TR+ Extended Interview – Welcome Back: The Zombies

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Formed in St Albums in 1961, The Zombies had a flurry of international fame in their teens. By 1968, however, they were broke, burned out and wouldn’t reap financial or cultural rewards until 30 years later.

Founders Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone went on to achieve great individual success, but their perfect harmony has brought them back together for a second reunion album.

*Still Got That Hunger*. Says it all, doesn’t it?

I think it does. We’ve been playing in this incarnation for some time now, but the thing that drives us is the same as when we were eighteen years old. It’s the excitement of writing and recording new material and getting what we feel is a real result out of it. I love it when I hear our old stuff on the radio, but if I hear a new track, you know, the excitement goes up twentyfold.

How do still find fresh things to write songs about?

I don’t know – it’s all a bit of a mysterious process, as it always was! A song can start from a little melodic idea, or it can start with a little lyrical idea. There’s one song on the album called New York, which came to me one day when I was in the car and I suddenly started thinking about our very first entry into America, when we were just nineteen. We did the Murray The K Christmas Show in New York, and we were playing with some of our heroes. We were pretty scared, actually.

The second verse of the song actually sort of sums it up:, ‘I walked into the Brooklyn Fox that snowy Christmas day, and Patti and her Bluebelles simply stole my heart away. She took to me Aretha Franklin, showed me so much soul, and helped us join the party with our English rock’n’roll.’ That’s exactly what happened. We only did two songs, as all the acts did on the show, and we were playing with Patti LaBelle, Ben E King, The Drifters, The Shirelles, as well as The Nashville Teens, who had also come over from England.

I bet you couldn’t believe it.

Well, it wasn’t just that we couldn’t believe it – suddenly these people that we held as icons really, these fantastically soulful black singers, there we were, and we were expected to get up and perform. But they took us to their hearts. I particularly remember having long conversations with Patti LaBelle and her saying, “There’s a new young artist that you have to check out,” and that was Aretha Franklin. This was before she did any of her soul stuff on Atlantic. Similarly, she spoke about Nina Simone, and it was just a pretty dreamlike couple of weeks, actually.

You’re 70 now. How have you kept so youthful?

You haven’t seen me today have you? [Laughs] I think that in some ways rock and roll keeps you young, in some ways it makes you old, but it keeps your mind alive. The tedious parts of being in an ‘new band’ [laughs] at the age of 70, it’s the same as it was when we were eighteen. I mean, travelling in a van – albeit a better van now, with aircraft seats et cetera – for six or seven hours a day on average, and then having to do a full day’s work when you get there. The playing bit’s always fantastic, and re-energising. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.

You’ve gotta look after yourself more, though.

At the end of the evening we just get back to the hotel and chill out. Unless you’ve got Keith Richards’ constitution, you’ve got to help yourself. I’ve seen some casualties. I won’t name anyone. But then you get something like we played three concerts in Austin in Texas, and Ian McLagan came along to all of them, and I hadn’t seen him for many, many years, and we had a lovely time with him. Then suddenly, a year later, he was dead. It was a huge shock because he looked in really good shape and good spirits.

How did you and Colin reunite?

By complete accident! John Dankworth, the jazz musician who’s now sadly passed away, asked me to do a benefit concert for his theatre, The Stables in Milton Keynes, in May 2000. In the audience was Colin, and he got up on the spur of the moment and sang She’s Not There and Time Of The Season with me, and it felt so natural that afterwards Colin said: “Why don’t we put just a few gigs together for fun?” I ummed and ahhed, but in the end we did, and we had such a ball that it started us on the treadmill again.

What’s your relationship like now? Do you ever regress?

Well, neither of us do much misbehaving now [laughs] – we’re pretty much in tune with each other. We never got involved in drugs really, and that was a personal thing, but when we were first active, around ’64, ’65, there were very few drugs around at that point. Then when we broke up after making* Odessey And Oracle *– and that was in the summer of ’67 – the explosion of the drug culture happened. I think we were a little bit protected from that world. Of course we went out and partied, and drank, and there were lots of nice-looking young ladies around… if you’re eighteen and nineteen, what are you going to do?

The Zombies’ sound was very influenced by your church background.

I was a choirboy from about eleven to fourteen at St Albans Cathedral. After that, the master of the music there asked me to stay on as an adult, when my voice started changing. I did, but I kept saying that I wanted to leave, and he kept saying: “Can you not just stay for a little bit longer?” In the end I had to say: “Look, I’m in this rock’n’roll band, we’ve got gigs, I’ve got to leave!”

*Odessey And Oracle* is regarded as a cult classic, with people such as Dave Grohl saying it changed his life.

It’s amazing. I remember when [original bassist] Chris White first phoned me up – around the time in the 90s when Paul Weller had started to say things in the press – and said: “There’s a lot of buzz about Odessey And Oracle at the moment.” And I thought, “No there isn’t, absolutely not!” But I realised after a while that he was right, and it completely took me by surprise.

Elvis was also a fan, wasn’t he?

My whole world changed when I was ten years old and I heard Elvis. When we were Number One in America in ’65 we found ourselves near Gracelands when we were on tour. We just walked up the drive and knocked on his door and said: “Is Elvis in?” – like little kids asking him to come out and play football. He wasn’t, but his dad was really sweet in a very solemn way. He said to us: “Elvis is away filming at the moment, but he’d be real sorry to have missed you because he loves you guys,” and I thought, “Well, he doesn’t know who the hell we are, but that’s really sweet of him to say so. “ Then he said: “Have a wander round,” and we did have a little wander round, but we felt a bit weird doing it.

Gracelands was different then, just a house in a nice suburban position, not a big operation. So we said our goodbyes and that was that. Years later, in the 90s, I’m on Irish radio and the DJ tells us Elvis had three of our songs on his jukebox. I was absolutely gobsmacked because this guy changed my life.

And now you’ve got Eminem sampling you.

He used Time Of The Season for Rhyme Or Reason [in 2013] and needed our approval. When I heard it I absolutely loved it. It was really close to our arrangements and the sounds but he’d inverted the sentiment completely and I thought that was so clever, and he’d done something really original. There was talk of us playing together on TV, and these things are always a long shot. But you never know!