The Zombies are back on tour this fall, and co-founder Rod Argent is excited to be out on the road doing what he does best –– reaching new audiences with mesmerizing keyboard solos on classic tracks including “Time of the Season” and “Hold Your Head Up.” Last year, the Zombies celebrated the 50th anniversary of their beloved 1967 album Odessey and Oracle with TV appearances and shows on the East Coast. Original Zombies members Argent and lead vocalist Colin Blunstone (along with a full band) are on a run of West Coast dates beginning at the legendary Fillmore in San Francisco September 7. Keyboard chatted with Rod Argent about his storied history as a rock composer and performer ––and his love for the keys.
In the 20th century, pianos sold by the hundreds of thousands per year, but now, people can’t wait to get rid of them. There are even specific “graveyards” for the traditional wooden piano. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?
Small keyboards are portable and controllable and you never have to tune them. So, in a way I understand why the piano is dying out. I use keyboards on stage, but when Colin (Blunstone) and I do the occasional acoustic performance, I will always try to use an acoustic piano. Even though you’re mic-ing it up, every time you play a sequence or combination of notes and chords, the sympathetic vibrations from the other notes in the piano give a slightly different timbre to what you’re playing, and that’s something you cannot get out of a sample.
You’re best known for organ and electronic keyboard sounds, but me tell me a little bit more about your enduring fascination with the acoustic instrument.
I do have a love of the piano as an instrument. It was a dream of mine, my whole life really, to acquire a Steinway Model D Concert Grand, particularly the German one. I did that about nine years ago, and I play it every day. I absolutely love it. I’m self-taught, like lots of people, but in 1999 when I decided to walk away from production and before I got back together with Colin to play live (as The Zombies) again, a very dear friend of mine who is a classical musician suggested I do a piano album called Rod Argent, Classically Speaking. I didn’t think I could do it, but he persuaded me, and I played the music on a Steinway, a Bosendorfer, and others. Three tracks were my own compositions but the rest included Chopin studies, Ravel, and some of my favorite pieces. There’s no way that recording could have been made on a sampled instrument. To get the nuances and the timbre, you can’t beat an acoustic piano.
The Zombies feature piano, organ, Mellotron, harpsichord and all sorts of sounds. How did you decide which to use?
When I first started out back then, there was nothing else available except an acoustic piano. [Although I love it], I couldn’t wait to leave that scenario. Generally, the pianos that were available for practice or in venues in the early days were a semitone down from concert pitch, which threw all sorts of curves into our performances. Secondly, you couldn’t hear me onstage unless I did a sort of Jerry Lee Lewis lift. My vanity meant that I was doing that all night long, and the quick of my nail would be completely bleeding. I’d put plaster on it halfway through the evening and Colin would always judge how good the gig was by the amount of blood!
That’s what led you to electronic instruments?
That’s when I discovered the Hohner Pianet (Mk 1), a fantastic instrument. It had sticky pads that hit the tine, stuck to it, and the pressure would become too much and the tine would break away like “boooong,” and that was the way the note was produced. You could hear me onstage for the first time. Mine [used on the Zombies’ classic, “She’s Not There”] was played so often it lost its stickiness action and bits of hair would get caught in there and also moisture. I would have to take the top of the piano off and blow it dry with a hair dryer before going on stage. That instrument was used all over the early Zombies records, it was very biting. Manfred Mann had one, and I think even The Beatles used those instruments in the early days, too. Even with the band Argent, I still used [the Mk1 occasionally]. I loved the sound of it, but today I can’t find one that sounds the same. I always remember in the 1970s when Argent supported Chick Corea on tour. One night, Chick walked into the dressing room and I was in the middle of drying my keys with a hair dryer. [Laughs] I had to talk him through what I was doing. He was lovely about it.
What other gear did you love?
After the Pianet, I got a Vox Continental. But by that time, I’d already heard Jimmy Smith on “Walk on the Wild Side” and was just blown away with the grit and the soul and the excitement of the Hammond B-3. Years later, the Mellotron came about when we started recording Odessey and Oracle [at EMI Studios, now known as Abbey Road]. We walked in virtually the day after the Beatles walked out after having finished Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. We used studio 3, and we had the same engineers. Without asking anyone, we just used the instruments which had been left lying around. The Mellotron was there, and in my head at that moment it seemed like a cheaper alternative to a string section, which we couldn’t have afforded at that point. That instrument had its own character completely [listen to The Zombies’ “Changes”]. Recording with the Mellotron at Abbey Road was a great piece of happenstance I’m still pleased about.
Soloing is a lost art. Instrumental solos aren’t found in the structure of most rock and pop songs today. Did you always compose your solos ahead of time or was it more organic and improvisational? And how does it feel to play those solos onstage in 2018?
If you play all the alternative takes of our studio recordings of [The Zombies’] “She’s Not There” and “Time of the Season” and [Argent’s] “Hold Your Head Up,” you’ll hear that they are totally different. They were all completely improvised. It’s an inevitable process. When you play something many times, an improvisation seems to gradually coalesce into something which is not identical but has the same sort of signposts. That used to worry me, but I read an article by one of my heroes, Bill Evans, who said exactly the same thing: a solo is improvised the first time it happens and that’s the joy of it, and then it takes a shape [thereafter]. It’s important that playing solos should be a natural reaction to whatever’s going on around you in the moment. This is one of the musical things that is a joy for me [on tour right now]: I get to keep things fresh. Having done “Time of the Season” a million times, night after night, I throw something different in there to keep the other guys on their toes. They react, and we can suddenly go somewhere else in the song. If, in one night out of five, you’re able to go to a completely different place in the moment, that feels great.