Rod Argent of The Zombies: from St Albans choirboy to rock star
PUBLISHED: 16:43 25 May 2018 | UPDATED: 16:43 25 May 2018
The music of Hertfordshire's Rod Argent has touched millions. Now back on tour with his band The Zombies, he tells us about the early gigs, the Brit Invasion and keeping it real
Their songs were a key part of the soundtrack to the ’60s. They influenced the likes of Paul Weller and after careers spanning nearly 60 years, they are back on tour.
The Zombies scored British and US hits with She’s Not There, Tell Her No and Time of the Season – going to sell millions of records worldwide.
The band’s roots lie in St Albans. The catalyst was a 15-year-old Rod Argent, a pianist, who was desperate to be in a band after seeing his cousin Jim Rodford play in St Albans skiffle band The Bluetones. It was Jim who introduced the young Rod to rock n roll.
‘He played me Hound Dog by Elvis and it completely knocked my socks off.’
Rod says he ‘wandered into a form room’ at his school, St Albans Grammar, to hear Paul Atkinson playing guitar, and found drummer Hugh Grundy in the school’s army corps band – ‘I picked the guy with the best rhythm!’. He asked his friend Paul Arnold - who was making a guitar but had never played a note in his life – to join. And Paul brought along a friend who ‘played a bit of rhythm guitar and sung a bit’ - Colin Blunstone.
The exciting new sound the band wanted was a far cry from Rod’s musical education. He was a choirboy at St Albans Abbey. ‘The first time I ever heard Bach there it just blew me away,’ he remembers.
His talent was evident early. Given a harmonica at seven he could immediately play it by ear, describing seeing the shape of the octaves in his head. He was also a natural piano player.
The band had their first rehearsal in 1961. They met outside the Blacksmiths Arms in St Peter’s Street.
‘As we pulled up I looked at the people waiting outside, I saw this really dodgy looking guy with two black eyes and a broken nose. I said to Jim, “God, I hope that’s not one of them!” It was Colin, who had suffered the injuries playing rugby. ‘Luckily his looks did improve,’ Rod adds.
Rod thought that the band sounded ‘pretty hot’ but Jim, who had lent them his equipment for the jam, later admitted that he thought they had ‘no chance.’
Persevering, they played their first gig in Lemsford which Rod describes as a ‘curates egg, good in parts but disastrous in others.’ They then played in the interval at a dance at St Albans Rugby Club to around 10 people and went down really well, he says. ‘Within a year we were playing to a couple of hundred people, within a couple of years they had to build a marquee on it. We played to 400 people there, they had a generator that would run out of electricity half way through the evening, my keyboards wouldn’t work so I would just pick up a tambourine and sing with Colin. We built up a very big local following.’
Their big break came when they won a ‘Herts Beat’ competition for a recording contract with Decca in 1964, beating Jim Rodford’s Bluetones.
The winning song was penned by Rod featuring his electric piano sound. She’s Not There would become a worldwide number one, including in the US (it peaked at 12 in the UK).
That first recording session in June 1964 at Decca’s West Hampstead studio ended with the recording engineer passed out drunk and being taken over by a young Gus Dudgeon. It was his first session. He went on the produce many big acts, notably Elton John.
The band was soon mixing with some of the biggest names in the business. Shipped off to America to back their hit single, Rod remembers being ‘scared stiff’ playing for the first time at Brooklyn’s Fox Theatre in New York.
‘Five skinny 18-year-old kids playing just before people like Patti LaBelle, Lenny King and The Drifters,’ Rod recalls. ‘Patti LeBelle introduced us to so much music and so many parts of black culture - we had never heard of Aretha Franklin or Nina Simone in those years.’
He recalls travelling through the night with fellow acts (WHO) on that first tour, skipping hotels to save money.
‘There was a time about three in the morning. People would start to go to sleep and one of the black singers would just sing a note, I quiet cord would form and then somebody would sing a spiritual. It used to make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.’
He says the music of that time was driven by a huge enthusiasm and freedom. ‘The older guys in the record companies didn’t understand what was going on. They just let the young musicians get on with it. Nothing was tied down to playlists so people really accepted much more exploratory stuff.’
While in America, the band called on the man who inspired them to start a band. In 1965 on tour in Memphis, they knocked on the door at Graceland. Elvis’ father Vernon answered.
‘We said “Hi we are The Zombies from England, is Elvis in?”’. Unfortunately the King was away filming, but his father said Elvis loved the band and invited them to look around the house.
Rod said he was amazed to discover years later from a journalist that Elvis had three Zombies records on his jukebox at that time.
After just three years of success, the band recorded their second album Odessey and Oracle. They persuaded CBS to let them produce the album and followed The Beatles, recording in Abbey Road – making use of John Lennon’s Mellotron which he had left in the studio. They put the first single out ‘which didn’t do anything’ and with limited finances became disillusioned and split.
Released in 1968, Odessey and Oracle went on to become one of the top 100 albums of all time in America.
‘It was never a hit in this country but sells more now than when it came out 50 years ago,’ says Rod.
It featured Time of the Season, their biggest hit, and according to Rod, one of the 50 most played English songs in America. It again achieved worldwide success but not huge success in the UK.
It still resonates. Eminem sampled the song in his 2013 Rhyme or Reason and it features in the Ridley Scott directed 2017 film, All the Money in the World.
After pursuing solo careers (Rod with his new band Argent), The Zombies reformed in 1999 releasing three albums before Still Got That Hunger in 2015. The album saw a resurgence in the band’s popularity making the Billboard top 100 album sales for the first time in 50 years.
This was followed by an appearance at Glastonbury in 2015, and they celebrated 50 years of Odessey and Oracle last year culminating in the four surviving members playing the album in its entirety at London’s Palladium.
Rod says he still gets the same buzz from playing live - often to a young generation, and loves that the band can still relate to them.
‘We have always tried to be true to ourselves. We never tried to jump on the coattails of fashion and that often meant that we didn’t easily get played on the current radio station. But in the long-term material from that time hasn’t dated as much as some of our contemporaries.
‘We never set out just for celebrity, we always wanted to do the best that we could and that’s the way we still feel. We still get excited by the same things - a musical idea, seeing it flower and being able to touch people with it, that doesn’t feel any different to when I was 18-years-old.’
He feels these days people just want to be famous for being famous.
‘I think that’s the modern thing and I think it’s a mistake. If you’re going to last you should do things for the right reasons.’
The Zombies will be touring throughout this year and Rod would like to put a new album together. ‘I want to continue. I can’t wait to start writing again to use my studio as a creative workshop.’
It seems The Zombies are far from dead.
For details of The Zombies UK tour dates in June, go to thezombiesmusic.com