Wednesday 25 September @ 10:38:49
Tom Hallett talks to Rod Argent and Colin Bluntstone of the seminal '60s pop band The Zombies
So I was talkin’ to The Zombies keyboardist/songwriter/co-founder Rod Argent (who formed the band, along with singer Colin Blunstone, bassist/songwriter Chris White, drummer Hugh Grundy, and guitarist Paul Atkinson, around 1962) the other day, an’ I sez, “Rod,” I sez, “I knew you was an Elvis fan the minute I heard the line, “My hands are shakin’ and my knees are weak...” in your new song, “Helpless.” He busted up, man. “Yeah,” he concurred, after his eyes had stopped watering. “You’re right, mate. It was Elvis who got me into rock ’n’ roll in the first place.” While we waited like streetcorner hooligans for his old bandmate and current touring partner Blunstone to arrive, he regaled me with fascinating tales of yore in a gruff, working-class English accent.
He went on to recount his early fixation on Big E and the band’s eventual attempt to meet The King during their 1965 U.S. tour: “I’d desperately wanted to start a band,” he chuckled, “ever since I was about 11 years old. I first heard ‘Hound Dog’ when a cousin of mine, Jim Rodford—who later went on to play bass for Argent, and is back with us on this tour—played it for me. And later, when we toured America, we went to visit Elvis. Back then, there was no security around the gates of Graceland, so we just wandered in and knocked on the door. And his dad came to the door and said he was filming, but he’d be sorry to have missed us. I thought he was just being nice, Southern hospitality and all that. But I found out many, many years later, that in fact, Elvis had our singles on his jukebox. It was such a fantastic completion of the circle, from having been turned on to rock and roll from ‘Hound Dog,’ then finding out that Elvis had our records on his jukebox!”
But what about all those far-out, psychedelic keyboard and guitar lines saturating the best of The Zombies’ work? The jazzy licks, the spacey, almost classical arrangements, the world-beat rhythms running through all those tasty singles? “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No,” and the majestic “Time Of The Season” all featured mind-blowing electric key riffs that were years ahead of their time and far more musically complex than most of their chart-bustin’ contemporaries. Surely Elvis didn’t inspire the likes of “Care Of Cell 44,” “Imagine The Swan,” or “Tell Her No”? Simple enough. Argent spent the first 14 or 15 years of his life disdaining the sappy pop hits he heard on the radio in favor of a more serious interest in classical music. “Up until the age of 10 or 12,” he recalled, “most of the music around was pretty crappy (breaks into a rousing chorus of, “Hot diggety, dog diggety, boom what you do to me...”). It didn’t really turn me on. I loved classical music, that and jazz was what orginally did it for me.” As more authentic R&B and rockabilly sounds began to make their way to the white cliffs of Dover and beyond, Argent began to obsess over forming a rock band of his own. “We really just formed because a friend of mine had a friend who also played rhythm guitar—of course, that turned out to be Colin.”
The band flirted with several “more pedestrian” bandnames (The Sundowners, The Mustangs) before settling on The Zombies, which Argent says was always a bone of contention for the outfit. “I thought, when people hear you, the name becomes nothing except associated with who you are. I mean, when I think of The Beatles, I don’t think of little insects crawling around on the ground—at least I never did—I just thought of the guys, you know? And that’s how the name came up. And that’s funny, because the very first TV show we appeared on, called ‘Ready, Steady, Go!,’ Manfred Mann appeared on, as well. And I wandered into Manfred’s dressing room, and he said, “I must say this, I love your record, but that name! (cackles) You’ve got to change it!”
In its earliest incarnation, the quintet featured Colin Blunstone on rhythm guitar and Argent on lead vocals, but after the quirky key-man hammered out B. Bumble & The Stingers’ 1962 smash instrumental “Nutrocker” on the piano during practice one night, the two switched positions immediately. “We had a break for coffee,” he recalled. “I walked over to the piano and started playing, and Colin and all the guys looked at me with their mouths open, and Colin said, ‘You’re crazy! You’ve got to play piano!’ But I was like, ‘I thought we were a guitar group!’ And then Colin wandered over and started singing a Ricky Nelson song, and he sounded absolutely great! And I said, ‘Hold on, we’ve got to move down one chair—you’ve got to be the vocalist, and I’ve got to be the piano player!’ Har, Har! So that’s how we formed.”
Inspired (as were most young musical hopefuls of the day) by the worldwide success of The Beatles, the band quickly captured the attention of local promoters and began building a successful regional fan base around the London suburb of St. Albans. Eventually, they scored a recording contract as first prize in an area battle of the bands contest, which spurred Argent on to write The Zombies’ first single, “She’s Not There.” “I just wrote it. In future years, I had a conversation with Pat Metheny, and he said how much he loved “She’s Not There,” and he said he loved the modal inferences in the verse, and I said, ‘Really? WHAT modal inferences?!’ So I went back and I played it, and I went, ‘Yeah!’ Even though I’d written it in simple chord sequences, I was instinctively playing it in a modal way.
“And the reason I was doing that was because I’d been listening to so much Miles Davis—Kind Of Blue—and in those days, I didn’t really know what I was doing. So that is in there, but it certainly wasn’t conscious. And there was a little thing in the bridge, and I’d heard this record that I can’t even remember now, but the chord sequence on this part of the record went from a D to a D minor. Yeah, just messing with the chords was the way the bridge came about. It was just something I sat down and set about to write. I was very, very enthusiastic, and I loved what I came up with. I had no knowledge of what can go wrong, and I thought, ‘Yeah, this’ll be great, it’ll be a huge hit!’ And it was, but that didn’t surprise me, because I thought that’s what happened. But I pretty soon learned that things can go wrong, and it doesn’t always happen like that! Har! Har!”
Although chart-toppers like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Bob Dylan were already deeply ensconced in their respective studios, crafting albums that would meld the very foundation of rock and roll, Argent says The Zombies were basically a singles band until 1967. That year, as The Summer Of Love raged through America and psychedelia dribbled into the very fabric of society, Argent and Co. persuaded their label, CBS, to finally allow them the freedom to make a cohesive full-length record. The result was the seminal album Odyssey And Oracle, a musical masterpiece that went fairly unnoticed in its day and is only now receiving its due as a ground-breaking slice of rock history.
“You know, in those days, 1963 or 4, albums were not really regarded as being important. Singles were where it was at, really. Our first album was done in a matter of two days, I think. It was just thrown together. And [they] wouldn’t let us re-take things. I remember, there were a couple songs I tried to re-take, and [producer] Ken Jones wouldn’t let me. Albums were very much an afterthought back then.”
“Certainly by the end of the Sixties, were the coming of things like Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds, and albums became the main thrust. Odyssey & Oracle, even Pet Sounds, were mixed in mono. And the stereo was an afterthought. Chris White and I had to go out and pay for the stereo mixes ourselves, and CBS said to us, ‘OK, you’ve got the album,’ and they’d probably decided they weren’t even going to release it, especially in the States, but they said we had to pay for the stereo mixes! Very quickly, we found an extra few hundred pounds, and mixed it in stereo. The timing was critical, it was near the end of the Sixties—1967—and by the time The Beatles’ later albums came along, and they were spending six months in the studio, it became the norm.
Like many of the star-crossed ’60s bands they worked with, The Zombies’ crowning achievement (and signature song) didn’t rocket to the top until after they’d broken up. Nearly three years after they’d split, “Time Of The Season” went gold. Argent says he was thrilled to see the tune conquer the airwaves of the world, but that he was already onto other projects by that time. “We’re all still friendly, basically it was Paul Atkinson and Colin who said they’d had enough of it…Chris and I really wanted the band to stay together, but it didn’t. So I formed Argent, and by then “Time Of The Season” was in the Top 40.
Argent’s self-titled mid-’70s band (featuring Rod on vocals and keys, his cousin, Jim Rodford, on bass, Robert Henrit on drums, and future uber-songwriter Russ Ballard on guitar) was a harder-rockin’, more stadium-friendly act—their only U.S. chart-maker, “Hold Your Head Up” struck a chord with the lighter-flyin’, doper-rock culture of the ’70s, and the European hit “God Gave Rock And Roll To You,” which was later covered by Kiss, ensured Bic stockholders the world over a healthy retirement fund.
Blunstone went on to record several solo albums and to work with The Alan Parsons Project in the ’80s. Argent began to tell me about how the pair’s recent reunion was almost karmic: “We got back together again just as a matter of chance, because I’d been asked to do a charity show to raise money for a theater about three years ago, and for the second half of the evening, I put together the initial members of Argent. It was a great evening, just great fun. And I knew Colin was in the audience, and said, would he like to come up and sing “She’s Not There” and “Time Of The Season,” and he did. And it was such a buzz that we thought we had to put something together, and we did.”
Then, just as he did that fateful day the Zombies first practiced, in came singer Colin Blunstone, joining myself and Argent and inserting himself into the conversation as easily as he took over the mic all those years ago. “It’s fantastic, isn’t it?” he chipped in, ever the quintessential English gentleman, and a clear counterpart to Argent’s tough-as-nails, pub-n-jam persona. “It’ll be the first time Rod and I have toured in America—with the exception of a few shows in New York—since 1965.”
Both seem genuinely thrilled with their recent collaboration, Out Of The Shadows. “We had a lot of fun recording that,” he raved, “and of course we’ve started a second album now.” Blunstone, who came from a completely different musical background as the rest of the band, went to school with the band’s original bass player, Paul Arnold, who’s credited with coming up with the band’s name and is now a doctor living in Canada. “I think we were a little bit desperate,” he laughs.
The new album, while not as dark, urgent, or trippy as the radio staples that propelled the rock statesmen to fame, nonetheless embodies the essence of what made The Zombies fit in so well with their drug-addled peers during the psychedelic Sixties: Love. Cuts like “Helpless,” “A Girl Like That,” and the Townshend-esque “Living In The Real World” are every bit as relevant as their predecessors—their roots in matters of the heart—and, like their author and singer, maybe just a little more mature, a little more scarred, and a little more worldly. Blunstone agrees that process was completely natural, and that he learned invaluable lessons working solo and with acts like The Alan Parsons Project over the years. “We really enjoyed that reunion tour awhile back, and then during that summer, we did a bit of recording. Gradually, I put my vocals on some songs, and that grew into the new album.”
Blunstone is just as proud to sing the new material (and several Argent classics) on the tour as he is the Zombies’ classics—most likely a marvelous side-effect of having steered clear of the whole “Retro-rock” craze of the past few decades. “I think we’re a bit past that, really!” he laughed. I told him that, even though both Argent and himself deny any true ties to the ’60s psychedelic/hippie movement, one thing they both had in common was that connection to, or propensity to expound intelligently upon, the subject of love; and I can still hear that vibe running through their material. “To me it just seems like a natural follow-up to what we were doing, and I’m really proud of it,” he agrees.
On the road with Blunstone and Argent for their current, limited U.S. tour promoting the new album, Out Of The Shadows, are guitarist Mark Johns, bassist Rodford, and Rodford’s son, Steve, on drums. “Just a fantastic lineup,” gushed Blunstone, as Argent grunted in enthusiastic agreement. As we parted ways, I couldn’t help but bring up the Elvis connection one more time. “You know,” I sez, “I picked up the Golden Greats 45 single of “She’s Not There” backed with “Tell Her No” the other day, and it’s goin’ on the jukebox, man. Right next to Big E’s “That’s Alright, Mama.” “Yar!” cackled Rod, sounding every bit the weathered, workhorse of a rock n’ roll legend he is. “That’s great! Absolutely great, mate!” There’s The Zombies’ charm and attraction in a nutshell. No pretense, no complexes, no bull%@!#$&. Just a couple of guys who’re still as crazy about rock n’ roll at fifty-something as they were at 15. Zombie love, baby—I can dig it. With these cats, it’s always the time of the season.
Colin Blunstone & Rod Argent Of The Zombies & Band play First Avenue’s main room on Saturday, September 28th. 6 p.m. $12/15. 21+. 701 First Ave. N., Mpls. 612-338-8388.