© Dave Ling - January 2002
previously published in CLASSIC ROCK magazine
As the stream of liquid splashed against the white porcelain, very little seemed wrong with my world. I was backstage drinking beer at one of my all-time favourite geographical locations – Crystal Palace Football Club’s home ground – and later that evening I would be watching my musical heroes – Status Quo – rocking south London as it had not been rocked for decades.
The only rain cloud hovering above Selhurst Park was that like everybody else I believed this would be the penultimate time I’d witness my idols on stage. The following weekend, at Milton Keynes Bowl on July 21, 1984, the much loved rock institution was due to reach what had been billed as The End Of The Road.
As I prepared to leave the toilet, the door was suddenly kicked inwards. Two burly men were hauling a barely conscious yet extremely familiar figure towards a cubicle. "Oi, you! Out of here… NOW!" one of the gorillas barked. They didn’t need to ask twice. My relative youth and naïveté ensured that I had little comprehension of what was transpiring, but it had taken an instant to recognise a comatose Francis Rossi, and only a simpleton would have missed the fact that something distinctly unpleasant was going on here. I fled.
"My first impression of Rick Parfitt was that he was a flash poof"
More than 15 years later, Francis Rossi shows no sign of embarrassment as the incident is verbally replayed.
"Oh, that was you, was it?" he grins, rolling his eyes. "Everybody was coked up and hating each other, and I’d started drinking tequila on that tour. I don’t remember that show at all, the encores or anything, just falling flat on my back at one point."
And so for the next few hours, Rossi, Rick Parfitt, Alan Lancaster and John Coghlan, all members of the group’s classic line-up, settle down to provide Classic Rock with their individual interpretations of one of the most amazing rock stories ever told. Readers who’ve been with us since Issue Two when Francis described the band’s early material as "a few moments of brilliance and 60-70 per cent shit" should know not to expect an easy ride…
It’s almost inconceivable that a band that would eventually sell more than 100 million units and spend 850 weeks in the charts – that’s an incredible 16 years! – would convene in a south London school in order to get out of lessons. But that’s what happened when Francis Rossi arrived at Sedgehill Comprehensive in Beckenham almost 40 years ago, meeting Alan Lancaster in the school orchestra and forming The Scorpions. With keyboard player Jess Jaworski on board, John Coghlan, then a 16-year-old Air Cadet, was poached from a local band to complete the re-christened Spectres. Guitarist Rossi and bassist Lancaster had been impressed with Coghlan’s percussive skills when their respective acts had shared rehearsal space, and John was similarly taken with their set-up.
"The three of them were bashing away through a single Vox AC-30 amplifier," Coghlan chuckles now. "But it sounded amazing, and that was the start of it all." With the safety net of the family’s ice-cream business beneath him, Rossi never paid much attention to his studies. Famously, he told a French teacher that there was no need for him to learn the language as when he was a pop star he’d have somebody to speak it for him. The Rossi family trade also proved useful when Francis’ father drove them around in his ice-cream van.
"I've lost huge chunks of my life and it cost me two marriages. I still meetpeople who say,
'Don't you remember me? I'm the guy who put the roof on your house', and I go, 'What house?'"
In almost fairy tale style, The Spectres were approached by local gas-fitter Pat Barlow, who wanted to become their manager, at first ever professional engagement in May of 1962.
"It all happened very, very quickly," reflects Lancaster. "We were novices. None of us could play a note, but we were good together."
When The Spectres decided to quit school, Jaworski opted to take A Levels instead, and with replacement Roy Lynes in tow the new line-up headed off to a fateful summer season-long booking at Butlins in Minehead. Whilst there, they would meet Ricky Harrison (real name Parfitt), who was playing with cabaret trio The Highlights. When his own set was over, Harrison would come and watch The Spectres in the Rock Ballroom.
"My first impression of Rick Parfitt," grins Rossi, "was that he was a flash poof. And he’s still flash – he’s an only child who grew up in cabaret. He was more showbiz than Alan, John or I. He was quite pally with Alan Lancaster for a while. I eventually got to know and like him, but we’ve got the term ‘homophobia’ now, so people understand it. But Rick would really camp it up."
"I remember wandering over there one afternoon and watching them rehearse for the first time," says Parfitt now. "I may still have been in my silver lame suit, which I used to wear all the time. They were playing ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ and it sounded absolutely fantastic."
"I've always liked a good polish. Our mothers taught us that wanking is bad - fuck off, it's great!"
Francis 'Five-Fingered Frankie' Rossi
Parfitt didn’t join the band until 1968, two years after they had signed to Pye Records. By the time of his arrival as rhythm guitarist, they had already changed their name to The Status Quo and were enjoying their first Top Ten hit with ‘Pictures Of Matchstick Men’. However, the band’s horrible Carnaby Street threads confirmed they were hardly in charge of their own careers.
Rossi: "We were manufactured, right from being told what song we could open with down to our stage clothes."
"I hated the bloody jacket I was forced to wear," sighs Coghlan. "I was pleased when I was standing too close to a fire at [manager] Pat Barlow’s house one day and the thing burst into flames."
The failure to provide deliver a follow-up hit allowed the band to pursue a heavier direction, growing their hair and paying less attention of the thinning ranks of career advisors.
"We’d been stuck in the trap of being successful once, then going back and doing something similar," reflects Coghlan.
"In a way, we did the same thing as Kylie Minogue’s done," Rossi reflects. "Nobody took her seriously because she came from a soap opera, but she had massive hits that destroyed her credibility even more, and then she was shagged by [Michael] Hutchence, but she kept on trying and eventually managed to turn it around. We’d gigged with Fleetwood Mac and Chicken Shack, and those bands made an impression on us. There was never a plan, it just happened.
"We were influenced by white musicians who were playing black music, but we were never cool enough to namedrop obscure blues players the way that Steve Marriott or Peter Green did," continues Francis. "That made me envious, I felt like a cunt."
"Status Quo was always my baby, I had recruited everyone, including the manager"
As early as 1969, Rossi and Parfitt had considered jettisoning Lancaster in favour of forming a power-trio with Kenney Jones of The Small Faces. Despite being hushed up at the time, it nevertheless reached the rehearsal stage.
"I found out about it years later and it all made sense," comments Lancaster. "It was all part of their psychology. The band was always my baby, I had recruited everyone, including the manager. So there was intimidation, and Rick and Francis tried to appease one another. When Rick joined the band he was such a bad player that his guitar wasn’t even plugged in for the first six months or so. And Francis couldn’t play a bloody note of lead guitar, so together they formed this bond."
"There was always tension between Alan and the rest of us," Francis confirms. "John Coghlan would fly off the handle now and again, but usually he was a lovely guy. Alan was always much more macho heavy metal than I was, he could be very difficult to deal with. We got Pat Barlow to sack him, but took him back again on a three-month trial. Unfortunately, that lasted until 1984!"
The occasional outburst from Coghlan and a habit of wrapping his hair around his head in a towel, turban-style, caused his partners to dub him The Mad Turk. He smiles: "There was a lot of one-upmanship going on. I’d out-do Rossi on something and then he’d have to do something back. But I was invariably the one that went the furthest."
As the band began to take off, so the attention of female fans grew. Eventually, it all became a bit of a chore to Rossi.
"You’d pull the bird that everybody else was after, get her up to your room and then you’d have to perform again – like an encore," he sighs. "Your suitcases would be there and you’d be quietly having a piss and thinking, ‘Can she hear this? Oh, why am I doing this again?’ It wasn’t the poor girl’s fault, it was all bravado."
On one memorable occasion while the band were rooming together, a willing German groupie was spurned in favour of a porno film and a communal masturbation session, or a ‘polish’ as Rossi delicately puts it, making the appropriate hand gesture.
"I’ve always liked a good polish," admits Rossi. "Good luck to the girl, she was going to each of us and we were all going, ‘Ooooh, lovely’. We were all blokes together, nobody was embarrassed about what was going on. There were some glistening knobs here, and she was saying, ‘Shag, Englishman?’ I said, ‘Shut up, can’t you see I’m trying to have a polish and you’re putting me off my stroke?’ All those hard-ons, and she couldn’t get a shag. Our mothers taught us all that wanking is bad – fuck off, it’s great!"
Although neither managed to chart, the band’s headbanging boogie sound began to crystalise with the albums ‘Ma Kelly’s Greasy Spoon’ and ‘Dog Of Two Head’, in 1970 and ’72 respectively.
All except Roy Lynes were thrilled at the way the music was progressing, and one day during a rail journey to Aberdeen the keyboard player alighted from both train and band at Stoke-on-Trent. "I was shocked, but Roy was like that," shrugs Rossi. "He’d met a bird in a petrol station a week earlier, and they’re still married today."
For Lancaster, Lynes’ departure was the point that he realised that Quo were destined to succeed. He explains: "I say that with affection, but when Roy left we began to get our image and music together. We were frightened out of our lives to play without him because the organ had always drowned out the bad bits. But we soon realised how tight we were actually playing."
Finally, the band’s new manager Colin Johnson negotiated a move from Pye and onto Phonogram offshoot Vertigo Records. And in 1973, the ‘Piledriver’ album smashed its way into the Top Five. Although adorned in a sleeve that showed the frontline hunched down and with hair obscuring their fretboards, and predominated by hard riffing anthems like ‘Paper Plane’ and ‘Don’t Waste My Time’, it also included softer moments such as ‘A Year’ and ‘Unspoken Words’.
"That melody has always been important to what Quo does," says Parfitt. "But I honestly don’t remember much about the making of the early albums because I was too out of it for most of the time. That’s how some of those grooves came about."
The next album, 1973’s ‘Hello!’, served notice that Status Quo were into their creative stride, a fact further emphasized by ‘Quo’ (1974) and ‘On The Level’ (’75). It was not unusual for each album to enter the UK chart at Number One, and for a while it seemed as though the band could do no wrong. But behind the scenes, drinking and drugs were beginning to take over and the band frequently bickered about the breakdown of the songwriting. Rossi had formed a highly productive partnership with road manager Bob Young, but it eventually broke up when Young began writing with Parfitt, and Rossi teamed up with Lancaster of all people. Cliques were beginning to form.
"There were a lot of French woodbines being smoked, people were laughing at spoons," chuckles Parfitt. "I fell into the lifestyle very easily, and it got much worse when the Nicki Lauda [powder, Cockney rhyming slang for cocaine] crept in. At the time we thought it was fantastic, but it was the start of a downward spiral in all our lives. Francis, Alan and me were going through so much coke it was unbelievable, it fucked us up. Funnily enough, John Coghlan didn’t get into coke, but the rest of us were outrageous. It was sex, drugs and rock’n’roll to the maximum.
"For ten years I was completely out to lunch, ligging about in London and not even knowing what day of the week it was," he continues. "I’ve lost huge chunks of my life and it cost me two marriages. I still meet people who say, ‘Don’t you remember me? I’m the guy who put the roof on your house’, and I go, ‘What house?’ I was drinking a bottle of whiskey, two or three bottles of wine and three grammes of coke every day. I dread to think how much money I was spending."
"The arguments started to get quite ugly," recalls Coghlan. "I remember being in the studio one day and Alan came in shouting about how he wanted another of his songs on the album – there was a lot of ‘You’ve got more than me’ going on, and I eventually thought, ‘Oh, fuck this’. It was bloody stupid."
As Quo reached a plateau of success with the ‘Blue For You’ album in 1976, levels of drug consumption and paranoia reached all-time highs. There were occasions when the debauchery paid off, such as Parfitt sitting up all night and writing ‘The Mystery Song’ after Rossi had laced his tea with outrageous amounts of sulphate, but everybody was developing a taste for different drugs. Rossi’s gardener had introduced him to speed – "That’s why songs like ‘Rain’ were so edgy and fast," he explains – but usage of Mandrax, a downer, was also inciting mood-swings. "That was fantastic, you could almost legally kill yourself," Rossi continues. "The person I felt sorry for was Coghlan, who was a big drinker, but he was ostracised. Sometimes Rick and I had wait till Alan Lancaster went to bed because he might have told the manager we were smoking dope. It was stupid."
"Drugs were ultimately what broke the band up," claims Lancaster. "It wasn’t the arguments, we became the cocaine gang. And if you weren’t doing it, you were excluded."
Up on the stage, however, Quo went from strength to strength. ‘Forty-Five Hundred Times’, from ‘Hello!’, was sometimes stretched out from its original nine minutes to two or three times that duration, and the intensity levels were soaring to incredible highs. The results were captured on 1977’s ‘Status Quo – Live!’, a double set from the Glasgow Apollo that Rossi now describes as: "the worst album we ever made."
"What?!" says Parfitt, echoing my own incredulity.
Francis: "Yeah. I always thought we were better than that. Rick and I were left to mix it, and we went through the recordings of the three nights we played, only to pick the first one."
"No, I disagree with my old pal there," says Parfitt. "There are bits of the live album that still give me goosebumps."
According to cliché, a live album often spells the end of one era for a band, and the beginning of another. In the case of ’77’s ‘Rockin’ All Over The World’, Quo’s next studio album, that’s rarely been more true. Although the title cut, a version of the John Fogerty track, brought a whole new level of success, Pip Williams’ slick production later caused Rossi to describe it as "a poxy album."
"There’s nothing poxy about ‘Rockin’ All Over The World’, it’s fucking great," insists a vexed-looking Parfitt. "Pip added some class into the production, and from then onwards we got quite posh – for us!"
"The arguments started to get ugly. In the studio one day, Alan was shouting about wanting another
of his songs on the album. I eventually thought, 'Fuck this'. It was bloody stupid."
However, for once Lancaster concurs with Rossi, stating: "When Pip Williams started producing us was when everything started to go wrong."
Rossi admits to mixed feelings upon learning that Lancaster was relocating permanently to Australia. Alan had married during a taxman-enforced spell Down Under and believed it would present no problems, yet the band were actually forced to do Top Of The Pops with a cardboard cut-out of the bassist. Lancaster remembers it as one of Quo’s many "publicity stunts", but the band were starting to lose patience.
"It was great that Alan was out of our hair, but of course it made things difficult," says Francis, while Rick maintains: "It was the beginning of everything going pear-shaped."
To the credit of all concerned, ‘If You Can’t Stand The Heat’ (1978), ‘Whatever You Want’ (’79) and ‘Just Supposin’’ (’80) maintained the public façade and contained the occasional great track. But by ‘Never Too Late’ in 1981, Young had been shown the door and John Coghlan’s tenure in Quo was also nearing an end.
"With ‘Never Too Late’, we began to lose the plot," acknowledges Rossi. "Bob Young was cleverly promoted backwards, I’ve since learned that he was told the band didn’t want him anymore. That was when money started to go missing."
Finally, during the recording of the 20th anniversary album, ‘1+9+8+2’, Coghlan’s temper snapped. Unable to master a beat, he kicked a snare drum across the room and walked out.
"John said, ‘I’m leaving’. So we told him, ‘Fucking good job, this time you’re out’," sighs Rossi.
"It had been creeping up on me," John now explains. "I always felt that we never got enough rest. There were parties every night, and of course you didn’t have to go to those parties, but I usually ended up going with the flow. Also, things weren’t happy for me at home in those days, and nobody in the band was too interested in anybody else’s problems. If I threw a wobber about something – or anyone else did – nobody bothered to ask why, they just avoided you for a while. It was such a shame, because the original band were shit-hot, and we allowed it to fall apart."
"I wish I knew what happened to John Coghlan," observes Rossi. "His pet hates were gigging, rehearsing and recording… what else was there? Maybe it was too much drinking over a long period of time, or the fact that he didn’t really write songs, but something snapped. I don’t hold grudges towards him, although I suspect he does towards me."
With hindsight, of course, Coghlan regrets his knee-jerk reaction.
"Who knows whether things would have improved or worsened had I stayed, but I was depressed, and a lot of it had to do with the drink and the drugs," he says. "Colin Johnson [manager] recently told me he thought I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Apparently, Alan told everybody when I left the room that I’d be back the next day – in fact, I was on a plane going home."
With ex-Original Mirrors man Pete Kircher filling the drum-stool, Quo even received the stamp of royal appointment when Prince Charles famously attended the Birmingham NEC show on the resulting tour. Rossi is full of admiration for Charles, but is under no illusions concerning his professed love of the band’s music. "I will never really believe he was a fan of Status Quo, he’s just a bloke doing his job for the Prince’s Trust," he states. "But the last time he came to see us at the Royal Albert Hall he stayed longer than he had to, and had an extra drink. So he’s not the schmuck that he’s painted as."
One more studio album followed in 1983 before worsening relations cause the band to stop touring. ‘Back To Back’ included the controversial and somewhat limp single ‘Marguerita Time’. For Lancaster, it would prove to be the last straw.
"Nobody but Francis wanted to record that song, all it did was advertise that we were a bunch of nerds," he confides. "And as for deciding to retire from the road… all that was about was getting Francis a solo career. Nobody on the outside knew it, but he didn’t want to work with me or Rick anymore."
Indeed, Rossi is the only band member to have approached the farewell tour with anything approaching a positive mindset. While Parfitt admits "the vibe had gone" and that "nobody could look each other in the eye anymore", he hated playing each number for the last time at Milton Keynes Bowl. Francis, by contrast, claims to have felt "fine" knowing that he would be professionally unattached following the show’s conclusion. "We all went home by helicopter afterwards and I was gutted," comments Rick sadly, "but I never thought in my heart of hearts that it was all over."
And whaddya know? He was quite correct. A year later, an under-rehearsed Rossi, Parfitt and Lancaster reunited to open Live Aid at organiser Bob Geldof’s request. States Rossi: "Bob told me, ‘It doesn’t matter a fuck what you sound like, just so long as you’re there’. Thanks for the fucking honesty, Bob."
"When I left Status Quo they were one of the top ten bands in the world, now they're a laughing stock."
The worldwide acclaim for their opening of Live Aid revived Quo’s fortunes, and discussions about reviving the beast soon began. At the start, Lancaster and Parfitt had considered reforming the group minus Rossi, but when ‘In The Army Now’ surfaced in 1986, Francis, Rick and long-time keyboard player Andy Bown had a new rhythm section of bassist John ‘Rhino’ Edwards and drummer Jeff Rich.
"I was later told that nobody at the label was interested in a Quo featuring Lancaster and Parfitt, they wanted Parfitt and me," explains Rossi. "I also learned that unless we did something together we’d have to pay back a shitload of money. So they had us by the bollocks. I was adamant that I would never work with Lancaster again, but he warned us that he would injunct us if we tried to do it without him. And when we won he went fucking bananas."
Alan feels that the court’s decision to rule in favour of Rossi and Parfitt effectively cost him his multi-million pound career as a musician.
"I actually spoke to Rossi on the phone not so long ago and he admitted to me there had been a conspiracy to get rid of me," he sighs. "John Coghlan had been intimidated out of the band, too. It was the biggest mistake we ever made because it altered the balance of power. The public perceive things differently because they think it’s a band – it’s not, it’s actually a business partnership.
"When I spoke to Rossi on the phone, he didn’t even know that Roy Lynes had sued us, none of us did because the infrastructure didn’t bother to tell us. It took him ten years and because he won the case, we’re still paying for it."
Quo have released a string of clinical and to these ears plainly inferior albums since 1988’s ‘Ain’t Complaining’. Although Rossi is particularly fond of 1991’s ‘Rock ’Til You Drop’, Parfitt hates it. And many of those who loved the group circa ‘Hello!’ or ‘Blue For You’ now regard them with weary distain. No TV show is deemed too naff for them to appear on, and although hardcore supporters shared Lancaster’s disdain for the foul ‘Marguerita Time’, their very nadir as a band came with the woeful ‘Burning Bridges’ (which even Rossi concedes is "twee"). Nevertheless, whole families continue to turn out en masse to enjoy their shows. They have achieved their goal and become true household names, yet losing much of their personality in the process.
"If people think that, then fine," winces Francis. "But they’re believing in a myth. It’d be lovely to still have the original line-up together, but that’d be like trying to get your dick up your own arse… impossible."
Quo’s long-time manager, David Walker, recently passed away of a heart attack. It reminded Parfitt, who’d also been forced to undergo bypass surgery, the importance of looking after himself.
"Our tours are pretty civilised now," beams Francis. "We have little cheese and wine parties on the bus. If I was still doing the drugs I’d probably be dead."
"Sometimes we stay up till nearly midnight," guffaws Parfitt. "We find some very fine cheeses on our travels and we like to save them for a special night. We’re still capable of getting out of hand, but not on a show day – I can’t take it like I used to."
These days the relationship between Coghlan and Quo has warmed, and the drummer always tries to see them play when they visit the Oxford Apollo. He still harbours a wish of playing with Rossi and Parfitt again, "even if it was just as an encore. That would be so much fun", but much of his time these days is spent working with John Coghlan’s Quo. Essentially a tribute band based around the three younger, Manchester-based musicians, they gig all over the UK, focussing on the band’s early repertoire.
Bob Young, too, has been welcomed back into the fold, reuniting the hitmaking team responsible for ‘Caroline’, ‘Down Down’ and ‘Paper Plane’ on an as yet untitled album that will be out in September 2002. The band are also focussed on the past as they plug the long-awaited four-CD retrospective, ‘Rockers Rollin’: Quo In Time 1972-2000’.
Whilst taking the situation with Lancaster into consideration, John maintains that Quo owe their fans a full-blown reunion of the original line-up, stating: "If there was a European tour, we’d clean up. Maybe with Bob Young back on board the whole problem with Alan could be sorted out." Far more likely, however, is the possibility of Quo’s original rhythm section working together again in some capacity, although nobody’s saying too much on that hot potato right now.
Lancaster and Rossi are quick to pour water on the idea of a classic Quo reunion, though both for different reasons. Says Alan: "I would never play with them again, it would be against all my principles. When I left Quo they were one of the top ten bands in the world, now they’re just a laughing stock. To me, there are better covers bands out there than the current line-up. My 22-year-old daughter says she’s embarrassed to tell people her dad was in Status Quo."
"Playing with John again won’t happen, just out of respect for the guy [Matt Letley] that’s currently doing the job," Rossi states. "We’re somewhere else now."
Sales-wise, Status Quo are second only to the Beatles in terms of singles shifted and runners up to the Stones in terms of albums, but their credibility remains lower than a snake’s belly.
"I’m aware that the last couple of albums have upset some of our fans," nods Rossi. "That’s something that we do care about, and people’s reaction to the new material has been incredible. Writing with Bob again has given me a whole new lease of life. People tell me, ‘You’re 52 now, you’ve had a good run’ – they can fuck off, are we supposed to think that the people who go wild at our shows only do so because they feel sorry for us?"
Whilst it would be an exaggeration to state that Quo refocused their sound to everybody’s satisfaction with 1999’s ‘Under The Influence’ album, it at least hinted at a genuine return to greatness.
"This new album’s in a whole different league," promises Parfitt. "It feels real again, a whole new era is about to begin."
With commendable frankness, both Rossi and Parfitt both admit that 2000’s covers album ‘Famous In The Last Century’ was poor – but with a shrug of the shoulders Francis concedes: "We didn’t wanna do it – but it sold. I don’t think we’ll do another one, I hope not anyway." Tellingly, he then adds: "I want this band to stay alive, and the more that people try to shut us down then I’ll do absolutely any-fucking-thing I have to in order to keep it going. I’ll prostitute myself to get it into the charts… I’ll do whatever it takes. That may sound a bit sad to some people, but this is all I know how to do."
The official Status Quo website
P.S. Dave says...
Status Quo are rock legends - that's irrefutable. And as a long-term fan it's great that they're back on top form after more than a decade in the doldrums. Since this interview took place Quo have released their best album in aeons, 'Heavy Traffic', and I've seen them perform shows that were comparable to the glory years (though fingers still go into ears during 'Burning Bridges' or that bastard medley of Beach Boys bollocks). Meeting Rossi and Parfitt was a thrill; the chats with Coghlan and Lancaster took place by phone. As you'll see, Alan was extremely frank. To this day I'm still not sure what he made of the article, as he later changed his e-address (hope I wasn't to blame!!). Francis was especially lively and amusing to talk to. One memorable thing: before the interview, he walked around me in a circle, lifting up clumps of hair to inspect what was underneath and making comments like: "Ooooooh, you're losing it there, mate - oooh, and there". I suffered in silence, but a few months later felt vindicated after picking up a copy of (I think) Maxim and finding an advert for a certain hair clinic. In it, Quo's guitarist was undergoing a hair restoration operation - the latest of many, as I understand! (21st November, 2004)
Please send me your comments on this article.