As self-fulfilling prophecies go, Status Quo‘s name has proved something of a double-edged sword. Over the past forty-odd years they’ve become part of the comfy furniture of British cultural life, to be wheeled out for charity telethons or Lottery show appearances between their annual head-banging processions around the nation’s arenas and conference centres. But this middle-of-the-road ubiquity has seriously detracted from recognition of what a great, eccentric rock band Status Quo are.
Singer-guitarist Francis Rossi was already a veteran musician at 18 when ‘Pictures of Matchstick Men’ brought Quo to national prominence at the beginning of 1968. Their 1960s records displayed a unique variety of crunchy, primitive pop-psych, like some trans-dimensional Einstein-Rosen Bridge between the fizzing Holloway Road productions of Joe Meek and the tense, melodic fuzz of early Nirvana. Status Quo quickly evolved through the brilliant, experimental hard rock minimalism of albums like Dog of Two Head before filleting it all down to their trademark sound on 1972’s Piledriver, and everything since has been gilding the lily; sometimes successfully, sometimes not. But although Status Quo’s driving, relentless, piston-driven boogie is at the core of their reputation, the fact that Rossi for one is a huge Everly Brothers fan is a key to their enduring pop appeal. Like the Everlys – or indeed Nirvana – Quo at their best write concise, melodic pop songs built on hooks and harmony, their deceptive simplicity nowhere near as easy to conjure as it may seem, even for masters of the game. If it wasn’t obvious already, this fact was laid bare on 2014’s Aquostic, a set of acoustic re-workings of some of their best known numbers. Rossi and co-founder Rick Parfitt also bared nearly all on the cover; no little undertaking for two geezers in their mid-sixties not best known for extolling the virtues of the gymnasium and the fat-free diet.
Status Quo return to Brighton on December 11th as part of their Accept No Substitutes tour, promoting a new greatest hits package with what may be one of your last chances to see them rocking out in a full, loud, electric show. I spoke to a garrulous and surprisingly unguarded Francis Rossi about honesty, ice cream, punk rock, the possibility of Steve Albini producing one last, valedictory Status Quo album, and how it felt to be coming back to the Brighton Centre for what must be the umpteenth time.
“Yeah it’s funny innit? You think oh, not again. I can’t believe how many times I’ve played there. I first walk out there sometimes and think I wonder why they’ve turned up at all. And it’s kind of weird because you’re frightened, and I think I’ve always been frightened, but you’re frightened in case it goes wrong. And then you think well they wouldn’t have bought the frigging ticket unless they were halfway interested.”
Did you come up to Brighton much way back in the early days, before you were playing such big places?
“We played in a place called the Big Apple; I think it was where the cinema is now. It was with Van der Graaf Generator, all sorts of bands like them, they used to put loads of acts on some nights and it’d just go on and frigging on. I remember we had quite a good response there, but I only really remember Brighton now for the Brighton Centre. We seem to have been playing there forever. But I like to go down there occasionally and have scallops in the Lanes.”
You grew up as part of the Rossi ice cream family.
“Yeah, that’s me. I used to work in my grandparents’ mini-factory; I remember making lollies and loading up the ice cream into these things for the drivers that went out. And in December ’67, on the 20th I passed my test and on February 1st I was to take delivery of an ice cream van, and off I was going; that was going to be the thing, you know. And then ‘Matchstick Men’ hit the chart, and I was like, yes! Thank god for that! However now I think about it and it would have been alright to be in the family business, but in those days I think we were escaping a post-World War II black and white bombsite world. We were trying to escape it all the time and things were going to be wonderful. I now think differently, but then again, I would.”
Were you ever tempted to borrow the ice cream van to get to gigs?
“Yeah, we went to a few early gigs in my dad’s ice cream van. We used to get stopped a lot, because an ice cream van milling around at 11 o’clock at night, they used to think, hello. And we’d have bits of gear in it and we’d all be sat up in the back and sat on fridges and stuff, and my dad would take us in and out of certain venues. But that stopped quickly because it was a fucking ice cream van! The times we’d get pulled over. Yeah, we did that occasionally. You’d go to gigs in whatever the bloody hell you could find. Whatever people would take you in, you know; anything to do a gig.”
What sort of music do you listen to now out of choice?
“I really like to put the radio on. I get hit by the radio which is what I like best of all, because I’m very much like a punter then. I just listen to it and I don’t think about who it is or whether I should like it or not, I just hear it and I either like it or I don’t. The last thing I really bought was those Muse albums I think, I was kind of taken with that lot. Or Taylor Swift; I really like her. Two of my children were into her earlier albums, and there’s that country-ish value that I really like, but since she moved into pop with ‘I knew you were trouble’, which is a fantastic piece of work, they’ve gone off her because oh, she’s gone a bit poppy. I’m thinking it’s just going over and over like it used to when I was 18. If something went poppy, oh, you’ve made a bad mistake. And now I’m thinking no; I am pop. I love pop music.
“I find that a sad thing that’s affected so much music, particularly heavy rock and thrash and all that stuff; it’s so image driven that they wouldn’t dare listen to something that was out of it, or didn’t have enough tattoos, for argument’s sake. And I find that’s the weirdest thing with music; we want to intellectualise it and become elitist about it. ‘The music I like is very highbrow.’ I don’t give a fuck; do you like it? It’s a bunch of melody and a bunch of notes. One of the things I quite like about myself is that I hear something and I fall in love with it. I don’t care what it means, who likes it, whether it’s the right image, whether the bloke in Quo should be liking that kind of thing. And I think I’ve upset a lot of our punters over the years in that I like country music or whatever. Even some of the people who are in the background of the business working it are ‘no, it’s not right to like that’. And I just like it. I don’t understand why we do that with music.”
There’s a few people who see past that; for instance, John Peel was always a big fan of yours, whether you were cool or not, and he was always open about it.
“Yes. I remember I was walking through a field at some festival years ago and he came up to me and said I’ve got to apologise to you. He said when he first heard Matchstick Men he loved it, and like a lot of people, the image it created when they were listening to it was of this hip little band. And he said as soon as I saw you on Top of the Pops I thought oh, I’ve made a mistake, because of the way we looked. The same thing happened to me with ‘Yellow River’ by Christie, when I saw them; I loved the record but as soon as I saw them I was like: whoops! And he came back and he said it’s not like me to do that, I’d like to apologise. And coming from him that was quite something, because he was true, you know. “
Punk happened just as Status Quo were hitting their stride in the mid-seventies, but you were already playing solidly melodic, back to basics loud rock that wasn’t that far removed from the Ramones or the Sex Pistols in a way.
“Yes! Thank you! Thank god someone’s said that! Also that pogoing thing; I used to say all us cramped oldies have been doing that for ages. However I initially thought that the idea that they were against establishment rock, which if you like was acts like us, and saying they didn’t want the fame, they didn’t want the limos – well they fucking lied. They lied worse than we did! They lied worse than the entire industry does. And the idea that they tried to make themselves sound incapable of playing; if you listen to the Clash you can hear them getting better and better and beginning to play quite nicely. That to me is what being in a band has always been; you try and improve. And there were definitely people trying to say no, I can’t play really; which wasn’t true.”
I saw some press earlier this year, casting some doubt as to whether there would be another Status Quo album. Do you think you will do another album?
“We’re going to do another Aqoustic one. I’m quite looking forward to that. But when we did – it’s either Quid Pro Quo or In Search of the Fourth Chord– I felt we’d almost got to become AC/DC. They were all pretty much the same BPM and the keys were very close, and it was really good, but I remember thinking at the end of that album that I wouldn’t know where to go if we had to do another one. I wouldn’t have a fucking clue. And luckily we did the movie [2013’s ‘adventure comedy’ Bula Quo], which meant we had a soundtrack album; again it took away any ‘it’s got to be this, it’s got to be that’. We just did whatever we fancied. And then going into Aquostic was really interesting. We’re definitely going to do another one of those; whether we do another rock one – I don’t personally think I want to.”
I can imagine you doing something like how Johnny Cash did that late run of albums with Rick Rubin; that whole back to basics, raw sounding recording, doing a Quo album in that vein.
“Maybe, but that would mean bringing in the old players, and I’m not going to do that. And you mentioned Rick Rubin, but about x years ago everyone wanted to work with Rick Rubin and I always find that they say ‘if you get him in, it’ll be great’. Well what about the band? It’s got to be about the band, or the band’s material. If the material’s going to be paying off then yeah; then you can do it basic, you can do it completely overblown, do what you like – if the material’s there and the melodies are there it’ll be fantastic. But sometimes the inference is that you can take a sack of shit, take it back to basics and they’ll love it. It ain’t gonna work. But it’s a suggestion; I don’t really know.”
Do you know the producer Steve Albini?
“No I don’t.”
He worked with Nirvana and he’s very much about the guys in the room and capturing that sound. He just records it, he doesn’t really produce, but he gets a really good, dirty raw sound.
“I still fight against producers because I want to do it myself. I don’t really need telling what to do. It’s like, it’s my song and I don’t really want that done with my song. He may be able to do something better with it, but then again he may not, and it’s too late once you’ve gone down that route. And I’m not really sure I’m good with friction in the room. I’m told it sometimes brings out great product; in my experience it hasn’t done. Maybe it has with other people.
“At the moment I’m very much focussed on trying to do the second Aquostic album because I really enjoyed the first one, and obviously it was successful. It’s the physicality of the Quo thing; in the last five or six years, Christ I’m beginning to feel it. I’m 66; I’ll be 67 by the time we go out next year. It’s beginning to hurt. With the acoustic shows the physical commitment isn’t anywhere near what it is on those electric shows. It feels new, fresh and different, and yet you’re kind of in the same place. But I don’t know. Come February you could be talking to me again saying well you changed your frigging mind!”
The upcoming tour though is a full electric show playing songs from across the full range of your career, right?
“Well yeah, the set doesn’t change too much in the last few years. We seem to have got it to the point where we’re doing the ones that get the optimum response and the optimum vibe from us. People have come to us with their suggestions for a set, and you look at them on paper and yeah, it looks great, but when you try to fit them together in a live situation something else happens. But yeah we’ll do all the things that people expect from us and one or two other things, album tracks, as we do; as bands of our generation do. You do what the fuck you can.
“People want you to say ‘Oh, you’ve got to come along, it’ll be fantastic!’ But I don’t know that. I really don’t! I’m hoping it will be, but I can’t deal with it whenever any of my peers or contemporaries says ‘Oh, it’s going to be marvellous, we’re going to rock out tonight!’ You’re lying. You hope you are; your bum’s twitching away there hoping it’ll work. Be truthful! I don’t know if that sells any more, but there you go.”