The Zombies: New music, longevity and why they’re still cracking the UK market

There’s something of a shared history between Headliner and legendary UK psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll outfit the Zombies. Our HQ, it transpires, is located above the very same 600-year-old St. Albans pub that founding members, singer Colin Blunstone and keyboard player Rod Argent, spent much of their formative years getting the band together and building a local following around the city.

“You’re not actually in the pub where we first met when we were 15, but the one you’re in is the pub we always used to drink in,” Argent remembers fondly as we join the pair over a Zoom call from our studio above said legendary watering hole.

“I remember St. Albans so well because we all went to school there and it was the main meeting point for the band - I remember many nights in that pub, but not many details,” laughs Blunstone. 

“I just remember lots of laughter. People who start groups obviously love music, but there’s also the attraction of drinking lots of beer and meeting lots of girls. For guys of 15 and 16, that’s often why they form a band.”

The pair are in great spirits, and understandably so. The band have been enjoying something of a renaissance of late, despite having been making music consistently over the past two decades, following a period of inactivity as the Zombies after their late ‘60s flourish. 

Having long been a far bigger live draw overseas – particularly in the US – than in the UK, they are currently preparing to embark on their first tour on home territory for many years in 2022, while in 2019 they were inducted into the legendary Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame alongside the likes of Roxy Music, Radiohead, The Cure and Def Leppard. All of which we’ll come to shortly. But back to St. Albans…

Rod came over and said, ‘If you’ll be the lead singer, I’ll play keyboards’. And that was the Zombies! Colin Blunstone

Things could have been very different for the Zombies. As with most bands, there’s a degree of chance in how the right personalities came by one another at just the right place and time. 

For Blunstone, Argent and the original Zombies line-up, this was very much the case – not just in how they came to form the band, but in the roles they would adopt within it.

“Rod went to a gig with his cousin Jim Rodford. Who was in the big band of the time, The Bluetones, who were fantastic,” Blunstone recalls, the velvety tones and gentle delivery that helped define such hits as Time Of The Season still instantly recognisable in his speaking voice. 

“When Rod saw them, he said he knew he had to start a band. So, he started to talk to friends about putting a band together. There was a folk club at St. Albans school and he thought the best guitarist in the club was someone he didn’t know called Paul Atkinson. He asked him if he wanted to be in a band and Paul said sure.

“The school also had an army core, and the drummer with the best snare action was Hugh Grundy, so Rod approached him and he said yes, too. And Hugh had only ever been in the marching band, he’d never played a drum kit, so a lot of this was down to chance! Hugh had a friend who lived in the next street called Paul Arnold who was making a bass guitar in woodwork. 

"He’d never played one, but he was making one and that got Paul into the band. As for me, at my school we sat in alphabetical order and I, Blunstone, sat next to Arnold! Paul said to me, ‘You have a guitar don’t you’? I said yes.”

With the very first iteration of the band now in place, the Zombies arranged their inaugural rehearsal, albeit with a drummer who’d only ever played the snare and a bassist whose primary engagement with his instrument had been conducted over a woodwork bench. Still, there was sufficient talent within the group to convince Blunstone they may be on to something special.

“Jim managed to get all The Bluetones equipment for us to practice on,” he continues. 

“We did that practice with me as rhythm guitarist and Rod as lead singer. But we only played instrumentals, so we didn’t get to hear Rod sing. During a break, he went over to this broken-down piano and played Nut Rocker by Bee Bumble and the Stingers, which is a rock ‘n’ roll take on a classical piece. You have to be fairly accomplished to be able to play that, and Rod was only 15 but it was incredible. 

"I went over to him and said, ‘You should play keyboard in the band’. Rod said, ‘No, it has to be a rock ‘n’ roll band with three guitars’. It was left like that, but as we were leaving, I was just playing to myself in the corner of the room a little bit of a Ricky Nelson song called It’s Late and Rod came over and said, ‘If you’ll be the lead singer, I’ll play keyboards’. 

"And essentially, that was the Zombies. We just had to learn our instruments and learn to write songs!”

After that first rehearsal, the band set about refining their musicianship and songwriting chops with a vigour and intensity that would stand them in great stead for their initial shows. 

Sequestered away in their practice space for months before their debut gig, they gave themselves the best possible chance of connecting with audiences when finally taking to the stage. Before long, they were spearheading a local live scene of rock’n’roll bands that quickly connected beyond the confines of the city.

“We rehearsed for months before our first gig with some very rudimentary equipment,” says Argent with a smile and a warmth that feels disarmingly familiar. 

“We had a 30W amp that the whole band went through, including vocals. We did a couple of gigs like that and then Colin got us a gig playing at the local rugby club one night and we had a 20-minute slot in the interval. There were only about 20-30 people there, but they loved it and booked us again. 

"Before we knew it we were headlining, and within a year they built a marquee on the side and we were playing to over 400 people, which we couldn’t believe.

“We built this great scene and we ended up playing in a competition which we won by beating The Bluetones, and that was rough justice because for many years when Jim was playing with us, he said to Colin, ’The first time I saw you play your first rehearsal I thought ‘no chance’’!

We’ve always wanted to write and play new material, and that’s one of the main reasons we’ve achieved such longevity. Colin Blunstone

The momentum that had been built on the live circuit soon started to translate into hits on both sides of the Atlantic. Singles like She’s Not There and Time Of The Season from the albums Begin Here (1965) and Odyssey And Oracle (1968), respectively, proved popular at the time but would continue to grow in stature and earn the band new followers over the ensuing decades. 

This was particularly true in the US, where even during decades of relative inactivity between the ‘70s and the ‘00s, appetite for their music would escalate. And since the return of the Zombies in their current form just over 20 years ago, they have enjoyed bona fide legendary status.

In their homeland, perhaps on account of their Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction or the ubiquity of those aforementioned hits in the world of film, TV and advertising, their oeuvre has only now become the subject of significant revision. So why has it taken them so long to attain the kind of affection they have received in the US in their native UK?

“I’m sure there are many subtle reasons, but one is that when we first signed to Decca Records… [Blunstone pauses]. You have to remember we were 18 years old and very naïve. We went into their offices and were shown into the press department and had a 20 minute conversation that went somewhere along the lines of, ‘We need an image – what’s your image going to be’? And there was this very contrived image of us put together as being… 

"I’m almost loath to go into detail, but it was very childish. People want their bands to be a bit roguish, like the Stones. Bad boys. We were presented in a very different way after a very short conversation, and it was also combined with some really bad photos. Which still turn up 50 years later! So image-wise, we were destroyed in the UK.”

“We hated it at the time,” Argent states. “We said, ‘What’s all this about’? It was crazy, but we were stuck with it. But not in America or a lot of other places.”

“In America we skipped all that,” Blunstone continues. “By the time we went to America we’d had six months in the business, which of course is only the beginning of your education, but we knew enough to steer clear of all that rubbish, and by then we had some slightly better photos, it was only in the UK we suffered from this publicity machine that was put behind us.”

There is, of course, far more to their success in the US than a more appropriate PR campaign. The band’s presence on the live circuit has undoubtedly shaken any perception of them as ‘one hit wonders’, while their management, they explain, has been crucial in helping navigate the US market.

“We’ve been together in this incarnation for 21 years and we’ve grown,” Argent elaborates. “When we first went back to America, we had a great agent who was doing things the right way for us and he eventually became our manager. We now play to really big audiences in America. We’re in a completely different ballpark.”

Rightly resentful of any ‘one hit wonder’ tag, another key factor in this late career resurgence is their approach to playing live. Unlike some bands of a similar vintage, every setlist is liberally peppered with new material, rather than simply turning up to deliver greatest hits sets.

“We’ve always wanted to write and play new material, and that’s one of the main reasons we’ve achieved such longevity,” says Blunstone. “We play the hits but we always play new material. And that goes down as well as the classics, which makes us a little bit different from a lot of bands from the ‘60s who are still playing.”

“That two hours on stage is still fantastic,” beams Argent. “That’s why we do it. We have the privilege of being at this ancient age but feeling like we are 18 years old when we’re on stage. I don’t think there is another profession that gives you that.”

We have the privilege of being at this ancient age but feeling like we are 18 years old when we’re on stage. Rod Argent

At the time of our conversation, it is release day for the 50th anniversary edition of Blunstone’s debut solo album, One Year. Recorded at Abbey Road, the album comes packed with unreleased demos and as yet unheard material.

“It’s been unreal looking back at the record,” Blunstone says. 

“It was a wonderful experience and brought us back to Abbey Road where we recorded Odyssey And Oracle; we were in Studio 3 with Peter Vince in the engineer chair. There are some amazing arrangements, the string tracks are breath-taking. 

"We recently found some demos from the sessions that I couldn’t remember - three reel-to-reel tapes of my demos. So we’ve added those to the anniversary release. I’m really looking forward to people hearing them with just a shade of apprehension!”

In addition to gearing up for their 2022 tour, which will take in the US, Canada, the UK and other parts of Europe, Blunstone and Argent are currently working on a set of new material, which they hope may see the light of day next year.

“We just did a livestream from Abbey Road and people loved the new material,” Argent smiles. “We did five songs for the first time, and we thought, ‘What are we doing?’ when we first started – they hadn’t even been road tested. But we have to excite ourselves, because we are in our mid-70s, so you want to look back and know you gave it your best shot and were fulfilling yourself.

“Our last album, to our amazement, made the Billboard Top 100 in the US. It’s never going to be Adele or anything like that, but we had a call from Billboard while we were on tour, and they said, ‘We just want to let you know for the first time as the Zombies in 50 years you have an album in the Top 100’. We could not believe it. I remember going on stage that night thinking, ‘Shit, this is absolutely fantastic!”

Over half a century into their career, next year may well prove to be one of the most pivotal in the band’s history. And UK audiences may well see for themselves that there’s plenty of life in the Zombies yet.

Image credits (in order): Getty Images / Alex Lake / Payley Photography.