William The Conqueror was responsible for the construction of Lincoln Castle in 1068. In Victorian times it housed a prison. Now it acts as a museum. It is an apparently immortal and steadfast monument to British history, where the curious come to marvel at a resolute reminder of a once glorious past. Under normal circumstances Lincoln Castle’s star attraction is one of only four surviving copies of the Magna Carta. But on the sultry August Bank Holiday of 2003 even King John’s gen-u-ine signature finds its crowd-pulling powers temporarily usurped by a couple of diamond geezers from sarf of the Thames. For Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt have driven their enduring Status Quo charabanc into the very heart of historic Lincoln, and do not intend to leave until they’ve rocked the place to its very foundations.
What happened when Status Quo played Lincoln Castle
Lincoln Castle attracts a posh crowd eating strawberries. But Status Quo still manage to maintain "a remorselessly heavy swagger", as they told Classic Rock in 2003
Six hours prior to show time, and the Quo faithful are already out in force, and (as the chaps in the band swap filthy jokes in the hallowed portals of the local judiciary’s robing rooms) good-humoured banter and home-made cheese sandwiches pass between strangely mismatched, multinational email buddies who have nothing whatsoever in common except a shared fascination for all things Status Quo. And if you were expecting the bitter-drinking, ‘Quo-oh-oh’-ing denim army of yesteryear, then think again; this lot – as they slouch politely on the most wholly unnecessary crash barrier in the entire history of crowd control – mirrors the average Antiques Roadshow turnout.
One lucky punter sporting a care-worn Quo Heavy Traffic T-shirt is celebrating his birthday, and bugger me if some of his pals here today haven’t gone and baked him a cake! Suddenly the Somme-on-Thames that was Reading 78 (when Quo headlined on the second night) seems like an exceedingly distant memory indeed.
Quo’s core audience has changed markedly since the days when even a drum solo was not out of the question in the rain-lashed, open-air plague pits of rural Berkshire. Middle-parted, tanked-up Levi’s fodder has now largely given way to moustachio’d Lexus owners with a good working knowledge of orbital sanders and their Chardonnay-bellied good lady wives. It’s a situation that Rossi and Parfitt, are all too well aware of.
“It started to go a bit around the time of In The Army Now ,” Francis Rossi recalls, as he steadily disappears into the folds of an ostentatiously over-stuffed sofa. “I think we lost it a bit back in the 80s, trying to make records with computers and synths, and alienated some of our audience. But then other people got interested. Some bands wouldn’t see that as a plus, but we do. I don’t think we see a problem with whoever is out there, whatever their age.”
“At the end of the day it’s the reaction that counts,” Parfitt says, drawing deeply on a Marlboro Lite for inspiration. “And since the audience expanded it’s become rounder. I don’t know how to put it, really, it sounds a bit Spinal like that... but it’s a fuller reaction, a better reaction.”
It would be most convenient to simply suggest that Status Quo have masterfully tapped into the sprightlier-than-average geriatric market. But that’s just the kind of pigeon-holing journalistic bigotry that has seen the band repeatedly written off before their time in the past. The truth of the matter is that Status Quo’s audience has expanded in all directions. Over the years, parents have brought reluctant children to their shows, and while the dads and mums have occasionally swapped the appeal of the Quo for the allure of gardener Rachel de Thame, their progeny have remained; they’ve even told their mates. Let’s face it, the majority of the rock media must brace themselves to imminently swallow something very hard and jagged: the fact that the eternally maligned Status Quo, having just delivered their finest album in 20 years, are, miraculously, on the up.
The rictus-grinning, Snickers-snacking crash-barrier leaners, now checking their watches in the lengthening shadows of Lincoln Cathedral – the tallest building in the world until the mid-19th century, when its spire fell down, fact fans – may love seeing Status Quo, but that’s nowhere near as much as Rossi and Parfitt love being Status Quo. So, in order to save their beloved band from spiralling steadily into a state of inertia-exacerbated diminishing returns, the pair conceived a summer tour that would represent far more than just a standard succession of routine, preaching-to-the-converted one-night stands. With their appetites already whetted for a fresh challenge by their unexpected and gradual conversion of a whole new demographic and the – shock, horror – positive critical reception accorded Heavy Traffic, Rossi and Parfitt casually reinvented what could be reasonably expected of the travelling rock’n’roll circus in 2003.
The band’s Lincoln Castle show marks the final date of a most extraordinary tour, a jaunt that has seen Status Quo appearing in forests (from Sherwood to Thetford) and castles, as well as at the close of high-profile sporting events like the horse racing at Newmarket and the British Grand Prix at Silverstone; a series of family-friendly shindigs that appeal to their existing fan base while offering the band a truly fantastic opportunity to corner a virtually captive audience of inquisitive floating voters. After all, following a good day’s racing and a skinful of ale, what casual punter is going to pass up on a gratis knees-up with one of the UK’s most reliable hit-making combos of all time? Exactly.
Chin-stroking and theorising aside, Rick Parfitt especially enjoys playing on domestic soil because “you don’t have to get on a fucking aeroplane”.
It’s an opinion that stands up surprisingly well to close scrutiny.
Over the course of their 38 years in harness (up to this point, i.e. 2003), Rossi and Parfitt have pretty much played every sort of venue available to modern man, so consequently a castle is not a particularly big deal. In fact, considering the band’s blasé reaction to their current surroundings, one imagines that they probably have more impressive water features kicking around their holiday homes than the former architectural jewel in William The Conqueror’s crown. The Quo have played on board HMS Ark Royal and in submarine pens; they’ve played for Prince Charles; they opened Live Aid; they even appeared at four venues in one day – and if you don’t believe me, look in The Guinness Book Of Records. But it hasn’t all been fists aloft, ‘Hello Cleveland!’ ambrosia, and the Quo have also suffered from odd moments of ‘Puppet show plus Spinal Tap’ ignominy.
“We played a corporate a couple of years ago for some Armenian people, and a lot of the young women weren’t allowed to look at us,” Rossi recalls with a characteristic twinkle. “I think Elton John came up and sang Happy Birthday and they didn’t know who he was. Charles Aznavour was on, and they knew one of his songs, but we died on our arse, didn’t we?”
“Oh, big time, yeah,” Parfitt agrees with a nod, having just delivered a most colourful joke concerning the aforementioned Mr E. John, a Miss K. Minogue and an as yet unnamed fireman.
“We haven’t died like that since we were in our teens,” Rossi elucidates, as Parfitt adds: “They just kind of sat down and watched us. They started off dancing and we thought, 'Okay, this is cool'. We were only doing a short set anyway – luckily. But by the end of the set there was nobody on the floor at all. They were all sitting around, and gesturing to us to be quiet so that they could have a chat...”
Judging from the excited buzz that’s currently drifting through an open window from the ever-swelling Lincoln Castle queue outside, there should be no comparable problems tonight.
Of course, rumours of a somewhat unorthodox audience had reached our ears, and we were bracing ourselves for the odd acre of cellulite, the merest suggestion of grey hair and enough objectionable infants to hasten a Lincolnshire-wide ice-cream shortage. But nothing quite prepared us for the full spectacle of 5,000 post-millennial Status Quo fans in the full, unexpurgated flesh. It was like a rock gig, but not. Let me endeavour to find the requisite words... Right. First of all, everybody brings their own deckchair – process that extraordinary intelligence, if you will, and I’ll continue. Every fourth person is also required to bring a picnic table, which they then decorate with candles and, in some cases, wee lanterns. They’ve all got cooler boxes, naturally. But when they open them, instead of the prerequisite booze tumbling forth in a glorious amber torrent, they’re filled to the brim with foil-wrapped chicken drumsticks and – is nothing sacred? – strawberries and cream. Of course, back at Reading 78 we all lived on nowt but scrumpy, mud and faeces for three days. But I digress.
Then you look at their faces, and you can’t quite believe it. The youngest people are children, and the oldest people are pensioners; blue blazers are popular, as are cravats; ladies of a certain age proliferate and they all look like they hunt to hounds and go through gardeners like others go through Marigold gloves. The men drink wine, bite pipe stems and glare as only the truly superannuated can... And then it hits us. These people are posh. By playing castles the Quo are appealing to the people who live in them; by playing forests they’re attracting the people who thrash poachers in them; and by playing at elitist sporting events they’re being embraced by elitists. Oh yes indeed, it’s a funny old world...
But then, as we venture toward the front, floundering into countless slapstick situations involving trestle tables, canapés and blousy matrons, we discover the great, lost denim tribe. Back from extinction like so many coelacanths or mods, they’re here for classic Quo, no more, no less, and they are not to be disappointed.
As the iconic opening repetitions of Caroline explode from the speakers, whole phalanxes of normally sober professional gentlemen unexpectedly produce inflatable guitars, and wholesale pandemonium ensues. No one nails a riff quite like Status Quo. And no one appreciates a nailed riff quite like the gentleman to my immediate right. He may look a lot like George Burns’ elder brother, in his low-slung hipsters and over-sized baseball cap, but he certainly knows the belt-thumbing steps to Forty-Five Hundred Times. A snotty-nosed kid in a Limp Bizkit T-shirt sways by, lashed into headbanging action by a ferocious downpour of Rain. And during Mystery Song a strikingly plain woman – who is clearly way beyond the age where she can reasonably get away with getting them out – gets them out. And still it goes on, people who look like your dad and totally Pimm-ed to oblivion insisting upon strutting their distinct lack of stuff as Roll Over Lay Down steamhammers by... And it’s utterly fantastic. The Quo give no quarter, ignore their 80s nadir, sprinkle their set with odd slices of Heavy Traffic and effectively cream their audience into submission with a remorselessly heavy swagger through the greatest of their greatest hits.
Rockin’ All Over The World follows Whatever You Want follows Down Down... No one goes home with their timbers unshivered; not the newly re-enlisted denim army veterans, or the fearfully inebriated landed gentry; not the kindly old lollipop man, or his Slipknot-favouring Satanist grandson; especially not the red-faced former floozy who has just put them back in, and, most surprisingly of all, not even the cynical old hack from Classic Rock.
This was published in Classic Rock issue 59