The thing about classic rock bands from the 1960s is that they have so many fascinating stories to share. Rod Argent, keyboardist for The Zombies, and later for Argent, is no exception. During a recent one-and-a half-hour phone conversation from his home in England, Argent, 75, related some select anecdotes from his early, and later, years. Following are edited excerpts from a lovely chat.
Jim Clash: Can you share any funny anecdotes about life in the studio or on the road?
Rod Argent: Well, “She’s Not There” was all done in a day. The engineer on the session, a terrific guy I have to say, had been to a wedding of a good friend earlier, and had had much too much to drink. He was completely pissed [laughs]. He started shouting on the line to us, and it was just gibberish. We thought, “Oh my God!” I remember Colin [Blunstone] coming to me and saying, “Listen, if this is what professional recording is, I think I’m in the wrong job.” Anyway, the engineer passed out in the middle of the session! We got him a cab. I had one leg, Colin had one leg, Hugh [Grundy] had an arm, and Chris [White] had an arm. We got him in the cab, gave the driver his address, and that’s the last I ever saw of him. The assistant engineer was a guy called Gus Dudgeon, who later became one of the top producers in the world with the likes of Elton John and David Bowie. Ours was his very first session as an engineer.
Clash: I know one of your early inspirations was Elvis Presley. Did you ever meet him?
Argent: No, but we came close. In 1965, we were playing in Memphis. This DJ asked if we wanted to meet Elvis. We said, “Wow, that would be amazing.” The following day, he picked us up in a car without phoning anybody first, and drove to Graceland, which, at the time, was just a house off of the road. It wasn’t the huge industry it is now. There was no security at the gate, which at the time was actually a bit rusty. We just walked through, up the drive, and knocked on the front door. There we were, 20 at the time, and this guy answered. Later, I found out it was Vern, Elvis’ father. We told him that we were The Zombies from England, and asked if Elvis was in? It was almost like asking someone out to play [laughs]. Vern said, “No, Elvis is out filming, but he will really have been sad to have missed you guys.” We thought, “Well, he doesn’t know who the hell we are, but that’s okay.” Vern then asked if we wanted to have a wander-around the place. We did that, but felt quite embarrassed. Years later, in the 1990s, I was doing an interview with an Irish DJ, and I told him this story. He stopped me, told me he was an Elvis freak, knew everything there was to know about him. He said, “Didn’t you realize Elvis had three of your songs on his jukebox?” You could’ve knocked me down with a feather. I had absolutely no idea. So that was the closest I ever came to meeting Elvis.
Clash: Who are some keyboardists you admire, or admired growing up?
Argent: The first keyboardists I admired were jazz players, but I never copied any of their solos. One was Bill Evans, the other Jimmy Smith. Those were the first sounds I had heard on jazz organs. Of the rock and rollers, I loved Jerry Lee Lewis in the early days, and Little Richard. I also loved Ray Charles’ playing, and Nina Simone’s. Later on, I loved Keith Emerson’s playing, even before Emerson, Lake and Palmer. So the inspiration came from across the board for me, really.
Clash: The keyboard solo in, “She’s Not There” — was it scripted or improvised?
Argent: It was purely improvised. You can check that out because if you listen to alternate takes, the solo is totally different on each one. It’s the same in, “Time Of The Season.” With, “Hold Your Head Up,” the later Argent song, it was that way as well. The original of that one had a three-minute solo. On the record, it’s mostly from take one. But since we did 32 takes of that song, we did overdub on the record parts of those takes as well. Again, though, it was all totally improvised, and that’s how we approached everything.
Clash: The Zombies were known for intricate harmonies. How and where did you work those out?
Argent: They were all worked out around my mom’s piano. I was still living at home at the time, and Colin [Blunstone] and the guys used to come around to rehearse acoustically. Hugh [Grundy] would bring a single snare drum with brushes, Chris [White] would have his bass plugged into a very small amp, I would play acoustic piano and Paul [Atkinson] would have his electric guitar going through the same amp Chris was using. So it was all very quiet. I would work the harmonies out, particularly on the songs I had written. The thing is, I always had a pretty good idea of what I wanted. I grew up not liking popular music until I was 11. Then I heard Elvis singing, “Hound Dog,” and my whole world changed [laughs]. I was in a very, very good cathedral choir. There were services every day, three times on Sundays, so I was singing often, and to a very high standard. The music we did really opened my eyes to a bigger world. It was there where I first heard Bach in a proper way. What I’m trying to say is that I was always surrounded by harmony. It sank in almost by osmosis. I drank it in without thinking about it.