The city of St Albans has long been known for its affinity with music: it's the home of several modern bands including Enter Shikari and Trash Boat. It's also where Tim Rice penned the lyrics for Jesus Christ Superstar. But long before then,
a band was formed, pretty much by chance that has gone on to have a huge impact on rock music. The Zombies were at the heart of the 1960s British Invasion successfully cracking the American market, where they still have a
strong following to this day. Their initial success was short-lived, they disbanded in December 1967 a short while before the release of the now acclaimed Odessey and Oracle album the following year. The song Time Of The Season propelled them back to number 3 in the American charts, but it was too late, The Zombies had split and one of the iconic British bands of the 60s remained nascent.
However, it's wasn't all doom and gloom, Tom Petty, Dave Grohl and Paul Weller have all extolled The Zombies influence on their own music, keeping the band in the public consciousness. With a loyal fan base, Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent have kept The Zombies alive in more recent times before officially reforming in 2004. The band have since toured America at least once a year and performed frequent gigs in the UK. They have also just released a new album, Still Got That Hunger, and are back on tour once again.
Legendary bass player, Jim Rodford of Argent and The Kinks has played with The Zombies since their reformation. Despite being Rod Argent's cousin, Jim eschewed teaming up with Rod and his band at the time. In a rare interview, Jim talks about his role in The Zombies formation, bandmates and his long career as a musician.
It all began in April 1961 when a group of local lads met up for their first rehearsal. Jim was in a skiffle band called The Bluetones, the biggest band in St
Albans at the time and they performed all over the county. Rod, who is five years younger than Jim, failed to see the impact of this new American style music until years later. “He (Rod) wasn't bothered about rock and roll, he was into classical music and was in the Abbey Choir.” Rod's musical origins stood him in good stead and it wasn't long before his talent would be noticed. “ He won a talent contest on the Butlins circuit. That would be like the X Factor is now, it wasn't on television, but it was the equivalent” Back in the 1950s the Brits rarely went abroad for holidays so Butlins was the place to go to for the British holidaymaker. Back then Butlins was much bigger there were more camps, so to win a talent contest was a big deal! Jim tells me, “I won it one year singing Blue Moon. But another year Rod entered on holiday with his Mum, Dad and Sister. He played Summertime instrumentally. He played it in the normal way, then in a jazz way, then in a classical way and he won the whole competition nationally because of that talent.” Jim now sites his cousin as “one of the worlds best keyboard players” and listening to The Zombies playing it's not hard to see why.
Back in the late 50s and early 60s, Jim being that much older could see the development of Rod's musical education. Despite being more focused on jazz and classical music at the time, as Rod got older, he would attend a lot of Bluetones gigs and would listen and observe. Jim recalls Rod's Damascene moment. "He said to me one day 'I've finally sussed what rock and roll is about, I love it.'" Once this transition had been made, there was one next step: to form a band. Rod first asked Jim if he would join his fledgeling outfit but Jim turned down the opportunity because he was already tied up with the successful Bluetones, but he did offer to help.
Rod had already found some local boys he knew who might be interested in starting a band. During the Easter holidays of 1961, Jim took them to the old Pioneer Club in Hatfield Road where The Bluetones used to keep all their equipment. “I helped them set the stuff up, none of them knew what to do!” Rod knew Hugh Grundy from St Albans School, he played snare drum in the air force band and was chosen by Rod because when he saw him march he had the best sense of rhythm. Paul Atkinson was chosen from the school folk club for guitar and Paul Arnold on bass, shortly replaced by Chris White after Arnold lost interest. When Jim arrived outside The Blacksmith Arms pub to pick up Colin Blunstone, he had him taped as a bit of a hooligan. "He had a broken nose and looked like a real ruffian," Jim recalls with a wry smile. It turns out that he had broken his nose playing rugby, and injuries aside, having spoken with Colin on several occasions he's one of the loveliest people in the business.
The band's first rehearsal took place at The Pioneer Club, originally on the site of the St Albans Museum. Rod was planning on being the lead singer with Colin on guitar. Jim explains what happened that day during a rehearsal break that made everything slot into place. "There was a piano and Rod started to play Nut Rocker by Bee Bumble and The Stingers. Colin said 'you have to play the piano', Rod said 'there are no pianos in bands!' Of course, he soon changed his mind. After the break Colin sang a Ricky Nelson song and Rod thought that Colin was a better vocalist and took over, that's how it started." Jim would take them to the occasional gig in his car and lend them The Bluetones equipment as they didn't have any of their own and Rod would use the piano in the halls where they played. Armed with a distinctive name as unique as their music The Zombies came into being quite literally a pioneering force in modern music.
The turning point for the band was in 1963 when they won a talent contest at Watford Town Hall (now The Watford Colosseum) and the first prize was a recording session in Decca studios in Hampstead where they laid down a demo. "They were going to record Summertime as a single as they always played that live but Rod thought he'd try and write a song before they went into the studio." Despite only previously writing one song, Rod was encouraged by producer Ken Jones to write some original material and inspired by the title of a John Lee Hooker album track, No One Told Me: the result was She's Not There. It was released by their record label Decca in 1964 and shot up to number 2 on the Billboard charts and number 1 on Cash Box. Rod Argent's jazzy influences made the song stand out in popular music and was unlike anything else around at the time.
Jim remembers his reaction to hearing their transatlantic success, "it felt like reaching Mars! A little local band that I knew as young friends. It was absolutely sensational." At this time the boys were all lined up to go to college. Rod was going to defer his place for a year, but Jim tells me Paul Atkinson's Dad was adamant that he went, after all, rock was a fad and sure to be going nowhere. At this point, Rod again asked Jim to step in for guitar duties. "I could play a bit of guitar, but I wasn't good enough to hold down the lead guitar position, so I said no." Luckily Paul's Dad relented and they went off to America and the rest, as they say, is history.
By 1967 the sun was setting on the golden boys of the Brit invasion. They had spent most of the last three years touring and any new material they had released failed commercially, in part due to the sophisticated nature of the music they were recording – populist catchy songs were the order of the day and chart success was everything. According to Jim the band had decided to call it a day, but were persuaded by Chris White to record one last album "so not to leave the band hanging." Without the constraints of a record company forcing their creativity and knowing that this record would culminate in their severance, they were free to make the album they wanted.
In June 1967 the band headed to Abbey Road studios to record Odessey and Oracle. "They were the first non-EMI act that had been allowed to record at Abbey Road, but they loved The Zombies and had a few connections." Now signed to CBS/Columbia Records the band set about recording their second album. A turbulent recording period was made worse by the single, Care Of Cell 44, being released unnoticed. Things didn't improve with CBS boss Clive Davis' attitude towards the band. Jim recalls, " Clive said 'the Zombies don't mean anything anymore. I don't think we should put the album out.'"
With their musical legacy hanging in the balance, it appeared that The Zombies would forever be one-hit wonders, until musician and producer Al Kooper, who was working with Davis at the time, picked up a copy of the album in London. "Al Kooper loved it, he said 'this album is incredible, you can't not put this out.'[sic]" Davis relented on Kooper's advice but issued the album without any promo, press or publicity. They released four singles from the album; Care of Cell 44, Friends Of Mine and Butchers Tale, each without publicity and promotion - of course, nothing happened. A fourth single, Time Of The Season was released as the last chance saloon.
"There was one DJ in Boise, Idaho that kept playing the song. They kept playing it and it spread." The song took 6 months to make an impact but again saw the hit rise up to the top of the Cash Box chart and make number 1 in Canada. "They say you make your own luck. It's not luck, it's quality. You listen to it now. It's magic. It's a magical single." The influence on the song lives on even today. In 2013 Eminem used the song for his single Rhyme or Reason, bringing the track to a whole new generation.
Disillusioned with the reception of the album the group disbanded as planned; Paul went on to become a successful A&R man, Hugh left the music industry, Chris turned to A&R and production, Colin went to a day job selling insurance before embarking on a successful solo career in the 70s and Rod went on to form Argent, all were unaware of the waves that Time Of The Season was making in the US. There were even 'fake' Zombies performing the band's songs in small gigs in the States. Promoter Bill Graham tried to encourage the band, albeit unsuccessfully, to come back to reap the rewards of their new found glory. He even suggested that Rod Argent come over to America billed as 'The New Zombies.' Jim explains that Rod was no longer interested in that part of his musical carer. “ Rod said 'I'm going forward, I'm not going back.'”
The retrospective success of that album has helped enormously with the band's popularity. “Odessey and Oracle has really helped us in the last fifteen years. We've never been to Italy before, we went with Argent, but not with The Zombies. It's a difficult market for British Acts. It's a lot to do with that album and the fact that we are still credible.” Jim says modestly. It is certainly true that the band still have a quality musical output and they tour more frequently than a lot of young bands. Odessey and Oracle is now regarded as one of the seminal British albums from the era and frequently ranked in top 100 album polls, and now has the wider recognition it deserves.
While The Zombies band members were continuing with their day jobs, Jim was making moves towards becoming a professional musician. On his local reputation with The Bluetones he got a call from a London agent who told him that The Mike Cotton band needed a bass player and asked if he'd be interested. Jim said yes, but it was a life-changing decision, especially as Jim who already had a young family and a day job in the office at the Ballito stocking factory in St Albans. He asked the advice of his wife Jean and his parents who all said the same thing "you've got to give it a go." With their full support behind him, Jim left his job and The Bluetones to join the band. The Mike Cotton Sound were very much in demand during the 60s playing soul, rhythm and blues on the same circuit as Georgie Fame and Geno Washington all over the country. "I was working with all these jazz musicians who played rhythm and blues, who were far better than me," Jim says once again being ever so self-deprecating. "It elevated my playing." They clearly spotted that he had the ability to up his game, which he did; his passion for the music, obvious talent and willingness to succeed has meant his career has endured for 50 years.
He recalls driving to his first show at Luton ABC in November 1964 thinking, "I'm actually a professional!" He still speaks of that time with joy and a touch of disbelief. His debut with the band saw The Mike Cotton Sound on a package tour billing with Gerry and The Pacemakers, Gene Pitney and a new band called The Kinks. "I was standing at the side of the wings waiting to back Gene Pitney later and watched The Kinks finish the first half and thought 'bloody hell this is incredible!'" The Kinks had just set the music world on fire with You've Really Got Me and All Day And All Of The Night was not far behind. "It blew me away, nothing had sounded like that before! The crowd would riot, they didn't know how to react. Ray's still got that presence, he can turn an audience but he holds back from it. That was the first time I'd seen that sort of fan fever!" Soon Jim would be joining The Mike Cotton Sound as special guests at The Beatles Christmas Show at the Hammersmith Odeon and would witness more of that fan fever that was sweeping through the nation. "Nothing came close to that reaction. With The Beatles, it was scream, scream, scream! With the Kinks it was angst. Blokes were going crazy. It's like heavy metal, that gives the same feeling to people, it's a release." The Kinks had made their impact on music from that one record; by slashing the speakers Dave Davies had created an iconic sound. A decade later Jim would end up joining Ray and Dave Davies as a full-time member of The Kinks continuing his affiliation with genre-defining bands.
At the end of the 1960s, the Mike Cotton Sound had “peaked creatively” and guitar music was coming to the fore with artists like Jimi Hendrix reinventing another new sound. Ray Davies from The Kinks entered a theatrical period and once The Mike Cotton Sound had split in 1970 Ray hired the remaining band as a horn section to play on Muswell Hillbillies and later albums such as Schoolboys In Disgrace and Soap Opera.
Once the Zombies had disbanded Rod once again turned to his cousin and asked: “why don't we form the band we always thought we'd want to be in.” Rod wanted to form a progressive rock band that combined the edgy sound of Led Zeppelin and Cream with harmonies like Crosby, Stills & Nash. Rod continued his avant-garde musical style with his new band, Argent. Joined by Russ Ballard on guitar and Bob Henrit on drums, Argent released seven albums between 1970 and 1975, although as Jim points out "it took three albums to get a hit." The self-titled debut failed to chart commercially but caught the attention of those in the know including attracting Bruce Dickinson as a fan. Their second album Ring Of Hands, which is also their favourite, continues their work with illustrious orchestration and harmonies. In 1972 Hold Your Head Up, penned by Chris White and their most well-known song was released. "It was different to anything else around at the time. Alan Freeman and Emperor Rosko kept playing the song, between them they made it a hit. It was left field, it wasn't like a lot of songs in the charts at the time"
Not only was it different from a lot of chart music, it's also possibly the first feminist anthem with its powerful chorus of 'hold your head up woman' right at the heart of the track. Although at the time due to the production many people failed to pick up on its empowering message. "On the record Rod does a high keyboard wail on the wo' of woman which masks the word to the untrained ear. A lot of people missed that. Now they make more of that live and Rod tells people what the words are and says 'if you're going to sing it, get the words right' " he jokes. They even held a vote one time to see what the majority of the audiences thought they were singing. So what did the fans think the words were? 'Hold your head up oh boy?' or just a simple 'woah' perhaps? Hilariously Jim tells me that the audience thought that they were singing "hold your head up Norman." On the flip side, the emotive nature of the song did manage to reach some people. "We reformed Argent for a few concerts a couple of years ago and we got a letter from a woman who'd been to a few of the shows and it said. 'I just wanted you to know that at the time I first heard that song my relationship had broken down and I was suicidal. I heard this song and it saved me.' " This moving story shows how the power of music really does change people's lives.
Another one of Argent's most famous songs is better known for being covered by those glam rock behemoths, Kiss. God Gave Rock and Roll To You featured on their fourth album In Deep and was re-recorded by Kiss under the title God Gave Rock 'n' Roll To You II. The song was re-arranged and some of the lyrics changed to make it more relevant to American audiences, but the song was written by Russ Ballard despite occasional claims from Kiss that it is their song. "We perform it in America with The zombies because we were both on it, but it confuses people. They think 'why are we playing this heavy metal anthem?' But it's ours.” Argent not getting enough credit for the song is clearly something that agitates the ever so humble Jim, and rightly so. He then tells me about a recent BBC documentary on American Anthems, “the whole thing starts with Kiss' cover of God Gave Rock and Roll To You. But it's not an American anthem, it's a British anthem!” Even though Kiss version is perhaps more widely known thanks to its appearance in the 1991 film Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, it is another Argent song that has been immortalized in popular culture once again demonstrating Argent and Ballard's longevity as writers.
Once Argent ceased touring in 1976 Jim, Henrit and current Argent guitarist John Verity formed Phoenix. Jim recorded two albums (the second remains unreleased) with Phoenix and supported Aerosmith on their first European tour before leaving to join the Kinks in 1978. Bandmate Henrit would go on to join in 1984.
Throughout his time with The Mike Cotton Sound Jim had continued to play package tours and cross paths with The Kinks on and off during the period and became good friends. Years later The Kinks were about to begin a tour and needed a bass player as Andy Pyle had just left. Jim was recording the second Pheonix album and got a phone call from The Kinks management asking if he would consider going on tour with them. Thinking it was only a one-off tour he agreed and thought he would go back to Phoenix afterwards. How he ended up staying with them is "typical Ray Davies" Jim says, "you don't have meetings or organize things in the normal way. We were on tour in America but were flying to Brussels for a festival and then flying back. I had a day off and was outside the hotel crossing the street, Ray is coming the other way. He says 'Jim, do you think you could make it permanent?' 'Sure Ray', I said. 'I'll have to have a word with the guys, but I'm sure...' and that was it. Jim recorded seven albums with the band and remained part of the line-up for eighteen years until their dissolution in 1996. After that period he played with a reincarnation of The Animals and The Kast Off Kinks before joining The Zombies, bringing his musical career full circle. He remains an active part of the music scene in his hometown and plays with his sons Steve and Russ in The Rodford Files when time allows. He also supports his Granddaughters Anja and Cara, both talented singers and musicians when they perform locally too.
Back to 2015 and the new album, Still Got That Hunger features Colin, Rod and Jim alongside Tom Toomey on guitar and Jim's son Steve on drums. The album is full
of original songs penned by Argent with the exception of one that has been
written by Blunstone. The album is packed with those trademark pop vocal lilts but speckled with much more of a jazz and classical feel, no doubt thanks to Rod who “mixes it up.” Jim sites Changing The Past as a good example of this alternation between genre styles. Vocally Colin Blunstone's voice is sounding as good as ever. “Colin has always looked after himself so that he can hit the notes in the same keys, but as he's got older his voice has got more timbre. He does his vocal exercises religiously and it has paid off.”
There's also a maturity to their work and some hidden gems in lyrics like “you took my hand and we were young again” - a lyric written by Argent's wife Catherine. The fact that the band are still able to produce fresh, new music demonstrates their evolution as a band and as musicians. It's thrilling to hear an established band still willing to put out new material when so many older acts from that period simply tour on their back catalogue. “The record company wanted to call the album Chasing The Past, but Rod said no, we are doing the opposite! It wasn't the vibe we wanted for the album.”
They clearly still have a yearning to perform from their regular touring arrangements. "If you can still do it, why give it up? We're making a little bit of progress every time. We're only playing small theatres, but we're still doing it! It's not big time, but it's still progress." Jim says with that enthusiasm and desire that drove him them all to form bands over 50 years ago: The Zombies have most definitely still got that hunger.