The Zombies today, Argent is 2nd from the left
Rod Argent interview
by Kortney Jmaeff
Rod Argent is a true rock and roll renaissance man. In fact. he's still going strong at age 75. His background is amazing: while still a teenager, he wrote the second #1 hit recording in America by a British band (after the Beatles) with "She's Not There." He helped create one of the best rock and roll albums of all time (even with a misspelled title): Odessey and Oracle. But by the time of its official release in 1969, the band had already broken up.
After the Zombies broke up, he started the self-named band Argent, a progressive keyboard-heavy rock band that spanned the 1970's. He was also a famous producer, created an album of classical music and even played on the Who album Who Are You (1978). Rod had many fans that he influenced along the decades, stars like Tom Petty, Pat Metheny, Don Felder of the Eagles, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, and so many more (which you'll hear about below). Finally in 2019, The Zombies deservedly claimed their place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Here, Rod reminiscences about his favorite producers, what his creative process looks like, and if he believes he made the piano a cooler solo instrument to rock and rollers.
PSF: Looking at your rap sheet, it's very impressive: opening up for the World Cup when you perform with the Who, Andrew Lloyd Webber, making classical music. it's all very interesting. It must have been a really wild ride for you.
RA: Well, it has. I mean I just said on another interview that it was a long life in the record business. I'm in this music business, in every sort of music that I was in. I have very Catholic tastes. It's been great to experience in so many types. As for the classical thing I've always adored classical music. That's always the first music I liked. I got into Elvis when I was 11 years old, But I never stopped listening to classical music. I have a very dear friend who's a classical musician.
After 15 years of my life, all I did was nothing else but producing people and having really a lot of quite a success of it. But I had enough of it really. I wanted to get back into performing and writing my own stuff again. I wanted to take a year off to clear my head. My classical music friend said "why don't you do a classical piano album?" I thought "I can't do that!" He asked "Why can't you do it?" For the first thing, I'm self-taught and the second is that I'm just not up to it. He said "Listen I've heard you half-play so many things, why don't you just focus for a year and have our producer create a solo piano album for you?" I thought "You know what? Nothing lost. I'm going to make 10 or 12 pieces that I don't mind. And not all of them will be easy- that's not going to be the criteria. It's going to be bits of music that I love to play. I am going to practice 3 hours a day and see what happens.
I was really proud of myself because I reckon 90 percent of the album turned out really well. I had a lot of praise from some really well-known classical musicians. That was a very rich experience, not rich in material terms as it only sold about 2,000 albums. But it provides a feeling of fulfillment. It was a little aside because I had such a long life in music. It was really satisfying and in the end, I think being satisfied with whatever you're doing is everything actually.
PSF: What's the most notable experience that you remember from the sixties specifically?
RA: Oh god, there have been quite a few in a sense. I just mentioned Elvis, hadn't I? The thing was that you had to be alive at that time and at a certain age to realize what different worlds England and America we're at that time.
In 1956, I was turned on to Elvis by my cousin (Jim Rodford). He played me Elvis singing "Hound Dog" and from then on, I only wanted to hear the rawest rock and roll that I could get my hands on. My cousin was also a founding member of Argent with me and also 4 years older than me. I saw some very early footage of Elvis in 1956. It felt like it was out of this world, what was being shown to me from America. It had so little in common from anything that resembled life as I knew it. It was really quite unbelievable. It seemed like this magical land that held all these wonderful musicians that I would never even be able to go in and ever approach.
And then literally it occurred to me when we went over to the USA when I was 19 years old. I wrote "She's Not There" when I was 18. That became the second recording to become number one in America from an English band with a self-written song, after the Beatles.
A little bit after that, I found out that Elvis had three of our records in his jukebox! You're talking about just 8 years later from this magical experience looking at something that felt like a completely foreign universe to actually being number one in that territory, with the song that I had written and a band that I was in! That just felt totally surreal to me!
I have to say that those early performances that we did in the sixties were memorable. The very first show that we did was at the Motorcade Brooklyn Fox show in New York and we started at eight in the morning. We did six shows a day, or was it eight shows a day? I can't remember now. We finished at 11 at night. We put on all our songs with bands like Patti LaBelle, Ben E King and The Drifters, the Shirelles, Dion and all these heroes. Clark Jackson was actually big in New York at the time he was headlining shows. We turned up there and we were scared silly!
By that time, we were already through the Elvis period, we very soon got turned on to rhythm and blues music and the black artists that were the originators. This happened along with many other people. I mean it was the same with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and everyone else. We started finding out that all these people like Ray Charles and so many others. And suddenly we were playing with some of our heroes! Our act was on after Patti LaBelle went on stage singing and we had to go on stage, these five scrawny English kids! We thought "They're going to hate us! Like we are just a rip off from the others." But they didn't! They really took us to their hearts. Particularly Patti Labelle, we had many, many long chats with her over the time that we were there. She introduced us to this new music, this new kid on the block that you have to check out. I've never heard such music before! She introduced us to the music of Nina Simone and so many others. She talked about her musical experience growing up in church.
So in the next tour that we did in 1965, we travelled by bus. We were not the only ones being ripped off but a lot of the black acts on the bus were being ripped off too. So we could only stay in a hotel every other night. So on alternate nights we would travel through the night on the bus. This wasn't a bus where you can lay down on the seats but a normal bus, a coach bus. What would generally happen was at 2 and 3 in the morning it would get really silent. Then one of the artists would start humming a note on the bus, another would create a chord and they would create an absolutely brilliant spiritual song. And the hairs on the back of my neck would just go up. That was an experience for me. It's just so special, we couldn't have acquired it anywhere else. I remember the very first time that we got on that bus everyone was very friendly, immediately everybody started singing!
The Velvelettes (Motown group) were on the bus and they sounded great. Mel Carter was there and he was singing too. We were having a ball and we were all excited. So they all turn to us and say "Now you sing something!" Colin (Bluestone, singer) said "What? Oh gosh, What are we going to do?" I said "Why don't we sing the Beatles 'If I Fell'?" I said "Okay you start it and I'll do the harmony parts." He started singing it and I did the harmony parts with him. We went through it and they all hugely applauded at the end! We were fine after that. It was a bit of a trial by fire you know. We had to prove our credentials at that moment.
The whole thing was unbelievable. It was unreal really. To be 19 years old and not only have a chart-topping record in this magic land of America! Also all these attractive girls that were around you know with everything else going on. It was a young guy's dream really!
PSF: There's a lot of history there, a lot of interesting times.
RA: Absolutely! Also, some things you just find out by complete chance. There was a story about Jim (Roger) McGuinn of the Byrds. He told me that after hearing the solo on "She's Not There," it made him believe that it was possible to use scales like that in rock and roll. He reckoned that without hearing that song that "Eight Miles High" would not have been written and recorded the way that it was. If he had never told me, I would have never been able to discern that myself. It's very gratifying when people say things like that. Things like that just go on all the time! It's much, much later when you actually find out.
Tom Petty became a friend of mine, about a year before he sadly died. He told me that the very first rock and roll show he ever saw was us playing in Jacksonville, Florida on the 1965 tour that I mentioned previously. He told me that he vividly remembered the whole set from the show. It's kind of special to come across moments like that. That's what happens from having such a long life in music, I guess.
PSF: Absolutely. Congratulations on being inducted in the rock and roll hall of fame in 2019. It's about time!
RA: Well thank you very much, it was a real thrill! A real honor!
PSF: What's the most exciting thing about being inducted?
RA: Well, it was quite exciting in a way. Previously, we've been nominated 3 times in the last 4 years, so this was our fourth nomination. I had a feeling in my bones that this time we might actually be inducted. First of all, more famous people started showing up at our gigs. I mean, Graham Nash came to one. We had a lovely chat with them afterwards.
I remember walking into a gig and meeting some members of Tom's Petty's band. They ended up staying afterwards. We also had a really nice chat. I remember just a few weeks before the final vote had to be finished off to decide who would be inducted, we were in the States. We went to a radio station and there was this guy who I didn't pay much attention to. To be honest, I didn't look too hard at him, until I suddenly realized that it was Don Felder from the Eagles! He came up to us and said "Hey guys! You're the Zombies aren't you?" And I thought "This is just great isn't it?" Some of the people that we most admire we found out they were voting for us to be inducted! That's a really great vote of acceptance. Some of the people who have made the best rock records were suddenly taking us seriously.
We played on the induction show concert in front of 17,000 people. We played with the Cure, Radiohead, Def Leppard, Janet Jackson, Stevie Nicks and Roxy Music. They were all very incredibly open and friendly with us and said some really nice things about us. One of the guys from the Cure said "You've really been an inspiration to us." I thought "Really?" I mean I love some of the Cure stuff, but I would have never put us and them in the same category at all.
It reminds me of my experience with Paul Weller. He had about three records with The Jam that were in the top 10. He is still one of the biggest stars in the UK. He wasn't as big in the US and Canada, however. He completely knocked my socks off. He said in an article that his favorite album of all time was the Zombies Odessey and Oracle. He called it an "autumnal sounding album." I think he's right. It's so different, for him to think in those terms. He was on top of the world doing his high-energy punk act like the Jam. I found it extraordinary as he's never stopped saying it's still his favourite album, even today. I've played on two tracks of his last album, he's become a friend. He actually goes out and buys copies of "Odessey and Oracle" and gives it to people who haven't got one. These unexpected things that happen are so gratifying, some are from you would never expect.
I met Pat Metheny for the first time when he was just becoming known in America. I was with some jazz musicians, a couple of them didn't even know who I was. There was no reason why they should, really. There was a jazz bass player named Jeff Berlin who said "You got to come and check out this guy". So we went to Joe's Pub in New York, which was very small so we saw a very small gig with Pat Metheny. After the show, he said "come back and meet the guys". We all went back and Jeff Berlin introduced the group to me and said "This is Rod Argent." Pat Metheny said "Rod Argent? You wrote "She's Not There"? I said "yes"! I couldn't believe he knew who I was! He said that it was the recording of "She's Not There" that showed him the way ahead of what he wanted to do musically. He mentioned all the modal stuff in the song. I thought "Bloody hell! There's no modal stuff on 'She's Not There.'"
So I went back and started playing through the chords. I realized that what was in my head at the time was an A Minor to a D sequence in the verse. I actually tied it together by writing a bit of modal phrasing over that. I didn't even know what I did because I was listening to so much Miles Davis at the time. I was always very into what was called modern jazz at that time. It indirectly rubbed off on me without me realizing that I was trying to put anything like that in the song. It was just there. It's all those unexpected things from people that you really think are great that make you feel fantastic!
With the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it was that sort of acceptance by artists that you think are something great and suddenly up there in amongst them! The thing is that in 300 years if anyone looks back our name was still be there, you can't erase it. Once it's there is there forever and that feels really terrific to me.
PSF: What does your creative process look like, for when you create a song or an album?
RA: It's always the same. It always starts with starting to write a musical piece. Something will trigger something and the song will start to come. I still get excited about that- I get more excited about the process than anything else.
It's great when you find out that "Time of the Season" has X million plays. That's great I don't put it down at all. But nothing beats the excitement and the creative energy when starting to write a new song and seeing it through to completion and in the very end, making it work. We just finished mixing the first complete track on the new album yesterday and I think it sounds great. It's so exciting! It's a process of starting with an idea getting excited about it.
First, I work a song through then I play to Colin and then we work on it together. Then we start routining it with the band. Hopefully it comes together and then really starts to work. If we have the luxury of being able to play it on stage before we record it, then that's even better. It becomes something with a life of its own before we record it. So often we record a song and then it comes together after we are on stage and you wish you could do it again. It's lovely when you can play a couple things and try them out on stage to get more more passionate. It's all about the energy of creation and that's always been the most exciting for me right through the years. It has not changed.
It's a privilege to be in this industry and be 74 years old. Yet I can get on stage with a great band for that hour and a half and there's as much energy coming from you and from the crowd responses then when you were 18 years old. It's so rejuvenating. And there is no difference when you get up there, absolutely no difference. The whole thing that surrounds the shows are many, many hours of travel from day upon day upon day. Because of that it's pretty intense and it's pretty hard particularly as you get older. It's pretty hard to take but then it always was pretty hard to take, but it's so worth it because of the creative side of things. It always the same, create a pattern, start with an idea and see it go to all stages. Starting with idea and seeing it work- that's very exciting thing.
PSF: Do you think you helped make the piano a more popular mainstream instrument kind of like the Doors did?
RA: You know what I never even thought about that. But you know, I think maybe I did. Paul Shaffer always said to me "You're the guy that made me see the first piano solos in rock and roll on the keyboard." I know that Jerry Lee Lewis was a great piano player but it was just a rhythmic thing. He said "Yours was the first improvised solo that I heard."
It was so amusing in those early days. It made me floored when the cameraman was always focusing on the guitars. And that's it- just the guitars and drums. So when there's a guitar solo the camera zooms in on the guitar and the guitarist. On a keyboard solo, I could see so many times the camera would go out to the drummer!
Although there are still some in existence there aren't many early Zombies recordings (from TV). There is a little bit a video, but the one on "She's Not There" for instance, as soon as you go on to the piano solo the camera was on to the drummer or the go-go dancers! It's like they couldn't figure it out so it felt so unusual. I never thought of it like that but it used to bug me the fact that I was always out of the shot when I took a solo!
PSF: I know that you are a really well-known producer. Who is your personal favorite producer one that you look to for inspiration?
RA: You know what I'm going to give you an odd answer- Brian Wilson. I think he had so much fantastic invention, speed and thoroughness about the way that he put tracks together in the studio, specifically around the time of Pet Sounds. When you look at some of the footage of him working in the studio with the Wrecking Crew with all those great musicians, I think it's spellbinding because it so musical, so sure and so instant. I think he was a great producer. I also think that his (Brian Wilson's) favorite producer Phil Spector was also a great producer that time. It's not something I think about all that much.
I also must say that I think George Martin was also pretty revolutionary for the Beatles. He stripped things down. He's so incredibly musical and inventive. He always captured the honesty of the band because he didn't dress It up that much. He made them sound like a great band at the base of what was going on at the time. The recording would sound gritty and honest and yet he would work with them in a very musical way. I don't even mean the obvious things, like the strings on "Yesterday," although that was very good as well. How we put the strings on that in a very classic way is quite striking like a 4 string quartet. I think he was a great producer, I really do.
Trevor Horn went through a wonderful period With Grace Jones. I think he was a great producer of that particular time.
PSF: I was just listening to Argent's 1974 release Nexus- it's really quite a lot different than the Zombies. Do you think you'd ever consider creating another new prog-rock album?
RA: I mean the thing is, I don't think it's going to happen. I think that especially being this age now, my time is so taken up by the Zombies I don't have any space working on other things. I do most of the writing for the new material for the Zombies. We have been touring on the U.S. continent, we've been doing three tours a year. Even this year we got this tour planned, a UK tour, a Scandinavian tour and another US tour in September. There's not really room to get involved with any other projects.
Years ago, I stopped producing other artists. I also stopped being a session musician on other artists records except for the occasional thing like when I did the Paul Weller's thing it was just up the road that only took a day out of my life really.
Argent did get back together again for a nostalgic reunion, a small tear in the UK a few years back. The thing is some of those Argent arrangements were so intricate and the progressions were so intricate. Obviously we never wrote anything down. To unravel those very complex arrangements would have taken an unbelievably long time. I just didn't have the time and energy to do that, so in the tour, when we got back together again we did the more straightforward things. A few of the other things that were maybe more improvised or natural or they were more basic chord sequences. We had a ball doing it. Basically, I don't have the space for more than one major project now at the age of 74.
PSF: So when does the new album come out? Any hints on what it sounds like?
RA: I can't tell you what it sounds like. I never know how to describe sound really. I hope it's going to be really solid with some good harmonies, great playing, very musical and adventurous. Most of the stuff that we've done has always been quite adventurous in many other ways without being contrived. I hope it's going to be very natural. There's a lot of soul in it. It's a question really. It takes a long time. We recorded three of the tracks now. I mixed the first one yesterday. I hope it's the final mix. I've recorded a fourth song which Colin likes very much.
We have stopped getting everybody together, when you're touring. Our bass player now lives in Denmark so with everything that's going on in the world at the moment, it's getting more and more difficult to meet, with the coronavirus and everything else. I really want to get the album finished. The writing is finished and the recording will be finished this year. Then, there is always a three-month delay before it can come out. The most realistic target date would be spring of next year.
PSF: Did you intentionally misspell 'Odyssey' for the album? If so, why?
RA: No, we did not. What actually happened was that Chris White and I were flat mates at the time. The third person sharing a flat was Terry Quirk who was an artist.
We were doing the Zombies' final tour and he mocked up an idea that was the cover of Odessey and Oracle. We thought that was great art. So Terry completed it and took it to the record company but we were short on time. We loved the idea.
So we got a phone call back from the record company and they said "we love the cover." So we wanted to go with the cover. They wanted our approval so Chris and I went up there we said "yeah, that's fantastic." Then we looked at each other as we noticed that they spelled 'Odyssey' wrong. The guy said "No, really?" We said "yeah, we just have to change the spelling, but otherwise it looks great." He said "It's too late, we've already printed it off- you can't change anything." Then we said "why did you show it to us then for approval then?"
We loved the album and the way it looked so I said to Chris "I'll tell you what- I'll tell everybody, and the rest of the band as well, that the plan was it was a play on words: 'ode' and 'odyssey.'" The story was it would be a journey through song. That was a story we told for many years.
When I got back together with Colin around the year 2000, we were doing an interview together and I suddenly told that story. Colin looked at me and his mouth fell open and he said "you never told me that!" He thought that was the real story for all those years. Unfortunately, it was Terry Court who misspelled it, but we had to make up a story.
Also see the Zombies website
And see our 2007 article and 2011 article about the Zombies
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|