Stare at a crowd of people in their 60s and work out what they might have done for a living – it isn’t easy. Hairstyles, at least on men, tend not to vary greatly. The dress mode uniformly sits somewhere between smart and comfortable. Conversation tends to canter rather than run. Which means that, on the characterfully faded 15th Floor bar at St Georges Hotel, distinguishing the four surviving members of The Zombies from a memorial get-together in honour of TV theme titan Ronnie Hazlehurst is by no means a foregone conclusion.
In the end, a well-preserved Colin Blunstone clinches it. Sipping tea from a china cup, he’s palpably the same man who last appeared on nationwide TV in 1981, singing a glacial synth treatment of What Becomes Of The Broken-Hearted. After twenty-seven years out of the limelight, the Zombies’ frontman would have every reason to overcompensate with a few starry airs and graces. Instead, the fortieth anniversary of their benchmark album Odessey & Oracle – and the imminent tour in support of it – is enough to inject an excitable quiver into one of the most quintessentially English voices of its generation.
Not all injustices are rectified in the lifetimes of their victims – and in the case of guitarist Paul Atkinson, who died in 2003 this one hasn’t been either. For the rest of The Zombies, four decades of word-of-mouth have established the album alongside Sgt Pepper and Pet Sounds as one of those albums you play to your children when they ask you what the 60s were supposed to be like. As a young mod, Paul Weller cottoned on to The Zombies after hearing Rod Argent’s gurgling Hammond on 1964’s She’s Not There. By the time he was in The Jam, he was already referring Odessey & Oracle as one of his favourite albums of all time. Though impartial ears may struggle to hear it, Dave Grohl claims that the current Foo Fighters album Echoes Silence Patience & Grace betrays a heavy Odessey & Oracle influence. In the words of Tom Petty, “If a group like The Zombies appeared now, they would own the world.”
He might have added that if The Zombies really were offered ownership of the world, they’d probably be too humble to accept it such an undertaking. Lest we forget this was a group who – with Odessey & Oracle – elected to run with a misspelt title rather than offend its sleeve designer Terry Quirk. Having found success in the 60s, they must have been privy to the temptations accorded to any rising star. Lest we forget, She’s Not There had already reached number two in America. In the wake of its success, Blunstone talks of having to constantly change hotels to try and shake off screaming schoolgirls. The tousled Argent recalls one fan snipping off half of his scarf with a view to moving on to his hair. Somehow though, The Zombies never quite seemed to shake off a feeling that stardom was something that happened to other people. Hailing from a St Albans grammar school initially offered up an angle for music journalists in the 60s. Reviewing She’s Not There, Disc Magazine said, “You’d never guess the group had 50 GCEs (at O, A and S level) between them.” In time, it may have also contributed to that sense of outsiderdom.
Argent remembers that the problem lay with living near London but not inside it. “With The Beatles and a lot of the groups that came down from Liverpool and Manchester, they would move down and spend the entire night at a place like the Cromwellian or The Bag O’Nails. We would occasionally go to those places, but we would always go back to St Albans afterwards.”
You suspect that they were often on the train home before many of their peers opened up their lapel pockets and swallowed whatever uppers they needed to sustain them through the night. As Blunstone puts it, “I saw far more musicians eating greasy breakfasts at the M1 Blue Boar services that I ever saw popping pills.” Nonetheless, without or without drugs, 1966 saw with The Beatles, The Byrds and The Beach Boys cutting loose from notions of what could and couldn’t be done within a pop group. Argent and The Zombies’ other songsmith, bassist Chris White sought to follow suit. But without a Brian Epstein or George Martin figure around to indulge their creative whims, the two writers began to realize that sad-eyed pop with a sharp R&B undertow – in other words, variations on a formula established by She’s Not There – may be anchoring them to a dying era.
Instead, The Zombies were saddled with Ken Jones – a producer who equated them with what he saw as a safe formula and, in Tito Burns a manager who didn’t always have their best interests at heart. When Burns told them that they were to tour the Philippines in 1966, they should have been suspicious. The Beatles had toured there months previously and ended up risking their own lives when the entire nation turned on them for snubbing a function attended by Imelda Marcos “But,” says, Argent, “No-one had told us about that. We were told that we would be paid a total £75 per night, before his 20 per cent was deducted.” Like so much of what happened during The Zombies’ collective lifetime, they can laugh about it now – the thirty hour journey, the gun culture, the stage managed press conferences which resulted in mendacious headlines such as Zombies Say Beatles Are Louts And Hooligans For Attacking Our First Lady – but at the time, the whole sojourn went by in a state of shock.
“I remember thinking at the time that perhaps this could be a nice holiday for us,” recalls Blunstone, who never seems happier than when setting himself up as the butt of the joke, “Perhaps we would play in the bar of a hotel and spend the day on the beach. When we got off the plane, it was 3am and there were tens of thousands of people at the airport. I remember turning around to the others and saying, ‘There must be someone really famous on the plane.’ It turned out that we were playing a ten night residency of up to 40,000 people a night.”
Despite discovering that Jorge Araneta – owner of the Araneta Coliseum where The Zombies played – had made £26,000 profit from their residency, The Zombies were told that their fee was non-negotiable. Any thought of fleeing was undermined by the 24 hour security to which they were subject and the fact that Araneta had their passports.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that Odessey & Oracle sounds like the work of a band with little left to lose. “Making an album and producing it ourselves was as much a matter of pride as anything,” says Argent. “Things were winding down, but if we could just fulfil our creative potential then we could go out on a high” – not, of course, a chemical high though. White suggests that much of what later came to be termed “psychedelic” was really just “a realization that you could write songs about all sorts of things.”
And they did. Written one morning when Argent made himself rise early because he felt he wasn’t writing enough songs, A Rose For Emily got its title from a book of short stories by William Faulkner whilst exploring similar lyrical terrain to Eleanor Rigby. Care Of Cell 44 saw Argent’s lyrical voice addressing a lover as she awaited release from her prison sentence. Odessey & Oracle was recorded around the same time – and at the same Abbey Rd studios – as Sgt Pepper. Common to both albums is an innocence that seems to accrue extra poignancy with the passing of time. In Friends Of Mine – a paean to the band’s courting friends – only one of the couples Jim And Jean) mentioned is still together. “They must be getting a bit worried at this point,” laughs drummer Hugh Grundy. Similarly, it’s hard to read a title like This Will Be Our Year without pondering the irony of what followed.
What followed, at least initially, was not a lot. Odessey & Oracle failed to find its way onto CBS’s release schedules until the following year. By the time it yielded a big American hit with Time Of The Season, White and Argent had formed Argent. As they pressed on with a loss-making tour of America, at least three other fake Zombies formed to milk Time Of The Season’s belated success. Back in London, Blunstone fared little better. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, really. I hadn’t got an idea in my mind. I felt very sad. You know, I wasn’t a writer.”
So while Argent and White indulged their proggier pretensions with Argent, Blunstone got a job in the burglary department at Sun Alliance Insurance – whilst some evenings saw him traveling to Barnes where producer Mike Hurst had a bizarre plan for him. He was to record a solo version of She’s Not There under the nom de plume Neil McAndrew. “I can’t tell you why because I don’t understand myself,” he now laughs. “It was going to be James McArthur, but there’s a James McArthur in Hawaii Five-O, so we thought that would be confusing.”
True to type, Blunstone agreed to change his own name because his arranger thought it would be a good idea to do so. “I was a lost soul at this point,” says Blunstone. The truth is that he only ever wanted to be a Zombie – and, by stealth, he managed to be one for his two solo albums Ennismore and One Year, which were produced by White and Argent.
In 2008, being a Zombie is still Blunstone’s favourite place to be. Odessey & Oracle’s eventual success has conferred a pleasing symmetry upon this story. It was the record that precipitated their split. Now, with even the NME even finding room for it in their top 100 British Albums of All Time list, it’s the record that has sparked this brief reunion. Unfinished business? “Not even that,” says Argent, “I’m here and these guys are here and, with that in mind…”
As ever Blunstone’s interjection sees him trying to accommodate the wishes of the wider world “…it would be impolite not to, don’t you think?”