"There Are No Half-Measures": An Interview With the Zombies' Rod Argent
How many rock stars have opened the World Cup, performed with Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Who, created two distinct and massively successful rock bands and released an album of classical music? One.
Back in 1978 one of the world’s foremost composers, Andrew Lloyd Webber unveiled “Cancion de Argentina” (AKA: “Argentine Melody”) as the theme music for that year’s FIFA World Cup, as held in Argentina. The performers were a duo known as “San Jose featuring Rodriguez Argentina”. Rock and Roll fans might well have recognized the latter not as “Rodriguez Argentina”, but… “Rod Argent”.
Argent had already enjoyed a storied career as the keyboard player for both his eponymous rock band Argent as well as the seminal British Invasion group the Zombies. Indeed, Rod Argent, by any name and on any continent, has been all over the music business in multiple genres with multiple collaborators both in bands and behind the boards. “Argentine Melody” would hardly be Argent’s only collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, nor had the Zombies seen their last days by that time. As of the year 2015, the Zombies have, dare I say it, been resurrected once again by Argent and original lead vocalist Colin Blunstone for a new album and tour.
I recently met with Argent to discuss the Zombies’ most recent album Still Got That Hunger (2015) as well as the band’s history and just what brought the group back together in collaboration as well as name, after all these years. At the age of 70, Argent is a gregarious, polite and excited fellow with a million tales under his belt and an interesting storytelling style with which to share them. He has played on huge hits and collaborated with giant stars, yet Rod Argent still talks to you graciously, with a laugh in his voice and comes across more like your favorite uncle than the performer of some of rock’s best ever keyboard solos. Even the old familiar questions (to the extent that PopMatters would ever ask such) were greeted warmly.
Thus, I had to inquire about the band’s name. In an era of such bands as the Kinks, the Shondells, the Animals and the Rascals, how did Rod Argent’s band acquire a name that sounded as if it belonged to a horror-oriented punk band like the next decade’s the Misfits or the Damned?
“Well, we chose that name in 1961 and, I mean, I knew vaguely that they were: sort of, you know, the Walking Dead from Haiti and Colin didn’t even really know what they were.” Argent explains. “It was [original bass player] Paul [Arnold] that came up with the name. I don’t know where he got it from. He very soon left the band after that.” However, Arnold also left his mark with the name. “I thought this was a name that no one else is going to have. And I just liked the whole idea of it. Colin was wary, I’m sure, at the beginning, I know, but I always, always really, really liked it.”
That isn’t to say that the name impressed everyone. “I remember the first TV we did when we were in the UK when we were on with Manfred Mann,” Argent recalls. He found himself drawn to the fellow-keyboardist’s dressing room door by the sounds of one of their mutual favorites, Miles Davis, which Mann was playing at the time. After some initial pleasantries between the two keyboardists, Mann introduced himself, saying “I’m Manfred. You’re Rod Argent, aren’t you?” Argent confirmed his identity and Mann gushed about the Zombies’ then-new single “She’s Not There”.
“’I love your new record’ he said. ‘Um… but you’ve got to change that name,’” Argent remembers laughing heartily. “But we never did,” he adds amid guffaws. This proved to be a good move as “zombies” would soon become known worldwide when a certain George A. Romero horror film dragged the walking corpses, moaning and limping, into the collective consciousness.
“I think that it was fortunate, actually, yeah. I mean, it’s a part of culture that we never envisaged. When we called the band the Zombies we only ‘just about’ knew what they were and the first Zombie film, to my knowledge, was Night of the Living Dead and I think that was 1967.”
I remind Argent with a smile that Night of the Living Dead was actually released in 1968, the same year the Zombies originally split up. “Yeah! Yeah! Well, ha ha, there you go,” Argent laughs at the irony.
“We were asked two or three years ago, Colin and me, in an interview: ‘What’s your favorite Zombies movie?’ and we both had to admit that we’d never seen one,” Argent laughs. Zombie horror fiction experienced a similar resurgence a few years ago, right about the time that the project, then known as “Argent & Blunstone”, changed their name back to “The Zombies”. This was, however, far from a cash-in on the part of the band.
Argent and Blunstone had not planned to reunite as “The Zombies” at all. In fact, Argent declined to bring the Zombies back multiple times. “For a long time, going right back to after ‘Time of the Season’ was a hit which was 18 months after we made the album, we’d all moved on to different projects by then,” Argent explains. “We were offered huge amounts of money to put the Zombies back together at that point and I thought we’d only be doing it for the money and I just didn’t want to do it for that reason at the time.”
That time came again around 1991 when several imposter bands claiming to be the Zombies were touring and, potentially, tarnishing the band’s good name. “Chris [White, bass] and Hugh [Grundy, drums] really had it in their minds that they’d like to put the Zombies back together, but I didn’t want to do it.” Although Blunstone did return to front the band, Argent was unmoved, but also did not stand in the way. “They did ask me and I said ‘No. By all means go ahead and do it, you’ve got my blessing, but I’m sorry, I don’t really want to be a part of it.’” Ultimately the album New World (1991) was released without Argent, but with his support. Argent was persuaded to guest on a single track, a re-recording of the classic “Time of the Season”.
With Argent so adamant not to resurrect the Zombies, why play with them as a guest? “Because, we’ve always been the best of friends. Always. We didn’t make out like most bands do because of bad feeling. We were always the best of friends, so I did go back and guested on it.” Thus the pretending bands were put out of business and the “real” Zombies reclaimed their name.
This wasn’t the first or last time that musical integrity over making a buck played into Argent’s line of thinking. In fact, it was years into the collaboration with Blunstone that Argent even considered bringing Zombies classics into their set list, much less renaming the band to the classic moniker. Of course, the reunion of Argent and Blunstone was not about the Zombies to begin with. “Colin and I got back together, completely by accident in late 1999, I was doing a charity show for John Dankworth, the Jazz musician who is sadly passed away now. Colin was in the audience and he got up on the spur of the moment and sang ‘She’s Not There’ and ‘Time of the Season’ with me. And do you know what? It felt as if we’d been working together about two weeks before, rather than whatever it was at the time. Thirty years or something or 35 years. And Colin said, ‘You know? Why don’t we do half a dozen gigs for fun?’”
Argent resisted this idea at first, but eventually went along and had, what he describes as “a ball”. Thus the duo continued to perform together. “Now, you can tell that we weren’t doing this to make money because the first three trips to America we just broke even. We were just doing it because it suddenly felt like a huge amount of fun to do it,” Argent remembers. “And then it got to the point where some of the promoters would start billing us as ‘THE ZOMBIES’ and we thought ‘No, this is wrong.’ and we fought against this for a while.”
However, the reunion did allow the duo to revisit some songs that, out of necessity, were never played live. This included much of the Zombie’s classic 1968 album Odesseyand Oracle. “When we did [the album] at Abbey Road for the first time we had enough tracks for me to overdub an extra Melotron part, put extra harmonies on, etc. etc. About half of the songs on Odessey and Oracle work great without that but things like ‘Hung Up on a Dream’, ‘Brief Candles’, ‘Changes’ only work when you’ve got every single note in place.”
From this springboard, the duo, who had previously resisted any nostalgia pieces, slowly began to work in more and more songs from the Zombies’ reserve. “We found ourselves getting more and more deeply involved in the Zombies’ music again and because it wasn’t calculated or contrived in any way it was just a natural process. It felt fine! It felt okay! And we started to feel very happy with that so, in a very unexpected way – and this took years really – but in a very unexpected way we started to feel really comfortable and started to explore that catalogue more and more and get more and more into it and in the end we decided to take the Zombies’ name up.”
Although 2011’s Breathe Out, Breathe In was the first new album to carry the Zombies name (2004’s As Far as I can See… carried the name “Colin Blunstone & Rod Argent: The Zombies”), it is the 2015 release that Argent truly prizes as the return to form. “Still Got That Hunger, is the first album that has really recaptured some of the resonance of feeling of a group. We’re so tight as a group together now. And the whole process has become so organic that we’re 100% happy with the Zombies name and rediscovering and playing all the old stuff and at the same time carving a new path forward which is also very, very important to us.”
The band became the Zombies again very naturally and the new album became what it did in the same way. In addition to hard work, a lot of serendipity played a part in the recording of the album, possibly due, in part, to the “live in the studio” nature of the sessions. “We deliberately went back to the old fashioned way of doing things and we recorded everything with everybody in the same room at the same time. Even with Colin singing live vocals which we just thought were going to be guide vocals but often turned out to be pretty much the final thing.” This extends to the songs’ solos. “The solos all happened as part of the organic process of playing,” Argent proudly explains. “They weren’t overdubbed. It was everybody listening to everybody else and making music the really old fashioned way. That was the deliberate thing to do and so I believe it’s a very organic album. It has a lot of the feeling and the shape in a great way of the old stuff that we used to do.”
In fact, much of the formation of the Zombies that we know took place in the studio and rehearsals way back in the early 1960s. Had it not been for Argent’s musical integrity, devotion to the craft and logical growth, the Zombies would not be the band that they are and would not have the sound they cultivated.
“I envisaged myself as the lead singer. I wasn’t even going to play piano. I thought piano wasn’t something that, you know, in 1961, that groups basically had. To me, groups were bass, rhythm guitar and lead guitar. That was the sort of lineup, you know?” Argent recalls. “In this first rehearsal we started off actually, strangely enough by rehearsing an instrumental. ‘Malagueña’. And we rehearsed this for about 20 minutes I guess. ” When break time came “we stopped and I wandered over to a beaten up old piano in the corner and I played ‘Nut Rocker’ an old rock and roll record by B. Bumble and the Stingers. And Colin came running over and said ‘That’s amazing!’ He said ‘You’ve got to be playing piano in the band.’”
Argent objected, but not due to having his sights set on fronting the band. “I said ‘Well, it’s not set up like that, is it? I can’t. You know, you don’t have pianos in bands!’” Organic serendipity then struck again. “About half an hour later we had another break for a coffee and Colin picked up a guitar and started playing and singing an old Ricky Nelson song. It might have been ‘It’s Late’ or it might have been ‘I’ll Never Get Over You’ or something like that.” Argent fondly remembers. “I just thought it sounded fabulous. And I went up to him and said ‘Look, okay, you be the lead singer and I’ll play the piano, but you’ve got to be the lead singer.’ And it was as easy as that. And that decision was made on our very first day of meeting.”
It was more than just Blunstone’s voice that made the band so unique. Argent, Blunstone and White perfected a magical three-part-harmony, partially influenced by Blunstone’s love of the Beach Boys. Thus, Argent was convinced to embrace the keys and the Zombies’ sound was beautifully accentuated by Argent’s magnificent keyboard work. Because of this one day, Argent went on to record two of the most noteworthy and influential keyboard solos in rock history, those found in the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up”.
As previously mentioned, Argent’s music career goes far beyond these two bands and, in fact, far beyond rock and roll alone. Staying in the classic rock category (for now), it was Argent’s distinctive keyboards that help make the Who’s “Who Are You” such a memorable success. “Yeah, yeah, I played piano on that. I was supposed to play on the whole album of Who Are You?” Argent explains. Unfortunately, things did not go exactly as planned.
“What happened was that I just recorded an album for Roger Daltrey called One of the Boys and Roger had asked me after that if I would play on the Who’s next album and I said I would." Argent worked out the schedule with Daltrey and Pete Townshend. Being the consummate professional and active musician, Argent also took on another, later scheduled commitment. “I had also, after that, agreed to play on an Andrew Lloyd Webber album called Variations,” he explains. The small orchestra consisted of “his brother, the Cellist, Julian Lloyd Webber, with Gary Moore [guitar] and Coliseum, which included Jon Hiseman [percussion] and Barbara Thompson [flute] and me. And basically that was the lineup.”
The best laid plans of Argent could not compete with the shake ups going on within (and around) the Who. “The Who were going through a lot of political changes at the time with their management. I mean, we weren’t party to what was going on, obviously, but day after day they’d be ensconced upstairs in meetings and an awful lot of recording didn’t get done and in the end after three tracks I said ‘Look, I’ve got to start the Andrew Lloyd Webber album now.’” This didn’t go over well with the band. “Pete said to me ‘Well, which album would you rather play on?’ I said ‘It’s not a question of that, Pete. I’ve agreed to do it. I’m not going to back out.’”
Thus, Argent’s planned contributions were incomplete. “I actually played on the ‘Who Are You?’ track. I played on a track called ‘Love Is Coming Down’ which I’m not credited on, but that’s me on there. That was the first thing we recorded. And on the John Entwistle track [‘Had Enough’].” While 1978’s Who Are You? was then and is now a resounding success, the same year’s Variations was also well-received. “That album became a number one album in the UK, actually,” Argent tells me.
Variations is an album that fuses classical with rock and roll, making it a perfect showcase for Argent’s talents. This would not be Argent’s last contribution to either genre. In the meantime Argent spent a great deal of time behind the board producing other bands.
“I had just done about 12 or 13 years or more as a producer and I had some big, big productions to my name. Myself and my colleague Pete Van Hooke produce the first Tanita Tikaram album which sold four and a half million albums in Europe and the UK. I did an album by [an] American artist, called Josh Kadison who had three hit singles,” Argent recounts. After some time, Argent grew weary of the process. “I’d had at least 12 years of just producing nonstop other people’s stuff and while it was very good to me financially, I’d had enough and I really wanted to get back to doing something myself. So I deliberately extricated myself from that.”
At around this time, a close friend and classical musician suggested that Argent record an album of classical piano music, noting that “nobody’s done that in the rock and roll world. No one’s done it at all.” Again, Argent resisted, but was eventually convinced. “He said ‘Listen, I’ve heard you half-play so much stuff, why don’t you do some real work for a year?’ And, I thought, ‘Well, okay, I can make a go of it and there’s nothing lost if I don’t, if it doesn’t work out. It’s something I’ll really work hard at and try.’”
“Hard work” was the operative term here. “For a year, I practiced three to four hours a day and I got some of my favorite piano pieces together whether they were very difficult or easy,” Argent tells me. “There’s one easy piece of Chopin and there’s a couple of TERRIFICALLY difficult pieces of Chopin on there, which I’m proud of, which I think are great. There’s one very easy piece of Chopin which I don’t like the way I play at all.” Argent pauses for a hearty laugh at the irony before continuing. “There [were] a couple of Chopin studies on there and there’s some Ravel and some Bach and some Elgar but also I couldn’t resist putting a couple of my own compositions, solo piano again, in there as well.” Argent states with a bit of a wry laugh. “In the end I made this album called Rod Argent Classically Speaking and I was really proud of it.” Argent wasn’t alone in his positive opinion of the 1998 recording. “I actually got some very nice words about it from some fairly noted classical musicians, so that made me over the moon.”
Much like the chance meeting with Blunstone, this classical project led to a live gig, this time from a UK symphony orchestra. “I went down there and played a Bach concerto, but I was so scared when I got there,” he recalls. “I mean, I could play it. I got to the point where I could play it fairly comfortably…” Argent says, then is quick to add “When I was at home!” with a big laugh. Argent continues to laugh as he recalls the evening. “So we got to the concert hall and before the concert, in the dressing room, my heart was just going BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM! You know, I thought ‘WHY am I putting myself through this? I don’t need to do it!’” Luckily the performance went swimmingly. “I felt very differently afterwards. I was really proud of having done that so, you know, that was a great year,” Argent says in both triumph and laughter.
Of course it wasn’t long after this classical period that Argent had the aforementioned chance encounter with Colin Blunstone in 1999, which led to the resurgence of the Zombies. “When I did that first classical album, I thought, ‘Well, this is just the beginning!’ I was really enthused about it and I thought ‘I’m gonna carry on. This is just the first album.’ But the reality is that I got so involved in the stuff that I started doing with Colin. There’s not room for anything else.” That is not to say that rock and roll is easy, but, as Argent puts it, “If you’re going to try and play the classical records route you have to immerse yourself in that medium and you do have to practice three hours a day, otherwise you can’t do it. And there’s no way I can do that now. I mean, not with touring and all the work I put into doing with Colin.”
That said, Argent takes his career path in stride and with pride as opposed to regret, just so long as he maintains his musical integrity. “The Zombies stuff is something that I’m very proud of. I mean, if you ask Colin what his favorite thing about being in the Zombies is or what his favorite period is, he’ll tell you that it’s now. Because he’s more proud of the fact that we’ve sort of brought something up again from nothing and really have been able to forge a path forward, a creative path forward, which very few people in our industry are doing.” Touring and recording, according to Argent, is where the band gets its energy from and the idea of retirement is nowhere in the pianist’s words. “When you get as advanced in our ages as we are, who knows what might turn up?” Argent then dissolves into joyous, self-effacing laughter before he continues. “But as long as we feel enthused and energized enough to get out there and keep doing this and get out be able to accomplish things… that feels like a privilege and you have to give all your time to it because there are no half measures,” Argent adds “And we really feel we’ve accomplished something with the new album.”
Rod Argent is going full-steam ahead at the age of 70, but he is also not afraid to look back, as much as he loves what he is doing now. The current lineup includes Argent’s cousin and former Kinks bassist Jim Rodford (who actually gave Rod the ride to that now-momentous first rehearsal). However, Argent is still in touch with past band members. Paul Arnold, the man who named the band, is now Doctor Paul Arnold. “He’s got two practices in Canada and I still see him from time to time.” Argent tells me.
As for longtime collaborator and former bassist Chris White, he is still in the picture too and is, in fact, also in the limelight. “On this upcoming American tour, apart from doing the first half with a normal touring band, in the second half we are reforming the original Zombies with Chris and with Hugh Grundy and we’ll be reproducing every note that was on the Odessey and Oracle album. So we’re going to be doing that from start to finish.” Argent’s happy laugh accompanies even his recounting of getting back together with White. “Last week Colin and I had the first rehearsal with Chris to try and remember what part was his that he did.” In all seriousness, the rehearsal was a success. “It was terrific to get back together with him. It was lovely, you know, you don’t forget those feelings. You’re just all for it. It’s the place where you used to work. It’s like riding a bike, you know? You just pick up from where you left off.”
As I said, however, Argent is not merely nostalgic, nor are the Zombies merely a nostalgia act. Rod Argent’s sights are firmly set on the future and he, like Blunstone, considers this very time to be his favorite era of the Zombies’ history. “I wouldn’t change any part of anything and when I go back and listen to Odessey and Oracle, which I didn’t do for many years… I think that has a real magic about it,” Argent continues with an audible smile in his excited voice. “For years I couldn’t [hear] it as anything but just us playing. I couldn’t hear it objectively at all. But I can now to some degree and that has a magic and an atmosphere of its own because it was a product of us then and of the times. That can’t be repeated. It was of that moment if you see what I mean.”
This is appropriate considering the band’s restoration of Odessey and Oracle into their repertoire (and many of the songs, for the first time), but Argent quickly redirects the conversation to Still Got That Hunger. “I’m as proud if not more proud of what we’re doing now because we worked very consistently on this and made a go for the last few years. We’ve really improved and we’ve really gotten better. I think the band is incredibly tight. The way we put this album together was hugely enjoyable. It was hard work but it wasn’t painstaking in the sense that it was painful. It was a hugely enjoyable process, the whole thing and it feels like we’re on a good roll at the moment. I think I’m as proud of this period as of anything, yeah!”
This is the Rod Argent of today. At 70, Argent is energetic and loves to talk and laugh. It’s almost impossible to enter into a conversation with Rod Argent as a stranger and not part company as a good buddy. He is full of stories of the past, but firmly focused on what he is doing now (which he loves) and the exciting future. After all, with a career like Argent’s, there have been remarkably few dull moments. Best of all, Argent has fun with what he is doing and erupts in an infectious laugh as he tells his favorite stories of the past and present. To be sure, Rod Argent is no beginner, but he is far, far from the finish line. If the Zombies’ new album title didn’t’ sell this fact well enough for you, let me assure you that Rod Argent truly does Still Got That Hunger.