On Friday night, the Zombies will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and deservedly so. Few keepsakes of the British Invasion sound as non-musty as “She’s Not There,” their first hit, or “Time of the Season,” their last. Colin Blunstone’s singing, which seems to float above the arrangements, is one reason for their enduring allure, but so is the keyboard playing of Rod Argent. His electric-piano runs on “She’s Not There” and smoky organ on “Time of the Season” have been inspiring air keyboardists for decades.
But Argent needs to be applauded for another reason as well. After the Zombies expired, right around the time “Time of the Season” was released in 1968, Argent (and Zombies bass player Chris White, who switched to songwriting duties) started his own band, aptly called Argent. Forty-five years ago this season, the group released its fifth record, Nexus. Starting with its title (Latin for “unity”) to songs called “The Coming of Kouhoutek” and “Music from the Spheres,” Nexus was Argent’s full-on prog move. Which makes it worth studying now: In a little more than 10 years, Argent became a one-man tour through the evolution of rock in a way that few of his generation managed.
Start with the early Zombies, who, in their matching suits and ties, utterly looked the part of post-Beatles British pop stars. On their first album, 1965’s Begin Here, they offered up their variation on what most of their peers were doing: a combination of covers (like “Got My Mojo Working” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”) and originals like “She’s Not There” and the kicky “I Can’t Make Up My Mind.”
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Then, with 1968’s now fabled Odessey and Oracle, the Zombies became one of many bands, here and abroad, swept up in post–Sgt. Pepper art-pop. Out went the blues songs, in came music far more precious and lush; “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)” took the vaudeville pop vogue to new extremes with a song about, yes, World War I. (The truly timeless “Time of the Season” is also here.) Odessey and Oracle was very much of its time — as was the subsequent band Argent, who quickly dispensed with subtleties in favor of what was at the time called a “heavier” sound with meatier organs, guitars and drums. The best-known example would be their biggest hit, the grinding “Hold Your Head Up,” although “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” was equally dense — music for singing along to in football stadiums.
Argent’s label, Epic, called Nexus “interstellar rock” in ads, a rare example of truth in advertising. Starting with Argent’s hair, which by then was slipping back his shoulders, Nexus hurls itself into prog; its first three tracks are entirely instrumental, with plenty of keyboard solos and more twisty byways than a drive up a country road. “Love” allows guitarist and singer Russ Ballard, who left the band soon after, to revel in his power-ballad skills, and “Thunder and Lightning” adds in a little ersatz Zeppelin. But “Music from the Spheres” returns us to wonderful sonic overload, with a few nods to fusion keyboard along the way. Is there any more prog lyric than “Music from the spheres assails my ears/I hear a distant song, a moving hymn/That grows and breaks across the universe”? One could also easily make the case that Styx may have based their entire career, especially albums like The Grand Illusion, on the Nexus track “Man for All Reasons.”
Compared to period genre albums by the Italian band PFM or the suite portion of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery, Nexus sounds restrained; it’s proper British prog. But as with the Zombies, you emerge from it in awe of Argent’s keyboards: his manic organ on “The Coming of Kohoutek,” glistening electric piano on “Music from the Spheres” and high-pitched synth squeal on “Infinite Wanderer,” which sounds like the instrumental theme to a sci-fi TV series. Although it’s largely forgotten now, Nexus was the culmination of Argent’s own magical mystery tour of British rock.