It was a remarkable hour or so, not only for the kids of Music Unites, an organization that empowers inner-city youth through music, but also the Rascals’ Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Gene Cornish, the Blues Magoos’ Peppy Castro and Twisted Sister’s Jay Jay French, all on hand to witness a master class conducted by The Zombies’ legendary Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone at New York’s Gibson Showroom.
The Music Unites Choir performed the band’s classic 1969 hit “Time of the Season” before the admiring Argent and Blunstone, who returned the honor by playing their 1964 signature hit “She’s Not There”—Argent playing piano and singing backup to Blunstone’s monumental lead vocal—and then reprising “Time of the Season” with the choir.
But the highlight of the event was the conversation between the two Zombies co-founders, which touched on the band’s and their own rich histories and was full of wise advice for their spellbound teen audience.
“I desperately wanted to be in a band since I was 11-years-old,” said Argent, influenced then by his cousin Jim Rodford, who went on to play bass with The Kinks and Argent’s interim ‘70s band Argent, and now plays bass in the reincarnated Zombies.
But Rod Argent was a self-taught classical musician his first 10 years.
“Then I heard Elvis’s ‘Hound Dog,’ and it was a gateway to all sorts of music,” he said. “I sought out Big Mama Thornton [the blues legend who recorded ‘Hound Dog’ ahead of Presley] and got turned on to rock ‘n’ roll. At the same time I never stopped listening to classical--and then jazz, Miles Davis in 1958 especially, with John Coltrane. Then I went back and discovered Duke Ellington—my hero.”
Here he quoted Dave Grohl, who has claimed that the Zombies 1968 album masterpiece Odessey and Oracle track “Care of Cell 44” changed his life.
“He said, ‘Find a band and suck in the garage,’” said Argent. “It’s a wonderful way of having focus in your teenage years, when it’s natural to be rebellious and assert yourself. Focusing on music gives you a way to express yourself in those days.”
The Zombies were together for three years before going professional, and had “a great time,” said Argent.
“Duke Ellington’s early band members started as mates—and they they sucked as well!” he said. “But we all learned together.”
He recounted growing up in one of England’s post-World War II “new towns,” namely St. Albans, some 20 miles north of London, which was expanded significantly after the war as a means of redistributing the population out of Greater London.
Blunstone recalled being “very shy” when The Zombies formed.
“I found it very difficult to get on stage at all!” he said, adding, “I’m still shy.”
“I came into the business different than Rod,” Blunstone continued. “Sports was my thing.”
But when Argent said Blunstone was a great sprinter, Blunstone laughed.
“That was a long time ago!" he said, then demonstrated: "It takes me three different movements to get out of a chair!”
Turning serious, he softly said, “I agree with Rod. Music gives focus to your life.”
He recalled how Argent was originally The Zombies’ lead singer (Blunstone was a guitar player).
“I heard Rod play piano at a rehearsal, and said, ‘You must play piano!’ He said, ‘If you’ll be lead singer, I’ll be keyboard player.’ He thought bands were three guitars and drums.”
They’re not sure, but Blunstone believes that the first song he sang in The Zombies was Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool.”
“We took our time, but it was fun,” said Blunstone. “After three years, we won a big rock band competition, and got a single [deal] with Decca. They said we could write a song, and two days later Rod came back with ‘She’s Not There.’ I had no idea he could write a song!”
Blunstone then offered the Music Unites kids a nugget.
“We can all write songs,” he said. “It’s all application. Like doing a crossword [puzzle].”
He paused, then added: “I cannot overemphasize how important it is to try and write, from a credibility standpoint--and it can bring you fame as well.”
The unforgettable master class proceeded with Argent dissecting both “She’s Not There” and “Time of the Season” musically and technically. Both, he said, were built around blues scales.
“She’s Not There,” of course, begins with the immortal line, "Well no one told me about her." Argent said it had “nothing to do” with it in terms of melody and chord structure, but his song “weaved around” a lyric suggested in blues legend John Lee Hooker’s “No One Told Me,” while also evoking American pop artist Brian Hyland’s 1962 hit “Sealed With a Kiss”--and making use of modal sequences influenced by listening to Miles Davis.
“There was a lot of that sort of thing going on in English music then,” he said, speaking of the many American music influences absorbed and blended by British Invasion groups.
As for “Time of the Season,” Argent cited George Gershwin—“one of my favorite composers.”
“'Bess, You Is My Woman Now’ from Porgy and Bess still gives me shivers,” he said, “and we played ‘Summertime’ from the beginning.”
Indeed, the Porgy and Bess standard was included in The Zombies self-titled U.S. debut album.
Argent quoted its lyric “Your daddy’s rich, and your mama’s good lookin’,” and said that the famous “Who’s your daddy?” line in “Time of the Season” was his "affectionate nod” to “Summertime” and his own early music development. He noted that in a similar manner, Paul McCartney imagined Little Richard singing the songs he wrote.
Much to the audience’s delight, Blunstone revealed that the only Zombies song he never really liked to sing was in fact “Time of the Season.”
“Unfortunately, it sold three million copies!” he said. “It was the last song we recorded for the album and we were very pressured, and I didn’t know the song that well.”
He laughed as he said that he and Argent exchanged a few unpleasantries during the session, and told the Music Unites kids that if a record company should be in need of an A&R man, he obviously would not make a particularly good hire.
But Blunstone also noted a key Zombies strength.
“We never tried to be fashionable,” he said, stating that while following trends may work out in the short term, it’s “disadvantageous for the long term.”
“We always tried to be honest to ourselves,” he said, “and tried to make something that worked for us.”
And now, all these many years later, Blunstone acknowledged that “Time of the Season” was “wonderful.”
Argent, too, spoke of an “honest way of trying to make music work.” The goal, he said, is “not to be famous.”
“Fame is okay,” he said, “but the first thing is, you have to want to do it for the right reason.”
Invoking The Beatles, Argent concluded: “The Beatles set out because they loved what they were doing.”
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