Songwriter Interviews

Status Quo Frontman Francis Rossi

by Carl Wiser

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Let's bifurcate the intro on this one: if you know the Quo, skip to #2. If you're less familiar (American), start here.

Status Quo was poised to break out in America when their debut single, the delightfully delirious "Pictures of Matchstick Men," landed on the Hot 100 at #12 in 1968. But these Brits didn't invade, choosing instead to conquer their homeland, which they did in spectacular fashion.

It wasn't until 1973 when they finally came to America, a regular tour stop until 1977 when they gave up on the States for their Rockin' All Over The World tour, named for the John Fogerty song that was the title track of their latest album.

"Matchstick Men" ended up being their sole American hit, but their blues-based boogie rock became a sensation in the UK, where they hit the Top 10 an astonishing 22 times and set the record for most appearances on Top Of The Pops (106).

The Quo are still going strong in 2014, releasing an acoustic collection called Stripped Bare and a live set from their April concert in Dublin. Francis Rossi is the group's guitarist, lead singer, and one of their primary songwriters. He is refreshingly unfiltered.
For those familiar with Status Quo:

"Status Quo is not a pop group."

So declared guitarist Rick Parfitt in 1976, when the band had already placed about a dozen tunes on the UK chart. They would tally at least 50 more songs over the next few decades, becoming one of biggest acts in the UK. Not bad for a not-a-pop group.

Parfitt's point was that the band was making their kind of music - 12-bar blues - and any popularity was simply a side effect.

And while the Quo have a very distinctive sound, they keep it fresh with a great deal of variety on the songwriting end. Every member writes, often in various inter-group collaborations.

Frontman Francis Rossi has his name on the credits for many of their most famous compositions, including "Pictures Of Matchstick Men," "Down Down" and "Caroline." We set out to find out how he writes, and where the ideas for these songs come from.

Carl Wiser (Songfacts): I noticed in looking over the songs that you've written with the Quo, that many of them deal with women. Who are these girls that keep showing up in the songs that you write?

Francis Rossi: A lot of those songs I write with Bob Young. All the music is done and then we start on the lyric thing. We kind of sit in a room looking at each other thinking what to do, you know.

Bob Young started out as a roadie for the band in 1968 and worked his way up to road manager/songwriter, often collaborating on songs with Francis. He is the mysterious figure who would appear on stage during "Roadhouse Blues," belt out some harmonica, and vanish into the night.
The song "Claudie," I remember we were singing the chorus, which for some reason was going to be "England made a fool out of me." Then it became about "Claudie." In my mind it was my ex-wife, and in Bob's mind, it was his wife. And in the middle ground here is this relationship between two people who we imagined as just two people.

A lot of that time we're looking for a word that sits nicely on the melody. I'd love to think it was all about deep, deep meaning, but it's only when I look back at certain songs that I see any meaning at all, or what was going on at the time now that I realize.

When "Caroline" came to mind, I think we had heard what's his name, you know, the American guy...

Songfacts: Neil Diamond did a song called "Sweet Caroline."

Rossi: Yeah, we'd heard that around, and it was quite a nice phrase. Bob did know a Caroline, which I mustn't talk about. But I suppose he was thinking that.

But the interesting thing with "Caroline" is we'd wrote it in a slow, moody shuffle, which is the first half of the version that's on that album. We were in a car coming back from holiday with our wives and trying to do the lyric. We'd got "Take my hand," and he said, "Together we can rock & roll." I said, "Bob, that smells." It sounded all vain, the idea that you kept trying to use this phrase, "let's rock & roll."

But subsequent to that song, which was probably finished in '71, the amount of times that phrase has been used... so I was dreadfully wrong.

And sometimes when you get a name, it just comes to mind. It's the sound of the word, it's the sound of the melody and it needs to suit.

When we were doing "Down Down," we'd gotten started in Los Angeles. We got home, and I said, "Let's do the lyric." "I want all the world to see, to see you laughing, and you're laughing at me."

That, to me, was me talking to my ex-wife - we weren't getting on very well. And somewhat, the British press. "I can see you laughing, I can take it all from you again, again, again"... never mind, let's do the second verse. Got through the second, and fuck it, do the third verse. We left it that night, couldn't get anything. We kept trying. I said we needed something I could imagine, again, a girl's name. Tyrannosaurus Rex did [sings] "Debberyman, Debbie, Debora Debbie yeah." It was the way he was sounding the "Debora." He wasn't saying "Debora," he was going "Debberyman."

Bob said, "Well, down." "Down what?" "Down Down." I said, "What does it mean?" He said, "I don't know."

And subsequently, many years later, apart from most of the women thinking we meant something else, which you would not have done in England in the '70s - personal hygiene wasn't that clever...

Songfacts: [Laughing]

Rossi: Yeah, you got it there then, didn't you?

In 2012, Status Quo recorded a new version of "Down Down" for the Australian supermarket Coles, with the chorus amended to "Down down, prices are down." The ad was wildly popular, and the band were invited back to extend the campaign, resulting in a reworking of their song "Whatever You Want" to hawk vegemite and other sundries.

The big red hand guitars that the band plays in the adverts are in the shape of the Coles logo for the campaign. The supermarket had been using "Down Down" for two years before recruiting the band to appear.
Rossi: The supermarket in Australia where we were doing this ad, they were using "Prices Are Down." If we'd have said, "No, we need a better word there," we wouldn't have gotten the ad some 25, 30 years later. We wouldn't have done the fifth or sixth version of the ad, which was one of the things that made us think we could do this acoustic album.

If I saw this in a movie, I'd think, "Yeah, of course." But it's like a series of events that lead to where you are. It's almost like it's preordained and written down. But whether I believe that shit or not...

But something happens. You know, we could have called the song "Joe Jones" or "Darling, Darling," and we would not have got the ad. So all these things contribute to the overall history when you put it together.

If we'd have carried on having hits at the time of "Matchstick Men," it wouldn't have led us to where we are now. We'd have gone some other way.

They say out of negative comes some sort of positive, well it definitely did out of that. And many, many times we've thought, "Oh, we're in trouble here, this is bad." And then suddenly something else happens.

The weirdest thing I think about this business is it's never satisfied. If you'd have said to me when I was 25 that you're going to have 65 or 70 hits, and you're going to make 100 singles, that would be stupid. It's just not possible. And you would have said, "Well, 30 is plenty." But no, it's not enough. And now particularly in this project, it's been received so well, all my creative juices, everything about me's up. It feels new, it feels fresh, feels like it did when I was in my early 20s.

Now, if I look at hard, cold pieces, it's nothing like it was in the '70s. However, it is still a mark of serious success today. And that insecure showoff in me needs that mark of success. Sad, really, but true.

Songfacts: I was reading somewhere that "Matchstick Men" was just the second song you ever wrote. And even that one had a girl in it that was doing you wrong.

Rossi: Yeah, I tend to think that's what most of them are about. Most songs I heard when I was growing up were about love of some sort, but I've never been able to get too lovey-dovey with it. I often thought, Why can't I write a lovely, "Wake up, I want to make love tonight" song? I can't do that. I get embarrassed even saying it to you. But in our own way, Bob and I have written love songs. "Matchstick Men" was basically about my ex-wife. I'd just got married, and I thought, Oh, this is a mistake, what have I done?

But I sat down to try and write a song like "Hey Joe," Jimi Hendrix. It's a similar chord sequence - in the middle of the Jimi Hendrix song is that chord sequence, which at the time every fucker was using. I think Nickleback, some years later, I forget which track it is, but it's exactly the same sequence as "Matchstick Men," and lots of Oasis stuff are of that ilk and of that sequence. Chord sequences seem to come and go, become fashionable and unfashionable, but the favorite is the one with the 1/6/2/4 with the excellent minor in it.

And whether it's "Since You've Been Gone," or Adele, it's that sequence over and over again. I find it's very strange that people seem to think, "Oh, we're looking for new." I'm not looking for new, I'm just looking for something that spurs me again. I don't care if I've heard it thousands of times before - if I see a movie I want to watch it again, a TV show I want to watch it again. And if I have a record I want to listen to it again. So when trying to write a song you're trying to find that something that makes you go, Ohhhhhh. And when I hear music, I don't think, Well, I've heard this before, I think, Yeah, I love that, what is it?

We all want to intellectualize about music, but it's an emotional thing. Do you like it? Yes. Then there's nothing else to say. Do you not like it? No. Then there's nothing else to say. You don't have to say it's shit or the band are shit. And I believe, too, the most overused words are "great" and "shit." "I went to see so and so the other night and they were shit." Or "I went to see so and so the other night and they were great." I would hazard a guess that the act came somewhere down the middle of those two statements. If you're a fan, everything they do is great. If Jeff Lynne does something, to me it's great. I love Jeff Lynne. Whatever the Beatles did, to me was great. And pretty much anything the Eagles do is great.

Songfacts: You were talking about the meaning of songs and how it feels to write them. You have a song called "And It's Better Now" that you've been playing, and you have that great acoustic version. Can you talk about that?

Rossi: That's one of the obscure albums that people for some reason skipped over in that early period [Hello!, 1973]. In Europe, particularly, that Hello! album is seen to be like the Holy Grail. Sacred, you know.

I remember there was a program on in England about kids that were sent to boarding school. I know some people have had a great time at boarding school, but there was this little boy who'd gone at four years old. He was very eloquent and articulate, and he was talking about the loneliness of being there. He said, "Everyone talks of a god they know, but now I've got a god of my own, and I'm fine." He was probably about seven years old.

I remember thinking, That's a great line: "Now I have a god of my own." People should just have a god of their own without trying to sell it to somebody else.

That's basically what that song was about.

And I also noticed that I was writing a lot of stuff about my songs. It's all right if they sound like other songs, which it is when I'm playing them - my guitar strums along just the same, particularly if the song's underlined with my name. That was a comment on that whole thing at the time, that anybody will criticize somebody else for sounding alike. But as long as the song's got my name under it, my guitar carries on just the same and I'm riding along on the words of a song in my head. That was that hippie period of the '70s: Listen to my song, man.

Songfacts: Why was it forty-five hundred times? [The 1973 Status Quo song "4500 Times"]

Rossi: It just sounded good. And there was a certain American thing. English, we don't say that. We would say four thousand five hundred. But I've always been fascinated with America. I mean, I'm married to an American woman. She's a funny girl. When we first went to the US, we went to Los Angeles and stayed in a shithole Travelodge, which to us was fabulous. The phone rang, and Rick and I were like, "It's just like on television!" So everything about the US was, Wow!

And I loved the way they'd say forty-five hundred. My wife, who is an Irish New Yorker, she says "Hundret." I say, "No, my love, it's hundred. There's a 'D' at the end."

But the reason it's forty-five hundred, if you listen to it, "forty-five hundred times I told you," that sounds about right. "Twenty-eight hundred" no, "Four thousand," no, "Two hundred," no.

We did a song much later on, "Twenty Wild Horses and 500 Men" [from the 1999 album Under the Influence]. There was just something about that phrase: Twenty wild horses and 500 men. And I like phrases that sound good like that. It's almost like the melody's saying it to you, like there's a sound in the melody. So the word can't be "aw" if the sound of the melody is "anh." Does that make any sense?

Songfacts: It does, yeah.

Rossi: I was not a particularly studious kid, and I definitely wasn't into poetry, so I used to think, Oh, what am I on about. But that would have led me to perhaps my lyrics content being better. I don't know.

But having said that, I've had some very successful songs, so I shouldn't complain, should I?

The nine-show 2013 "Frantic Four Reunion Tour" brought the original members - Francis, guitarist Rick Parfitt, bass player Alan Lancaster and drummer John Coghlan - back together for the first time since 1981, when Coghlan left the band. In 2014, they resumed the tour, playing 16 dates throughout Europe. The last show on that tour took place at the O2 Arena in Dublin on April 12, 2014. Billed as "The Frantic Four's Final Fling," it was released on CD in September.

In the current Status Quo lineup, John Edwards plays bass and Leon Cave is the drummer.
Songfacts: When you were doing the Dublin show, did any of the songs hit you in any kind of nostalgic way?

Rossi: The whole Frantic Four thing, to me the first time round we weren't rehearsed well enough, and we didn't do any of Europe, so I thought we could do it again. Plus, if I'm really honest, Alan Lancaster and John Coghlan, it was nice of them to earn some money, but they are still in the '70s.

I'm trying not to be negative about this, but when we were doing Hammersmith Odeon, I was looking around to my left and right and behind me, and I could not understand what the audience was seeing or feeling. But I learned from that: the power of nostalgia is something else. The drums was lagging, we slowed down, we sped up. Poor Allen, his hands stopped working about 50 minutes into the show. But the audience still loved it. But if you keep doing that to them, they're going to see the cracks sooner or later.

But as far as the songs, "Oh, Baby" and "Little Blue Eyed Lady," we've often talked about doing them in the current band because they're "commercial sounding," the melodies, so I think we're going to do them. So we will take one or two things from that Frantic tour - we did learn something.

Songfacts: You talked earlier about how sometimes the meanings of songs don't become clear to you until later. Is there an example of one where that happened to you, where you were performing it or heard it and said, "Oh, that's what I was writing about"?

Rossi: Yeah. They're usually about the relationships I was in, only I didn't realize it at the time. One was "Dirty Water." It was something that was going on in my life. The euphemism, dirty water, means "I can't get into this with you," whatever it was. There are little phrases here or there.

I was writing a song one day which I thought was going to change the world. It was a social comment that I tried to make, and it's called "All We Really Wanna Do." I was so pleased with the melody, and before I went to bed, I thought, I need to put something in my head just in case I forget the melody.

It got to the chorus, and in my head I was singing, "All we really want to do is polly wolly doodle all the day." Now, "Polly Wolly Doodle All the Day" is some sort of nursery rhyme that I heard when I was a kid. So that got me through. Lovely.

And then it came to doing the lyric: can't start with the verse, so let's start in the chorus some time. Polly wolly doodle... How the fuck are we going to make that work? So I managed to crowbar "All we really want to do is what we want to do and do it all the day." Which led me to thinking about the world and how things may change in the few years coming up to the millennium.

I thought people were going to love the song and notice that I was saying something about the state of the world. They didn't.

And another one before that we wrote called "Never Too Late" - "The world is in a mess and finished more or less, it doesn't really matter, and it's maybe too late to change it." And the punch line was, "it's never too late to change it." But again, no one noticed.

I don't necessarily want to hear too much about when will there be a harvest for the world and keep being reminded that we can't feed the Third World. I know this. I learned this in Catholic school when I was five years old, and they're still saying the same thing.

And particularly when we're doing the electric stuff, I want to see people's faces beaming. Not, "Yeah, you're right. Life is shit, the government's ripping us off, the Middle East is a mess." We know that. So I tend to believe that entertainment should be a diversion. They've got to go back to their lives as soon as the show is finished.

But I'm sure other people have other opinions. Otherwise, Dylan would never have had a career. But generally, telling the public, "Guess what, your life is shit, and they're fucking with you" isn't going to make them very happy.

Songfacts: You were talking before about the way you hear certain words and how that influences the melody. A song that came to mind when you were talking about that is "What You're Proposing," which just kind of flows along. Can you talk about coming up with that song?

Rossi: Yeah. That's interesting. I was in the other house in the old studio that I had. It was a very shake-to-the-roof studio. And there was a guy we used to know, I can't remember who introduced him to us. We called him the Cosmic Cowboy. He was really a great player and he had all sorts of things. He would do all sorts of mouldings on guitars with drills and stuff. [The luthier Francis speaks of here appears to be Steve Acworth.]

Every now and again he would come to my house, and he was starting to make guitars, which he made for us. This is the early days of piezo crystal, and I said I wanted a guitar that sounded like a telecaster before it hits that pickup. So just the resonance - literally the strings. And he made various amps, one was a mouse, one was a super mouse.

One day he went to the studio and he wanted me to buy this guitar off him, and I realized what he did. He would throw a guitar together and think, "Fuck it, he'll buy it off me." I bought the guitar. I gave him the money for the guitar and he went, but I got quite angry thinking he pissed down my leg. That's a Scottish expression: he pissed down my leg. It's warm and friendly, but it's still piss.

I played this guitar. I'd stuck a capo on, so I think it made it into C-sharp. I played the song, but it was much slower, and for some reason, I started to instantly carry on with it - this was before the days when you could just stick it down on your iPhone and keep it.

I sort of strummed it, and it started to sound gospel-y to me. I had this whole vision - and I can't find that vision anymore - but I know that was going on in my head.

I got it down in minutes and thought, Wow, this is really good. I was writing with Bernard Frost at the time, and he came around the following morning for something. We weren't due to write. There was pandemonium between his kids and my kids, and we just sort of left them aside in the kitchen.

And "It sounds so nice what you're proposing, just once or twice, I'm not disclosing, not disclosing." This again was about somebody's wife who had offered me "It sounds so good, just once or twice." It was about this meeting with this woman who had offered herself to me. Wish I'd gone there, now that I think about it.

Anyway, within minutes that song was finished. It's so repetitive. But. It. Just. Has. Something. I find that's the joy of going back to what I said when I hear stuff on the radio. I don't sit around saying, "Oh, yeah, it's a 1/6/2/4, you see. They've done the flat in fifth." I don't do that. Do you like it? Yes.

I get very enthused about the song. I love it, and it was a very big hit in this country, did extremely well, which makes me salivate.

Songfacts: How have audiences changed over the years?

Rossi: If you look at that Stones concert in the park just after Brian Jones had died [Hyde Park, July 5, 1969], if you look at that audience, they're just all sitting there. And then if you look at an audience 25 years later, you can see the intensity of the audience. So there was the period on those early Quo records where we could have done this long, protracted, almost progressive rock, which we weren't. A few time changes and long instrumental passages. And the more successful we became, the less and less people wanted to hear that.

Songfacts: When you're working up the songs, how technical do you guys get?

Rossi: Well, at times we would get technical in those arrangements. They would take sometimes days. But as we got older, each individual became quite expert in what he was doing, so I would end up knowing what I wanted in a song. Once the new band had formed - probably by about the late '80s - from then on I just make the tracks how I think they should be and that's what the others do, because we know what we're going for.

And we aren't that young band anymore. We aren't those young guys doing that stuff, which I think to a degree is somewhat self-indulgent. I suppose, if I'm really honest, I come from a pop background, and in the early '70s I sort of went against that pop thing. But I'm realizing what I didn't like about the pop thing was the image of the people singing it.

I was going to town one day and then I heard this track, [sings] "Yellow River, Yellow River, in my mind" ["Yellow River" by Christie]. I thought, "That's marvelous." And I got that week to see it on Top of the Pops and went, "Whoa, no!" It was the image of the guys I didn't like.

And so as I've gotten older I realize I like pop/country/blues melodies. Probably more pop and country than anything. And if you say "country" over here, you might as well say, "Let's kill the Queen." It just doesn't appeal to people in England. I don't know what's wrong with them. To me country music is the ultimate music, the stories are great, and the girl singers are better than anything we ever get over in Europe. But it's all about pop melodies in the end.

Songfacts: Francis, what is your favorite part of the job?

Rossi: Finishing. I was watching a Larry King thing on CNN years ago, and there was an actress on who'd been into drugs and alcoholism, painkiller addiction, all this stuff, divorced. She had a very successful thing on Broadway at the time, and they were talking about that. He said to her, "What's the best thing?" And she said, "Finishing." So I'm not the only one, then.

There is something magical about having achieved that thing you set out to do each night - to get that audience to that point and the end result, and then being in the totally familiar surroundings of my bedroom on the bus. That to me is nearly better than sex. It's just something about achieving that each night.

Maybe it's similar to when people come home from work every day. Because I'm sure everyone comes home from work and it's the same. I walk off that stage and I walk straight to that bus. I'm out of the venue minutes after it's over - I don't want to sit in the venue, I don't want to soak up any of that. I've done what I needed to do, got what I needed to get, and now I need that. It's gone, it's finished, and I just want to soak up that two or three hours of that fabulous feeling.

Of course it's sad: I can't get that unless I go and do shows. So I'm about to slog around Europe so I can feel that every night.

Songfacts: Did you never have a job outside of music?

Rossi: Yes, I did. I worked for Butlin's in 1964. I also worked at an optician's. They had this wheel going round with a drip of water, and I used to have to cup the lenses down and put the bevel on so they'd fit in the frames. Directly across the road was a clock, and there's nothing worse than being directly opposite a clock when you've got a night shift. I was really hoping to escape that.

And then for a small period after Butlin's I worked for some friend of my wife's at the time, who worked on the council. We had these councils here, and I worked as a gardener, cutting grass. I loved it, but one woman had a boxer dog that always shit before I got there. This happened to me nearly every Monday, and all up the front of this gardener's uniform was this stink of shit. You weren't going to get away from that all day until four or five o'clock when you finished.

And I remember thinking, even though I loved that job and I loved doing that stuff, I need to get away from this. So I was always escaping a post-WWII black-and-white world here. My wife has no idea what it was like here, and sometimes she relates back to how it was for her when she was younger, growing up in America in the '50s. It must have been fabulous, but over here in the '50s we were broke. It was bomb sites, it was gray, it was dirty. So you were always trying to escape this and look for something new. The children around in England today, well, it's a lovely place to live, why would they want to escape?

I'm waffling too much, aren't I?

Songfacts: No. I thought that was very interesting, because some songwriters have never had a non-musical job, but you'd never know it. Springsteen has never had a job outside of music.

Rossi: Really? You got me with that one.

Songfacts: There are people who you think, "Wow, this guy really gets me, he knows what it's like to go out and work," but really they're just making it up.

Rossi: Yeah. He seems to know, he's been there. And he hasn't. That's fascinating. I do remember that very first hit, and I loved it. And then the press hammered him for a while. Then suddenly he goes from being a complete asshole to The Boss. I remember the same thing happening over here with Elton John. The second album, they killed him here. Then he went and played the Troubadour in Los Angeles, got rave reviews, and suddenly it all changed over here, what a hero he was of England.

But we are in show business, it is vacuous, and I should accept that, shouldn't I?

December 1, 2014.

Tour dates, along with info on Stripped Bare and The Frantic Four's Final Fling are on the Status Quo official site.

Photos by Bryan Adams. Yes, that Bryan Adams.

Also check our interview with Francis from 2013.

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 1

  • Fred from The NetherlandsVery interesting to hear a serious Francis talk about his songs. Shame he doesn't want to go on with the Frantic Four, but I thank him he gave us a chance to watch the reunion-band, it was amazing, a live band with a live heart. Real music is not a computer it has a heart.
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