The Sound Of Status Quo
For a band whose trademark heads-down-no-nonsense-boogie sound became one of the key signatures of British rock in the 1970s, it’s nigh on impossible to recall now how out of step with prevailing trends Status Quo were at the dawn of that decade. Having enjoyed huge success in the late-60s with flower-power era singles like ‘Pictures of Matchstick Men’ and ‘Ice in the Sun’, by 1970, in fact, Quo looked to be a spent force.
"It’s weird when I look back,” says singer-guitarist Francis Rossi now, "cos we were almost like a boy band back then: told what to wear, what to play, what to say. We were just kids doing what they were told. Even though I’d written ‘Matchstick Men’ – while sitting at home on the toilet, as it happens – most of the stuff we did as singles was chosen for us by our management.”
When that formula had begun to dry up though the band suddenly found themselves heading for the scrapheap. "It was worrying,” says the band’s other principle singer-guitarist, Rick Parfitt, "cos it really did look like we’d had our bite at the cherry and now things had moved on. Other bands we’d played with like Fleetwood Mac and Deep Purple had moved on to bigger and better things while we were sort of stuck in a rut.” Worse still, they were sick of their own music. "If we didn’t like what we did how could expect anyone else to,” reflects Francis. "It really did feel like we were going in ever decreasing circles. But that was when we sort of had our breakthrough.”
With their own management and record company rapidly losing interest too, Rossi and Parfitt couldn’t see the point anymore in donning the Carnaby Street clobber that had been their defining look throughout their first flush of fame; they couldn’t even see the point in playing the few hits they had become known for. "We were sick of the whole thing,” remembers Rick, "so we just went onstage one night in our normal street gear, which was jeans and T-shirts. We’d never done anything like that before but we immediately began to feel better. And we stopped bothering to play the hits – no one was really interested anymore anyway, cos the whole music scene had moved on so much by then – and just started to play simple blues and rock’n’roll. The sort of thing we were listening to ourselves at the time.”
The result was an epiphany for the band – and the beginning of a whole new era for both Status Quo and British rock in general. "The big turning point for me actually occurred onstage,” says Rick. "We didn’t have any real direction sorted out yet. We’d basically given up trying to find one and just started doing our own thing - which was fine. But the thing that really made us think we might be on to something was the audience. In those days everyone used to sit cross-legged on the floor. It was the hippy era, you know, and everything was really laidback, man” he smiles.
"But we’d go on, start rocking things up, and slowly they’d start to nod their heads in time to the music. Next thing they’d be standing up, still nodding their heads, but really getting into it. What you’d call headbanging now, except they hadn’t invented that term yet. And me and Francis and our bass player Alan Lancaster just started copying them, really. They’d be standing their headbanging and me and Francis and Alan would line-up together doing the same thing. It became a real thing at our gigs. Suddenly – hey presto! – you had the whole Quo thing going on. Once it started, it never stopped…”
The first record the band released in their new denim-and-boogie style was ‘Down the Dustpipe’, in March 1970. Written by an Australian singer-songwriter named Carl Groszmann, though it was not an original Quo tune, ‘Dustpipe’ was the first Quo record to feature their soon-to-be trademark boogie shuffle. As Francis later told me, "It already had that blues element to it anyway but we just took it that little bit further, and it quickly became one of the most popular numbers in our new live set.”
Although it rarely got played on the radio, ‘Down The Dustpipe’ became such a highlight of the Quo live set that it became a word-of-mouth hit amongst regular gig goers, reaching No. 12 in the UK charts for one week in May 1970. "It wasn’t a big hit,” says Francis. "But it was all the encouragement we needed to keep going in our new direction.”
The other key element of ‘Down the Dustpipe’ was that it featured, on harmonica, someone who was to play an even bigger part in the Quo story in the years to come: the band’s tour manager Bob Young. The band had met Bob back in 1968 when he was working as tour manager for Amen Corner. They were so impressed with him that they offered him a job working with them instead and fortunately for all future generations of Quo fans Bob accepted.
A few years older than the boys in the band he nonetheless became their best friend on the road. Soon he was joining them onstage for the encores, blowing away on the harmonica. Prior to becoming a roadie, he had been in a group called The Attack. Soon he was also joining in with the band on the tour bus, sitting around playing guitar and jamming with them. "Before I knew what was happening, me and Bob were actually messing around writing songs together,” says Francis. One of the first songs they would put together, in fact, was a slowed-down, country-flavoured version of a song that is now regarded as one of Quo’s greatest ever singles: ‘Caroline’.
"We wrote the lyrics together on a paper serviette in the dining room of a hotel in Perranporth, Cornwall, in the summer of 1970,” Francis recalls. It would be another couple of years though before the song got hammered into the shape it is today, with its police-siren riff and jet-propelled rhythm. Instead, the first hit Francis and Bob wrote together for Quo was a song called ‘In My Chair’, another mainstay of the new show which scraped into the charts towards the end of 1970, reaching No. 21.
Suitably encouraged, Francis and Bob sat down to see what else they might come up with together. Practically the first songs to emerge were yet more future Quo classics in the shape of ‘Don’t Waste My Time’ – destined to become the cornerstone of the Quo live set for years to come – and the almost ridiculously catchy ‘Paper Plane’.
Francis still wrote with Rick (‘Big Fat Momma’, another early Quo classic, dates from this time) and Rick wrote often with Alan Lancaster (as evidenced on later Quo mainstays like ‘Softer Ride’ and ‘Blue Eyed Lady’). But it was the Rossi / Young imprimatur that would adorn some of the band’s biggest hits throughout the coming decade, including ‘Caroline’, ‘Down Down’ and many others. Eventually, Rick, too, would write with Bob, coming up with later hits such as ‘Mystery Train’ and ‘Living on an Island’.
Francis: "People ask why I wrote more with Bob than with Rick or the others, and the honest answer is: because I seemed to come up with better stuff with Bob than I did when I wrote with anyone else. There is just something I find very comfortable about working with Bob. Maybe it’s because he’s not in the band, he comes at it from a very pure, open-minded angle. He’s not afraid to go with the flow and try things. Alan could never write like that. Rick could but he has his own thing going, which is coming from a very rock’n’roll angle. Whereas me and Bob would mess around with anything: blues, country, pop… Grabbing bits and pieces from all sorts of places and throwing them together like a stew.”
Rick: "I didn’t mind in the least. I have never been what you would call a prolific songwriter anyway. I just enjoy contributing here and there. Plus, Bob was just one of those guys we all got on really well with.”
Despite these encouraging signs, the band’s then record company, Pye, was primarily a singles-oriented label and neither of the band’s first two albums in their rapidly developing new style – Ma Kelly’s Greasy Spoon (a title suggested by Bob), released in September 1970, and Dog Of Two Head (no ‘s’, just a nickname they’d given their equipment van) released the following summer – was a chart hit, despite picking up good reviews. By now the band’s old management team had bailed out too and the decision was taken to go for not just a whole new musical direction, but a new manager and a new record label.
"We thought the only chance we’ve got of making this work is to completely start afresh,” says Rick. "We even thought about changing the name of the band, too, I think at one point. But by then we’d built up a whole new following and we didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.”
Enter new band manager: Colin Johnson, one of the leading lights of Gaff Management, whose main clients were then Rod Stewart and the Faces. It was Colin who "made our most important decision early on,” says Rick, when he decided to take the band to the Vertigo label. A relatively new label set up specifically to promote rock bands, they had already enjoyed huge success with such acts as Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep and Gentle Giant when Colin Johnson first persuaded them to take a chance on the new, heavier rocking Status Quo.
Having spent the summer honing their new material at outdoor festivals – including a well-reviewed appearance on the bill at that year’s Reading Festival – Quo went in to record their first album for Vertigo in September 1972. Determined not to have anyone outside the band exert any more control over their music, they produced the album themselves with the help of a young and enthusiastic engineer named Damon Lyon-Shaw. The result, released just before Christmas of 1972, was the aptly named Piledriver – now regarded as one of the greatest rock albums of the 1970s. More importantly for the band back then, however, it was also a huge hit, spending a total of 37 weeks in the UK charts over the next 12 months, its success kick-started by the release of the biggest Quo single since ‘Matchstick Men’ nearly five years before, and now one of their most famous ever songs, ‘Paper Pane’, which hit the Top Five in January 1973.
‘Paper Plane’ had actually begun life as a Bob Young poem which Francis picked up and turned into the amped-up headbanger that we know today. An interesting piece of Quo trivia here was that the "three grand Deutcher car” he sings about in one of verses was a reference to the new Mercedes 600 the band was now travelling in to gigs as a result of the advance from Vertigo.
"Suddenly we were on the radio and telly again only it was like we were a whole new band,” remembers Francis. "Although that old clip of us doing ‘Matchstick Men’ on Top Of the Pops would be played to death over the years, it was only because no one could really remember us from those days now. After ‘Paper Plane’, it was like the past didn’t exist, we’d started again with a whole new look and sound – and now a whole new audience was buying it.”
They never looked back. As Rick says, "By the time ‘Paper Plane’ was a hit, we looked as one, and though it wasn’t intentional, it was a powerful image for a rock band to have.” In an era when rock artists were still required to release two albums a year, within six months the band were looking to repeat the success with their second Vertigo single and album. No pressure then. "Actually, it didn’t seem to matter cos we were really on a roll by then,” says Rick. "Not compared to the pressure we were under when we weren’t having success anyway, put it like that. Suddenly we knew exactly what we were doing. It was just a case of hanging on for the ride.”
Indeed, with tracks like ‘Don’t Waste My Time’, ‘Big Fat Momma’, ‘Paper Plane’ and their version of the Doors’ song, ‘Roadhouse blues’, the Piledriver album set the template for everything Status Quo would achieve in their career. As such, ‘Caroline’ and Hello!, the revved-up single and album that followed, brought new meaning to the phrase if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it. Except these were arguably even greater examples of the dynamic and freewheeling new Quo sound. As well as what would become the obligatory Rossi and Young hit in ‘Caroline’, there was also ‘Roll Over Lay Down’, credited to Francis, Bob and the rest of the band, plus the first real Rossi and Parfitt classic in ‘Forty-Five Hundred Times’.
The upshot was that Hello! was the first Quo album to go to No. 1. "Suddenly it was like we could do no wrong,” says Francis. Between ‘Caroline’, in 1973, and ‘Rockin’ All Over The World’, in 1977, in fact, Quo would released ten singles in all, every one of which was a Top Five hit in the UK, including the band’s first No. 1 single ‘Down Down’, in January 1975 (replacing ‘Lonely This Christmas’ by Mud at the top of the charts). In the same period, the band also released six studio albums and one live album, all of which would also reach the Top Five, with three of them getting to No. 1. It was the same story around the rest of Europe (particularly Germany where the band remain huge to this day) and in both Canada and Australia.
"It sounds a cliché but they really were crazy days for us,” says Rick. "I’d just got married when ‘Paper Plane’ took off and suddenly we were off to America, Australia, Japan… plus at least two major tours of Britain and Europe each year. I was hardly home at all anymore. The money from Quo was really starting to roll in now, though, and so I felt pretty confident that we had done the right thing.”
With the money and the fame came some of the other problems familiar to rock stars of the 70s. As Rick cheerily admits, "If you look at the pictures of us from the 70s, you’ve only got to see the bleary expressions on our faces, or notice the slight smirk on our lips, to tell what’s going on. Francis and I look at those pictures now and go: ‘Ah, yes, we were coked-out in that one; doped-up to our eyeballs in that one; and speeding out of our heads in that one.’ It’s scary actually, how easy it is to tell. As far as we were concerned, though, we were simply living the life of a ‘normal’ successful rock band. Queen, Elton, the Stones… who wasn’t living like that back in the 70s? No one we knew.”
Along the way, Quo became such a household name that fun would be made of their uncanny ability to keep turning out the hits, the running joke about the band never using more than three chords to write their songs becoming as oft-told as the one about the chicken crossing the road. But as Rick says, "People can joke all they like, I know exactly how many chords have gone into our songs over the years and I can tell you, because I’ve had so many other musicians telling me, most groups would give their right arm to have written the amount of hit songs we have.”
"To me, there’s two ways of looking at it,” says Francis, philosophically. "You can say all our records sound the same, which they obviously don’t – and me and Rick should know having written nearly all of them between us. Or you can say we’re in that bracket with groups like the Rolling Stones, U2, Bruce Springsteen… groups where as soon as one of their records comes on you know exactly who it is. Few artists achieve that distinction, I can tell you, and I’m proud that Status Quo has become one of them. The minute records like ‘Down Down’ or ‘Whatever You Want’ come on the radio you know exactly who it is you’re listening to – it really couldn’t be anyone else, and that’s the way I want it to stay.”
As for the accusation that their songs don’t ‘mean’ anything, compared to, say, Genesis or Yes, or other mid-70s contemporaries, again Francis has the perfect riposte. "For a start it’s simply not true. Not always anyway. For instance, that line in ‘Down Down’ that goes ‘I want all the world to see, to see you’re laughing, that you’re laughing at me’ – that was actually written about my first wife. On the other hand, the title ‘Down Down’ doesn’t really mean anything at all, it just sounds good, so we used it. In fact, I’ve lost count of the times people have written to me, or sidled up to me at some party, to tell me they know what ‘Down Down’ really means. I always assure them it has nothing to do with ‘going down’ – in any sense – but of course they never believe me. And that’s the secret of Pink Floyd – people put their own meanings into things, especially music, whether it’s classical or pop or rock.”
And the secret of Quo? It’s all there on Piledriver, Hello! and the other albums that defined their style, their substance, and what has now become their legacy. Or as Rick puts it, "We’re just a bloody good rock band. If you like your rock’n’roll, you’ve come to the right place with Status Quo.”
Amen to that.
Mick Wall, August 2008