When the Zombies were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 29th, keyboardist-songwriter Rod Argent spoke from the stage about growing up in England during the Fifties and first discovering American rock & roll. “Elvis himself was a God,” he said. “I was 11 and I couldn’t imagine in any way being part of the same world.” A few weeks before the ceremony, Argent got on phone with Rolling Stone to discuss five pivotal songs that shaped him as a young songwriter and led to the incredible music he created in the Zombies. You can hear the group’s earliest work on the new five-LP vinyl box set Zombies: In the Beginning.
Elvis Presley, ”Hound Dog”
I remember being 11 years old and not really liking pop music. My cousin Jim Rodford, who was a founding member of Argent, played me a couple of Bill Haley records. Then he said, “See what you think of this,” and he played me “Hound Dog.” It just completely spun my world around. It was the most exciting thing I had ever heard. For a while, I wanted to snap up all of the early Elvis records I could afford, right up to “My Baby Left Me.” I still have those records from that time and I still think his voice sounded absolutely incandescent.
“Hound Dog” was, in a way, my introduction to black music by proxy since I hadn’t heard any rhythm & blues in those days. Elvis was played on what they used to call “race stations” since some of the black guys thought he was black. It was just absolutely fantastic, like nothing I’d ever heard. I saw him on the television and he seemed like he came in from another universe. The cultural gap between the U.S. and the U.K. in those days was absolutely enormous. It was a kind of music and a feeling I’d never experienced before. Very soon after that, I found out that Big Mama Thornton did the original version of “Hound Dog” and that led me on to explore lots of other black music from blues to Ray Charles.
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The Beatles, ”Please Please Me”
The Zombies formed in 1961 and the Beatles made their first record in 1962. Their first record in the U.K. was “Love Me Do,” which I found interesting, but I wasn’t completely in love with it. I still liked pop music a lot, but I felt that early rush of that terrific, concentrated excitement that early rock & roll gave me had eased up a bit. I remember the first time I heard “Please Please Me.” At the time, the main radio station in the U.K. was the BBC. They had needle-time restrictions, which meant they only played rock & roll records for half an hour a week. You were lucky to get one or two records a week. But there was a commercial station from Luxembourg called Radio Luxembourg.
Their signal used to be constantly interrupted. It came and went and faded. In a way, that added to the magic of everything. It took so much to listen to this evening broadcast of all the new pop and rock music that was out at that time. I used to listen to that and one night I heard “Please Please Me” faintly over the airwaves. It completely blew me away. I liked it so much that I stayed up all night under the covers with my little radio trying to find that record again, and they did play it again. That was hugely exciting. That was my introduction to the excitement of the Beatles.
It’s hard to get across to people who weren’t around at the time, but the contrast from their music to everything else that was going on was enormous. First of all, they were fantastically inventive. They sang everything from the heart. Nothing went out because it was just commercial. They had such a huge influence and obviously I wasn’t the only one that felt like that. It had the same effect on musicians across the whole of the country. It was a revolution that wasn’t based on hype. All of it was based on ability and honesty and genuine enthusiasm and openness. It was a great time to be the age I was at the time that came out.
Ray Charles, ”Drown in My Own Tears”
I remember being totally knocked out when I bought a 1960 live album that he made in Atlanta. It was recoded by a radio DJ with one microphone above the auditorium. It was called Ray Charles in Person. He did a version of “Drowned in My Own Tears.” It was so extraordinarily slow that it seemed like five minutes passed before the Raelettes came in on the first chorus, though I’m sure it wasn’t quite that long. But you just become enamored with Ray’s soul and playing and voice and suddenly the wonderful Rayettes come in with the chorus, which sounded fantastic. After my parents went to bed each night, I used to go down to the radiogram in the front room and very quietly I used to put on Ray Charles in Person. I would lay on my back on the floor and just luxuriate in this fantastic soulful singing and playing.
Spencer Davis Group, ”Georgia on My Mind”
The first time I heard Steve Winwood sing was on the second Spencer Davis Group album. In a strange way, I preferred his version of “Georgia on My Mind” to the Ray Charles version. I know how fantastically influential that track was to so many British musicians. Steve was just 17 at the time, but his playing and singing was just extraordinary. I’d never heard a white person sing like that. It made me want to go out and play myself.
Cream, “Sunshine of Your Love”
I heard Cream’s first single “Wrapper Paper” in 1966 and I didn’t like it at all. But when they brought out “Sunshine of Your Love,” it was that wonderful juxtaposition of rock & roll, but incredibly musical thinking from all three of them in different ways. Ginger [Baker] plays a wonderfully unconventional drum part. I loved it from the beginning. It was so the opposite of the normal rock feels. Of course, that was my first exposure to Jack Bruce’s wonderfully energetic and musical and jazz-informed bass playing and Eric [Clapton’s] wonderfully lyrical and intensely musical guitar work. I loved Cream from that period onwards and I especially loved this one. It was the first example of what I loved about the band. Like all good music, it expands your own horizons.