Brown Dwarfs, Zombies and Holey Guitars
Once Upon a Time in a far and distant land, there were no double live albums available on which simple fisher folk could fritter the pittance they earned from their wearying, malodorous and dispiriting labours. So it came to pass that the sovereign decreed that forever hence, any minstrel capable of selling out the local tavern on a wet Tuesday night when there's footie on the telly, could peddle to his followers, a souvenir of this merriment via the mystical sorcery of the Mobile Recording Unit. The rawk demographic were particularly ripe for exploitation in this regard, seeing as how most Mud
and Rubettes fans wouldn't be shelling out just to hear different solos from the ones that appeared on the 45 rpm versions of Lonely this Christmas or Sugar
Two years prior to the (frankly baffling) success of 'Frampton Comes Alive', Argent
embarked upon a UK tour in support of their 'Nexus' album. As the latter is maybe the prog friendliest of their entire discography, there is much to embrace and cherish here from a rather unjustly neglected association. The gestation of Argent
is a very tidy fit for the lineage of so much 1st Gen Prog in the early 70's: From pale R'n'B standards via gaudy psychedelic chamber Pop to caped armadillos firing flamethrowers through dry ice in less than a decade. All kidding aside, Argent
never strayed too far from their roots and this is maybe why they seem considerably more grounded than some of their codpiece donning contemporaries. When inhabiting the boogie piano grunt of something like 'Keep on Rolling' you sense in their palpable revelry that unlike an ELP or a Yes
ain't slumming it to appease a fan base starved of less lofty aesthetics. This was a band who had served their apprenticeships with Adam Faith, The Mike Cotton Sound, the Roulettes, Unit 4 + 2, and the Zombies. Circa '74, Argent
appeared to be riding the slipstream created by two hit singles ('Hold Your Head Up' and 'God Gave Rock and Roll to You') However, album sales were always modest e.g. their highest charting album was 'All Together Now
' at #13 in the UK (#23 in the US) As much as we might wish it otherwise, charting singles have never been testimony to the didactic power of progressive music i.e. most of the punters who bought the singles couldn't be persuaded into taking a punt on an Argent
When you consider the relative career paths of both the Zombies and Argent
, a telling disparity starts to emerge. Although both bands split due to lack of sustainable success, the Zombies' 'Oracle and Odessey' (sic) continues to gather posthumous critical acclaim which prompted a reunion tour and album in 2015, while Argent
have almost disappeared entirely from the popular consciousness. Most critters of a certain vintage can sing along to their two hits but very few can name the band who composed and performed them. Rod and Co are fast becoming the potential subject of a tricky tie breaker in a pub quiz and that's a shame as their music will continue to stand the test of time long after the inebriated contestants have left the tavern. Like Greenslade
, Barclay James Harvest
, Procul Harum and Camel
seem destined to forever belong among Prog's Brown Dwarfs (not big enough to become stars)
By the time 'Encore
' landed on the shelves in 1974 singer, songwriter and guitarist Russ Ballard had already departed which left Argent
in something of a quandary. It seems entirely plausible that this release would have bought the band some valuable time to plan their next move and recruit a replacement. They ended up hiring TWO new members but that's another story and maybe indicative of Ballard's unheralded talents. The reasons for Russ leaving are obscure but whether it was a case of him believing not enough of his songs made the albums or he wanted them to move in a more pop direction, there was no way this ensemble were ever going to sanction subsequent material in the vein of 'Since You Been Gone' (Rainbow
) or 'So You Win Again' (Hot Chocolate) Russ has gone on to write over 40 hit songs for a variety of artists. The only one I would unreservedly endorse however is 'I Don't Believe
in Miracles' for Colin Blunstone which is included here in a tasteful piano setting which builds slowly to a dramatic climax featuring layered harmony vocals and Mellotron strings.
'The Coming of Kohoutek' is probably my favourite Argent
number ever and would be an unflaggingly brilliant opening salvo in anyone's live set. It's an instrumental in three seamless sections based entirely on Lizst's 'Totentanz' (Dance of Death
, which is in turn sourced from the Gregorian plainchant melody 'Dies Irae') That description sounds 'dusty academia nuts' but rest easy padre, it's a riot of rhythm, timbre and unfettered gusto which will have those stifling vestments swishing vigorously in the aisles for years to come. The original unadorned theme is stated on Mellotron at the outset before Rod subsequently manipulates this melodic fragment into all manner of unlikely outcomes with stylistic treatments from shuffle rock, astringent organ dissonance, classical piano and Moog soloing as if performed by an ADD dervish snorting coffee straight from the jar. This seething energy is all the while buttressed by an ingeniously pliant Henrit/Rodford rhythm section that still makes room for Ballard's tasteful guitar interjections in a busy and ever changing arrangement. I wouldn't be surprised if this track could increase any mammal's sperm count all told. BTW The inspiration for the title must have been the comet identified by Lubos Kohoutek which flew very close to the earth in 1973.
'God Gave Rock and Roll to You' is one of those songs that provokes some pretty extreme reactions irrespective of the listener's religious orientation. From a musical perspective, there is very little not to like about a naggingly addictive tune that carries the faintest sway of a gospel spiritual wedded to a mock bombastic intro which is transparently tongue in cheek and great fun all round. Like their other smasheroonie 'Hold Your Head Up' this also has the type of chorus that I'm surprised more football fans haven't assimilated into a terrace anthem similar to their appropriation of 'Give Peace a Chance'. The lyrics aren't even remotely preachy either:
"You don't have money or a fancy car And you're tired of wishin' on a falling star You gotta put your faith in a loud guitar
You can take a stand, or you can compromise You can work real hard or just fantasize But you don't start livin' 'till you realize
Don't step on snails, don't climb in trees, Love Cliff Richard
but please don't tease"
The foregoing is hardly the stuff of right wing conservative fire and brimstone evangelism now is it? (notwithstanding the bizarre reference to Sir 'Arry which Kiss
, being Americans and knowing squat about irony, expunged entirely from their hideous cover version)
To my ears, Ballard's guitar drifts a wee bit out of tune on this number and although discernible it doesn't really spoil an otherwise boisterous version of a very finely crafted song. The cover art would suggest that Russ was using his distinctive 'Holey Emmenthaler Frankenstein' guitar at this time which had a Stratocaster body through which several holes had been drilled and was joined to a Telecaster neck. I'm not a guitar tech by any stretch but wouldn't such an ungodly combination make the instrument susceptible to intonation issues? There are further traces on Encore
that this may have been the case but like I said before, it's practically unnoticeable and doesn't impinge on the music. It's also easy to forget that on stage digital tuners weren't a luxury available to anyone in 1974. Russ Ballard is a very underappreciated guitarist who clearly thinks very carefully about note choice, tone and timbre in his understated but unerringly appropriate parts. Listen to how he slyly quotes from the riff to 'Money' (That's What I Want) during 'It's Only Money'. That level of subtlety and wit is all too rare in a realm of head banging idolatry.
So, were Argent
Christians then? 'Music from the Spheres' has some Spinal Tap panto operatic gravitas re:
"All around the world the people trembled 'God, save us from the Devil' - was their prayer But I can't be afraid".
Ballard also now has a son called Christian which is hardly compelling evidence (although a son called Beelzebub would have been a worry for the registrar) Russ also doesn't seem to have aged in the slightest since this recording was made. If you look at him now aged 71 he appears almost untarnished by the ravages of time. What sort of diabolic Faustian pact has he brokered with Mephistopheles to account for this everlasting youth?, Another glance at the cover art reveals Rod Argent
wearing a crucifix big enough to invite soft tissue damage but in short: who cares?. The music doesn't suffer either way. For the sake of clarity, your reviewer is a lapsed atheist (READ: pussy agnostic)
Those of you like myself who are older than some forests and mountain ranges will recall that the original vinyl LP version of this album was sullied by the very loud electrical hum from the bands backline amps which intruded on some of the quieter passages e.g. Rod's exquisite piano solo in 'Kohoutek'. Thankfully those clever boffins from BGO Records have used their noise reduction algae ridding thingy on the remastered CD version and the pesky hissy dragon has been banished from the kingdom forever. There is a raw energy and infectious excitement captured here that for me, makes 'Encore
' a much more enjoyable listening experience than either 'Welcome Back My Friends' or 'Yessongs'.
could more than hold his own in the company of Emerson, Wakeman, Moraz et al and the compelling evidence is in abundance on this recording where he is as equally supportive as an accompanist as he is virtuosic a soloist on piano, organ, Moog or 'Tron.
Most of the band's best work is included here and what niggles I have are very few and far between. The only blemishes that cause me to shave off a star are as follows:
'Hold Your Head Up' is played too fast to the point of slapstick. Having gigged in pub bands in my 20's I know that the sinking of a few ales wedded to the adrenaline rush of live performance can give rise to unscheduled hikes in tempo. Here the tune just sounds as rushed and lacking in groove as that of 'Hoedown' from 'Welcome Back My Friends' which also represents another hollow victory for accuracy over feel. We can forgive ingratiating quotations from 'We'll Keep a Welcome' in front of an appreciative Welsh audience from Swansea certainly but at over 10 minutes the lads are guilty of milking their cash cow into the abattoir. Trivia fans: Please note that the intended lyric to the chorus is 'Hold Your head up woman' but this is often obscured by Rod's high organ glissando conjoined with a falsetto scream. A hitherto unknown feminist anthem?
'I am the Dance of Ages' gets bo-toxed from a modest 4 minutes on the studio original to just not very shy of 10 stamina sapping ones and loses much of its impact as a result. It still retains its knowing strutting pomp but like many successful short stories, doesn't work when stretched into a novel
Although they never had the grandiose breadth of ELP, the sophisticated compositional stretch of Yes
or the theatrical allure of Genesis
never put out a single turkey during their 8 album career and avoided entirely disappearing up their own backsides during some orchestral manoeuvres in the dark (Works) or recounting a mystical pilgrimage to your own navel (Topographic Oceans)
Conflicts arising from striking a balance between lyrical hooks and instrumental substance were the battle ground of many Prog bands and the Rod/Russ dichotomy at the heart of Argent
was perhaps mirrored by the same pivotal relationship that existed between Keith/Greg in ELP. There was nothing particularly original about Argent
, a group whom cynics might say abandoned the Zombies sublime baroque pop of the first 3 albums and jumped aboard Prog's shiny new speeding bandwagon. That seems in retrospect, gratuitously harsh and as someone who adores both the Zombies and Argent
, I can heartily recommend the first three albums to lovers of the former and the remainder, to lovers of all music that values the memorable above memorabilia.