From records to retailing
If A is for Argent and Z is for Zombies, then S is for Shadowshow. Joseph Kay explains...
Rod Argent's name has been associated with popular music on many levels for many years. Apart from the success of Argent, the band, he's become known for session work on million-selling albums such as Andrew Lloyd-Webber's 'Variations' and for the establishment of one of London's most forward-looking music shops — Rod Argent's Keyboards.
Rod's career as a professional musician began with The Zombies, who played semi-professionally for three years before turning pro in 1964. Even at that early stage he was experimenting with his own production — "Chris White and myself used to EQ all the instruments in our own way by the end of The Zombies, so I've been doing some sort of production for a long time. Although a couple of us in the band were classically educated I was largely self-taught, and when I was about 11 and Hound Dog came along it was a revelation. I immediately wanted to get a band together, and I thought that the only way to learn about rock music was to listen to it and to be enthusiastic. At the same time I kept up an interest in jazz and in classical music, and in 1951 I was buying Miles Davis' 'Milestones' for instance. It wasn't until after the end of the next band, Argent, that I spent a year learning to sight-read."
Early Zombies material had consisted mainly of cover versions of The Shadows and later The Beatles. "We won a talent competition and got a recording contract with Decca, recorded 'Summertime' and also 'She's Not There'. That was based on a simple chord progression — a modal pattern as chance would have it — and it was only much later that people like Jimi Hendrix and Pat Metheny told me how influential it had been on them." The Zombies split after three years; by 'Time of the Season' vocalist Colin Blunstone was disenchanted and left to return to his job as an accountant (but couldn't stay away from the music business for long!) — CBS had decided that the album needed a stereo mix and the band had to pay £100 each to have it done themselves.
At that time vocalist Russ Ballard and drummer Bob Henrit were playing in Unit 4 + 2, and together with Jim Rodford (now bassist for The Kinks) they were invited to join a new band — Argent — in 1970. "Even in The Zombies I considered doing something with a little more meat, and I think Argent achieved that. One of the last albums — 'Nexus' — had a longer concept piece on it, 'The Coming Of Kohoutek', but Russ wasn't too interested in doing that sort of instrumental concept. There were a couple of albums after that — because we really used to chuck them out! — the last being 'Counterpoints', with guitarist John Grimaldi.
Anyway, sometimes you're reluctant to give up a band because you only see the good things in it, and in fact I think that Argent went on a couple of years too long. The split was really caused by the last American tour we did — we lost £50,000 because some of the gigs were cancelled. During the time I was with the band a lot of people had asked me to do different things and I felt claustrophobic because I couldn't do any of them. We never cracked Division 1 with Argent in the States, although we were always at the top of Division 2."
After Argent split Rod spent a year doing "almost anything I was offered, and I had a really good time. That included work for The Who and for Roger Daltrey, and some music for a light show, 'Light Fantastic', at the Royal Academy. They wanted about 20 minutes of music but they said it would be alright because they'd booked me an hour of studio time! In the end I did one piece at MCA and also a piece of Satie — 'Gymnopedies' — and they did quite well as a single. To my astonishment it got onto the Radio 1 'A' Playlist and almost made the Top 50 — you have all these preconceptions about what will do well as a single and about what you should put out, but Light Fantastic was something like a Russian folk tune, and through MCA I met Andrew Lloyd-Webber who was talking about doing an album based on a piece by Paganini!
At first I told him I didn't know if I was up to it, but I suppose he'd heard 'Light Fantastic' and there was also a completely self-indulgent classical organ solo on 'All Together Now', the album from which 'Hold Your Head Up' was taken. Anyway, the piece based on Paganini's 'Caprice In A Minor' became 'Variations', and since then I've done all Andrew's keyboards. I'd also met Robin Lumley who put me on to Hit and Run Music, and then I was able to do a solo album, 'Moving Home'.
I enjoyed making that album but it showed up the deficiencies in my voice, which I went to work on afterwards. I played three concerts at the time with Alphonso Johnson on bass, John Goodsall on guitar, Peter Robinson and Robin Lumley on keyboards, and after that I worked on a musical for the Young Vic called 'Masquerade'. Unfortunately it didn't get into the West End as planned — it would still theoretically be possible to stage it but some of the rights to the music are tied up. Around that time I did the theme for the World Cup as 'Roderigo Argentina' with Andrew Lloyd-Webber — he wrote it for Six Paraguayan harps but he thought we could do it on a CS80! We played it on Top Of The Pops but it was so difficult playing it with the orchestra, who were playing much too fast, that I said I'd only do it if I could wear dark glasses and a sombrero! The DJ announced us as a surprise band, but then said 'actually it's Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Don Airey and Rod Argent'! It sold well though, and got into the Top 5.
Most of the parts on 'Variations' were just sketched in for us as chords, although some were written out. There's a very Russian-sounding piece which starts with Gershwin chords which I wrote for myself, although I probably couldn't have done the album if I hadn't put in some time learning to sight-read. A lot of the tracks on 'Moving Home' were initially recorded just with Phil Collins, piano and drums, and as it turned out I wished we'd done some of it 'live' because the dates we played at The Venue had a lot of power. Some of the tracks that were left over after 'Moving Home' was finished seemed to be suitable for an album of Jon Hiseman's called 'Ghosts', so we eventually used three. One of those had a long bass solo in the middle, but it got played on Radio 1 after MCA put it out as a single — it was called 'With You'. We had such a great time doing 'Ghosts' that it really turned into the present band, Shadowshow.
I seem to do at lot of jazz-influenced music but not too much contemporary rock, so Shadowshow is much closer to that style. We've re-approached one of the tracks from the album, 'Echoes', for a single, and we'll re-cut the album to include the new version. A lot of the tracks on the album have a Latin influence as on 'Moving Home', which I think is to do with having a lot of anticipated and displaced notes, which is something Paul McCartney does a lot.
Shadowshow is a co-operative band and I didn't suggest having many purely instrumental tracks. Record shops are stacking it with Barbara Thompson's records though, and anyone buying it on that basis are going to be a little bit alienated. The style is nothing like her own band, Paraphernalia, because it's not jazz — we ought to be one thing or another and I'd like to move towards the mainstream rock of the single. The way the songs are constructed leaves most of the solos for Barbara on sax, and the keyboards are a backdrop because my vocals are everywhere and we don't need a lot of keyboard solos."
Rod's also recorded an album with jazz musician John Dankworth which has been put out on Dankworth's own Sepia label (via PRT). The album's title is 'Metro' — "John has a very different playing style from Barbara Thompson's and his personality comes through in a different way. We both wrote some of the tracks on 'Metro' and modified our approach accordingly, with most of the solos being improvised over a given chord pattern which we've got scored."
"We recorded Shadowshow at Jon Hiseman's studio — he had a Soundcraft 24 track and a Concorde mixer because he wanted to record Paraphernalia and some film and TV work there, so I went for the same package and converted the boiler room of my house into a studio. The mixer is a Concorde 2000 by Raindirk which I bought from Don Larkin, whose store is near me here, and I've got Tannoy Little Red monitors and a Revox amp. There's a Revox B77 for mastering but I may go for a Studer or possibly a PCM F-1 convertor to make digital masters.
The keyboards are a Prophet 5 Rev 2, which I can have fitted with MIDI and an upgrade to Rev 3, a Fender Rhodes piano, a Bechstein piano which I bought for £200, and of late a Yamaha DX7. I haven't really got very far into editing the presets on the DX7 yet, but a lot of them are very useful and it's used all over the new version of the 'Echoes' single. It's totally different from the Prophet or a Jupiter 8 for instance — I've hired different keyboards in the past and used a Yamaha CS80 and an RS202 on 'Variations', but I never bought a CS80 — they're too heavy!
The DX7 on the other hand is very compact and of course the velocity sensitivity is marvellous, although I haven't used the after-touch much. The lead sounds aren't particularly 'wailing' but I think that's due more to the taste of Dave Bristow who programmed the presets than to the machine itself; the sounds he's got on his DX7 now are supposed to be unbelievable. Big block chords on the machine can be very heavy if you like, but they're best in the studio situation where the equipment can reproduce the full range of frequencies — there's a lovely fizz about everything, and settings like the flute have a great top end. The only things I regret selling are my two MiniMoogs, which did a great job, but with the DX7 being 16-note polyphonic and touch sensitive I've found for the first time that I can do things like TV shows with only one keyboard. In the old days we only had things like the CS80, but the touch effects on that almost made my fingers drop off — it was like doing weight training!
The microphones in the studio are a U-87 for the piano and a lot of AKG's and things including a PZM mike. Really the studio's set up for my own use and I don't need to do a lot of patching or anything before getting the sounds I want, and I've now got a Drumulator here for rhythms. What I do need are a few more outboards — I've got a Roland stereo echo, a vocoder and Drawmer stereo noise gates at the moment.
In March I'm playing the first five weeks of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's new musical, 'Starlight Express', which is about trains and steam winning out over Diesel engines and all that sort of thing. It's a sort of Cinderella story all done on roller skates with the audience seated within the set, and we've got a lot of interesting artists taking part — Jeff Daniels from Shalamar, P.P. Arnold, Stephanie Lawrence and so on. There'll be three keyboard players with DX7's, Prophets and piano, and Barbara Thompson will play on the first five weeks with me. We've already spent two weeks on the backing tracks for the album version using a hired studio.
What I'd like to do personally is to get back to some more live work. I did three Christmas concerts at Wavendon with the Dankworths, and if we get the right sort of feedback on Shadowshow some live work could follow. I want to do more contemporary and commercial tracks and I'm going to do a library album shortly, possibly using a Fairlight which I haven't done before. That'll test out the studio and it will be something different for me, as well as a way of using the studio externally. Apart from that, a lot of other people have had some success with my songs recently and I want to find time to write some for myself!
Interview by Joseph Kay