Rod Argent of The Zombies: Records that changed my life

Anna Walker

Founding member of The Zombies, Rod Argent, shares the three records that changed his life, including Elvis Presley and Miles Davis. 

"Hound Dog" by Elvis Presley

When I was 11 years old I was very passionate about music, but I didn’t really like much of the popular music that was around. It was 1956 and it was just as rock ‘n’ roll was about to hit. I liked classical music very much and some of the big band things that I’d heard, but I wasn’t too conversant with those at that point.

My cousin [Jim Rodford] who later became the founding member of Argent with me and was in The Kinks for 18 years, he was four years older than me and he played me a Bill Haley record. I told him I half-liked it but it didn’t really do an awful lot for me so then he said to me, “Well try this”. And he played me Elvis Presley singing “Hound Dog” and it absolutely spun my world around.

"For six months I didn’t want to hear anything except the rawest rock ‘n’ roll I could lay my hands on"

For six months I didn’t want to hear anything except the rawest rock ‘n’ roll I could lay my hands on. I always think in retrospect, it was also my introduction to black music by proxy because I’d heard nothing like it before. Even in the States, a lot of the so called “race stations”, the black stations, thought that those early Presley records were by a black singer—it’s hard to imagine that now!

It had so much soul, so much feel and so much raw energy, sexual and otherwise, I absolutely fell in love with it. In three minutes, it changed my life. I still have early Elvis records on my jukebox today. I think between 1955 and 1958 his voice was absolutely transcendent.

I can remember watching early footage on the news where they were talking about this sensation, and how the conservative community in America were up in arms, saying Elvis was destroying the moral fiber of America.

I saw him playing for about 20 seconds and I thought he was like someone from an alternative universe. It was so far removed from what we [Britain] were that I couldn’t begin to imagine it.

Nine years after that, The Zombies had a number one in America with one of my very first compositions, She’s Not There. A year later, Colin [Blunstone] and I walked up the drive to Elvis’s house (cos there was no security then) and knocked on the door, bang, bang, bang and his father came to the door. He said, “Elvis isn’t here right now, he’s away filming and he’d be really sorry to have missed you, cos he loves you guys.”

I thought, He doesn’t know who the hell we are but that’s very sweet of him, real southern hospitality. Then I was telling the story in the 90s and a journalist stopped me and said, “I cannot believe that you didn’t know that Elvis in 1965 had two or three of your records”. I was absolutely lost for words, I couldn’t believe it.

 

"Milestones" by Miles Davis

I remember, I was wandering down an artificial lake in some huge grounds in St Albans one spring evening to get the bus home—I was probably only about 14 or 15—I heard some bebop coming through somebody’s bedroom window and I thought, that sounds amazing!

To my ears at that age it was very, very strange, but I was completely fascinated with it. I bought an EP—because I couldn’t afford an album—of Miles Davis’s “Milestones” and that turned out to be a very important record for me for many reasons. I can still sing all the solos today. That was a year before he released “Kind of Blue”, one of the most seminal jazz albums of all time.

The “Kind of Blue” album was based on modes rather than chords and “Milestones” was Davis’s first foray into that. He based the improvisation and composition of that piece of music on a mode rather than a chord sequence, which bebop and all of jazz had done up to that point. I absolutely loved it, but I didn’t think of it as having anything in common with rock ‘n’ roll at the time. Many years later, I realised that it had indirectly influenced the writing of “She’s Not There”, which became our first number one.

The reason I found out was because a jazz musician that I vaguely knew when I was in New York, took me to see Pat Metheny. It was right at the start of his career, so he was playing a very small theatre that probably only housed about 75 people. I was completely knocked out by his performance, and afterwards I went backstage. The jazz musician I was with, who hardly knew who I was and certainly didn’t know who I played with, said, “Oh this is Rod Argent”, and Pat Metheny said, “Rod Argent, you wrote ‘She’s Not There’. That was the record that made me feel I had a way ahead doing what I wanted to do.” And then he said it was because of, “All the modal influences.”

"I didn’t in a million years think I was trying to put some Miles Davis in the song, I thought we were being The Beatles or something"

I thought there was nothing modal about “She’s Not There”, but then I went back and played it through and realised that what I’d thought of as a simple chord sequence at the beginning, was actually approached and played in a way that was based on a mode. I didn’t in a million years think I was trying to put some Miles Davis in the song, I thought we were being The Beatles or something, but in fact because I’d listened to so much of “Milestones” and then later “Kind of Blue”, It was completely intuitive and indirect.

All the stuff that was going on in jazz at that time was wonderful. I think it was a wonderful time for music generally actually.

 

"Please Please Me" by The Beatles

After my cousin, Jim Rodford, turned me onto rock and roll, I went to see his band—which was one of the first electric bands in the whole of the south of England—and I was so knocked out. It was almost like the hero worship of an older brother. I thought, I have to be in a band as soon as I can.

I did form a band, when I was 15 which became The Zombies. I hardly knew anyone involved with it but it just sort of worked. A year after we formed, The Beatles came out. It’s so difficult to be able to describe the volcanic effect that they had when all the musicians and bands first heard them. Their music was honest, it was tough but wonderfully intuitive with the compositional talents of Lennon and McCartney. It just blew us all away.

"I stayed up till about 2am just willing Radio Luxembourg to play it again"

The very first thing of theirs I heard was “Love Me Do”, in I think 62. I’m not choosing that one cos I thought it was interesting, but it didn’t knock my socks off. Their next single and everything since though…

When I first heard “Please, Please Me” I was completely blown away and at that time there was nowhere to hear these records on the radio. Radio Luxemburg was going in 62 but the pirate [radio stations] didn’t start until 64, which was very good timing for The Zombies when we started recording. But I heard “Please, Please Me” and that night, I put Radio Luxemburg on and even though I was at school still and had to do homework and be up early the next morning, I stayed up till about 2am just willing them to play it again.

That record had an enormous effect on me. It was the first time I heard the wonderful musicianship, the joy of their early writing that sounded like it almost couldn’t be contained, and that wonderful ecstasy that came in parts of the song. It was so full of energy and love for what they were doing, something I don’t think they ever lost actually, in spite of everything that went on. That had a huge effect on how we approached our songs then too.

McCartney and Lennon grew up writing together, in the same way that Colin and I did. He always says he grew up learning to sing by singing the songs I was writing, and I always think that I was learning to write songs with Colin’s voice in mind. There’s that thing where you’re really joined together because of where you were and how old you were.

The Zombies are touring throughout June. Visit thezombiesmusic.com for tour dates and ticket information