Isn’t it strange? Through a series of coincidences I became a singer and spend the next fifty-something years of my life being a professional singer!”
So says Colin Blunstone who, even at the tender age of seventy, can look back on a remarkable fifty five years in the music business. The rock singer with the velvet voice became the lead vocalist with the Zombies back in 1961 while the band were all still at school. Success with the band was brief, but Colin has also had a long and distinguished solo career before reuniting with former band-mate Rod Argent to resurrect the Zombies.
Speaking ahead of his solo appearance at Derby’s Flowerpot in April, Colin revealed how he became lead singer with the Zombies after joining as the fledgling band as rhythm guitarist.
“It was all a chance thing, really, and happened at the first rehearsal,” said Colin. “We had just rehearsed an instrumental called Malagueña and Rod Argent was going to be the lead singer. He hadn’t done very much because we’d just got together, we didn’t really know one another, and we had just rehearsed an instrumental… As the lead vocalist, Rod hadn’t made a contribution at that point!
“We had a coffee break and Rod went over to an old broken down piano in the corner and he played Nut Rocker by B Bumble and the Stingers. Even at fifteen years old, he was an incredible key-board player. I was amazed. I had only just met Rod, I hadn’t known him before this rehearsal, and I said to him ‘You have to play keyboards in this band.’ He was obviously a wonderful player, but he was reluctant because he saw a rock band as being three guitars, not a keyboard.”
The rest of the band persuaded Rod to play keyboards in the Zombies and then, later in the same session, Colin was sitting in a corner with his guitar and singing to himself. “Rod heard me and said ‘I’ll be the keyboard player if you’ll be the lead singer.’ I didn’t have any plans to be a singer until that first rehearsal, but it was part of the deal with Rod.
“It’s funny, because so much of it is chance. There was no plan, on my part, to be in a band and certainly not to be a singer.”
After a competition win the Zombies earned a recording contract with Decca and their debut single, Rod Argent’s She’s Not There, reached No 12 in the UK charts in 1964, but it was to be their only British top 40 hit. Did that success come too early for the young band?
“It possibly did happen too soon, because we knew so little about the music business and even about being professional musicians. I think that if we had had the opportunity to be on the road as professional musicians for a year or two before our first success we might have had an easier journey. We learned a lot about the facts of life, and the music business, the hard way and had to make all our mistakes in full view of the public and the media. It would have been a lot easier for us if we had made those mistakes in our own space and our own time before we had our first hit record. Having said that, you must be grateful for any success that you get at any time in your career, of course.”
The Zombies had greater success in America where She’s Not There reached No 2 in December 1964 while the follow-up Tell Her No peaked at No 6 the following year. Their reputation in the States was cemented by their 1968 album Odessey And Oracle and the single Time Of The Season. Odessey And Oracle was subsequently named by Rolling Stone magazine in their Top 100 Albums Of All Time and has become a classic.
“We had two wonderful writers in the Zombies, Rod Argent and Chris White. I think that one of the main strengths of the Zombies is the writing that came out of the band. The songs they wrote sound as fresh and relevant today as they did when we recorded them. That album gives us a lot of material that we can play in America that is very well known and allows us to play in really quite big venues.”
By now the Zombies had disbanded and Colin spent a year working as an insurance clerk, before being approached by record producer Mike Hurst.
“I wasn’t sure that I wanted to come back into the music business because I had been so disappointed and sad that the Zombies had finished. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go through all that again, but Mike was very persuasive and got me into Olympic Studios to put my vocals onto tracks that he had recorded. For me it was just a toe in the water.
“Mike came up with the idea of me recording under another name. He was a very successful and accomplished producer and I was happy to be guided by him. At one time I was going to be James MacArthur, but the American company who were putting the record out were concerned, because there was an actor in Hawaii Five-O of that name, and they thought it might get confusing. So overnight I became Neil MacArthur. I think Mike just wanted to help me make a clean break from the Zombies.”
Neil MacArthur’s brief career included a minor UK hit, with a re-recording of She’s Not There, before Colin returned to work with Rod Argent and Chris White who produced him, now recording as a solo artist under his own name. A string of classic singles followed including the top 20 hit Say You Don’t Mind.
“The first two albums (One Year and Ennismore) were co-produced by Rod and Chris and the third (Journey) was produced by Chris on his own. By then, Rod was travelling all around the world with his band, Argent. We had a good run with those first three albums. In many respects the old team got back together again, just under a different name. They were wonderful days recording those first three albums.”
Another hit followed, What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted, recorded with Dave Stewart, but in recent years it has been the reunion with Rod that has given Colin his greatest satisfaction.
“I’ve worked with Rod Argent, off and on, through my whole life. We were always doing charity gigs together until we got back together in 1999, originally just to play six concerts, but we enjoyed it so much that we just kept going. Now we’ve been playing 16 or 17 years, much longer than the original incarnation of the Zombies. I find that quite intriguing.
“Rod will often say that he learned to write songs writing for my voice. Always subconsciously, in his mind, he’s thinking of my voice when he’s writing. I learned to sing professionally singing Rod’s songs and we work quite intensively on his songs as to how the lead vocal will be performed, so that when we come to record it I’m not thinking about that. We do put in the hours before hand so that we know exactly what that phrasing is going to be.
“Obviously there were periods when we didn’t see each other so much, but then there was always that link between us, so Rod has been a constant in my career right from 1961 when we first got together right up to the present day.”
They turned down many lucrative offers to record again, as the Zombies but, with fans around the world wanting to hear the classic Zombies tracks again, their shows began to include more and more old favourites until it seemed it was the right time to become the Zombies once again.
Late in 2015 the Zombies released their sixth album, Still Got That Hunger. It is a very impressive collection and has a lot of energy.
“You know, I’m glad you said that,” Colin laughs. “I think there is. It was, to a large extent, recorded live in a studio environment. It was a very deliberate move on our part to do that. We really enjoyed it and I’d love to record the next album like that as well. We were very fortunate to work with a wonderful producer called Chris Potter who has worked with The Verve and the Rolling Stones. He’s very knowledgeable and made everything very easy for us. It was one of the most enjoyable albums I’ve ever recorded or worked on.”
The Zombies are touring America in May ahead of some festival appearances through the summer. The Flowerpot gig in Derby was the first of a short tour for Colin’s solo band, mainly featuring material from his solo career.
“I try to keep the two things as separate as possible. I will probably play a couple of Zombies tunes, but they will be classics from the sixties. There will be songs from every period of my solo career and a couple of songs from my latest album On The Air Tonight.
“The Flowerpot is a lovely venue. Raw Promotions who run the gig, and the audience there, are wonderful, so I always look forward to going back there. It’s a great place to play.”