There aren’t many people who can truthfully say, “I was a teenage Zombie.” Two of them – Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone – are Zombies again, part of the reformed British Sixties band that brought us songs like “She’s Not There”, “Tell Her No”, and “Time of the Season”, and the acclaimed album Odessey and Oracle recorded just before they broke up.
If “Argent” sounds familiar, it’s also the name of the successful band that Argent founded after The Zombies, which is best known for the hit song “Hold Your Head Up”. Over the years, Argent has also recorded with other artists, most notably The Who on their 1978 album Who Are You.
This interview with Rod Argent was done for a preview article for noozhawk.com for the 9/4/16 concert by The Zombies at the Libbey Bowl in Ojai, California. It was done by phone on 8/23/16. (Andrew Eccles photo)
Jeff Moehlis: What can people look forward to at your upcoming concert?
Rod Argent: They’ll get a real mix of stuff. They’ll get maybe half of Odessey and Oracle, they’ll get the single songs that you would expect like “Time of the Season”, “She’s Not There”, “Tell Her No”. You’ll get one or two more obscure Zombies tracks as well. You will also get one Argent song that has a huge connection with The Zombies, because “Hold Your Head Up” was actually written not by me, but most of the song was written by Chris White, the original bass player for The Zombies.
And you’ll also get about four or five tracks from the new album as well, which we’re very proud of. We actually made the Top 100 album sales [laughs] last October, the first time for 50 years that The Zombies had a Billboard album. They called us up. So we were very proud of that.
RA: Well, that was actually the third song I’d ever written. I wrote one song when I was 17, I think. It was written for another band, strangely enough, and they recorded that. That was the very first song I’d ever written, before we turned professional. I then wrote “It’s Alright With Me” for when we were still semi-pro, and starting to make a name for ourselves around St. Albans area.
And then we won a Beat competition, which led to a recording contract with Decca, and “She’s Not There” was actually written for the recording session. Our producer said, “Look you’ve got the session” – we won the contest and we got the prize, the recording contract with Decca – and he said, “Why don’t you write something yourself?” So I went away and wrote “She’s Not There”. Very luckily it was very successful. It came out great, and it was a Number One in many countries in the world, so that was fantastic for us.
JM: When I hear “She’s Not There”, I imagine a girl who’s kind of drugged out. Is that at all what you had in mind?
RA: It was just something mythical, it was just a fantasy. I wanted to write a song. I was desperately in love with music, and I was very excited about writing a song for the session, and I just thought, “OK, I’ve got two weeks”, basically, so I put on some of the albums that I had lying around. One was a John Lee Hooker album, and John Lee had a track on the album called “No One Told Me”. I hasten to add that nothing in the song took anything apart from those first four words. And I sort of spun a tune, a story around that. But it was a fantasy story, really.
I just started to construct it, and in the way that I always write now, as well, and I have done all my life. Once I start to make something work, I find it really exciting. Just playing around on the piano and singing. If it starts to work, I get really excited and then take it to the band, and hear it start to work with the band. That’s always hugely exciting. I mean, that’s why I’m still doing it, actually, to be honest. That’s where Colin [Blunstone] and I get all our energy from. The fact of still being able to indulge ourselves in that process, and things starting to work, it’s hugely energizing, actually. At this age, it feels like a real privilege to go and do that.
JM: I understand that after that song became a hit, you guys came over to America and played in New York City. What do you remember about that first trip as a band to America?
RA: It was extraordinary. I mean, you have to put yourself back into those days, really. It’s not something that anyone who’s young now could really understand. These days, countries have their own identity, but they have a lot in common with each other. They’re being so cosmopolitan now, and it’s so easy to travel now, that you can go to a hotel in most parts of the world – I mean there are some exceptions, obviously – and you sort of get similar experiences. Also on the streets, even though things have their own characteristics, the cars look roughly the same, a lot of elements of life are roughly the same now. In those days, it was just not like that.
And the first time I went to New York, America for us was this mythical place, with musical superheroes. I loved rhythm and blues, I loved jazz, along with classical music as well, but all the heroes were American, from Elvis… When I heard him in 1956, that was my baptism into rock ‘n’ roll, and I can’t tell you the effect that had. But Elvis seemed like he was from another planet. And then people like Miles Davis, that I loved, and the band that he had with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley around 1958. I just adored it. Ray Charles, everybody that I loved was American. And then to actually be able to come over to America, and play in New York, it just felt like a dream. I was 19 years old – Colin and I were 19 years old.
First of all, the shock of actually being in New York, and the feeling of energy and aggression, in a way, which we weren’t used to, that was extraordinary. It took me a while to come to terms with that, but it became one of my favorite cities in the world after I got used to it. It was such an experience for us. And playing with people like Patti LaBelle, Ben E. King, The Drifters, Chuck Jackson, all these people, a lot of whom were heroes for us. And then we had to get up with our English rock ‘n’ roll, and we thought they’d hate us but they didn’t. They really took us to their hearts. It was really fantastic. For a 19 year-old boy, who was in love with music, it was just a dream.
RA: Well, we were only together professionally for three years. We had three years before that where we were semi-pro. But that was a very short time, really. Our very first recording session we thought was brilliant. We loved it, we loved the way it was produced. But there were a lot of things that happened after that that we were unhappy with. We were unhappy with the production on a lot of our singles. And when it got to the point where it felt in the air that we might be breaking up, Chris and myself particularly were desperate to get some of our own ideas of how our songs should sound onto tape.
We managed to get a one-off deal with CBS for an album. We walked into that studio just as The Beatles were walking out, having finished recording Sgt. Pepper. They pushed the boundaries of things technically in EMI’s Abbey Road an awful lot. And that was fantastic for us, and we made full use of it. We had more tracks than we were used to. We actually had seven tracks because two 4-track recorders were put together, rather than the usual four that we’d been using up to that time. It meant we could overdub for the first time extra harmonies, extra keyboard parts, things like that. And we were like kids in the sweet shop. It just felt fantastic.
We didn’t have a lot of money. They gave us a thousand pounds to produce the album, which even in those days wasn’t a huge amount. So we basically prepared as much as we could before going into the studio, and then typically recorded each track in a three hour session. It was recorded over a period of about six months, as I remember, but the actual recording process, it was basically three hours per track, because that’s all the money we had. Then we actually had to pay for the stereo mixes ourselves [laughs]. Stereo was just coming in at that time. But it was a really, really enjoyable experience. We were like kids in a sweet shop, because we could suddenly throw in some extra ideas that we had.
We finished it and we loved it. We thought it was the best we could do at that time. It was how we wanted the tracks to sound, which hadn’t been the case for a long time with the singles leading up to that. We actually got some great reviews, it just didn’t sell anywhere [laughs]. About ten years later it started to sell. Even though “Time of the Season” was our biggest hit by far, around the world, in many, many countries, the album just didn’t really, really sell. As I say, ten years later people like Paul Weller started talking about it, people like Tom Petty. Paul Weller still quotes it as his favorite album of all time. And it sells more every year now than it did when it came out. So it had a long life. I mean, it’s never going to be Dark Side of the Moon in sales, but it sells really healthy now, just year in year out. It’s lasted a long time, so we have to be grateful for that.
JM: When I listen to that album, I’m always impressed by the vocal arrangements. How did those arrangements come about? Were those all pre-planned?
RA: Well, generally – yeah, they were generally. Historically I’ve always done the voice arrangements, and I still do now on our new recordings. They were basically mine, with the addition – as I say, we had those extra tracks – I might hear suddenly hear a top harmony, like in “Changes”. There’s a top harmony in “Changes” that I suddenly heard and said, “Chris” – because it’s Chris’ song, great song – “why don’t we throw this line on?” He said, “Yeah, go for it.” So we just raced into the studio and did that. But I have to claim credit – and I’m sure Chris would say the same thing as well – for the harmony arrangements.
RA: It was written very quickly. We needed one more song to finish the album. It was the last song we recorded. It was one of mine. We had a fairly quick rehearsal of it – Colin had only heard it a couple of days before – and we went into the studio and while he was recording it… I mean, Colin’s always been a friend. We’ve been friends all our lives. But he got a bit pissed off with me because I started, as I always do, saying, “I think you could push that phrase a bit more, Colin”, or “That thing there just needs to be a little bit ahead of the beat”, or whatever. And he said, “Look, if you’re so fucking good, you come and sing it.” I said, “Now, come on Colin, it’s the last track.” So it makes us laugh a bit when we think about it, because the words are “It’s the time of the season for loving”, [laughs] but this was going on in the studio.
For that particular track, the engineer was Geoff Emerick, although I remember it was actually mixed by Peter Vince. I remember that. I remember having the idea for the track, and coming in the studio and just racing in and doing that very quickly, like all our recordings were then. That’s my memory of “Time of the Season”. There are only two tracks on the album that had a Hammond organ on it, and that was one of them. That’s my other memory. But it was the last track on the album. Yeah, that was our finishing note.
JM: I want to ask you about the arrangement for line, “What’s your name (What’s your name) / Who’s your daddy (Who’s your daddy) / (He rich) Is he rich like me”. Who’s singing each of those parts? I assume Colin starts out and you’re echoing?
RA: Yeah, exactly. And Chris is singing, too. Colin sings, [RA sings] “What’s your name” and I go [sings] “What’s your name”, and he goes “Who’s your daddy”, and I go “Who’s your daddy. He rich?” That’s me as well. But I think it might well be Chris and me singing together. You know, where Colin says, “What’s your name”, and I think then Chris and I sing “What’s your name”, and the other phrases, and then it’s just me going, “Is he rich”. That’s me. As I remember. But it’s all a little bit misty [laughs].
JM: Sure, well this was 50 years ago, right?
RA: Oh God!
JM: I understand that Al Kooper helped that album reach a wider audience. Is that true?
RA: If it hadn’t have been for Al, it would not have been released. He had just been signed. He was probably just about the hottest producer in the world at that time – he’d been signed by Clive Davis. He came over to England and he picked up 200 albums, and out of those 200 he zoned in on ours. And he went back to Clive in America and he said, “There’s one thing I found. I don’t know who’s got this in America. But whoever it is, you’ve got to go out and buy it from them.” And Clive said, “Well, we’ve got it, and we’ve passed on it.” And Al said, “Well, you can’t pass on it. You’ve got to release it.” So Clive said, “OK, we’ve just signed you, we’ll go with your feelings.”
They did a crazy thing actually. The first single was “Butcher’s Tale”. Now, in some ways that’s my favorite track on the album. It’s a Chris White song about the First World War, but it was never a single. So that was a bit crazy. In the end, I think they might’ve released “Friends of Mine” and “Care of Cell 44”, which did nothing. And as a last gasp they put out “Time of the Season”. And that took six months to start to climb the charts. It was because there was one DJ. Nobody would play it, except for one DJ in Idaho, in Boise. He played it, and in the way that things could happen in those days, which they certainly couldn’t now, he just played it and played it, and it gradually started building a response in his local area. And that started to ripple out over a wider and wider area, and in the end it caught fire and it was Number One in Cashbox and Number 2 or 3 in Billboard. You know, so it was a very big hit then.
JM: Of course after The Zombies broke up you had success with the band Argent. I’m probably in the minority, but my favorite Argent song is the song “Lothlorien”, probably due to my being a fan of prog rock. [RA laughs] Can you tell me a little bit about that song, and what you guys were going for at that time? Were you influenced by the prog rock scene that was happening then?
RA: Yeah, I certainly was. For me, music has always been about exploration, and getting excited about cutting-edge things. I think the first progressive group was The Beatles. They took what was a very formulaic time in pop music, and they started experimenting. They were true to their ideals of making things earthy and energetic, and what they wanted to hear and how they wanted things to work. But they were always really eager to listen to new things, even listen to electronic music and people like Boulez. In that way, I think they sowed the seeds for everything progressive.
But I certainly was. I loved hearing all these new things. I loved hearing [Keith] Emerson play with such fire and energy, and invention. I mean, my two favorite Argent albums, actually, I’m with you. My two favorite Argent albums are the first two, which didn’t really sell and had no hits on them, although “Liar”, when it was covered by Three Dog Night, it was a huge hit. But the albums Argent and Ring of Hands – I think “Lothlorien” was on Ring of Hands, wasn’t it? – I love those two albums. I really do.
There’s just been an Argent boxed set released with all the albums apart from the last album, which was on a different record company, and they remastered them and brought them up to sort of present technical standards – I think they sound great. The first two are my favorite. I did enjoy doing “Lothlorien”. It obviously came from Lord of the Rings – I had just read Lord of the Rings. I think every track on Ring of Hands works. I enjoyed playing that very much, but it does have sort of prog influences, and I think it works really well.
RA: He did, yeah. I mean, most people think I wrote it, but certainly the guitar riff, and the voice melody, and all the lyrics are Chris’. So that is the substance of the song, the whole song, really. You know, and that sort of heartbeat [sings] “Bum, bum, bum, bum-bum bum”, that’s Chris’. So ninety percent of the song is Chris’. I added touches like the big organ descending thing, and some of the arrangement things. But ninety percent of the song is Chris’.
When The Zombies split up, Chris wanted to stay in the business but he didn’t want to play anymore. So he was a sort of silent partner with me. He became the co-producer of ours, and co-writer. And at a very early gig Chris was in the audience, and we played a version of “Time of the Season”, and we went into a riff that we’d never played before. And he heard the riff from the audience, and he wrote a song around it, and that song became “Hold Your Head Up”. So it had a real connection with “Time of the Season”, even though it’s a very different song, and something in its own right.
JM: You may or may not know that Keith Moon would’ve turned 70 years old today, and I know that you played keyboards on Who Are You, which is the last album that he was on. How did that come about, and what was that experience like?
RA: It was great. I’ve got huge respect for The Who, and for Pete Townshend as a musician, player, and writer. I’d just been involved… Roger Daltrey had done an album just before Who Are You, called One of the Boys, and he’d gotten me to play keyboards on it. He really liked the way I played on it, and after that they asked me to be on The Who’s album. I was going to be on the whole album, but there were a lot of politics at the time. The actual recording went on for a long time. It’s not that we spent hours and hours in the studio on each track. I mean, I seem to remember that “Who Are You” was recorded in about four or five hours. Not the vocals, not the lead vocal, but the part that I was involved with. I played on that track, I played on “Love is Coming Down”, even though I’m not credited on that. That is me on there playing piano. And I played on the John Entwistle track, that I can’t remember the name of.
JM: Was that “Had Enough”?
RA: Yeah, “Had Enough”. So they were the three tracks that I played on. And then I ran out of time because Andrew Lloyd Webber had asked me to be on an album called Variations, which turned out to be a Number One album in the U.K. It was based on a theme by Paganini, and it had his brother Julian Lloyd Webber, the cellist. Also Gary Moore, me, Colosseum was on it, or some of the members of Collosseum, Barbara Thompson and Jon Hiseman. So I’d committed to that, so after the three tracks I said, “I’m sorry. You’ve just asked me for a month” or whatever it was, “and I’m out of time now.” So I didn’t play on it any more.
But it was a great experience. Keith was great. I think he was a very insecure drummer. I thought he was the most brilliant drummer for The Who. But he was insecure in himself, I think. Interestingly, he always was the first one there, all the sessions. Absolutely on time, and very sober at the beginning of the session. But when the others didn’t turn up for an hour or two [laughs], he went down the path and he became a very different personality then. But a great band, and great musicians. It was great to be part of that.
JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
RA: I would always say the same thing. I would always say make sure you do everything for the right reasons. Don’t do it because you just want to be celebrated and successful. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with those things. But do it because you’re in love with music and you want to go out there and make your music work. Do it for those reasons. And I believe in the end, that’s the most commercial approach of all. I mean, The Beatles always just were excited about what they were writing, what they were doing. All the money and everything came because that forged a real connection with people. You can’t move people, really in a lasting way, unless you make something work for yourself, and unless you’re going out there and you’re playing firstly because you love music.
I think people’s attitudes have changed over the years. I think that if you went into a school when I was growing up, when I was about 16 years old, and you said, “What do you want to be?” to people who were interested in playing music, they would’ve said, “I want to be the best guitarist in the world,” or “I want to be in the best band in the world.” You go into a class now, and I get the feeling that people would say, “I want to be famous.” That’s a real difference. I think there’s a real celebrity culture now, in the sense that people just want to be famous for whatever that is. So I think it’s really, really important to go for what you really want to do, and then just work at it, and become the best that you can at that. I think that’s really important. You get the most satisfaction out of that.
JM: Here’s a random question. You’re probably aware that zombies – the fictional undead monsters – are kind of trendy right now. Do you have a favorite zombie movie or TV show? Have you gotten into that zombie culture at all?
RA: Not really. When the name was put to us by our very first bass player, a guy called Paul Arnold who left very shortly afterwards to become a doctor in Canada, I knew what a zombie was and I loved the name because I thought that no other band is going to have this name, and it sounded fairly exotic and with a bit of the feeling of the exotic-ness of the occult. I knew it had to do with Haiti, and I just about knew what a zombie was. Colin had no idea what a zombie was. Of course, the first real modern-times movie that celebrated zombies was Night of the Living Dead, I think, in 1968. And that was obviously after we formed – we formed in ’61. So we never really got into the zombie culture [laughs]. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a zombie movie all the way through. The TV program you’re talking about, I’m not even sure that’s shown over here. If it is, I haven’t seen it. So I’m probably one of the least expert people on zombie culture and zombie movies that you can possibly imagine [laughs].
JM: Well, you’re kind of a real-life Zombie.
RA: [laughs] Exactly. Colin says onstage sometimes, “Not many people can say this. I was a teenage Zombie.” [both laugh]
JM: Recently I read an article about these fake bands that were touring America calling themselves The Zombies. Do you have any comment on that?
RA: We broke up in ’67, and then 18 months after that we had a hit with “Time of the Season”. Following on from my comment about do what you really want to do, I was forming Argent at the time, I was working with Colin on some solo stuff which became his One Year album, and those were paths that I didn’t want to abandon just to milk the success of “Time of the Season”. You know, we’d all gone off on different paths by that time. So I thought, “It doesn’t feel like the right thing to get back together.”
We could certainly have made a lot of money. I mean, we were actually offered a million dollars, which was a fortune in those days, to reform and tour in America, but we didn’t. We carried on on the path that we felt was right at that moment. But that meant that there was a gap there, a void, that other people could exploit. We only recently learned that one of the bands that went out as a fake Zombies band, that was eventually stopped, turned out to be ZZ Top in the end [laughs]. So I thought that was really amusing.
JM: One last question. Did you have any musical training when you were growing up?
RA: No, I didn’t. I had two years piano lessons, so I learned where the notes were, and that’s about it. I was in a very good choir as an 11 year-old boy, until I was 15 or 16, because when my voice was changing they’d asked me to stay on. But we used to do broadcasts and everything. That introduced me to a world of wonderful classical music that I’d never heard, from Bach to what was very modern classical music at that time, Stravinsky and people like that. And I just adored it. That gave me great harmony training, so that was something I’m very grateful for. But that was like indirect training. I wasn’t a classically schooled pianist, I never took a grade or an exam in my life.
JM: Well, it worked out!
RA: Yeah, it did. I’ve been in for quite some years now! [laughs]