Status Quo have been together 13 years. Very few bands have been together longer, those that have have been world famous for the last ten years. Francis Rossi is the leader, not by appointment, but by a natural process of selection. With "Down Down" top of the singles charts and On The Level jumping straight to the top of the albums section, the band could be excused for suggesting that the pudding's proof has been clearly eaten. But it hasn't worked that way. The tough Londoner Rossi is still sensitive enough despite a hard passage through the extremes of the music business to be hurt by what others think — and more particularly write.
Status Quo is such a good band that they now pose a real threat to the title "The World's Best Rock 'n' Roll Band" an honour not infrequently claimed for The Stones and The Who.
Does knocking really bother you?
It's getting that way. Lately it's really been getting to me. We had a feeling that a lot of people would knock the new album, On The Level, because it's easier to follow the trend. There was a guy who reviewed Wembley last year, in fact he specifically asked if he could, because someone else was supposed to do it and this guy asked if he could do it. I believe he was reasonably new at the time, and the review was nothing to do with the gig. He was saying that the kids looked bored. Status Quo think they're too big for their boots, Rossi was passing dandruff to Parfitt, that sort of thing, nothing about the gig.
Wembley was one of those gigs where everyone around you says 'Oh, Wembley's going to be the one.' They build it up, and usually it's an anti-climax for the band. But it wasn't — it was tremendous, one of the best gigs we have had for ages and this guy really knocked it. It seemed that he wanted to come in with a bang and we were the perfect band. So that he used it for himself.
What's annoying as well is that when I see guys who write about gigs — I now read reviews of any band, any gig — I can't believe it, because I know the things that are said about our gigs. I wonder what ideas the kids of Britain get when they read these lies. If they were at a gig and they read a review that says 'The kids were bored' and the guy who was there knows bloody well he wasn't, how's he going to feel?
You've done it now, you've proved the knockers wrong. What's the next big conquest?
It's got to be the States, hasn't it? We've done three trips to the States. The first one was reasonable except that we were a bit like spoiled brats. We'd just broken England after working our cobblers off and going out there to start again with less than we ever had here was really hard. At least in England we had some sort of name: Fashionable or not, at least people knew us. We were completely unknown when we first went.
Wasn't 'Matchstick Men' a hit for you there?
Yeah, that got to number seven there, but we never went while it was in the charts. Good job we didn't. But eventually we went, we did it, nobody wanted to do it, it was a long one, it killed us and everybody wanted to get home. We went the second time and it fell to bits. We went with Fleetwood Mac and they had all their splitting up trouble and I got pleurisy and Richard (Parfitt), his mouth came up like a melon. He came home after two weeks.
The third tour we did with Rory Gallagher was excellent. We got into a lovely routine of going out there hard, no matter where it was, no matter what the conditions were... that's another hard thing.
In England now we've begun to expect to get each gig right.
Every time there's more gear and so on. When you get to the States, there's nothing. You have to put up with whatever you've got. We can't afford to lay on what we want.
Do you have to struggle now to keep your music simple?
You do to a point. It sounds bullshitty really. When we're rehearsing the number comes from whoever's written it, and it gets through the rehearsal, it gets polished, tidied up and brought in to the studio. Then it spends hours in the studio before we ever start recording it, and it's changed again. Sometimes we get a piece between the two of us, which we play with for hours.
We can get the section we've been working on and we get it all tidied up and ready and then we start to join the pieces together and it just doesn't make sense. The piece is beautiful, really clever, and it freaks us out, but it breaks up the feel, the whole pattern of our music, and we have to take it out. It's getting hard not to repeat ourselves. There is a basic framework that Status Quo work from and as soon as we drift off it, we all know it's wrong and we take it out.
The band sounds so tight on record, do you get pleasure from the sheer tightness of the band?
Oh, when it's going you wouldn't believe what we get out of it. When it's going... Christ... there's nothing like it.
How close do you feel to the rest on stage?
It's a unit, like people have said. It's a band and you get a great buzz when you look across to one another and you can see that he's going. You get a little downer if you can see that somebody isn't there one night, but you have to work on because if only three of us are there we've got 90 percent off.
But when it's 100 percent and you look at one another, and you can see the madness, or whatever the mood is of that number, in each other's eyes, then you're really there. It's a tremendous feeling. That's why listening to the band is the greatest buzz for me, I like listening to Status Quo. People think it's big headed but surely if you go down there and you play it, you record it... it must be your favourite mustn't it? Otherwise you wouldn't do it.
This feeling you get, when everybody's 100 percent on stage — is that the best thing you get out of the business?
Of course it is. Sometimes we get that 100 percent thing and the audience aren't necessarily with you, but if you get that 100 percent, no matter what happens, it really doesn't matter what's going on. It's strange because we've had that 100 percent thing in terrible conditions.
The last American trip we did, we were being hassled to go on, the gear got there late, they have these strange union rules stopping you putting gear on stage at certain times, all this cobblers. Everything was late, the tune-up was late and then we couldn't get things in tune. We got on stage, we'd had no sound check, and it was all arse upwards. When we first got there it was a shitty sound but it had that thing, that fight. Everybody was feeling 'Oh fuck it, we'll do it, we'll get there'. It turned out a great gig for us.
Recording on stage sometimes bothers us and turns us off a bit. We recorded several gigs recently. Southend is usually a really good gig for us, but for some reason it didn't happen. We built the recording up in our minds and it turned out to be an anti-climax. When it goes fucking hell, I just can't explain it. We recorded Bristol which nearly killed us because it's a small hall with an extremely low ceiling and the stage was far too high. It was just too hot and we were all flaking out and then we did Southend, Stoke and Lancaster. Lancaster was just tremendous. Everybody's pleased with the recordings, but it was trying to get that feeling onto tape that was the hard thing.
I know that the guitar playing on your albums, on "What To Do" for example from On The Level demonstrates you're capable of a fine technique. Isn't it difficult to keep the more clever tricks out of your writing style?
There is a temptation but you get a buzz when you're writing, that you know you've got a good one you're going to take to the band. When you try doing something that's a bit away from it, you don't get off on it. It is natural for me to write for the band. I don't know how to explain it, it's very hard to explain what we've got.
How long have you all been together? You must know each other as well as you know yourselves.
We know each other extremely well. It goes through funny phases where one of us goes through something funny and the rest of us are watching him. We all go through things different and everybody else just stands aside and watches. If one person gets too big for his boots, he gets shot down.
Do you have fights?
Yeah. Nothing too bad. You get the odd one over the years...'fuck me I remember that one'... but things are at the stage where no matter how heated the argument is, or how much you think 'fuck me how do we get over this one', the next morning you get up and get in the car and it's 'Morning, let's go'. You think 'so what was going on last night'.
How's your health been?
Reasonable. Various bits and pieces. I've had pleurisy a couple of times which isn't too clever. Sometimes you can play a pig of a gig when you're feeling dodgy. I've known a couple of times. One time in Germany Richard and Nuff [Alan] had had an extremely late night and they turned up changed and ready to go. Usually when we've changed we've got about ten minutes and they were asleep again. We were going 'for fuck's sake what's going on here'. They got up, got on stage and played a fantastic gig. Sometimes it works that way. Sometimes you walk on stage and you think "Woah, it's going to be a good 'un"... You know a few bars into the first number.
Now and again you get a funny night when the first number is tremendous and the rest of the set has had it. Sometimes you get a night where the first number is a bummer and it builds, but usually you know in the first number how it's going to be.
Do you get angry on stage?
Yeah we do, but that's one thing I constantly try to avoid. Various things go wrong on stage such as monitor troubles, guitar troubles, string troubles. Your instant reaction is to go berserk because it's a minute problem, but that minute on stage is like death. You're trying like mad to get over it and the only way to get over it is to ignore it. The more you're raving about it the worse it gets, you pass it on to the audience. They know what's going on, you pass it on to the rest of the band and you're passing trouble all round the stage. Whereas if you've got a problem and you can get over it, nobody knows and it's gone. Sometimes we do get angry and one of us flares up on stage. It's a bad mistake but we all do it.
What is it that really upsets you?
Feedback on monitors. I stand in the middle. Nuff likes his monitors a lot quieter than anybody else, and Richard likes his a lot louder than everybody else and a lot toppier. I'm stuck in the middle, so sometimes it does me in, and I can't hear it at all. Richard loves tops, Nuff can't stand it, it does his ears in. I like treble, I play lead guitar so there's all these little problems on stage and to get everything 100 percent is really difficult. Sometimes John's snare drum may be so toppy that it blows your lead off.
There isn't really an answer. Each venue is different. You do an extensive soundcheck and then it all changes when you get on stage. Things can change very easily. We've got a code of little signals worked out with our sound man, so we've got to be able to see him.
How long could the band play for on one set?
We once did a two-hour set at the Greyhound in Croydon and we were fucked and so were the audience. At the moment, we do about an hour and 20 minutes and even that goes on a bit too long. We feel like we want a longer set, we'd like to do a longer set but we haven't got the strength. Bristol on the recent our was an absolute killer. Three or four numbers in your arms start getting really heavy. It gets me all along the arms and your legs get tight. If you haven't been working for a while, you get your wrist holding the bars down.
I get in to about the seventh number in the set usually, which is "Roll Over, Lay Down", and you get a sudden 'Whoosh' where you can't breath much, your breath's going, specially when it's hot. All you can hear is everybody panting as they try to get shallow little breaths, sounds stupid doesn't it? But there are four geezers going...(pants) all your body starts to go and you've got to get air somehow.
Are you happy with your guitar?
There are obvious drawbacks with a Telecaster. A Gibson has so much more sustain and so much more fire that a Tele hasn't got. A Gibson would make me sound a whole lot better than I do. Some of the things that I listen to after I've recorded them, I've played them as though the guitar did have more sustain, but the guitar just goes, 'eek', and that's it, whereas if you're playing a Gibby it would go 'wheeeeee', like that, and to the straight punter it seems to be running better than it is. I do it myself, I listen to someone and I think 'Blimey he's good' and then I pick up his guitar and play it and you think 'I see why he's good'.
A Telecaster is very hard to play, they're very dead in feeling. They've got a very clean sound and that's what gives the raunch, the chunk, it gets it really going hard. I have an old Strat that I bought. I was thinking about using that, I thought that that was maybe the cross I needed. I thought the solos I got were really tremendous, and I felt really cocky, but it mushes down when you start driving it, it's not as hard as the Tele. I keep going back to the Tele.
What amps are you using now?
I've got an old Sound City and an old Hiwatt. I use the Hiwatt for two bottom cabinets and the Sound City drives two others. I had those amps from about '68 and I won't change them. I could have any amp now, Richard's had Acoustics for a while, but he's just gone back to HH's.
What strings have you got on your Fender at the moment?
Fender Rock'n'Roll. I used to use Picato and I found them tremendous because they were really twangy, but they're unreliable. I've spoken to them at the factory and I told them the problem.
I had a guy in the dressing room with me while I changed a set of strings, and you can put a bottom E on, cut it, tune it up, check it at the top and it may be sharp. So you need to screw your bridge down, but it won't go down any further. If it's not too sharp I may leave it on, but sometimes it will be beyond a joke, so I used to keep changing strings until I found a decent one, but then I'd find one that was so far the opposite way that I couldn't screw the bridge down far enough on the other side. So in the end I had to go back to Fenders. I went back to them on the last American trip I did. I used to love the Picatos.
How often do you change your strings?
Every three gigs. Rory changes them every bloody gig. I don't know how he does it. He doesn't stretch them too much either. I stretch them. Rory will put them on, give them a little stretch go out and do the first number and they're all out of tune again. That does me in to tune on stage. I give 'em a real good pull and I won't tune up until they've stopped stretching.
How much time do you take to tune your guitar before you go on stage?
I personally get to a gig before everybody else. I do the sound check and everybody else goes back to the hotel, but I stay there and I'll start messing about with the guitar then, I'm happier at a gig than anywhere else. It sounds corny, but I feel secure there. If there's any panics then I know I can be changed and ready to go.
Do you worry much?
Yeah, unduly really, because there isn't that much to worry about anymore. Most things can be sorted out. I get there so early sometimes... that's the best time of day for me when the sound check's finished, when everything's ready and they're letting the people in.
I just sit in the dressing room, that's the best time of day to relax. While you're travelling you plan ahead but as soon as you're there it's O.K.
Interview by Ray Hammond
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