In the ever-changing world of pop and rock, it’s an achievement to write and perform even one song that stays in the public consciousness. To do it again and again, and for those songs to keep on renewing themselves decade after decade while you continue to create new ones and perform all over the world, is rare indeed. But then singer, songwriter, master of the keyboards and recording artist Rod Argent is a rare talent.
As it stands in 2013, three of the classic songs that Rod wrote and helped to make hits as a member of the Zombies in the 1960s now have total airplay in America alone of some 14 million. The US performing rights body BMI says that Time Of The Season stands at nearly seven million, She’s Not There at 4.5m and Tell Her No is on 3m. If you spun them 14 million times back to back, that would represent about 80 years’ worth of continuous music.
Those and other gems in Argent’s songbook have accrued millions more plays around the world, and his work is always in incredible demand for use in commercials and films everywhere. But as much as he still loves to play those and other landmark compositions, as he and Colin Blunstone tour to global acclaim with the revitalised Zombies, Rod Argent is no history man.
For Rod, nearly 50 years after he first caught the world’s attention as a writer and performer, there are still so many new songs to write, records to make and gigs to play. 2013 sees him busier than ever with the Zombies, with three tours of the US alone and, when they can get some time among the constant requests for gigs, TV and radio appearances and interviews, the prospect of beginning a new band album, the follow-up to 2011’s warmly received Breathe Out, Breathe In, for 2014 release.
That album drew lavish praise far and wide, with the Huffington Post describing it as “inspired…this is the time of the season to check this gem out.” Uncut magazine were delighted to find Argent, Blunstone and their bandmates “find Zombie heaven again” and the Washington Times smartly described the Zombies as “the finest British band still touring that doesn’t have Mick Jagger as a frontman.”
Rod Argent was born in St.Albans in 1945, just ten days before Blunstone’s birth a mere seven miles away. To coin a phrase, music was his first love, and if Rod’s brilliant dexterity as a keyboard player from his teenage years onwards might suggest a classical training, remarkably his only formal education was two years of piano lessons, plus a stint of several years in St. Albans Cathedral Choir.
Like so many British kids who were prime targets for the music from another planet that arrived in 1956, Rodney T. Argent fell head over heels for rock ‘n’ roll at the age of 11. By the end of the two minutes and 14 seconds of Elvis’ Hound Dog, he knew that one day he had to start his own band. Besides, his cousin Jim Rodford (later a co-founder with Rod of the band Argent, then a member of the Kinks and now bassist with the Zombies) had one called the Bluetones, whom Rod saw at that same tender age. By his own description, he had stars in his eyes.
Argent realised that dream five years later. Now in his mid-teens, his musical horizons had expanded to include everything from John Lee Hooker via Dave Brubeck to Bartok. Those catholic tastes would serve him well. In 1961 he met up with a bunch of mates outside the Blacksmith’s Arms in St. Albans, and walked a few yards down the road to The Pioneer Youth Club, where they held their very first rehearsal. After a few false starts at band names, such as the Mustangs and the Sundowners, they decided to call themselves the Zombies.
They started to tour the local area extensively, and even if youth clubs, town halls and the Welwyn Garden City Liberal Club were hardly in Elvis’ league, such venues were the vital training ground for the quintet as they went semi-professional and, finally, fully professional in 1964.
That May, the Zombies won the Herts Beat competition to find the “top beat group in the country,” and precisely a month later they were at Decca studios in West Hampstead to record four songs. One of them was Rod’s She’s Not There, and pop history was made. It became the first self-penned American No. 1 (on the Cashbox chart) since the Beatles conquered the US, a fact that even made the BBC’s 9 o’clock news, and became a worldwide hit.
The story of the next three amazing years for Rod and his fellow Zombies is chronicled elsewhere, but it would include great adventures on the road around the world, more great singles such as Tell Her No (another major US hit), Indication and Summertime.
The story of how the group recorded the Odessey & Oracle album, featuring Time Of The Season, at Abbey Road and then split up, convinced no one was interested anymore, has become legend. The incredible, belated surge in popularity of that album provided the momentum for the extraordinary second life now being enjoyed by the Zombies, who are now more popular than ever.
But that’s only a part of Rod Argent’s story. After the group reached the end of its initial lifespan, he was able to start amassing a collection of credits as writer, bandleader, producer, sideman and theme writer that has been as wide-ranging as his own musical tastes.
For some seven years, his main focus was on a new band that seized the spirit of rock experimentation and became one of the most signficant British groups of the first half of the 1970s. Argent made their first demos in 1968 and coalesced the following year with the band leader joined by Rodford, Bob Henrit and a formidable new writing partner, frontman and foil for Rod’s nimble keyboards, Russ Ballard.
They made their album debut with a self-titled release in 1970, and early recognition came in the form of a cover, when Three Dog Night took Liar from that first album into the American top ten. But by 1972 Argent were ready for full-on singles chart stardom of their own. The brilliant Hold Your Head Up, from their third album All Together Now, became a top five hit on both sides of the Atlantic. The following year’s equally anthemic God Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll To You made the UK top 20, as the band built a catalogue of seven studio albums before disbanding in 1975.
In the early 1970s, Argent also helped to steer Blunstone’s solo career and establish him as one of the most distinctive of all English vocalists. Rod and Chris White co-produced One Year, Colin’s elegant solo debut set in late 1971, and co-wrote three songs for it. They would also oversee subsequent releases such as Ennismore (1973) and Journey in 1974.
Never satisfied to sit still musically, Rod set about broadening his horizons even further. In the late 1970s, he was in constant demand as a contributor for countless albums, which ran the gamut from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Variations and records with Barbara Thompson, John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, to Gary Moore, Roger Daltrey and The Who’s Who Are You, including playing piano on the much-loved title track.
During the 1980s, along with a collaboration album with Robert Howes and the solo Red House, Argent also turned his hand to writing music for TV. He had played on Lloyd Webber’s Argentine Melody, the BBC’s 1978 football World Cup theme, on which he was amusingly but unconvincingly disguised as Rodriguez Argentina. Eight years later, he was at it again, writing the ITV theme Aztec Gold and performing it as Silsoe.
Other highly prestigious TV work included the theme for the long-running bloopers show It’ll Be Alright On The Night as well as such major BBC and ITV series as Animal Squad, Reach For The Skies, Soldier and Rescue. As a producer, his vast experience and studio know-how helped turn a number of albums into massive commercial and critical successes.
With Peter Van Hooke, he produced and played on Tanita Tikaram’s 1988 debut Ancient Heart, which included her signature hits Good Tradition and Twist In My Sobriety and sold 4.5 million copies worldwide. In 1991, Argent and Van Hooked helmed one of the most important records of Nanci Griffith’s career, Late Night Grande Hotel, and 1993 brought Painted Desert Serenade, the two million-selling debut of Californian singer-songwriter Joshua Kadison.
Before the decade was out, Argent had fulfilled another ambition by releasing Classically Speaking, an album which fully realised his classical influences and included repertoire by Chopin, Ravel and Bach, as well as three new compositions of his own.
In 2000, as recognition of the Zombies’ key role in 1960s pop-rock began to build, Rod reunited with his old friend Colin Blunstone. What started as an impromptu decision to play six gigs together has become 13 years (and counting) of outstanding new work, with intensive touring all around the world and a wealth of fresh material. Argent and Blunstone released 2002’s Out Of The Shadows under their own names, but since then have recorded as the Zombies, with a new line-up that now includes Rodford on bass, his son Steve on drums and Tom Toomey on guitar. Weller, Robert Plant and Snow Patrol were just some of the notables who attended the group’s triumphant three-night stand at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2008, when they performed Odessey & Oracle in its entirety for the first time.
The band’s second coming has seen them performing with all the energy of the numerous stars of later generations who have named them as influences, from young bands like the Vaccines to such as Paul Weller, Dave Grohl and Tom Petty, who said simply: “The Zombies were and are cool.”
Rod Argent’s back catalogue is one of the most distinguished on record. Or on stage, for that matter. The most exciting thing of all is that he’s still adding to it.