If you were an oily-faced adolescent lad growing up in the early 1970s, chances are that you would have had a poster of Suzi Quatro on your wall – or even under your pillow. “Apparently I helped a lot of boys through puberty,” the diminutive bass player/vocalist laughs today. One of the few truly iconic female rock’n’rollers, Quatro enjoyed an incredible run of success as part of the Nicky Chinn/Mike Chapman songwriting stable, having No.1s with Can The Can (’73) and Devil Gate Drive (’74). Later she adopted a softer, more countrified style with songs such as If You Can’t Give Me Love and Stumblin’ In (with Smokie’s Chris Norman), and the hits kept a-comin’. Quatro has never been inactive as a recording artist or performer, but in latter years branched out into acting, both on stage and on television. Among her many roles she played a murderess in Dempsey & Makepeace and, famously, made the character Leather Tuscadero in Happy Days her own. Her appearances gave a boost to the show’s ratings – not to mention Henry’s Winkler. Last month she guested on Channel 4’s Rock School with Kiss’s Gene Simmons. Quatro talked to Classic Rock about her epic career – and her new album, Back To The Drive.
Q&A: Suzi Quatro
A 1970s glam-pop trouper, Suzi Q has stayed one of the most popular girls on the block - with TV acting and BBC radio presenting roles to complement her ballsy chick-rock.
You grew up in Detroit’s burgeoning rock scene.
I’m still in contact with a lot of those guys, Alice Cooper especially. And I’ve known Ted Nugent forever. My first-ever jam session was with Ted. I was playing a gig at Arthur’s in downtown Detroit, and Ted was in the Amboy Dukes. He said: “D’ya wanna jam?” I said: “Sure.” We played jazz. I didn’t know if I could do it. But Ted turned to me afterward and said: “How did you learn to do that?” And I said: “I have no fuckin’ idea.” I just rose to the occasion.
You were in a band called the Pleasure Seekers, with your sisters.
We were pretty hot. We were cute little things with our micro-mini-skirts. We had to wear those because the promoters at the time said: “If you’re an all-girl band, you’ve got to look like girls.” I didn’t like it. I preferred wearing T-shirts and blue jeans.
The Pleasure Seekers went to Vietnam during the war there.
That was incredible. We were 17. We were entertaining troops airlifted straight out of the battlefield and into hospital. I walked in and the first thing I saw was a guy whose whole side was missing. It got worse. I went up to another guy and his eyes were all bandaged up. He was blind.
I stood by his bed and said: “Is there anything you want to hear?” He said: “Yeah, do you know Try A Little Tenderness?” It still makes me mist up now. I went down the corridor, got out the other side of the hospital and fainted. And that’s my memory of Vietnam.
The Pleasure Seekers became Cradle, and that’s when you were headhunted by pop producer/impresario Mickie Most.
Mickie was in Detroit with Jeff Beck, who was recording at Motown. Jeff said to Mickie: “Forget the rest of the girls and look at that bass player.” Which was me, of course. I was ballsy. Mickie had never seen a real female rock’n’roll musician, and it freaked him out. This was in late 1970. And Mickie decided to take me to England.
How did it feel, leaving the band and your close-knit family, and crossing the Atlantic?
Well, Cradle were kinda breaking up anyway. But leaving my family was hard. It was a double-edged sword. But my whole life I believed I was going to get discovered. When Mickie came along I knew in my heart that this was my shot, and to be honest I was prepared to leave everybody and everything.
Chinn and Chapman – the songwriting team at Mickie Most’s RAK Records – wrote your early hits, as they did for the likes of Mud and Sweet. But while Sweet rebelled against Chinn and Chapman’s influence, you didn’t.
Sweet didn’t play on some of their first records, but Mike [Chapman] never did that to me. He came to a gig, and I was doing all original stuff, playing the boogie bass – dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum... that kind of thing. Mike made three-minute hit singles out of what he heard me playing live. So fine, no problem.
Then you recorded the song 48 Crash.
Which is about the male menopause, by the way. The male menopause is worse than the female’s. As the lyrics say: ‘48 crash comes like a lightning flash.’ In other words it hits you when you least expect it. When a man reaches 48 years old, that’s when it all kicks off. It’s funny, because my present husband [German tour promoter Rainer Haas], who was a bachelor, married me at age 48. I said to him: “You’re the original 48 crash. It’s all over now, baby blue!”
Is it true that you proposed to Rainer?
I did. I also asked my first husband [former Quatro band guitarist Len Tuckey, now manager of Slade II]. I’ve received 35 serious marriage proposals in my life. Turned them all down. But I asked two people to marry me and they accepted. Is there a control issue here? [Laughs] So if you want to marry me, you’re going to have to wait until I ask you.
Did you have any idea of the effect you were having on males in Britain in the 70s?
The women found me non-threatening and they didn’t mind if their boyfriends fancied me; I wasn’t one of these busty, in-your-face women. The girls wanted to be me, and the boys wanted to be with me. Whatever it was, it worked.
Your new album kicks off with a good old Quatro stormer, the title track Back To The Drive.
I got in contact with Mike [Chapman] and I told him to write a song like that. I said: “For this album I need one of your old 70s-style classics.” There’s a major 70s vibe going on with the album. Sweet’s Andy Scott produced it along with Steve Grant, who’s in the current Sweet line-up.
You’re 55 years old now.
Fifty-five, proud to be, never lied about it, ain’t gonna start now. I’m glad to say my leathers still fit. I can still go ‘zzzzzip’ – right to the top. Even the original ones. I’ve got a room at home full of videos, DVDs, scrapbooks and leather jumpsuits; all my paraphernalia, right from the start. As I go down the stairs there’s a big door, and a sign above it says: ‘Ego Room, Mind Your Head.’ So I go in there sometimes, I do my thing and I come out. There’s two sides to me: there’s Suzi Quatro, and there’s little Susan from Detroit. We’re good friends, but I need both of them.
In one of the most bizarre examples of family genealogy known to mankind, Suzi Quatro turns out to be the auntie of Twin Peaks actress Sherilyn Fenn. “It’s true,” Quatro confirms. “Sherilyn is the daughter of my eldest sister, Arlene. Isn’t Sherilyn a beauty? Disgusting. My sisters and I want to beat her up all the time. She’s just so beautiful, even without a stitch of make-up on. She’s a total stunner. Like the old-fashioned Ava Gardner type of star, she has a kind of preternatural beauty.”