The Quo must go on – back in conversation with Francis Rossi

Lining Up: Status Quo, 2017 style. Francis, Richie and Rhino get in formation, while Leon calls the beat from the rear and Andy stays out of the way (Photo: Tovita Bråthen Razzi)

I wasn’t quite sure how to start my conversation with Francis Rossi, wondering at what point it would be right to bring up the subject of Rick Parfitt’s passing, 11 months ago. I shouldn’t have worried though, the effervescent Londoner an expert after all these years at breaking the ice.

“I heard that in your voice – ’Oh, he’s gonna fuck about again!’”

We last spoke a couple of summers ago, on which occasion I recall him starting by talking about his daily ‘oil pulling’ homeopathic regime.

“Yeah, I’ve been doing that for a while. I’ve this Chinese-Malaysian woman who’s been looking after myself and my family nearly 30 years. I don’t trust the medical profession much. Because of the world we live in, even that’s become about profit. You’re never sure when they’re marketing something.

“I knew this doctor I was seeing about these headaches, years ago, and he read this stuff out and said, ‘If I give you this, me and the wife can go on holiday for three weeks to fucking Fiji. I’m very suspicious. They tell you to try and stay off medication now. There’s even an ad on telly telling you not to take antibiotics. But how do you get them unless you get them off a doctor? Anyway, you don’t want to talk about that.”

Yep, barely a minute in and we’re already off-road. But I wouldn’t expect it any other way. I steer us back towards the main track though, telling Francis my last sight of the band was in July 2015 in the grounds of Hoghton Tower, not far from my Lancashire base, at a charity gig for a local hospice.

What a great night of maximum rock’n’roll that was. And we somehow remained dry until walking back to our car, those eventual showers nothing more than an endorsement from the gods for a legendary band, lightning in the night sky showing us the way out.

“Well, sometimes it happens. One night this year we did one of those ‘80s things, and it pissed down from around three in the afternoon. I’ve never seen an audience put up with so much rain. Perhaps they were all rat-arsed, but I appreciate it when they endure it. I friggin’ wouldn’t, so I’m always knocked out that people stay … otherwise we’d be playing in an empty field. Not good for the ego, that one.”

Even with Rick Parfitt’s exit, there’s plenty of long service among the Quo frontline – more than 120 years between Rossi, Andy Bown and John ‘Rhino’ Edwards alone. And if we’re talking ages, those same three campaigners have a total of more than 200 years on the planet … and counting.

Duel Controls: Rick Parfitt and Francis Rossi during the band’s Hoghton Tower show in July 2015, with the ‘Caveman’, left, plus ‘Rhino’ and Andy to the right (Photo: Symphony at the Tower)

But on that occasion two years ago, I mentioned how Quo’s four ‘outfield players’ – Rossi, Parfitt, Bown and Edwards – had more zip and sparkle than many a younger band. And Francis put some of that down to drummer Leon Cave, aka the Caveman.

“He’s got a certain energy and vibe to him. I think musicians get so carried away with musicianship, but that doesn’t necessarily give you good performances and good vibes. And with Status Quo, Leon’s a much better guitarist than any of us. He really is!”

I recall how at one point they left him out there alone, doing a drum solo. We could only presume it was a case of power naps all round, all those years on the road ensuring this was a band that could sleep through anything.

“Well, if you ask someone to do a really good drum solo, the punters might fall asleep. So you have to have a certain amount of crowd ‘duh-duh-duh’ response-y stuff!

“Leon, Richie (Malone) and John love the stuff they listen to on the bus, but it’s from a musician’s point of view. I always say you have to try and get a balance. It shouldn’t just be about musicianship. There are such brilliant players out there. I suppose it’s the X-Factor thing. But there’s something about those who have been successful over the last 30 or 40 years. They’re not the best singers or best players, but look at the Stones, look at Quo, look at AC/DC, loads of them. You think, I don’t get it really, but something works … something happens!

Funny he should say that. I’ve been writing a lot of late about the 40th anniversary of punk rock and the main players’ ‘year zero’ approach – discounting all that came before. Yet I’m pretty sure The Clash didn’t mean it – and Mick Jones certainly didn’t – when, on 1977, they sang, ‘No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones.’

“Yeah, it was a PR thing, and some of that annoyed me. But the pendulum went so far the other bloody way. Listen to The Clash, they actually improved and got to be really good players, whereas certain other bands wanted to sound like they couldn’t play. I say you need a jolly clairvoyant with all that – a happy medium! But of course, they were rejecting us, the ‘old school’. They didn’t want fame, they didn’t want limousines … then they went and got it all!”

Seeing as I mentioned 1977, I put it to Francis that it’s exactly 40 years now since their 10th studio album, Rockin’ All Over the World, saw the light of day, built around that inspired John Fogerty cover version that would forever be associated with them from that point on.

“Is it? That caused a lot of upset. We lost a lot of fans on that album. So many letters. Similar to recently, where we got letters and emails to push us to keep this tour but make it electric rather than acoustic. I’m confused by that. I didn’t think I’d be in this position. Weird shit. I don’t know what the fuck’s going on. I’m sure people are pissed off with me for continuing, but things change and it’s given a new spark of life, and Richie’s done that.”

I mentioned how Leon Cave gives them extra vigour, keeps them on their toes, and I’m hearing much the same about most recent addition Richie Malone, the Dublin guitarist playing in namesake Rick’s place. He looks the part too, like a younger Parfitt.

“Those two are a similar age, get on well together, and like each other. And there’s something about Richie. When we rehearse, me, John and Andrew keep looking at each other, thinking, ‘What’s he doing?’ Then we realise that’s how it used to sound!”

You mean, he’s actually been listening to the old records?

“Yes! Like a moment on Roll Over Lay Down in the first verse, this piece we kind of lost somehow. He’s made us older people focus a lot more, and we’ve all begun to enjoy it. Either that or we feel we’ve got something to prove or worry because Rick’s gone and wonder what people might think. I think it’s made us dig in again, try to prove something, a very strange position to be in.”

I won’t bother going into the history of the band here. That was pretty well covered in my last Francis Rossi interview. In short though, 22 top-10 hits in the UK alone between 1968 and 1990 tells its own story, along with 24 top-10 albums here, four of those topping the charts. I should explain, however, the position with Status Quo as of late November 2017. As their latest press release put it, ‘Quo, perhaps more than any other band, are defined by their touring and by their fan-base. Francis Rossi and Quo have spent a lifetime on the road. Travelers on all roads eventually reach a crossroads, where a decision needs to be made. Status Quo are no exception. This is their decision’.

So, from here on, Rossi and co. have announced they are set to ‘radically cut back on their touring activities’, with only a series of summer shows and festivals planned for 2018, and for the first time in around 30 years no plans for a European winter tour or UK Christmas shows next year. As a result, a show in Zurich has been brought forward to October 6th and will be the 2018 finale. Therefore, the Plugged In: Live and Rockin’! UK Tour is the only opportunity for fans in the Northern Hemisphere to see the band in smaller and more intimate venues for at least two years.

Francis added, “This year’s been one of change and reassessment. Although Rick had already retired from touring for six months, it was still a major shock and my immediate reaction was to honour existing contracts and then knock it on the head. However, since then I have become increasingly confused as I realised just how much I was enjoying touring with two vibrant young guys in the band. They’ve given us old guys a good kick up the backside and while it could never be the same as with Rick in the band, it is different now, but in an exciting and vibrant way that I can’t fully explain.

Saint Francis: Mr Rossi leads the singing as rock legends Status Quo get down down

“The 2017 gigs have been absolutely incredible and spirits are high, but we do now need some thinking time to consider all of the options now on offer for 2019, which could well include the recording a new full on Quo rock album! We would love as many fans as possible to come and really help us make some noise on this year’s dates, as we definitely won’t be touring in 2018.  This is a massive change for us, and I know that the Quo tour has become a traditional part of the festive season for many fans.

“This has been a year like no other.  In many ways the band has felt out of control. Rick’s passing was a huge blow. Much of what we had planned was envisaged initially to accommodate what would be right for him; those sands have obviously shifted.  Now everything has changed. The band is not the same – it can’t be and shouldn’t be – and the plan has changed too. We’re still listening to the fans, we always have, and we’re hearing that this is what they still want. We’re going to give it to them.”

Now I’ve factored that in, I’ll continue. And seeing as I mentioned 1977’s Rockin’ All Over the World,  at that point it was still the ‘Frantic Four’ line-up, but with Andy involved too, even though he wasn’t officially added to the line-up for a lot longer.

“It was silly. He was in the band from ’72 or ’73, but Rick and Alan used to find it a real worry for some reason. I never understood why. The idea of a keyboard broadens the limited thing that Quo are. It means you can have Hammonds, Wurlitzers, Rhodes, Clavinets, anything! And I’ve always liked Andrew … and his playing.”

The other night I was flicking through the channels, and there was the promo video for your take on Dion’s The Wanderer on a late 1984 edition of Top of the Pops, the band – including Andy – playing on the back of a flat-bed lorry crossing London.

“I love that track! I enjoyed making that record too. I was only thinking the other night, someone very instrumental for us … oh, there goes his fucking name again … I’ll get it in a minute.”

My 68-year-old interviewee pauses for thought, racking the brain, then carries on.

“Anyway, we took one record to him, it was that Marguerita Time period … Brian Shepherd, it was! It’s come to me! I really liked working with him. He was MD of Phonogram. When we did The Wanderer, he loved it, but said, ‘That solo – is it a bit …?’ We said, ‘No, it’s perfect,’ and he said, ‘Alright … fine’. Now I look back and suppose they expected more of a hairy solo, whereas it’s more melodic, which I prefer.”

A hairy solo would have dated it, surely.

“Yeah, I think it’s odd what lasts and what doesn’t. I heard a record yesterday, The Strawbs’ Lay Down.”

A rendition of the chorus follows over the phone, Francis in fine voice this morning.

“I thought that was fucking marvelous, and it still sounds marvelous! It has a sound where you imagine Lady Marian, horses, knights, English history. A beautiful record. Probably the best they ever made. Some of those records, when you listen back, you see through it now, but that still has its magic to me.”

Soon, Francis is on to another bug-bear. I can’t even recall how we got there, but he picked up on something he heard a fellow performer mention the previous day, feeling it needed repeating.

“Bryan Adams was talking to Ginger (that’ll be the host of BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Breakfast Show then), telling him how much he loves playing, and said a lot of people rely on him for a living – wives, children and the roadcrew in his organisation. And I had to ring and thank him for saying that. It’s about time people realised a rock’n’roll band or singer is like a corner shop. Unless it takes ‘x’ amount of money a year, there’ll be no corner shop. The same with newspapers, magazines, whatever.

“He’s the only other person I’ve heard mention it. I called him, I think he was in Paris, and we agreed it’s a responsibility. Some people have worked for us for 25 years or more. They’re paid, but that’s not the point – they’ve remained loyal to us, and they have commitments such as mortgages, children, so on. Without them, we’re on our own and nothing works. At the moment, if something comes up and we need to do a gig this evening, that can be done. If you don’t have that back-up …”

Talking of loyalty to the cause, I mentioned long service, and should stress that Rhino’s been with Quo for 32 years too. That’s nearly a decade more than original bass player Alan Lancaster.

“Yeah! Now, where were we the other day? Fuck it … Sydney, I think.”

He realises he’s sounding like an ageing rock star there, and laughs before continuing.

“This guy came up and asks if he was an original, and he said no. I said, ‘Wait a minute, John. You’ve been here since 1985!’

“I know what people think about the old band, but you cannot do that to Andrew, John, and now Leon and subsequently Richie. If they want to slag me off, that’s fine, but not the rest, particularly John and Andrew, who’ve dedicated a lot of time to this band. For someone to then say, ‘You’re not original’ – fuck off!”

Thinking back to the ‘Frantic Four’, I spoke to John Coghlan this summer, who gave me the impression they were all up for a third reunion tour after those in 2013 and 2014, but Francis said no.

“Yeah, that’s right, although Rick wasn’t sure either when it came to it.”

I think in retrospect that was the right decision, if only to ensure it all remained rather special.

“Well, apart from that, John did an interview and said what he hadn’t realised was that Rick and I had stayed on and therefore had the stamina. That’s one thing Alan and John didn’t have, to keep the tempos up. If they’d have kept going another few years perhaps …

“Anyway, we did two tours, and that’s fine. I don’t think we should have done a second, really. Business dropped drastically. It’s not something I wanted to do. And John said … no, hang on … Rick said, in Manchester, ‘Given a bit of time it’ll fall apart.”

It was a nice bit of closure though, wasn’t it?

“It was. It was something we needed to do for those guys. Rick and I were quite content doing this, but it was nice to visit there.”

Did it get the bad blood out of the way after the manner of those early ‘80s changes?

“Pretty much. Not that it hasn’t come back. It’s a bit iffy at the moment, but there you are.”

I wonder sometimes if you envy John playing smaller, more intimate venues these days.

“No, I’m quite happy where I am, and we’re playing smaller venues this year. But it’s a bit strange, this whole acoustic and electric thing, and with Rick dying on Christmas Eve …

Staff Meeting: Andy, Rhino, Richie and Francis discuss Leon’s performance so far (Photo: Christie Goodwin)

I was wondering when we were coming to that, and if not how to broach the subject. But we’re there now.

“For him to have to retire or stand down was one thing. He was still part of the organisation. But …”

There’s a slight pause, and you can instinctively tell this is something that’s never been far from his thoughts this past year.

“I heard him Christmas Eve morning, when I was speaking to Simon (Porter, Quo’s manager), in my head saying, ‘There you go, Frame, at least I didn’t die on a show day!’ Only he called me Frame, so … and he would have said stuff like that.

“And before we went out (on tour), he called Richie and said, ‘Good luck. I’m glad it’s you. It needed to be you. There’s really nobody else for the job. That helped Richie a lot and helped the rest of us.”

Was that at your house?

“Yeah, I got in just about now, I’d think (it was shortly after 9am when we spoke). I do that. I stay on the bus overnight then get off around eight in the morning, particularly coming home at Christmas.

“Simon called me, and we were kind of shocked. And it was sepsis that got him – none of his ailments at all. But he died for us in June last year. That’s why I said that about the medical profession. What these people did to make him come around, I think a lump of wood would have come around, let alone a human being.

“They took him off and he was gone. We said that was that, but in the morning he was on a drip-feed and they said he wouldn’t make the evening. We get to London and he’s sat up having a cup of tea! He was a tough old git!”

The Wanderer: Francis Rossi gets around, around, around the stage (Photo: Christie Goodwin)

I’m guessing you’d been half-expecting it for so many years, with all those health scares, but I bet it was still a mighty shock.

“The final death was, I must admit, and it reminds oneself of one’s own mortality. But it’s interesting that some years ago when Richie used to come and see us with his dad, we met him at a soundcheck somewhere in Ireland, looked at him, and Rick said, ‘If I die, we should get him in’.

“We laughed, and he said, ‘No, I’ve got a better idea. We find a lookalike for you too, we put them two out there, and we can stay at home and watch the telly!’ That was Rick’s humour, something not everyone understands. People think we’re being irreverent or whatever.”

Well, last time I saw you, you were having a laugh on stage about that, saying there was a chance you might not see the night out, saying, ‘Things might happen’, advising the audience to get their cameras ready.

“Yeah, we’d laugh about that, and say how one of us might keel over. And it’s still possible. I’m at that age. My generation are dropping like fucking flies! However, it’s weird we keep saying that – we were all born at roughly the same time, so it’s logical really.”

Let’s face it, you’ve all lived the life too.

“We certainly have. We burn the candle at both ends, and Rick had one burning in the middle as well!”

And as a tribute to Rick, I see you’re including two of his favourites this time, Don’t Drive My Car and Little Lady.

“Yes, we are, as a homage to Rick, and again they’re really rather good. The way Richie plays Little Lady, and with Andrew singing Don’t Drive My Car, which is magical. It was really good on the acoustic tour and we’ll try and do that similar style on the electric tour. It’s a real buzz to play and it makes everybody beam on stage.

“That’s one of the things that’s going on in the band at the moment, this kind of ‘up vibe’, I don’t quite understand it, but I think a lot of it’s down to Richie, his relationship with Leon and all that. And while old people don’t like to admit it, young blood has done something … bastards!”

Pitch Parfitt: Status Quo, the 2015 line-up (Photo: Danny Clifford)

Finally, you told Jo Mears of The Guardian in 2011 all eight of your kids played music professionally. Is that still the case?

With that, Francis let‘s me know he’s looking at a photo on his wall of all of them together, no doubt his way of ensuring they all get a proper mention.

“My eldest isn’t, but he went into musical theatre, while No.2 had a band for some time, but to pay for his time in the studio at home a few years ago he said he was going to do some painting and decorating. I thought, ‘That won’t work,’ but now he’s got a successful business doing that.

“No. 3 is really, really good but just could not face playing in public at all. My daughter’s very good and does gigs, but now has two children. The other daughter dabbles with music, as the other son does.

“Then, Patrick’s a chef and has no music about him whatsoever. And Finn’s very musical but is more of a banker fella … fucking weird, eh!”

I tell Francis that reminds me of the Monty Python blue-collar playwright sketch, where the posh son turns his back on his Northern father’s theatrical roots to become a miner, the concept of parental expectations and escaping perceived career paths turned on its head.

“Well, my third son works in a petro-chemical firm doing safety systems for oil rigs and does extremely well, yet told me he would love to be on a building site, but doesn’t feel there’s enough money in that. That’s Kieran, who has the best voice, a nice bass player and guitar player, but just doesn’t have that stage thing.”

But isn’t that Francis to an extent? I recall him telling me he doesn’t enjoy the thought of being on stage, and certainly wasn’t looking forward to the prospect last time we spoke.

“Yeah, that’s like me, so it’s weird I still want to do it. But I’m actually looking forward to going out again, and haven’t looked forward to it so much for so many years … so something’s happening!”

Youthful Vibe: Richie Malone has added fresh vigour to Status Quo since first standing in for his guitar hero, Rick Parfitt (Photo: Christie Goodwin)

Status Quo’s Plugged In – Live and Rockin’! tour starts this Sunday, November 26th at Manchester O2 Apollo, moving on to Sheffield City Hall (November 27th), Cardiff St David’s Hall (29th), Reading Hexagon (November 30th), Bournemouth International Centre (December 2nd), Wolverhampton Civic Hall (December 3rd), Glasgow Clyde Auditorium (December 5th), Newcastle City Hall (December 6th), London Eventim Apollo (December 8th). All shows are fully seated except Manchester, Reading, Wolverhampton, with tickets available via aegpresents.co.uk priced from £42.50 plus booking fees.

To head back to the original writewyattuk interview with Francis Rossi, from July 2015, follow this link. And for this sumnmer’s feature with fellow ‘Frantic Four’ band member John Coghlan, head here. And for all the latest from Status Quo, try the official website.

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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