When people talk with warm nostalgia nostalgia about the glory years of British prog rock, one band so often overlooked is Argent. And yet in their own way they could match anything from the ELP, Genesis, King Crimson and Yes factories.
Argent were heavyweight, significant musicians who could write remarkable melodies, as well as improvise around song structures. Perhaps the main reason why Argent are still largely underrated is because there isn’t a classic studio album in their catalogue; rather, there’s a disparate collection of wonderful songs, such as Hold Your Head Up, Sweet Mary, Keep On Rollin’, It’s Only Money and God Gave Rock ’N’ Roll To You (no, Kiss didn’t write it).
Argent were led by keyboard virtuoso Rod Argent, a musician good enough to be the first-choice replacement for Rick Wakeman in Yes when the Caped Crusader quit in 1974. Rod had made his name with 60s chart toppers The Zombies, but when that band fell apart he decided to follow a more substantial, progressive direction, and in 1969 formed the band that bore his surname.
Rod was joined in Argent by his older cousin Jim Rodford on bass, plus drummer Bob Henrit and guitarist Russ Ballard, the latter pair snatched from British pop rockers Unit 4+2.
In the studio, Argent never really realised the potential of matching a great rhythm section (good enough to spend many subsequent years with The Kinks), a virtuoso keyboard player who was arguably up there with Wakeman or Keith Emerson, and a guitarist who has gone on to prove by writing a succession of hits that he had an innate sense of melodic proportion.
After five Argent studio albums, Ballard quit in 1974. Subsequently, the live Encore was released – which proved to be the best album of the band’s career because it showcased exactly what made Argent a great outfit: it had depth, precision, but also a spontaneity that bordered on the inspired.
Recorded on the 1974 Nexus tour (their last trek with Ballard), Encore draws primarily on material from Nexus and 1972’s All Together Now. And the strength of the live performances that were recorded ensure that every track on the album is a significant improvement on the studio original.
The band take liberties with their music, often going out on a limb, and yet they always remain in control. For example: listen to the way they turn Hold Your Head Up into a series of climactic exchanges between guitar and keyboards; and Music From The Spheres is really an astoundingly unbalanced, overblown jam session – self-indulgence that works.
There are also some surprises – such as the sensitive, Ballard-led I Don’t Believe In Miracles, and the finale, a rendition of The Zombies’ immortal song Time Of The Season – and occasional dips.
But if you thought Argent were only about a couple of hit singles, then Encore proves that they really were deserving of a place among the more revered names in prog rock.
This feature was originally published in Classic Rock 109, in April 2004.