By Dave Thompson
“We’re very excited about it; it’s my favorite thing I’ve done for many years. It’s 10 brand-new tracks, on a studio album, because the last few things we’ve have been live, and the album’s going to called ‘Breathe Out Breathe In.’”
Asking Rod Argent what he thinks about the new Zombies album is a little like asking a teenage whiz kid about his band’s debut. No matter that 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of Argent’s first-ever rehearsal with fellow founding member Colin Blunstone; nor that the decades since then have seen Argent take responsibility for some of the most exhilarating music of the age. The opportunity to return to the studio with a band that has not recorded in earnest since 1967 leaves him as enthusiastic as a first-time-outer.
“It felt like the right time,” he says of the group’s decision to record. “It’s always been our intention to do more studio work, but things overtake you. We’ve been constantly busy with touring and things, and with the 40th anniversary of the ‘Odessey and Oracle’ album, us trying to recreate the album with the original guys plus our normal touring band, all of that sort of thing and then the DVD took over …” he pauses for breath.
“But I have been writing material quite assiduously; Colin’s got one track on the album, but the rest of the stuff is mine, and I’m very excited about it. I think it’s a terrific collection of material. It’s got a lot of resonance. We haven’t tried to go back to early Zombies, because it isn’t. But it’s got loads of harmonies on it, and it’s a real band album.”
The original Zombies flourished between 1961 and 1969, when they broke up on the eve of release of their second album, the aforementioned (and wryly misspelled) ‘Odessey and Oracle.’ Blunstone launched a solo career; Argent ignited his own band Argent, then moved into solo work, production and film scores. But the memory of their first band together never died, and, in 1991, Blunstone, drummer Hugh Grundy and bassist Chris White reunited as The Zombies and recorded the album “New World.” The union did not last, but six years later, Argent (keyboards) and guitarist Paul Atkinson all joined Blunstone onstage at the Jazz Café in London, to perform “She’s Not There” and “Time of the Season” — the band’s best-known and biggest hit singles.
Argent picks up the thread. “The way I look at things, working with Colin, the way we got back together again, it just evolved. I hadn’t played live for a long time. I’d done lots of production and played on other people’s records, but in 2000, Johnny Dankworth, the jazz musician, and Cleo Laine asked me to do a charity concert to raise money for this theater they were opening in Milton Keynes.
“Colin was in the audience, and just on the spur of the moment, he got up and sang ‘She’s Not There’ and ‘Time of the Season,’ which we didn’t have to rehearse, and we enjoyed it so much that Colin said, ‘Let’s put a band together and do half a dozen gigs.’ So we did, and, to our amazement, that turned into 10 years of touring around the world.
A band came together around ex-Kinks/Argent bassist Jim Rodford; his son, Steve Rodford, on drums; and Keith Airey (brother of Deep Purple’s Don) on guitar; and, under the name Blunstone and Argent, touring quickly led to a new album, “Out Of The Darkness.” Argent continues, “Very soon, promoters started billing us as The Zombies, although when we started we very consciously did very little Zombies material. But we started rediscovering our own back catalog, and we gradually started to really enjoy doing things, and doing things we didn’t necessarily play live the first time around — certainly anything to do with ‘Odessey,’ because we’d broken up before it came out, but other stuff, early B-sides that we’d never done onstage. We started really enjoying doing these things and exploring, so we really, in an evolutionary sort of way, grew into quite a lot of The Zombies’ back catalog,”
They toyed, too, with selections from the Argent repertoire (see sidebar), as Argent explains. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that there was a very strong connection between The Zombies and Argent. ‘Hold Your Head Up’ [Argent’s biggest international hit] was Chris White’s song; I had some input into it, but it was really his. Even Colin’s solo hits, like ‘I Don’t Believe In Miracles,’ that was written by [Argent frontman] Russ Ballard, it was produced by Chris and myself, and the original band on it included me, Russ and Jim Rodford ... who was in Argent, and who was also at the very first rehearsal of The Zombies in 1961. We asked him to be in the band on the first day, and it took him years to say yes. So there is a real connection between everything we do, and that evolved.”
A new, largely orchestral, album, “As Far As I Can See,” was released in 2004, but Argent shrugs it off. “It was deliberately done as Colin’s voice with strings; it was made to be that.” The DVD and CD “Live at the Bloomsbury Theatre” captures this period of the band’s life exquisitely, although Argent is adamant that there can be no comparison between that album and the latest. “This new album is very much back to a group-sounding album.”
That same year, sadly, saw the death of original Zombies guitarist Atkinson; the surviving four members, however, reunited in 2008 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of ‘Odessey and Oracle.’ Three shows in London included one that was filmed for a live CD and DVD, and anybody wondering whether an album that had never been performed live could transition to the stage after so many decades of studio purity found the question answered with a resounding “yes.”
The album’s continued popularity gratifies Argent, of course. But he also appreciates then irony.
“We made it in 1967, even though everything came out a bit later in the States, and nobody really wanted to know. The reviews at the time were really good, but it didn’t sell; not even with ‘Time Of The Season’ being a big hit in most places around the world (but not the U.K., which we were getting pretty used to).
“In spite of that, the album didn’t really log up substantial figures anywhere. But about 15 years later, it started to gather momentum, and one of the reasons for that, certainly in the U.K., was that Paul Weller took up the cause for the album, and then lots of people on both sides of the Atlantic started making it as one of their major influences, and that’s gone right up until the present day.
“Just last year, we did a Scandinavian TV program, and the guys who were filming us said they’d just done this broadcast with Dave Grohl and they have this feature on there, ‘What’s the track that changed your life?’, and he said ‘Care of Cell 44.’ And that was literally only last year.
“All this time, a lot of young contemporary bands, right from when Paul Weller started talking about it, have been kind enough to say nice things about it, and that has gradually turned on subsequent generations and that has spread the word. Obviously when we gig, we sometimes play to older audiences. But sometimes we play to very young audiences, and we find ourselves playing to a club of 700 people all aged around 25, all of whom know every word.”
Now those audiences have a new album to learn. Singling out the band’s latest member, Tom Toomey, who replaced Airey in 2010, as one of the stars of the show (“but everybody plays really terrific on it”), he laughs, “we’re a real band again … and of course Colin and I have been together again for 10 years. The original band, even with all the semi-professional stuff beforehand, was only six years, but strangely enough, this year is the 50th anniversary of our first rehearsal, when Colin and I first got together. But the band is great, and that’s because we’ve done it for the right reasons. We did it because it was such a buzz, and the band grew into itself.”
Read more. Here is Dave Thompson's own personal anthology of Rod Argent's band Argent: Dreaming Is Free: An imaginary Argent anthology