Pity poor Cliff Richard. It was bad enough that he had to suffer when he was banned during Radio Two’s so-called ‘purge of the oldies’, causing his remarkable run of hit singles, which had begun in the Mesozoic era, to grind to a shuddering halt. But a precedent had actually been set many years before when, in 1992, Kiss chose to cover Argent’s God Gave Rock And Roll To You. The song – written by singer/guitarist Russ Ballard and included on Argent’s 1973 album In Deep – contains the lyric: ‘Don’t step on snails, don’t climb in trees, love Cliff Richard, but please don’t tease.’
Argent Bridged A Gap Between 60s Pop/The Hard Rock Of Cream & Led Zep
Formed out of one-hit wonders Unit 4+2 and Brit psychedelic masters The Zombies, now they’re ready to reclaim the song Kiss pinched from them...
When Kiss’s Paul Stanley got hold of the track, however, all mention of slow-moving gastropod molluscs, perennial plants and the Peter Pan of Pop were cruelly expunged. Stanley tweaked the music as well as the words, claimed a co-writing credit and renamed it God Gave Rock’N’Roll To You II. (As well as the pretence of being a sequel, note the crude use of ‘N’ instead of ‘And’ in the songtitle.)
“Did I mind?” Ballard chuckles today when reminded of Kiss’s Cliff-clobbering antics. “Not a bit of it. Well, Paul Stanley had to, didn’t he? In the States they wouldn’t know who Cliff Richard is, would they?”
Boosted by exposure in the movie Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey, Kiss’s version of God Gave... reached the heady heights of No.4 in the UK and was Top 30 in the US. Today many people, not surprisingly, assume it’s a Kiss original.
But now the time has come for Argent to gain their Revenge (in-joke for Kiss fans) and reclaim the song as their own. Their first step: play God Gave... in front of a milling crowd when Argent re-form to play Classic Rock’s High Voltage Festival in July 2010.
“Yeah, we’re definitely going to dust it down and give it an outing,” confirms Ballard. “We couldn’t afford not to play it, really. Plus I’ve got a soft spot for the song. It means a lot to me.”
We’ll get into details about Ballard’s affection for God Gave... a little later. First let’s backtrack to a time that some might say is a little outside Classic Rock’s usual comfort zone: the early 1960s.
Ballard – young, fresh-faced, but already wearing his signature shades, due to losing the sight in his right eye to a wayward catapult shot – is a member of singer Adam Faith’s backing band, The Roulettes, along with future Argent drummer Bob Henrit.
When The Roulettes disband, Ballard and Henrit become the ‘+2’ in Unit 4+2, who score a hit with the song Concrete And Clay. “Unit 4 were a folk band that just played acoustic guitars; they had brilliant voices but they didn’t have a drummer or a lead guitar player,” Ballard explains.
Following the demise of The Zombies, keyboard player Rod Argent wants to form a new band, and turns up announced at a Unit 4+2 show with Zombies bass player Chris White in tow.
“I recognised Rod and Chris because I’d known them for years; they came from St Albans and I came from Hertfordshire as well,” says Ballard. “Rod had come to the gig to look at us: me and Bob. Then Rod phoned me up on the Monday and said: ‘I want to start a new band. How do you both feel about being in it with me?’ So that’s how Argent started. It was the summer of 1968.”
Rod enlists his cousin, Jim Rodford, to play bass and the Argent line-up is complete. “Chris White was never going to play bass in the band; he wanted to move into more of an overseeing role, writing and producing. He became a non-playing member of Argent, if you like,” Rod Argent reveals.
Ironically, after their break-up The Zombies scored a major Stateside hit with Time Of The Season, which got to No.3 in the Billboard chart (No.1 according to Cashbox). Were there any thoughts of putting Argent on hold and regrouping?
“No,” says Rod Argent. “When Time Of The Season suddenly broke big in America it was just at the time when Argent were trying to negotiate a record deal over there, so it was hugely helpful, actually. It made things a lot easier. We were so well down the path with Argent that we didn’t want to just give up and have a big cash day. Anyway, I’m not really a person who looks back – I’ve always liked to look forward and get excited about what’s next.”
“Argent got together, we all got on well and we started writing and recording,” Ballard recalls. “We began laying down some songs in 1969 at Sound Techniques, which was a new studio in Chelsea, and we were off.”
When the 60s turned into the 70s, it was a pivotal time for rock. On the one hand you had nascent noise-mongers such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. On the other you had the likes of Yes and ELP flexing their prog-style pectorals. Argent fitted somewhere in-between – but more by accident than design.
“In the late 60s a lot of bands were pushing boundaries; everything seemed to be possible,” says Rod Argent. “I personally loved Cream. I also remember being knocked out the first time I heard The Nice play America. Keith Emerson was such a great showman – stabbing knives into his keyboard and so forth.
“But as far as Argent’s approach was concerned,” he continues, “it wasn’t cut and dried at all. All sorts of things seemed to be open. We were very young and I was drinking in all the influences that were around. I was affected by everything that was going on. I’m a rock’n’roller at heart but I’ve always listened to a lot of jazz and classical music.”
“It wasn’t that well thought out, to be truthful,” Ballard confirms of Argent’s style. “We just said: ‘Whatever we come up with, if we like it, we’ll do it.’ In retrospect, when we started we sounded very light. Sound Techniques was a small studio and there wasn’t much ambience. It didn’t sound tough enough, not for me, to be truthful. If you listen to songs on the first album [Argent, 1970] like Dance In The Smoke and Liar, they could’ve been so much better.”
“Dance In The Smoke was included on a famous rock sampler called Fill Your Head With Rock,” adds Rod Argent. “It was the follow- up to The Rock Machine Turns You On, which was the very first rock compilation album. They had Time Of The Season on that. Samplers were really important in building a band’s profile back in the day.”
Rod Argent has great affection for Argent and 1971 follow-up Ring Of Hands (“In many ways the first two are my favourite albums”) but Ballard isn’t so sure: “The Zombies were quite a light sort of band, and I think we unconsciously had it in our brains that maybe it was the way we should go. I was into rock, the heavier stuff. I always liked the Little Richards and the Jerry Lee Lewises when I was a kid. Plus the rocky Elvis, not the ballady Elvis.”
“The first Argent album was very much connected to where The Zombies had left off, I suppose that was inevitable in a way,” agrees Rod Argent.
Argent finally cracked it with their third album, All Together Now (1972). It struck a perfect balance between Rod Argent’s expansive prog passages and Ballard’s crisp songwriting nous.
“We moved to record at Abbey Road and we really started to get some big, worldwide commercial success,” says Rod Argent. All Together Now contained Argent’s second most well-known song, Hold Your Head Up, written by the band’s ‘overseer’, Chris White. As a single it reached No.5 on both sides of the Atlantic.
“I wanted to do Hold Your Head Up incredibly fast and the band wanted it more slowly,” Ballard reveals. “When we recorded it, all that ‘Hold your head up, wooooaaaah!’ wasn’t in the original, the way we’d rehearsed it. Rod just came up with it in the studio. You throw in your own ideas and it does make the sum bigger, you know?
“We’d toured a lot and that really helped us refine our sound,” he adds. “When we weren’t in the studio, we gigged pretty much non-stop from 1970 to ’72. We did a 12-week tour of America in ’70 playing with the bigger bands, the heavier bands, and I sussed their appeal was much more beat-led, much more about the rhythm. I would have liked Argent to have gone that way, actually. We were very experimental in many ways. I was more into tunes, to be truthful.”
The first time Argent played the Whisky in LA, “Eric Burdon and Jimi Hendrix turned up,” Rod Argent remembers. “But we had the most terrible bit of bad luck. I used to mic up the Leslie [speaker cabinet] in a room that was far away from the stage so I didn’t get any feedback from my Hammond organ. I was midway through a very energetic solo in the first song and suddenly everything went quiet. It turned out that someone had nicked the amp from the dressing room. And there’s Jimi and Eric sitting out there.”
Argent’s fourth album, In Deep (the underwater cover of which is strangely reminiscent of Nirvana’s Nevermind), was released in 1973, with God Gave Rock And Roll To You as the opening track. Is it the most successful song Ballard has written?
“Well, probably one of them. Since You Been Gone [Rainbow] was another big one. Mind you, I also wrote So You Win Again [Hot Chocolate] and that was No.1 in 14 countries. That was a bigger hit than any of them. It’s been on countless albums and it’s still being played today. That’s probably as big as any.”
Ballard reveals the surprising inspiration behind Argent’s top track. He wrote God Gave... when he “was coming out of a bit of depression. I thought I was going to die every day, you know? I was living with my mum and dad; my mum had bowel cancer and my dad had prostate trouble. I could see them getting older and older, and it was really upsetting.
“At the start of my depression I was at the piano and I wrote I Don’t Believe In Miracles [Colin Blunstone]. That was a direct reaction to my mum and dad’s plight. I put my head on the keys and cried when I finished that tune, I was so down.
“The depression lasted quite a long time and at the end of it, when I felt I was coming out of a long tunnel, I wrote God Gave Rock And Roll To You. The idea of ‘love your friend, love your neighbour, love your life...’ it was all about that. It was like a catharsis for me. I wrote another song called Winning [also the title of Ballard’s 1976 solo album], which was covered by Santana. Coming out of depression really touched me big time.”
Ballard made one more studio album with Argent, 1974’s Nexus, and then left the band.
“Russ had a little bit of ill health around 1973 and that was one part of his decision to come off the road,” says Rod Argent. “But he also wanted to concentrate on what I might call the more traditional construction of songs, and was less interested in exploring more radical musical directions.
“On the first Argent album there’s a song called Be Free which really summed up what we were doing; it had adventurous playing in the solos but it was a beautifully constructed song – the best of both worlds. But later I suppose there developed a bit of a dichotomy between me and Russ’s styles.”
It was an amicable parting of the ways. There was no argy-bargy. “Rod and me never clashed, it was just one of those things,” affirms Ballard. “Plus I had a young son and I didn’t want to be away on the road while he was developing. I was having a bit of success as a songwriter and I thought, well, I could stay at home, see my son grow up and still write tunes, you know?”
Argent recorded two more albums, with guitarists John Verity and John Grimaldi, then called it quits. Rod Argent famously set up a musical instrument shop in London’s Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street, played with a wide variety of musicians as keyboard-player-for-hire, and even composed the theme music for ITV’s coverage of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, Aztec Gold. He got back together with Colin Blunstone in 2000 and re-formed The Zombies shortly afterward.
Ballard, natch, enjoyed success as both a solo artist and writer, not only supplying Kiss with God Gave... but also Ace Frehley (and Hello!) with New York Groove, Ace with another song called Into The Night, and Peter Criss with Let Me Rock You and Some Kind Of Hurricane.
Jim Rodford and Bob Henrit formed a band called Phoenix with John Verity before finding gainful employment in The Kinks. Argent have regrouped a handful of times over the years but with nothing permanent in mind. “We did get together at Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine’s place about seven years ago to raise some money for a charity event [The Stables at Wavendon]. We did 45 minutes, an hour. That was quite a buzz, to be truthful,” says Ballard.
Then, in 2008, Ballard joined The Zombies on stage at ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris’s Childline Rocks charity show. “We played Hold Your Head Up and it was just a storm, it was fantastic. It really whetted our appetite,” says Rod Argent.
So what does the future hold beyond Argent’s performance at High Voltage?
“The idea is that there might be a tour in the autumn incorporating elements of the original Argent, of The Zombies touring band with me and Colin Blunstone, and with some of Colin’s solo stuff as well,” says Rod Argent. “This is still not fixed but it seems like a fascinating concept to me.”
“We’ve all grown up, so it would be nice to see where we could go with it,” Ballard agrees.
And if it means that Cliff Richard can hold his head up again, all the better.
“I remember seeing Argent at the Fillmore East. They were very good. They did a version of Aquarius from Hair and it was slowed down, almost like Vanilla Fudge. With their Zombies connections, Argent had a great pedigree. And, of course, they gave Kiss a great song in God Gave Rock And Roll To You. The chorus and the concept are so strong... it just needed to be Kiss-ified a little! But Hold Your Head Up was great also, a terrific song.”
– Paul Stanley
ARGENT: THE GRIMALDI YEARS
Following Russ Ballard’s departure, Argent brought in guitarists John Verity and John Grimaldi. they put out Circus (’75) and Counterpoints (’76), and grew increasingly prog/fusion-oriented before disbanding.
Rod Argent: “I think in retrospect when Russ left we maybe should’ve called it a day, because it was the end of a natural cycle.”
Ballard: “I wasn’t a fan of Argent’s jazzy style, to be truthful. I wasn’t into that stuff.”
Rod Argent: “It was tragic what happened to Grimaldi – he died from MS. He was an extraordinary musician. He just played with two fingers on his right hand instead of a pick. A marvellous musician in embryo. He died before he was 30.”
Argent played the High Voltage Festival in London on July 24/25 2010.