Interview With the Zombie - Rod Argent On Gershwin, Bill Evans, Miles Davis & The Penny Lane Piano

The Zombies, one of the most influential bands to hit the U.S. during the British Invasion of the 1960's, made multiple appearances at this year's South By Southwest music conference, and by many accounts, stole the conference outright.
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The Zombies, one of the most influential bands to hit the U.S. during the British Invasion of the 1960's, made multiple appearances at this year's South By Southwest music conference, and by many accounts, stole the conference outright.

Their hit singles "She's Not There," "Tell Her No" and "Time Of The Season" and their enduring classic album "Odessey and Oracle" are pop milestones influencing everyone from Paul Weller to Billy Joel to the Foo Fighters.

I spoke this week with Rod Argent, their keyboardist, and writer of many of their hits. His Hammond B3 solo on the Argent hit "Hold Your Head Up" is cited by Rick Wakeman as the greatest organ solo ever.

Interviewer: I do a lot of public speaking. My busiest month, I was booked 14 times. It was a real physical effort. The Zombies have 22 shows in May alone! How are you doing that?

Rod: We have to travel long, long distances between each one, as well. That's the killer, really. Even when I was 18 years old I found the actual traveling part of it, getting from gig to gig, tedious and tiring. I've always, throughout my life, had a lot of trouble with jet lag, with the time changes with body clocks. As you get older, it doesn't get any easier.

Interviewer: I'm 50. I know what you mean.

Rod: That's the hardest thing for me. The actual hour and a half on stage, once you've got over the initial jet lag, which, for me, takes quite a long time...That's a real joy. It's everything that comes in between that's so difficult. [laughs]

But then, it always was. The actual being on stage is...I don't get stage fright anymore as long as I'm not outside of my idiom. As long as I'm actually within what I know and I feel that things are under control, then I don't have any stage nerves at all. That really helps. I think maybe I did earlier in my career have more.

It's just a joy to be up there playing with a great band at this stage in our career and having that bond. Having the energy come back from the audience, it's a privilege, really. It's great.

Interviewer: But it looks like the audience, it's like you all are taking the energy from the audience, which I assume makes it a bit easier.

Rod: Absolutely. The thing is, we play to such varied audiences. Sometimes we play to an older audience, which is great. Other times we play to a very young audience, which is also wonderful because you get so much young energy back from a young audience.

More often than not, there's a mix of the two. That's the most usual thing is to have all sorts of ages in the audience. Usually with quite a reasonable young component, as well, which really mixes things up and gives a lot of energy back, you do feed off that energy. It's great to get it.

Interviewer: "Care Of Cell 44" is a much loved song which you recorded at Abbey Road. Do you remember what piano you played on Cell 44? Was it the Steinway or the Challen?

Rod: I'm trying to remember. It's a very, very bright piano, isn't it, as I remember.

Interviewer: If it was the Steinway (the 1905) I believe that would be the same piano "Penny Lane" was performed on.

Rod: It very possibly was. The Beatles always recorded in Studio Two. Now, I've played the piano in Studio Two, and it is incredibly bright, actually. It's an incredibly bright piano. We did all our recording in Studio Three, and I'm pretty sure it would've been the Steinway that I played on that, actually.

Coincidentally, two years ago, I actually bought myself a Steinway Concert Grand for my house, which is my pride and joy. I just actually love it.

Interviewer: I wanted to talk to you a second about the Rodfords. Steve Rodford (the Zombies' drummer) is a monster.

Rod: He's great. He's a great drummer. Do you know it was in Nashville the following night that Alan Shacklock came along, an old friend from back home in the UK, who has produced albums for Jeff Beck, who's had Grammy nominations, Roger Daltrey. He's written number one records himself, et cetera.

It's the first time he'd seen us live in this incarnation, and he was completely knocked out with Steve. I'm glad a few people are seeing him and realizing. Steve is incredibly musical. What I love about it him is he's technically very good, but he listens. He listens to what you're playing and he responds to it and I love that.

Interviewer: If I'm right, you're on stage now with two people that you've played with for 50 years.

Rod: Absolutely, with more than two people. Jim Rodford (the bass player) is the guy, as you would have heard me say, was there right at the beginning. He's the reason I first wanted to be in a band. He was in a local, one of the first skiffle groups in the south of England way back in the '50s. I saw them when I was 11 years old, or 11 or 12 and was just knocked out, and thought I've got to be in a band one day.

I did ask Jim right at the beginning to be in the band and he did refuse. But Steve (the drummer), of course, is his son. I've known Steve since Steve was born. It was Jim that turned me on to rock and roll because I grew up just liking classical music really because there was some pretty poor pop music going on in the early '50s.

Then he played me "Hound Dog", which just blew me away. And that turned me on to rock and roll. Jim has been around.

Then, of course, Colin Blunstone (lead singer). I met Colin on our first rehearsal. That was the first time I ever met him. Jim was there on that rehearsal with The Bluetones gear, his band's gear to loan to us. I've known three people for 50 years in the band.

Interviewer: I was listening to "She's Not There" live at your show this week and realized Colin is singing in the same key as the song was recorded in 50 years ago. How in the world 50 years later does he still hit the high notes?

Rod: Because, in the late '90s, before we got together, when Colin started to do a few solo gigs, he spoke to me about being worried about the stamina of his voice. I introduced him to a vocal coach in the UK who coached the West End sort of stars. I persuaded Colin to go there.

The reason I'd gone to this guy was because when I did a solo album years before, I was really pissed off with my voice. I thought it could have really been much stronger. I worked on it and I've got it really very much stronger. I persuaded Colin to go.

I said it won't change your voice. It won't change the characteristics of your voice. It will just give you the stamina and the ability to keep going. You can do many nights on the tour. Also, when you're 18 years old, you can get away with an awful lot. Quite naturally, it's like any other muscle in your body.

You can still keep that when you're older. You really can, but you have to work at it as you get older. So Colin does these exercises every day. I always do them for a couple of weeks before we start the tour. But because I'm only doing a couple of lead vocals, I, then, most of the time, don't bother when we're on tour because I haven't got the whole night to sing basically as Colin has.

I can sing higher now than I could 20 or 30 years ago. I honestly can. Colin can sing exactly what he did then. He can do what he did, but his voice has actually gained strength, too.

Interviewer: Let me ask you about the song "Summertime," which you recorded and still perform live. Clearly you love it.

Rod: I do love it.

Interviewer: What draws you to that song?

Rod: It's one of those songs that I fell in love with instantly and I must have been about eight or nine years old when I first heard it, I think.

I love Gershwin, I really do. I love Porgy and Bess. There's another song on Porgy and Bess, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," which I think is just transcendent. It's just gorgeous. But "Summertime"...I remember the story about...Now I can't remember the guy's name now but the opera singer who sang in the original production of Porgy and Bess.

When Gershwin got him over to play him, he said I've written an opera. This guy was very unsure whether he wanted to do it. The moment he heard "Summertime", he said right, OK, there's no way you're not going to get me to do this. I'm doing it, whatever it takes.

It's just one of those magical songs. It's a simple melody, but it's gorgeous and right. It's such a tragedy that Gershwin died so young actually. But glorious song. We've always done it. When we got our first recording contract by winning a competition back in the UK, we played "Summertime" on the final.

We did it for Otto Preminger when we were auditioning for the movie "Bunny Lake Is Missing." He knew Gershwin and he loved it. It's something that's always figured with us. There's a couplet in "Time of The Season," which is your dad is...No, that's Summertime.

Interviewer: "Is he rich like me?"

Rod: "What's your name?" "Who's your daddy?" Is he rich like me? That's an affectionate nod to the couplet in Summertime. Your dad is rich and your mom is good looking.

Interviewer: Gershwin thought that song was too Yiddish.

Rod: Did he really? [laughs]

Interviewer: Yeah, he was very worried.

Rod: It's so bluesy and without trying to be a parody or anything, or a pastiche. It's just naturally Gershwin, but it just naturally has the feeling of the blues in it. It's lovely.

Interviewer: Do you know who, allegedly, owned the first Hammond Model A?

Rod: Was that Gershwin?

Interviewer: Gershwin. Yeah.

Rod: Wow. Really?

Interviewer: Isn't that bizarre? Well, that's what the Hammond Company said.

Rod: Good God.

Interviewer: He did have one. It was a prototype. But he didn't have a Leslie on it. He apparently was one of the first ones that had that. I was watching you play your Hammond organ the other night, and your hands kind of looked like Jimmy Smith hands, when you watch Jimmy Smith play.

Rod: Really? Thank you.

Interviewer: Your hands are positioned different on the organ than they are on the piano. Is that a Hammond thing or because you're self taught?

Rod: No, my hands have always been totally natural. I've never ever thought about their positioning. And yet, I have to say on videos and TV, when I first saw myself play, I was really pleased with the hand position. Because I never tried to...I have a fairly high wrist when I'm playing and the hands are basically in a pretty good position.

It's just purely natural and purely what felt right to me within the process of playing. I never worked on that technique for a minute ever.

Interviewer: It's just interesting self taught musicians fall into doing the things that are correct so much of the time. But then a lot of the time, musicians do things that aren't academically correct, like the Beatles. Because they were self taught, they did chord changes that were uncommon, like having F major and B major in the same song.

Rod: Exactly. That's the real advantage. Because the thing is that when you go through, and I've got nothing against academic processes really. When I came off stage, sorry. When I came off "Live, "Work" in 1975 when Argent broke up, I really applied myself in certain areas to get my sight reading much better.

I actually bought the John Mehegan jazz book called "The Jazz Pianist" which goes through like an intuition thing about jazz harmony, et cetera. Just through my own interest really. It's just something I wanted to do.

But if you do that right from the beginning, you learn so much that's the chord sequences that have worked through the history of popular music. You absorb that so much that maybe if you're self taught and you don't have any of that at the beginning, you go off on all sorts of tangents. You rely on your ears totally and what works for you. If you've got some flair, then that can be the truest thing. You can seek...

Do you know that Bach was largely self taught? And Elgar?

Interviewer: Ah, Elgar. I've got some trivia for you. Who was the first person to ever record at Abbey Road?

Rod: That was Elgar.

Interviewer: Isn't that amazing?

Rod: That's incredible.

Interviewer: You are a huge influence on many musicians, from Paul Weller to Billy Joel. And in particular, the Wondermints.

Rod: I know that. Darian Sahanaja (leader of the Wondermints) is a very good friend. We did the "Odessey and Oracle" live show in London.

Interviewer: I saw he did the Mellotron on that.

Rod: It was so funny because he came over and we only had two production rehearsals. But I wanted, if we were going to do it, I wanted to reproduce everything note that was on our original album which is why I got Darian to do it, why we had our normal band at the moment do it, and had Chris and Hugh from the original band. We did have every note.

Darian came over and when we were in the production rehearsal, we were going through something. I gave him the harmonies and then he would stop and say, "Why are we not doing this line?" I said, "But that's not in the original." He said, "I think you'll find it is." [laughs]

Interviewer: He's got an ear.

Rod: I would go and check it out and it was. He was always right. He knew the album better than I did.

Interviewer: I want to talk about Bill Evans and the effect that he had on you.

Rod: Huge. As I said to you, I grew up the first 11 years of my life thinking I only liked classical music. I then heard Elvis and got turned onto Elvis, Little Richard. But through Elvis, I got to hear people like Big Mama Thornton, and Arthur Crudup, and then, John Lee Hooker, a lot of the blues guys, et cetera.

But at the same time, very soon after that, I discovered Miles Davis. It wasn't through "Kind of Blue." It was through an album called "Milestones." In fact, it was an EP because that's all I could afford at the time, Extended Play record.

It was the one with Milestones on it. I got completely...I still love his band from 1958, 1960 with...At the time, it was Winton Kelly on piano. But it was John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Philly Joe Jones. They left and Bill Evans took over.

Now, because I loved Milestones so much, I then went out, saved up for another EP. I bought the EP with "On Green Dolphin Street" on it. In the middle of On Green Dolphin Street is the piano solo. That blew me away. This is like a chord with piano solo. I can still remember how the whole thing goes.

That was my first introduction to Bill Evans. I was completely smitten and I bought everything that I could afford by Bill Evans at the time. There was an album called "Everybody Digs Bill Evans." There's a version called "Tenderly." This version of the song "Tenderly" on there, which I often play...I've got it on my iPad.

I love Bill Evans playing. It's just precise, inventive, intensely musical, exciting. It's just great.

Interviewer: I never see you mention Nat Cole. Did you listen to a lot of Nat Cole? Bill Evans loved Nat Cole.

Rod: Bill Evans loved Nat Cole, and so did Oscar Peterson. Oscar Peterson based all his early style on Nat Cole. I was never completely smitten with his piano playing as much as his voice, actually, to be honest. I knew that he was the model for Oscar Peterson. I didn't realize that Bill Evans loved him so much. I think he's a wonderful musician, and I loved his singing.

Interviewer: What are you listening to now as opposed to what you listened to 20 years ago?

Rod: I heard Kings of Leon and like them very much. I bought that album. I like some of the things The Killers have done. But I still find myself having a lot of the stuff I always used to have on there - Ray Charles, Miles Davis. I've got quite a bit of Keith Jarrett on there. I love listening to him.

I've got a lot of classical music. I've got the complete Bach Organ works on there, which was actually played by a guy called Peter Herford. I was in a brilliant choir when I was a boy, a cathedral choir. The master of the music was an organist. He was one of the top bark organists in the world, actually, he became. But he was only 26 when he got there. That was my introduction to Bach. That was another thing that turned my world around, actually, hearing Bach played wonderfully.

Interviewer: It was an interview from you that turned me onto the mono version of Goldberg.

Rod: Oh, really! Isn't it wonderful?

Interviewer: It's different. It's more energetic.

Rod: It's more energized. It's more focused. There's a wonderful story about him. As a Canadian he was sent out on a cultural exchange. He was sort of an up and coming player. But the authorities in Canada didn't think that much of him. They sent him over to the Moscow Conservatoire. He went and played there as part of this exchange program.

He played in the first half of the concert and the place was just dotted with people. There were not many people there. To his amazement, in the second half he came out and the whole place was packed because in the interval, the word had got around him to some famous Russian pianists. They were just completely blown away by him.

It was at that period that he did the mono version of the Goldberg variations, which I think is much more focused, with the exception of the very slow variation on there, which I don't like on that, I have to say. It's too slow, I think, and, actually, the only one that doesn't work for me. But most of it is just sublime. I just love it.

That would be definitely one of my desert island albums.

Interviewer: I suspect Bach is your number one musician.

Rod: Classically, yeah. But then I also love a lot of the early 20th century composers like Stravinsky and Ravel. I love that, too.

Interviewer: Last question is, what are you reading?

Rod: When I'm on the road, I have to read things which I can read while there are distractions going on. On this trip, already, I've read a couple of Lee Charles novels, which is Jack Reacher. But I'm actually reading at the moment a book which is absolutely fascinating me. It's called "Red Joan" by Jennie Rooney.

It's really good. It was set in 1937 at the time when a lot of idealistic people were turning to communism in '37. Obviously, something has happened to make the authorities question her as an old lady. Anyway, it's beautifully written. I really like that.

One of my favorite ever books, actually, is written by an Englishman called Laurie Lee. He's very famous in England. His most famous book was called "Sided with Rosie." But he wrote a trilogy of books, and the first one was called "As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning." It's just a beautiful, beautiful book.

Basically, it was when he was in his teens he had a violin. He left home and he just walked. He got himself to Spain and walked across Spain, basically, with his violin. Spain was a pretty medieval country in those days. It's so different than how it is now.

I reread it while we were touring Spain a couple of years ago because we were playing a lot of the places where he was. They were tiny little, almost medieval, villages when he was there. Now they're bustling towns, et cetera. All very built up areas, and very, very different to how life was then. But it's a wonderful book.