THE ZOMBIES…ON THE BLUE!
A CONVERSATION WITH 2019 ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES ROD ARGENT AND COLIN BLUNSTONE
Fifty was a magical number aboard this year’s On the Blue Cruise hosted by the Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward. Setting sale on February 10 from Miami, Royal Caribbean’s 3,807-passenger Mariner of the Seas hosted a floating classic rock music festival with a lineup including Strawbs, Procol Harum, Poco, Lighthouse, and Wishbone Ash. The spotlight was brightest, however, on The Zombies, who will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on March 29, exactly fifty years to the day since “Time of the Season” hit number one on the Cashbox charts. During the cruise, I spoke with original members Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone about the honour they will be receiving, the cruise, the band’s history, and how they manage—after more than five decades—to still like each other.
The Zombies will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on the second fiftieth anniversary that the band has celebrated, the first being the semi-centennial of Odessey & Oracle (one of the band’s most recognized recordings), an album that ironically marked the end of The Zombies, but whose anniversary triggered a reunion tour. Still, the recognition must be a tremendously exciting experience, especially since Argent, remembering when the Hall was established in 1986, says, “I don’t think there would have been any chance of us being inducted at that time. We weren’t particularly well-known then and actually felt that we were being forgotten”. Blunstone adds that, “We’ve been rediscovered over the years. It’s been a really exciting thing—we’ve talked about this a lot—it seems to have happened quite naturally and we now have a standing that we didn’t have in 1986 and that’s true of our last album Odessey & Oracle, which is now equated as one of ‘the’ albums of the ‘60s. So much has happened over the past few years since we got back together again and we have this second incarnation of the band and we’ve managed to gradually build it up just through constant play”.
The Zombies’ newfound popularity is especially noticeable in the United States, where the band tours frequently. However, Argent adds that, “It’s extraordinary when we go to some foreign countries, to see the reaction that we get and didn’t expect. But I think Colin’s absolutely right: We got back together—maybe 19, maybe 20 years ago—to do six gigs for fun. Honestly, we didn’t see it going any further than that. And I was not at all sure about doing any shows at all but I did a charity show for a jazz musician in the UK—John Dankworth—and Colin came along to the show and he got up on stage and we did ‘She’s Not There’ and ‘Time of the Season’ and, it’s a bit of an old cliché, but we really did feel like we played three or four weeks before—it just felt so natural—and then Colin said to me a couple of months later ‘I’m doing a few solo gigs. Why don’t you come and do a few with me?’ So those six gigs have turned into 19 years of touring around the world”. This puts Blunstone in a reflective mood and he says, “I’ll tell you something that will be going through our minds at the induction ceremony. Obviously, the first incarnation of the band, we lost Paul Atkinson and the second incarnation of the band, we’ve lost Jim Rodford so it will be a very emotional evening for us. And I’d like to think that they’ll be looking down on us and celebrating with us”.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has not yet revealed the name of the artist who will induct The Zombies. Unfortunately, Argent says, it will certainly not be Tom Petty, who Blunstone describes as “such a supporter. A wonderful person. He was one of the first guys who started to talk us up”.
The Zombies have a history with the On the Blue Cruise; in March 2013, the band was part of the lineup for the inaugural voyage (at that time, it was called “The Moody Blues Cruise”) and gave an electrifying performance on the pool stage. Since then, The Zombies have consistently been one of the cruise’s most anticipated bands, and each year, event organizers have arranged for it to play two separate shows in order to accommodate the crowd. Remembering his first performance onboard, Argent says, “We were very lucky, you know, with that pool stage show because it’s great playing the pool stage but the conditions need to be right. In fact, last year we couldn’t play the pool stage at all because the rain cancelled the concert”. Lamenting that fiasco, he continues, “Some people come from New Zealand, from Australia and they’d say, ‘Oh, we heard a lot about you but we haven’t heard you play and now we’re not going to see you’. Colin and I tried to find an alternative but there was nowhere that could accommodate the number of people. They really tried though—they didn’t cancel until the very last minute hoping that the weather conditions might allow it to go on. It is a bit of a nightmare playing that stage if conditions are like that but when they are perfect as they were five years ago, it was magical. We loved it”.
Remembering the band’s first involvement with the cruise, Argent says, “We had nothing to base it on. It was our management’s idea. Our manager loves The Moody Blues, saw the lineup, and believed we’d be a good fit musically. We had no idea what to expect at all. I’d never been on a cruise but it was great and it was so unexpected. And do you know what? I think the cruise, in itself, actually helped our situation in America because before that—well, we’d always had big audiences in New York and L.A. and sometimes in Chicago as well, but in the Midwest and particularly in the South we’d play to very, very small audiences when we first came over. We noticed after we played that first cruise, people were coming to all of our shows”. Blunstone agrees: “There was a difference after the cruise. Fans in America are particularly loyal and tenacious and they’ll come to see you all over the country”. Elaborating, Argent says, “They were spreading the word. Everywhere we went, we were meeting these guys who were saying ‘We saw you the first time on a cruise, you know, and we told all our friends about it’, etc. and we couldn’t believe how much difference it made, but I guess there are thousands of people on these cruises”.
Blunstone speculates that, “I think it’s played a huge part in the recent successes of the band because, of course, the people who come on the cruise live all over America—they live all over the world—but especially they live all over America and they spread the word and it’s made a huge, huge difference”. Argent has noticed a particularly pronounced change in the South, where he says, “We get packed audiences! I’m not sure that’s totally because of the cruising—we also played South by Southwest 2015 (SXSW)—and between the two, the cruises and SXSW—it snowballed for us. And there’s social media, as well—which I was very suspicious of originally. I think it proved to people that we could still get on stage unaided! But we’re only doing this because we’re doing it honestly in the sense that we’re doing this not to make a buck because we certainly weren’t making a buck when we first came to the States, but just for the joy of playing and the buzz we get out of it. I’m not knocking it—some people just want to get the most out of their career—but we’ve just been very lucky because there’s been such an upsurge in the band’s popularity with the albums and the records and Odessey & Oracle, and everything else that we’ve got a cushion of income and we’re very grateful for that”.
A few weeks after last year’s cruise, on January 20, Jim Rodford—The Zombies’ bassist, and an integral member of the band—passed away following an accident at his home. Reflecting on his departed friend, Argent says, “In the year’s work following Jim’s passing, we dedicated almost every show to Jim. In fact, when Jim passed away, we had a tour coming up and we didn’t know if we should be doing it or what was going to happen. But Steve, his son (The Zombies’ drummer), said Jim would one hundred percent have wanted us to carry on. I mean, that’s how he saw things. And I know of a couple of instances where Jim had been in a situation where someone close to the band had passed away, he’d say ‘Well, it’s the cycle of life and I want to carry on because that makes the most sense’”.
“Just before we came over, we played a concert in St. Albans (Jim’s hometown) in Jim’s honour on the first anniversary of his passing—the very day—and it was sold out in hours. Even less”, Blunstone recalls. “We’ve also been doing ‘God Gave Rock ’n’ Roll to You’”. Argent says, “In that first year, we’d invite whoever was in the area—bands or whoever—to come on stage unexpected to the audience to sing ‘God Gave Rock ’n’ Roll to You’ as a big chorus in honor of Jim”.
With so many tumultuous relationships among members of other bands, it is pleasantly surprising that Argent and Blunstone seem so centered and serene, maintaining a strong friendship built on mutual respect. Pondering the band’s interpersonal success, Argent says, “There’s never been a falling out—there really hasn’t, actually. I think one of the secrets is because we spend hours and hours a day secreted away in a capsule—we usually have a Sprinter van or whatever—I think the secret is to give each other space. People are very quiet in the bus and they get on with their own thing and that space is very important when you’re…it’s a bit like a marriage in a sense…when you’re just there all the time”. Blunstone describes the band’s lifestyle on tour: “Backstage just before the show, sometimes people will crash into the dressing room and expect a party. Half of us will be asleep, half will be reading a book, and someone’s stuck in the loo. That’s about as active as we get”. Argent adds that, “We always like an hour of space before the show. It’s just a way of focusing before you go out”.
“What’s funny is we did the fiftieth year celebration of Odessey and Oracle because we didn’t want to keep doing it all the time”, says Argent, elaborating on the band’s dynamic. “We’re very proud of the album but we didn’t want to keep doing it for the rest of our flippin’ lives so we said ‘Okay, for this year, we’ll put all that aside and we’ll celebrate it and then after that, we’ll just only do it on special occasions’. But, nevertheless, touring in America with Chris and Hugh again, it was the same jokes going around the bus that were going around fifty years ago. I mean, it was silly but it was quite nice”.
Recently, The Zombies’ music has appeared in popular television series (Mad Men and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) and commercials. When “She’s Not There” hit the charts in 1964, the band probably would not have believed that Chanel would one day pay for the rights to use the song. Asked how he would have felt fifty years ago about these Hollywood and Madison Avenue patrons, Blunstone says, “I don’t think any of us thought the music would last that long. I think all of us felt there’s sort of a three-year career in rock ’n’ roll. I think at the time most people thought like that”. Argent interrupts to say that he definitely wanted to stay in rock ’n’ roll, and Blunstone replies, “Yeah, but it’s not a matter of whether you wanted to, it’s a matter of whether work would be available. If I could have stayed in, I would have…well, I did, actually!…but I didn’t think it was possible. And I certainly didn’t think in terms of commercials. I don’t even know if we had commercials on TV in those days in Britain! We didn’t have commercials on TV around 1964—it was just BBC. But in the 1970s or 1980s we did a toothpaste commercial. And this was funny—they booked a major studio which was very expensive for about three days to do just the music. So the guys came in and it was ‘Tell Her No’. If she doesn’t clean her teeth with this stuff—whatever it was—you’ve got to ‘Tell Her No’. So the guys come in…one take. Me? Two takes. And it was done. And they’d booked this studio and there was this whole entourage of them and they’d booked for three days. I felt a bit embarrassed—maybe we should have made a few more mistakes”.
Argent adds, “On the back of what Colin was saying, on our tour last year, Graham Nash came along to one of our gigs and he came backstage afterwards. He spent some time and it was lovely—he’s still a very vital, creative person. But he said A: ‘Who would have thought when we were talking fifty years ago, we would still be getting excited about creating new stuff just as we were fifty years ago or more’, and B: that the songs that we played that night would still be being heard? Because it is true, certainly when we were doing ‘She’s Not There’, in three months’ time, they wanted another single so we thought that three months probably was the life of a song. It’s really crazy. One of the things that turns me on the most is the fact that we get a lot of young people in our audience. The cruise audience tends to be a little bit older, generally, but there’s usually quite a big young component at our shows. And what we do, and even the new stuff that we’re doing, seems to be able to relate to them in just as strong a way as to the people who’ve grown up with us. That’s such a gratifying thing”.
Argent is describing an increasingly common phenomenon; younger people seem widely interested in the previous generation’s music. “The Times—one of England’s most prestigious newspapers—just two weeks ago, had a leader in which they were talking about rock ’n’ roll”, he says. “There was a study done and more 20-year-olds recognized a song that was number one maybe 50 years ago than they did a song that was number one last week. And this, they said, was a real sea change. ‘60s and ‘70s music, these studies said, means as much (or more) to young people as current music”. However, this shouldn’t surprise the man who sang, “Rock ’n’ roll is the soul of everyone”, a line that seems more true with each passing year.