Like many keyboard aces of the Seventies, Rod Argent too has turned his talents toward writing music for films and television, his most recent venture being the music for the highly acclaimed BBC TV series 'Soldiers'. Here he explains to Ian Gilby the procedures involved.
Success has taken Rod Argent from the Zombies hit 'She's Not There', on to international acclaim for 'Hold Your Head Up' with his band Argent, through to equally successful liaisons with Andrew Lloyd Webber on his 'Variations' album.
As a self-taught musician and skilled exponent of both classical and synthesized music, a move into film music writing presented Rod with a logical outlet for his talents. Here he discusses with Ian Gilby how he and his partner Bob Howes approached writing and producing the music for the recently screened BBC TV documentary series 'Soldiers'. Photography: Paul Gilby.
When Argent broke up in 1975, I wanted some time away from the group situation to broaden my musical horizons. So I thought I'd consciously not write anything for a year or so - well, not try to get involved immediately in other projects - just see what happened. I ended up doing an awful lot of session work.
How did your involvement come about with 'Soldiers'?
It started really through my association with Bob Howes. I met Bob when I did a session for him a couple of years ago. He asked me to play some keyboards on an album that he was making with Barbara Courtenay-King called Pastorale. And I went along and played keyboards - got to know Bob a little bit - and at the time I was just setting up my studio at home. I was quite excited about one or two of the things that I'd done and I put a demo down of a song, popped into Bob's one day and played it to him.
He claimed to be impressed with the sound and the stuff that was coming out of the studio so he said: 'D'you know, we ought to do a library album together'. I barely knew what a library music album was at the time and he said, 'Well, let me talk to KPM'. So he talked to KPM who said the last thing they wanted were more library writers because they had too many as it was. And Bob said: 'Well, can we make a couple of demos and play them to you?'. So we did and they liked them quite a lot and asked us to make an album. And that was the beginning of my association with Bob.
It was the KPM album which then led to a particular director asking us to do 'Wheels, Wings and Water' which was the first time we collaborated together on music for a TV programme. Bob and I did a couple of other things including the theme tune for the BBC's 'Pebble Mill At One' show.
What about writing the music for 'Soldiers'? Who originated the ideas for the series?
Well, it's very much a co-operative thing between the two of us. For instance, the first thing we had to do was the theme, which was obviously very important because that's the hook on which the series rests, as far as the music's concerned. Bob came here to my studio with a couple of sketches that he had of an idea for the first part of the tune from his meeting with John Gower, the overall producer of the series.
On the theme tune, actually, it worked out almost an exact 50-50 co-operation with the first section being basically the idea that Bob had, and the second bit being my idea.
As far as the musical content of each programme is concerned, sometimes I'll write a particular sequence, or Bob'll write one, and then we'll get together and we'll actually hone it down, throw ideas around between us, and fine-tune how the music should grow from the original ideas. Sometimes we'll change it radically; other times it might be almost identical. There's one section we refer to as 'Across The Rhine' because it just corresponded with that visual sequence in one of the programmes, and that I happened to do completely on sequencer (a Yamaha QX1) and it worked out beautifully, just as it was, with no alteration necessary.
The series didn't rely purely on synthesized music, did it. Weren't some sections orchestral?
Oh yes, quite a lot of it's orchestral actually. The whole of the very first programme, which is called 'The Face Of Battle', was orchestral.
At other times we'll use synthesizers for the final sounds in the real thing. It varies from piece to piece; and not always what you would obviously think either. But it does vary - we use the piano, and we use all the synths as main instruments; and we also use them as tools for putting down orchestral demos for the orchestral sessions. When we do the orchestral music, it won't just be an idea that an orchestrator would then take up and score - we will actually write out the whole thing fully ourselves. But that's the exciting part about film music really: being able to use all the different approaches.
Do you enjoy it or do you find it hard to write music for a film?
Sometimes it's very hard, sometimes it's very easy! Some sequences fall into place quickly, others take a bit more thought. But yes, it's something I quite enjoy doing. If you're writing a song, often you're starting absolutely from nothing and you have to pluck the whole idea out of thin air. At least if you're dealing with picture, you've got a mood to start with which makes the process a lot easier.
The first thing away from songs that I wrote was a musical called 'Masquerade' which was produced at The Young Vic Theatre in 1982 and I enjoyed that a lot because I was working with the director and, for the first time, I had a specific point to illustrate or a specific mood to bring forward or whatever. And the same is true with television; it's good to write to picture actually!
The only disappointment is that, sometimes, you'll write something to a picture and it sounds huge or whatever, and inevitably you can barely hear the end result because it gets drowned under the commentary!
What processes are involved in developing the music for each episode?
Again, it varies. In a perfect world we would get a rough cut of a film, on video cassette, which had all the sound effects on it and all the commentary and we'd know exactly what we were doing. That doesn't always happen! It helps a lot when the commentary is on but sometimes we've had whole sequences without commentary and, you know, you can be slightly lost as to really the point the filmmakers are trying to put across. But, nevertheless, it is very stimulating.
Obviously, the more information we can get on the film the easier it is to write the music. Sometimes we've had virtually a finished film apart from some sequences being black and white when they eventually are going to be in colour. But never with sound effects - there's a great deal of sound effects that are put on afterwards. So you always have to try and bear that in mind when you are looking at a sequence and disregard your natural inclination to emphasise what's going on, when it's just going to be overloaded with sound effects which are going to do the job better than you would by trying to make a musical point.
What I normally do is bring a VHS video machine in here, and a monitor. In fact, all the 'Soldiers' stuff, until very recently, has been done here at the studio and we've actually 'synced' things quite successfully just using free timing. We've been using click-tracks but not a Q-Lock frame sync. And it's worked very well. We're getting more stuff all the time and we are actually, from this point onwards, doing it with a proper Q-Lock picture sync system down at West Heath Studios - Bob Howes' new place in Hampstead.
When we get the film it is the final thing in terms of running time and in terms of the sync points etc, so what we have to do is ensure our music does absolutely lock up to any particular cuts and sync points that are there, that need to be pointed up.
Are you given a script in that case or do you have to sit with a stopwatch and time your sync points?
On a series like 'Soldiers', we're dealing with different directors on each of the programmes and different directors have different ways of working. We had a meeting this morning for one of the episodes called 'Irregulars' and we were supplied with a script in which each cue was mapped out with exactly what they wanted out of it and that was marvellous! I mean, the more information you get the better really. But that doesn't always happen: different directors work in different ways!
What sort of things go through your mind to fulfil a director's demands in terms of creating atmospheres and certain moods?
Sometimes a director will have a few specific technical reference points like, he might say: 'Look, I really see this as strings' or 'This would be great with a solo clarinet. This is what I had in mind. What do you think?'. And you might say: 'Yeah, that would be great!'. So, you've at least got a starting point to build on.
Other times he'll just say: 'Well, we just need to have a very spooky atmosphere here', and then you just have to look at the pictures and conjure up something that fits. Sometimes you have a very definite idea in your head before you even touch an instrument. Other times you'll do a bit of experimenting: say, let's find something that sounds spooky or whatever; it's a very variable process actually but there's always scope for expression.
Sometimes I find that it can be most fruitful getting your basic musical ideas together away from the instruments so that you don't get sidetracked into detail by a tasty little sound on a synth, and keeping the overall view. At other times, it can be really interesting to see where messing around with chords leads you, and where messing around with different instrument sounds leads you.
Do you find that certain textures and sounds that you start with on synthesizers can often take you through to the final route?
They can, yeah, but not often. I think so many people work that way round - from detail and build up - that sometimes they get lost. I hear a lot of records that I think have lovely little textures and things going on but actually the basic overall shape of the tune or the basic overall concept is really not as strong as it might be.
Developing a structure - a musical framework - and then painting in the fine detail is of paramount importance when writing any music I believe. There's a song that I wrote called 'Baby Don't Let Me Cry No More' which has been covered by a couple of people: Phil Collins heard it when producing Frida - one of the vocalists from ABBA - and used it on her first solo album.
The way that happened was I had the idea coming home in the car - virtually for the whole tune. It sounded like a very simple, bluesy tune to me and I sketched it down as soon as I got in. I had all the harmonies and all the chords in my head and I wrote them down as well. Except - when I played it on the piano, the chords made it sound really boring and pedestrian - not at all as I thought it sounded in my head. So I then had to work out some really interesting chords to give the melody the feeling that I wanted! And that had a really interesting result because, the thing is, the tune ends up still sounding really simple but very effective, and it's only when I actually had to write a lead-sheet down I thought: 'My God! There's a million chords in this bloody thing!'. And I didn't realise because it doesn't sound at all complicated.
I had to work hard to fill in the details on that song and that took quite a long time to get it sounding good. But I ended up with something I wouldn't have achieved, had I not done it that way. It's at times like that when I can't help recalling what an engineer colleague of mine, Simon Smart, once said: 'It's always going to be hard to make good music'...and that applies to good film music too!