Years ago, a co-worker came up to me, brushed his long hair back with his hand, squinted at me as if he had just seen light after several weeks of living in a hole, and asked, “Have you heard of the Zombies?” “No,” I said. The Zombies sounded like some sort of goth or punk band that must have fallen through the cracks in my pop music education. My co-worker described how good the band’s sophomore Odessey and Oracle album (click here) was and described it as sounding like a lost Beatles disc. My radar went up. Comparing something to the Beatles was a huge deal. He handed me a CD copy of the 1968 album and said I should give it a listen. The album started with “Care of Cell 44,” a vibrant, jumpy pop number that had so much melody and a terrific chorus with well-written vocal harmonies. Song after song went by, including hit, “Time of the Season,” (view a live performance here) and I found myself questioning why I hadn’t heard of the band or the album before. There was so much to love with the great songwriting and singing. The lyrics were also well-written, sometimes dark, but the songs projected themselves so well in their pop goodness. Colin Blunstone had a great voice, Rod Argent was more than adept at playing anything with keys on it, bassist Chris White put down melodic bass parts that fit within the songs exceedingly well, guitarist Paul Atkinson colored the compositions with a broad palate of parts and Hugh Grundy held it all together with solid, crystal-clear drumming. The quintet truly delivered a masterpiece, with Rod and Chris trading off songwriting duties.
Later on, I discovered Argent, Rod Argent’s musical vehicle after the Zombies ended. The overall musical direction this time around was a mix of prog rock, often with tantalizing pop melodies and plenty of the trademark vocal harmony writing that made the Zombies so special. There were heavy guitars at times, keyboard solos galore, monstrous drumming, intense bass runs and plenty of overall complexity. They had great songs like “Hold Your Head Up” and “God Gave Rock and Roll to You,” but there were plenty of other fantastic tunes like “Pleasure,” “Schoolgirl,” “Celebration,” and “Where Are We Going Wrong.” The first two albums (the self-titled debut and Ring of Hands) are their best overall discs and well worth a serious listen. They are currently available as a combined reissue (buy here).
Recently, I found out that the Zombies were on tour in the U.S., with the last tour stop scheduled for the Boulder Theater in Boulder, Colorado on September 14. The current band lineup including Argent, Blunstone, bassist Jim Rodford (Argent, the Kinks), Steve Rodford on drums and guitarist Tom Toomey also recorded the excellent 2015 disc, Still Got That Hunger (buy here). Many new albums by veteran acts suffer, but the Zombies transcended the pitfalls here and the title fits perfectly.
I was able to arrange an interview with Rod through the much-appreciated help of his publicist and we conversed for 43 minutes—much longer than most interviews I’ve conducted, but Rod was very generous with his time. He was incredibly kind, humorous and insightful, even though he was battling an eye ailment and was awaiting a much-anticipated cup of coffee.
**Please excuse any typos or grammatical issues. This interview was quickly edited to get it posted prior to Wednesday’s last U.S. date.
CC: How is the tour going so far?
RA: It’s going great. We’re on about our fourth gig—something like that. We played the Sausalito Art Festival yesterday and then a beautiful festival the day before that. I’m trying to remember where it was now. Each day (laughs) merges into one. It was a beautiful festival. Apparently it’s a very well-known arts festival. I can’t even remember where we were now.
CC: And that was also in California?
RA: That was in California, yeah. But that was really terrific. So, we’re just about over jetlag. It’s a pretty brutal eight hour time change, which I always had trouble with. As you get older, it becomes even more difficult and it takes you a few gigs to actually start to feel clear-headed when you’re playing, but they’re going great, thanks.
CC: I know that you toured last year and it was mainly Odessey and Oracle and then you’re touring again this year. Why are the two tours so close together?
RA: Well, the thing is that last year was Odessey and Oracle with all the original members plus our normal touring band so that we could reproduce every single note that’s on the album. But also for the first half, we were debuting our new album, Still Got that Hunger. And I have to say that we had a phone call from Billboard half way through October saying, “We just want you to know that for the first time in 50 years, your album as the Zombies has made the—you’re in the top 100 album sales charts.” That was a fantastic boost for us. We love playing all the old stuff, but, really, the creative energy we get from working and creating new stuff is even more important to us. So, that was wonderful.
Actually over the past several years, we’ve been touring, basically, two or three times a year in the States and one of the things that Colin (Blunstone) and I are most proud of is in this second incarnation, which wasn’t planned. We got back together in the early years (laughs) of this century to do six gigs just for fun. And in a very, very slow way, gradually it went down so well and we enjoyed ourselves so much that we started to play a bit more and a bit more and a bit more and then we decided to come to the States. When we came to the States first of all, in some areas—I mean, we were always doing pretty well in New York and maybe in L.A., but in some areas we were playing to just a handful of people and then over the following several years, we’ve really built up quite big audiences and we’re almost more proud of that than what we did the first time around (laughs). ‘Cause the band is so good. This is definitely the best band I’ve been in—the present incarnation—and it’s just a joy to be on stage every night and play.
CC: That’s fantastic. Still Got that Hunger sounds amazing.
RA: Thank you.
CC: You hear a lot of albums when people, after several years, try to regroup and put out a new record and the songs sometimes suffer. The songs on this, and the playing and the vocals, which you’ve always done so well, really stand out. I love Colin’s…there’s the song, “Never Get over You” where he has that vocal lilt. Most people, after that long, their voices start to go, but his voice almost seems stronger than it did back in the original Zombies.
RA: I think it is stronger. It’s slightly different to what it was in the early days because your voice does change over time. We both work on the principle that as you get older you can actually get better. You can certainly keep your chops together, whether they’re singing chops or playing chops. They can actually get better, but you have to work at it. When you’re young, it’s a bit like being a young athlete, I suppose; things can come fairly naturally to you and things are easier. As you get older, you can keep everything together by working at it. Then with the experience that you have over the years and [unclear] knowledge, there’s no reason why anything should go down at all.
I introduced Colin to a singing teacher, which he was very loathe to go to at the end of about 1998, 1999, something like that. He goes, “I don’t want to change my voice.” I said, “You won’t change it. You’ll just make it stronger and more able to withstand maybe five nights on the job,” which is what we do. Colin is singing in all the original keys and I still deliberately write things for him that are at the top of his range, like at the end of “Edge of the Rainbow,” there’s a top B flat; that’s a [unclear] higher than the top note of “She’s Not There.” He enjoys that. If he feels comfortable doing it, he really enjoys it, but he can only do that because he continues to work at it. On a gig day, he’ll do 45 minutes at least, maybe more, of vocal exercises during the day before we go on to keep his voice in trim.
CC: What is like to still be touring and recording after all these years?
RA: As far as playing on stage is concerned, it feels identical. There is absolutely no difference and it feels like a real privilege to be at this age and get the same amount of energy from the band and also back from the audience. That really feels rejuvenating and it’s fantastic to be able to do that. What you have to do, when you get to hours (laughs) on stage is that you have to push yourself a bit and you have to try to keep reasonably fit and try and eat reasonably well. The nights tend to be…well, they’re not early, because you often don’t get back to the hotel until one o’clock, but whereas when we were 18- years old, sometimes the evening would begin after a gig (laughs). That’s certainly not the case now; it can’t be, but that’s fine. That’s absolutely fine and in some ways it’s even more enjoyable.
CC: When you are playing live, will you also be incorporating some Argent songs into the set?
RA: Yeah, and one or two of Colin’s solo hits. He didn’t have solo hits here but he did have solo hits in Europe and people over here often tend to know them, but we will at least be doing, “Hold Your Head Up,” which has a real connection to the Zombies because, a: the majority of that song was written by Chris White, the original bass player in the Zombies, not me, even though I had a fairly strong hand in the arrangement. It was actually written at a very early Argent gig when Chris was in the audience and we were playing “Time of the Season.” We were just getting the band together and it was a very long set we were playing and we starting improvising and we improvised a riff that we’d never played before during the song and Chris loved it and he wrote a song around it. That song became “Hold Your Head Up,” so that’s got a real connection. We also occasionally play “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” as an encore.
CC: Knowing how much acclaim Odessey and Oracle now has in music history books and amongst music fans, do you ever wish that the Zombies had stayed together to tour that album back in the day?
RA: No, I don’t. It came out, it was the best we could do at the time. It had great reviews. It just didn’t sell and then “Time of the Season” came out 18-months later and became a number one but even then the album didn’t really sell. Ten years later, people like Paul Weller when he was in the Jam, which was an enormous band in the UK and in Europe, absolutely as big as anything, and he is a very big star over there in Europe—he completely knocked us over by quoting Odessey and Oracle as his favorite album of all time and he says that still today. Then, after that, many people from Tom Petty to Dave Grohl and many young independent, emerging bands right up to the present day have kept it going and said nice things about it, but it sells more every year right now than it did when it first came out. That’s fine for me. It’s obviously more of a cult thing and a minority thing, but when “Time of the Season” was a number one, I was well on the road to forming Argent. We were together by that time. Chris White and I were planning the production of Colin’s solo album, One Year, which became a pretty iconic album, particularly in Europe, and suddenly “Time of the Season” was number one and it made it very easy for us to secure deals for ongoing projects. So it just felt like a bunt at the time. It just felt like a great thing to be happening at that moment.
I’ve never been a person to look back. I’ve never looked back on things. I didn’t listen to Odessey and Oracle again for about 15 years. It was only when it started to become quite a cult thing. As you obviously know it, it’s in the top 100 of Rolling Stone’s “Top 100 Albums of All Time,” etcetera, and we’ve made quite a few other charts like that in the UK as well. It was only then that I listened to Odessey and Oracle again and I thought, “This is better than I remember it!” (laughs)
RA: But for many years, it’s like everything that you just do, it just sounds like you. You can’t listen to it or look at it objectively. It’s, “Well that’s just us playing” (laughs) and that’s how it always feels. I never resented it. It always felt like a great bonus that it’s had such a long life and has become so well rated. Wherever we go, there’s always a young component in the audience, along with people of our age and people of all ages, and there are almost always two or three young bands coming along to check us out as well. It just feels great and I’m very grateful to the longevity of Odessey and Oracle.
CC: Again, just a fantastic album. What’s your songwriting process like, Rod? You seem to concentrate a lot on huge backing vocals that add so much color to songs in the Zombies as well as Argent. What’s the process of writing a song like for you?
RA: I grew up, for the first 10 years of my life, first 11 years of my life, only liking classical music because, if you can imagine it wasn’t a great time for pop music, and it was when I heard Elvis sing “Hound Dog” that my world completely spun around. Then I just wanted to find out about the blues and R&B and all the wonderful black music…and jazz as well, particularly the Miles Davis group of around 1958 with Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley in it. So, it was always informed, a: by a lot of other musical influences and b: by a love of harmony because I was in a really good choir for several years when I was young—one of the best choirs in England, actually: Cathedral Choir. That was a fantastic exposure to a whole raft of music that I never would have heard otherwise.
When I say that I grew up liking classical music, it was my mother’s tastes, which were very romantic– the sort of Lollipops and the very well-known pieces of Tchaikovsky and [unclear composer name] and things. Being in this choir, it exposed me to Bach, which was fantastic–that was a huge revelation to me—and a lot of modern classical music like Stravinsky, who obviously was still alive at that time.
Harmony was in my bones, really. When we formed the Zombies in 1961, almost no other bands were doing harmony at all. The Beatles were when they started, but we didn’t hear about them for a little while. Right from the beginning, we had another mic at the back of the band and Chris and I would always sing harmony. I would always score harmonies for all the songs. It just came to be me that arranged all the harmonies on the songs, but it’s part of the thing that I still love.
The process of writing the song is always the same. It’s just getting a musical idea, whether that is a chord sequence I happen on, or just a bit of inspiration from something I hear, or a melody that pops into my head or it can start with a little lyrical idea and start from there. For instance, on the new album [Still Got That Hunger], there’s a song called “Edge of the Rainbow” and that came about because, as I still do after all these years—I was listening one evening to some early Ray Charles and I love his very early period, and I thought, “On the next album, wouldn’t it be cool to write a song that’s got the harmonic structure of an early Ray Charles song?” That’s where I started from. Obviously by the time it goes through all our filters, it comes out not sounding like Ray Charles, it comes out sounding like us. That was the germ of that song, “Edge of the Rainbow.” Another song, for instance, that came from another place was “New York,” because I was in the car one day and I was thinking about when Colin and I first stepped on stage on Christmas Day, 1964 at the Brooklyn Fox in New York and we were playing with some of our heroes. We were really scared because we were callow, white kids of 19-years old and we were taking our version of R&B (chuckles) and playing it in front of people like Ben E. King, the Shirelles, the Drifters, Patti LaBelle, Chuck Jackson—I thought, “They’re going to hate us. They’re going to laugh at us.” But they didn’t. They really took us to their hearts and that made a huge impression on me. We became real friends with Patti LaBelle & the Bluebells particularly. Patti would say to me, “You’ve got to check out this young kid on the block, Aretha Franklin” and Nina Simone. She told us about Nina Simone. Fantastic experience, so “New York” is written all about that: “As I stepped into the Brooklyn Fox one snowy Christmas Day and Patti & the Bluebells simply stole my heart away. She took us to Aretha Franklin and showed us so much soul and helped us join the party with our English rock ‘n’ roll.” It came from that lyrical idea completely. So those two verses were written in the car and the melody was written in the car before I went anywhere near the piano. Then I went near the piano and worked out some chords to it, basically. So that’s another approach there. It can come from anywhere really, but it’s always the process of taking a germ of a musical idea, making it start to work, which is always incredibly exciting when it starts to work in your head, and then you take it to the band and work on it and when it starts to work with everybody playing it, that’s very exciting as well. And the third stage that’s very exciting is when you make it happen on stage and you get a real response to it. There’s nothing as exciting as that—that’s why we’re still doing it.
CC: Definitely. Now a song like “Pleasure”—I’ve always…that’s one of those songs…
RA: One of my favorites too (laughs).
CC: Yeah, that vocal line in the chorus is so powerful. What was it like writing that song and recording it? How long did it take for that vocal part to come together?
RA: There are two songs on that album [Ring of Hands, Argent’s 1971 sophomore disc] that I really remember. I remember writing “Rejoice,” which is my other favorite on that album. [It] was written very quickly and was a real stream-of-consciousness lyric. It started off with a baroque idea of writing an intro and then went into the song and I wrote it very quickly. “Pleasure” was also written reasonably quickly. When it got to the chorus, first of all, I scored the first–there was a three-part harmony–did I add one to that? Anyway, the first part of the harmony that I wrote was fairly conventional but I put a line in it that made a real dissonance that went in an opposite motion to the way the rest of the chord was going. I loved the effect of that and so I’m glad you like that. It was one of the things that that chorus and the way the harmony ended up working on that, that did give me real pleasure (laughs), actually.
CC: (laughs) Now that you mention the dissonance, I can hear how that made the song.
RA: Well what you’ve got—you’ve got a top line that goes from up to down. It goes “Pleasure” [Rod sings the word] and underneath it you’ve got, “Pleasure” [Rod sings the word in a lower register] going against it so the two things clash as they move differently. I have to say most people in rock music and pop music, when they harmonize, the harmony always goes in the same direction as the lead vocal and often goes with root, third and fifth basically—not always, and also I have to say McCartney doesn’t always do that either, which is great. I love to approach it slightly differently, not just having things hanging parallel all the time. I like to construct something until it’s different and it gives me a lot of pleasure to do that.
CC: Live these days, what’s the most fun song for you to play? You put a lot into your keyboard work and I’m curious what song that would be.
RA: The favorite song that we play, did you say?
CC: For you, as a keyboard player.
RA: For me? Well, I haven’t got one I have to say. I love playing our two biggest hits, “Time of the Season” and “She’s Not There.” I always think it’s a real bonus that we can keep those fairly fresh because there’s a lot of improvisation in both of them, so it means that I can attack the improvised parts slightly differently every night, which gives a little bit of freshness. The band is great; everybody listens to whatever is being played and comes off the back of that and changes what they’re playing slightly to whatever is being played. That keeps the older songs really fresh for me. Of course, “Time of the Season” always has a huge audience reaction because people know it so well, which is great, but we often follow “Time of the Season” with an absolutely brand-new song from Still Got That Hunger, maybe something like “Chasing the Past,” which is harder for people to take in because they don’t know it and it always really pleases me to do that, because it feels like quite a courageous thing to do, but at the same time, it still gets across to people. So, I take a lot of pleasure in that as well—playing things that people start reacting to that they don’t know. That gives me a lot of joy as well from a playing point of view.
I love the fact that there are quite a few moments in the set where I can improvise and that’s always been important to me. Someone said to me the other day, “If we listen to different takes of your songs, like ‘She’s Not There’ or ‘Time of the Season’ or ‘Hold Your Head Up,’ would the solos…are they pre-worked out? Would they sound the same?” I said, “No, they’d sound totally different each time.” One of the processes is for me is to try and choose what I think is the one with the best solo or edit in the best solo or something that, but they are completely improvised.
CC: Okay, more so with Argent, you tended to do a lot more piano interludes and piano solo parts along with keyboards, so when you were doing those you were not prewriting those? The tape was rolling and you…
RA: No, some of those were prewritten. Some of the sequences were absolutely written and there were also [unclear]. The solo on “Hold Your Head Up” was improvised, but a lot of the more progressive things were…I wish I had written them down. I didn’t write them [down] so if I try to play them now I don’t know where to start because I, you know (chuckles). They weren’t written down but they were extensively worked out. There was a lot more improvisation on the Zombies things than you would ever imagine. Quite a few of the singles had solos in them. Those solos were always improvised and on stage we used to play them longer. The live thing in the Zombies was there was a lot of improvisation and improvisatory, I’m don’t know how to put it, I would say like a jazz influence, but we never thought we were playing jazz. We were always playing rock ‘n roll, but those things came into it; they were just in my psyche.
CC: I was chuckling when you were talking about how you wished you had written some parts down…
RA: Yeah (laughs).
CC: and I was thinking of the Circus album [1975 Argent disc]–you probably had to prewrite most of those parts because of the complexity.
RA: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of the parts were worked out and written and there was still some improvisation, but I can’t remember which now because I haven’t heard the album for a long time. But you’re right; a lot of that stuff was heavily worked out.
CC: You had John Entwistle [late bassist for the Who] in the ‘60s, who became the pinnacle for excellent bass playing in rock; he performed bass leads in songs. You were the precursor to folks like Rick Wakeman [of the band, Yes]. What was it like to be the first person in rock that really concentrated on keyboards and did intricate solos and whatnot? I’m sure that you’ve had lots of keyboard players over the years approach you and ask you about that.
RA: Other keyboard players have been kind enough to say nice things about me, but I have to say that I think that Keith Emerson started at the same time as me. I remember pretty early on hearing the…maybe it was just after me that Emerson started, wasn’t it? I don’t know. When was, “America” by the Nice? Do you know “America” by the Nice?
CC: I want to say that that was ’68 or ’69 [I was correct and did some research later after the interview. Per Wikipedia, it was 1968].
RA: Oh, was it? Okay, that would have been after “She’s Not There,” which was ’64, of course. Well, you may be right. Maybe I was the first one. I’ve never thought of it like that.
RA: I know that Rick Wakeman embarrasses me quite often these days by saying very nice things in print on the radio and everything, which is lovely of him. I’m just very flattered and sometimes think, “I’m bluffing it like everybody else.” (laughs)
CC: Do you think Argent will ever regroup and possibly record again and tour?
RA: It’s interesting that you asked me that because we did regroup about—we were offered a festival which was very lucrative in the UK, as a one-off, about three years ago…something like that, and we thought, “Well, we’re still friends,” so we thought, Wouldn’t that be good fun to do?” We had a few rehearsals and we thought, “Okay, this is a nightmare.” If we don’t do just the more straight-ahead things, because what I was talking to you about earlier that nothing was ever written down–the complexity of it, just to have to work it all out by ear, felt like very much too hard a job, too long a job…
CC: Well, was that everybody? Was it more feel and improvisational than written down for Bob [Henrit, drums] and Jim [Rodford, bass] and Russ [Ballard, guitar]?
RA: I’d say on the first two albums mainly, some of it was worked it and a lot of it was improvisation. As we got further away from those first two albums, a lot of it was very written, but written in our heads because we just worked them out and worked them out and spent so long working on it. This is a very enjoyable process, but a long process and I just can’t remember the intricacies now. If I’d have written them down at the time, it would’ve been simple to go back and work them up again, but I didn’t. So what we decided to do for this festival, we put some things together. We did the beginning of “The Coming of Kohoutek”, [then] straight into both versions of “It’s Only Money” where certainly all the keyboard and guitar work was improvised on those two, so we obviously could rehearse the structure again. It wasn’t hard to get the structure together again and then when we got to the improvisatory parts, we improvised. There were written parts at the end, arranged parts at the end, but not so complex that we couldn’t work them out in a reasonable amount of time. So, we did a set which included the more straight-ahead things, obviously “Hold Your Head Up,” both “It’s Only Money” parts one and two, just the intro of “The Coming of Kohoutek.” We did “Sweet Mary,” which is a pretty straight-ahead song. We did “I Am the Dance of Ages”—the keyboard parts in that are really improvised; a lot of improvisation in that song. So, that was the area that we did and we kept away from the things which were very intense and complex.
But, to answer your question, we did get together and enjoyed it very much—in fact, so much that a few months later, we put together a month’s tour of the UK. That’s as far as I wanted to take it because, I’ll tell you what, the workload of being in the Zombies, and I’m not complaining about that, but it just takes up all my time. I haven’t got time to be in two bands. It’s been so great, the journey that I’ve had with Colin, and working and bringing the second incarnation to the Zombies to this stage and being very proud of the new album–and I’m so pleased you like it–and thinking that it’s a work that has freshness and quality. I don’t think there are many vintage [acts], if that’s the title you like to give them, us, that are still tracing a path that is very importantly about writing and recording new material and getting it out to people. I think most bands of our age are going out, and I’m not looking down on this at all, but just making a point of concentrating on their hits and nothing more. I think that’s largely true, at least in my experience.
CC: Do you think the Zombies will do another studio album?
RA: I really hope so; I really do—and we’ll continue to work on and continue creating and take the process forward. I think that we’re still building. We’re building in terms of audience numbers and profiling and everything all around the world, which seems incredible at this stage in our career. I joke with some of the guys in the band that we’re an emerging rock band (laughs).
RA: And in some very small way, obviously, I think that’s true.
***If you enjoyed this post or any of the other posts on this blog, please check out my book, Reel to Real by Reel. It contains interviews I conducted over the years with many well-known rock musicians and includes plenty of commentary/interview introductions. The book can be previewed and purchased by clicking here. Please follow this blog as well by clicking on the “follow” button on your desktop or laptop computer. The button doesn’t appear on smartphones for some reason. Thank you for your support!***