Plague of the Zombies

Were the Zombies one of the great neglected bands of the ’60s? They had their hits, broke up and then created the sort of interest they always deserved — six years too late. Andrew Tyler talks to ROD ARGENT, former Zombie, now leader of Argent, and Rosalind Russell finds out about COLIN BLUNSTONE, ex-Zombie turned successful solo singer.

TRIAL BY boiling marmalade awaits any man or woman of the music press who dallies too long and lovingly on times gone by. A backward glance or a tug at the trousers of an ageing idol is only occasionally tolerated.

The Beatles, Dylan, Yardbirds, Cream, Hendrix and even the Stones are fast descending on distant horizons and just picture, if you dare, Jagger and Donny Osmond on the same bill or even in the same building. I mean Jagger shaves every day and little Donny is still growing hair under his arms. Last year he expanded four inches to 5 ft. 7 in.

But God forgive me, I still remember the Zombies. They made delightful songs some of which were called ‘Time Of The Season’, ‘Tell Her No’ and ‘She’s Not There’. The Zombies, you may or may not remember, were made up of Colin Blunstone, the man with a pale fragile voice; Rod Argent, among the first to use electric piano in a pop lineup; and Chris White, Paul Atkinson and Hugh Grundy — all of whom concentrate their talents on CBS artists.

Rod Argent, who has since got together with a bunch of lads who call themselves Argent, also remembers The Zombies but he reckons things have got out of hand.

“The Zombies are far bigger now in terms of image than they ever were while they were operating. We tend to think rosier thoughts of them now it’s all over.”

“I can still listen to Oracle And Odyssey and things like ‘She’s Not There’ and ‘Time Of The Season’ and it’s a pleasure but a lot of it was ropey.”

Ropey or not, 14 months after the group split ‘Time Of The Season’ sped to the number one spot in America and an agent over there, inspired by the group’s moneymaking qualities, offered them around $1m to reform and play a U.S. tour.

The offer, juicy as it may have seemed, was just not on. Chris White was no longer interested in live appearances and Rod was busy rehearsing Argent.

When Argent did make it to America three years ago people used to point and say “cooo you used to play piano for the Zombies, didn’t you.” And that was a trifle worrying because, after all, they might just have well settled for a million dollars. “That tour didn’t really count,” says Rod.

The last one did. They returned to Britain at the end of September having played 50-odd dates in less than two months.

There were 17 dates with Jeff Beck, a few with Sabbath but mostly it was Argent headlining their own bill and playing to increasingly enthusiastic crowds. And it paid off in record sales. The album All Together Now jumped from 60 to 23 and ‘Hold Your Head Up’, rose to the number 5 spot.

‘Hold Your Head Up’ had to be hacked even more mercilessly for the benefit of the American AM market. It had begun life in Britain as a 6m 30 track on a maxi and for three or four months went unnoticed. For the benefit of the BBC audience Argent themselves reduced it to 3m 40. In the States the odd 40 seconds were lopped off leaving a mangled, fractured imitation of the original with two of the four choruses missing.

“It’s always a shame when you have to edit down,” says Rod, “but we did agree to it. While it was a maxi it did absolutely nothing. If you’re going to release a single you’ve got to try to get it played otherwise there’s no point in bothering.

“The editing job they did in the States was far worse. The bits cut out were mainly the hookline, which is really a bit ridiculous.”

The Zombies, like those aforementioned star attractions, are now just a sweet memory.

“People in the states are prepared to take you as you are. A few of them remember us from the Zombie days — a few that is relative to the number of people we got through to — but they tended to be disappointed because if they wanted us to sound like the old Zombies they were surprised.”

Rod looked fresher than most of the British musicians who take on America and wreck their minds and bodies in the process. Sabbath, for instance, one of the hardest-working bands around, have now decided to give up the US and concentrate elsewhere.

Argent says the group’s gear suffered more than themselves and at this point we’ll introduce them: Russ Ballard, lead guitarist and composer of a couple of Three Dog Night hits (‘Liar’ and ‘Chained’) not to mention an ancient Shadows whopper called ‘Lost City’. Along with drummer Bob Henrit he was part of Adam Faith’s Roulettes and made up the plus two of Unit Four.

Jim Rodford, Rod’s cousin, is another veteran, who spent a number of years with the Mike Cotton Sound (a line-up that sometimes accompanies the Kinks on live dates).

Watching Argent at work at the recent Oval show headlined by ELP was by no means an unpleasant experience. Coming as it did after the hybrid, electroid funk music of Genesis it was ointment for the brain. All the same there was a noticeable aroma of sameness and even though they were obviously working their curtains off, the crowd didn’t respond in kind. It was as if they sensed Argent weren’t taking any chances and when a crowd knows exactly what it’s going to get, it invariably doesn’t want it.

The very first words on Rod’s lips were along those lines: “The main problem this year is that we’ve been working so hard that we’ve had no time at all to put a new act together, to write some new material. And this is where the new life comes from.”

“It wasn’t planned that way but first there was the album and since then it’s been five and six nights a week and then the two months in the States. Over there we began strongly but by the midway mark we were getting flatter all the while waiting for the second wind. When it came we got better and better and it really was excellent towards the end.”

He’s been thinking seriously about using the piano again on stage but has yet to find an adequate amp to carry the sound.

“It’s even worse than trying to boost an acoustic guitar. I suppose you might be able to spend a thousand pounds and get something that sounds good enough. Leon Russell paid something like £800. But apart from that you have to rely on what’s available at a gig and you’ve no idea what might turn up.

“But I still write on piano and that’s one reason I find it hard to write on tour. A piano isn’t the sort of thing you can carry around with you. I’ve got a baby grand at home though and it’s really nice.”

Not too much of his inspiration comes from the curent crop of name acts.

“I like things like McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra but that’s straying into different fields. In the field we’re talking about I’d have to say Keith Emerson is one of the most creative musicians around but I find a general lack of real creativity.”
— Andrew Tyler

COLIN BLUNSTONE won’t have to believe in miracles to have a hit on his hands with his new single ‘I Don’t Believe In Miracles’.

It’s a Russ Ballard song, from the new album Ennismore which is due out at the end of this month. Although it’s some months since we heard anything from Colin, his isn’t a voice that’s easily forgotten.

It was the trademark of the Zombies back in 1969 and cut through the real identity of “Neil MacArthur” when he re-recorded ‘She’s Not There’ on the Deram label.

His first solo album last year, titled One Year, was acclaimed by the music press although public reactions were surprisingly slow. Going by the new single, both sides of which are from his forthcoming album, it looks to contain even better songs than the last. Now with CBS, he maintains close connections with his past because he is produced by Rod Argent and Chris Wright, both ex-Zombie men.

After the Zombies split, Colin left the business altogether. Not being one to make his business his private life as well, he was able to break all ties with it.

“Even now, I don’t buy the trade papers,” he said. “I get right out of it. I don’t generally talk about what I do and I don’t mix socially with other musicians. I try to keep off the subject altogether. I’m basically interested in making records and performing them. The star bit is quite alien to my personality. That used to happen a lot more in the old days. I feel that talking about myself can be misinterpreted.”

His sincerity couldn’t possibly be mistaken. Colin Blunstone is a quiet spoken man, anxious only to make the best of the music which means so much to him. Although he enjoyed the break from the music business, he found that he couldn’t stop singing, or stay away from it forever.

“I enjoy the business, but the image bit is only to exaggerate the character of a person. After the stage show and the studio recordings, everything else is a promotion job.

“I’ve had singles out that haven’t been hits, but it’s like failing a driving test — you have to get out and do it again until it’s right. I know I shouldn’t, but I take things personally, almost to violence, but I’d never even think of ringing up a reviewer and saying anything.

“Once you get over the depression, you force yourself back. There’s always the next time, and who knows if you’re going to get shipwrecked. My history master always used to say ‘nil desperandum, let them do their worst’!”

The onus of being a solo performer has been lifted in part from Colin as he now has a band to work with. He had to form a band for the tour he did with the Electric Light Orchestra, and the line-up now stands as Derek Griffiths (guitar, from Satisfaction), Pete Wingfield (piano, from Keef Hartley band), Terry Poole (From Graham Bond) and Jim Toomey (from Titus Groan).

“It’s a whole different thing getting out and playing with a band, rather than taking everything on your own shoulders. I don’t have to adapt the studio work to a stage act now either. We’ve done five or six shows so far. It lifts you playing with a band because everyone knows exactly what to do. I think the Zombies were one of the most neglected bands at the time in the business.”

Although Colin still works with Rod Argent and Chris Wright on his albums, there is no chance of the Zombies reforming. Each one of them is too closely tied up with his own job — Rod Argent with his own band, and Chris Wright with his producing.

“When I heard Argent’s album I was knocked out with it and decided I wanted to be in the same package. Rod’s my producer and we’ve worked together for seven years. That’s a long time to work with someone and you can’t get a lot closer than a producer.”

There are plans to do some gigs in Holland and Colin has been trying to arrange their rehearsals around the trip.

“I’m not really like the leader of a band at all,” said Colin, trying to sort out a variety of complicated phone calls and conduct his interview at the same time. His modesty concerning his own songs and his enthusiasm for other writers, including Paul Williams, makes him a very likeable person. On the new album he has co-written nine of the 11 tracks. Of the songs he sings onstage by other people, he tries to use those which haven’t been done too often.

He may be making another trip to the States — he was there earlier in the year to promote ‘Say You Don’t Mind’ which was also his last hit here. And if he doesn’t have a hit here with ‘I Don’t Believe In Miracles’, I’ll start to disbelieve them myself.

© Rosalind Russell, Andrew TylerDisc, 14 October 1972

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