Songwriter Interviews

Rod Argent of The Zombies

by Roger Catlin

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By the time "Time of the Season" became a US hit in 1969, The Zombies had been broken up for a year and a half. Forming in 1961, they had a huge hit earlier in the '60s with "She's Not There" and followed it up with "Tell Her No" (at least in the States - it wasn't a hit in their home country).

But mismanagement and poor single selections brought the band to the brink by the time they recorded their Odessey and Oracle album in 1967 (its misspelling due to a cover art typo). The band at the time - keyboardist Rod Argent, singer Colin Blunstone, bassist Chris White, drummer Hugh Grundy and guitarist Paul Atkinson - brought their best to the album, which still flopped commercially in UK until it was issued in America a year later.

Argent and Blunstone learned that there was still great demand for Zombies material when they reacquainted in 2000. In 2008, they played Odessey and Oracle live for the first time in England, bringing more renown to the album that Rolling Stone named one of the 100 best of all time.

Surviving members of the original lineup of The Zombies (Atkinson died in 2004) assembled for their first US tour of Odyssey and Oracle this fall, amid members of Argent and Blunstone's more recent version of the band, which released a new album, Still Got that Hunger, in October. Argent, 70, spoke from New Jersey just as the US leg of their tour was kicking off.
Songfacts (Roger Catlin): I'm surprised to see how early the Zombies formed, 1961. Most of the British invasion bands started later than that, didn't they?

Rod Argent: I guess it was pretty early. But a lot of the bands you think of as the British Invasion bands probably did get themselves together around that time. It was before The Beatles hit in England, because I think they first hit in '62 with "Love Me Do" and "Please Please Me," and then they happened just a little bit later in the States. But even so, we started even before we heard of the Beatles.

The big group of the time were The Shadows, Cliff Richards' group. Three guitars was the mainstay of what a group was, and when we had that first rehearsal, we were thinking in terms of three guitars. I was supposed to be the lead singer, and strangely enough Jim Rodford was at that first rehearsal. He's my cousin, and I asked him to be in the band at the very beginning and he turned me down because he was in the big local group, the Bluetones. He loaned us the Bluetones' gear, for the first rehearsal.

Jim Rodford, Rod Argent's cousin, may have been at the first rehearsal that led to The Zombies, but it took him nearly half a century to join up in the revived Zombies band with Argent and vocalist Colin Blunstone that represent the new Zombies (his son, Steve Rodford, plays drums in the band). In the meantime, he was a founding member in the band Argent and became well known to fans of British rock as the bassist for another Invasion classic, The Kinks, from 1978-1996, and has played in the group of former members of that band, Kast Off Kinks, since then.
So we all turned up for the first rehearsal, which is where I met Colin, thinking a three-guitar format. Colin was supposed to be the rhythm guitarist, and I heard that he sang a little bit from a musical friend of mine and Colin's. We all got together, played a bit of an instrumental, and then in the first break, I wandered over to a beat-up piano and started playing "Nut Rocker," the old B. Bumble and the Stingers hit. Colin ran over and thought it was fantastic. He said, "You've got to play piano in this band!" And I looked him and thought, I don't know, groups are guitars - that's what we should be doing. I wasn't so sure about this.

Then about 20 minutes later, Colin picked up an acoustic guitar when we were having coffee and he started singing an old Ricky Nelson song. I thought it was fantastic. I can still hear Ricky Nelson in Colin's voice. I said, "My god, I had no idea you could sing like that. You've got to be lead singer." I said, "I'll tell you what, I'll play piano and you be lead singer."

So we all moved around a chair within an hour of meeting each other and that was the band. One change, and these guys who didn't know each other really, that became the band. It was a million-to-one chance that it would all work out.

Songfacts: "She's Not There" was a big hit everywhere. But I'm surprised the follow-up "Tell Her No" wasn't a hit in the UK as it was here.

Argent: Well, I think we were badly handled in many ways in the UK. The first recording session we had included "She's Not There" and was terrifically done - we were over the moon with the results from that session. We followed up with a session as soon as "She's Not There" was a hit and they put out a song called "Leave Me Be," which we all thought was absolutely the wrong choice, and absolutely not a hit. But the producer and all the people that were making the decisions wouldn't listen to us, and just sort of threw it out there.

In the UK, "Leave Me Be" was the second single. When that didn't make any impression they held it back until the next recording session in the States, where we produced "Tell Her No." We were pleased with "Tell Her No" and that became the third single in the UK, but I think we'd lost bit of momentum by then.

We just weren't managed well at a time when you had bands like The Who and The Stones - bands that were managed impeccably; the management knew exactly what it was doing on every level. Things were moving very fast those days. I do think we were handled badly in the beginning and we suffered particularly in the UK because of that.

But it's true that The Zombies in the UK had fewer hits and less success than anywhere else in the world. It's very interesting. "Time of the Season" was the #1 in most countries in the world, but it wasn't in the UK. It's been released three times in the UK, and it's never been a hit. But the extraordinary thing is that everybody knows it in the UK. We played Glastonbury this year, and we had a big audience of the young kids who went completely mad when we played "Time of the Season." So, it has become, strangely enough, a classic in the UK, but it's never been a hit.

Songfacts: It's been sampled so many times, maybe they know it from that.

Argent: It's been sampled a lot, and it gets played on the radio in the UK. It was just never a hit. It still gets played consistently. It's very strange.

Eminem sampled it. Melanie Fiona, particularly in Canada and in other territories in the world, had a very big hit with a heavy sample of "Time of the Season" on her record ["Give It To Me Right"] as well. And it's been in many films, adverts, commercials.

Songfacts: It was the last thing recorded for Odessey and Oracle. Did you know it was a hit when you recorded it?

Argent: I remember knowing that we had one more track to make up the album. I shared a flat with Chris White at the time and also the guy who did the artwork on Odessey and Oracle, Terry Quirk, and I was really still quite intensively teaching it to Colin when we were in the studio. We had a spat about it in the studio. He tolerates me now, but when I write a song I'm very particular about phrasing, and I was saying, "No, it's not quite that Colin, you just have to sing that syllable there." And he said, "Look, if you're so fucking good, you come and do it." And I said, "Come on Colin. The album is sounding great, we've got one more song to do." And obviously we did finish it.

Clive Davis is probably the only record company executive who is a household name. With a keen ear and a knack for predicting musical trends (he saw the singer-songwriter movement coming in the early '70s), he had a hand in the success of Aretha Franklin, Aerosmith, Whitney Houston, Santana and hundreds of other acts.

Even Babe Ruth missed some pitches though, and Davis certainly whiffed on few. As Rod explains, when Clive was at Columbia, he had the US rights to Odessey And Oracle, but did nothing with it until Al Kooper made an impassioned plea. When they did release the album, Columbia made a truly baffling choice, putting out "Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914)," a dirge-like song about a tormented soldier in World War I, as the first single.
Songfacts: It took a while for it to come out in the US, right?

Argent: In the States, the album was not going to be released until Al Kooper found it. He was the hot new A&R man that Clive Davis had employed, and he went rushing back from England to the US. He went into Clive Davis' office and said, "I've listened to hundreds of albums and there's one album that stands above the rest and I don't care who owns this album, you've got to buy it from them. It doesn't matter how much it costs." And Clive said, "Well, we own it, and we passed on it." Al said, "You can't pass on it, you must release it."

He said OK and then they put out "Butcher's Tale," which is still one of my favorite tracks on the album, that Chris wrote. It still gives me chills when I hear it, but it was never a single. Al was aghast that they put that out as a single. Then they put out "Friends of Mine," and as I remember, "Care of Cell 44." Nothing happened. And then they put out "Time of the Season."

And in the way that records could in those days, it very slowly took off. Nowadays, if something's dead within two weeks, it's usually dead. But in those days, it was the time when one DJ, if he was passionate about something, he played it. And this guy in Boise, Idaho, started to play it and it started to spread like wildfire locally, and in the way things could in those days, the ripples spread out further and further. It still took six months. We still had no idea it was successful in America until it was approaching the Top 20, and then we got a call from our American publisher. That was how communication was in those days. It's so different now.

Songfacts: By that time you had been split up how long?

Argent: A year and half! I was forming a production company and I was actually in America when "Time of the Season" was #1. We thought it was great, because it helped us grease the wheels of forming a production company, which started off by producing my second band, Argent, and also Colin's immediate solo foray, One Year, which was a big album in the UK and Europe. I know it didn't do much here, but it's known as a cult album here as well. So it greased the wheels.

I remember being over here working on the deal and Woodstock was on. We had an invitation to go to this extraordinary event - not to play, but just to visit - and we turned it down.

Songfacts: Was there thought of getting The Zombies back together because "Time of the Season" was such a big hit?

Argent: We never put commercial considerations first. It wasn't that we didn't want to make money - of course we did. And we still do. But that's never been, in anything that we've done, the main focus. The primary focus has always been to get enthusiastic about what we were working on at the time and to look forward and not look back and not do things for just purely commercial reasons.

Songfacts: So you put Argent together, Chris had a solo album, and in the States a lot of fake Zombies bands were put on the road to cash in.

Argent: Absolutely. And not all the fake bands had good players, I can tell you. I've heard horror stories of people who have gone along thinking they've seen me, the proper Zombies at the time, and they were terrible.

There was one story where this band was going around making money, and they were pretty terrible apparently. This guy in the audience got very frustrated - again we heard this story years later - and he went into the dressing room afterwards, and he pointed at this guy and says, "You're not Hugh Grundy" and he said "Oh yes I am," and he says, "Listen, you're not Hugh Grundy!" and he pulled out a gun and pointed it at him. And the guy said, "Ok, Ok, I'm not! And we won't play again." That was the end of those fake Zombies apparently.

Songfacts: So what has the real Hugh Grundy been doing all these years? Had he put away his drumsticks?

Argent: Hugh hasn't played professionally for very many years, but he's always kept up playing in semi-pro bands, so he has good chops still. We had a couple rehearsals in the UK before we came over here. That's all we've had and he was great. He was playing well. He was involved over the years in several things. I know that he was a driver for several years. For the RAF I think. He had his own pub with his wife for quite a few years, and then he moved to Majorca off the coast of Spain, which is where he's living now.

Because of Odessey and Oracle, and because the Zombies catalog has really revived in the last 20 years, his income has been been very nicely supplemented and brought up to scratch by royalties that have come in from the Zombies catalog.

I think what Colin and I have done, too, through love of performing and continually touring in the States and other places around the world in the last decade and a half, I think that it has played its part in bringing the profile of the Zombies up as well.

Songfacts: What has Chris been doing?

Argent: He's been involved in management. He has continued songwriting and made albums with his wife, who is a very fine singer, Viv Boucherat. He's had a lot of success, especially in recent years with some of the Zombies material he wrote that has been used on TV series, like "This Will Be Our Year" in Mad Men and adverts and one thing or another.

And he co-wrote with me a fair bit of the Argent catalog as well. The great thing about songwriting is that it can provide you with a little bit of a pension, which gives you a bit of freedom to do what you want to do.

Songfacts: So you'll have the four surviving members from that era, but you'll also have the musicians that have been backing you and Colin for how long now?

Argent: We've been around 15 years now. It started as a completely natural thing for fun. I got together with Coin around 2000 and we decided to do six gigs for fun. I did a concert for John Dankworth, the jazz musician in England, and Colin was in the audience and got up and sang "She's Not There" and "Time of the Season" with me at the spur of the moment, and it felt so nice and felt as though we'd been working just a few weeks before rather than 35 years or whatever it was. So we decided to do six gigs for fun, and in an absolutely natural way, this evolved into becoming more and more intensely occupied with exploring The Zombies.

At first, we deliberately didn't play any Zombies stuff at all. When we started to do more gigs after that, some promoters started billing us as The Zombies when we asked them not to, and we sort of gave into that. But then we were talking, and we thought, Why don't we do some Zombies material we never ever played live in the first place? And that started to feel natural and quite exciting in itself.

Normally, I hated the thought of raking over embers from a fire that was alight from many years before. I always wanted to look forward and do things that were musically interesting. When we realized there were a lot of things that we never played we started to become more excited ourselves about rediscovering some of the Zombies catalog. So it all started to feel more realistic and more of a good thing to do. Then we decided to go into the recording studio again, taking it a step further, and that really has culminated in this present album, because I think the band has been together so long now, we're really really tight and we really wanted to make an album which was organic and record it in the way we always used to record.

I don't mean we were trying to be retro in any way, but we wanted to recapture that feeling of live performance. Because in the old days, there was only one way to record: You had to be all in the same room at the same time. There was no layering of tracks, starting with a drum track, and then working on a bass track, working in that separate way which is so common now. You had to be in the room at the same time, and one of the things you gain from that, is that everybody constantly moderates from moment to moment what they're playing by what they're listening to, and how you're listening to the guide voice - there's usually a guide voice going on, and then the lead vocal is replaced later.

We went to a great studio. We were all playing together and it all felt great. Everybody was listening to each other. In fact, the guide vocals that Colin was doing turned out to be the master vocals on the album. You're just trying to get a great basic track and capture a real performance, a moment of magic, which is the best moment of the day of a particular performance, but the solos worked so well, we didn't replace any of the solos either. It was a hugely enjoyable experience. In a way we were trying to recapture things the way they were done when we first started, and that whole experience was great.

Songfacts: Were the songs on Still Got That Hunger composed recently for it, or had some tunes been written earlier?

Argent: I wrote nine of the 10 songs, and Colin supplied one ["Now I Know I'll Never Get Over You"]. They were all written over the course of the previous year. We set out to make an album this year, and we deliberately came off the road for three or four months to give time to work on the material.

And even though a couple of the songs started from real fragments that had been written many years before - the first first song of the album is "Moving On" and literally the first two lines came to me when Elvis died 1977.

That guy was a hugely iconic figure in my youth. The moment when I first heard "Hound Dog" was the moment that changed my life, really. Suddenly this guy was dead at a young age. He'd passed on, and it left me feeling totally rudderless. So I very quickly wrote these two lines:

I'm moving on like a ship sailing, windblown
August moon, can you tell me where I'm bound


That was all I'd written. All these years later, I remembered that fragment. It's never left my mind actually. And I decided to expand and develop that fragment. But it was no longer about Elvis and I made it more a song about moving on past something traumatic and not letting that define you.

So I developed both musically and lyrically that song from that point, but the genesis of it was literally 1977, though 98 percent was newly written.

Songfacts: It also speaks to the band now, going forward.

Argent: Yes. When you're recording and creating new material in a different way, you get that same buzz of satisfaction when something starts to work. When you're working on a musical idea, when you're writing and it starts to work, it's a fantastic feeling. And then that next stage when you start to make it work with the band, that's a great feeling as well, and everyone in the band feels that too. It's something that's priceless and that's why we're doing it. And of course, we would love it to be hugely successful. But in itself there is a reward just for doing it and making it work for yourself.

Songfacts: How is this show on the current tour organized?

Argent: The second half of the show is a recreation of Odessey and Oracle live with every single note we played. Plus we'll have the guitarist from present incarnation of the band [Tom Toomey], and we're also using extra vocals from other guys currently in the band [Jim and Steve Rodford] on the overdub vocals we had on the originals. Darian Sahanaja [of the Wondermints and Brian Wilson's band] will do the mellotron parts that I overdubbed on the original. Chris White's wife is doing the high falsetto that I overdubbed. We've even got a period pump organ to recreate "Butchers Tale" in the second half.

The idea is to reproduce on the first half our current incarnation, playing a set that includes as well as obvious Zombie hits, less well known Zombies stuff from four albums and from our new album which came out October 9.

That was the quandary we were in really. We did the Odessey and Oracle live in Shepherd's Bush for its 40th anniversary. We had never played it from start to finish before - we'd broken up the first time around. So American management were at the show and said we have to find a way to put this on in America, but there were a couple of problems. One was logistical, traveling such a long distance. The other was economic, taking double the normal people on the road, to house and transport them like a mini army for six weeks.

But we have gotten to the point, I'm proud to say, the way Colin and I have worked the Zombies canon, where we can do good enough business to make it worthwhile. With the band Colin and I have been touring with, we've done about half of the Odessey and Oracle album. Half of it works wonderfully with five people doing it, but there are certain songs that we actually tried in that format - "Hung Up on a Dream," "Brief Candle," "Changes," "Maybe After He's Gone" - that didn't work. It's wonderful to fit in all the missing parts and feel it bloom, really. When we did it the first time in 2008 in London it really flowered. It was just great.

Songfacts: And it has long since become a cult album and has sold pretty regularly.

Argent: Yeah. It's never going to be Dark Side of the Moon, but it's an extraordinary story, right up to the present day.

Songfacts: When you recorded Odessey and Oracle, you really expanded the sound of the band. Was that from playing in Abbey Road just after Sgt. Pepper was recorded?

Argent: That was a huge piece of happenstance actually that they they'd left various bits and pieces around the studio. I'd never seen a mellotron before I'd walked into Abbey Road studio. That was another huge bonus that the Beatles left us, because John Lennon left his mellotron in the studio, and without asking him, I just used it. So thank you, John. Thank you very much.

I think they might have left their electric harpsichord in the studio, but it was so long ago now, I can't really remember all the details.

Songfacts: It seemed like the possibilities of rock songwriting were growing right at that moment and you were part of it.

Argent: I guess so. I didn't think about it to be honest. It just felt it was what was natural at that time. But you're right - it was always simple love songs when we first started writing, but as with so many things, The Beatles showed the way in expanding what was possible. I think they were the first progressive group, The Beatles, because they were constantly trying to expand the boundaries and to push at the limits in every musical way.

In ways of recording, they were always curious in a creative way, in every sense. They were hungry to listen to what they were exposed to, whether it was art or fashion or avant-garde classical music - everything was of interest to them. It wasn't a self-conscious incorporation, it was just being excited about what they heard around them.

Songfacts: Practically speaking, it must have been hard for The Zombies not having hits at home in England when you were having them elsewhere.

Argent: It made it very hard. Because in those days, the world was a much bigger place. Anything that happens around the world now you know within minutes because of the internet, because of communications. It was not like that then. We just did not know.

We went to the Philippines and we found we were the biggest thing ever to hit there. We were very badly ripped off in some ways, as many other bands were around that time. When we went to the Philippines, we thought we were going to be playing a small nightclub there. Our manager said to us, "I can can fix it so I can guarantee you won't lose money if you want to see a little bit of the East before you break up. Do you fancy a trip to the Philippines? I can promise you won't lose money."

We got there, and we were playing for up to 40,000 people a night on a 10-night residency in Manilla at Araneta Coliseum, and for that, we were getting 80 pounds between us a night.

That illustrates two things. First of all, it illustrates how badly we were being ripped off. But secondly, it illustrates how hard it was to get instant information, because we had no idea we were popular there. Behind The Beatles, we were the biggest thing ever to hit the Philippines. We were just back there this year, playing the Araneta Coliseum again - not to quite so many people, but still a really good audience.

Songfacts: What year was that first visit there?

Argent: That was '67, just before we recorded Odessey and Oracle. When we went, we arrived two or three hours late in the middle of the night and there were 2,000 people at the airport. We honestly thought that there was some president or something on the plane that people were there to greet, and it was us. Absolutely extraordinary.

November 18, 2015.
Here's our chat with Colin Blunstone.

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Comments: 6

  • Steve Hendren from Huntington Beach, Ca.You, sir Rod Argent was always an amazing keyboard player back in the Zombies days, and into Argent and beyond. Thank you, Sir. You were always such an influence in my musical careers as a keys player. I remember back in the day that I learned "Hold Your Head Up" to learning every special chord and of course all of your leads playing. God bless Rod, you are and will always be the most special keys player in my life. (Well OK, can't also shut out Jimmy Smith here, to be honest, man!

    All the best musical bro Rod! God Bless!!
  • Joebob from EarthAwesome interview. Fan of both Argent and The Zombies. Live long and prosper, Rod Argent.
  • Kerry from Melbourne. Australia.Hold Your Head Up. Argent. Still like it.
  • Tim Barrett Krock 101.5 from OahuHold your head up...great song! For it's time and for the test of time...it rocks!
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaAnother Great Interview, guys, excellent work. Always Loved Rod Argent and the Zombies. I was in Grade school when I first heard "She's not there" on the radio and it still sounds great to me.
    They were one of the all times great, it is a shame they were so horribly wasted by management.
  • Steve St. Pierre from New Bedford Mass.a great article from rod argent about the zombies. I have loved the zombies music since I was 14 years old. colin had a voice like no other.whenever your ready, was my favorite song.long live the zombies.
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