It seems that Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt, having incautiously spunked a couple of king’s ransoms on bulk-bought cocaine during their infamous lost decade of nose-dusting over-indulgence, are making up for lost earning time. The men of the Quo will not rest until the entire planet surrenders to their relentless steamhammer boogie. And so, over the course of yet another virgin-territory-seducing day of bizarre incongruities, they’ve taken the world-rocking lingua franca of the 12-bar Quo gospel to the heart of the horse-racing fraternity.
Status Quo: Ol' Nag Blues
THEY’RE PLAYING GIGS AT RACE TRACKS, THINK EVERYONE’S LIVING A SEX, DRUGS AND ROCK’N’ROLL LIFESTYLE, AND ARE PARTIAL TO A BIT OF... RACHEL STEVENS?! JUST WHAT IS GOING ON IN THE WORLD OF QUO?
The more well-oiled and worldly of the Epsom Downs punting community are more than willing to enter into the spirit of the thing – even to the extent of trotting a mean foot through the greensward or hefting an exceptionally ironic air guitar for the amusement of their peers. But there’s also a fair number of binocular-toting turf traditionalists who are metaphorically popping their monocles in apoplexy at the presence of these din-making purveyors of long-haired jungle music.
“Bad show,” they are heard to pshaw into their Pimm’s, as the Quo grind out yet another of their enduring evergreens at a truly horse-bothering volume.
And funnily enough, ‘bad show’ isn’t terribly far from the opinion that’s being formed on stage: a stage that is unaccountably pointing away from Epsom’s packed grandstand and leaves the disgruntled Quo no available option but to rock in the wrong direction.
“They thought they were only going to have 4,000,” Francis Rossi latterly admits of the debacle, “So the production was aimed at 4,000 people, but in the end there were more than 17,000. So as well as the stage being in the wrong place, the sound was awful. But they seemed to enjoy it.”
Events such as this have become Status Quo’s stock-in-trade of late. Full-scale tours of successive one-nighters can wait until the winter months, for while the sun shines the Quo get among non-partisan captive audiences at race meetings, grands prix, forests, stately homes, castles and battleships.
“We don’t look on them as regular gigs,” says Rossi, “because we’re mostly playing to what we call floating punters. There’s a few hardcore down the front but the rest are going: ‘Oh, it’s those Status Quo chappies.’ So it helps you to get through to people that you wouldn’t normally and keeps you on your toes because you know that most of them are going: ‘I can’t stand this shit.’”
Arriving at Epsom Downs – or one imagines any race course – for the first time is a bit like being transported onto the deck of the Starship Enterprise: your surroundings and the behaviour of those around you seem totally familiar, but you can’t help but feel ever-so-slightly alien. Standing on the balcony of the Coronation Cup Room in the Queen’s Stand (as horses that you haven’t a prayer of identifying, let alone winning money on, flash by), you feel like an interloper with absolutely no business being anywhere quite so plush. It’s still an hour before Quo time so you adjourn to the downstairs bar where everyone seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to either Flash Harry Hackett of St Trinian’s or the Princess Royal. And then, after the ritual humiliation of having the finer points of each-way betting explained to you by a scowling matron who clearly believes you to be a mental pygmy with the numerical dexterity of a flask of soup, you simply want to click your heels together, recite the time-honoured ‘there’s no place like home’ mantra and wake up back at Wembley Arena.
But it’s not to be. Lilliputian jockeys are weighed, snorting nags foam at the mouth while their husbands tear betting slips into the world’s most expensive confetti, and you discover that by betting each way on short odds you actually win less money than your original stake. What, as they say, is that all about?
Rick Parfitt knows exactly what it’s all about: “My dad was a big betting man,” he remembers today, “my grandmother was as well. They both did a fortune on the bloody horses, by their standards anyway, and seeing that – particularly with my dad – put me off for life, because as far as I know the bookies win every time.”
“[Original Quo bassist] Alan Lancaster’s family were very keen on the horses,” says Rossi. “It was a big thing on their Saturday, but we Italians used to play cards, usually brag, on Christmas Eve. My uncles, father and grandfather used to start playing at seven o’clock on Christmas Eve and finish the day after Boxing Day. They only left the table to eat and to sleep for a couple of hours each morning. But as far as the horses go: some fucking chance. I probably should have gone into book-making, because most people lose, let’s face it.”
Following a few years in circumstances reduced by both cocaine and alcohol addictions, Rossi and Parfitt are poised to make a concerted onslaught on just about every area of the media available to them: XS All Areas is not only the title of the band’s forthcoming tour but also a double greatest hits album, DVD anthology and Francis and Rick’s hotly anticipated dual autobiography.
Status Quo’s intensive work rate seems to show no signs of abating, despite having played their ‘farewell show’ at Milton Keynes some 20 years ago. Rossi seems to enjoy the decidedly more sedate pace of the band’s summer touring schedule, but there are still bad days to counterbalance the good:
“It’s quite nice to become semi-pro in the summer; to just do a couple of gigs here and there is very pleasant. We did Audley End, it was a fantastic setting and we put on quite a good show in front of 6,500 people and it all went very well, but the following night somewhere near Southampton, it was the hottest day of the year and it affected the gig. We all came off thinking it was totally lacklustre. Not from the audience’s point of view, it was from us, we seemed like: what’s the fucking point? Rick says it’s like dragging a Morris Minor up a hill tied to your bollocks. That is how I feel we could be the ultimate boring band, because it didn’t seem to mean anything. The reaction was fine and the sound was really good, but it still didn’t seem to have that spark. I thought it was just me and then everybody came off and said that it just didn’t seem to have it, it was totally lacklustre. The heat and humidity took the edge off the gig. Some of the audience had been there since nine in the morning, and you think: ‘Why would you want to stand there all fucking day?’ I wouldn’t stand there to see God... in my day you’d take something else to see God, but we don’t want to go there, do we?”
Another cause of frustration for Francis when playing these summer ‘event’ shows is that in order to best please an audience largely made up of casual, passing trade, the Quo’s painstakingly paced set is honed down to a hits-only format: songs that he’s played a thousand times before.
“In the current set I most look forward to the four new ones; the Heavy Traffic _material. But we don’t do those on the corporate shows as we call them, those bank raids. We’re only on for an hour or 75 minutes whereas the normal set is an hour and 50, and it messes with the balance a little bit. The way the set’s paced, there’s a little dip in the middle where we do _Gerdundula and then it all builds up to the end, but when you take out the four new ones it doesn’t have the same dynamic.
“Sometimes a song gets dropped because it just isn’t fucking happening. It was like that for me with Paper Plane for a couple years, but it’s now back in as the opening number of the encore. Down Down has always been a problem for me. I don’t mind hearing it and I think it’s a nice little tune, but do I like doing it? Not at all, but the audience seem to love it to death.”
Shortly before taking to the curiously mis-angled Epsom stage, Quo emerge from the relative safe haven of their tour bus to press a little dignitary flesh. The local mayor – boasting an ornate chain of office to positively redefine your understanding of the word ‘bling’ – is in evidence, but the close proximity of the Quo rapidly strips him of any suggestion of stuffiness: “He was really up for it,” Parfitt offers, “I saw him down in the audience and he was really rocking.”
So do the Quo have a tendency to bring out the rock’n’roll in people normally uncontaminated by such a precious commodity?
“Well, something comes out in them,” smiles Francis. “It’s probably because people think we’re a wild band who’ve done extraordinarily wild things, which I think is one of the most ridiculous myths surrounding the so-called rock’n’roll lifestyle. It’s said that we have all this sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, but I’m trying to find anybody on the planet that doesn’t, other than perhaps a nun or a priest... and even then I’m not sure. This Friday evening most people will be washing their bits when they get home from work, they’ll be going out to have a drug whether it’s just cigarettes or alcohol, they’ll have sex and there is going to be music... So everyone’s doing sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Certain people try to do it seven nights a week while other people look at them and go: ‘It’s fantastic, innit?’ No, they’re dickheads. It’s like burning the candle at both ends and going: ‘Ouch, it hurts.’ What was that famous Tommy Cooper joke? A man goes to the doctor and says: ‘Every time I lift my arm up like this, it hurts.’ And the doctor says: ‘Well, don’t do it then.’”
When it came to being seven-nights-a-week, both-ends-burning ‘dickheads’, Status Quo not only bought the T-shirt, they helped design it and sew it together. So, do they now look back in bewilderment as to why they were so wilfully making life difficult for themselves during their extended chemical binge?
“Well, it felt so hip at the time,” shrugs Rossi, “and it was just the way to be, especially coke and alcohol. I’ve never really liked the taste of alcohol, but the dangerous point was when I had margueritas. I liked the taste and could drink six at a time. But cocaine I’m quite bemused by; how did I get there? I don’t know, but at the time I was doing shit-loads. It’s a learning curve I suppose, but I just can’t deal with being pissed or taking coke. I used to do coke, downers, uppers, bit of speed, sulphate and alcohol. I remember the amount of tequila I got through was fucking stupid, and I’d feel like a sack of shit. We used to have this thing called ‘The Sack List’, how many sacks of shit you felt, and then it became really apparent to me – what am I doing saying that we give a hundred per cent to our audience while turning up at a venue sacked and under par?”
“At the time,” says Parfitt, “you didn’t recognise that you were making life difficult for yourself because you thought that everything was fantastic, that you were always right and that you were doing the right thing. It was just complete debauchery, and I have to say that at the time I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it. I felt a bit rough here and there but we were 20 years younger then and we could get away with it. You could do it, and it was fun, and it was rock’n’roll, and we were a rock band and we went there; we lived the rock’n’roll lifestyle for a while and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, really. It was great, but looking back on it now, I think: ‘Christ, how did I do that?’ I’m lucky to have come through that time in a relatively healthy condition. A lot of our contemporaries have either died or gone completely out of the limelight, but we’re still lucky enough to be doing what we’re doing and living a healthy lifestyle. Overall, I think we’ve been blessed.”
Of course, shortly prior to the conclusion of Rick’s lengthy cocaine sojourn he was obliged to endure quadruple heart bypass surgery at the age of 48, so clearly one man’s ‘relatively healthy’ is another man’s ‘teetering on the brink’.
Autobiography, compilation album, video anthology, greatest hits tour: XS All Areas would appear to carry all the hallmarks of a last-ditch commercial blitz from a band in terminal decline, but think again: Quo are as vital today as they’ve been in at least a quarter of a century. And they’re poised to commence work on the eagerly awaited follow up to their last who-woulda-thunk-it? return-to-form album of original material, 2002’s Heavy Traffic.
“The songs are near completion,” says Parfitt of the as-yet-untitled collection that the band are scheduled to start recording in February, “We’ve just got to put the finishing touches; the structure of the songs is there. I’ve got about five, but whether they’ll be good enough is open to debate when we come to rehearse them, because it doesn’t matter how many songs an individual has, if they’re not good enough they don’t get on. So I’m really working on the songs with Rhino [bass player John Edwards once fronted a band named Rhino; and his nickname has nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of ‘horn’] and we’re very confident in them, a couple are really different to anything we’ve ever done before. And I know Francis has got a few songs as well, so there is an album there ready to make.”
Ah yes, the songs. Few bands have had their material so frequently and mercilessly rubbished by the music press in the past while selling so many records to so many satisfied punters. So it is perhaps for this reason that journalists rarely bother to ask Francis Rossi what kind of music it is that inspires him, which is a shame, because his answer will boggle your brain.
“I figure that everything I’ve heard since the last time I did a batch of writing affects what I write both positively and negatively. I always used to liken it to stuff I would hear by the Bay City Rollers when I was younger, that I would listen to and go: ‘Fuck, I don’t want to do that.’ But then I might go: ‘Ooh, that’s quite nice, that is.’ And recently... who’s that girl that used to be in S Club 7? Rachel Stevens. Anyway, she had that one LAX song that was written by Cathy Dennis. Well, I loved that single because it’s like a track of ours called Hold You Back, so I thought: ‘I like that, I’ve done it before, but I like it.’
“So you pick up things from all over the shop. I’m also a firm believer that most things have been done, so if you go into making music just to be different, I don’t think you’re making music from the heart. Most things have been done: the five-chord trick, the four-chord trick, the three-chord trick... In fact John and I wrote one for the Heavy Traffic album – The Oriental – and we tried to make it as one chord the whole frigging way. It moves around a little bit here or there, but it was almost to rail against the whole: ‘Oh, it’s three chords is it?’ No, this one’s one!”
Holy Toledo, that man Rossi is on a roll...
“Look at Fleetwood Mac’s Oh Well, that’s just one chord I believe, and Albatross is almost one chord. Eddy Grant had that Electric Avenue, but you didn’t go: ‘Oh, it’s just one chord, I don’t like that.’ You just like it. You don’t try to analyse it, but I think there are people out there who go: ‘Oh no, it’s beneath me, my intellect and my understanding of music.’ You’re full of shit! You like it or you don’t.
“And another thing that we all say: ‘I’ve heard so-and-so’s new record and it’s crap.’ What we mean is: ‘I don’t like it.’ But we’re frightened to be out on our own saying that, so we say it’s crap. Is there something wrong with you because you like crap music? No, you just like it. I don’t like Rachel Stevens, but I like that single. I don’t like Anastasia, but I love that fucking thing that she did, and I heard her new one just now that I quite liked. I can’t stick the woman or the sound of her voice, but I love that record. I never liked the Pet Shop Boys, we had some altercations at one point, but I love some of their singles. I don’t want to shag the band or join the fan club, I’ll never go and see them, but I do love that It’s A Sin track.”
Stick with it, the man is on fire.
“When I was at school there was this idea that my family were Italians and knew lots of opera things – particularly Nessun Dorma and La Donne E Mobile; every wop knows that. So when we went around at school there was all this piss-taking about opera. Well, another area of opera is all that: ‘Oh, this is real music.’ No, it’s still only three fucking chords! It’s the same bunch of notes in Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep as are in Money by Pink Floyd. The notes haven’t got a fucking clue what they’re in. If it’s a C sharp, it’s a C sharp all its bleeding life. It’s never going to not get into a song because it doesn’t feel that it’s cool enough, it’s just going to turn up and go: ‘Hello, here I am – C sharp.’”
Right then, I’ve run out of space, but Francis Rossi certainly hasn’t run out of steam, so as the sun gradually sets on Epsom Downs, let’s just wallow in his glorious, unquenchable passion for pop.
“...It’s like telling me I can’t like a Busted record because they’re too young, No, I like the record. Again, I don’t want to join the fucking fan club, and I won’t go and see them, and I know how it’s been put together, and I know they’re cheating, but do I like that piece of music? Yeah, I do.
“Do you remember Hanson? I LOVED that MmmBop record!”