The year 2017 is a good time to be a Zombie — of the musical singing and playing kind, not necessarily the walking dead variety. For decades, the group was beloved by a smallish-but-devoted audience, and rarely mentioned in the same breath as better-known British Invasion contemporaries like the Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Dave Clark Five, Yardbirds…even Herman’s Hermits.
After all, this was a band who scored a possibly career-changing #3 hit on the U.S. charts in 1968…after they had already broken up (that would be FM radio staple “Time of the Season” off the album Odessey and Oracle). The Zombies had previously charted with “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No.”
Their original incarnation only spanned a handful of years and put out fewer LPs. But their unique brand of smart, snappy pop-rock — anchored by Colin Blunstone’s breathy vocals and Rod Argent’s keyboard flourishes and backing vocals — made them cult favorites. But now the word is finally out.
Last year, the band was included for the first time on the ballot for induction (but did not make the final cut) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their most recent album, 2015’s Still Got That Hunger, garnered mostly positive reviews. There’s even a new coffee-table book out on the band’s history.
“It’s been exciting to see how the audiences have grown over the past number of years, particularly in the southern United States. Just by word of mouth and good playing by professionals. Our profile has definitely grown,” Blunstone — in the most elegant-sounding, PBS-worthy English accent I have ever heard in my life — professes.
Most important, the Zombies have just wound up a tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of Odessey and Oracle, with the album played in its entirety. Original members Chris White (bass) and Hugh Grundy (drums) joined the current lineup of Blunstone, Argent, Jim Rodford (bass), Steve Rodford (drums) and Tom Toomey (guitar). Original guitarist Paul Atkinson died in 2004.
The Houston show — billed as “An Evening with the Zombies” — will not feature White and Grundy or the complete seminal album, but the set list will include many tracks from it. “Those shows were wonderful and emotional, and such vivid memories of the ’60s came rushing back with Chris and Hugh onstage,” Blunstone says wistfully. “It seems like almost yesterday we were playing together, even though it was a lifetime ago. It plays tricks on your memory.”
Still, it wasn’t an easy or predetermined road to today’s success. When Blunstone and Argent resurrected the Zombies name for concerts and records beginning in 2004, they had to grow an audience, reflected in their Houston experiences.
In 2004 we spoke with Argent, before the band played to about 40 people at the Engine Room. In 2013 we talked with Blunstone for Part I and Part II of an interview before they performed for several hundred at Fitzgerald’s, returning two years later (and with another Blunstone talk) to the higher-ticket-priced (but hey, you got dinner) Dosey Doe. The upcoming gig is at the even larger-capacity Heights Theater, which is on track to sell out.
In recording Still Got That Hunger, the Zombies looked back to look forward. “We decided quite purposefully to record the new album like we did with Odessey, which was to rehearse extensively before we set foot in the studio. Back then, it was to save money since we had a limited budget and were recording in Abbey Road Studios, which was expensive!” Blunstone laughs. “So we recorded very quickly, and that’s what we did, playing in separate sound booths, but live together.”
The singer adds that his vocals on the finished album were originally just put down as a guide, but upon hearing them, the band agreed to use them as is. He also gives producer Chris Potter – who has worked with the Verve and the Rolling Stones – a lot of credit for the final work. Writing is already in process for a follow-up, possibly also with Potter.
As for live shows, Blunstone is proud that at age 71, he still has his full vocal range, and the band plays all their material in their original keys. He credits a late voice coach – Ian Adam, who also tutored Argent – with creating a series of vocal exercises that he uses to warm up before every show. Although the material went from being on a cassette to a CD to its current home on Blunstone’s smart phone.
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Then there’s the matter of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Blunstone hopes that the band will be inducted while four of the five original members “are still around,” adding they’re all in pretty good health. “But you have to be philosophical about these things," he says. "I like to think of us – especially the present incarnation – as jobbing musicians. Our job is to go out and play live. The Hall of Fame would be wonderful, but we enjoy what we’re doing anyway. And we’re incredibly privileged to be doing it at this time in our lives. The Hall of Fame would be the icing on the cake.”
Finally, the Zombies have taken to the high seas on more than one occasion, and will continue to do so on jaunts with titles like The Flower Power Cruise and the Moody Blues Cruise. While being trapped on a boat in the middle of the ocean with rabid fans might seem like (and likely is) a nightmare for some performers, Blunstone takes it in stride – provided that he’s not hungry as soon as he gets up.
“It’s interesting. These ships are huge. They are like a town or a small city that just happens to be on the sea. But you’re actually traveling with your audience,” he says. “I like to get out and speak to people, but you really have to plan your time. It may well take you 45 minutes or an hour just to get to breakfast in the morning because people want to talk to you! But they’re incredibly respectful and enthusiastic and polite.”