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There's Silver in the Mainstream


By Frederick Boyd

Diane first told us about Argent. It was two years ago, and a friend and I used to go into the Coop record department just to hand out, because we never had any money. We'd just gotten to be regulars, the point at which people began to mistake us for employees, when we met Diane, who really did work there. We started to show up just to see her. And everytime we did, she'd slide over and say just one word, "Argent," in a very sultry voice. Seemed she sang with a band, which had played a weekend at the Tea Party with Argent, and she had come away raving. So she plugged their first album, to anybody who'd listen, in the Coop and elsewhere.

It took two years and AM radio before I found Argent for myself. I heard "Hold Your Head Up" on the radio and thought it was McCartney, until I heard its organ break. It's still one of the finer things on AM playlists. It's rare enough I buy an album for one cut; this is the first record I've ever bought on the basis of one song played on the radio.

Rod Argent was a Zombia. You must remember the Zombies, a third-stream-English-invasion band. They had two hits, "She's Not There," and "Tell Her No" then disappeared for four years. In 1968, they made a single, "Time of the Season," and an album for Columbia. They broke up soon after, and Argent formed Argent, named, according to the group, because "the others feel that the identity of the band stemmed from his original purpose."

Their latest, "All Together Now," is comfortably situated in the mainstream of English rock. And therein lies the group's problem. Argent is consistently faithful to the roots of English rock, so faithful, in fact, that much of its impact is lost. The result is an album that is good, but not outstanding.

Most of the songs fall neatly into types. "Keep on Rollin" is pure Little Richard in tone, but moves beyond him finally. Rod Argent's piano opening and solo are both boogie-oriented, but emphasize notes, where Little Richard was content simply to pound chords. This is an Argent-Chris White composition, and as such stresses keyboards.

Russ Ballard is not only Argent's guitarist, he also writes nearly half the band's songs. Ballard's songs emphasize guitar as much as Argent's rely on organ and piano. "Tragedy", opens with a good soul band guitar lick, that becomes the basis of the tune. Rod Argent's role on this one is to build the total sound with his full-bodied chords, and to play a smoothly-phrased duet with Ballard during the break. The transitions between chorus bridge and break are smooth--repeated listening shows this to be one of the band's strong points. Though Ballard doesn't play a solo here, he gets by with some nice chorzs over a syncopated bass and drum lick.

"He's a Dynamo" is the other Ballard rave-up. The shouted vocal owes a bit to Steve Miller's pioneer work in the field of white blues singing. Argent's piano playing here is strictly honky tonk: in total concept, the song faintly echoes some of Fleetwood Mac's later efforts. Ballard takes his only solo on this tune, and shows himself to be an adequate guitarist, even if he does sound like a cautious Jimmy Page.

"Pure Love" is the longest cut on the album, and also the weakest. It is classically divided: fantasia, prelude, the main body, called "Pure Love," and finale. The fantasia and prelude are simply unnecessary. They only serve as a platform for some keyboard exercises. "Pure Love" is English blues at its worst. The English do not play blues well, even though we owe its revival to them. Most successful English blues is parody, like Humble Pie's nine minute travesty "I Wonder," which succeeds totally because it's so obviously a travesty. "Pure Love" takes itself too seriously. ("I Am the Dance of Ages," has a nice beat, but its use of wind and thunder makes it sound over-emotional.)

Which leaves two unclassifiable songs. "Hold Your Head Up," and "Be My Lover, Be My Friend." These two, not surprisingly, are also the best. The insistence, the steadiness of the bass and drums in "Hold Your Head Up" make it perfect for AM radio. Rod achieves an overdubbing effect early in the break by playing lines with both hands. The rest of the long break is characterized by a full sound on the organ; Argent builds by level to his climax, but does no without any (Keith) Emersonian flash or frenzy. Again, there's a smooth transition, featuring an echoed, insistent "Hold Your Head Up" chant, into the final chorus and verse.

"Be My Lover" is similarly structured. It begins with a full organ opening leading to an excellent basic riff from the rhythm section. (Ballard's chording is exceptional here, as it is on his own songs, and throughout.) Argent's gradual entry into the song for the break emphasizes his tendency to build a solo. There's a certain unpredictability in his explorations, both here and on "Hold Your Head Up," that results in an increased interest on the part of the listener. Argent's influences are subtle, and echo so well the texture of his solo that the finished whole is completely his.

Argent's tendency to lighten everything they do has lessened their importance. They are one of the five best unknown rock bands in creation by choice. They seem content to play in the rave-up mainstream of English rock: albums of two rave-ups, mediocre blues, and a couple of tunes to acknowledge roots in R and B. Argent's strong point is simply that they do what they do so well with the assistance of one of rock's finer keyboard players in the tradition established by Steve Winwood. It's not a taxing, or particularly innovative music, but it's eminently listenable. And that should count for something.

Oh yeah, I ran into Diane on the street Sunday afternoon. She's just back from two years in Vermont, and she's singing in a new band. I thanked her for the tip.

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