really occur to me at all," the lead singer said.
Known for British invasion hits such as "She's Not There," "Tell Her No" and "Time of the Season," The Zombies perform Tuesday, July 31, at Viper Alley in Lincolnshire and Wednesday, Aug. 1, at Mayne Stage in Chicago. The group features founding members Blunstone and Rod Argent, who joined forces again in 2001 after splitting some 40 years earlier.
Speaking from his home southwest of London, Blunstone recalled the band's earliest beginnings and its return to the spotlight in a recent phone interview with the Daily Herald.
Q. You had your 50th anniversary last year. It must feel good to still be relevant. Did you ever think you'd be doing this in 2012?
A. No, not for a moment. It was incredibly exciting to be in a band in the '60s, and I just thought it was a great adventure that would probably last two or three years. I was really thrilled to be part of it. But I've got to be honest and say that when the band started, the thought that there was a career path in music that could last a lifetime, it didn't really occur to me at all. So it's been a wonderful surprise. Traditionally, careers did tend to last two or three years in contemporary music. But the industry has changed out of all recognition since the 1960s.
Q. There are varying accounts about how the group formed. Some say you met through school, others say you met outside a pub. How did it actually happen?
A. They're both true. Essentially, The Zombies were a school band, although we actually went to two different schools. Rod Argent (organ, vocals), Hugh Grundy (drums) and Paul Atkinson (guitar) went to St. Albans School, and Paul Arnold (bass) and myself went to St. Albans Grammar School. The connection was that Paul Arnold lived very close to Rod Argent, and they knew one another from school. I sat behind Paul Arnold, and I've often thought about this. In our school, we sat in alphabetical order, and Blunstone sat behind Arnold, and it was just a coincidence. Rod Argent wanted to put a band together. He approached a couple of guys at his school and one of his neighbors, Paul Arnold. It was a real chance thing. And we all met up outside this pub in St. Albans, where we lived. It was called the Blacksmith Arms and I always emphasize that we were too young to go in the pub. We had to meet outside.
Q. The Zombies was not your first choice for a band name. How do you feel about that today? Do you agree it's a pretty cool name to have now?
A. It's cooler now than it was at the time. Like other bands, we were stuck for a name. There were so many bands around, I think everybody or everybody's best friend was in a band. To start off in 1961 for about a week or two, we were called The Mustangs. Then we took the name of a film that Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr were in called "The Sundowners" for about a week. And then Paul Arnold, the original bass player who actually left the band before we made our first record, came up with the name The Zombies. And I have to say that everybody thought it was a great idea -- probably except me. I thought it was a bit strange (laughs). I don't think any of us knew what a zombie was, to tell you the truth. There were no zombie films, no zombie magazines. We had a vague idea what a zombie was, but we weren't too sure. I was kind of the odd one out, but everyone else thought it was a great name and so I went with it. I probably would have changed it to something much more corny if it had been left to me, so it's a good thing it wasn't left to me.
Q. What stands out in your memory about your first U.S. tour to promote "She's Not There" in 1964?
A. The first time we came to the States we played the "Murray the K" show in New York. I think we played for about 10 days. It was at the Brooklyn Fox Theatre, and there were about 15 acts on the show. The wonderful thing for us was to play with artists that we had admired from afar, like Dionne Warwick, The Shirelles, and Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles. I remember we had to follow them and they were sensational. That was a challenging moment when we for the first time had to walk on the stage. The whole thing of coming to America, the home of rock 'n' roll, it's where every British artist dreamed and still dreams of going. Remember that six months before, we had been playing in local concerts. And here we are six months later arriving in New York, and that week our record was No. 1 in Cash Box and No. 2 in Billboard. It was an incredible change for us and just so exciting. It was a brilliant time.
Q. The Zombies' initial career was relatively brief. But it seems, composition-wise, the band progressed a lot between your first record, "Begin Here," in 1965 and your final album at that time, "Odessey and Oracle," three years later. Do you ever wonder where the music would have gone if you had carried on back then?
A. Absolutely, but I feel I am the only one. I think Rod was probably more the finished article when he first started writing. From quite early on, his songs were pretty sophisticated, contemporary songs. I think Chris White (bass, co-songwriter) really struck a golden patch with "Odessey and Oracle," and he went on for many years after that writing really fantastic songs. But time and time again, I've wondered what we would have done next. But I must emphasize I'm the only one. Everyone else -- I've heard them say many times -- thought we had taken it as far as we could. It was an amicable split, but it was time to move on.
Q. You disbanded before you had a chance to tour behind "Odessey and Oracle." But it's now commonly listed among The Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" and The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" as one of the great records of all time. How did it feel to perform that entire album with the remaining original members for the first time back in 2008?
A. Very exciting and, well, in a nice way, a little bit strange because it was like being in a time warp. I think one, maybe two singles were released, but the album hadn't been released (before the group broke up). So I'm not sure if we played any of those songs onstage. We certainly didn't play all of them. I don't think Chris White had picked up a bass since 1967. And Hugh had just played a little bit in local bands for fun; he hadn't played as a professional musician since 1967. So when it was first suggested, you sort of think, well, this will be very interesting, but I'm not sure quite how it's going to sound. We started playing and it sounded just like it did when we recorded it, and the guys were great. Rod and myself got Hugh and Chris to come up to Rod's place and we just got around the piano and Hugh was playing just a small kit drum so we could hear what we were doing. Chris played bass. We said, "OK, let's play through the album." And they'd done their homework. It was really funny. They were note perfect. Rod and I hadn't done any homework at all, and so the ones that were out on the road playing regularly, we were nowhere near as polished as they were. Then we knew it would be fine. They put us to shame.
Q. Obviously, you and Rod have had ongoing solo careers and have performed together here and there over the years. But what prompted you to get back together as a band in 2001?
A. It's funny because we both remember it in different ways, so I have to tread lightly. We decided to do six concerts, but it was very definitely six concerts. But we'd only been playing like 15 minutes at the first concert and it felt like we'd played the week before when the last time we'd played a proper concert was about 1967. And those six dates have grown into 12 years of touring. It's just because it feels so natural. We also have a very good band. Jim Rodford on bass; he was in (the Rod Argent project) Argent and is actually Rod's cousin. He was 20 years with the Kinks and has played in many, many bands. His son, Steve Rodford, is on drums; he's a phenomenon, a great drummer but a wonderful all-around musician. And the new guy who's only been with us about 2½ years is someone I've worked with for many years, a guitarist called Tom Toomey. He's a very good electric and acoustic player. It's such a lift for Rod and I to go onstage and play with such a wonderful band that have got so much energy. People sometimes get a bit of a shock when they come and see us because we don't take any prisoners. It's a band that plays for all its worth, every night.
Q. Your band biography says Rod was initially hesitant to use the name The Zombies again but warmed up to it after you wrote some new material and realized it still felt like The Zombies. Were you as hesitant?
A. Yeah, I think we both were. To tell you the truth, the thought never even crossed my mind for the first few years. We toured as Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent, but it quickly became apparent there was a huge interest in The Zombies. ... In response to that, we started to add Zombies tunes to the shows. The other side of it was, promoters started to bill us as The Zombies. To start with, it was a little bit difficult because we didn't feel we were The Zombies. It's something that just gradually evolved. We've talked to Chris and Hugh about it, and we try to insist that we're billed as The Zombies featuring Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent because that is what's written on the label and it's what you get. We play all the classic Zombies tunes. We play obscure Zombies tunes from the early period and then we play new songs that have been recorded in the last few years. It's amazing how well they knit together, the old and the new, and we find that we get as good a response from the audience with the new songs as we do the classics, and that's incredibly heartening.
Q. To what do you attribute The Zombies' ongoing popularity among some younger generations? Has the music just withstood the test of time?
A. I think to a large extent it is that. As I wasn't one of the major writers in the band, I feel I can say I think we had two absolutely brilliant writers and that is one of the main reasons the interest in The Zombies has held up. Also, this is kind of a contradiction, but although I think the songs sound of their time and conjure up pictures of the late '60s and hippiedom and all that sort of thing, they also have a timeless feel about them. I can't really explain it. And then I also feel that there's just a huge interest in that last album, "Odessey and Oracle," and that brings a lot of young people into the audience. Often, we're told that a lot of the local young bands will be at the front of the audience, just to come and see what we're going to do, I guess.
Q. Your latest record, 2011's "Breathe Out, Breathe In," appeared to perform really well. So obviously the new material is working. You also have a solo album in the works, correct?
A. "Breathe Out, Breathe In" was a huge success, critically acclaimed around the world. We've been touring on the back of that album for about 18 months now and we're just starting to talk about new songs. And given how things have worked out historically, we will start recording in probably about three or four months ... so I'd hope we will be talking about a new Zombies album -- I mean, it's all guesswork -- in the next year to 18 months, something like that. With regard to my solo album, I've been recording it for the last 18 months. It's finished. I'm mastering the day before we come to America. It's to be released in the U.K. in October. I haven't completed anything, any ideas about how or when it will be released in America.