For many of us who experience a musical epiphany, it comes via the TV set. Older Classic Rock readers may recall seeing clips of Elvis Presley shaking his hips with zero regard for good taste on The Ed Sullivan Show in the US; for others the defining TV moment was looking on aghast as Jimi Hendrix poured lighter fluid over his guitar and set it aflame. And unless you saw the Sex Pistols intimidate Bill Grundy, force him to squirm and eventually collect his coat, you’d have had no clue that the entire music scene of the 1970s was about to crash and burn.
In whichever decade you made your own seismic channel switch, the effect was always the same – lives were changed forever.
Personally speaking, planet Earth was tilted from its axis forever on one particular fateful Thursday evening in 1975. I have no idea which idiot DJ was presenting, but Status Quo were performing Down Down on the weekly TV chart programme Top Of The Pops, and after watching them bludgeon their way through one of the greatest rock’n’roll numbers ever committed to vinyl, nothing in my life would ever be quite the same again.
Why did this colossal No. 1 hit make such a lasting and potent impression upon a small, pudding bowl-coiffured 12-year-old from Kent? Gosh, if only there was a simple answer to that one…
Coincidentally, a similar thing had happened a year or two earlier, The Sweet entering my living room via the irrepressible bubblegum swagger of Blockbuster on TOTP, then Hellraiser, Ballroom Blitz and later a string of spectacular hard rock B-sides. But then The Sweet had the image, they were colourful and fun, and the Sweet Fanny Adams album had raised vocalist Brian Connolly and company into icons.
But Quo…? Well, Quo were different. They were gloriously scruffy herberts, and that was real dirt under their fingernails. And although they seemed every bit as cocky as The Sweet, the campness was missing. The three at the front – the long-haired dark one that did the nasally-inflected singing; the long-haired blond one that just played the same chords over and over again; and the bushy-haired bassist that pumped out the notes whilst bopping up and down in the background – all stood there winking at the audience and looking as blokey as you could get.
Their legs were spread out wide, their hair was flying, and they were throwing rock star poses yet wearing regular down-to-earth clobber that you’d find in any Sunday-morning street market. At a push, the drummer could even be forgiven for that dreadful moustache – after all, this was music as it was meant to be played. Hard, heavy, unpretentious – and catchy as a cold.
Scraping together whatever pocket money hadn’t yet been squandered on copies of Popswop magazine, I prepared to take the plunge. Wagging off school, I took the bus into nearby Lewisham and bought a copy of On The Level, the album from which the Down Down single had been lifted.
Getting it into the house and then up to my room without alerting the suspicions of my parents was problematic, but the music was absolutely incredible: hard rocking and tough, and laced with sticky, utterly unforgettable melodies. When they did realise I’d invested in another album, my parents reacted as I’d feared.
My father, with typical bluntness, continually insisted that I turned it down because he would, “Rather hear the lavatory door slam” than be forced to overhear the thumping, bass-driven strains emanating from my stereo for the 50th time. Of course, my parents’ disapproval only strengthened my resolve to wear out the darned thing.
Gradually, On The Level went on to achieve the impossible, forcing its way on to the turntable more often than even The Sweet’s Sweet Fanny Adams and Desolation Boulevard albums. In my heart of hearts I knew I was entering a sacrilegious realm, but there was no turning back.
In honour of my new hero, Francis Rossi, a denim waistcoat was purchased and an unused tennis racket transformed into a makeshift imaginary (but in my mind very, very green) Telecaster guitar. A dog lead allowed me to interrupt my ‘playing’ and conduct audience singalongs, with an old piece of headphone cable serving to link my tennis racket to a beer-crate ‘amplifier’ – well, it was in the days before such things became radio controlled. Guitars, I mean.
As well as memorising every note of music and lyric by heart, countless hours were spent gazing at the record’s gatefold sleeve. A collage of candid pics was especially well thumbed. Shots of band members looking wasted in hotel rooms, collapsed on beaches and taking the piss out of innocent passers-by (a Polaroid of one respectable, short-haired schoolteacher-type bore the brilliant handwritten legend ‘Toronto pongo’) offered a backstage pass into an exciting, hedonistic and irreverent new world.
Man, I was hooked.
Contrary to my fondest hopes, the transformation from bespectacled glam-rock wannabe into a denim-clad Quo boogie-head didn’t exactly revolutionise my popularity at school. Quite the opposite, in fact. In my entire year, just three people declared themselves Quo fans besides myself, and they quickly learned to regret it. Quo have never been popular with the cognoscenti, but back then those prepared to align themselves to such an unfashionable institution had to prepare themselves for the austere life of the social pariah.
In 1976 and 78, although neither album allowed the band a single to top the British chart again, Blue For You and Rockin’ All Over The World proved that On The Level was no fluke. By that time I’d taken a Saturday job, and had backtracked to invest in the entire Quo catalogue. After each purchase I’d go into school ranting and raving about the likes of Piledriver, Hello and Quo.
The last one was a particularly underrated record, in my opinion, and many pleasurable hours were spent pretending that the sofa in front of me was a bank of seated fans at the Empire Pool, Wembley, as I boogie’d away to the strains of the epic Slow Train. Alas, my sheep-like classmates were far too busy shaking their collective funky thang to the latest automaton output from Kool & The Gang, or the soundtrack album to Saturday Night Fever, to take much notice. Undeterred – like the band themselves – I rocked on.
Those sixth-form pupils who did admit to a liking of rock music simply stared down their noses and walked away at the mention of Quo, careful to snobbishly display their copies of the latest Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Genesis and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers albums amid their homework. The more knowledgeable among them took great pleasure in the reminder that my heroes had once been psychedelic one-hit-wonders, and those ill-equipped to argue with such finesse simply played the ‘boring three-chord wonder’ card. But at the end of the day it was nobody’s loss but their own.
Buying a copy of Live in 1977 was what turned me from being a merely obsessive fan of Status Quo into a shameless, quivering anorak. Recorded at Glasgow’s Apollo Theatre, it boiled the band’s essence down into four sides of charismatic, fun-filled, strictly no-frills boogie-rock.
Besides the music – which kicked unfussily into gear with a gently-building Junior’s Wailing and ended with a breathless, presumably satin scarf-waving, encore of Chuck Berry’s Bye Bye Johnny – there was way too much to take in, in one gulp. From the bluster of an informal stage introduction from Jackie Lynton, to Francis Rossi’s endearingly off-the-cuff and matey between-song banter, the timeless appeal of Live was in its detail.
“This is a song that did a lot to get us where we possibly are… are we somewhere?” quipped Rossi before In My Chair. Quite often he seemed to be speaking another language – a mixture of Cockney and pure filth.
“Ah, the people at the top,” he chided, addressing those on an upper tier who insisted upon jumping up and down in time with the music, causing the balcony to rise and then drop by a frightening nine inches. “I can only see you now and again when the light goes up there, see. That’s George on the lights, and Malcolm [Kingsnorth, soundman] – they all shit themselves when that balcony moves. So get the balcony to move a bit, and they’ll all be running about and shitting themselves. A nice buncha fellas, but very scared of balconies.”
The guitarist’s comments were nothing to worry genuine smut-merchants like Derek & Clive, but along with the lyrics to Big Fat Mama and especially Roll Over Lay Down (nudge, nudge), the unexpected titter factor was certainly welcomed by this particular schoolboy.
Musically, Live was a fascinating audio banquet, the singalong strains of Most Of The Time making a huge impact. The live version of Forty-Five Hundred Times, furiously improvised to last almost twice as long its original nine minutes and 50 seconds, provided irrefutable proof that, like Deep Purple’s _Space Truckin_’ and Dazed And Confused by Led Zeppelin, Quo could retain the listener’s attention across lengthier and more ambitious musical passages.
Every riff, every throwaway line, every roar of the Glasgow crowd was eagerly digested, and one thing quickly became clear: I had to see this band for myself, in concert, live!
But my parents felt differently. Just as they’d barred me from attending The Sweet’s Hammersmith Odeon gig in 1976 and would ultimately forbid me from making the trip to Knebworth Park to see Zeppelin three years later (even though I’d got a ticket!) , I was deemed too young to see Quo on their Rockin’ All Over The World tour.
Despite the fact that the Rockin’… album was not received with universal acclaim by diehard fans – or indeed by Quo themselves; Rossi later describing it as “poxy” – my own enthusiasm for the band remained totally undimmed. Seeing Quo on Top Of The Pops once again, this time playing the album’s John Fogerty-penned title track, I swore that it would only be a matter of time before our paths finally met.
Once again recorded with Pip Williams (bizarrely, a session man on The Sweet’s earliest singles and a producer of Barclay James Harvest, Uriah Heep and the Moody Blues, among others), the next Quo album, If You Can’t Stand The Heat, was also deemed ‘controversial’ by diehards. The likes of Again And Again, Long Legged Linda and Like A Good Girl were balanced out by the glossy single Accident Prone, which some felt was unnecessarily radio-friendly.
Years later, Alan Lancaster theorised: “When Pip started producing us, everything started to go wrong.” The rest of the band would no doubt argue that the bassist’s imminent move to Australia also caused as many problems as whoever was behind the desk. Going back to …Heat all these years later, it’s obvious that big problems were on the horizon.
Finally, however, came the day of reckoning. Almost five years after my Down Down watershed, I would get to see Quo on stage. A school pal and I had managed to obtain a pair of £5 tickets for the band’s gig at Wembley Arena on May 10, 1979. The night before the show was a sleepless and incredibly nervous one. Famous for their partisan, football-style followers, I actually pondered upon the wisdom of wearing a Thin Lizzy badge alongside my usual Quo pins… might somebody take exception and beat my head in for being unfaithful?
I needn’t have worried. Entering Wembley was like being in Star Trek and getting beamed down on to an alien planet. Except this one was populated by people wearing denims plastered with patches – Zeppelin, Purple, Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath and, yes, Thin Lizzy – mostly with long hair and obligatory pint glass in hand. The show itself was little short of a religious experience.
Anxious not to miss our last train home, my friend and I reluctantly left Wembley during closing number Bye Bye Johnny, awestruck and with ringing ears. Once fully consummated, and off the back of their last great album of the era, Whatever You Want, my live relationship with Quo blossomed during the next decade. On successive UK tours, another friend and I queued outside Hammersmith Odeon in order to obtain the best possible tickets for each of the band’s seven-night run.
But that’s another story. The 70s was where it all began, though.
This feature was originally published in Classic Rock Special No.1: Status Quo