ROD ARGENT: THE ZOMBIES – HUNG UP ON A DREAM
After a three-year delay caused by Covid and illness, The Zombies finally release their new studio album, ‘Dropped Reeling & Stupid’, eight years on from their last release. Over half a century after their highly influential yet commercially unsuccessful album, ‘Odessey & Oracle’, the new record follows the band’s classic blueprint whilst incorporating new elements to their sound with the help of a strong new lineup and production team. Following The Zombies’ live stream from Abbey Road studios in 2021 during which they performed some of the new tracks for the first time, they play SXSW festival, also premiering a new feature film entitled ‘Hung Up On A Dream’ – a retrospective documentary of the band that leads up to its current phase. After interviewing vocalist Colin Blunstone in 2021, I now speak to band co-founder and keyboard extraordinaire, Rod Argent, about the new album and tour, recording with John Lennon’s Mellotron, constructing The Zombies’ most commercially successful single to date and what it was like being stranded in the Arizona desert for five hours.
Congratulations on the new album. You played at Abbey Road studios in 2021. What did it feel like emotionally to be playing there again 50 years after recording ‘Odessey & Oracle’ there?
I’ve got some really lovely memories of Abbey Road. In fact one of the lovely memories I’ve got is all this stuff I did with Argent my second band; a lot of that was done at Abbey Road as well. We got in touch with some of the most wonderful engineers for ‘Odessey & Oracle’: working with people like Jeff Emerick and Peter Vince was just a joy. They were very special sound engineers and the whole thing about Abbey Road is that perfect combination of old school and experimentation; certainly during the 60s, you had the best of both worlds. It felt like just being there yesterday; so familiar, because I’ve actually done quite a few things at Abbey Road. The ‘Odessey & Oracle’ album was the first time that we’d been in a situation where we produced our own album; we were in complete control of how everything should sound. So it was a very happy experience all around and the help that we got from the engineers there was terrific; they were always so friendly. Nothing was hard; it was lovely to just revisit.
And also you played some of the new album tracks, was that the first time you had played those?
It was and that was scary – really scary. Because like everyone else we’d just been through COVID; we hadn’t played for two years. I’m not sure that we could even get together and rehearse before we did it. We just walked in and played the first couple of tracks on the live show. That was very hairy. But we settled in after two or three tracks and then started to really enjoy a more comfortable experience – it was lovely.
The flowers in ‘Time of The Season’ were very strange…
It was very strange and was supposed to be a surprise for us, so we had no idea what was coming.
Can you share some of your memories of the 50th anniversary of ‘Odessey & Oracle’ tour?
Initially it was Chris White’s idea – we hadn’t really played for many, many years – that we should get the original guys back together again and do one concert at Shepherd’s Bush in 2008. We agreed to do that and we thought it was going to be quite a small, intimate affair but I very much wanted that, if we were going to do it, we should actually do it by reproducing every single overdub and note that was on the original album. We also got our current incarnation, everyone from the current band as well, working on those shows so that we could double up and use every harmony that was on the original album. We got Darian Sahanaja (Wondermints) who knows the original Mellotron that I did, better than I did, and he did the most wonderful job playing the parts; we even got Chris [White’s] wife to tape some of the high falsetto that I did on the original album, because we had more tracks than the original four tracks that we used to record back in the very early days. It was a very happy experience.
It sold out completely at Shepherd’s Bush; it turned out to be a three-day experience. But I remember an hour before we went on really getting scared: I thought this could be the worst night of my life because if it doesn’t work – we only had one rehearsal – it’s just gonna be awful and I’d want the place to swallow me up. Our manager of the time came backstage and said Snow Patrol and Robert Plant are here. Oh my God! I hope this is not a disaster if it doesn’t work. Someone said Paul Weller’s lining up outside in the queue and it’s raining. I said, “For God’s sake bring him in!” He came in and was absolutely delightful; this makes panicking worse. But I could tell within the first 10 minutes on stage that this was going to work beautifully and we had the most glorious night. So one night turned into three and then people started talking about us reprising it. Paul Weller had tickets for all three nights and bought us some wonderful champagne. I remember him saying, “That was really fantastic, but don’t keep doing it will you?” I completely agreed with that. But somehow we found ourselves doing a reprising the following year touring around the UK, and then the American management said we’ve got to mount this in America. I remember us saying we’ll do it; we’ll make this the 50th anniversary celebration. This was two or three years later and that will be it; after that year we won’t ever do that, but we’d dedicate the year to that. We did a big tour of America and Europe as well and it was hugely successful. We had this big entourage with us – 15 people on stage – because as I said, we wanted to reprise every single note from the original album and I think that we did that really successfully. So it was a lovely experience, but that was enough. That was more than 50 years ago now.
Why did you postpone your UK tour dates?
We couldn’t finish [the album] until COVID was over because it was very important to us to all be in the same room together in a way that we used to record many years ago, so that all the musicians can bounce off each other. I thought that was very, very important and that it was a self-produced album. I produced it with Dale Hanson and Mark was our live sound engineer; we had a ball producing it. So after COVID allowed us all to get back in the studio again, we got everything finished. It was a year before the release of the album because the management company had to get the right record company, do all the procedure that has to go into a record being finished off and mastered. We got that all in place. It was driving me mad that it couldn’t come out.
I also had to have a small operation on my eye. This UK tour that we’re doing now is the third attempt of the original tour. We haven’t played in the UK for so long. We just did 75 gigs last year in the US and Europe. This is just a postponed version and we finally got there. But it was because of various health things and then COVID came onto the scene as well: a couple of guys got COVID and then Colin and I got COVID. It’s just this weird time that everybody’s been through.
You’ve got SXSW coming up and you’re premiering a feature documentary there?
I’m really looking forward to SXSW, that’s where the album is going to be premiered. We’ve played there before. The first time I played it I was very worried about that as well. I thought, “Oh my God! The night we’re playing, Prince is virtually next door.” We had a great time; it went down stupendously well. What was a real factor in part of the Renaissance that we’ve recently had in America was just extraordinary. We’ve played really big places in America now. When we first went over there, we were playing to just a handful of people down south. Now places are rammed and we can have audiences of thousands, which is great. I’m really looking forward to SXSW and I’m glad the album is being premiered there.
I’m really looking forward to seeing the documentary but because we were managed so badly when we started, there’s almost no live footage of us through this, especially in those early years. I was wondering how it would turn out. The [director] was very committed though; Robert Schwartzman [is] very pleased with what he’s got. Our management was very excited about it because [SXSW] have to see the film and agree that they want to premiere it there, so they must have reacted really well to it. I’m crossing my fingers.
You were more commercially successful in America, do you see the resonance of that today?
The extraordinary thing is in America we always have a young component in the audience. It’s not people that have just followed us from the old days; we have people of all ages in the audience. Thank God for that – that’s great. The energy you get back is fantastic. Someone did an algorithm looking at all the streams we get online and unbelievably most of our streaming audience are between the ages of 22 and 37, which I thought was absolutely amazing. So we have got a young audience as well as people that have followed us all the way through.
Is it retrospective, covering your whole history as a band? Did they talk to some of the other band members from the original lineup?
Yeah, absolutely. There’ve been many, many hours of filming and us talking for very long periods of time. It’s called ‘Hung Up On A Dream’. Robert Schwartzman is an enormous fan of ‘Odessey & Oracle’. That was his primary feeling about it, but he’s also a musician and he supported us on part of a tour and took some live footage as well of some of the things that we’re doing now. He got much more interested in what’s happening now. I’m hoping it’s going to be as full a picture as possible. But yes, certainly he’s talking about the early days and a lot of coverage with Chris and Hugh [Grundy]. Sadly, Paul Atkinson is not with us anymore.
“When we first went over to America, we were playing to just a handful of people down south. Now places are rammed and we can have audiences of thousands”.
How did you get to grips with the Mellotron when you found it in the studio and how has it shaped the band over its history?
It became a very important part certainly of ‘Odessey & Oracle’. It was only there because John Lennon we believe was the guy that left it behind; The Beatles that just recorded Sergeant Pepper, walked out of the studio and a week later we were in there and I just used it. I just leapt on it really; at the time I thought this would be a great way to fill out some of the songs and we couldn’t afford an orchestra because we had a very small budget. So this would be a substitute, but it was much more than a substitute, because it has a sound of its own. In the end that was much more characteristic and interesting than a score or having someone score for us orchestral parts; it became a very personal contribution. And like on ‘Care of Cell 44’, everything was done very quickly. We didn’t have time to do an off-session set. Usually one or two passes with the Mellotron; goodness knows why it was so successful, but it did work artistically successfully. I think that some of the engineers there – Jeff Emerick and Peter Vince – were playing a big part in that because they got such a beautiful sound out of it immediately. Because we had to record ‘Odessey & Oracle’ so quickly, the tracks had a real freshness about them and all that went to add to the success of how the album was recorded and how it turned out. The whole experience was really good; the Mellotron is on half the album and I became one of the first people to use a Mellotron substantially on an album, but it wasn’t through any doing of mine – it was just because it was there.
Did you use it on this new album?
No. The whole thing about this album is that we’ve never been a ‘vintage band’. The only reason that I’ve been doing this for 20 years, this incarnation, is because I want to do things for real; I want to look forward and I want to create and go and get the energy, excitement, enjoyment and satisfaction that I get from creative writing and playing with such a great band now.
Now digitally there’s limitless tracks you can record with, but it’s interesting how you retain the same way of recording back then as a live band performance.
It’s not the question of us still doing that. I’ve produced loads of albums, for instance, I produced this album that sold four million [copies] around the world and that was done in a completely layered way. I’ve been through every form of recording and producing. But it was particularly with this album – because we were coming off that tour in America where I don’t think the band ever sounded so good and we just loved the way that the band listens to each other, the way it reacts with everything that’s going on – that we wanted to bring that approach; look back to the way we used to have to record, because there was no other way in those days, and reinvent that for ourselves. So that’s why we didn’t want to do anything remotely on this album. We wanted to wait until everyone could be in the studio together and try and capture that magic of a performance, which somehow the sum is greater than the parts.
When you work in this way you go to the old-fashioned way of recording; you’re responding to Colin’s guide vocal. He almost has always had the lead vocal, apart from ‘Dropped Reeling & Stupid’ where we swapped vocals. It means Colin sings slightly differently because he’s reacted to how we are playing; each member of the band reacts differently to what each person is playing. We just minorly adjust what we’re doing at the time to what you’re hearing. It’s a very exciting way to do it and a much more enjoyable way to perform and record; we wanted to get that and the band is good enough to do that. You have to have a good band to do that. We didn’t use any clip tracks; we just did things as we used to in the old days. That was a very conscious decision, to go back to that way of doing things and we found out that very often – like on the track ‘Dropped Reeling & Stupid’ – that was pretty much a live vocal. We kept it. We didn’t turn our back on technology at all; I’ve got all the latest stuff in my studio. And actually strangely enough, the studio was acoustically designed by John Flynn who did the Abbey Road studios. So that was a lovely association. It means that each track was recorded in its basic form in about four hours. It meant that you might do say, three or four tracks where you felt you were approaching what was really good, but it didn’t really have any sort of magic about it. And then suddenly, something will click and everyone for a few minutes is on the same wavelength; you listen back and think that’s got something special about it and you can’t quantify what that is. But it was a process that we enjoyed very, very much indeed.
“I became one of the first people to use a Mellotron substantially on an album, but it wasn’t through any doing of mine – it was just because it was there.”
There’s a track called ‘Rediscover’ where we were on tour with The Beach Boys and I just fancied writing the first part of the song – just the eight bars – as acapella vocals and do it with dissonance and some unusual voicings, because I’ve listened to The Beach Boys and really enjoying their set. I did that just for the first eight bars and then the song develops and goes into a more conventional thing. So we laid that separately, that first eight bars, because I had one to four harmonies on it. I had to tell people ‘Could you sing this?’ and then ‘Could you sing that?’ But apart from that it was live. The vocals on the rest of that song for instance – they sound really cool – were just three or four of us around one mic, going back to an old way of doing things.
When you’re songwriting, how does that relate to when you’re writing for Colin’s vocals? Does that ever come into your mind?
It always comes into my mind. We’ve been friends since we were 16-years-old and I’ve been writing my songs for Colin and his range and the characteristics of his voice; I know it so well now that I have a pretty good idea. I’m not always right: sometimes a song that I think will be so easy for him and comfortable doesn’t turn out to be and another time I think this is gonna sound great in his range. I know when he gets a certain edge in his voice; a certain pitch, I might think he’s gonna have a little bit of trouble with that and he’ll just be all over it and great. With ‘Dropped Reeling & Stupid’ it was pretty much one of the first takes that we did. Colin always says he grew up learning to sing my songs and I grew up learning to write for Colin’s voice. So that’s something that helps us, but it’s just as exciting. When we start the process of the song, if I can get excited about an idea, I’ll work it out in its primitive form by myself – just voice and piano – and then I’ll get Colin round and see if he likes it and if it sounds good with his voice and suits him; almost always the key is correct. We’re working from there and then we play it to the band. If it really starts happening with the band then it’s just really part of a very exciting process and very, very satisfying. That’s what we’re doing.
Can you tell me about your argument with Colin when you were recording ‘Time of The Season’?
That was quite funny. The track had been recorded with a guide vocal but Colin was putting the master vocal on. He was getting a bit fed up with it; he was looking at the clock and we’ll come to the end of the session. But I kept saying, “Can you just push that note a little bit or that phrase? It needs to be a bit like this.” And he said, “If you’re so fucking good, you come and it!” And I said, “Colin, come on.” But the whole thing about ‘Time of The Season’, when we did the main track not the lead vocal, we did what we rehearsed and the harmonies that we rehearsed and it sounded great. Jeff Emerick got the most fabulous sound out of the Tom Tom and bass drum; the “boom, boom, boom” and putting a backbeat to the side – “boom, boom, boom, clap, clap” – that was it really but it still sounded good. Then we had half an hour left on the session – and this is a typical thing that happens on ‘Odessey & Oracle’ – I said to Hugh, our drummer, “It sounds great. There’s a great sound on the drums but I can hear a clap just before the backbeat and an ‘ahhhh’ afterwards.” So ‘boom, boom, boom, clap, clap’ became ‘boom, boom, boom, clap, clap, ahhhh!’. I said, “Do you just wanna do that?” [Hugh] said, “No, you do it.” One take and Jeff got fantastic sound. We didn’t think anything more of it, but it became a sort of signature. Because we had a couple of extra tracks to what we were used to, we managed to put down everything that we prepared but then also, any momentary inspiration or an intuitive feeling, we could bung that on as well. There was a freshness because it had to be done so quickly; it often worked and it could be an extra harmony going over the top of something as it was in ‘Changes’ or it could be Chris saying to me, “Why don’t you try a bit of Mellotron on that bit?” And I say, “Yeah, I’m happy to do that.” It was all very quick. Such a satisfying experience.
The current lineup of the band, how does that compare to playing with the original lineup?
They’re different things. But I love the current band: I don’t think the band has ever sounded as good as it does at the moment but then they’re the band I’m on stage with all the time and it just feels very exciting to play with them. I absolutely love where the band is at the moment. I’m not putting down the original band – that had its own character and was great – but I do feel personally that the songs on this album are some of the best songs that I’ve written and some people are reacting beautifully to it saying it’s the best album that we’ve have done since ‘Odessey & Oracle’.
I can hear classic Zombies and bits of ‘Odessey & Oracle’ – was that intentional or did it just come out organically?
It’s never analysed or scrutinised; it’s just really taking an idea and trying to develop it in the way that you naturally feel it. That’s what we’ve always done. In the old days often we didn’t have immediate commercial success because we weren’t copying exactly what was the current hit and record company executives always said to us, ‘what you need to do is something a bit more like this or that.’ We’ve never done that and I couldn’t do that anyway; I wouldn’t want to. You’ve only got one life; you’ve got to try and express yourself. Not everything may come on but when you get to the end of it, you can look back and say, “Well I gave it my best shot.” I think that’s the way to approach everything.
You experimented a bit more on this album with the string arrangements. How complex was the production process with Dale Hanson?
It was very natural. I did the string arrangements myself except for ‘I Want To Fly’, which was done because Chris and I in 1970 produced an album for Colin – a solo album called ‘One Year’ – and that’s the record that he had, ‘Say You Don’t Mind’, with the strings. Chris found this wonderful classical composer who also did a lot of stuff for television and films called Chris Gunning. The marriage of Colin’s voice on that album and some very avant-garde string arrangements was just absolutely lovely. One of the favourite songs I’ve written over the past few years has been ‘I Want To Fly’ and we did record it before on another album. But I said to Colin, “I’d love to look back to the process where we did ‘One Year’” and we had Chris’ arrangement and nothing else from the band, just Chris and [Colin’s] voice. So I played the song to Chris and he loved it. I did the original orchestration on the earlier version that we did of it. Chris said, “Can I hear that?” And I said, “No, because you can’t unhear it. You might hate it or you might love it or anything in between. But I just an honest reaction to the song.” He did it and I absolutely loved what he did and the process of it; that’s why that particular track is on there.
“‘Boom, boom, boom, clap, clap’ became ‘boom, boom, boom, clap, clap, ahhhh!’ We didn’t think anything more of it, but it became a sort of signature.”
Dale put me in touch with Jessica Cox, who was part of The King Strings, which is a String Quartet. I did all the other arrangements but Chris did that one and we recorded them all. I did the Varner version, so the big organ is in a room that has got a very high ceiling – the strings sounded wonderful in there. We recorded them totally in-house. Dale and I had a great working relationship together; we absolutely loved working together. And again, as far as we could make it, the album came out sounding the way we felt the songs and we wanted them to sound; I was absolutely ecstatic about the result. I love working with Dale: he’s just a very talented guy and a lovely person too.
What was the single ‘Dropped Reeling & Stupid’ about?
It was actually triggered by a real situation. I’m not gonna say what that situation was, but it’s really about when suddenly unexpectedly, emotionally, everything is pulled. The basis of an emotional thing is just borne away without you having any idea why. It leaves you angry: you can’t explain it and you didn’t see it coming. It’s your feelings on that happening. It was a real situation – nothing to do with me I might hasten to add – but I always think that we’re all human beings and we all tend to have similar, major experiences a lot of the time; I love it when people can bring their own towards something so it’s more universal. Bernie Taupin wrote a song for Colin. Colin said, “What’s this song about, Bernie?” He said, “Whatever it means to you.” And then the other one that I remember was Bob Dylan, when someone said, “What’s this song about?” He said, “It’s about three minutes.” I love that because it’s saying ‘bring your own feelings’; if you can relate to the story, bring whatever you want to. If it affects you, that’s wonderful. It was about a particular situation that song, but it was an emotional situation. Someone was being left adrift for no reason that they could fathom.
What were you doing in the desert for five hours when your van broke down on tour in America?
We were trying to keep cool! The engine caught fire and for an hour before that there was no air conditioning because first of all it went, and then that caused the fire. We had water thank God, but we were standing outside; it could have been 112 degrees [Fahrenheit]. It was certainly in the hundreds; it might have been 108-110. I’ve been in Phoenix when it was 112 degrees so it could have easily been that. It was just horrendous. But that was the real story of what sometimes being on the road is about: it’s not all glad-rags.
The Zombies’ new studio album, ‘Dropped Reeling & Stupid’, is out now. The band tour the UK throughout April and May.
Photos © as credited or watermarked.
© Ayisha Khan.