"The most sensible interview I've every done," says Rick Parfitt, talking about musical success.
Status Quo have been around for 25 years, but it's not always been heads down, no nonsense success. On the other hand, as Rick Parfitt tells Jon Lewin, they're not exactly an unknown band...
"WHEN I was young, if anybody had told me that I'd be driving a Porsche, would have 90 or so gold albums on the wall, and would be number one in the charts, I'd have told them to sod off – I just couldn't imagine that this could have happened."
Rick Parfitt got his first guitar at the age of ten. "I just wanted a guitar like every young kid at that time, and fortunately I learned to play a tune in the first week. It was 'Mary's Boy Child', 'cos it was Christmas and that was one of my mum's favourite songs. I don't know how I learnt but I did, and managed to get this sort of one finger chord – so what's new? I haven't improved recently," he laughed.
"When I was 15, as soon as I left school, I went off to a holiday camp to play on my own in a bar, and that was the start of it all. The Sunshine Holiday Camp, in Hayling Island, 1963. I was a Canary, wearing the yellow tops, just like 'Hi De Hi'. I was playing standards, like 'Island Of Dreams' from the Springfields, 'When The Saints Go Marching In'."
At another holiday camp – Butlins, Minehead, in 1965 – Rick saw a group called The Spectres playing in the Rock Ballroom and realised that beat music ("as it was known at the time") was for him, rather than his cabaret "hairy fairy, bow tie thing". He got pally with The Spectres, particularly two by the names of Alan Lancaster and Francis Rossi.
"Francis got chucked out of his digs, because he got caught in bed with a girl, and I said, 'I can't see you out on the streets, so I'll stick along with you.' We were sleeping in baths and on the beach, and we became really close. When the season ended, we said we'd write, stay in touch, which we did."
But it wasn't for two years – November 1967 – that Rick got the call. The Highlights had rowed and broken up, and Rick had been working as a baker for two weeks when he was asked to join The Spectres, who by this time had signed to Pye Records. "I've been very lucky — doors have opened for me just at the right time. I chucked the job in straight away."
Rick's first guitar with The Spectres was a red Gibson 335 bought on HP, which he kept for two years. Not long after that, Francis Rossi bought his green Telecaster; this guitar gave the band a different sound, so Rick lashed out £90 for a hand-painted 1960 Tele. This is still his main guitar.
The first Quo single, released at the end of 1967, was 'Pictures Of Matchstick Men', which peaked at number seven in the charts. A hit, but how did it affect Rick?
"I did literally go weak at the knees when I heard 'Pictures Of Matchstick Men' on the radio, Keith Fordyce or David Jacobs on a Saturday, and I was at home, and we had the radiogram – with the lid that lifts up and all the gubbins, y'know? – and I said mum, come in 'ere and listen to my record – it was always mum, never dad – and I remember when my voice came in on the harmony in the chorus, it just freaked me out.
And the band? "I do remember when 'Matchstick Men' came out, we were rehearsing down Lambeth Walk, and it had just reached number 11. Francis was still working, mowing lawns, and Alan Lancaster was still cleaning windows, and Pat, our manager, came down and said, right, you can give up your day jobs, you're now turning professional. We all went waa-hey, and went over the pub."
Even though they were having chart success, the band weren't rich. "I can't say we were making a living. We were playing for like £50 or £60 a night; but when you've gotta put petrol in the van, get new bits and pieces of gear, pay for your guitar on HP, in those days... when 'Matchstick Men' was out, I was still living at home, borrowing fivers off my mum."
"Just about every day of the week was spent gigging. We were backing Madeline Bell when 'Matchstick Men' was in the charts, as well as doing our own thing. You'd get up pretty early, which was no problem in those days... I lived down in Woking, so I'd have to scamper up to London in my Standard A10, and we'd all meet up at Lambeth Walk, at the Gas showrooms, which was where we used to rehearse, in the cellars – it's a completely different shop now. They were pretty grim, with all these rats knocking about. Alan Lancaster used to kill these rats... I could never handle how he used to whack 'em...
"Anyway, we'd load the van up, drive off to where we had to go, do the gig, pack the gear up – no roadies in those days – drive back, unload the gear back into the Gas showrooms at about one o'clock in the morning, then go home. Then do the same the next day."
The Quo's early dabblings with the pop charts resulted in one further hit ('Ice In The Sun') and then a string of misses. There followed what's normally referred to by Quo biographers as the lean years, though the band saw it differently.
For most of 1969, they rehearsed. Their pop image made it difficult for them to get gigs, but they were fortunate to have management with faith and a few fivers to lend.
"We rehearsed for the whole year, which is where the sound that Quo has today came from. We started to fall into Steampacket... er... Steamhammer type things – 'Junior's Wailing'. I wasn't quite sure about this chugging beat at first, but we played it and played it, and we looked at 'Roadhouse Blues', stuff like that, and we realised that we all dug this rhythm, that there was something infectious about it for us. It used to really turn me on playing this 'chunk chunk-chunk' thing."
Almost as important (and innovative) was the realisation that the band didn't have to wear stage gear. So out went the pink bell-bottoms and yellow frilly shirts, and on stayed the jeans with holes in the knees, T-shirts and plimsoles. The first gig they did with the new sound and image was at The Castle, in Tooting, South London.
"WE ACTUALLY GOT £320, AND I REMEMBER SITTING IN THE DRESSING ROOM, GOING 'FIVER FOR YOU, FIVER FOR YOU', COUNTING IT OUT."
"There was us and Mott The Hoople, and there was all these people that I'd never seen before. They were called 'heads': long hair, trench coat, album, and a pint of beer, right? They'd sit on the floor cross-legged and bang their heads. We learnt a lot from them: when they were all nodding their heads, we thought, we'll have some of that, so we did the same. That was how the whole Quo stance came about, legs apart, heads down. That was it – Quo was born."
Rick states that there was never any question of the band splitting up, though there was some friction with Francis Rossi over the £1400 he received for 'Matchstick Men'. The band had one of their first rows, though Rick now thinks Francis was right not to split the money. "But we didn't realise that we were down and out. We just wanted to play. We actually played to three people once, half way to Margate, some ballroom on the left-hand side."
Status Quo had two years or so of struggle before they turned the corner. There's one specific incident that Rick remembers which marked the beginning of a new era. "I remember playing Links Pavilion in Cromer: the first time we ever came away with more than £300, it must have been 1969 or 70. We actually got £320, and I remember sitting in the dressing room, going 'fiver for you, fiver for you', counting it out. I actually came home with money in my pocket, getting home about 4am, saying to my mum and dad, wake up, throwing this money all over the room. I suppose that was the start of us actually making money. That's what I remember as being the start of our success. I put £60 in the bank."
Was there any difference between his image of success and the real thing?
"As far as I can remember I didn't have an image of what fame was like: I'd look at the stars on my wall, and I loved them, and that was it. Quo's rise to fame was so gradual that I don't think we really felt it. Obviously when there were people in the business, like manager Billy Gaff, who said you're going to make it, that always gave me a bit of a tingle. You'll be driving Ferraris, all that shit, but you believe it at the time. As it happens it turned out to be true. Though it was Porsches, not Ferraris."
Another important rung on the ladder for Status Quo was their first gold album, awarded for "Piledriver" in 1973. "I thought Christ, this is fantastic; when I was young, even in my wildest dreams, I never thought about gold albums – it just didn't dawn on you. Nowadays you look at them and say, oh, another one. You get so many you do become a bit complacent about it; they get packed in the cupboard, I give them to my mum, I give them away to charities and that..."
The Quo's well-documented success throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s doesn't seem to have made much difference to the basis of Rick's lifestyle. The on-tour routine now is get up, shower, have breakfast, go to the next gig – he's simply cleaner and better fed. Even though he's now approaching 40, Rick says that the physical side of touring still isn't a problem.
"Age doesn't come into it at all; the hard side is the mental side... the travelling, the hanging about in hotels, hanging about backstage before you go on, that's what does me in. As long as I'm active, I'm fine."
The band have been through a lot of changes recently; first, drummer John Coghlan left, then bassist Alan Lancaster departed in a flurry of acrimonious lawsuits, leaving Rossi and Parfitt the only two remaining original members. Rick, with the benefit of a heavy dose of hindsight, sees it as a process of streamlining.
"We've had changes ever since organist Roy Lynes left at the end of the 1960s. I think now we've found what we really wanted – precision. John, the things he hated most were recording, gigging, and rehearsing. And Alan Lancaster – there was a slight problem with Alan – he had a bit of a gammy right hand, and if you soloed some of his bass parts... well, Francis and I had to overdub his bass parts without him knowing to get that real 'chunk'. That's something I haven't told anybody before..."
Both Rick and Francis Rossi believe the new line-up to be the best Status Quo have ever had; the new rhythm section of Jeff Rich and John Edwards is their tightest, and this has breathed new life into the band.
"I can tell you this: this is certainly the last line-up of Quo. We're more than happy with it, and if anything goes wrong with this I don't see us carrying on. Me and Francis might carry on in the studio, but at the moment, it's still Quo. There's more life in the band than ever."
Will it ever stop? "Sometime it's got to stop. I don't visualise myself at 65 still rocking. I might be doing cabaret again, showbiz, I dunno, I might be a fucking ventriloquist! I'd like to be on the stage for as long as I can; once you've got the theatrical thing in you, it's still all show business."
Which could explain why Rick hasn't got bored with Status Quo. It's hard work, he says, but it's not a job – an important distinction for any rock careerist.
But what of the last 20 years plus? "When you look back on it, it's a great feeling. It's a shame that it comes in stages, because you don't realise... if you were to take a chunk out of your own career, and see yourself five years later, you'd go wow! But the fact that it happens gradually, step by step, it doesn't really come as a great surprise. It's a bit of a let down, really, when you think about it.
So what were the highlights of Rick's career? Live Aid obviously, and playing the Prince's Trust at Birmingham NEC in 1982 (the first rock gig attended by a royal). But also the pleasure of breaking the band abroad. "Like Australia, for instance. You realise how big you are... people waiting at the airport... it really makes you feel good."
Success for Rick Parfitt, apart from the obvious tangible benefits like his Mercedes 380SL, is evidently a matter of pride in achievement. He's obviously an accomplished rhythm guitarist (in spite of his self-depreciating jokes about 'the fourth chord'), and he derives a lot of satisfaction from the rapport he shares with his fellow musicians. I asked him for his advice for aspiring followers in his footsteps. Given his experience of the business, his reply is unsurprising.
"If you work hard, then something will come of it. If you think you're good, just carry on, and don't let anyone tell you that you aren't."
Interview by Jon Lewin
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