Rod Argent, The Zombies and John Lennon’s mellotron: interview

The Zombies British 1960 band black and white picture

The Zombies in the 1960s – © to the owners

This man and the rock band he founded in the 1960s are legends; together with The Tremeloes, The Merseybeats, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Animals, Christie and – of course – The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Rod Argent’s Zombies have made the history of the British Invasion, touring the United States in the mid-60s after reaching worldwide success with smashing hits such as Time Of The Season and She’s Not There.

The Beatles did actually bring The Zombies luck when – after recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the London Abbey Road Studios in 1967 – they left behind a mellotron; the musical instrument belonged to John Lennon and was later used by The Zombies to record their fortunate second studio album Odessey and Oracle, which was also made at Abbey Road.

The Zombies were confirmed as music legends in 2019 through their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame alongside artists such as Stevie Nicks, Janet Jackson, Radiohead, The Cure, Def Leppard and Roxy Music.

The Zombies today Colin Blunstone Rod-and Rod Argent By Payley Photographyr

The Zombies today (Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent) © to the owners

The Zombies’ founder and keyboardist Rod Argent we had the pleasure to interview today will be touring the UK with fellow band members Colin Blunstone, Steve Rodford, Tom Toomey and Søren Koch in 2023.

Rod, congratulations on The Zombies’ induction into the Hall of Fame.

Oh, thank you so much! Yes, it was a real honour I have to say that we had a great time in March last year when we were able to play in the induction concert with The Cure and Def Leppard, Radiohead and Stevie Nicks and Janet Jackson, and everyone was fantastic. It was a beautifully mounted concert, it was just great. A big honour. Ad there are a couple of things I enjoyed so much about it. First of all, I knew it was going to be a big concert; HBO aired it nationally, and it went out to thousands of people, and the quality of the technicians is something you always worry about because you don’t know how you going to come across, but they did a really great job on television. They really knew what they were doing, and that is great. The TV show was actually a very big accomplishment: the sound was terrific, the visuals were terrific, and the whole thing was really beautifully put together. That was great. The other thing that really surprised me is how lovely all the other inductees were. Even people I would never imagine… ever members of The Cure I would never have thought that would see us as any sort of influence, said “Oh, we just wanted to tell you that we have always been influenced by you”, and I this is really lovely. Everybody said that, and Def Leppard asked Colin and me to join him on stage for the last song at the end of the whole evening, and so we joined him to play All The Young Dudes to finish the show. It was just the whole thing, it was just a really lovely experience. It was great.

What people should expect from the upcoming Zombies’ tour? 

What you get is the mix we always sought we could give, so all the big hits that people imagine – we’re still into them – such as Time Of The Seasons and She’s Not There, probably Tell Her No, but also the Argent’s song Hold Your Head Up. Then we would always do some very abstruse Zombies’ songs that often are not played, and maybe three or four songs from Odessy and Oracle, but then also, probably three songs from our latest album Still Got That Hunger which came out in 2015. Also, we’ve just started recording a new album, we have three songs already virtually finished and we would certainly play at least two of these new songs as well, so it would be a mixture of all our material. You know, one of the three songs we have recorded really sounds like a single to me, so I hope other people will agree with that… we will see! I hope those three songs including the one I’m talking about – probably a single – I hope that they’ll be absolutely finished by that day, and then they’ll just have to be mixed. And I really hope they can become real singles, yeah!

There have been lots of rumours about where the band name came from, but I want it confirmed by you, so: where did the name Zombies come from??

So, when we started, back in 1961, it was really hard to get an original name and the first couple of names people came up with were very boring, very ordinary. For a couple of weeks, we were called the Sound Albans, and I’m sure at least half a thousand other bands were being called the Sound Albans at that time because it was the title of a movie. Then, eventually, the only guy ever to leave the band in that first incarnation came up with the name Zombies. Back then, nobody actually knew what a zombie was because there were no zombie films in 1961, but I sort of basically knew what a zombie was. And I loved it because I thought that first of all, it sounded a little bit exotic, and secondly, I thought that if you think of The Beatles, no one really thinks of insects running across the room, or even a play on the word beat: they just think of John, George, Paul and Ringo. And I thought that if we were lucky enough to get a little bit of success, then people would think about the name Zombies in a way that nobody else would have it, and that would be a name that people would just associate with the guys in the band. And that’s exactly what happened, so it worked really well for us!

The Zombies recorded their second album at the Abbey Road Studios in London, and you used a mellotron which had been left there by John Lennon after The Beatles had recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band two months earlier in that same studio; any memories you’d like to share about it?

It was a wonderful experience recording there, particularly because we had become very frustrated about the way our singles were being produced. The two writers in the band, which were myself and Chris White very much wanted to produce by ourselves so we could get our own ideas about how our songs should sound on record. And that’s what we did, even though the album wasn’t successful at first, it took a long time to sound mature. And strangely enough, it sounds more like this now than when it first came out, even with the fact that Time Of The Seasons became a number one record in many places in the world, the actual experience of recording was terrific. And there was a very strange coincidence, which was that we recorded as you said at the Abbey Road Studios and we used John Lennon’s mellotron, as it turned out that the studio where we were recording was designed acoustically by the same guy that designed The Beatles’ studios, so that’s a real coincidence!

You are a musician, a singer, a songwriter, a composer, a producer… what is your favourite role?

Out of those, my favourite role is definitely being a musician, but also producing – as long as I’m producing my own stuff. I’m lucky enough to have had some success producing other people, and I really enjoyed it at the time, I produced the first Tanita Tikaram’s album and the second Tanita Tikaram’s album, which sold a massive number of copies, but that’s not something I would like to do anymore: I’m too selfish! I just want to give all my time to producing stuff I’ve written myself now, haha.

What star sign are you?

I’m Gemini.

Makes sense.

Does it? Haha.

What was your dream job as a child?

I wanted to be a musician. Really. From the age of about eight or nine, I wanted to be a musician. When, in 1956, I heard Elvis Presley singing Hound Dog, I was completely blown away by the early rock ‘n’ roll – Elvis, Little Richard and so on. And then very quickly after that, I went into blues, particularly Ray Charles, his early stuff and many of the great black singers – I really enjoyed them. At the time, I was also very much into jazz, even while I was passionate about rock ‘n’ roll, and then I got passionate about the most favourite groups of that time, of around 1958… so it sounds like a very rich life in the sense of being able to love all those different sources of music… so that’s definitely what I’ve always wanted to be.

Did you have a plan B in terms of your career? 

Well, yeah, in the sense that I had the normal sort of schoolboy’s dream…

… to be a footballer?

Yes! When I was about 10 or 11 I wanted to be a footballer, and I enjoyed playing football very much. I actually had a place at university when I left school and I would have gone on studying Literature, this was my sort of plan B… but I really wanted to become professional with the group first. This is what I wanted to do. But yes, apart from music, the only flair that I had was writing, so that’s the only other thing I could imagine myself doing, maybe being an English teacher or a journalist.

Journalism is a tough life. 

Haha! No, listen, I actually love good journalism! It’s fantastic… I’m not putting down that career at all. It’s just that for me, my passion was music, but I love good journalism and I love reading great writing and novels, but for me, my passion was always one thing, so if I could, I wanted a career in music. And I’m really blessed that I’d been able to live a good living all my life playing music. It’s such a privilege.

What do you think of tv shows like The X Factor?

I never watch them because I don’t really like them very much, to be honest. Maybe I’m too old. I think in a sense, if you just asked anybody who was in music when I was young – if you went into a classroom or something like that – and said to people “What would you most like to be?”, people would say something like: “I want to be a rock ‘n’ roll musician”, or “I want to be in the best band in the world”, and that sort of things. But these days, if that question is asked, people would say: “I want to be famous”: this seems to be what people want more than anything else now, and for its own sake, rather than being famous as a result of being fantastically good – in your imagination – in what you want to do. So that’s a real difference now, and it seems sometimes that people in The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent just want to be famous for doing just anything, and that is the goal in itself. I think it’s insane.

Would you like to add anything else at all?

The Zombies 2023 Tour

The Zombies, 2023 Tour

I only want to say that all of us in the band are really only doing this for one reason, and that’s because we still love creating music and one of the biggest parts is always playing something new at a live show and seeing the audience’s reaction, but this doesn’t mean that we don’t like to play any of our old songs… we do. But, as we would say when we were 18 years old, there’s nothing as exciting as getting up on stage and playing something you’ve just put together, so we are still excited and passionate about the new stuff… and I just wanted to mention that!

★ If you are into the British Invasion music and early American rock, you may also like our interview with Jeff Christie, The Merseybeats’ Tony Crane, Pat Boone (remember Speedy Gonzales?), the man who introduced The Beatles to Brian Epstein: Bill Harry of Mersey Beat, Gerry’s Pacemakers, Maggie Bell of Stone the Crows, Len “Chip” Hawkes of The Tremeloes and John Steel of The Animals 

★ Also, read Part 7 of this to see what we found out about the Paul is Dead conspiracy theory

★ For more stories about the past of rock ‘n’ roll, also have a look at our interview with Danny Zelisko, the concert promoter who has worked with everybody, from Stevie Wonder to Alice Cooper, from Whitney Houston to Pink Floyd

★ In 2021, Rod Argent took part in a cover of Robbie Williams’s Angels for charity purposes together with The Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock and Spandau Ballet’s Steve Norman whom we both interviewed

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Founder of The Shortlisted Magazine

The one behind the wheel.