As singer with The Zombies and as a solo artist Colin Blunstone is widely regarded as one of the most unique pop vocalists to emerge from the ‘60s Beat scene.
The Zombies 1968 album Odessey And Oracle is held in the same high regard as Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake or Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. In 2010 Paul Weller told BBC News, “It made a very, very big impression and it’s still probably my all-time favourite record”.
Tootal Blog met with Colin ahead of the Odessey And Oracle 50th anniversary concert at the London Palladium and his own solo UK tour.
Tell us about your early pre-Zombies life.
I was born in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, where I went to Green Lanes Primary School and St. Albans Grammar. From an early age I was very interested in music and aware of the Mods and Rockers, and the Beatniks. I never thought music would be my career and even after The Zombies I still didn’t think it was a lifetime job. I thought we might make two or three albums then it would be back to the real world. So, here I am 50 years later…
Your first recording contract arose from wining a local talent contest, is that right?
At the grammar school we were sat in alphabetical order, I sat behind Paul Arnold, whose friend – Rod Argent – had seen local heroes The Bluetones and was bitten by the R&B bug.
Paul said to me, “You’ve got a guitar, do you want to be in a band?” I was a little reluctant as I was really into sport. Still, we met Easter, 1961, outside The Blacksmiths Arms in St. Albans. Jim Rodford, Rod’s cousin, was bass player in The Bluetones and let us borrow their amps and drums and found us a place to rehearse. I thought we sounded quite good but Jim, who had stayed to watch, later confided he thought we had no chance. It’s a good job he didn’t hear our second rehearsal when we had to use our own gear.
Then it was a long road around youth clubs, church halls, back rooms of pubs, etc. Spring 1964 we entered ‘Herts Beat’, a local band competition held at Watford Town Hall, where we won our heat and then the final. Around this time Paul Arnold left – he wanted to be, and in fact is, a doctor, now in Canada. He was replaced on bass by Chris White, whose uncle Ken Jones had a publishing company, Marquis Music. We signed with Marquis who in turn licensed our songs to Decca. When we went into the studio for our first session Ken said, “You can always write something yourself”. Rod’s contribution was ‘She’s Not There’, whilst Chris came up with the b-side, ‘You Make Me Feel So Good’.
Your initial efforts as The Zombies seem to owe less of a debt to U.S. R&B than your contemporaries. Why was that?
We discovered we had two prolific writers in the band; otherwise we would have just recorded R&B classics. We were learning on the job so that first album is a bit patchy. By 1967 both Chris and Rod were writing brilliant songs, and that all came together on Odessey And Oracle.
I thought songwriter was a different profession to singer or musician until The Beatles showed us the way. At our very first rehearsal I was rhythm guitarist and Rod was going to be singer but the first song we tried was an instrumental, ‘Malaguena’. There was a broken down upright piano in one corner and Rod played an amazing rendition of ‘Nutrocker’ by B. Bumble & The Stingers. I said to Rod, ”You really should play the piano” but he said, “Rock n’ roll bands have three guitars”. Later the same day I was, I thought, singing quietly to myself and when Rod heard me he said, “I’ll play the piano if you sing!”
Our first session at Decca was an evening booking and we worked all through the night. Unfortunately the recording engineer had been at a wedding all day. Not only was he paralytic but also he started getting more and more aggressive. After 20 minutes of this I was ready to give up but luckily he passed out, so we put him in a black cab and the tape operative, a young Gus Dudgeon, took over.
Though image wise there seems little to differentiate you from other UK Beat groups of the time.
We were 18 years old and didn’t know how the business worked. We went into the Decca press office and within 10 minutes they had contrived an image for us. They tried to project us as brainy, academic geeks. Our audience wanted brigands, pirates, dangerous people!
There are some terrible pictures of us in sleeveless jerkins made of Velveteen. A friends mum made them for us, they cost less than £1 each. I don’t think our image ever recovered. By the time we got to the U.S. – as part of that first great ‘British Invasion’ – we were a bit more streetwise.
In that first ‘60s phase of your career you only managed two albums in five years. That must have been frustrating?
Albums were very much an afterthought; it was the era of the single. Odessey And Oracle spent one week at Number 98 in the Chart. It was only ten years later that we started to notice good write ups, and other artists started to cite it as an influence. Ironically there was no band by then.
And now 50 years on there is obviously demand for Odessey And Oracle. Why do you think it has endured?
The songwriting first and foremost, every song is a classic. The idea was that Rod and Chris would produce it so it would be the first time we got the sound we wanted. Geoff Emerick and Peter Vince at Abbey Road helped us achieve that. We followed The Beatles in there, they had just finished Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and so we used their mellotron and whatever percussion was lying around. Plus there were a lot of technological advances around this time.
There is a timeless feel about the album but at the same time it is very representative of the Sixties. Eminem’s ‘Rhyme Or Reason’ samples ‘Time Of The Season’. He’s a genius; he turned it into a contemporary track.
Your first solo album was released in 1971. The style seems at odds with the big albums of the day – The Who, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Jethro Tull, etc.
We didn’t try to emulate the styles of the day; we were recording to please ourselves. It was the same with The Zombies, though One Year is almost The Zombies by another name. Rod and Chris produced it and wrote a few of the songs. Chris Gunning arranged the strings and came up with some incredible arrangements, like ‘Say You Don’t Mind’. We had done it with The Zombies as a rock track but Chris gave it that Bartok style arrangement.
I played the first Electric Light Orchestra tour; the infamous Don Arden managed them. Besides ELO and my string quintet there were a few other bands on the tour. We did 30 dates and when we got to the end Don Arden said it hadn’t made any money and none of us were getting paid.
In 1973 you get to play Top of the Pops, sandwiched between reggae star Dandy Livingstone and Pans People dancing to The Temptations. Were you keen to be a mainstream pop star?
As far as Top of the Pops was concerned I just sang my song and left. I wasn’t aware of who else was on the programme. I had been on the Old Grey Whistle Test with the string quintet and it worked well. I did Top of the Pops with the BBC Concert Orchestra, as you had to use them. I was alone on one stage and they were on another at the other end of the studio. I couldn’t hear them
My plan at that time was to carry on songwriting and to see where it led me. I wrote a few songs for Journey (1974) and some more on Planes (1976) but at this time I was also working with Pete Wingfield. I took his song ‘Eighteen With A Bullet’ to Epic Records and they just laughed at me, they saw me as a romantic balladeer. Of course, Pete put it out himself and had a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. That was hard to take. I also worked with Russ Ballard. Island Publishing played me his song ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’. I like Russ so, of course, I listened to it but I didn’t get it. A couple of years later it was a huge hit for Rainbow. I can also recall a publisher playing me ‘Your Song’ by Elton John…
Around this time I started to find it very challenging to sing in tune. When you’re recording, particularly back then, you had to be pitch perfect but I was struggling. It’s only now that I’m starting to understand what had happened. When I was playing live I had no onstage foldback speakers to hear myself so I had to sing as loud as I could. That affected me for the next 15 years. I wasn’t until 1990 that my voice started to recover, to some extent.
You’re back in the charts in 1981 with Dave Stewart but from mid ‘70s to mid ‘90s you seemed to become the “go to” featured vocalist. Did your own solo career take a back seat this time?
Dave Stewart rang me. He had this track he was working on with Barbara Gaskin who, incidentally, went to the same primary school as me. The single – our version of what ‘Becomes Of The Broken Hearted’ – was out for about a year before it got anywhere. It was getting played on Radio 1 four or five times a day but it stalled at Number 120. Then Stiff Records licensed it and it we had a Top Twenty hit.
We did record a couple more tracks together but Dave really wanted to work with Barbara, plus CBS were unhappy with me recording for Stiff and they sued me. I had been offered a big label deal with a name producer but CBS blocked it, that’s why I had to become a ‘voice for hire’. Then two weeks before I was due in court, Eric Woolfson, who was Alan Parsons’ partner in The Alan Parsons Project, he took Maurice Oberstein (Head of CBS) out to lunch and it was sorted. Eric wasn’t just a songwriter but a tough businessman too.
Now you seem comfortable balancing the demand for The Zombies and making solo records.
It actually worked out well for me. In the Nineties I was working with Don Airey, another great keyboard player. He rang me and said you really should get out there and play live. Don put a wonderful band together, we tried it and it worked but then Don moved on to his next project. This was about 1999. So, I rang Rod and he said, ‘Yes but I’ll only do the six dates you have booked’. And we’re still doing it now. Since then we’ve recorded three new Zombies albums, we have a full year of dates ahead of us and Odessey And Oracle just goes on and on. We’ve gone from playing small rooms in the back of pubs to Glastonbury and the Isle Of Wight Festival.
What does the next 12 months hold for you?
I’m recording some new solo songs. It might be an album. It’s finished when it’s finished. It can’t be rushed. I don’t want to find that I’ve got to fill it with three sub-standard numbers just to finish it off and hit a deadline.
My career couldn’t have worked out any better. As long as we are physically capable we will carry on.
Colin Blunstone is playing selected UK dates in November 2017. For details and tickets, and news of future releases visit www.colinblunstone.net
The Zombies will be playing Odessey And Oracle at the London Palladium on 29 September 2017. For details and tickets visit www.rutlive.co.uk/events/the-zombies