Here is a long and insightful interview with one of Britain`s most successful musicians, notching up hit single after hit single. This one should be good for the Quo fanatics.
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Mike Rossi in the talk in
Words by Jerry Gilbert
How did the original band get together and who was in it at that time?
It started when I was at school with Alan (Lancaster), our bass player, and we were just messing around. You start bands because you want to be a star and we had a guy on organ who could play accordion at the time and we had John who had left school and was in the Army Training Corps. This was in `61-`62 in South London and we just breezed on from there basically. We did our first gig but it all took time. I remember we used to be in this room in this organist`s house and we did “Sweets For My Sweet” by the Searchers and we were so pleased with it, and whenever we were pleased with a number we used to turn the lights out in the room and all you could see was the little red light on the organ, and we used to sit and freak over it just because the light was on it.
Which bands were around when you started out?
Johnny Kidd had “Hungry For Love” and “I`ll Never Get Over You” and things like that and there were millions of bands from Liverpool, the Big Three and all that. We started off doing sports club gigs for two or three pounds, but we had this lead guitarist… it`s funny I could never play lead guitar, I was always frightened of it… and all he could play was the intro, he couldn`t even play rhythm, so all the lead was played on organ.
Was it a difficult transformation for you to make in becoming a strident, out-front lead player?
Yeah, because I had a big thing about not being able to play lead guitar.
Was it down to ego or simply ability?
I think it was ability because it was just down to learning and it come about so slowly that I never really started playing what I call decent guitar until `68-`69. I was just dead scared of it for some reason which was a peculiar situation – I wish I`d really been into it then because I`d be so much better now.
So the line-up of the band has been virtually the same right through?
The line-up is the same, it`s just that we got another organist around `67. We did the whole Butlins thing and there we could have learnt a lot, we could have rehearsed a lot – we were strictly a rock and roll band, “Rock Around The Clock,” “Hound Dog”, every rock and roll number we did.
When we first got there they put us in the Pig and Whistle, this enormous pub and we didn`t dig that at all, so then they stuck us in the Rock and Roll Ballroom, but then the kids really didn`t want rock and roll, I don`t know why because there were so many things that we thought were tremendous.
Had you started writing at that time?
The first one to start writing was Alan, I think, but that was really early, in `62-`63. The first thing he ever wrote was “You Are My Girl”, or something like that.
We were doing various things, we did a thing called “Teenage Frankenstein” which was a rocking twelve bar thing which was really good, but there were so many words crammed into a tiny space that you could hardly sing it – I used to get really out of breath singing it but it was no good because it was rock and roll. One pop number we did was a Billy Fury thing and also a lovely “B” side that he did called “Nothing Shaking But The Leaves On The Trees.”
There was an incredible solo in it for the time and I had no chance of playing it – peculiar days those.
So you were influenced almost entirely by rock and roll?
Yes, but before “Pictures Of Matchstick Men” there was the big soul thing and you had to do “Ride Your Pony” and and things. You had to go along with it because you couldn`t get work otherwise – you couldn`t do your own stuff.
But was the general scene then much more fun to play on than it is now?
I think everything now is much more healthy, it`s really good. There was that time in `68, `69 when it got very pseudo and very cool until they realised that by trying to be cool they were being uncool.
I suppose that was the period after the hits when you went ahead and played your music regardless?
Yeah, in `69 it really was hard times. We`d been through the whole hit thing and there was no work. Record sales at that time were so bad that you could probably get to number one with about 90,000 or 100,000 sales, but today things are so much better.
People are slagging the Osmonds and that but they`re selling records and they`re making the market much wider and much more alive which is great. I`m not saying that I like the Osmonds because what they`re doing isn`t me, but they make good records. I can say “I don`t like that but it`s good.”
Why do you think Quo have suddenly come back into favour? Do you think it`s just because the press have suddenly woken up to you and that you`ve had a healthy following all along, or has there been a marked improvement in your music?
Before the single and before this album we`d built a large following and we were earning good money and pulling good crowds and before the single it had taken us a long time to build it right through little clubs into bigger clubs and bigger venues, and what with selling the single and selling the album and then the press coming along, it`s broken us… broken the band.
It`s great because everybody`s extremely happy about it, this is what we`ve been trying to do, and we hope in doing it we`ve earned respect for the band because we obviously want to be the biggest thing ever, not just for the money but for personal satisfaction.
To know that you`re liked is an incredible thing and you know when you`re on stage that it`s a great feeling to be liked, that`s why you`re doing it I think. An audience can destroy you in two seconds and make you feel really good or really bad. But it`s remarkable on stage to get that reaction.
You talk about success, but at one time success to you meant reaching number one in the singles charts. You must have been an extremely young band when you had those hits?
We were very young and very green and we didn`t know what was going on. We`d just got with Pye and in those days you were told what you should do and what you shouldn`t do and you were never allowed to be yourself. You weren`t encouraged to develop in any way, you were just a product manipulated to make money.
It was incredible – one minute you`re earning £30 a night and the next minute you`ve got a single that`s doing monstrous sales in England, number eight in America and number one nearly everywhere else and there`s millions of people you`ve never seen in your life saying what a great feller you are. You begin to wonder what`s going on and you just don`t know. It hits you like that and you end up wandering around like a zombie.
So how did you react to that success? It seems to have made you very cynical.
Well, very wary. After all the people that jumped on suddenly they were all gone. You were led to believe that you were a star, you see. I used to think that before the record I used to have this thing in the mind that a hit record would solve every problem, it would make you something you`re not, it would solve all your problems at home and this would be great. But it didn`t… all the problems were still the same, and that I really couldn`t handle at the time, but nothing else had changed, it`s just that we were selling records.
Not only that but at gigs the people didn`t know us, they just knew the record so along they`d come and you`d get two or three hundred people watching you and the rest were just at the gig.
Was your act based purely around the hit record of the day or did you have a solid working repertoire?
We weren`t ready for it at all. As I said we had to do the whole soul thing and we used to have to do those old things at gigs so that when all of a sudden we were big stars every minute of our time was taken so there was no time to rehearse, you didn`t control anything.
At the moment we control everything basically, any decision taken as a group is talked about. Yesterday on our way back from the airport we were discussing something we`d done was right or wrong – it`s funny because it`s something we wouldn`t have discussed years ago, we`d have just been starry eyed about it all.
After what you went through before, I guess you were prepared to handle the success this time.
We were prepared for it, but the greatest feeling is to know that we built a large following without a record. I suppose there must be people who come to see us on the tour who have bought the single and not the album, and are not a hundred per cent sure of what the band are doing. But now we know we`ve got the confidence in the band and its music to get across to those people.
Are you more aware of the presentation and visual aspect of your stage show?
The visual side of the band came about when… we realised we could do twelve bars, we`ve always done bluesy, boogie type things because of the old rock type things and we got to the stage where you would walk on stage, put your head down and then basically nod and you`d knock yourself out doing it. I mean there was nothing else for us – there`d be these small gigs and just a few people but gradually the gigs started to get stronger and really started to grow.
As for the nodding thing, someone once said we looked like a formation dance team as the head nodding got stronger and stronger, but the more you`re into it the more you can really go. It`s remarkable, once your head starts moving you can close off from anything, and that`s the thing that came about as a result of the three of us all standing together on stage and all going home.
But the stage thing isn`t an act and we don`t want people to expect us to go out there and put on a show as far as leaping around goes, it`s a thing that`s inside and when the whole thing`s giving you a buzz it`s great. But there have been gigs where it`s not been so good and the visual thing has been very relaxed because it`s not happening – I can`t stand to force anything.
Part of Quo`s thing always seems to have been a very basic approach and attitude towards the audience – right down to the very conversational way in which you introduce the numbers.
It`s much easier for us – if I`m talking to an audience the way I`m talking to you it`s very hard to get. Sometimes it`s great because there`s no barriers and I can be standing to them chatting, but other nights it`s slightly more tense and I`m only half getting through. But the times when I`m just standing there talking like this and you can feel it going across is beautiful.
Sometimes the things I say are incredibly funny and the band are laughing – it`s not a thing that I plan beforehand because we don`t want it to become mechanical and contrived. Sometimes I can stand on stage and talk to the audience and it`s really great, sometimes I stand on stage and talk to the audience and it`s really dead, the talking`s nothing.
You`re still doing a lot of stuff from the “Dog” album. You must feel a little sad that it got rather glossed over at the time.
That was like a favourite thing for us. It is a shame that it was glossed over but it`s picking up again. It`d probably have picked up a lot more if it had been with Vertigo and would have got a little more exposure now because that album is still very important to us.
Like “Piledriver”, there`s a lot in there and we really dug that album. We dig “Piledriver” but that was an album that was very close to us, it`s a really nice album and we really enjoy it.
We always find it hard to put something new into the act – it`s hard to put the “Piledriver” stuff in. We put the single in to the act and “Don`t Waste My Time” off the album and it was so hard to get `em rocking just naturally without thinking about it.
So the stuff from the “Dog” album is still predominating?
To an extent. We got “Roadhouse Blues” – we do that in the encore and we`ve been doing that for a while and we thought it would be nice on the “Piledriver” album because most people know it. I think we`re going to put in the slow blues, but it`s going to be hard because you get out on stage and to do “Don`t Waste My Time” which becomes “Unspoken Words” we`ve all got to get down mentally, tearful if you like.
When we did it in the studio it was late and it was dark and we did the thing and it was almost tearful the way we did it – it was a great feeling, another feeling, so we`ve got to really get down and try and feel down on stage so we can do “Unspoken Words”. If we can do it, it`ll be beautiful.
We`ve got other things coming along – off the next album – that it`ll be nice to do, but we need to do more from “Piledriver” first.
You`re collaborating a lot with Rob Young, I see.
Well, he`s been with the band… he started out in the truck and we used to use him to play harmonica on bits and pieces. He`s very good on the business side – in fact, everybody who works with us is very much like us, the roadies, the manager, everyone is like us, we`re all very close and it`s been the same for a long time. That makes a difference to us because Bob knows as Colin (Johnson) does what we want, what we lack and what we don`t want.
The writing seems to be shared fairly evenly. Do the collaborations happen naturally or do the songs take shape around a few riffs with everyone throwing in ideas?
In the past… Alan always writes on his own and years ago he used to do things with Bob, then I started writing a lot of things with Bob… and Richie. I do quite a few things with Richie, but lately we`ve been in the dressing room either before the gig or after and we just sit and blow and lots of things come out which are future things and could be really good.
We`re aware that they`re not up yet and marvellous yet, but we find things we didn`t know we could do – rather complex things I suppose compared with the way people see us because we`re basically very simple.
Do you think that as the band have developed the tendency is towards more complex music or more simplicity? Do you think complexity is a trap you can fall into?
It`s hard to say. Arrangement wise it could get more complex. When we`re on stage we get a good driving feeling, but if we`ve got to try and show off and show how clever we are, we don`t feel anything by adding intricate arrangements. It may come along gradually because things have started to become a bit more involved, but some people feel that whatever we do, we knock it up and it`s done because it`s so basic.
But each thing we do takes a lot out of us although the end thing is pretty straight and pretty simple. I wouldn`t like to see the music get too pseudo but it could get more involved. I don`t want to lose the communication we have – I wouldn`t want to go on stage and not be too sure whether I was enjoying it. I really don`t want to go out and baffle the audience.
Which numbers are you finding you`re getting most feedback from?
“Railroad” we get a lot out of. Once we get back on for “Railroad” and “Roadhouse Blues” they`re really enthusiastic. We get a lot of shouting for “Junior`s Wailing” … and out of all of `em really. But you`ve got to be careful because… we want to put all the things in on the album… “All The Reasons” which is on the album and it`s very melodic and gentle, it`s ever so nice and we`d like to do that on stage.
We`d like to do “Big Fat Mama” which we`ve done before on stage, and we`d like to do the whole album and the “Dog” album on stage – but we got our act up to about two and a quarter hours with encores and to keep an audience going for that long is difficult because people get really tired especially if the place is packed.
If you go on for two hours we start to get dizzy spells, and if we`re like that, most of the audience are usually leaping, really going it, so they must be getting like that, so in the end you have to decide where the point comes when they`ve had enough and we`ve had enough, not to go too far and lose it. We`d love to get those things in the act, though, and we don`t want to take anything out at the moment because there are going to be a lot of people seeing us on tour who haven`t seen us before and we`ve got to get across to.
You see we want to get across to everybody no matter what age. It`d be great if everybody dug Status Quo… that`s the obvious thing and it sounds silly but… there was a couple at Stoke and they were just stood there at the front, they looked like a right old couple, really straight, and they were digging it like crazy, so it would be really nice if we can get right across.
Has the rapidity with which the album and the single have shot up the charts surprised you?
I think we were lucky that… you see we couldn`t get the release before we did because we couldn`t get out of our other contract… there was a big court thing so we would probably have got it out earlier at the time, but it came out and were just lucky it came out at the right time. It`s just gone so well. I don`t know why it`s gone all of a sudden, it`s so strange.
Basically the single was an album track and it`s a great track as far as we`re concerned and as the single sold I suppose some people thought let`s try the album and maybe that`s why the whole thing`s going. You see the following we`ve got… they`re not the kind of people who will buy something just because it`s Status Quo. Like we did “In My Chair” and that sold incredibly well with no air play and no exposure and then we had a single after that which didn`t do a carrot and that was a shame, but it was good that people didn`t go out and buy it just because it was Status Quo.
“Paper Plane” didn`t sell just because it was Status Quo, it sold because people dug it and that`s the way it should be. If we put out another single from the next album and it doesn`t sell it won`t be a great hang up because if they don`t like it, that`s fine. I don`t really like the thought of people buying it because it`s the group.
Was “Paper Plane” recorded initially as a single or an album track?
It was originally on the album and it was put out by the new record company. We needed a product and it was a taster for the album to let people know we were still around because it was a long gap and we were getting worried.
I don`t think we could sit down now and write hit singles, but we`ve got a lot of things like that that`ll be on the next album – but whether or not they`ll be singles I don`t know. There are a couple of things we can see now that would be right.
You`ve only really had one personnel change right the way through.
Yes, the organist left about three and a half years ago. He just left… decided to sling his hook. It got very tight when he left and that`s no reflection on him, but it was just obvious that the organ was holding it back a little bit.
So Roy Lyons left and we got straight back into it and went to Scotland. The next night went straight on stage and it was really great, tight and the twelve bar things were obviously better and it was lovely – it`s been really tight since then.
But how serious was it around `68-`69? Was there any likelihood of the band breaking up?
It was pretty serious but what else could we do? If we split we could only have gone to another band or go back to work which none of us particularly wanted to do. But we went through a ballad period – we used to take a tape recorder round with us – we had this single which was our last try at having a hit. It was a lovely song so we had this big taped intro running right through the song and it used to go out of tune and all sorts of problems.
We did it twice and that was it. We were doing this kind of stuff and “Junior`s Wailing” in the same act. It was so strange. That was basically it, we thought, “Right, let`s just get on with it”, and that`s just what we did.
It must have really baffled a few people but that`s where the act really sorted itself out. It`s great, everybody`s happy now, everything`s the way we want it to be and there`s no problems. The only thing we`re going to get is… you know the better you do the more you get slagged off. But it`s all a bit of fun. We`ve managed to hang on through it all, and here we are.
I have personally transcribed this from the original paper. Any errors in the text from the original magazine may not have been corrected for the sake of accuracy. If you have a music-related web-page where this fits – please make a link to the article. With credits to the original writer of the article from all of us music fans!
This number of Sounds also contains articles/interviews with these people: Darryl Way (Curved Air), Sounds staff analyse David Bowie, Nazareth, Steve Marriott, Average White Band, Elton John, Geordie, Slade, Thin Lizzy, Stackridge, Peter Gabriel, Mike Heron, Jesse Winchester.
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