An Interview with Francis Rossi
It’s safe to say that after 50 years in rock ‘n’ roll, Francis Rossi OBE has got a few tales to tell. The Status Quo founder and frontman is about to step out on his first spoken word tour, ‘I Talk Too Much’, where he’ll be delving into his back catalogue of musical memories, hellraising highlights and, of course, snatches of the tunes that have made Quo one of British rock’s perennial favourites.
Here, he talks to On: Magazine‘s Victoria Holdsworth about balancing the positives and the negatives, still being nervous after all these years, and living with unfulfilled ambitions: “I still feel like I’m trying to reach this carrot”…
FR: Hello! Hello! Victoria Holdsworth. I’m sure they used to be a really posh bike shop called Holdsworth’s.
VH: It is always a pleasure to speak to you Mr. Rossi – and Happy Valentine’s Day!
It’s a pleasure to speak to you and the magazine, Victoria. I can’t deal with Valentine’s Day though! I can’t deal with any celebrations to be honest with you. I don’t know my children’s or my grandchildren’s birthdays, or my wife’s. I’m not very good with remembering all that.
Well, speaking of affairs of love, last year your famous green Fender telecaster sold at auction for over £118,000. How hard was it to give up after all those years of making music together?
Being really honest, it wasn’t. It was something that I had kind of retired. I keep hearing various things recently that it did have a nice sound to it, and I suppose it did. Telecasters are notoriously good at fucking up, and you have to be a good player to be able to handle them, and I guess I’m not that good. I’m not a bad rhythm guitar player, but I could have studied a lot more when I was younger. I always had trouble with the thing, and it was getting a bit antsy, like I am, in its old age. So John Edwards suggested that I have something else made, with a carbon fibre neck or whatever [laughs] and I now use it, and I’m very happy. So it was just one of those things, and I thought that maybe I should sell it. It’s quite interesting, because if you keep looking, I’ve got various other valuable guitars, that the longer I keep them now, the less valuable they become, because loads of guys of my generation are kicking the bucket, then they sell their guitars. Well the more and more of those guitars that start coming back on to the market, then their value is gonna go down.
“I don’t know how much longer it can actually go on for”
I remember seeing it for the first time in 1984. It was the first gig I had ever been to, and you were playing at Bridlington Spa.
Really? The old Bridlington, before they’ve done it all up. It was grim! You never saw backstage there, but there was this horrendous smell from the two set of toilets that were there. The building was great though. I remember they re-did the building and we went to visit and play it. A lovely big dressing room, but they forgot to find a route to the stage, so they had to build this kind of thing out of screens, to be able to get to the band to the stage, but it always used to be a very raucous gig in Bridlington. We played it many times over the years. They say it’s the gig, but it’s not, it’s the people in the gig that make it. I’ve been to many a venue that they claim to be wonderful, but if you stick the wrong crowd in there, it’s a whoops!
I don’t want to dwell too much on Rick in the interview….
Well you can’t, he’s dead [laughs].
Obviously, there were difficulties between you before his passing, which were made very public. However, in an interview you gave just before he died, you said that you had never thought you could retire up until now, but there are always future plans where Quo were concerned. How did that plan change after Rick left you guys to it?
Well, we knew he was going, kind of thing. He had had various heart attacks in the past, and was getting less able, which is one of the reasons that we switched to acoustic, because we thought he might find it easier. Things were getting louder, and he was getting louder, because he couldn’t hear as well, and all sorts of things. It was in the June, I think, that we became aware that he wasn’t able to do it anymore, and so we were off doing things that weren’t Quo related, and things changed. When Rick died, it changed in the face of adversity. Things do happen. There is that saying that every negative has a positive, and every cloud has a silver lining. It did help the rest of us, because our arses were on the line, and we had to kind of wake up and pull our socks up. We did, and it gave us something to fight against, so things happened that we never thought would happen. Having said that, I don’t know how much longer it can actually go on for, but just before Rick died everything started to feel new again for a time, and then Rick said that he didn’t think he could do this anymore, so we got Richie in, who we had known for some time, and it was always going to be Richie and not somebody else that had a rock history, or someone that looked like Rick or sounded like Rick, or someone with long blonde hair. That would have pissed Rick off and pissed me off, to have a look-a-like for Rick.
“I just like talking, in case you hadn’t noticed”
I saw you in Scarborough at the open-air theatre with Richie on the last electric tour, and he sounded pretty good. The whole gig was pretty solid, except for the rain.
I love that venue! Best fish and chips I have ever had in my bloody life! I really enjoy that gig, and apparently, they have moved the water now that was in front of the stage. One problem there was that we would hear a delay, and by the time it hit the audience, which is only a millisecond or so, but in songs like, ‘In The Army Now’ where they sing, ‘Stand up and fight’ we put the space in to compensate it, and the bloody thing was late [laughs] and then we would end up coming back in and out of time, if we weren’t careful. But now they have the people much closer, but it has always been a good crowd there.
‘I Talk Too Much’ isn’t your first outing as an author, however, this book seemed to be a little more on the personal side than the any of the others. How much of a struggle was it to fit all those years into one book? And why was now the right time to talk bout these parts of your life?
As soon as Rick died, everybody came to ask me, and I think they wanted me to possibly just slag him off and bad mouth him really, but I kept telling them, ‘No!’. They then got back in touch with me and offered loads of zeroes on the end of it, so I thought I might just be able to do that, and it makes people laugh, but it’s the truth. We all realise that we will do things for money, as much as we all like to adopt the more moral high ground. You can buy anybody really.
Well I suppose life is certainly a lot better with money.
It’s certainly shit without it, girl! So, it was a case of not really writing another book, and I don’t consider myself to be any sort of author. I sat with Mick Wall and he just wrote it, and I would go over it with him. I was just talking with him, like I’m talking to you now. He would ask me questions, and over a few weeks of just sat there talking, he sat and read it to me, because I don’t like reading about myself. I don’t wanna see it after I have said it. I don’t like seeing any interviews, because it tends to make me think that I don’t like me, I don’t like him in that interview, so if I’m not careful it sucks down whatever it is that is saleable about me, if you like, or is acceptable to publish about me. He would read it, and some times I would say, well I wouldn’t quite say it like you’re saying it, and he would change it. But it must have paid off because lots of people have actually said that the book is written exactly how you would say it, which is what I really needed to hear. Various people over the years have told me things I may or may not have said in the past, and I’m just like, ‘I don’t remember saying that!’ and I’ve got a feeling that quite a few people often read their own thing into things anyways, so it doesn’t really matter by that point. I just like talking, in case you hadn’t noticed. [laughs] depends how old you are as to how much you can keep talking, and I can keep going, I promise. [laughs]
You have certainly packed a lot into 70 years, but if you could just pick three moments that define you as a man, up to this present day, which would they be?
That is one of the best questions I have ever heard. It’s a very difficult question [pauses] and I don’t think I want to go there [pause] it would be a lot more ego than I dare expose. Hmmm, defining…
It doesn’t have to be in music, just your life as a person.
That is a very good question too. I have to be careful, because what I’m thinking of now, well, I’ve just looked at my pictures of my eight children, up there on the wall, and I think that they define me, having those children, but I don’t think I’ve been a very good father, so that has defined me somewhat. Too many positives and negatives, and every positive has always been balanced by the other and vice versa in my life. I would rather not go there. I’ve tried to answer the best I can. It’s made me feel very uncomfortable now [laughs] and my bottom is twitching.
Moving on… From your vast back catalogue of work – including all your solo work – which song would you say you are most proud of?
Which song? Hmm, interesting again! You’ve really thought about this haven’t you?
What can I say? I am a huge Quo fan.
[laughs] There’s nothing wrong with that! It’s difficult, because, and I find this about everybody in our lives generally, when I hear someone say something like their favourite film of all time, and I think ‘Fuck! Really?’ There are so many great movies out there, and it is the same with songs. But, okay, I think, ‘One Step At A Time’, from the same album, was just myself and Guy Thompson. I thought that was tremendous, and a song I did with Quo called ‘All We Really Wanna Do’. I thought was a song that was gonna change the world, and it just didn’t. I do think ‘Blessed Are The Meek’, is really good, and ‘Tongue Tied’ is pretty good. It doesn’t mean that I don’t think that I have written some shit, and I think I really have, and the band has, which is why some people get upset with me, when I don’t see Status Quo quite the same way that they do. Yes, we did some really great stuff, and we have had some great moments, and my god, some real shite, but that too goes along with every other band or act that I’ve ever seen or heard. Which is why I’m a bit reluctant when people say things like, that Amy Whineberg (Winehouse), or whatever she’s called, I thought she was really, really good, and then the PR machines kicked in too much, then there was all the stuff about her not being allowed to marry that guy, then she began to drink too much, then she was indulged so much that I switched off. I thought that she had become shite, for someone who I thought was really great. It seems that everyone goes on that thing, same as the Quo or whoever, and then you hear people saying everything she did was so amazing and great, but it wasn’t everything that she did. She became a drunken mess, just like people in Quo had their issues. So when we do paint people as wonderful, I have to balance them with, ‘Yeah… but there’s some shite too.’
“I want more!”
Speaking of some of your solo work, you had a number one album when you changed musical tack a little and did a country album.
Yeah, with Hannah. I always wanted to do something like that. Many years ago I was trying to get one going, and was put off the idea by Alan and Rick. They said I wasn’t focusing enough on Quo, which was a bit weird at the time, and I think management didn’t want me to drift away from the golden goose, so to speak. I think if I’d have been allowed to do it a little, I might not have gone back to being in Quo. The album I did with Hannah Rickard was good though, as I’ve always enjoyed singing with girls. I like girls! [laughs]
We have noticed over the years, Francis.
To do that album with her, she made me sound good! I was hoping to do another one with her, but the current thing means it’s not happening as Status Quo have just had another number one album, so my generation remembers so many albums in such vast quantities, that what they call a hit these days, we’re all going, ‘Really? Is that what you call a hit?’ and perhaps that just makes us sound old and negative, but I’ve been in this business from the beginning and watched it grow up, get older, and now its dying, I think. I think… and that is just the logical way that it went, because my generation in the seventies were looking forward to everything being fabulous. It kind of is. We have loads of telly and music and information available, and now we’re fucking bored shitless because we’ve got everything. It’s all of us I think, so going forward now to people like Greta Thunberg, who is complaining about the planet, well, she doesn’t really believe that my generation said, ‘Let’s go and fuck everything up!’ because we didn’t. We thought we were going to do things at work rate, whether its computers or phones, and everything we have, we were going to have and we do have, and if she thinks her generation are not gonna get to my age and go, ‘Fuck, we messed up here,’ then she is mistaken. So I don’t know how I got to that point there with you! [laughs].
Do you still have any ambitions that are still unfulfilled?
I don’t know if they are unfulfilled, but it’s always seemed to me that… do you remember when you were at school, and they showed you a stick on top of a donkey’s head, with a carrot in front of it, to make the donkey follow the fucking carrot? Well, I still feel like I’m trying to reach this carrot. Quite often in the mornings, when I’m thinking to myself, ‘What am I doing?’ I get this feeling, and I got it again this morning, that I feel like I just want it all to stop. Death is approaching and it’s getting to be later on in life, I’m in old age now, but then I talk to people like you, and I do promo stuff, and then I get all enthused about it all over again. So the only thing I’m aware of, and I’m sure that everyone on the planet does this, is I want more! So, going back to Greta, perhaps she doesn’t have that, ‘We want more’ which drove us all forwards to trying to make a better life. We didn’t want the three day week, we didn’t want to destroy the planet, we just wanted everything to be fabulous. So something in me still wants to go and do more. Fuck it! I’m trying to get to that point where I say, ‘Finally, I got it, I’ve done it!’ Any time I have achieved that, with a number one album, and I was really pleased with how well the last Quo album did, there is only a short period of, ‘Yes!!! We did it’. But then you ask, right what’s the next single? It’s the thing that keeps me going, and I’m sure it’s the part which tires me out, and again, I’m sure that you have it, and everyone has it. It’s almost like you’re waiting for your mum and dad to come home and say, “Well done lad!” so you can say, “Thanks! Can I stop now?” I still have this feeling of I want more, but I don’t even know what the fuck it is! [laughs]
“My mouth would dry out and my hands would shake”
You have mentioned previously that you always get nervous before shows. How have the nerves been holding up since you have been doing the spoken word tours?
I don’t know if it’s because I can just talk [laughs] and it’s not that I exactly get nervous. I think about what is going to happen in the day, and I look forward to doing things, like going back out in October again for a tour and seeing Richie and everybody. I enjoy being with everybody, particularly Richie for some reason. The day goes on, and we start getting ready and dressed and what not, we have a laugh and start warming up and all that, having a mess about, looking forward to being on stage together, and then I get to the side of the stage and think, “Shit! I shouldn’t have done this” [laughs] “No, no, no, no, no!” But then I get on stage, and I really enjoy it. For the first few shows of the spoken word show, again I was just thinking, “Oh shit!” and then there is something about me, that wants to go out there. Going back to the previous question, about what is there to achieve; I’m still looking for the one, and I know that by going on stage that it works for me, and when I do finish a show I get that “Yeah!” and I get just a couple of hours, of what I said I was looking for. “I’ve done it! Lovely!” Although it gets frustrating every day, and it never seems to get away from that groundhog day feeling somewhat, but every night we come off there and then I get to the bus, and everyone is really upbeat, ‘cause we’ve just finished playing and you slide back down the ladder, then you wake up again and just go, “Oh… what the fuck am I doing” then the day goes on again and you end up back at the first point. I think I would call it anticipation now, more so than being nervous. If it was nerves, my mouth would dry out and my hands would shake. I know that there have been times when I have been nervous, and I turn around to the band and stick my lips up. You know like when your mouth goes dry and you curl your lip up? I fold my lips up to show the band so that they know [laughs] that I am showing them I am nervous at that point. They just laugh at me. Then I turn around, and it’s just all gone! That’s my way of dealing with any forms of nerves I get. Nerves really do let us down, because we cannot function correctly when we are nervous.
Is there any other band you would have liked to have been a member of if given the opportunity?
I would have probably liked to have been in Jeff Lynne’s band, or any band to do with him. I think Jeff Lynne is the closest thing I have to having a hero. There is only one or two things that he has done, that I thought, “Whaaaaat?” but generally most things he’s done I just fucking love! And I think, ‘Why didn’t we do that?’ I think Jeff Lynne has done many things that lots of us didn’t have the guts to do, whether it’s a Welsh male voice choir in a track or an opera singer, or a dog barking. I remember saying to him, when we were playing snooker at a local snooker centre about recording a dog barking and telling him that you could sample it, play it back wards and distort it, and now do anything you want with it, and Jeff was like, “Huh?”, and then some two or three years later, I think it was the Secret Messages album, I was playing this track, and all of a sudden I hear this dog barking, and I thought, ‘You fucker! You did it!’ So yeah, maybe I’d have liked to have been in ELO or The Eagles or Fleetwood Mac. I don’t think I’m musically good enough to be in The Eagles, and the vocal wouldn’t have been good enough.
Besides, I do not think if you’d have been in them, that they would have been able to afford the drugs bill back then.
The drugs! Yeah they could certainly put it away couldn’t they [laughs]. We all went through it though. It just silly. But yeah! I’d have liked to have been in a band with Jeff Lynne.
For full tour details visit statusquo.co.uk
Top image: James Eckersley