We spoke with Colin Blunstone about trying to make art that makes a difference in peoples’ lives, playing a Mellotron left behind by John Lennon, knowing when your contract is over and why it’s important to never lose sight of your first creative goal.
Odessey and Oracle may well have been a different album if that Mellotron hadn’t been left behind by John Lennon.
Most of my friends of a certain generation have very profound memories of your music with the Zombies, especially the singles “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No.” It seems to be the first 45 rpm record that many people bought. How do you reckon with your accomplishments, knowing full well that you contributed to something huge for many, many people?
All I can say is that it makes it all worthwhile if people tell us that our records played an important part in their musical life. That’s why we made records, really. It starts off with a song that has a meaning to us, that’s why we record it in the first place. We always hope that because a song has a meaning to us, it’ll have a meaning for other people as well. If “She’s Not There” or “Tell Her No” or any other song signifies an important part in their life, I think it’s a huge lift for us. It’s why we write songs and make records, so it’ll make some difference in peoples’ lives, however small. I think it permeates everything we’ve done.
I’m of a younger generation, but it’s all touched my life as a listener, too. I’ve got a strong memory of driving around with a bunch of my friends obsessing over the song “Brief Candles” from Odessey and Oracle. Can you tell us what inspired that particular tune? What was the recording process like?
Well, first of all, I’d like to remind myself that that song was recorded, I think, exactly 50 years ago! My memory of all the sessions is not as sharp as it was, and I hate to say it, but I don’t have any specific memories of recording that song. Early on, we decided that the three main singers in the band would each take a verse, so Rod sings the first verse, Chris White sings the second verse and I sing the third verse, but I sing all the choruses.
It’s a favorite song of mine as well. It didn’t strike me so much at the time — there were probably other songs I preferred. But looking back now, it’s a song that really hit me while playing it live and made me think “How beautiful this song is!” It’s written by Chris White, and I think it’s got a beautiful lyric. Sadly, I remember very little of recording it! There are certain songs I do remember recording, but it is such a long time ago that I have an overall memory of the album, but some of the tracks have sort of faded with the passing of time.
Chris White mentioned to me that the Beatles had recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the next room, but that you didn’t get to meet them!
Well, they had been. We were in Studio 3, which is the first studio you come to on the left when you walk through the main door, but if you walk on down the corridor and turn right at the end, there’s Studio 2, and that’s where the Beatles were recording. But they actually finished a few days before we started. We were huge Beatles fans, but we didn’t meet them and we didn’t hear any of Sgt. Pepper until we pretty much finished Odessey and Oracle. Certainly, we didn’t hear it at the beginning when we started, because they’d only just finished it themselves.
However, we inherited all the advances they made. They’d just made Sgt. Pepper, and we were the next band to go into the studio! We weren’t in the same studio, but we were using the same engineers like Geoff Emerick and Peter Vince. And as we were told, John Lennon had left a Mellotron behind in Studio 3, which was a very new instrument at the time. If you listen to Odessey and Oracle, we used it all over the place. It may well have been a different album if that Mellotron hadn’t been left behind by John Lennon.
There were also percussion instruments left behind by them. We just picked them up and used them! It was very exciting to think that the Beatles had just been using those, literally days before we had.
I think you have to accept, really gratefully, any success you get in the music business. But if we could have chosen, it may have been better if we had that success a little bit later.
From there, can you tell me about the mysterious “final Zombies album,” R.I.P.? Was that meant to be a final statement meant for release, or was it more of a collection of obscurities?
I’m going by my memory here, but I think it’s a collection of obscurities, songs that were never finished by the original Zombies. There’s some demos that were the beginnings of the band Argent, and even some tracks that are basically Argent, really. It’s a lot of tracks from the changing-over period, but also some old songs like “Walking in the Sun.”
Strangely enough, some of those tracks were remixed and overdubs were done with the late Gus Dudgeon, who had engineered the Zombies’ very first session in Decca Studios when we did “She’s Not There.” It was Gus Dudgeon’s first session as an engineer, and it was our first session. He never forgot that. Of course, Gus went on to produce many of Elton John and David Bowie’s albums. A very successful producer. He was involved with the R.I.P. album.
Let’s flash back from R.I.P. to the beginning of your musical life. What sparked your interest in rock & roll at a young age? From there, what persuaded you and the others to take the approach we hear on Odessey — with all those gorgeous strings, harmonies and baroque instruments?
Well, probably the same as most people. It probably started for me with Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly. All the early greats of rock and roll. That’s what got me interested, I just loved it! I convinced my parents to buy me a guitar, which was a big decision for them. We weren’t a wealthy family. For me to have a guitar was quite a big deal, and they very kindly bought me one and I started playing. Originally, I joined the Zombies as the rhythm guitarist. So, I could play a few tunes. It was 1961 when we first got together!
I think our interest in rock & roll music had all been triggered by the same people. But I think the interesting thing about the Zombies is that there was such a wide spectrum of musical interest, in that everybody was interested in classical music, modern jazz, rhythm & blues, the blues as well as rock & roll. I think you can hear it in the music. There are always different influences. Ironically, I think that’s one of the strengths of the Zombies but also one of the weaknesses, because I think a lot of people in the media found it difficult to categorize us.
That can be quite important. If you’re writing for a rhythm & blues or rock magazine, your editors will probably be very keen that you write features on the correct type of music. Because our music really covered influences from such a wide spectrum, I think it diluted our impact with the media. It’s not really a fault of the band, but it’s just the way the business is set up. I think it’s great to take influences from all different kinds of music.
Before our first recording session, a lot of what we did was very raw rhythm & blues, kind of naïve rhythm & blues! We were finding our way. In no way were we the finished article. Just as an aside, when we got to have our first recording session, our producer Ken Jones was talking about our first session in a couple of weeks’ time. He said “You know, you could always write something for this session if you wanted to!” Rod Argent and Chris White really picked up on that, and they went away and wrote a song for that session. I was absolutely amazed! I now know that Rod had already written a couple of songs before, but I didn’t really know that he could write. Rod came back with “She’s Not There” and Chris came back with the B-side, “You Make Me Feel Good.” I think all of us knew straight-away that they had really special songwriting gifts.
Looking back, it’s so easy to see this. From that point, the band started to change. We started to include more and more of their songs and to not play so much rhythm & blues. We also played covers of other bands’ songs, but as they wrote more and more, we played less and less of those. Their writing became the cornerstone of the band. And in some way, probably moreso with Chris, it took him time to develop his craft. It’s so easy to be wise after the event, but it seemed to all come together with Odessey and Oracle, where we had 12 beautiful and sophisticated songs written by Rod and Chris.
I think you have to accept, really gratefully, any success you get in the music business. But if we could have chosen, it may have been better if we had that success a little bit later. We’d already decided to become a professional band. We were already going to go off and play wherever they’d have us, in this country or abroad. We could have learned the beginnings of our stagecraft away from the spotlight if we hadn’t had a hit so early. We were thrust right into the spotlight at 18 and 19 years old and we had to learn as we went along, as performers and as writers.
It’s important to never lose sight of what you were, of what originally excited you about music, because with a little bit of luck, you’ll get the opportunity to further that career path.
That’s so fascinating to imagine, and it makes me wonder what advice you’d give to someone who’s just starting to play. I love Joe Walsh’s advice for musical novices, which basically boiled down to “Learn every Beatles song,” and “Play at every opportunity.” I found that to be a pure and simple thing to say, something I couldn’t knock if I tried. What would your version of that advice be?
I’ve read that too. I think it’s really good advice. It’s hard to think of something that’s as good as that. I sometimes think it’s important to never lose sight of what you were, of what originally excited you about music. Because you may have to play all different kinds of music when you come into the business, but you’ll be learning all the time. If you’re offered different kinds of music, if you have to end up playing in a bar, doing jingles or maybe something a little bit more exciting than that, play it! You’re learning all the time. But don’t lose sight of what your original aim was, because as you grow, with a little bit of luck, you’ll get the opportunity to further that career path. If you keep playing, keep practicing, keep positive, keep energized… the music business is a bit prone to giving you knocks, that’s the trouble. You have to overcome those knocks. Don’t lose sight of what originally excited you in the music business.
I would say one other thing. If you do sign contracts, I think it’s really important to be sure in your mind when that contract ends. That might seem like a really obvious thing, but say it’s a three-year contract and in each year you guarantee to write and record 10 songs that will be released to the public, then that’s not a one-year option. You may not be able to write and record 10 songs in that one year. So you’ll be put on suspension and it gets longer and longer. That’s just an obvious thing, but it can be more complex than that. You think you find a three-year contract, and you end up still under contract in 10 years’ time. So I think it’s very important to be sure when a contract ends. Obviously, you want to know what the percentages are, are there any advances, do look at what that is. But also, make sure you know when the contract ends.
Finally, have you learned things on this decades-long journey that you never thought you would? What advice would you give yourself as a young man, at 18 or 19?
I absolutely would say to myself, “It is possible to have a lifetime career in the music business.” It’s worth remembering that when you start on your musical journey, because I thought that I was involved in a two- or three-year wonderful adventure, traveling around the world playing music I love with my friends. And then at the end of that adventure, I would get my proper job. Maybe even subconsciously, that’s what I believed. I might have approached my early career in a different way if I’d realized I would have the option of having a lifetime career in music. That’s what I would say to any young musician coming into the business. There is an option if you take it seriously and pace yourself, you know If you can really concentrate on that and not get too carried away with the periphery of the business, which can be very exciting, parties and meeting people and so forth, just remember this can be a lifetime career. It is important that you learn and grow as a musician and performer.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Phone
Published: November 13, 2017
Total questions: 7
Word count: 2222
Reading time: Eight minutes
Mellotron: John Lennon
blues, Buddy Holly, business, Chuck Berry, classical music, Colin Blunstone, complexity, contract, David Bowie, Elton John, Elvis Presley, engineer, Geoff Emerick, goal, gratitude, Gus Dudgeon, jazz, Joe Walsh, John Lennon, Little Richard, Mellotron, music, Odessey and Oracle, Peter Vince, record, rhythm & blues, rock & roll, Rod Argent, success, The Beatles, The Everly Brothers, The Zombies
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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