When you phone a rock’n’roll legend, you don’t expect him to answer within two rings and launch straight into a breezy rendition of a classic from Singin’ in the Rain.
“Good morning, good morning!”
What’s more, that vast Status Quo back-catalogue included a 1976 top-10 hit in which the band revealed they ‘can live without the rain’.
So Francis Rossi (for it is he), you sound very chirpy this morning – is that a typical way to start your day?
“I’m in showbusiness!”
And you never switch off?
“Well, if I tell you why I’m chipper, it’s too long a process, but it’s to do with what they call oil pulling. Not down there, no, no …”
He’s off already, alternating between a bit of rock’n’roll cheek and a few more philosophical moments.
“You can either do it with olive oil, sesame oil, or I’ve been doing it with coconut oil. We’re all doing it at work. It clears out various toxins and leaves you kind of ‘la, la, la!’
“And anything that makes me feel like that in the morning, I’m going to have a go.”
I’ve had my own morning ‘upper’, I explained, a quick blast of Status Quo’s Caroline doing the trick before I called. In fact, it never fails to hit the spot.
“Well, that probably does the opposite for me, doesn’t it! Cor, d’you know … I’ve had this thing for some years now where I like to be on stage but I’m frightened to go on, and stay like that until I’m finished.
“A few weeks ago I heard Graham Norton on his Saturday radio show, saying, ‘Two more tunes and I’m finished – yippee!’ And I thought, ‘oh’ – whatever the gig is or whatever job one’s got, everyone’s really glad to finish.
“It’s an odd one. We’re all doing the jobs we always wanted, but … that’s how it goes, I suppose.”
Francis is clearly in a pensive although cheerful mood. Perhaps he always is.
I explain how, as a Lancashire-based Woking FC fan, I feel my team should run out to Caroline, on account of Francis’ long-time Quo compatriot Rick Parfitt having spent his formative years in the Surrey town.
I also let on that I would suggest Down Down, but maybe that’s not such a great vibe for a football team.
“No, I can see that. Caroline would be quite good though. Sounds like a good idea to me … and I’d have the PRS!
“I’m not really sure how much that is these days, mind. When I was 19, someone told me it was so many pence at the time. I don’t think about all that now though. I just keep going.”
He certainly does. That leads me to a little history, Francis having first formed the band that evolved into Quo with Alan Lancaster in 1962.
A few personnel and name changes followed as The Scorpions became The Spectres, then Traffic (until confusion with Steve Winwood’s band), Traffic Jam, then The Status Quo.
Under that later handle, they had their first top-10 hit, the early 1968 psychedelic wonder Pictures of Matchstick Men, the personnel by then including Rick.
Francis already knew him, having played in their respective outfits at Butlin’s Minehead and clearly hitting it off.
The writing was on the wall, and they’ve now worked together as Status Quo, as they soon became, for 47 years.
And next weekend they’re not so far from my patch, playing an open-air gig at Hoghton Tower, between Chorley and Preston, Lancashire, for a date which just happened to fall 30 years – give or take a few days – after the band gave us that perfect start to Live Aid.
“Is it really 30 years? Wow! When Bob (Geldof) first asked me and him (that’ll be Rick, I guess), we were with Phonogram and not doing anything in the summer, which was kind of unusual.
“We were quite dismissive when Bob was explaining it all (a poor Irish accent follows). But when we got there and did the show, well …
“It wasn’t until we walked out though, when we thought, ‘Oh!’ The amount of press coverage for a start …”
You had the perfect slot as well, didn’t you?
“Oh yeah! We didn’t have a problem with going on and getting finished, and it proved to be the best slot you could have.
“But no one knew it was going to get like that. And the audience was just unique.”
So where has that time gone, Francis?
“I don’t know. The older you get, the faster the time goes. And that whole relativity thing freaks me out the older I get.”
Quo’s Symphony at the Tower date seems to be sandwiched between a few more in Germany. Did the tour manager get confused as to where Preston was?
“It’s always like that, this time of year. You look at the itinerary and it looks great, with a few days here, then a day off, but when you’re doing it, it’s like …”
There are a few of these moments in our interview. Francis is very animated on the phone, but to the point where even so I can’t exactly see his expression. I’ve got a fairly good idea though.
“We go to Germany tonight, we’re back Tuesday evening, then on Thursday one of our tour buses goes to Europe and the other takes us to Preston.
“We’ll come out of Preston and go to a hotel … yeuch! … then in the morning we get on a private plane we use occasionally and fly down to Vienna, I think, to get in our bus again, and … oh, Jeez!”
I take it from that the travelling doesn’t get any easier over the years.
“No, it doesn’t, and I’m kind of sick of travelling. I like it when we’re actually in the bus and moving, and there’s no show.
“My brother retires in a week or so, and he said, ‘Let’s go to Italy’, but I said, ‘I don’t want to travel, brother’. He goes, ‘Yeah! We can get a nice hotel …’ and I say, ‘I don’t want to stay in a hotel!’
“I suppose I’ve been living out of suitcases since I was 16. Holidays for me are pretty much coming home and being here.”
‘Here’ is Purley, near Croydon, I believe, not so far from his Forest Hill and Sydenham roots.
I tell him I had a similar conversation with Jean-Jacques Burnel about travelling not so long ago, the legendary Stranglers bass player having similar hang-ups about all the time on the road. Of course, he’s only been doing it for a mere 41 years though.
“Lazy buggers, ain’t they!’
“Actually, I remember someone who worked with us talking about The Stranglers when they were coming up, and I thought, ‘What a terrible name!’
“But now I think, they’re old school and pretty much establishment, as much as they’ve still got that look. And these guys are still going!
“We all definitely felt that punk movement wasn’t going to last. And no one thought John Lydon would be doing ads for butter or something, dressed as a country gent – kinda weird!”
Fair point. So, Hoghton Tower – it’s a lovely setting. Have you been there before?
“I’m not really sure until we get there, but I don’t think so. But sometimes you do turn up somewhere you haven’t done before, which is quite refreshing really.”
I take it fundraising for the hospice on the night means a lot to you as well.
“Any we do supporting those serious charities do. Some of my wife’s family are here, they’re American, and we were talking about this.
“Some of the charities out there are iffy, yet something like this at a hospice is properly watched and kosher.
“I do find it weird that our society needs charities. It’s a political hot one. But my gardener’s parents are both getting Alzheimer’s and he’s struggling to find them somewhere to go, and these are people perhaps just 20 years older than me.
“I think hospices like this are very good, and make me think about the Macmillan people who looked after my mother so well when she was dying.”
At this point, the 66-year-old briefly becomes the interviewer, asking, “How old are you, if it’s not a rude question?”
It’s not. How can I put it? I’’ve been around as long as Rick Parfitt’s been in your band.
“Fantastic! I like people that are older! Well, in 20 years you’ll be older than I am now. How about that?”
It is a sobering thought.
“I moved about seven years ago, only about 100 yards, and had this fabulous mature garden, and I’m trying to do the same with this place. I said to the wife, ‘In about 15 years …’, then realised I’ll be 81 then. That can’t be right, can it?”
Then again, I tell Francis, I look at pictures of my parents when they were my age, and they look a lot older than I think I do now.
“I suppose so, but things go through one’s mind about your childhood or adolescence, and I still picture my Dad as I last saw him, and I’m about 35 years older than he was in my mind. Anyway, where were we?”
Hoghton Tower, I think. So, apart from 100% Quo, what can those at next weekend’s outdoor show expect – something loud and live, a bit of an acoustic hits jukebox, or a bit of both?
“Well, we might work on acoustic sets for future years, this will be an electric show.
“We got an email yesterday about volume and how that’s becoming more of an issue everywhere in Europe. It doesn’t really work when we have someone like Rick though, the loudest rhythm guitarist in the world! But perhaps we are moving to a more acoustic show.
“As for this one, I’d love to say it’s going to be the best show ever seen. But I don’t know that yet.
“I could say we do have at stage left two ladies kissing – lipstick lesbians. And on the right side there’s two Chippendales for the ladies. But actually, it’s just us lot.”
And you’re not going naked for this gig, like on the cover of the Roundhouse live Aquostic – Stripped Bare publicity shots, are you?
“No, it’s funny really that people have picked up on us being naked for that. They’ve seen our legs before, they’ve seen our tops before, and the bits they haven’t seen before were covered by guitars!”
So I’m guessing it’s yourself, Rick, Andy Bown, John ‘Rhino’ Edwards and the relatively-new ‘Caveman’ on the night?
“Yes, Mr Leon Cave, our drummer. Actually, he plays guitar and bass better than any of us. Everytime he picks up a guitar in the dressing room, we’re like, ‘Keep it simple, boy!’ He’s really good.”
It must be odd for him. You have different levels of new boy, really. You’re up to I don’t want to think how many years (53, actually), Mr Parfitt’s been in the mix for 48 years, then coming up on the inside, next year it’ll be 40 years for Andy and 30 for Rhino.
“Isn’t that ridiculous!”
In any other band there’d be long-service awards, but not in the Quo. How do you think their apprenticeships are going, anyway?
“I think I might keep them now. It’s weird though. Time just sort of goes by. When John joined, people were asking, ‘What’s it like playing with the younger generation?’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’
“I actually call him John Boy, because of that boyish look. Bastard! Whenever he falls asleep, I try and put streaks of grey in his hair. But it ain’t working.
“Leon has brought a lovely vibe to the band though. I’d thought about having him involved a few years before, having used him on solo work.
“A lot of being in a band that people don’t realise when they’re young is that you’re all kind of mates together and as you get older you grow apart because you are different people.
“But Leon has brought a nice kind of muckership to us. John calls him ‘Neph’, as in nephew, and his dad’s more or less the same age as me.”
With all that in mind, and with 500 weeks on the album charts and more than 50 hit singles before the last century was even over, are you getting any closer to calling it a day? Only it doesn’t sound like it, despite your thoughts on the travelling.
“It must be getting closer. This French interviewer said to me, ‘You said once you want to die on stage’. I said, ‘Yes, I was a dickhead. I do not want to die on stage!’
“I’d rather die at home, in my bed, with my family around me. It’s on the cards now though. I say now to the audience, ‘You realise when you come to see an old band there is a responsibility that one of us may fall over?’
“I also said the other day, ‘Remember Tommy Cooper? Well, you lot will probably have your phones out if we fall over!’
“But to get to 66 … I’m definitely in the death zone. It’s reality.”
I’m sure you’d have been a big success whatever you took on, but I’m not sure if you’d have been happy with the Rossi family’s ice cream empire, for example.
Could you ever have taken up any other profession, do you think?
“No, I don’t think so. I had no education. I was a dumb git. However, in the last couple of years I’ve been approached by Rossi’s, the company bought off one of my relatives, and we may actually go into re-launching Rossi’s Ice Cream.
“I would have said no, but I went, tasted it and went back to seeing it another way!”
“Going back to the old days, a mobile ice cream seller would buy a gallon of our beautiful ice cream, put it in his machine, add two pints of milk and a pint of water.
“So people ended up saying it doesn’t taste quite the same. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Anyway … sorry, I’m waffling again!”
Well, ice cream is nice with a waffle after all. And while we’re on Francis’ family tree, seeing as he’s back for dates in Blackpool (Winter Gardens, November 28th), Manchester (Palce Theatre, November 29th) and Liverpool (Echo Arena, December 1st) later this year, I mention how his Mum’s side were from Liverpool.
“Yes, I’d go to Liverpool for my holidays, and a few years ago went through Crosby, where my grandparents were. But I didn’t really recognise it too well.
“Actually, my Italian family lived in a huge house in Forest Hill in Mayow Road, while my family from Crosby lived in Myers Road, so everyone was like, ‘Do do do do’.”
That’s Francis singing the theme of The Twilight Zone, by the way, rather than a later hit by The Police.
“They said that house was haunted, and I remember being there and hearing this piano playing in a huge vacant front room, then seeing a nun walk past, into the scullery.
“I mentioned this, and they said, ‘What nun?’ I can still see her walking through though.”
You have ghostly ‘iron men’ in the sea at Crosby now, of course, thanks to Antony Gormley’s impressive Another Place sculptures, which arrived on the shoreline 10 years ago.
“Yeah, I think those are fabulous! I don’t for some reason have that same feeling about Angel of the North, but do for those.
“It‘s just something that grabs me, taking me back to being on the shore there and getting cockles with my uncle. I loved going to Liverpool.
”I remember travelling up, sat in the back of the car with a Pekinese and one of those red Scottish blankets.
“We’d leave really early in the morning, when it was still dark, and get there at 10 or 11 at night sometimes.
“I remember just laying there while we were moving, nodding … I think that’s why I love travelling in a bus these days.”
Going back to meeting Rick when he was playing in a cabaret band, The Highlights, at Butlin’s in Minehead, do you think it was destiny?
“Sometimes I do, others I don’t. I was brought up a Catholic but don’t believe in that anymore, with apologies to anyone who does.
“I was taught that God was all seeing, all knowing, all loving, all powerful, but I’m not sure about that and the theories about creation.
“I’m the same with the Big Bang Theory for that matter. For that to occur it would have to be in a space, so how did the space get there?
“But then one night after recording in the ‘80s, we went to watch Star Trek, and Captain Picard was talking about, ‘From the far flung corners of the universe …’
“I was wondering just what the hell he was talking about – which seemed a complete contradiction. But then I felt, ‘That’s it – everything just is!
“In most religions there’s this idea that ‘as it was in the beginning, so shall it be in the end. And that’s just how it is with the universe – everything just is!
“We are just part of the ‘all’. But how it begins or ends … fuck knows!
“Have you read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything? In that, he gets it down to this one singularity which is so infinitesimally small.
“He then says, ‘You might want to stand back now because there’s going to be a Big Bang. But where are you going to stand back to?’
“So now you see – you should never have asked me that question! Then again, maybe the candle grease is still working!”
I’m not quite sure where I can go from there for my last question, but carry on anyway.
So is there one Francis Rossi or Status Quo track or album you feel more people should be raving about – one that somehow the masses missed out on?
“It depends what foot I’m on. Sometimes I feel that way, other times I’m just glad that millions around the world did get it.
“We all as acts and artists feel the whole world is watching, when really they’re not, particularly these days when even more of us are insignificant.
“I was saying to Rick as we came out of Bournemouth last year that in the ’70s when bands came to town, it was big news.
“Now they’re in seven nights a week, whatever big town or city you’re in. So it’s kind of less special for an artist wanting to feel loved. But that just makes him a dickhead!
“They didn’t, but the joy is that there’s a handful of songs which I don’t give a shit whether people like or hate, because they make me feel so good, and proud of them.
“I tell this to my sons and anyone I work with. If you write those songs, when you hear them, you’re solid gone.
“And that will happen to me all my life … or whatever’s left of it.”
This year’s Symphony at the Tower events, featuring two nights of live music at Hoghton Tower, end a month of celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of St Catherine’s Hospice in Lostock Hall, near Preston.
While Status Quo and co. perform on Friday July 3, the following night (Saturday, July 4) sees BRIT Award-winning classical vocal group Blake headline, supported by Britain’s Got Talent star Lucy Kay, a show closing with a firework finale set to the music of The Heart of England Orchestra.
For tickets and further information, visit www.stcatherines.co.uk, ring the hospice on 01772 629171 or drop in at the hospice in Lostock Lane, Lostock Hall, PR5 5XU. There’s also a Facebook event information page here.
And for more from the Status Quo camp, including further dates later this year, with extra special guests The Wilko Johnson Band, head to their official website here.