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On the road with Francis Rossi: it's good to talk

Francis Rossi smiling
(Image credit: James Eckersley)

Francis Rossi’s I Talk Too Much UK tour, for which I joined him on stage as compere and second-banana interviewer, finally completed its second leg this summer. His first attempt – 56 dates between March and June 2020 – had been scheduled to coincide with the paperback publication of Rossi’s official autobiography, I Talk Too Much. Ghost-written by me, it was built on months of face-to-face interviews with Francis, and first published in hardback form in 2019 – when the first, 36-date Talk Tour, took place. 

We had only managed four shows in 2020, however, before You Know What Hell descended and the tour had to be postponed. After it was hurriedly rescheduled for July, it then became clear that that wasn’t going to happen either, and the tour was put back to February 2021, because the whole lockdown thing couldn’t possibly still be happening then, right? 

And then it was put back again, this time to June. Officially it was due to recommence on Freedom Day – then was cancelled yet again as Freedom Day got put back to July 19. By the time it finally got going, our original 56-date tour was cut down to 33 dates. And then to 28 when some theatres cancelled late, as covid reared its ugly head again (and again). 

And yet, despite all the delays and endless complications, the often-half-empty theatres and the sense that the whole thing could grind to a halt at any moment, it turned into the most unexpectedly uplifting tour any of us on board the tour bus bubble had ever experienced. 

There were two main reasons for that. First, the show. When Francis and I had first appeared on stage together, in March 2019, we literally had no idea what we were doing. I had built a show on paper that consisted of several videos and a few verbal cues for stories I hoped to get him waxing lyrical about. But he refused to rehearse anything as he didn’t want to lose the spontaneity. The only thing we knew for sure was that he would not be singing any songs. He had been most insistent on that point. 

Then, within five minutes of being on stage at that first show, in Whitley Bay, he picked up his acoustic and began playing and singing. 

Okaaaaay…

Alt

We were doing five shows a week, back-to-back, two days off, then five more, and so on for seven weeks. Every day on the bus we would do a post-mortem on the night before, decide what to keep, what to change, what to never speak of again. After three weeks or so we had a version of the show we could more or less stick to. But Francis being Francis, he kept wanting to add to the show right up to the sound check for the thirty-sixth and final show in god knows where, I can’t remember now. 

Cut to two-and-a-half years and several lifetimes later, and although we still discussed the show, the subject was virtually closed. He knew what he wanted to do, I knew what he needed to help him do it, and that was that. 

Show highlights included: Francis’s childhood; the Status Quo origin story; meeting Rick Parfitt; 1970s success; opening Live Aid; Francis and Rick as a double act (OBE from the Queen, Coronation Street appearances etc); Rick’s death; Quo now. There were acoustic singalong versions of some old Quo nuggets, the theme to Corrie, and, to finish, a full-on, have-some-of-that, all-join-in version of Caroline

Those were the bullet points. But the real fun, as is often the case, would occur unexpectedly – almost always driven by the audience. Shouted one-liners, comic interventions, just the sheer energy of the people in attendance some nights meant everything just seemed to go right. 

There were other less fun moments too, though. The angry drunken woman in Scotland with the impenetrable accent who walked right up to the stage and began yelling at Francis for… we couldn’t work it out. 

Or the time someone in the audience fainted during the story of Rick’s death, early versions of which were extremely graphic, and I found myself appealing for “a doctor in the house”. When it happened again two weeks later, Francis agreed to make the story shorter, and to leave out some of the grislier details.

On this summer’s tour, though, we had the whole thing down pat. Francis could have fun with it… 

The main overriding reason this tour was so special, though, was entirely to do with the bizarre nature of the situation. We were already sound-checking at the Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton, on July 19, as Boris announced his (delayed) Freedom Day. Of the five-man team in our bubble, we were all double-vaccinated and were testing every other day. But no one knew what to expect. Francis is 72 and has had pneumonia three times. One positive test and the tour is over. 

But as the days whizzed by and the nights got better and looser, those fears, while always there in the background, no longer dominated. Of the 28 towns and cities we visited, between July and September, almost everybody we encountered – not just at the shows but as we walked around, visiting shops and restaurants, pubs and cafés – was ecstatic to be out and about again, able to come to a theatre show without having to social distance or wear a mask (unless they wished to; nobody judged anybody else). Lateral flow tests available. Sanitiser everywhere. 

The feeling at the shows was also different to the original 2019 tour. They were much more heartfelt occasions. I began each night by explaining how Francis had been virtually the last major rock star n the road in Britain in March 2020 when the shit hit the fan(s). And how he was the first major rock star to be back on the road the first chance he got, on yer actual so-called Freedom Day. Then invited everyone to give ourselves a round of applause for simply making it through this far, to where we were now actually at a live show again. 

Everything was less tense backstage too. In 2019 every show was studied forensically, often during the intermission, or straight after the show, always the next morning. And the next and the next x 36. 

Here in covid-battered 2021, however, there was none of that. Francis would offer some direction occasionally, always spot-on, I might come up with a quick suggestion for something. But the whole focus was no longer on such comparatively petty concerns. The irony of having Francis front a spoken-word tour called I Talk Too Much is not that it’s true – he really does talk too much – but that when he’s in the mood he tells some of the most outrageous and extraordinary stories I have ever heard from any rock star. Insane adventures from a life in Quo that would have me simultaneously doubled-up in stitches and gasping with horror. 

Of course, I would laughingly (but, secretly, hopefully) suggest he based his next book on some of these over-the-top treasures. And, of course, he would tell me to fuck off. “Maybe when I’ve retired,” he’d say to me smiling enigmatically. 

But of course Francis Rossi is not going to retire. Not in this lifetime. Status Quo is still his baby and that is never going to change.

Will there be more Talk-style shows, though? Possibly, or certainly a revamped version of it, I would have thought. Indeed, the idea of rock stars undertaking similarly stripped-down words-and-music tours has begun to take off in recent years. 

As we were touring this summer, we noticed that Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson had begun a similar jaunt. Under the heading An Evening With Bruce Dickinson, and originally based on his 2017 memoir What Does This Button Do?, Dickinson’s show is spoken-word, no acoustic singsongs. Then some of the shows towards the end of his tour had to be cancelled when he tested positive. “I thought: ‘Oh well, shit,’” he said. 

The shows have now been rescheduled for December. And although Bruce, like Francis, will be back with his band and appearing in much bigger venues next year, with a new podcast recently launched and surely more books in the offing, expect many more evenings with Bruce you can share. 

Danny Bowes and Luke Morley of Thunder also did their own songs-and-stories tour in November, based on their official new biography Danny & Luke: The First 50 Years. That tour was planned to follow the format established in 2019, when I joined them on stage in the same role as with Rossi: compere, comedic foil, story-prompter. I will not be there this time. I’ve got my own album to do, as the saying goes. 

Is this the start of a new trend for rockers with a story to tell – and which of them hasn’t? The smaller, seated venues and the atmosphere of cosy mateship these things evince, surely, guarantees it.

Mick Wall is the UK's best-known rock writer, author and TV and radio programme maker, and is the author of numerous critically-acclaimed books, including definitive, bestselling titles on Led Zeppelin (When Giants Walked the Earth), Metallica (Enter Night), AC/DC (Hell Ain't a Bad Place To Be), Black Sabbath (Symptom of the Universe), Lou Reed, The Doors (Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre), Guns N' Roses and Lemmy. He lives in England.