Hertfordshire-born Colin Blunstone, who turns 72 this year, is one of the enduring treasures of British rock and pop. In an illustrious 50-year career that’s seen him front The Zombies, briefly change his name to Neil McArthur, release a series of highly regarded solo albums, sing guest vocals for The Alan Parsons Project a grand total of four times, duet with Spirogyra (UK) vocalist Barbara Gaskin, form supergroup Keats and ultimately reform The Zombies to even greater acclaim than before, he’s done it all- and hopefully, there’s still a lot more to come.
Blessed with a vocal range that can slide seamlessly from choral falsetto to hollering soul via breathy introspection and back within one single song, his reputation as a purveyor of superior soft rock (with a baroque, ethereal approach) is well-deserved: underneath that gentlemanly exterior, however, lurks a man with a ready wit, a man with a wonderful line in sarcastic humour. A man who can occasionally be seen crooning lush Gershwin ballads in a biker jacket, jeans and leather boots: a man who once shoved warm chips up my nose in a High Wycombe kebab shop (it was one of those silly evenings). And a man whose solo shows, running the gamut of his entire career, are wonders to behold.
So, once more, let’s compare 12 of his best studio recordings to their onstage equivalents (with particular reference to his most recent London show at the 100 Club) Also, don’t forget to look out- as usual- for two or three tracks he hasn’t played recently (if at all) but which we at The Carouser believe he should. As we get ready to go…live and recorded.
THE TWELVE TOP TUNES OF… COLIN BLUNSTONE
ON RECORD (from Ennismore, 1972): Penned by fellow Zombies Rod Argent and Chris White, this loping, mid-paced, slice of sophisticated pop-rock exemplifies in many ways the consistently classy, urbane Blunstone approach. Reflective yet funky, pensive yet propulsive, and carried along on a wave of tasteful guitar, jazzy piano and driving percussion, it’s also one of the great “song stories” of the ’70s, with our man’s vocals painting a picture so evocative (“the more the mountains pointed to the black clouds on the left”) you can almost visualise it.
LIVE (100 Club, Oxford St, London W1, Jan 2017): Even after 45 years, surprisingly little has altered in terms of this song’s live presentation. Sure, Colin’s feather-light vocals have naturally deepened with the passing of the decades- but ultimately, all that’s done is made them sound more oak-aged, sonorous and weatherworn, in turn only adding to the human drama. The moment he slides up-register for the emotive chorus (“what did I tell you, it’s always the same, when you run for the sun you catch the rain”) the chills are unavoidable: it’s just a shame that thanks to the, ahem, “unusual” set-up at the 100 Club, everyone standing to the right ends up lumbered with a drum-heavy sound (an error most definitely not attributable in any way, in case you wondered, to the excellent Steve Rodford) that tends to obscure the finer points somewhat. Still, some things can’t be helped. Or can they…
- I DON’T BELIEVE IN MIRACLES
ON RECORD (from Ennismore, 1972): One of the best love songs of its decade, and a staple of Classic Rock radio stations since before such things even existed (if you catch my drift) “….Miracles” is a practical masterclass in restraint, subtlety and (eventual) release. Based around an instantly recognisable piano figure topped by the type of vocal that makes heads shake and throats gasp in disbelief, and composed by Argent frontman/occasional Rainbow songwriter Russ Ballard (who’s also been known to play it live from time to time) it’s the kind of number that defines the concept of a “quiet storm” in rock terms. Yet unbelievably, it never climbed higher in the UK charts than 31.
LIVE (100 Club, Oxford St, London W1, Jan 2017): Although now played slightly faster than the recorded version, with its more pronounced drumbeat (particularly during the chorus) no longer quite as floating as Bob Henrit’s original, “IDBIM” is still one of the highlights of the show: established early in the set, it provides a perfect moment of respite after two or three up-tempo openers, with the lush harmonies of the original still pitch-perfect. Even more incredibly, the vocalist’s final exclamation of “but I thought you might show your face, or have the grace to tell me where you aaaaaaAAAAAAARE” still soars to the top of his silky range 45 years on: close your eyes, and you can easily picture yourself walking through a foresty ’70s TV landscape, hand in hand with a stunning brunette modelling the latest fashions from the Freemans catalogue. Or is that just my bizarre personal fantasy?
- CAROLINE GOODBYE
ON RECORD (from One Year, 1971): And, talking of songs that evoke stunning 1970s brunettes, here’s another ballad- only this time, a self-composed one. Don’t worry, we’ll get back to the faster stuff soon- but for now, let’s savour this hazy, lamplit paean to Colin’s then-recently-departed girlfriend, better known as Hammer Horror star and (later) recording artist Caroline Munro.
Anyone who’s, ahem, “experienced” her cinematic work will almost definitely appreciate how the singer must have been feeling whilst fashioning this particular ode: moreover, though uncertainties still remain as to which of the two protagonists was doing the actual dumping, one is inclined to surmise that (much like the Bacharach & David compositions from which it evidently took its influence) all such ambiguities are precisely as their writer intended. Clever lads, these St Albans Grammar types…
LIVE (100 Club, Oxford St, London W1, Jan 2017): Off the top of my head, “shiver-inducing” is the best adjective I can think of: with plangent piano, chiming guitar and rolling drums providing the perfect foil to Col’s thoughtful vocal, it sonically shifts the way a lover might surreptitiously move through several doors prior to leaving in the dead of night (NB: before you start saying “what the fuck’s ‘e on abaht now”, I should perhaps point out I’ve actually studied music theory) and offers few clues to their possible return. As for the man ‘imself, were it not for the ‘umorous anecdote (replete with badoom-tish punchline) between this song and the next, one could be forgiven for thinking he was still a little affected by the affair 46 years on- which, of course, is one of the true hallmarks of a convincing and sincere performer.
- DANCING ON A HIGH WIRE
ON RECORD (from Ammonia Avenue, 1984): One of CB’s four appearances with the prog-rocking behemoth known as the Alan Parsons Project, and again, another of those mid-paced, chugging melodic rock numbers you repeatedly heard aired on either Radio 2 or your local drivetime station (in my case Capital, for others maybe BRMB, Beacon or Piccadilly) throughout the mid-80s. In fact, much like my first experiences with the likes of Barclay James Harvest, the Strawbs, Lindisfarne, the Moody Blues, Clannad, Al Stewart, Freiheit, Splinter, Christopher Cross, Clifford T Ward, Air Supply, Kayak, Judie Tzuke, Duncan Browne (of whom more later) and “before-he-went-shit” Chris DeBurgh, practically all my early exposure to Parsons and Blunstone alike came from such stations: betwixt seemingly endless bouts of Sinatra, Bing, Manilow and Lloyd Webber, this was the kind of “rock” they were allowed to play.
And you know what? It probably moulded my generation as much as goth and hair metal did several years later- even if half the time, the Wogue and his ilk forgot to tell us who the songs were by, leading to several moments of nice surprise once we “went into double figures” and started collecting our own records. “Oh, it’s that one…” And this is definitely one of those ones, a superior slice of classy adult pop-prog much like the rest of its parent album.
LIVE: Sadly, I have to report that in over 17 years of attending Mr B’s recitals (both as a solo artist and a Zombie) he’s not yet tackled this one: at least not in my presence, anyhow. Which is a great shame, as it’s a thumper of a tune, with eerie harmonies and a throbbing synth bassline evoking perfectly that “cold war” atmosphere so archetypally redolent of ’80s prog. What’s more, it could easily be slid into the set between a pair of ballads (I said BALLADS, cloth-ears) to great effect. However, I have asked him to do it a couple of times now- and maybe, just maybe, if I keep harassing him, he’ll acquiesce. Then again, I wouldn’t mind hearing “The Eagle Will Rise Again” from Pyramid either. That’s the trouble with brilliant musicians. You want them to play everything.
- SAY YOU DON’T MIND
ON RECORD (from One Year, 1971: album version differs from single): The crux of the matter: back in the early ’70s, the trend was very much towards singles and albums existing as separate entities. Famously, Roxy Music’s groundbreaking “Virginia Plain” and “Pyjamarama” didn’t appear on either of their first two 33rpm waxings, nor The Who’s “Join Together” on any non-compilation album- and if one thinks about it, there was a twisted logic to such an idea. After all, who’d buy something they already owned? There’d be nothing to anticipate or precipitate. In Colin’s case, however, things were tackled a little differently: thus, whilst the single version of this perky, irresistible stomper (words and music courtesy of Wings man Denny Laine) was custom-built for dancefloors worldwide, the album version is quite different. No drums, no guitar, just vocals set to the chopping sound of a string quartet: rarely has rhythm’n’blues sounded so quintessentially English, nor blue-eyed soul quite so white. The choice is yours.
LIVE (100 Club, Oxford St, London W1, Jan 2017): Wisely, when digging out this delight for your delectation, CB and the boys stick very much to the boogie-woogiein’, shufflin’ plinky-plonky of the 45: it works too, provoking clapped hands, nodding heads and bouncing bodies aplenty. Dancing back and forth in front of the mike, eyes a-sparkle, and betraying an air of subtle, barely-concealed mischief (we never do quite discover exactly what his female companion isn’t supposed to mind) the man with the velvet pipes is clearly enjoying himself, his band members in healthy accord. And, for those of us wishing to sample yet more delicious high notes, they’re here in abundance: just get an earful of how he handles that middle 8 (“to you I’m bliiiiiHIIIIIIINNNDDDD”) and see if it doesn’t have you drooling into your Old Speckled Hen.
- TIME OF THE SEASON
ON RECORD (from Odessey And Oracle – yes, actually spelt that way- 1967): What can be said about this song that hasn’t already been exclaimed ten times over? The definitive, ageless, evergreen melding of funky RnB (proper meaning) and English chamber-pop, with extensive keyboard solos prophetically beckoning the onset of prog: just one selection from an album that still stands, almost 50 years on, as one of rock’s crowning achievements. Sadly, it wasn’t an album that sold in any significant quantity at the time (this song itself only hitting US No 1 after the group had already folded) but in the long run none of that has mattered, and since reforming in 1999, the combo have played it in its entirety numerous times to ever-rapturous audiences. Of course, it will always be remembered best by a certain generation from that scene in Awakenings, with Robin Williams introducing the newly sentient Robert DeNiro to “what modern music sounds like”, but that’s hardly a bad thing.
LIVE (100 Club, Oxford St, London W1, Jan 2017): One of (usually) only two or three Zombies numbers to regularly surface in Blunstone’s solo repertoire – and fair do’s, his solo recordings require just as much if not more representation – its inevitability still does nothing to detract from its irresistibility. Yes, by the time you reach the encore, you know precisely what’s coming (just as much as you know it too will be followed in turn by “She’s Not There”) but once That Riff starts, I defy you to restrain yourself from joining in. “What’s your name, who’s your daddy…IS…HE…RICH… is he rich like me?” “Tell it to me slowly, tell me now, I really wanna know…..” Of course you do. We ALL do. We wouldn’t bloody be here if we didn’t. Go on, clap along, you know you want to. Ba-bom-bom, chk-aaaaah, ba-bom-bom, chk-aaaaaaah.
- QUARTET: EXCLUSIVELY FOR ME/A SIGN FROM ME TO YOU/EVERY SOUND I HEARD/HOW WRONG CAN ONE MAN BE?
ON RECORD (from Ennismore, 1972): Next to Odessey, this self-composed conceptual suite of four thematically-linked (dare I say “progmantic”?) sections is often considered one of Blunstone’s very greatest achievements: taking up the majority of its album’s first side, and shifting from string-laden introspection to radio-friendly folk-rock to Beatlesque harmony-pop in ten minutes, it’s the very definition of a “mood piece” Or, to be precise, a piece for several moods. An artefact from the days when you could say to your record company “I think I’ll do a four-part epic with orchestra” and they’d say “of course, here’s several hundred quid and some studio time” Nowadays, you’d be lucky to get one violinist and a laptop.
LIVE: Don’t be daft, of course he doesn’t. Probably for much the same reasons described at the end of the preceding paragraph. I mean, let’s be honest- the 100 Club, the Borderline, the Beaverwood…where are you going to fit the string section in? And let’s be honest, it wouldn’t sound the same on just keyboards and guitar. Sure, the Zombies have played with full orchestras before, and will probably do so again, but they play much larger venues. Yet we can but live in hope that one day soon, the opportunity will present itself- it would sound particularly great in St John’s Church, Farncombe (a superb venue in its spare time, heartily recommended) but if truth be known, could work beautifully in several locations worldwide. Petition your local classic rock promoter now!!
- THE WILD PLACES
ON RECORD (from On The Air Tonight, 2012): One of the standouts from his (to date) most recent release, this driving, AOR-infused cover sees Colin paying heartfelt tribute to his deceased friend, Duncan Browne- and deservedly so. Despite achieving a top 30 hit in 1973 with “Journey” (which is also, coincidentally, the title of Blunstone’s third album, though that song itself isn’t featured) co-writing a tune later covered by Bowie (“Criminal World”) and scoring the music to fondly-remembered 80s cop show Travelling Man, the idiosyncratic singer-songwriter-guitarist never did receive the recognition he warranted during his short life: even now, in a climate where Nick Drake’s albums have all gone gold 40 years after his death, Michael Chapman plays gigs with ex-members of Sonic Youth in Hackney hipster venues, and 70-year-old recluses like Bill Fay and Simon Finn find themselves suddenly namedropped by every cult aesthete from Jeff Tweedy to David Tibet, most of Browne’s finest work still remains largely unheralded.
Maybe it’s because during those 20 years, he hopped styles like crazy, from psych to folk to prog to glam to New Wave, lounge jazz and back again: maybe there just haven’t been enough self-appointed style gurus telling the gullible they “have” to like him (yet) Who can tell? Yet either way, CB’s rendition of one of his most artfully decadent late ’70s gems is a more than fine homage to one of rock’s true mavericks.
LIVE (100 Club, Oxford St, London W1, Jan 2017): Inserted cunningly into the middle region of the show shortly after the interval, the track’s unique juxtaposition of chugging raunch (considerably harder than on either CB’s recorded version or Browne’s original) and soothing whimsy wastes no time in grabbing the audience’s attention. Even more notably, it highlights the tonal and timbral similarity between Blunstone’s voice and that of his late friend- and while Browne may have never possessed the “chorister’s range” of his best mate, he was definitely blessed with the same combination of plaintive expressiveness and slightly saucy savoir-faire. A combination which, perhaps understandably, Colin also seeks to express here- and one which, I might add, he pulls off rather successfully.
- OLD AND WISE
ON RECORD (from Eye In The Sky, 1982): Another Alan Parsons/Eric Woolfson composition: indeed, most probably the best known of all its author’s recordings. Arguably the best power ballad ever to be written that isn’t a love song, its reflections on life, mortality, death and the transient nature of time could technically speak for all of us on a number of poignant occasions: yet despite its churchy, elegiac and eye-misting outlook, it simply drips with the smoothness of the very best 80s soft-rock production techniques (see also Adrian Gurvitz, Player etc) and once it’s slid inside you, it never leaves. The kind of tune that makes you realise you’ve finally come of age, and that your “Crue, Poison and Tigertailz” days may well be drawing to a close. Zones 6-9, here we come…
LIVE (100 Club, Oxford St, London W1, Jan 2017): As powerful as one might expect, either solo or with the Zombies, “Old And Wise” is very much the show-stopper of the second half: sadly, the current lineup doesn’t allow for that sax solo (one of the two best, alongside the one in Hazel O’Connor’s “Will You” to feature in any rock ballad) but its absence is more than compensated for by a scorching lead guitar break from Manolo Polidario. Rodford’s drums roll like thunder, Pete Billington’s keys sweep and stir, and when Mr B reaches that oh-so-slight swoop on the words “remember, you were a friend of mine” there can’t be a single neck in the room not covered in goosebumps.
- MISTY ROSES
ON RECORD (from One Year, 1971): A perfect demonstration of just how broad the definition of “rock” could be in the early 70s (before it narrowed gradually towards “rawk”, which, though it may cover “metal and other heavy stuff”, most certainly isn’t the same thing) this lounge-flavoured take on Tim Hardin’s winsome folk ditty is now regarded by many fans as superior to the original. Seductive, gentle sounds for the Home Cunties (yes, you read that right) bachelor pad and/or seaside art deco lurve lair, Dom Perignon and Gauloises optional.
LIVE (Oxford St, London W1, Jan 2017): One of the most visually and aurally stunning sections of any Blunstone gig, usually performed over nothing but acoustic guitar and the supple bass of Elliot Mason, “…Roses” is guaranteed to induce silences so enveloping one could easily be forgiven for thinking all time had stopped outside: a bit like the break-in scene from Jules Dassin’s Rififi, only with words and music. And don’t let anyone ever tell you that you have to be the composer of a lyric for it to sound sincere: when one hears The Colster gracefully intone “flowers often cry, but too late to find that their beauty has been lost with their peace of mind” every single breathy syllable sounds as if it could be of his own devising.
- MARY WON’T YOU WARM MY BED
ON RECORD (from One Year, 1971): Thumping drums, clattering congas, sweeping strings, and a lead vocal that could convincingly pass for the sweetest of black soul voices: in an alternate universe, this Mike D’Abo-penned deep cut would have graced Top 10s worldwide, been gyrated to on Top Of The Pops and Supersonic by dozens of platform-booted lovelies, and had tank-topped mods and denim-clad rockers alike filling 70s dancefloors in unison. Yet, despite being arguably the bounciest, grooviest, most soulful moment of CB’s entire career, it remains sadly underrated and underappreciated by all too many.
LIVE: Once again, a glaring omission from the current Blunsetlist (is that a word? – Ed) Sure, it would undoubtedly be tricky to replicate those string sounds live without resorting to midi-based keyboard widdly- but there has to be a compromise somewhere. Come on Col, whaddya say? Actually, it would work just as easily as part of an unplugged section- which only goes to reaffirm every word Paul Stanley said about truly great songs being “ones that still sound amazing played on nothing but an acoustic guitar” Alternatively, if he man himself doesn’t want to do it, maybe Eli Paperboy Reed could consider giving it a bash…
ON RECORD (from Planes, 1976): It was only inevitable, after signing in 1975 to Elton John’s newly-inaugurated Rocket Records, that the Verulamiam Voice would end up recording at least one of the Pinner Pianoman’s compositions- and this perky little obscurity, originally demoed by Elt during the sessions for Rock Of the Westies but buried firmly in the vaults until the release of the fascinating Rare Masters compilation in 1999, proved ideal. In retrospect, it sounds tailor-made for Our Col: though rent with classic John-Taupin hallmarks (an upbeat country rock feel, character-driven, florid lyrics about “cafes in Paris serving Pernod, Kahlua and ice-cream”, and one of “those” descending chorus lines) the delivery, phraseology and sensuality is definitely 100% the singer’s own. Not so sure about the “raunchy” cover shot though…
LIVE (100 Club, Oxford St, London W1, Jan 2017): After a long absence, Mr B and band have recently resurrected this little diamond- and if the audience’s reception tonight is any kind of yardstick, they made the right choice. Polidario and Mason both add warm, rootsy harmonies to the singer’s breezy lead: a flourish of skittering guitar from the former, offset by some downhome, Leon Russell-inflected piano playing from Billington, allows it to function perfectly in a club setting, yet its warm, summery atmosphere also makes it an ideal choice for outdoor shows (Cropredy anyone?) The question of “don’t it make you want to fly”, however, I’ll leave for later: I shall indeed be flying in due time, but right now, I’m far too busy enjoying the show.
Colin Blunstone’s Records are available to buy here.