The Zombies, and the lasting legacy of “Odessey and Oracle”

An interview with Colin Blunstone, lead singer of the legendary rock band

Pictured above: The Zombies in 2019 ((J-Ham2000, via Wikipedia)

One of the great counterfactuals — the ‘what ifs’ — of recent Cranbrook musical history is the concert by the Zombies, an English rock band who were scheduled to play the Key City Theatre in April, 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic, of course, put an end to that plan. The Zombies rescheduled their Western Canadian concerts for the fall (except for Cranbrook, due to scheduled renovations at the Key City Theatre), though even those scheduled dates appear to be in jeopardy, what with the persistence of the coronavirus.

The Zombies were formed in 1961 by keyboardist Rod Argent and singer Colin Blunstone. They created a distinctive sound, anchored by the keyboard — Rock and Roll with a swinging, Jazzy feel. They scored a couple of hits early on, but immediately after recording their second album, Odessey and Oracle (the misspelling was deliberate), the band broke up. But the album gradually achieved great fame, and is now considered one of the great albums of the 1960s, and made the Zombies a household name in Rock music.

The Zombies have reunited over the years, toured and recorded, with founders Blunstone and Argent as the consistent members. In March of 2020, Blunstone spoke to the Townsman from England, just prior to the scheduled Cranbrook concert, about the making of that famous album, the Zombies’ distinctive sound, and touring with that great legacy.

Above: Colin Blunstone in 2019 ((J-Ham2000, via Wikipedia)

“It’s a strange story,” Blunstone said to the Townsman, “because Odessey and Oracle was never a success when it was released in ’68. It was recorded in ’67, and it was never a commercial success. It wasn’t much of a critical success either. But 10 years after its release, it started to create interest. A lot of people started name-checking it; famously Tom Petty always talked about it, the Bangles, the Jam …”

It may have taken a long time for people to get interested in it Odessey and Oracle. And it’s never been a “chart record,” Blunstone said.

“But it’s sold consistently over a long period of time, and been quoted by huge stars and media outlets that it’s possibly one of the best albums of all time. It’s kind of difficult to get your head around it, really.”

The Zombies started recording Odessey and Oracle at Abbey Road Studios in London in 1967.

“The Beatles had just finished recording Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a couple of days before we started work on Odessey and Oracle,” Blunstone said. “They were mostly in Studio 2, and we were mostly in Studio 3. But they’d literally just left. Famously, one of the things they did — John Lennon left his mellotron behind in Studio 2, and we were very fortunate to be able to use that. If you listen to Odessey and Oracle, mellotron is all over that album. If John Lennon hadn’t left his mellotron behind, the album would d have been very different.

“Also, we were picking up percussion instruments that [The Beatles] had left on the floor. We were huge Beatles fans.

“It’s such a shame they’d left a couple of days before us, we never actually met them. But we were using the same engineers they were using — Geoff Emery and Peter Vince were the engineers on Sergeant Pepper and Odessey and Oracle, and there was an assistant engineer called Alan Parsons.”

Parsons, of course, went on to be successful with the Alan Parsons Project, with whom Blunstone served as vocalist in later years.

And like Sgt. Pepper, Odessey and Oracle has held up over the years, with a unique, timeless sound, and yet clearly from the psychedelic period of the 1960s.

“You can always say that about the Zombies, that you can like it — and hopefully you will — or you can not like it,” Blunstone said. “But it is unique. It doesn’t sound like anybody else. It’s always been true of the Zombies, and it is today as well.”

There is a lot of Jazz influence in the psychedelic rock of the Zombies. But much of the distinctiveness of that sound comes from the playing of Rod Argent, one of the great rock keyboardists of all time.

“Right from the beginning, we established that this was a keyboard-based band, that featured vocal harmonies,” Blunstone said. “None of these things was very popular when we started back in 1961 — that was our first rehearsal. Bands were very much three guitars, no keyboards, and very few bands were using harmonies. But we were always doing that, right from the beginning. The keyboard does give it a different sound.

“And Rod [Argent] is a phenomenal musician. He helped influence everyone else, including me. Rod and I talk continually when we’re working on new songs, about phrasing, how that song is going to be phrased, there’s nothing thrown together when I approach a vocal with the Zombies. And it’s the same with the rhythm section, and with what Paul Atkinson played on guitar. It was thought out, and it just comes together in just a magical way. And most of that comes from Rod, just because he’s such a phenomenal musician.”

Above: Rod Argent in 2019 ((J-Ham2000, via Wikipedia)

Odessey and Oracle was released in April 1968, initially to commercial and critical indifference. Looking back after 50 years, with the album and band having grown in stature and legend, Blunstone can reflect on immense changes in society and the peculiarities of the music business. That so many bands have claimed inspiration from the Zombies is in itself inspirational to him.

“We’re constantly amazed at how many bands say we were an influence on them,” he said. “It’s very heartening and uplifting to realize you have influenced people. Especially when the first incarnation of the band finished in 1967. We perceived ourselves as being unsuccessful at that time.

“But the world was a bigger place in those days. And we weren’t aware of what was going on around the world. We were pretty much on top of the American charts and the UK charts. But the Far East, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe — it took months for those charts and successes to get through to you. And what we realized when the band finished was we always had chart positions somewhere.

“Although we perceived ourselves as unsuccessful, we were doing ourselves a disservice. We always had chart records somewhere.”

After breaking up in the late ’60s, there was a long hiatus until the band reformed, with, again, Argent and Blunstone as the key consistent members. The touring and recording has been consistent: The Zombies have continued to record albums in the 2000s, including the most recent, 2015’s Still Got That Hunger. The whole process has changed since the Abbey Road days a half century ago.

“It’s so different now than how it was,” Blunstone said. “In some ways it’s easier, because there are so many more options that you’ve got when you’re recording. But because there are infinite options on everything that you do, it also makes it more complicated. When we started in the ‘60s, we were recording on Four-Track, it was very limited what you could do. You had to go into the studio and perform. Nowadays you can take as many takes as you want, you can use as many tracks as you want.

Bluestone said that the Zombies as a band prefers to record as “live” as possible.

“The last album we had out was recorded pretty much live, with lead vocals as well. The only thing added was backing harmonies. Solos were live. We’ve just started a new album — the first three tracks, and the backing tracks were recorded live. I actually went and put lead vocals on afterwards. But we just find it more exciting and fulfilling to record live. For the new album, Rod has just built a new studio. So this is the first chance we’ve had to use the studio in his house.”

The new album is all going to be new material, which the band is writing at the moment.

“It’s difficult to define it,” Blunstone said. “They sound like typically Zombie tracks to me. We’ll just have to wait and see.

“I’ve got a feeling it’s not going to be released until early next year.”

The pandemic, of course, has put all sorts of plans on hold. At the time of this interview, the Zombies had an extensive North American tour scheduled. And in the old-school sense, they are still a rock and roll band — live music is best.

“It’s always the same,” Blunstone said. “If you love performing, then it stays with you.

“People say to us, why are you still doing this at this time in your lives? The answer is we love doing it. It’s really exciting to perform in front of an enthusiastic audience. There’s nothing else like it. The thrill is to write a song, record it in the studio, then it’s on a record, and you take that song out and perform it to an audience. And you’ve seen the song develop, from the initial spark. It’s a very exciting process.”

Here’s hoping the Zombies are able to pass by this way again soon.

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