‘In his frankest interview in years, Status Quo’s Francis Rossi talks to Jon Wilks about Pamela Anderson, Spinal Tap and how he learnt that three chord trick.’
Francis Dominic Nicholas Michael Rossi has been giving a lot of people ‘whatever they want’ for a long time now. Onstage, he’s half of the core duo that make up the unstoppable Status Quo, a British hard rock band that formed in 1967 and have famously played few more than three chords ever since. Offstage, and in interview, he has something of the pub philosopher about him – at times lewd, at times self deprecating, always prone to namedropping; always a snigger away from being the ‘cocky little sod’ he was when he began breaking world records in the early ’70s.
Together with his musical partner Rick Parfitt (Rossi almost always referrers to him, simply, as ‘him’), he’s had 64 hit singles, played on Top of the Pops 106 times, holds the record for the biggest gigs on Moscow soil and travelled over four million miles, equating 23 years, nonstop, on the road. Last year, his trademark ponytail was snipped for charity, and that is where our conversation begins…
The legendary ponytail is now hanging on some fan’s wall. Don’t you find that a little bit creepy?
That’s not where they hung it. Where they put it is even more creepy. The fan’s a female. Got the drift?
Have you ever been obsessed with a musician to that level?
No. I’m not like that about anybody, and the closest I get is with Jeff Lynne. But I’ve known Jeff since I was 16. If it was going to be some hero, it would be him, or the Everly Brothers. But I learnt years ago, you don’t need to meet your heroes because it’s show business. What we actually think is the person, isn’t, invariably. So you don’t need to go and meet your idols, or whatever, because they’re going to go and say something totally human and put you off.
So it was the Everlys that got you going?
The Everly Brothers and Little Richard, yeah. I still look at clips of Little Richard – ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ or ‘Lucille’ – and the fucking band! They’re seriously happening! Everybody’s physically committed to it. And I think that’s where him and I get it. You work to get up there. Don’t stand there looking bored shitless, pretending you’re mean, moody and marvelous. You’re up there! Come on! Let’s fucking go!
There’s almost an Everlys thing to the harmonies you and Rick sing, isn’t there?
We always wanted to do that two-part thing. Sometimes, him and I, our voices blend. Sometimes you can hear this very commercial thing, something very pleasing on the ear. When we did Glastonbury this year, I got home in the afternoon and my wife was watching it. I couldn’t deal with it, so I went in the shower, came downstairs, and it was up to the point of ‘Whatever You Want’. Rick plays the intro, and I come in, and we do that ‘da dadala dum’ [sings the main riff], and just for a split second, I could see. It’s a great image: the blonde guy, the bald guy, the way the guitar sounds. I could see. But then it goes again, and I lose it and go back to being insecure.
That image is awfully similar to the one in Spinal Tap, wouldn’t you say?
Certain areas I think, definitely. Lots of people would like to say, ‘well, that’s about us’, but we were never anywhere near being anything in America. [Spinal Tap’s] thing is they were something once. With us, the whole thing in America just never was. Initially I used to say, ‘no, it’s nothing to do with me’, but then it became that groovy thing – ‘Have you seen Spinal Tap?’ ‘Oh, yeah. It’s us!’ But, to be honest, I don’t know. Our PA, when she first joined us, thought it was us. She’d say, ‘I can’t believe that. It’s so like you two.’ But it’s so like Jagger and Richards or whomever else. In lots of bands, it’s two people that are the thing. And any two people, so much like a marriage… it’s going to be like Spinal Tap.
Despite your longevity, nobody’s ever taken the Quo terribly seriously. Do you ever feel you’ve been overlooked as a musician? As a lead guitarist, perhaps?
Not really, no. I’m about as good now as I should’ve been when I was 25. That, to me, is pathetic. I was such a cocky little sod and we’d become successful, so I decided, ‘I don’t really need to do that shit.’ I wish I had done. I always practice for two hours every day. I always practice before we go on. Anything to get better. It’s a bit late in life, but I don’t care. That’s what I’m going to do. So, no, I don’t think I missed out at all. We’ve done extremely well. A lot of people love us to death. It’s not that important to me to be the whizzy whizz. It was the Everly Brothers that got me, so gimme an acoustic guitar, a bunch of chords, and I wanna sing something.
You’ve shared the stage with the likes of Clapton and Brian May. Didn’t you get intimidated?
Yeah, they’re brilliant, those people. I don’t get intimidated anymore because I’m a better player than I used to be. But I was fascinated where all these people learnt all this blues shit, because I never heard it! When I started up, I heard pop records. In the ’60s and ’70s I heard all these interviews with Eric and everyone else, all talking about these really obscure black guys that I’d never heard of. So whenever I did it I was quoting some white guy who was influenced by a black guy.
Ironic, considering your dependence on the 12-bar blues thing.
Yeah, really! Well I learnt it off white guys. I can’t pretend otherwise. It’d be good for the image to say [adopts American accent] ‘Oh, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters…’ No. I learnt some of ours off Rory Gallagher, Stan Webb (of Chickenshack) and Fleetwood Mac. That’s where I learnt my shit.
Can you remember when you first laid eyes on Rick Parfitt?
Yep. I thought he was a flash, blonde little git with a quiff. Actually, he was talking to me about it last night – he was a little bit tired and emotional. I was playing what we called a rock ’n’ roll ballroom in Butlins in Minehead [UK] and we used to have to play two and half hours in the afternoon and three hours at night every day. Fucking hell! You think it’s hard work now? Invariably nobody would come through in the afternoon – the odd person, you know – and in came Rick. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this at gigs; when the band is sound-checking, people stand and watch in a totally different way than they would if the show was on.
Like, ‘Go on. Impress me?’
Something like that, yeah. Anyway, he was looking like that. I thought, ‘Cocky little shit. Who are you?’ But he said, and he said it to me again last night, ‘I saw that and I thought, that’s what I want to do.’ He’s said it many times. ‘That’ll do me.’ He’d been floating around in cabaret and stuff, and he always thinks I’m using that as an insult, about him doing cabaret. But it’s just another form of training. It’s still music to me. It’s why that whole thing about us and the three chord trick is so funny. Rick couldn’t have done all that cabaret and still only know three chords. I’m not saying he knows what they’re all called…
Those three chords have thrown up some classic songs, but I’ve often wondered how you cope with having to play ‘Rockin’ All Over the World’ every night of your life.
I was talking to Roy Wood last night about this. [It only gets boring] when you’re rehearsing or doing it on television. When you do it in front of people, it’s like showing someone Pamela Anderson’s [chestal frontage] when they’ve been mad for her for years, and suddenly they’re presented with them right in front of you. And that’s what it’s like when you play the songs that they love.
You’ve been involved in a lot of publicity stunts over the years. Is there anything you wouldn’t do for Status Quo?
Yeah, there are lots of things that come up that get turned down. But, and I was saying this to Manfred Mann last year (I’ve always liked Manny – we get on well), I said, ‘we seem to have prostituted ourselves every fucking inch of the way’. That’s what you do. Anything to keep that name and that band alive. It becomes its own entity. It’s got nothing to do with Francis Rossi or Rick Parfitt. We’ve got to protect that fucking name. That’s all anyone else does. Why do you think Presley’s council is so careful? Why do you think McCartney is so protective of that Beatles catalogue? You protect it. It becomes something. You start out with this little band and you’re pissing around in the front room, and you end up playing to massive venues and it’s a big business. So you protect it, and you’d be fucking stupid not to.
And after all these years, is there anything left to aspire to?
Better. Always better. The last single we had out, I forget what number it got to, but we were like, ‘Yes!’ Doesn’t mean anything in sales, and it doesn’t do anything for the band, and compared to what we used to sell it’s probably a quarter of a morning’s sales. But there’s that insecure little show-off in all of us that needs that affirmation of success. I think the chart, which is still a sign of success, it means fuck all financially these days. In fact, it probably costs us. But… ‘Yes! Did it! Yes!’ It’s quite pathetic in some ways, because it’s these insecure little showoffs. I know so many people in our business, when they walk into the room, people have to look at the ground. Oh, go away, for fuck’s sake! When you were desperate all those years ago: ‘Look at me, look at me, look at me! Take my photograph! Anything! Just put me there!’ Now it’s, ‘Don’t look at me, don’t look at me, don’t look at me!’ We talk a bunch of arse, us people.
What will finally bring the Mighty Quo to its knees?
I’m fucked if I know. That’s a damned good question. Showbusiness is a very, very strange thing.
You’ve done alright so far.
But there’s still time to go yet.
Originally published in Time Out Abu Dhabi