MusicMusic Features

The Zombies Live On

Rock and roll has been a sunny, cheerful adventure of late for Colin Blunstone, the lead singer for veteran UK group The Zombies. He and his bandmates recently wrapped studio sessions for a new album and sailed across the Caribbean as part of The Moody Blues’ “Return to the Isle of Wight” cruise. This week, the quintet will perform throughout the Southeast as part of its spring tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of the British Invasion.

Blunstone, 68, formed The Zombies with four friends in 1962 while attending St. Albans Grammar School for Boys near London. Pianist and organist Rod Argent brought strong songwriting and arranging ideas to the fold, as did guitarist and bassist Chris White. As teenagers, they had an ear for the pop, rhythm and blues and jazz music that populated the charts at the time. 

“It’s one of the strengths and one of the weaknesses of The Zombies that [we] put so much from influences into the music,” Blunstone says. “There was a jazz element to a lot of the songs, and hopefully it gave a slightly different slant than most bands you’d see in a rock environment.”

By 1963, The Zombies had developed a sophisticated, organ-driven pop style laden with rich harmonies and unusually groovy syncopation.

“In the beginning, I wasn’t going to be the lead singer,” says Blunstone. “I was going to be the rhythm guitarist. Rod was going to be the lead singer, but at the first rehearsal, he went over to a broken-down piano and played a song called ‘Nut Rocker’ by B. Bumble and the Stingers, which was a hit at the time. It was quite something for a 15-year-old to be playing that so confidently. I was amazed. We said to him, ‘You have to play keyboards in the band.’ Rod had heard me singing to myself, so part of the the deal was that I’d have to move to lead vocals.”

Blunstone’s delicate, breathy style complemented the warm sound of the rhythm section on the group’s early recordings. The Argent-penned “She’s Not There,” the band’s first major hit single, in 1964, demonstrated a complexity and a dynamic that stood out from other young British groups at the time.

On the heels of The Beatles’ initial splash in the U.S., “She’s Not There” hit No. 1 on the charts in the States. Tours with The Searchers, Del Shannon, The Shangri-Las and Dionne Warwick followed, as did a string of singles, both upbeat and somewhat melancholic, including “Tell Her No,” “Remember When I Loved Her,” “I Want You Back Again,” “Indication,” “She’s Coming Home,” “Gotta Get a Hold of Myself” and a rendition of “Summertime”—all of which featured dense harmonies and Argent’s brilliant piano and organ work.

As The Zombies developed new ideas for instrumentation, tones, arrangements and lyrical themes, their self-confidence increased to the point where they felt they could produce their own records. In 1967, they tracked what would be their most well-known full-length, Odessey and Oracle (the title of which was accidentally misspelled by the cover artist).

“The recordings were much truer to the sound of the band at the time,” Blunstone says. “With the early singles, I think our producer, Ken Jones, was forever trying to recreate the sound of ‘She’s Not There,’ with the very whispery vocals and the eerie kind of atmospheric sound. But, of course, we were growing as a band. Not to sound too dramatic, but when you go from playing when you’re 18 or 19 to a few years later, things change a lot.”

Odessey and Oracle blended elements of ’60s guitar-pop, jazz, soul and psychedelic rock. Lyrically, it was a moody, romantic, poetic collection. Extra Mellotron from Argent enhanced the basic tracks with a velvety orchestral touch. The big hit from the LP, the spooky and melodic “Time of the Season,” dominated the charts in 1968, just as the group decided amicably to part ways.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Argent and Blunstone pursued various projects. Argent’s eponymous group scored a rock hit in 1972 with “Hold Your Head Up.” Blunstone recorded several solo albums and collaborated with Dave Stewart, The Alan Parsons Project and others.

Argent and Blunstone finally renewed their musical partnership in 1999. “We decided to do just six concerts,” Blunstone says. “We enjoyed it so much that we just kept going, and 15 years later, we’re still playing all over… We’re very fortunate people to have the opportunity to do this at this time in our careers.”

Since reforming, The Zombies have recorded three full-length albums of new originals, and they have a fourth one on the horizon. The band still specializes in delicate ballads, hook-driven rockers and smart harmonies. The current lineup features Blunstone, Argent, guitarist Tom Toomey, bassist Jim Rodford (formerly of Argent and The Kinks), and drummer Steve Rodford (Jim’s son).

“Here we are, 50 years after ‘She’s Not There,’ and the band sounds a bit more rockin’ than we did back then,” Blunstone says. “I know that it’s tempting, sometimes, for older bands to go through the motions, but we never do that. If we accused ourselves of doing that, we’d just finish up. We’re constantly writing new songs and recording new albums, as well. That’s a very important dimension of what we’re doing.”

WHO: The Zombies, Pat Sansone
WHERE: Georgia Theatre
WHEN: Thursday, April 17, 8 p.m.