In Conversation with Simon Green
We caught up with Rod Argent a short time before he was due to fly out to the States to be inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame with his fellow Zombies. He was a charming and accommodating interviewee whose continued enthusiasm for music was refreshing to hear.
BD: Congratulations on being inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame; was this something you expected or thought about? RA:Thank you very much, no, not at all; a lot of it has to do with the fact that when Colin and I got back together, just for fun really, in around the year 2000 – we only intended to do six gigs – we had such a ball that we put a great band around us, a current version of the Zombies, and gradually built up a second incarnation in America, to the extent that in the last 5 years we’ve actually been nominated 4 times before, so I think it has a lot to do with that and because we’ve built up a big audience second time around, which is great. It’s great to be nominated but it did start to feel that to get past the winning post was something very, very special. Of course, it’s something they can never take away from you, I mean if someone looks back on records in 300 years from now, they will see us there among my absolute heroes, people like Elvis, Little Richard, Miles Davis to Ray Charles; the Beatles of course. It’s a fantastic thing and we do feel honoured and thrilled that we’re in that position.
BD: If there is anyone left alive in 300 years people will still be playing “She’s Not There” and “Time of The Season”, that must give you a big kick?
BD: That is such a familiar story. About the ceremony; are you going to be playing live and if so, what songs will you be playing? RA:We will be playing, the date is 29th March – which is 50 years to the day that “Time of the Season” was number one in the US, which is amazing isn’t it? – Absolutely ridiculous piece of coincidence; it’s 50 years to the very day; I think we only got to No 2 in the Billboard chart, but in the Cashbox chart, which was an equivalent magazine at the time, it got to number 1 on that day. It’s quite extraordinary that we will be inducted and play to around 20,000 people on that day, along with the other people you know about, Radiohead, the Cure, Roxy Music, Janet Jackson – not a bad line up! – pretty good I think! I don’t know if I’m allowed to say what we will be doing actually. They are obvious choices.
BD: Ok, how many songs will you play? I can probably guess what they will be; are you going to skip one of the newer songs in there or stick to the classics? RA:It will be classics to a certain extent although there is an album track in there that is used constantly on important TV series in the States and in commercials and films as well. We were pretty much guided by what the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame wanted; they are fans, I mean the guy who is on the nominating committee has seen us several times and is a huge fan; so, it is with that kind of knowledge that he suggested what the three songs should be, which we all agreed on.
BD: Are Chris White and Hugh Grundy going to be appearing or is it the current band? RA:The people inducted are going to be the original surviving members, plus Paul Atkinson, who died in 2004, posthumously. Our current guitarist Tom Toomey will be playing in his place but the inductees are the original 5 members, which is the choice of the Committee. The original members will be playing on all three songs but will be augmented on the last track. Steve Romford our current drummer will be playing the original percussion part on one song. We’re going to have some fun with the last number and it’s a bit of a recognition of the contribution the current line up has made to us being regarded in such a lovely light in the last few years.
BD: On that subject, it must be slightly poignant that your cousin Jim Rodford is not going to be there, commiserations on his passing. Thank you. What is it do you think that defines the Zombies sound? Clearly yourself and Colin have very distinctive playing and vocal styles, but could you elaborate on the contribution of the other members? RA:Of the original members, Hugh has got a very distinctive drumming style; it’s like any band, the sum is greater than the individual contributions; it’s how everything gels together and comes together. We’ve always been in tune with each other. Personally speaking I think that we’re quite an unusual band in that none of us have ever fallen out. That’s not unusual, that’s unique! You deserve to be inducted on that basis alone! (Laughs) I think it is pretty much unique actually. I know that when it was decided on the 50th anniversary of Odessey & Oracle that we should bite the bullet and play it live – it wasn’t something we wanted to be doing for the rest of our lives, but it hadn’t been played for so many years and we broke up before it came out – it was such a pleasure to get the originals back together and basically continue the 1965 tour, which was the last time in America. It was just the same, and I have to say, the same old jokes coming out in the van, but sentimentally it felt very pleasurable. We’ve got that fantastic juxtaposition of having that and also being able to do new songs, which go down just as well as the old songs, to an audience which, in America, has as many young people in it as people who’ve followed us the whole way through. We have all that youthful energy coming back from the audience; we feel really privileged to have the combination of being able to indulge ourselves and enjoy the original stuff that we never had a chance to play as well as the new stuff that we still get energised about; to be able to create a record gives us the same vital feeling, which for me is almost everything actually, that we had when we were 18, of seeing something come together. It’s a fantastic feeling. I think Chris has a very distinctive bass sound; he hasn’t played much in the last 40 years I have to say, but Hugh has kept playing in a semi-pro way, he’s always been in a band. It’s a combination of factors that originally went to make the Zombies sound; a lot of the parts were integral to the songs. It’s like when I wrote “She’s Not There”, the bass part was the first thing I wrote; I’ve always done that with my songs. I’ve written a lot of the bass and drum parts in the first instance; I’m not saying that the guys don’t then expand on them and bring their own touch to it. It’s the combination of the parts and people ‘s individual sounds and the nuances they bring. It’s the same with any band. One of my heroes is Duke Ellington; his different line ups each had a distinctive sound. People contribute in a way that you can’t describe really, it’s just something that if it comes together, you’re really lucky; I think we were really lucky.
BD: That’s interesting; your latest album, “Still Got That Hunger” sounds like classic Zombies; the new guys are obviously bringing their own feel to it but it does sound remarkably similar to and as good as the stuff from 50 years ago. RA:Well, thank you very much; I’m glad you can see the connection. It’s nothing to do with trying to replicate what we did originally, that’s the last thing on our mind; we always take a composition and then work it out around the band, and it works. That’s the only way we know to make music; take an idea and it’s exciting when it begins to work, I always get together with Colin first and we make it work between us, then we take it to the band, It’s the most exciting thing and it’s incredible to be able to do that at this stage of our career and at our age. It’s a privilege to be able to play, say “Edge of the Rainbow” from “Still Got That Hunger” immediately after “Time of the Season” – people over here don’t appreciate how big that number is for us in the States, it goes down in a mad way and gets 5 minute standing ovations – and have it go down nearly as well, especially considering that it’s from an album that many people haven’ t heard. Young people react to it as strongly as the older people. It’s something we didn’t look for at this stage but it is rejuvenating.
BD: Your enthusiasm for music shines through and is refreshing after all these years. I can testify to what you’ve said having taken my then 16-year-old daughter to see you at the Ramblin’ Man Fair, which was one of the most enjoyable performances I’ve seen. All the songs were great; are you always writing? How do you start, is it with a lyric, a piano motif…? RA:Thank you – it could be anything; for instance, on the last album there was one song “New York” which I pretty much wrote in the car and then played it on the keyboard when I got home. It came from a specific memory of our first concerts in Brooklyn, at the Brooklyn Fox, as part of Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars. We were on the same bill as Patti Labelle, Ben E King & The Drifters, the Shirelles, Dionne Warwick – some of our real heroes – That’s an incredible lineup! – Unbelievable! We were so scared when we went over there; we thought they were going to hate what we perceived as our anaemic versions of American soul music, but it was the same as with all the good English bands at the time; by the time it went through the English filter it came out as something else and they really took it to their hearts. It was so lovely – we used to have long chats with Patti Labelle every night, that song “New York” is absolutely about that and our first experience there. On the other hand, it can be a little chord sequence that you play that you start to get intrigued by when you’re home and you start weaving a song around that. It can also be a lyrical idea that you want to build a song around. It could be triggered by hearing another song you haven’t heard for years. For “Edge of the Rainbow” I had a night here, as I often do, playing my really early Ray Charles records, which is the period I love of his, things like “Hard Times “and “Drowning in my own tears.” I thought I’d write a song with a basic Ray Charles chord structure knowing that by the time it went through our filter it was going to sound completely different.
BD: That touches on something I wanted to ask you; I was reading an interview when you described talking to Manfred Mann in a dressing room back in the sixties when he suggested you change your name from the Zombies, which coming from a band with one of the worst names ever is like the pot calling the kettle black! I wondered, you must have met many musicians over the years, what encounters stood out for you? RA:It’s difficult to say; actually, we meet more people now in this vintage era than we did first time around. Everyone was so busy crazily rushing around doing their gigs and maybe just meeting at the Blue Boar at 3am in the morning, grabbing a greasy egg and chips. These days we meet so many people, people we’ve loved and who’ve inspired us. Just at the beginning of this year for instance, I met someone I’ve never spoken to before, Gary Booker from Procul Harem. I’ve always loved his soulful voice and fantastic writing. We played on a cruise we were headlining and I asked him to play “A salty Dog”, which he wasn’t sure about playing. It sounded wonderful. Vanilla Fudge were also on the cruise and it was fantastic to hear their version of “She’s Not There.” One person that we almost met was Elvis, when we walked up to Graceland in 1965; there was no security or anything, we walked through the gates and knocked on the door and asked if Elvis was in. His father answered the door and he said “Elvis loves you guys, he’s away filming but do have a look around”. We thought he was just being polite, displaying Southern hospitality. I told that story to an Irish DJ many years later who said “I can’t believe you didn’t go in; didn’t you know that Elvis had 3 of your records on his jukebox in 1965?” When I heard that I was completely gobsmacked. I remember being turned onto rock’n’roll by Jim Rodford, who was a mentor to us in those early days. He played me “Hound Dog”, three minutes that changed my life. The cultures were so amazingly different in those days, it’s hard for people who aren’t my age to understand how different and alien the cultures were between England and America in 1956, it was another universe. To think that, just 9 years after I was turned on by this being from another galaxy, he had songs that I’d written and we’d recorded on his jukebox, and that one of those songs was No 1 in the States, which was “She’s Not There”, is so unreal as to be ridiculous.
BD: That is mindboggling; on that subject I was going to ask you about playing with Ringo Starr’s Allstar Band; apart from the fact that you recorded in Studio 2 at Abbey Road, actually playing with a Beatle must have seemed a slightly surreal experience? RA:Absolutely! It was a very enjoyable tour and I roomed with Edgar Winter, dressing room not hotel room, which I enjoyed immensely. He’s a fantastic musician and that was really lovely. At the first press conference for Ringo’s tour with the 2006 band I was asked if it was nice to renew my acquaintance with Ringo after all these years; I said I’ve never met him; our paths have never crossed! It was the same when we played a gig with Bill Wyman’s band about 10 years ago. I remember sitting down with him and he said “we’ve never met before have we, we never played with you?” and I said no; this just happened so much it’s extraordinary. In these later years it happening all the time and it’s hugely enjoyable actually; there’s less of the ego of youth. People are older and have gone past the stage of establishing their egos, which makes things more pleasant.
BD: One thing I wanted to ask you was, you put out your classical record, which went down well, but in interviews you have often mentioned admiration for people like Bill Evans and Jimmy Smith and you namechecked Duke Ellington and Ray Charles just now; have you ever though about putting out a jazz record or even forming a jazz ensemble? RA:In a very small way, I have done that. I had become quite close friends with John Dankworth and back in 1999, before I had got back together with Colin, or even thought about it, John told me he needed to raise money for his theatre and could I put on a music show for him. I told him “John, I haven’t been on stage in years,” I’d been involved in music production and in writing music for TV etc, but he said “c’mon, you can do it, you’re perfect as all round music person”, so I said Ok. I reformed the original Argent for a 40-minute set to close the show and in the first half I opened with a Bach concerto played with a string quartet. I also had put together a little jazz trio, featuring Bobby Graham, who was a top session drummer in the 60s and played on many iconic records that you would be astonished to learn weren’t played on by the original band member. He was first and foremost a big band drummer. Jim Rodford, who’d played with Mike Cotton for years was on bass. We played some Chick Corea and a couple of Miles Davis tunes in a 40-minute set that was hugely enjoyable. So, I have done that in a small way. Do you know what? At this stage in my career, just trying to make the Zombies work and giving it my all is enough for me, I can’t diversify more than that.
BD: I’m looking forward to catching you play with Colin at the Boisdale shortly… RA:How we got to play there originally would take 10 minutes in itself; needless to say, that after being reluctant initially to play we enjoyed playing and giving an intimate, stripped down slant to what we do. We are really looking forward to playing there again.
BD: With another interview due to start I thanked Rod for what been an interesting an enjoyable interview and wished him well for the event on the 28th.