Q&A: ROD ARGENT
Not all rock 'n' roll milestones are treated the same way, either by the media or the artists themselves.
There has been plenty of coverage this year marking the 50th anniversary of The Beach Boys, whose surviving members have gone all out, reuniting for a new studio album and an extensive tour. The same can be said of The Rolling Stones reaching the big 5-0 as a band, even though they've looked like slackers compared to Brian Wilson and company, authorizing an upcoming photo/artwork book and documentary while toying with the idea of performing later this year.
Then you have The Zombies. In 2011, their 50th anniversary was handled much more passively by the mainstream press, even though the crafty British band — still led by original members Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent — released a new studio album, Breathe Out, Breathe In, and hit the road.
Maybe it's because singer Blunstone and keyboardist Argent — unlike the surviving Beach Boys or the current Stones lineup — have been working together on a regular basis in recent years, reuniting circa the early 2000s to record and tour as a duo, then reviving the Zombies moniker. Or maybe it's just the latest example of the band being overlooked; the most egregious example of this, of course, is that The Zombies have not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Prior to a string of Zombies U.S. concert dates, Argent addressed the Rock Hall issue and other topics, such as how his band fit in with the other 1960s British Invasion acts and what continues to motivate him and the rest of his group — currently Blunstone, bassist Jim Rodford (formerly of The Kinks and Argent's cousin), drummer Steve Rodford (Jim's son) and guitarist Tom Toomey (a veteran of Blunstone's solo band).
Medleyville.us: The early 1960s British rock bands all had defining characteristics, but The Zombies really stood out from the rest of the pack, in large part due to Colin’s voice and your keyboard sound and playing. Back then, did you feel at one with those other groups on a musical level?
Rod Argent: "Yeah, I think we did. It was just a very exciting time, and lots of boundaries were being pushed in all sorts of ways. I think one of the great things was that record companies didn’t really understand what was going, so they didn’t put their oar in too much. They just let the bands get on with it. You had all sorts of an invention going on. I felt very close to bands like The Who, who were very different from The Zombies in some ways — although, we had things in common, too. I had quite a few chats about various things with Pete Townshend at the time about avant-garde jazz, about all sorts of boundaries being pushed. He was a brilliantly inventive harmony arranger, and harmonies were always something that interested me a lot. So in many years, I felt a lot in common, but I always felt we had our own path to follow."
Speaking of unique vocals, what’s the story about the "aah" bit that repeats throughout "Time of the Season"? It's so distinctive and essential to the song, yet so simple.
Argent: "That was me. It was just a bit of vocal percussion, actually in the same way The Beatles often [did] sometimes — vocal things as percussive things; they would use anything cardboard boxes, anything at hand. It was something that happened very quickly; it was just a moment of invention. I mean, we recorded every track on the Odessey and Oracle album very quickly because we didn’t have any money to do anything else, to be honest. And the way we would go in was to be very prepared, but then we would leave room for invention on the actual session itself.
"We rehearsed ‘Time of the Season,’ and we went in and recorded it. And then while we were in the studio, there were two things that quickly came into my head, it being my song, I guess. That was the percussive part, which I very quickly laid down — the clap and the “aah” sound — and the other thing was, I added a little tom-tom beat to the drums during the [keyboard] solo, which I played. I mean, [original Zombies drummer] Hugh [Grundy] could have easily played it, obviously, but there I was, and I just did it. That’s how we used to do things in those days.”
When rock ’n’ roll started out, the saxophone and piano were just as prominent as the guitars and drums, but not so much these days. As a keyboard player, do you think the instrument is overdue for a return to the foreground? And who do you like among the piano/keyboard players on the scene today?
Argent: "Oh, my goodness, what a question. Well, you’re right — actually, strange enough, you saying that makes me realize, of course, that piano was very prominent in some early rock ’n’ roll — and rock 'n' roll I loved. I grew up for the first 10 years of my life only liking classical music, or thinking I did. Then one day I heard Elvis Presley sing 'Hound Dog,' and it just turned my world around, and at that point, I wanted nothing but to hear the rawest rock 'n' roll of all time. And of course that included Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis — the stuff sounded absolutely brilliant.
"I know that by the time we got together as a group, I thought the piano was getting a bit passé and that groups were really guitar groups. That very first [Zombies] rehearsal, it was intended that I should be the lead singer, and Colin was going to be the rhythm guitarist. And at that very first rehearsal, I heard Colin sing an old Ricky Nelson song, and I thought he sounded fantastic and said, 'You’ve got to be the lead singer.' And he heard me wander over to an old, beaten-up piano and play [a song], and he said, 'You have to play piano in the band.' I mean, that’s how those two chairs got moved around, in that very first rehearsal.
"I hadn't thought recently about the fact there was a lot of piano in early rock 'n' roll stuff. But of the current keyboard players, I can’t think of anyone who really turns me on as a player. Do you know I never used to model myself on keyboard players at all? I listened to a lot of jazz, and the artists I loved a lot were John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and the people who were in the Miles Davis group in 1958, 1960. Mind you, at the same time he had Bill Evans, who absolutely knocked my socks off. I thought he was absolutely wonderful. But I never really consciously went out to copy keyboard licks. I never thought about that. I think the closest I came to that at the time was really being knocked out by Jimmy Smith, and that got me interested in playing the Hammond organ. But of today’s keyboard players, I can't really think of anyone who impresses me, to be honest."
What are your feelings about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Do you think The Zombies should have been inducted by now?
Argent: "Yeah, I do, actually. … We've had articles in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for years, but we've never been voted in. I don't think it would be out of the way if we were. It would feel like a great honor; it would be something that would really knock me out.
"In England, there are [historical] Blue Plaques put up on walls sometimes. Well, we have one [that marks the 1961 meeting of the original band members], and that absolutely knocked me out — it's probably because I’m getting old (laughs). But those things feel really nice, and to be [inducted into] the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would be great."
Breathe Out, Breathe In was well received when it was released last year. Is it too soon to be asking you about the timetable for the next Zombies studio album?
Argent: "We played so much last year, and to some degree this year … We just had a ball playing live and just enjoyed that for a while. But literally in [early July], I've had a couple of first inklings of ideas for songs, and I would love to start recording again. I actually think that the creative energy and the physical energy and the playing ability in the version of the band we've got at the moment have never been greater. For me, it’s as exciting as anything I’ve ever been involved in actually, which is a huge bonus. To be at this age — or at this stage in our career, however you want to put it — and feel that there are actually paths opening up feels very energizing and revitalizing, and I love it.
"The last reason in the world that we got back together again was to try and make a buck. We've been very lucky in the sense that some of the old stuff has continued to do very well, and it's provided us with a financial cushion, which doesn't mean we have to desperately go out and just try and make money. That’s a freeing thing in its own way. But at the same time, I think we've always tried to make music for the right reasons. The center of our attention and our focus is always to go out there and try and excite ourselves and be excited by playing the best way we can, by trying to get to the center of the music. That's always been the focus for us, and as long as we feel well enough to go out and do it, that will always be the focus for us."
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior
The Zombies featuring Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent on tour (schedule subject to change):
* July 27: Largo Cultural Center — Largo, Fla.
* July 28: Southern Ground Amphitheatre — Fayetteville, Ga.
* July 29: Cat’s Cradle — Carrboro, N.C.
* July 31: Viper Alley — Lincolnshire, Ill.
* Aug. 1: Mayne Stage — Chicago
* Aug. 2: Waterfest — Oshkosh, Wis.
* Aug. 5-6: Highline Ballroom — New York
* Aug. 7: Wolf Den/Mohegan Sun — Uncasville, Conn.
* Aug. 9: Howard Theatre — Washington, D.C.
Photo by Chris M. Junior