Written by: Paul Gleason
To say that keyboardist-singer-songwriter Rod Argent is one of the most important musicians of the last 50 years is a blatant understatement. In 1961 Argent cofounded The Zombies – whose jazz and classical influences, pop hooks, sophisticated melodies, and vocal harmonies put them on a par with fellow English innovators like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Kinks – with lead singer Colin Blunstone, bassist-singer-songwriter Chris White, guitarist Paul Atkinson, and drummer Hugh Grundy.
The Zombies went on to release some of the most popular and best loved hits of the 1960s – “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No,” and “Time of the Season,” which were all Argent compositions. But The Zombies’ real triumph came in 1968, when they released Odessey and Oracle, which, along with The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Love’s Forever Changes, forms the classic quartet of baroque pop masterpieces released between 1966 and 1968. Odessey and Oracle includes such classic Argent compositions as “Care of Cell 44,” “A Rose for Emily,” and “Time of the Season.”
The Zombies disbanded shortly before the release of Odessey, but Argent went on to find success with Argent, a band that he cofounded with White. Their hit “Hold Your Head Up” is one of the most recognizable tunes of the 1970s.
The Zombies began to play together again in the 1990s, making the occasional record and performing the occasional shows, the most important of which were the band’s shows in honor of the 40th anniversary of Odessey and Oracle, which the band performed over a series of three nights in 2008.
Now Argent and Blunstone are leading a new incarnation of The Zombies, touring the world to mass acclaim, and releasing records as strong as 2011’s Breathe Out, Breathe In, which has garnered some of the strongest reviews of the band’s career.
Stereo Embers sat down with Argent to discuss The Zombies’ recent success as a touring and recording act, his views on technology and the state of the album, the creation of Odessey and Oracle and other Zombies’ classics, and his love of Elvis, The Beatles, Brian Wilson, and Miles Davis.
And be sure to catch Argent and the rest of The Zombies at Austin Psych Fest 2014. They hit the Reverberation Stage tomorrow night at 9:30pm.
Stereo Embers: What have you been playing on the tour?
RA: Well, we play about half of Odessey and Oracle. We do things that you would expect like “She’s Not There” and “Time of the Season” – which we have do anyway, but we enjoy doing – it was absolutely fine. One of the great things is…even stuff like “Time of the Season” and “She’s Not There” – because there’s a lot of improvisation in them – I always try to start solos a slightly differently every night. It keeps it fresh for us. We can go somewhere else a little bit, so that helps us. But we’ll do four songs from our new album, Breathe Out, Breathe In. It’s got great reviews.
SE: Right, it’s excellent!
RA: That’s very important to us, actually. We love – and I tend to always say this, but it’s true – we love rediscovering all the old Zombies’ stuff. And some of it we didn’t even play the first time around. And we were only together three years professionally. So we love doing it but particularly in the context of feeling that we can get excited about writing new material and recording new material. I’ve already written two songs for the new album – God knows when we’re going to record it!
SE: Well, that was a question – is there any new material coming out?
RA: There’s a song that I really like at the moment. I hope it turns out when we actually record it. It’s a song about New York. I can’t wait to actually record it. I’m teaching it to the guys.
SE: I noticed that you run sound check, too, don’t you?
RA: I guess I always have done to a degree from the beginning. It’s just a way of getting things done, really. Everybody’s got equal voice, but I do tend to take over, I know (laughs), but people seem to accept that as modus operandi.
SE: Switching gears, do you see music as a force in shaping culture as much now as in the 1960s?
RA: I don’t think it does; I really don’t. I think that because of the way that media has diversified so much and become all-encompassing…When I was growing up, certainly in the UK, there was only one record program on the radio per week. So if you were lucky, you got about seven or eight records just played about halfway through. And you had to start making your choices on that, you know. And that was about it. And then there was a program called Radio Luxembourg, and that was beamed. And I got to hear most of the interesting stuff, and you had to listen to it at night on A.M. radio, so it would come and go. I remember hearing The Beatles for the first time, and then just staying awake all night just hoping to hear “Please Please Me.”
SE: Was that pretty early on?
RA: They had “Love Me Do” out, which I like, but I wasn’t completely head-over-heels with it. And then the first time I heard “Please Please Me” on Radio Luxembourg, I had the radio on all night.
SE: What was it about that song that grabbed you?
RA: Ah, just everything. You had to have been there at the time. I mean it sounded so different to what was around then. It sounded honest, it felt energized, it fell full of craft and invention. And very cutting edge, it felt – the use of harmonies. I don’t know – just everything about it. And, along with millions of other people, I was just hooked right from the beginning. We were already in existence by that time. And strangely enough, we always used to do harmonies, which was very unusual. We always had an extra mic stand out, and Chris and I would always sing harmonies in the background. And The Beatles, of course, always did that, so we felt we had some affinity with them because of that from the beginning. But also music was so important to an emerging youth culture at that time, and it was such a shared experience. When a good new record came out, the whole of the youth of the country would tune in and listen to it, and it was a shared experience. Nowadays, you’ve got video, radio channels 24/7, and you’ve got music beamed at you from every source all day long, every day. You’ve got competing media. You’ve got all the games and all the films and television, which just hit you all the time and never stop. It wasn’t like that then. You had to seek out music. And there were no such thing as even discotheques, which came out later, where records were played. And if you wanted to go out and meet girls or whatever, you had to go to a place where a live band would be playing. So there was all that culture just involved in the normal interaction of young people meeting each other. And I feel it’s all so different today because there’s just so much competition from different media. And then [in the 1960s] if a record did catch the imagination, you knew that everybody in your school would know that record. Or if The Beatles were on the television for the first time, you knew that everybody at school would have seen them the previous night. And everybody would have shared that one experience.
SE: Now things are a lot more atomized.
RA: I think they are, actually. It’s how it seems to me, anyway.
SE: As someone who’s created one of the greatest albums of all time, do you think the album, as an art form, is dead?
RA: I don’t, but what do I know? I’m not against people downloading things at all. What I think is a shame – and I included myself in this as a consumer – is the fact that if I heard a track on television or the radio, I would go out and buy an album in the old days. And just like everybody else, I would probably go first to a track that I really liked on the album and I would play that. Or I would play the album all the way through and pay particular attention to the track I liked, and then maybe pick another couple of tracks that I particularly liked, and then I’d move the needle to those particular tracks the first few times, and then I’d leave the album on and I’d gradually get to know the less immediate tracks, and very often, those tracks would end up being my favorite tracks on the album. To me, A) It was a deeper experience – some of the things that weren’t so instant, which I think people miss out on now because they just choose the track they want, download it, and that’s it – and B) Sometimes I think albums are put together in such a way that the whole works very well – it paces and, sure, it gives you a real experience. I think that it’s a real shame now that people just pick out a single track, because it’s that sort of immediate gratification that you don’t give yourself any room to grow into some of the things that are less immediate and can become some of your favorite things and give you a lovely experience.
SE: I had that experience when I listened to Pet Sounds and Odessey for the first time. I knew “God Only Knows” and “Time of the Season,” but it took me a while to appreciate the whole albums. And now they’re my favorite albums.
RA: Well, that’s what I find, and that’s a real shame. It’s in human nature to go the easiest route. If the easiest route is presented to you, then you generally take it. That’s just human nature. I remember on television when I was young growing up, we just had two channels – that was it – just two channels. And that meant that you didn’t have a choice, so if you’re watching television in the evening, sometimes they would put a really serious play on mainstream, terrestrial television, like on the BBC or whatever. But something that required some input from you – you would have to come to grips with it and pay attention.
SE: Audience participation to make meaning out of the work?
RA: Yeah, because it wasn’t so easily assimilated. But, the thing is, because people didn’t have a choice, the whole nation would get into it and get very moved. And that doesn’t happen now because you just flip channels and you just go for what instantly appeals to you and just stay with it. It’s just very much human nature to do that, to go the easiest path, I think.
SE: Is that frustrating to you?
RA: It is really. In the end, everything becomes mush shallower and superficial because we all tend to go the easiest route rather than go for something that’s a bit more difficult and requires effort from you in the first instance, until you really get into it. But then you get much more out of it.
SE: I’d like to switch gears and talk about technology and recording. You recorded Odessey on four-track, right?
RA: No. It was eight-track, actually – two four-tracks put together. They were sync tracks, so we had seven tracks at our disposal. That was a huge advance at the time. The Beatles had just been into Abbey Road, and because they were so incensed that The Beach Boys had eight-track recording, they said to the boffins at Abbey Road, “Come on! You’ve got to devise a way to help us have multi-tracking!” You know, more than four tracks. And they put their heads together, and they said, “We haven’t got an eight-track machine in this country, but we can sync two four-tracks together.” It was quite difficult, but they did that, and when we walked into the studio as they walked out the door having recording Sgt. Pepper, they were telling us that story. And we were like, “Oh, we’ll have some of that.” And we did. We had to be very prepared because we had very little money, so we went in very rehearsed and very prepared. But we still had the freedom if something occurred to us in our three hour session, which was what most of the tracks were put down in. We could just whiz into the studio and overdub something. So it was a mixture of spontaneity and what we already had prepared.
SE: They had months to do Sgt. Pepper. How long did you have?
RA: We had a year, but the actual recording time was typically three hours a track, and then maybe two hours to mix it. That was it.
SE: So you had to do all of your work outside of the studio.
RA: We had 1,000 pounds to make the album from start to finish, which in today’s standards is about $1,500. At the same time, obviously, it was a lot more then than it is now, but it still wasn’t a whole lot of money (laughs).
SE: I want to ask you about the melodic bass lines on Odessey.
RA: On most of the songs – certainly on the songs that I’ve written – I generally write the bass lines. Like on “Care of Cell” – that’s my bass line. “She’s Not There” – that’s my bass line.
SE: What inspired you to write the bass lines in those ways?
RA: I’ve always approached things that way. I mentioned “She’s Not There” as the first or second song that I ever wrote. Or it might be the third because there was one that I wrote when I was about 15 and forgotten. But it was very much inspired by “Please Please Me,” so I don’t count it really. It was actually recorded by another band. But discounting that, it’s the second song. For the session, Chris wrote “You Make Me Feel Good,” and I wrote that. Part of writing for the session was [hums the bass line for “She’s Not There”], so I always thought in those terms. But I have to admit Pet Sounds was an inspiration. Brian Wilson was always interested in that area of things, but on Pet Sounds, he expanded his use of bass lines, probably on “God Only Knows,” actually. So that made me excited to expand what was natural to me already. Pet Sounds was an influence, but I wouldn’t say it was a direct influence – like, we copied that song or that song – but the way it was actually put together, and particularly the bass lines made me want to expand that area of things. People sometimes ask, “Was Sgt. Pepper an influence?” And it wasn’t, really.
SE: How could it have been – it wasn’t out yet, right?
RA: We had been recording for about a year, and Sgt. Pepper came out about halfway through the recording, I’d say. Certainly, the first part of it I wouldn’t have heard before we started recording Odessey and Oracle, before we had anything prepared. But we had heard Pet Sounds, as The Beatles had, and been blown away by it, particularly songs like “God Only Knows” – just absolutely gorgeous, gorgeous chords. There’s a similarity in the way that Brian Wilson used different bass notes to the chord. And I’ve always done that.
SE: He doesn’t follow the root note. RA: Right, right. And I’ve always done that since “She’s Not There.” Always.
SE: So you guys must feel like soul brothers, in a way.
SE: Darian Sahanaja from Brian’s band has played with you guys, right?
RA: Yes, Darian, yes. He loves our band. And when we did the premiere – the night premier of Odessey and Oracle – because we had multi-tracking, I thought, the only way I wanted to do it is if we reproduce every single note on the album. So we managed to persuade Chris to play live with us again and Hugh, the drummer, but we used members of our band, too, so that we could cover every note on the album. And I believe we did. But Darian was wonderful. He was the only man…I asked him if he might be interested and he jumped at it, and he came over and he knew the parts better than I did! Even the harmonies! In the sense that we only had two production rehearsals, on one of the rehearsals, Darian came up to me and said, “Why aren’t you doing that bit of harmony there?” I said, “No, it doesn’t go like that, Darien.” He said, “Well, play it for me.” And I still didn’t get it right (laughs). So he knew the music intimately and was a wonderful choice to do basically the Mellotron overdubs the whole time – and his voice!
SE: May I ask you about your jazz background and how that shows up Odessey and Oracle?
RA: Well, it’s only a love of jazz, and I have a love of classical, too. I grew up for the first 11 years of my life only liking classical music. And then our bass player, our guy who is with us at the moment – who, incidentally, was the first guy I ever asked to be in The Zombies – he was in a great local band, and he helped us hugely. But why should he join us because he was in a great semi-pro band? Later he went on to become a member of Argent and, for 13 years, he was with The Kinks. He’s had a great career. He’s a great player. I grew up listening to classical, but then Jim played me “Hound Dog” by Elvis. It completely blew me away, and I always think that his voice in those three years is absolutely transcendent. I still play those records now from those first three years.
SE: The Sun Sessions record?
RA: The Sun Sessions album and the very first Elvis Presley album, with “Hound Dog” and “My Baby Left Me.” Very soon after that, forget about it! And I always thought that was my introduction to Black music by proxy. I got what I got out of Black music at the time coming from where I was, and it made me search out who had done “Hound Dog” originally, which was Big Mama Thornton, which I love, I simply love her version of it. But at the same time, I didn’t stop listening to classical music when I was bowled over by Elvis and trying to find the rawest rock and roll I could find. Very soon after that, I discovered the Miles Davis group around ’58.
SE: That’s when Coltrane was in the band, right?
RA: Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley. Red Garland was playing piano.
SE: And the drummer was Philly Joe Jones.
RA: And Paul Chambers on bass. Very soon after that, Bill Evans joined the band. And it was my second epiphany when I heard Bill Evans play. And I still play Bill Evans all the time for my own pleasure. Wonderful pianist. Even when I was completely consumed by that – as you are when you’re that age – if you get a passion, it just sort of takes over. I still didn’t stop listening to Elvis, and when The Beatles came out, I was equally blown away by them. So it was this succession of people at the time that completely altered my world—Elvis, Miles and equally the members of his band, and Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley.
SE: What about McCoy Tyner?
RA: I liked him very much. I saw him play many years ago, in New York. And he was great. And I still love all that. I still listen to classical music. I still listen to rock and roll. All of those ingredients were swirling around in the air for me. And I never thought we were bringing any of it to the music. I never considered it. But because they were within the listening sphere, they found their way through.
SE: So they ended up on the album.
RA: In a diffuse or indirect way.
SE: Yeah, it’s not a direct influence.
RA: It wasn’t like, “I love Miles Davis! Let’s do a little bit of Miles Davis here!” We thought we were doing The Beatles. In the middle of “She’s Not There,” it was just very natural to play a solo.
SE: How do you feel about Odessey and Oracle having such an impact on independent music listeners?
RA: Well, first of all, it completely knocked me over, and I thought people weren’t telling the truth. Chris White phoned me up many years ago and said, “You know, Odessey is becoming a very cool album with young people. A lot of people are talking about it.” I thought, “No, they’re not” (laughs). And I hadn’t listened to it for years and years, but eventually it filtered through to me that some of that was going on. When Paul Weller was number one in the punk explosion with The Jam, I couldn’t put the two together (laughs). And he said that was his favorite album, and I was like, “What?!?” He still says that now! On Radio 4 in England he said that a week ago. And then a lot of contemporary musicians started to say similar things. And then it did grow. It does sell more now than it did when it first came out, which is mad. It’s never going to be Dark Side of the Moon on an industry scale, but it does grow! It means we usually get a young component to the audience.
SE: It’s almost like you’re an underground band.
RA: It’s crazy, I know. Yeah, like Little Steven has an underground radio show, and he plays bits and pieces of our stuff. But it’s lovely to have that enthusiasm. And it’s lovely to have input from an underground area. I don’t listen to much contemporary music now, but I do hear the odd thing that I like. When you’re 18 years old, you’re going to concerts all the time, and people say, “You’ve got to check this out; you’ve got to listen to this.” It’s a very natural process. When you’re my age and you have a family, you move in a slightly different circle.