Songwriter Interviews

Francis Rossi of Status Quo

by Greg Prato

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When musicians turn to acting, they usually do it early in the game. Not so with classic rockers Status Quo. Forty-five years after their debut album (!) comes the band's first feature length film, Bula Quo!, which has been prefaced by a double-disc release of the same name featuring all-new tunes heard in the film, as well as a compilation of previously released songs.

Although they never obtained more than "cult status" in the US, Status Quo - who is known for their fondness of Fender Telecasters and kick ass three-chord rock - has found much greater success in their native UK and throughout Europe. Comprised of Francis Rossi (lead guitar, vocals), Rick Parfitt (rhythm guitar, vocals), Andy Bown (keyboards, guitar, harmonica, vocals), John "Rhino" Edwards (bass, vocals), and Leon Cave (drums), Status Quo has scored a string of top-40 hits in their homeland, that have stretched over six decades.

Rossi discussed a variety of topics in this interview, including the aforementioned Bula Quo! film project and album, the band's songwriting set-up, and touring with Queen on their last-ever tour with the late/great Freddie Mercury.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's start off by talking about the new Status Quo album called Bula Quo!. It's a soundtrack to a movie and then the second disc is reworked versions of classic songs, right?

Francis Rossi: Yes. We did a soap over here a few years ago, which is known in New York, as well, I bet. It's called Coronation Street. And when we were doing that, we were given this stunt coordinator to teach us to fight on TV, because it's different, fighting on TV. He said to Rick and I, "I'd love to make a movie with you guys." We were just, "Yeah, lovely." And within a year there was a script of sorts, which was okay. It was to be done in Bangkok, and then it went away. Then it came back, and the script was changed so it was a bit violent, but the backers wanted it to be more PG, family viewing, and again, he went away. He came back January before last and managed to say, "Well, it's come back, I think we're going to go do it." So him and I went and did the movie and they said to us, "There'll be a soundtrack." And I immediately thought, "Soundtrack? That's probably to do with a band." They may be two tunes (sings), like the shit, you know.

I'd normally try and write 25, 30 tracks for an album project and use 6 or 7 or 8, and this time I managed to get 2. But whilst we were there doing the movie, ideas actually came about from the movie, because we weren't tied by the normal parameters of a rock band's album - it was a soundtrack album. So we ended up with 9 or 10 brand new tracks, which we didn't expect. I didn't expect it to happen like that.

The most interesting thing about the overall project is it kept developing. I'd think it was going this way and then it went that way. And things I didn't expect happened, i.e., the entire album. Then the so-called classic remakes I realized needed to be in two separate discs, because years ago for vinyl, you'd have your opening track, your closing track. Your opening of Side 2, your closing of Side 2. Well, now, as you know, on CDs, people put too many tracks on there, and usually the best tracks are in the first 5 or 8 or 9, 10, 12, 13, so all the shit goes to the bottom, which is kind of weird. So we needed the album divided into old stuff and new stuff, so the new stuff could balance correctly.

But it all came out kind of well. I thought the movie would go straight to DVD and people would blank it, but it seems to be getting a lot more attention than I thought. Half of me is thinking, "Goody!" And the other half's thinking, "Oh, shit." So I'm not sure what to make of it.

Songfacts: And from what I understand, there are some renowned actors featured, including Jon Lovitz.

Francis: Jon Lovitz is in there, yeah. As well as a famous soap actor called Craig Fairbrass, who normally does those big macho movies and hits people - things with Jason Statham, that kind of movie. And this girl Laura Aikman, who's been in a few movies. She's been in kind of a Grey's Anatomy thing we had over here.

You're with these people for such an intense time that it's like being with the band on tour when you're in that bubble. The same thing happened with the movie, so I've developed quite a great relationship with Laura Aikman. She is like one of my daughters, which is a bit of a shame, because I'd rather see her as a girlfriend. But there we are. And it's the same with everybody in the movie, we got on real well. I daresay they must have felt, "Fuck me, a rock band wants to make a movie." But after the first couple of days people were quite complimentary. And Rick and I are playing ourselves, remember, so there isn't the same sort of vibe.

We would learn our lines each day and look at the line before our cue. One of my favorite things I've ever seen on television, and I've seen it four times through, is West Wing. When the Americans make good television, it's donkey's knob. Donkey's knob means very good. And watching this dialogue and listening to these people, it's obvious that the true good actors, they know the entire story. So if we do another subsequent film, we'll learn the entire story, whereas in this one we were just waiting for the line and we'd say our lines and do our best.

But again, kind of a learning curve, which was at 64 years old, you think, "Wow, how did that happen?" It's happening.

Songfacts: I'd like to ask you a few questions about songwriting.

Francis: I wish I knew anything about it. I'll let you know whatever I know. But go on.

Songfacts: How does the songwriting in the band work? Is there a collaboration?

Francis: I will generally write 25 tracks with the songwriting partner I've had for years, Bobby Young. Rick writes with John Edwards, mainly, because Rick's very tricky to write with, because he will get an idea and if you say, "That's good," he goes, "No, I can get better," and he moves and he loses it. So when he and John write together, they've got four or five different tape machines running to keep an eye on what's going on. Andrew writes on his own, generally writes one or two with me.

I have things going most of the time, but as I've gotten older, I'm getting a bit lazier. Most of them are on my iPhone, you know. I practice every day and any bits I get that I think, "Oh, that's interesting," I stick on the phone.

When I come to writing, I've got various ideas, and the idea of putting it on the phone is to get there very early, because most music's the frigging same. But there's something that makes you think, "This is different." It's a mood, a slight leaning, and if you don't get that, then you come back the following day and it won't be the same or you might go off on a different tangent. If you get this vibe on your telephone or a piece of tape, subsequently we can put down the core.

If I write a song with Andrew, what happened historically is Andrew would try to show Rick how he played the guitar part. So you immediately changed the actual thing that made you finish the song. So now if Rick and John write it, those two put it down as they wrote it first, and then we work with that. That way it keeps that little something that made this song a bit different than that song. But whenever you go the normal route, then you hand that guitar over, "You play that, Rick, because you play that," it changes, bang. The initial thing that got you to finish the song is beginning to drift away.

So I find that if you can get that core, it will always have the initial spark that made you think, "Oh, this is different, this is better, this is good, this I like."

Songfacts: Let's talk about your memories of writing some of Status Quo's best-known songs. If you want to start with the song "Down Down."

Francis: We were in Los Angeles, and it was early '70s. We were staying at this Travelodge on Sunset and La Brea, obviously a real budget place, but I used to eat next door at the Copper Penny and I fuckin' loved it. And the others used to go out exercising their pencils, do you know what I mean?

Songfacts: Yeah, I think I understand.

Francis: Having sex.

I was sitting with this D tuning with a B capo and I was strumming away and I got the idea for the intro to "Down Down" and the whole melody. Bob Young was out with some sweet thing and came back and I said, "Look, I quite like the way we do this." We got it back to England to do the lyric, and we got the lyrics to the verse: "I want all the world to see, to see you laughing, and you're laughing at me. I can take it all from you again, again, again." In my mind I was speaking to my ex-wife and the British press at the time.

But we kept getting up to the chorus and going, "No, never mind. Let's do the second verse." I kept thinking to Tyrannosaurus Rex [a.k.a. T. Rex/Marc Bolan], who at the time had a thing called "Debora" [sings beginning of the song]. So we came back the following day, and no, I still couldn't get anything that makes any sense. Bob said, "Well, we'll write 'down down.'" I said, "Yeah, it sounds good. It makes no fuckin' sense at all, but it sounds great."

That's always been the key. I'm not very well educated or particularly into poetry or read much. To me, the lyric has to sound right. When you're singing, there's a tone that comes out, and you have to go with that tone. I thought I was quite unique in that, but I realized Billy Joel does the same thing, so I felt marginally better.

Then I realized that the first hit I wrote, "Pictures of Matchstick Men," the intro goes [singing], like that. But the verse of "Down Down," goes [singing - play the clip below to hear this part]. So I was already stealing my own songs before I made any success.

Songfacts: And then as far as Status Quo's cover of "Rockin' All Over the World," was the band big fans of John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater?

Francis: No. We knew of them and liked them. They reminded us of The Stones and The Doors- there's a certain amateurishness in there that makes them appealing. We were making some album and Rick used to drive home from London to somewhere near down into Surrey. At the time he wouldn't get busted for driving fast or being slightly inebriated, and quite often used to get people thumbing lifts, and he'd pick them up and give them a lift somewhere.

There's this night he left the studio, obviously a little bit worse for wear. He's driving home and he saw someone thumb a lift, so he backed up to pick them up, and it was a letterbox! So he realized he was probably a bit out of it.

He happened to put the radio on and he heard this version of "Rockin' All Over the World" which he thought, "Hmm, that's worth a try." And when we all heard it, it just sounded piddly to us. But once we'd done the track and then Rick got that kind of "Singin' in the Rain" piece on the end, it started to build into something.

It went out as a single and it was just monstrous. I don't really understand why. We're perceived in some places like [talking in deep demon voice] Kerrang! and heavy metal, and yet they love [singing light and bubbly] "And I like it, I like it," I don't understand.

We just did this thing called Sweden Rock [the Sweden Rock festival]. I think KISS were on, there were all sorts of bands on, thrash metal-y bands. And yet they all gather 'round while we're doing "Rockin' All Over the World" as though it's this, "Wooow." And I don't really understand. I'm just grateful, again, grateful that people think it's great. And they do.

Songfacts: I've always been a big fan of Queen, and I noticed Status Quo opened up for them on their last ever tour with Freddie Mercury, back in 1986.

Francis: Uh huh. That was one time we did a so called "comeback tour," and somebody said, "Do you want to go out with Freddie and the boys?" Rick's been big friends of theirs for years, and we knew that band really, really well. Still know that band well. And to us it was a great way of getting back on tour.

We went out and did this stuff, and it was immense. We had a fabulous time. But Queen are just kind of brilliant, aren't they? The more you look at their catalogue as time goes by, the better those songs seem. There are some really brilliant things. I just don't understand it when some people say, "Queen... a load of shit." I don't get that.

Songfacts: And then the last question I have is what advice would you give bands for having a long career?

Francis: That's funny. I've run out of answers. Bad joke, I know. Whenever people come to me and say, "What would you advise a young band or what could you advise my son, daughter," I always say, "Give it up." Because if they have the tenacity that it takes to get through, they won't listen to this silly old fuck. But if they don't have what it takes, they will listen to this wise old man and not get hurt.

Because what most of them don't realize is we only see the front of it, the showbiz front of it, and it looks fabulous. But what it takes to get there and some of the things you put up with on the way there hurt. Most times, you put records out and they fail. So unless you have the hard shell to take it, you should stop. And lots of people listen to me, and those that have it think, "Silly old fuck, you won't stop me." And that's what they need.

When I was younger, as much as my parents to a degree encouraged me or allowed me to do it; generally, my parents' generation of that time were all thinking, "It's a waste of time, it's not valid, it's not real music." And that made me dig in more. Whereas if they told me, "You're really, really good" and all that, we'd go around thinking how good we are. I think that's one of the things that happens with the generations today is we keep telling them how good they are. Well, good, I don't have to bother, do I? If I'm already good, I'm already good. Whereas, we were always told, "You'll never make it." "Really? Watch me, then." And that's what I think my advice would be.

Songfacts: It's funny you said that, because you can put that with just about almost anything in life. I remember when I first started writing, there was an editor of mine who said I would never amount to being a writer, and here I am, 15 years later still writing and doing books.

Francis: Right. That's the point, isn't it? And some people say to me, "How long will you go on?" And I said, "Well, are you a writer?" They go, "Yeah." I say, "Well, you only want to write for six years, then you're going to become a lawyer, are you?" "No, I'm going to write all my life." Well, so did I.

And it's very true. The people that have that whack of negativity, you must have really dug your heels in, "I'll show you, you asshole." And that makes us do things. Whereas if they'd said, "Oh, you're very, very good," you'd have gone, "Well, I can't give a shit." And the fact that he didn't do that to you made you think, "Grrrr." We need that drive. We really do.

Songfacts: Absolutely. It was great speaking with you today, and good luck with the album. I would love to see Status Quo play here in the States at some point.

Francis: So would I. But at the moment, we can only probably manage 1,500 or 2,000 seats, which means we can't carry the production, and I will not bring second rate to America.

Songfacts: I understand.

Francis: It's just not the way to do it. If I suddenly sell a movie at 64 years old, we'll be over there.

July 30, 2013. Get more at
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