Interview: Rod Argent (The Zombies, solo)

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HIT CHANNEL EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: October 2017. We had the great honour to talk with a legendary musician and composer: Rod Argent. He is best known as the founding member and keyboard player of The Zombies, one of the most influential bands of the ‘60s. He has also been a member of Argent and Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band and has recorded with The Who and Andrew Lloyd Webber. In 2015, The Zombies released their latest studio album, “Still Got That Hunger”. Read below the very interesting things he told us:


The Zombies released “Still Got That Hunger” in 2015. Are you satisfied with the feedback you received from fans and press for that album?

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What I saw, was terrific. Yeah, we had some great reviews in America and in the UK as well. That was what I saw. I didn’t know what they would like everywhere else, but there were very good reviews indeed.


Why you decided to record “Still Got That Hunger” the same way as “Odessey and Oracle” (1968)?

I also have produced many albums for other artists like Tanita Tikaram and Nanci Griffith. We always recorded them in a more modern way of doing the tracks separately. When we did the live recording of “Odessey and Oracle” we realised that we enjoyed it so much. The recording was the result of people playing together at once and having that interplay between musicians that we used to have in the old days, because there was no other way of recording when we started. We all recorded in the studio one time, so everybody listened to everybody else. We had Colin (ed: Blunstone) singing guide vocals and he’d normally do the lead vocals as an overdub. That was what we intended to do with “Still Got That Hunger”, but it worked so well that Colin’s guide vocals in the studio became master vocals. We didn’t overdub them afterwards. We played the solos live in the studio and we spent a lot of the time in the following week analyzing them and we played them to get the best out of them. But we loved what he had. We didn’t need to replace the solos. So, it was so energizing for us to do things in a very old-fashioned way and we loved that way of recording. When we‘ll record in the future, that’s what we all want to do again, I think.


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What are your feelings about The Zombies nomination for The Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame?

We are very proud and very flattered, because this is the third year that we get nominated. Not three in a row, but we were nominated last year and as far as we can work out –we don’t know the details obviously- we are very close to be selected. This year, we are hoping this third time lucky. We are very proud and flattered.


The Zombies still remain an amazing band. What’s the secret?

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Thank you very much. If there is a secret, then the secret is that we are doing it for the right reasons. We are not getting out there to trade off our past stories. We are genuinely very energized by being able to continue to create and record new stuff and within that context we are very happy to play all the old stuff. But it’s very important to us that we still get the feeling of satisfaction and energy from playing new stuff on stage and getting it respected and accepted by all reviewers in the same way as they accept the old stuff. Very often we do “Time of the Season” , which it always goes down a complete storm, but then we have followed it with a new song from “Still Got That Hunger”, we used to play “Chasing the Past”, and that goes down great too. It is so pleasing. I don’t know if there are many professions in the world where you can get the feeling of being so young and honestly it feels no difference when you are on stage: That experience is exactly the same. The energy that you create with the band and we get back from the audience, is the same as when you were 18 years old. There are very few people that get this feeling.


Why for many years you declined offers for a Zombies reunion?

Because it was always felt contrived. The way it happened was that Colin and I, got back together again to do 6 gigs in the UK and we had a ball. We had a great band behind us. None of the other musicians were from The Zombies. But we had Jim Rodford (ed: bass), who was in The Kinks for 18 years. He was an original member of Argent with me, and Jim actually -believe it or not- was the first person I ever asked to be in The Zombies. But because he was in a top local band at the time, the Bluetones, he turned me down at that time. So, he was always very much in contact with us and a great supporter of what we were doing. We enjoyed playing so much, in a very-very slow way. We‘ve got two more gigs and eventually we put the band together to go to America. When we first went to America, in about 2003, outside of New York and Los Angeles we were generally playing to just a handful of people. But, you know, now when we tour in America –and we toured for whole three months last year in America- we play in quite big audiences. We decided to recreate the “Odessey and Oracle” album that we had done at Shepherd’s Bush in the UK. That was in 2008. To do that we got back together for the first time Chris White and Hugh Grundy, on bass and drums, respectively. Also on stage was the current band, the band that we used to play with, so we could sing and play every single part from the original album. Because we thought that if we want to do it live, we had to replicate every note of the original album. It had to be completely accurate. It was a joyful experience to do that.

Then, we thought it would be too expensive to take that big package to the States, because apart from the people I mentioned, I had another keyboard player who could play the overdubs that I played on the original album. So, we got Darian Sahanaja from The Brian Wilson Band and we used Chris White’s wife (ed: Viv Boucherat), who is a brilliant singer. She sings some of the falsetto harmony parts that I sang on the original album, because I can only sing one harmony part at the time (laughs). We reproduced every single note from the original album and it was a big operation to take to the States: It required more people to move with you around, to take around, more hotel bills, more people on stage etc. But we managed to do it. We won’t be doing it anymore, after a few more gigs in America. That will be the end of any live performances of “Odessey and Oracle”. With the current band, which sounds brilliant and the one we did “Still Got That Hunger”, we’ll continue to play and record. That was really what happened. It happened very naturally. It wasn’t us saying to somebody: “We want an X amount of money to reform the band”. We never said that. That was a natural process, because it happened so naturally and we did it for the right reasons.


Were you surprised when your first single “She’s Not There” (1964) reached No.2 on the Billboard chart?

It reached No.2 on Billboard, it reached No.1 on Cashbox, and Cashbox at the time was a big magazine in America. I remember when The Beatles had their first No.1 , they celebrated the fact that they were No.1 in Cashbox. As you so rightly said, we were No.2 in Billboard as well. We were kind of expecting it because we were so young. We all thought that we would have things like that… and it was a shock when we didn’t, later on (laughs). At the same time, we were very-very thrilled. It was such a dream-like experience to go to America, which was the land of all the music that excited us and we loved. To play with some of these guys was just insane. And the fact that they accepted us people like Ben E. King, The Drifters, The Shirelles and Patti LaBelle. All accepted us when we played on the same shows. It was a real joy.


Is it a coincidence that “She’s Not There” was also Gus Dudgeon’s (future David Bowie and Elton John producer) first hit as an engineer?

It was. Gus Dudgeon was the assistant engineer, because the main engineer, Terry Johnson, -who was very good- was very drunk. He had been to a wedding, earlier in the day and we were recording through the night. He came back from the wedding so drunk that he passed out. He fainted as he had been too drunk. We had to carry him to a taxi and we gave to the taxi driver the instruction: “Take him home”. Our producer at the time said to Gus Dudgeon: “Well Gus, you are the assistant engineer. You have to take over” and so “She’s Not There” is his first session as the main engineer. As I said, it went to No.1 in America. That was a wonderful start for him and that was a wonderful start for us, too.


 Are you proud that “Odessey and Oracle” is considered as a classic album?

I’m incredibly proud. One of the things that I’m proud for is the fact that wherever we play, we have a really large young component in the audience. We don’t only speak to people who have followed us throughout our career, but young people, a new generation relates to that album as well. That fills us with joy: The fact that things that I’ve written in 1967, when I was 22 at that time, and stuff that I’ve written when I was at that age and Chris White has written also on some songs, can still relate to people of this generation as well. That fact that an album that was not accepted when it first came out, has become so accepted in a small way. Obviously, sales-wise it is never going to be “Dark Side of the Moon”, but over many-many years it sells more copies every year now, than it did when it first came out. To have that longevity and to be able to have that impact now, it’s very pretty. I’m very proud.


How important was the contribution of John Lennon’s forgotten mellotron to the sound of “Odessey and Oracle”?

Very-very important… and the thing is that it wasn’t planned. We walked in the studio and there was a mellotron. We tried it out, we loved it and we said: “We can use this”. So, I would say looking up in the sky, I’m putting my hands together: “Wherever you are John, thank you very much”.


Had you realised that The Zombies was a very unusual name for a band in the early ‘60s?

Yes, and that was the reason I liked it so much. We were looking for names and along with quite a few other bands we found names like The Sundowners and then we found out that other people called themselves like that. I found out about a week ago actually, that Tom Petty’s first band was called The Sundowners. Tom became a great supporter of the band in his latter years and that is a funny coincidence. One day, when we still wanted to find something unusual, our bass player who left very shortly afterwards, quite in the beginning, called Paul Arnold, he came up with the name The Zombies and I loved it. Colin hated this! Colin didn’t really know what a zombie was. It was before the movie “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and many people didn’t know what a zombie was. I knew that it had something to do with Haiti and people being made slaves and they are just sleepwalking dead brought back by exotic forces of magic. I thought: “Yes, that is a name that no-one else would have”. I thought that if we were lucky enough to be successful, then people wouldn’t think about zombies when they think about us. They would just think the people in the band and they would think of the songs that we did. As when you think about The Beatles, you don’t think about insects or a play on the word “beat”. You think about John, Paul, George and Ringo and that’s the way it works out. I do remember our very first television programme. We were with Manfred Mann and Manfred came up to me and said: “You are Rod Argent, aren’t you?” and I said: “Yes”. “It’s a lovely song (ed: “She’s Not There”). I think it’s great… but you have to change that name”. But it worked and we never did.


Do you believe that Argent’s “Nexus” (1974) album should get more recognition?

After Argent broke up I didn’t listen to the albums for many years and then recently –when I say recently I’m talking about 5 years ago- Sony released a collection of remastered Argent albums; all the albums that were on CBS. The remastering was excellent, it sounds really-really well. I listened to them and I loved listening to them. I thought they sound absolutely great and I think all of the Argent catalogue should have more recognition, actually. It seems to be that the first couple of albums which were ignored -they were before “Hold Your Head Up”- have great tracks on them but the sound was quite small. We did them in a very small studio (ed: Sound Techniques). The remasters have brought the actual sound quality in a way that it reveals how good the tracks are. They can compete on the level playing to any modern album that you like. That was a joy, in that remastered version… But the later albums too. I don’t like every track on the albums but some of them, I think they sound terrific.


“Hold Your Head Up” (1972) has been covered by many great bands (Phish, Uriah Heep, Steppenwolf) and Rick Wakeman (Yes) said that it has “the greatest organ solo ever”. What’s so special about this song?

It was written by Chris (ed: White -bass) and myself but the original inspiration for the song –in other words the lyrics, the melody and the original guitar riff- all came from Chris. So, I think about it as Chris’ song. I had a large say in arrangement of this song, the way it was put together, but the original thing came from Chris. So, it’s down to Chris the original inspiration. I think it was a very fresh recording. We actually did 32 takes, but we used take 1. It was a very fresh take on a new film and that freshness I think is obvious on the performance. I’m very proud that Rick said that about the organ solo, because it means a great deal to me that he said that. I’m so pleased. Equally, Keith Emerson was one of the people who said that he liked my playing and he was a huge player as well. I think he was a wonderful guy too. “Hold Your Head Up” is such a good song and its sound is so fresh, that it just captured the magic of the moment in a few takes.


Do you agree with the term “progressive rock” as far as the music of Argent?

I think that the areas of Argent were definitely quite progressive. You know, I think there were elements in The Zombies music that were very progressive as well: In the way that we put together harmonies, they way that the arrangements were put together on the album. I would be happy to accept the word “progressive”. I think progressive rock got a bad name and it is disrespect to progressive rock artists, who I think they were hugely inventive, but there were a lot of groups going around that had been labeled as being progressive bands but the quality of the music wasn’t very progressive on them. It was just everybody playing as fast as they could and they were quite ordinary musical ideas. But when you hear something like the first couple of Yes albums, they were joyful albums, they were wonderfully creative and they were truly progressive. I think some of the Emerson, Lake & Palmer albums were truly progressive and there is great stuff on them, full of energy, full of powerful interplay and full of great musical ideas.


In 2006 you toured with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. What was it like to be in the same band with Ringo?

It was wonderful because I always loved his drumming. I’ve always been totally inspired by The Beatles. I was blown away when I heard their first English single, as was everybody else I know who was a musician at that time. They affected everybody’s creativity and the way they wrote and played, in one way or another. Another thing that I didn’t really know enough but Chris White heard from somebody after Lennon died, that John Lennon said that he would love to produce us. I wish I’d know that because that would be a joy. Playing with Ringo was absolutely great. It was a great experience.


Do you have happy memories of your meeting with Paul McCartney in a piano booth during the recording sessions of Roger Daltrey’s “One of the Boys” (1977) album?

I have, yes. I mean, it was literally for half an hour. I thought he was gonna show me the chords of the song that he wrote for Roger (ed: “Giddy”). He talked about and he even started to play things that he had started to write with Stevie Wonder. I can’t remember what the song was. In the piano booth, he and I were talking about Paul’s contribution for Roger and he started to say: “I work with Stevie at the moment” and he started to play one or two things like that. I think it was great and for about five or six years after that, I was sent one of Linda’s –his wife- calendars that she sent out to a few people. He was very sweet during our chatter. It was very nice to do that.


Is it flattering that The Zombies influenced great musicians like Tom Petty, Paul Weller and Dave Grohl?

It’s hugely pleasing. It really is. Very flattering. Having met Tom Petty for quite a while, a few times in the recent years before he died -he came along on our last tour, he came along to one of the gigs and he came back afterwards with Benmont Tench, his keyboard player- and he was lovely. Absolutely lovely. He became a huge supporter, he got us into his radio show on SiriusXM and we spent two or three hours with Tom at his house and he was a very supportive guy. That’s a treasured memory actually. He was just lovely.


Was it an interesting experience to watch The Rolling Stones playing at Studio 51 in April 1963?

That was one of the most exciting things that I have ever heard. Our band was very-very young and we had started to play our first local gigs in 1962. That was early in 1963, as I remember. The Studio 51 held about 60 or 70 people and The Stones had just recorded “Come On”, the Chuck Berry cover, and at that time they were all sitting on stools, including Mick Jagger. They had been very purists about the blues they were playing and Jagger was sitting on another stool. He was sitting on a high stool and sang into a mike and they were so exciting. I was 17 years old at the time and that was before my 18th birthday. I was still living at home and I remember going back in the early hours in the morning waking my poor mama up and saying: “I must tell about this gig I went to” (laughs). I didn’t know if she appreciated that very much, but we were all very-very excited. That was the best show that I have ever seen or maybe that gig at that time had the most impact on me. I just loved watching the gig at the time.


Paul Atkinson (original Zombies guitarist; died in 2004) famously signed ABBA to CBS in the UK. Did he ever tell you anything about them?

I have never met ABBA, but I remember Paul doing it and I remember the story was that he had a very hard time interesting people in them. In America, they wouldn’t ever have been released and he was the one who made sure that they would be released in America. In America, the story I heard was that he went to the head of A&R of the record company that he was working for at the time and he said: “Are you gonna sign this band?” and the guy said: “No, I’m not interested towards their music”. Their songs were in Swedish, anyway. Paul said: “What if I can get them to sing more songs in English, would you agree to release an album?” and in the end he said: “Yeah. Ok, if they sing more songs in English”. That was the reason as he told me that they got signed in America. But I think he had trouble in England as well getting people to take them seriously. They had a big hit with their first Eurovision entry, with “Waterloo” (1974) but everyone thought it was a one-off pop record that is never gonna happen again. I only vaguely remember that was going on at that time but I remember Paul telling me that story about their American signing and about the fact that he got them to sing songs in English. They had only done in Swedish. That’s what made them to get signed in America. Of course, they became huge throughout the world.


How challenging was it to do “Classically Speaking” album in 1998? You played some really difficult Chopin pieces on there!

I’m very proud of that album because I’m a self-taught piano player. I ‘ve got a very dear friend who is a classical musician and I deliberately moved away from producing other people’s albums because I wanted to do one or two things myself again at the time. My classical friend said to me: “You’ve got some time off now, why don’t you do some real work and make a classical album?” I thought I can’t do that. I just can’t. He said: “Why not? I heard you half-play so many things”. I said: “Well, I can’t”. I had never thought the idea of making a classical album and he said: “Come on, give it a go”. I took a year out and I practiced three hours a day for a year, I chose some of my favourite pieces difficult or easy: Some works were easy but they impressed me with their light and their great lyricism. Some were extremely difficult like Chopin studies. I thought: “I ‘ll see what happens”  and I was very proud in the end to pull it off. Even a couple of classical pianists said to me that they liked the result and I’m very proud of that.


Jimi Hendrix and Eric Burdon turned up at the first Argent show at the Whisky in Los Angeles. Did you get to know Jimi?

I did get to know him to some degree, only slightly. That was one of the worst gigs we ever had because we were playing really well at that time and were also a lot of celebrities in the audience, as you so rightly said including Hendrix and Eric Burdon who came along. We used to mike up the Leslie speaker for the Hammond organ, we had two Leslie speakers and we used to mike them up by using microphones on them and then because of feedback, we would put one of the Leslies in a dressing room, way behind the stage so there was no howling, no feedback going on on stage. What happened was that halfway through the first song, somebody stole the microphone and so the Leslie speaker wasn’t amplified anymore and because we were quite a loud band, nobody could hear the organ. So, we were mortified and we came off at the end of that evening distraught, feeling very-very unhappy. But even so we did meet Hendrix and Eric Burdon and they invited us up to a joint birthday party Eric Burdon was having with the guys of War, the group War Eric Burdon was involved with. I remember being very proud because halfway through the evening, Jimi Hendrix came up to me and introduced himself and he said: “I really love your record “She’s Not There”” The guy just wanted to say that. That’s the only thing I can remember him saying and that is the only time I met Hendrix, who as everybody else, I thought he was wonderful. I met Eric Burdon more, strangely enough, and the result was going back together and we played with Eric a few times on shows that we were together and he’s lovely.


Do you remember The Zombies show you played in Athens, Greece in 2011?

I do remember it and I remember enjoying it very much. We were treated very well. I remember it also because I had to eat before the show and I went out at an outdoor restaurant. I remember ordering “kalamari” and I expected it to be like the “kalamari” I had everywhere else, but they did serve me a whole squid. A whole “kalamari” and it was enormous! I’d never seen one like that but my goodness, it was absolutely gorgeous. I’ll never forget that (laughs).


Do you have any musical ambitions left?

None that it’s different than the work I’ve already done, in the sense that I still want to write and record songs that I’m happy with. I still want to try to improve my playing, my singing and my writing. Then, I ‘ll continue life as it should be.


Did Nirvana copy Argent’s “In Deep” (1973) album cover for “Nevermind”?

Did they copy it?! I’ve never seen it! I don’t know. Did they really? Oh, that’s wonderful. Let me tell you a story about the “In Deep” cover. I can swim now, but at the time we did that cover, I couldn’t swim. I wasn’t afraid of the water, I just couldn’t swim and the people doing the cover wanted a photograph of under water and they went to a swimming park where there were portholes in the sides of the pool and a restaurant there, so people could look under water to see people swimming. They said to me: “Ok, jump in and go down to the bottom of the pool”. I said: “I can’t”. They said: “Why?” “I can’t, because I can’t swim”. They said: “Nooo, come on!  Are you joking?” I said: “No, I can’t”. I finally jumped in. I don’t know how, I managed to keep underwater for that long. I can do it now, but at the time that cover was taken I was actually underwater, I jumped in the deep and I couldn’t swim.


Are there great personalities like John Lennon, Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix in today’s music?

There possibly are, but I don’t know them. I think music, in a way, then was so universally important. I’m not saying it’s not important now, but there is so much competition from social media, from websites all the time and you have 24 hour access to. In those days the release of an album was very important, and you had to go out and it was a special thing to buy it. It was on vinyl, so you had to open your record player, take out the record from the sleeve and put it on your record player. You had to sit down and listen to the album and start thinking. You wouldn’t skip one track from that album. You’d read over album cover notes and the album cover was an equally important part of what happened with the notes inside the album. In a way, big figures, important people like John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Brian Jones, people like Hendrix were universally known across all generations. The older generation might not like what they did but they knew about it. When a programme like Top of the Pops came out, a whole country was watching. So, I believe that it was so more important the focus on what they were playing than it is now. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that people had such superstars at the time. I’m not saying that there are no superstars now. You have people like Adele who sells millions of albums, but to me somehow it doesn’t feel that these personalities exist. Maybe that’s because I’m getting old and I’m not in touch with the modern scene as much I was always in touch with everything that was going on then.


Keith Emerson told me exactly the same. He said: “It was a huge event when The Beatles released a new album. You should listen to John Lennon’s lyrics. You should listen to George Harrison’s guitar. Nowadays nobody gives a shit about who plays the guitar solo on a Lady Gaga album”.

Exactly, that’s so true! You used to know every part of every track of a new Beatles album. We really did! It was a major-major event in the country, in the world. There used to be a radio programme by Kenny Everett where he would play the first bits of the second of a Beatles track, and he asked people what the track was. All you heard was just: “Mmm” (ed: the sound of one note). You know, people did and I also used to know what track it was. We used to know those tracks intimately. We would know who played on everything, obviously the members of the band, but if other people played on this, we would know that too.


A huge “THANK YOU” to Mr Rod Argent for his time and to Cindy da Silva for her valuable help.

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