So whatever became of the Zombies?
The return of a '60s band
By Todd Leopold
Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone
|Finding their places|
With a voice as distinctive as Colin Blunstone's -- a breathy, wistful, dramatic instrument -- you'd think there was no question who would be the Zombies' front man.
But Rod Argent remembers it wasn't always so, though things quickly fell into line. When the group that became the Zombies first got together, Argent was the singer and Blunstone, a band member's friend, was just dropping by.
But after that session, Argent wandered over to a beat-up piano and started playing B. Bumble and the Stingers' rocked-up version of Tchaikovsky, "Nut Rocker." "Colin comes up to me and says, 'You're mad! You've got to play piano.' "
A few minutes later, the musicians were taking a break. Blunstone picked up a guitar and started singing an old Ricky Nelson song.
"We were blown away," Argent says.
And that settled that.
(CNN) -- So, both Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone agree, the Zombies reunion started like this:
Argent had re-formed his '70s band, also named Argent ("Hold Your Head Up," "God Gave Rock and Roll to You") and was playing a charity show. Blunstone was in the audience.
"I invited Colin up on the spur of the moment," says Argent in a phone interview from London, England.
"As soon as we were on stage, it felt like we'd played our last concert two weeks before," says Blunstone in a separate phone interview from the UK. (Actually, it had been something like 35 years.)
Then they use the same word.
"It felt so natural," Argent says.
"It was very natural," Blunstone says.
The two of them decided to play more gigs, put a band together and headed for the studio. The first sessions produced the 2001 album "Out of the Shadows."
For the next record, Argent found himself writing songs reminiscent of the Zombies -- the kind with haunting melodies, unusually placed minor chords and room for rich harmonies, all behind Blunstone's delicate vocals and Argent's jazz-classical keyboards. The kind of sound, that is, found on the Zombies singles "She's Not There" and "Tell Her No" and the landmark 1967 album, "Odessey and Oracle."
"For the first time in years, it felt honest to use the name Zombies," Argent says, and so "Zombies" -- a very marketable name as well -- it was. The new album, "As Far As I Can See ..." (Rhino), came out September 14.
Odyssey for 'Odessey'
In their heyday, the Zombies reached the American top 10 three times, but the group broke up rather anonymously in 1967, shortly after completing "Odessey."
They knew "Odessey" was to be their swan song, and so they did it the way they wanted, with personal and literary reflections in the music and complete control of the production.
"Basically, [guitarist] Chris [White] and I had a good writing income, and we hadn't been gigging much recently. There wasn't any bad feeling," Argent recalls. The album, produced by the group at Abbey Road Studios right after the recording of "Sgt. Pepper" -- and engineered by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick -- cost about $3,500 to record; Argent and White paid for a stereo mix out of their own pockets.
Soon, the pair formed a production company (one of their projects: a Blunstone solo album) and guitarist Paul Atkinson became a record industry talent executive, signing Bruce Hornsby and Michael Penn, among others.
But a strange thing happened to "Odessey and Oracle" along the way.
Musical gadfly Al Kooper brought a copy back from Britain and encouraged CBS to release it, which the company did on a small subsidiary, Date. "Time of the Season," the album's concluding track, became a huge hit, the biggest the Zombies ever had. But by this time it was 1969 and the group was gone.
"The album didn't even make the upper reaches of the chart," notes Argent, who also went on to produce Tanita Tikaram and Jules Shear. Indeed, it was forgotten by all but collectors for the next 15 years or so. But as with Big Star's "Radio City" or "The Velvet Underground and Nico," its impact far outstripped its sales. Last year, Rolling Stone magazine voted "Odessey and Oracle" No. 80 on its list of the top 500 albums of all time.
"That's higher than it got on the charts the first time," Argent chuckles.
Not many changes
The new record finds Blunstone in fine, breathy voice. He says he's had to work at maintaining his abilities.
"I had no training until about five years ago," he says. "But as you get older you have to work harder. So much of singing is muscle control."
White contributed vocals to three songs on "As Far As I Can See ... ," and Atkinson championed the record before he died in April.
"He was uppermost in our mind when we were recording," Blunstone says. He and Argent, who played a concert with Atkinson at the Los Angeles House of Blues before his death, have contributed items to an eBay auction to benefit the Paul Atkinson Family Trust. (See Web site.)
Now the reconstituted Zombies -- Argent, Blunstone, guitarist Keith Airey, bassist Jim Rodford and drummer Steve Rodford (Jim's son) -- are hitting the road. You would think with several successful 50-something band members, the accommodations would be a bit plusher than they were back in the mid-'60s.
Not quite, Blunstone says. At least, not in the UK.
"We did rather throw it together," he says of the group's British tour earlier this year. "I remember talking to one DJ who said, 'It must be different than traveling in a Ford Transit [van] like in the '60s.' And I said, 'Actually, it's remarkably similar.' "
But the relationship between the band members is good, carrying on the vibe felt in the studio. Argent says the group is full of energy.
"I was wondering, 'Is this going to work?' " Argent says.
Then he uses that word again.
"But it's so natural. That's what made us want to do it."