Francis Rossi sighs. The Status Quo frontman is due on stage in Glasgow in a few hours to kick off his band’s unplugged Aquostic tour, but he isn’t looking forward to it. “I think I’ve almost finished running,” he says softly, sitting alone in the crew catering room. “I’m coming up for sixty-six, I’ve still got that itch to be liked and the urge to play for an audience, but…” He leans over to whisper in my ear. “…I think I’m over it.”
Rossi gazes off into the middle distance and begins to ponder.
“I started out in the family business selling ice cream. I’m thinking: ‘Hmmm… I like the sound of that.’ So maybe I’ll go full circle. I could do that, and have time to do things like walk the dog, do the crossword, nod off in my chair in my garden.”
Can Francis Rossi OBE, the grinning face of indefatigable British hard rock, really be contemplating the end of the road after nearly half a century leading the country’s favourite perma-denimed boogie knights? Giving up the tour bus for the ice cream van?
He’s serious. And yet it feels like we’ve heard this before, most notably back in 1984 when the End Of The Road tour was supposed to bring down the curtain on Quo’s stage career. And just as that ‘retirement’ proved to be no such thing, it’s wise to take this latest suggestion with a pinch of salt.
Nonetheless, as Rossi wanders into the soundcheck and takes a seat on stage, barely acknowledging Rick Parfitt, his bandmate of 48 years, he exudes the weary resignation of a man coming back into the office from the canteen and finding a bulging in-tray. His craggy features, specs, salt-and-pepper hair and balding head only add to the impression of a man looking forward to retirement.
But then a funny thing happens. As the band start to play a sweetly string-swollen rendition of Claudie, he starts to tap his foot, then stamp it, and by the time he plays the solo, he’s clearly back in his element. You can’t tell me he isn’t enjoying this.
He’s not alone in that, either. He and Parfitt are backed by a six-piece string section, two backing vocalists, a percussionist, accordion and piano, with up to six acoustic guitars being strummed at a time. The pared-down rearrangements of the Quo back catalogue that made up last year’s Aquostic: Stripped Bare album haven’t been universally embraced by the more uncompromising factions of the Quo Army, but they earned the band a UK No.5 album – their highest chart placing for 18 years.
The electric guitars might have been swapped for acoustic ones, and the headbanging boogie replaced by a campfire-jam vibe, but that’s about all that has changed in the world of Status Quo. It’s 51 years Rossi met Parfitt, and 48 years since they changed their band’s name from The Spectres, but this increasingly odd couple are still the hub around which Quo revolve.
Rossi is an intriguing character: one quarter grumpy old man, one quarter incorrigible rock’n’roller, one quarter impeccable professional and one quarter wisecracking uncle at a wedding who can’t stop making dick jokes. The rest of the band are already wise to his ways, not least the threat of his impending retirement. Even guitarist Freddie Edwards, son of long-time Quo bassist John ‘Rhino’ Edwards and the newest addition to the band, is used to it by now.
“Francis? He’s always like this,” Freddie says with a grin. “Before every show he says: ‘No, this is a bad idea. Shall we pull the show? Then as soon as he gets up on stage he loves it.”
“He’s most at home on stage,” adds Rhino Edwards of Rossi.
You suspect the same can be said for Rick Parfitt, although you won’t find him talking about retirement plans any time soon.
When I first pass Quo’s rhythm guitarist wandering through the backstage corridors, I don’t recognise him. That’s partly because his trademark blond locks are tucked into a beanie hat. But when the hat comes off, it’s the rock’n’roll equivalent of the prim secretary taking off her specs and shaking her hair loose. The transformation from modest old gent to ageless, strutting rock god is instantly complete.
“I’ve always had this analogy with Quo,” he says, as we wander back into his dressing room. “And Francis hates me saying this, but ever since we got into this groove of doing the twelve-bar boogie stuff, I’ve always seen Quo as this train, down the track and nothing is going to stop it, and there are no sidetracks – we stick to the status quo and keep on doing what we do.”
Of all the people who would have every reason to bow out gracefully from the showbusiness game, it would surely be Parfitt. Last year he suffered his third and fourth heart attacks after a festival show in Croatia.
“I did have a couple of warnings,” he says, with one of the bigger understatements you’ll hear this week. In 1997, Parfitt had a quadruple heart bypass. But rather than reining back his lifestyle, he regarded it as being handed a brand-new body – one ready to carry on where he left off. “I carried on drinking, carried on doing coke. And then it hit me again a few years later.”
‘It’ was another heart attack. This one was in December 2011. “It happened on the Friday, they operated on the Saturday, and I went on stage, still bleeding, in Birmingham on the Sunday,” he says.
And was he any wiser by this point?
‘No, I carried on drinking, carried on smoking. I’d given up the coke by then. But then a year ago I had a heart attack on the road.”
Rhino Edwards remembers this one happening. The bassist was on the tour bus in Croatia at the time. Not that he quite grasped the severity of what was happening.
“I’d just gone downstairs for a piss in the middle of the night, and Rick’s lying there groaning: ‘Oh the pain…’” he recalls. “I said to our PA: ‘What’s the matter with him?’ And she said: ‘He’s having a heart attack.’ I said: ‘Oh, right…’ and wandered off back to bed. It was quite a surreal thing.”
Parfitt was rushed to hospital, where he had another heart attack on the operating table. “The doctor said to me: ‘Rick, do you want to see your next birthday?’” Parfitt continues. “He said: ‘You can have a drink, but I know you. If you have a glass you’ll have the whole bottle. And I said: ‘No I won’t.’ But then I realised he was right. So I gave up everything.”
Well, almost everything. As we talk, he takes a drag on his e-cigarette.
As long as the two protagonists in this long-running drama – or farce, depending on what mood they’re in – can keep mind and body together, you’d expect them to keep the Quo show firmly on the road. Yet there’s some concern in the camp when we arrive following a story in the Sunday People newspaper that their professional and personal relationship has finally run its course. ‘Status Quo reveal break‑up plans as Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt rarely speak any more,’ claimed the paper, merging Rossi’s typically downbeat view of the band’s future with his admission that they don’t see each other socially these days. Naturally, the People neglected to include a quote from Parfitt taken from a video interview on the paper’s own website wherein the guitarist added: “And then when I come back to band rehearsals or whatever, it’s always nice to see him again… We work well within the Quo bubble, and that is what really needs to work.”
Still, it’s hard to shake off the idea that Status Quo in 2015 is a marriage of convenience between the two men at the heart of it all.
“It is,” Rossi admits. “And I think I’m possibly coming to the end of it. And it’s a relief… Look, we’re not twenty,” he adds. “It’s not a bunch of young boys against the world, which it is when you’re starting out. Rick and I are very set in our ways and we’ve grown apart somewhat. We maybe overdid it in our younger days. We liked each other so much we spent every minute together. It must have been so annoying to other people. In fact, I know sometimes we laid it on so thick that we did annoy other people. It’s just growing apart.”
There may be more than a grain of truth to what he’s saying. The only time I see the pair together off stage is at the photo-shoot – though it’s clear from the banter that they still enjoy each other’s company when they do find themselves in the same room. When the photos are done, they head back to their separate dressing rooms.
“Sure, we have our times,” Parfitt admits. “But generally we’re alright, you know. We know how to deal with one another.”
The notion of putting aside personal differences has been a theme for Quo in recent years. In 2013, Rossi and Parfitt reunited with the band’s original rhythm section of bassist Alan Lancaster and drummer John Coghlan for a successful tour. The excitement surrounding that tour, and the frenzied atmosphere among the faithful at the gigs, was heightened by the fact that no Quo devotee thought they would ever see the Frantic Four on stage again. Lancaster, in particular, parted company with Quo in especially acrimonious circumstances involving a long-running court battle over the band’s name. But for both parties the reunion was a joyous one – at least at first.
“The first few days were marvellous,” Rossi admits. “It was great to see Alan Lancaster again – I remembered what I liked about him. Very giggly little man, as he was when he was eleven.”
“I loved it,” says Parfitt. “It took me back in time and it was magical. I remember standing on stage at Hammy Odeon [now the Hammersmith Apollo, of course, but to Quo, it’ll always be Hammy Odeon] and hearing that fucking audience. That was a fucking moment. I was still drinking then.”
And did playing those songs on that Frantic Four reunion tour feel different?
“Yes – it wasn’t as good,” says Rossi. “The crowd were phenomenal, it was lovely, but we weren’t very good. We were badly under-rehearsed, and Alan has a physical problem where his hand stops every night in the same place. So the onus was on Rick and I when there’s no keyboards, we have to pick up the slack. It’s very difficult to get back on the wheel after so long. They [Lancaster and Coghlan] don’t realise that. In their defence, me and Rick have been out together for the past thirty years. And during that time the whole operation has become a lot more efficient.”
Despite Rossi’s hard-nosed insistence that “‘show business’ is two words”, his actions reflect a pride in what he does and a desire to do the music justice. He admits it was suggested that Quo tour simply as an acoustic five-piece to keep costs down and profits up, but he resisted.
“It’s fucking expensive to do shows like this, but we’re not going to compromise on that,” he says. “This lot [the orchestra] care. And I like that.”
The decision to go the full orchestral nine yards has paid off. At the Glasgow show the songs take on a new lease of life. The country-rock harmonies that were always there are beefed up with help from backing singers, and the robust songwriting that lurks beneath the boogie is brought to the surface by the additional instrumentation: Rain becomes a gritty blues stomp, Again And Again is turned into a Cajun-style hoedown and Rock’N’Roll sounds more anthemic than ever.
After the gig, Rossi is straight out of the venue and on to the tour bus. “It was lovely,” he admits. “I really like doing it this way. And the crowd were great. I was…” Then he catches himself. “Oh no, no… I’m doing it again! I get enthused and off I go again. But I really need to slow down. I can’t keep doing this.”
A week later, the rock’n’roll train that is Status Quo has just pulled into the Royal Albert Hall in London. It’s the band’s fourth time in this grand old venue, although Parfitt can remember only one of those occasions – the very first, “around 1970. We were backstage with [blues-rock band] Juicy Lucy,” he says. “We went backstage after the show and they were all out of it. We said: ‘Have you got any dope, because we haven’t got any.’ They said: ‘Yeah, we got loads of dope. Have you got any coke?’ Francis says: ‘Yeah, we got loads of coke.’ And he goes to our dressing room and comes back with two cans of Coke, dead straight face, and they said: ‘No… no…’ We didn’t know what it was back then.”
Tonight’s London show is the last date of this short acoustic tour. For Rossi, enjoying a cheeky pre-show ciggie in his dressing room, the experience has melted even his steely exterior.
“I must admit I’ve enjoyed it immensely,” he says. “I’d really like to do this again. We’ve lost money, but… there’s something about it. There’s something about talking to the crowd – you don’t have to shout so much, cos their ears haven’t been deafened. And I just love playing acoustic. I started out wanting to be the Everly Brothers, that’s all I wanted to do.”
Even now, Rossi’s big passion as a punter is country music. But he’s never felt qualified to tackle that genre head-on as a musician.
“I love it,” he says. “It’s a good story, great melodies and they’re shit-hot players. But I can’t do that. I’m not a country person. You can put some pedal steel on it, sing in the right accent… Nope. You can smell it before an English person starts playing.”
Maybe this acoustic tour will scratch that itch for the time being.
“I’d like more people to see it,” Rossi says, “and I wish I was forty, not sixty-odd, so I could take it somewhere else.”
Quo’s adventures in acoustic-land might have been fun, but it will soon be back to business as usual. Within a couple of days of the show, a new, plugged-in arena tour is announced for the end of the year. It’s fair to say reports of the band’s demise have been exaggerated, not least by certain band members themselves. Still, Parfitt can see an important milestone ahead, and he’s determined not to give up the ghost without reaching it.
“Francis always wants to say this tour will be the last,” he says. “And if he does want to quit, I’ll do something else. But it would be such a shame to bow out at the eleventh hour and fifty-nine minutes, before making fifty years of hits, which is just around the corner [in 2017]. To me that would be such an achievement. And if we made it, and he wanted to call it a day then, I’d shake his hand, I’d cuddle him and I’d say: ‘Thank you. It’s been amazing. What a ride!’”
Typically, Rossi has other thoughts. “Is there an anniversary?” he sniffs. “We seem to have a lot of anniversaries. Somebody farted once in 1965 and there was an anniversary for it. There was another for when I met Rick. Well, I can tell you, if they come up with any more anniversary shit, they can celebrate all they like, but I won’t be there.”
Anyone care to put a bet on that?
‘MY BOYFRIEND HAS BECOME A QUO FAN!’
_What’s it like being Quo’s touring violinist? Hannah Rickard reveals all. _
Were you already a Quo fan?
I knew some songs, but I wouldn’t say I was a fan. I definitely became one once I heard them, and listened to a few things as they were in the seventies. My boyfriend has become a massive fan. I’d get back from doing the shows and he’d be listening to Quo constantly. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing.
Was it hard to fit violin into their music?
It came naturally. What’s been great about the songs in their new format is that the melodies come through more strongly. That gives space to imagine different elements, and quite a few of the songs have a country vibe, which is mostly how I play the violin.
Which were your favourite and least favourite songs to play?
Pictures Of Matchstick Men is my favourite. On tour the songs I enjoyed the least were the ones where I had to sing really high. I did high parts on Rockin’ All Over The World, It’s Better Now and Na Na Na, and they killed me!
What do you listen to at home?
Loads of country, bluegrass and rock’n’roll; Alison Krauss, Old Crow, Elvis… I started violin classically, but by the time I was twelve or thirteen my dad was taking me to open mics. I started jamming and playing folk and bluegrass, which stayed with me.
How did life on the Aquostic tour compare to other tours you’ve done?
It was really well-behaved, which is very different to my band [rock’n’rollers Hannah And The Relatives] where there’s lots of drinking and staying up late. It was very slick and organised, lots of herbal tea. It was like being on tour with a bunch of uncles – I don’t want to say grandads.
Did Rossi and Parfitt treat you well?
They were sweet and funny. Francis was always hanging around backstage, ready to give advice or tell stories, especially because I’ve got my own band. Rick keeps threatening to come to a gig… I’d jump at the chance to work with them again.