Rod Argent has been part of the music scene for awhile now. He was the founder of the 1960s Rock band The Zombies and then went on to form Argent. And now he's back with The Zombies! Rod Argent talked with us about a career that has lasted for over fifty years, and what a career it's been!
Q - Rod, let's face it, one of your greatest accomplishments is that you've been married to the same woman for forty-five years now (since 1972). You don't see that very much in the Rock world.
A - Absolutely. You don't see that very much, do you? We actually met the year I did "Odyssey And Oracle". So the thing is, we've actually been going out with Cathy for fifty years! (laughs). That's really something, isn't it? But we were together five years before we actually got married. I have to say it's been a blessing because we're just as happy now as when we first met.
Q - And for that reason alone you can "Hold Your Head Up".
A - (laughs) Absolutely.
Q - As we talk, are you both a solo artist and a member of The Zombies?
A - No. I'm like Colin (Blunstone), who does occasionally venture out with a solo band. The thing is, of all the new stuff we're doing it's very important to us. We give as much energy and we get as energized by it as we did writing and recording the stuff when we were eighteen and nineteen years old. I write most of that material. The album that we had out the end of 2015, which is called "Still Got That Hunger", I wrote all the material on that, apart from one track. I also do a lot of the arrangements. It really takes up all my time and the thing is we tour quite intensively as well. So I don't really have any spare time or energy left to actually apply it to something which is not The Zombies. It's quite enough for me to do. I feel very privileged to be able to do it, but it fills all the spaces really, whereas Colin tends not to write much of the material so he's got a little bit more freedom to go out and still do his solo stuff. It's still very much a secondary thing with him. The Zombies is the main thing for him and that's where he puts the majority of his energy, but he does as a contrast goes out and does some solo gigs.
Q - You said you tour quite extensively. I know you toured the U.S. not long ago.
A - Three times last year.
Q - You are on the move!
A - Yeah. The U.S. alone was three times last year. (2016) It just gives you an idea. They're always trying to get us to go to the Far East as well and we do occasionally, but sometimes I'm afraid it's me that calls the halt. When I say we've been West of the U.K. with all that time zone change that your body has to get used to, and we've done that three times. I'm not going to go the other way and get my system to deal with a nine hour time difference the other way at the same time. (laughs) There's just so much you can do I think. I'm afraid it's me that calls a halt and says, "Sorry, enough's enough," though we have a ball doing it.
Q - See, I don't think the public realizes how the time changes wreak havoc on your body.
A - It really does and even when I was really young, and when you're young you tend to sleep much more easily, but even then I had trouble with the time change. (For) Some people, it's like water off a duck's back, but it's always been difficult for me. As I've gotten older I just find it the biggest drag. If it weren't for the time changes and the body clock having to adjust so much all the time, if it weren't for that; I don't mind the long flight. It doesn't bother me at all, the thought of having a twelve hour flight to Japan. It's how it affects your body when you're there. When I come back from an American tour, particularly if we end up on the West Coast as we often do, there's an eight hour time difference with the U.K. and it takes me weeks to get over that. It really does before you feel right again. So, I am definitely one of those people who gets affected by it, I'm afraid.
Q - You are one of these guys I come across from time to time who was just born at the right time, with the right stuff, in the right place.
A - Yeah.
Q - England was the center of the universe in the mid-1960s.
A - It really was then, wasn't it?
Q - It certainly was. You couldn't ask to be in a better place. Did you see some of the British Invasion groups like The Beatles and The Stones perform in say clubs, before Americans saw them on Ed Sullivan or in concert?
A - I did see The Stones and The Beatles before they hit America. We formed in 1961 when I was sixteen years old. I think I was actually fifteen when we formed before my birthday. The Beatles really had that first hit in the U.K. in 1962. That was a couple of years before the States. And they had a massive impact, I mean an absolutely massive impact. I saw them 'live' in 1962 or 1963. Our bass player, Jim Ruherford, played with them on the Christmas show in 1964 I think in the U.K. It might have even been 1963 to be honest. I can't remember exactly what year it was. It may well have been '63. I remember seeing The Stones just before they were releasing "Come On", which was their first single. It was a very small hit in the U.K. I remember seeing them just as that was coming out in a little club. It was called Studio 51. It had a capacity of about a hundred people or one hundred and twenty people. Something like that. At the time they were very purist Blues aficionados who sat on stools, including Jagger. I've never been so excited by anything in my life. I thought that's definitely the best I ever saw them and I saw them a couple of times after that in the ensuing couple of years before the British Invasion really got underway and I enjoyed them. But the most exciting time I ever saw them was with Brian Jones and the rest of the guys in that little club. They were fantastic. But, you're right, the timing for us was really wonderful because it was a wonderful time to be the age we were, making music and being in love with music and Rock 'n' Roll. It really, really was. Suddenly, as you so rightly say, London in particular became the explosive music center of the world really. Artistically, it was absolutely cutting edge. Anything seemed possible. There was a huge feeling of positivity everywhere and it was just a wonderful time to be that age and producing material which you yourself were excited about and felt that you could stretch yourself and that you were starting on a journey that was new for everybody, but at the same time everyone was listening to and taking notice of and to have mentors like The Beatles who were being hugely creative. It was just fantastic. For us to have the first record, "She's Not There" came out at the point where The Beatles had just managed to break open the floodgates in the U.S. and there we were sort of trotting behind. That piece of timing was just wonderful for us as well.
Q - Did you talk to any of The Stones at that club gig?
A - Do you know what? I can't remember whether we did or not. I've got a feeling, and I may be completely wrong in this, I've got a feeling that Chris (White) may have gone up. They were pleasant, but non-committal. But it would only have been a few words if it was anything. It wouldn't have been a long chat.
Q - The Beatles you saw in a club or a concert setting?
A - In a concert setting. I saw them a couple of times actually. I never saw them in a little club. I would've loved to have seen them in a little club. They did some 'live' radio broadcasts at the time and generally speaking radio sound for 'live' stuff was pretty awful most of the time in those days because the engineers that worked at the BBC didn't really understand Rock 'n' Roll generally speaking. But I have to say the exception was The Beatles. On the 'live' stuff they had a half hour 'live' show each week which was incredibly unusual. Brian Matthews, the D.J., emceed. Some of the stuff I heard them do, covers like McCartney singing "Lucille", was so exciting and had the excitement of Little Richard, which we thought was incredible at the time, but with their new songs that they had just written as well. That was fantastic. Their 'live' stuff sounded brilliant there.
Q - In 2006 you find yourself as part of Ringo Starr's All Starr Band. Did you ever say to yourself, "Hey, I'm playing with one of The Beatles here!"?
A - It's so funny, at the first press conference we did, a couple of members of the press said to Ringo, "It must be great for you and Rod to meet up again after all these years." He said, "I've never met him before. It's the first time we've ever worked together." (laughs) I've always loved Ringo's playing. I've always absolutely loved his groove. Just the mood he gets in his drumming, the creativity of it which is not often talked about in many circles. The way he approached those singles and the unusual nature of some of the drum rhythms that he used to play the verses. I loved the way he used broken rhythms in the verses rather than play all the way through a groove. Even though I didn't copy anything specifically, when I wrote "She's Not There", the bass and the drum part were one of the first things I wrote in the song. The fact that I used a broken drum rhythm in the verse of "She's Not There" was purely because of Ringo. I didn't copy anything that he played, but that approach of breaking up the rhythm in the verse like that I always loved and thought it was so unusual and I wanted to do something similar in that first record.
Q - You do realize that in the studio Ringo was using different drum heads and different cymbals for each song. That helped give The Beatles a distinct sound to each song on every record they made.
A - Amazing.
Q - That's why a Beatles tribute act can actually never duplicate on stage what The Beatles did on a record.
A - That's true. They were always very keen to experiment with sounds from the earliest of days really and to just keep changing the sounds and exploring different sonic areas, which is part of what made them great.
Q - When you say you wrote out the musical parts for "She's Not There", are you saying you actually wrote them out? You can write music?
A - I can write music, but I didn't write them out. I probably did for myself. I did probably write out initially the bass line because it was a motif that was important to the song. But generally speaking I would just tell Chris the notes. I would just say, "Look, I've got this phrase at the beginning," and then he would play it. And then I'd explain to Hugh (Grundy) I want a little, broken rhythm over that and then I'd play the chords, the harmonica part of it on the piano over that. So that's how we would do it. We'd do it by ear, but I did occasionally write things out. I can write music. Something like "The Way I Feel Inside" for instance, which was on the first album, that was something we were on tour in 1965 I think it was or maybe it was before that in the U.K. and it's just after our record came out and we were doing a tour with The Isley Brothers and Dionne Warwick and we were all in a coach and I remember stopping at a service station and I had this idea for a song. I just scrawled out some lines on a black piece of paper and I went into the toilet, (laughs) and thought I've just got to get this down while it's in my head and I spent about fifteen minutes in there. They were all shouting at me when I got back 'cause I was holding the bus up. (laughs). I actually did write the melody. I didn't finish the lyrics obviously, but I wrote the melody for that whole song in fifteen to twenty minutes that I was just shut up in the loo, in the toilet.
Q - Inspiration comes at the strangest times.
A - (laughs) And the funny thing is, it's nothing to do with me being in the toilet. It's called "The Way I Feel Inside", which I always thought was quite amusing later on 'cause it's a very romantic song. It's probably not the environment you choose to write it, but there you go.
Q - Just think, in today's tour buses you wouldn't have to stop because you have a bathroom inside.
A - No. (laughs)
Q - You might not have written the song. Think about that for just a minute.
A - Exactly.
Q - Or, you might have written two songs. Who knows?
A - Who knows.
Q - How long did it take you to write "She's Not There"?
A - Well, it's a long time ago Gary and I can't quite remember, but my memory, if it's correct and it may not be, I remember it taking a couple of weeks to finish and play it for the guys. We'd won a competition. It was called The Herts 'cause that's where we were, Hertfordshire. It was called The Herts Beat Competition. You know, a pun play on words. The prize was a recording session at Decca. They were going to put out a single. So, we won it and we were going to record "Summertime", the George Gershwin song, which we did record, but the guy who produced us said, "You might want to try and write something yourself." I went away. It was literally the third song I'd ever written. I wrote it for the session. The session was a few weeks after we were in the competition. I remember writing it, my memory is, over a couple of weeks and then playing it to the guys, rehearsing it and luckily it suited Colin's voice and the whole thing came together very quickly and we were very lucky in the studio that everything worked so well.
Q - You wrote that song when you were a teenager, didn't you?
A - I was eighteen when I wrote it and I was nineteen when it reached number one in Cashbox. I think it was two or three in Billboard. No, I think it was two in Billboard, number one in Cashbox. We always thought of it as being a number one record. When it was number one I was nineteen then.
Q - You probably never dreamed that song would stand the test of time, did you? It's got that haunting melody.
A - It's extraordinary that at the time, Colin and I have often talked about this, that at the time, about the record that we'd just made as being really ephemeral. Singles were things that lasted about twelve weeks. After twelve weeks the record company would say say, "What's the next one?" We only thought of these things of having a life of a year or two really, Rock 'n' Roll being such a young genre. If anyone had said to me not only would people be still playing it intensively for fifty years later, but it would still be relating to young people as well as people of all ages, we'd have thought they were completely bananas. Graham Nash came to one of our concerts on the American tour in 2015 and we had that conversation. I had met Graham and The Hollies all those years ago. I knew them a bit. He said, "When we were talking all those years ago, if someone had said to us that we'd be having this meeting fifty years later and I'd be coming to see you and we'd still be excited about the new things we were doing and yet the stuff we were playing tonight, ie fifty years ago or more, that people would still be playing it and still relating to it, we'd have said they were mad. Whoever would have thought of this? We never thought of having this sort of longevity." It's true. We didn't.
Q - The music of the 1960s continues to fascinate people all these years later and one can only wonder if the music today will appeal to people fifty years from now.
A - It does seem to me that a lot of the music that's been created now, and there's probably loads of stuff I'd love, I just haven't heard, but a lot of it seems much more mechanical.
Q - Computer driven.
A - Yeah. In the '60s the only way to make something appeal to people, to really work, was to get the structure of the song right, to get the parts right, to make it really start to work as you were playing it. And if you did that then it would start to get across to people, communicate with people. These days you can find a drum loop in sort of twenty-five seconds and it can sound pretty cool and you can throw a bass sound onto it and a couple of vocal licks before you start creating a song out of it and it sounds like half a complete recording already. So I just think in some ways the fact that you had to start from scratch every time to make something mean something to somebody else maybe caused something to have more longevity than some of the stuff that's being produced now. I sometimes wonder if it's my age. I just don't know. I know my dad, who was a semi-pro dance band leader from the age of seventeen to the age of eighty-three, was always supportive of what I did, but I remember him saying "You got to realize son that this stuff is only going to last two or three years, so you've got to look beyond it." But it's lasted longer than other popular music. (laughs)
Q - Just think of how many people thought The Beatles' music was a fad.
A - I heard on the radio just a couple of days ago a song, which when it first came out, was just saturation play for years which was "She Loves You". It was played so much that then inevitably there was a reaction and it was almost the least heard, certainly over here, The Beatles song you would later hear the least of anything. It had just been played to death. Absolutely a million times. But do you know what? Just hearing it again was so much better than I even remembered it, the actual construction of it, some of Ringo's little drum things. The actual jug of the way it was performed and the invention that was all over it, I just thought this sounds fabulous still all these years later and this was the one that almost became a cliche. That is a wonderful record. I thought, my God, that sounds great hearing that again. They were so good.
Q - Besides Ringo, did you ever meet the other three Beatles?
A - I met Paul. I met George once just to say hello to when Argent was first playing at a CBS convention. He really enjoyed it. He said, "That was really good." It was just a passing thing. I played on Roger Daltrey's album, "One Of The Boys" and then after that I played on "Who Are You?", The Who's album. When I was playing on the Daltrey album, Paul came in and he played a song. I can't remember if it ended up on the album or not, but that was the idea that he'd had written a song for Roger. He came into the piano booth and we were in that piano booth just chatting for about, I don't know, forty minutes I guess. He was playing over things that he was working on at the time. He was lovely. He was absolutely lovely. Actually, strangely enough, several years after that, every Christmas in the Post I got a Linda McCartney calendar sent to me. And the strangest thing was that in this little village that I was living in at the time called strangely enough, Park Street, there was a little pub and it was the first pub I ever took my wife to and it was the cover of the first Linda McCartney calendar that she produced, the first after I'd seen Paul. That was such a coincidence, but he was lovely.
Q - So, you never met John?
A - I never met him. But there is a rumor, Chris White many years ago once said to me that he'd been told, and you'd have to ask Chris, that John Lennon wanted to produce us, The Zombies.
Q - Who's had more success over the years, The Zombies or Argent?
A - Well, in many ways I think The Zombies have. One of the reasons I have to say is we started off with very honest publishers. So, from a song writing and publishing point of view, Chris and I were always paid what we were due, and that was by no means usual in those days. So, that happened and then after we broke up our publishers, which were also part of the production company that made the early records, they owned the records. Right from the time even when the original producers died there was someone in the organization called Carol Bratton, who is still our publisher. She took the whole catalog and never stopped getting re-issues and sub-licensing. Over a very long period of time has never stopped disseminating which is publishing in the real sense of the word. So, people have heard our music constantly even in the smallest of ways. It's enabled things to have grown over a long period of time. I think it's down to Carol that has caused it to slowly filter through a large part of the world and continues to be available for people to hear. I think that's been a very important thing.