Status Quo. British rock band. British institution. Like another British institution, Coronation Street (which they made a memorable guest appearance on in 2005), Status Quo started out in the days of black and white television, yet are still unmistakably the same: same look, same sound, same feel. Also like Coronation Street, Status Quo have battled against the might of the BBC, but are still going strong.
The music of Status Quo has changed with the times. Not necessarily keeping up with the times, and some would say positively lagging behind. Paradoxically, hardcore Quo fans would argue that what Quo have been doing wrong over recent years is changing, and that if they are going to continue to change, they really should change back to how they used to be, thank you.
The Rockers Rollin'
Essentially, Quo are a rock band...
Is there anybody out there that wants to rock?
- Jackie Lynton1, Glasgow Apollo 1976
Back in the 1970s Status Quo were regarded as a heavy rock band. This reputation precedes them to this day. Quo were never a heavy metal band, never a glam rock band, and never a progressive rock band.
Having said that, their music sits quite well alongside bands of these genres (for proof, check the track listings of those 'Best Rock Album In The World... Ever'-type compilations). Indeed, Status Quo have toured with bands such as Queen and Slade, their support acts have included Phil Lynott and Paul Rodgers and they have been on the same bill as Pink Floyd and Alice Cooper. That's without even mentioning Live Aid, of course.
Having said that, Quo were never just a heavy rock band either. In the early 1960s before their first recording contract Quo would play covers by the likes of The Everly Brothers and The Shadows. Then, in the late 1960s, they turned to psychedelic pop for a couple of years (that black and white Top Of The Pops appearance is still shown to this day whenever Quo appear on just about any kind of TV show). Out of this, in the 1970s, they metamorphosed into a bluesy rock outfit.
From here, their direction focussed on rock...oh and blues...with the odd shuffle...a hint of folk...and an occasional country twang. However, rock underlines everything Quo do. Their trademark twin Telecaster guitar sound is instantly recognisable. This always comes backed with a solid rhythm section of drums and bass guitar, and complementary keyboards (usually piano) and occasional harmonica.
Yes. Quo are a rock band.
The Three Chords
It has been said that all Quo songs sound the same, on account of the band only playing three chords:
It's all right if they sound just like other songs
My guitar strums along just the same
If the song's underlined with my name
- Nanana (Rossi/Young) 1971
It is true that Quo play a lot of 12-bar: 12-bar blues, or 12-bar boogie. Generally, a 12-bar is made up of three chords. That's the way of it, but that's not the end of it. Quo will use as many or as few chords as it takes. What You're Proposin', for example, has only two chords, and you're almost a whole minute into the song before the second chord appears briefly, before it's back to the first chord again. How do they get away with it? Well, What You're Proposin' has a unique staccato riff, and a chirpy melody that floats over the top carrying a deceptively dark lyric. So, the riffs and melodies are the secret ingredients that complement those Quo songs, no matter how few chords are used in the mix.
The Picturesque Matchstickable Messages
On the face of it, Quo songs aren't particularly challenging lyrically:
When I look up to the skies
I see your eyes a funny kind of yellow
- Pictures Of Matchstick Men (Rossi) 1968
Quo's first hit single, Pictures of Matchstick Men, was written by Francis Rossi whilst he was sitting on the toilet. Some would say you can tell. Nonsense lyrics were par for the course in those psychedelic days.
And I like it, I like, I like it, I like it
I li-li-li-like it, li-li-li-like, here we go-oh
- Rockin' All Over The World (Fogerty) 1977
A number of Quo's most memorable songs don't seem to be about much in particular. Rockin' All Over the World is actually a cover of a Credence Clearwater Revival song, so someone else has to take the blame for the lyrics. Having said that, they do the job, are easy to learn, and...well, that's it really.
Whatever you want, whatever you like
Whatever you say you pay your money you take your choice
- Whatever You Want (Parfitt/Bown) 1979
Although Whatever You Want might not seem to be saying much, this hasn't stopped it being translated into Italian (Fai Quel Che Voui) and being performed in an operatic style by Tony Henry on Modern Arias.
The Bellavista Men
Dig a bit deeper than the apparently superficial lyrics of those commercial singles, and you'll gain an insight into the composers. Surely Quo have written the odd love song over the years?
You give the boys such a lot of fun
And by the way that you make a living
You've got the boys all on the run
- Mystery Song (Parfitt/Young) 1976
OK, so not a love song, but...a song about a prostitute. Think Roxanne, by The Police, on speed - quite literally. Rick Parfitt, having taken an illegal substance, was left sitting on a stool one night. The band came back next morning, Rick was still sitting there and had written the frenetic Mystery Song: 'Yeah I wanna try it, yeah I wanna buy it, tell me would you treat me nice'.
I'm looking for some brand new scratch marks on my back
So if you wear a little dress that starts late, ends early
I can be the doctor, you can be the nursey
- Bellavista Man (Parfitt/Edwards) 2005
If Rick Parfitt has a reputation for being a ladies man, he does nothing to dispel that with the lyrics in Bellavista Man, and co-writer Rhino Edwards does nothing to help dilute that either. This is a rhythmic, pounding shuffle. In the bridge Rick belts out: 'When word gets out there's gonna be a rush, so get in early, get in touch, I'm a Bellavista Man, I need a Bellavista woman'.
I didn't have time to wait around here anymore
We went to a place that I hadn't seen before
She worked me over then she went away
- Like a Good Girl (Rossi/Young) 1978
So has that Francis Rossi got anything to say about love? He's of Italian decent, so perhaps he should know a thing or two. This up-tempo Rossi and Young track is like a Chuck Berry number, but 16-bar boogie rather than 12-bar2. It has a typical Rossi lyric. Quirky, tongue-in-cheek and to-the-point: 'She looked to me like a good girl, and I played along like a fool, I played along just to find out, that she's no exception to the rule'.
Never knew the meaning, now I realise
Love is all you need, all you need now
If you just take me
- Just Take Me (Lancaster/Parfitt) 1974
Maybe the soft-hearted but hard-nutted Alan Lancaster can deliver the goods. Just Take Me is a blistering song. It opens with a drum solo, the first verse is sung with just the continued accompaniment of the drums, then all hell breaks loose as both guitars and the bass kick in. The central guitar solo is exactly that - a guitar solo. All the other instruments back off (except for a quieter but relentless 16-beat from the drums), while Francis Rossi tears into his Telecaster like a man possessed for 32 bars. Then everyone goes berserk again for the final verse and chorus, after which, everything stops totally dead. But take a look at Alan's lyrics. Over the top of this immensely tight, fast and frantic track we have a sensitive love song, in which Alan declares 'If I was a rich man, if I was a king, I would give you all I have, give you everything, but just take me'.
The Broken Men
Alcohol is a theme that highlights the differences between band members:
Sitting by a broken window
Up in a back room swallowing wine
Gazing down a back street garden
With my bed, chair, table and wine
- Broken Man (Lancaster) 1975
Alan's Broken Man is a bouncy, melodic song, which initially disguises the sensitive, realistic, no-nonsense look at where drinking can leave you: 'Drinking gets you nowhere, but nowhere's where I am, guess I'll always be a back-street broken man'.
I had another drink after another drink
And then I tried to crawl to the door
I had another smoke after another joke
And then I couldn't take any more
- Lies (Rossi/Frost) 1980
Another fast-paced Rossi and Frost song. Melodic with humorous lyrics, as ever. Lies is Francis's take on rock and roll excess. 'It doesn't change you see, it only changes me'.
I woke up freezing on the floor
My head was buzzing like a saw
I don't remember any more
- I Don't Remember Anymore (Bown) 2002
I Don't Remember Anymore is an Andy Bown-written track, but is sung by Rick and feels like a rocking Rick tune. A tad formulaic, but in essence a drinking song for rockers who like to smash up their hotel rooms: 'I wanna rock and roll, wanna sell my soul, sail the TV round the swimming pool'.
The High Flyers
Quo have done their fair share of touring. What have they got to say on the subject?
Making money for the GPO
When we ought to be taking it easy
We're getting ready for another show
- High Flyer (Lancaster/Young) 1979
Once again, Alan manages to be tough and vulnerable simultaneously. This mid-tempo, gentle rock tune on the one hand brags 'I'm just a flyer, getting higher...a high flyer', and on the other hand confesses 'You see a room in a five-star hotel, it never really meant much to me, who needs a bottle of '57 when the water back home is free?'
Me and my friends gonna make a pile of money
Gonna check it out every day
Me and my wife gonna need every penny
'Cos we're throwing it all away
- Breaking Away (Rossi/Parfitt/Bown) 1979
Breaking Away is one of a number of multi-part Quo songs. It starts with a quiet guitar riff that builds and leads into a funkier guitar riff, with funky drum and bass, all overlaid with some funky organ stabs (think late-1970s funk - Stevie Wonder, maybe). Francis sings and two verses and choruses later it drops back into that quiet riff, which builds this time into that Quo riff (the one you might recognise in mid-1970s recordings by Sweet, Mud, Suzi Quatro, et al)...
Beanos with the road crew, postcards to the wife
Stating the menu of the day
Flying though till breakfast, sleeping on the plane
Looking a good deal better than we'll ever feel again
...Rick sings another two rocking verses before dropping back to that initial riff again, followed by a final funky verse and chorus. Then, one last change: into a slow bluesy riff, with harmonica solo, to fade. Lyrically, the slower funky part is about the band 'lazing away the day' at home, spending their rock fortune ('pile of money') on keeping the outdoor swimming pool heated during the winter ('throwing it all away'). The rockier part sings about the 'four rockers rolling' back out on the road 'sitting in a hotel, falling off the stage'. The moral of this story is clear though: 'But I'm changing my tune, and I'm breaking away'.
The Reason For Living
So, do Quo write about anything other than sex, drugs or rock 'n' roll? How about faith, and near death experiences?
I knelt down by my bedside
And I started to say a prayer
It was when I asked for nothing
I could feel that there was somebody there
- Reason For Living (Rossi/Parfitt) 1973
Another shuffle, with a deliberately awkward shrill lead guitar riff between the verses. Lyrically this takes us from 'I tried to find a reason for living, but I couldn't find a reason at all', through to 'so I owned up to my maker and I started to say a prayer', ending with 'I'm looking still but it's easy, 'cos I know which way to go'. Rick Parfitt is a self-proclaimed atheist nowadays, but this was written before various tragedies in his personal life made his mind up for him. Francis Rossi is, of course, a 'good' Catholic boy.
'Cos I was on my knees and I was near the end
And then I saw a light
Breaking through the night
Shining down on me
- Shine On (Parfitt/Edwards) 1999
In 1997 Rick Parfitt was rushed to hospital for a quadruple heart bypass. It's no surprise then, to see the effects of those events cropping up in their music. Shine On starts gently, with a loose lazy bass line and soft rolling symbols, sort of Fleetwood Mac's Albatross style. It builds, then moves - inevitably - into a good old Quo slow solid rock 'duunka-duunk-a-duunka-duunk', and the mood becomes more optimistic: 'yeah I can see the light, it's burning so bright, shining down on me'.
The Forty Five Hundred Times
Finally, Forty Five Hundred Times. The Status Quo track with everything except the kitchen sink:
Forty five hundred times I told you you can lean on me
Though it's taken a long time for you to see
Where we're at is the right place for us to be
- Forty Five Hundred Times (Rossi/Parfitt) 1973 and 1991
Forty Five Hundred Times appears on two albums. First on the Hello album in its original six-minute form, and later a 13-minute rendition on the Rock Till You Drop album which is much closer to (but still shorter than) the live version known to Quo concert-going fans around the world.
This epic track has it all. Guitar solos galore, a bass solo, a drum solo, rhythm changes, volume changes, tempo changes, key changes, some eight-beat, some shuffle, some four-to-the-bar, slow and sensitive bits, fast and frantic bits, quiet sections, loud sections, and quite possibly the longest classic rock ending of all time. And not much singing, it has to be said.
In a recent rock music magazine poll, Quo fans voted for their favourite Status Quo track of all time. The winning track? Forty Five Hundred Times.
If you have been inspired to go out and buy a Quo record or two, here are some recommendations.
Firstly, don't go out and buy a compilation album. A string of hit singles spanning five decades might sound like a good idea, but is not the best way of slicing the Quo cake. Secondly, make sure you buy a remastered reissue of any of the older albums3. But what should you look out for? Try one or more of these:
- Ma Kelly's Greasy Spoon (1970). Early Quo with 1960s influences and 1970s determination. Raw and gritty.
- On The Level (1975). Ultimate 1970s Quo. In fact, ultimate Quo from start to finish. No other Quo album is this consistent. Classic and streamlined.
- In The Army Now (1986). Commercial but revitalised 1980s Quo with the 'new' band line-up. Polished and glossy.
- Rock Till You Drop (1991). Quo for the 1990s, keeping it simple and giving new life to a couple of old favourites. Hard and energetic.
- Heavy Traffic (2002). Millennium Quo, sounding just as keen as in the 'old' days. Blues and rhythm.
Oh, and last, but not least:
- Live! (1976). A taste of Quo doing what they do best - playing live. Quite possibly the pinnacle of 1970s touring, but surprisingly similar to the live Quo gigs of today. Rock and roll.