Suzi Quatro: “I’ve never, ever been the kind of person who does gender.”
It’s 1973. Industrial action has plunged the UK into darkness and things are pretty gloomy (except for this pre-teen excitedly reading comics by candlelight). But there is one shining light: glam rock.
Bright, brash bands like Slade, Sweet and Wizzard injected some much-needed cheer into the 1970s with their multi-coloured jumpsuits, platform shoes and glittery eye shadow, all on public display thanks to Top of The Pops. However, despite the girlie exteriors, back then the music business was very much a man’s world. Female artists may currently rule the roost but in the early 70s ‘Girl Power’ was limited to soulful Diana Ross, country warbler Olivia Newton John (pre-Grease) and sultry singer-songwriter, Lynsey de Paul, the latter being the closest we had to US composers such as Carole King and Carly Simon.
It took an American rocker relocating to the UK to play the lads at their own game. Enter Suzi Quatro. Stomping onto TOTP with Can The Can in a black leather catsuit, bass-playing Quatro went on to enjoy 11 top 40 hits. Her career also blossomed into other areas. She appeared alongside The Fonz on Happy Days, starred in the title role in a West End revival of Annie Get Your Gun, and hosted a daytime talk show. She remains a regular presenter on BBC Radio 2 and she’s currently promoting an astonishing range of projects including Legends Live 2017 (heading for Manchester and Liverpool), her first novel The Hurricane, new music with glam rock mates, and a Best Of album.
If Quatro is exhausted by all this activity she doesn’t sound it. Her familiar Detroit drawl is warm and enthusiastic as she considers all that’s going on.
“It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? I don’t think I’m ever going to slow down. I’m enjoying everything and being able to spread my creative wings. It’s been a marvellous time and career 53 years down the road.”
Legends Live sees Quatro top a bill that features David Essex, The Osmonds and Hot Chocolate. It must be fun reminiscing with fellow performers from the era and connecting with fans through the biggest hits.
“Oh, it’s great,” she tells me. “The promoter asked if I wanted to headline and the first thing I did was ask who else was on the tour because you don’t want to be stuck on the road with people you don’t like. Thankfully this is a fine line-up. Hot Chocolate are old label mates, and I’ve known David and The Osmonds forever. It’s a wonderful opportunity for people to come and relive a lot of happy times and you can’t buy that for all the money in the world.”
70s glam rock brought colour to a grey UK. Chart competition was big news and singles sales were massive. It was thrilling to watch but was it just as exciting to be part of it?
“It’s a funny situation. I was never really glam rock in look or sound, but because I came along and had my first hits at that time, I got lumped in with it all. I was the opposite of all those glam stars when you think about it. I wore a plain black leather suit, no makeup, and was a bass-playing rock ‘n’ roller.”
She continues: “What was nice about that crazy era was that all the other bands were very colourful and you knew everybody’s name. There was both a fun and serious element to it, and I always say it was the last era for musicians who came up paying their dues.”
“There hadn’t been anyone like me beforehand so I had to invent the blueprint. But I never had any problems or felt any pressure with it. I’m 67 now and have had a lot of time to reflect. I realise that it wasn’t difficult for me because I’ve never, ever been the kind of person who does gender. Not then, not now. I was always a bit of tomboy. And so I didn’t go out there expecting people to treat me strangely, and if they did, I certainly didn’t see it. I don’t think it could have been done by a big-busted woman saying, ‘hey, I’m a girl, look what I can do’. That was never my attitude. I was just being natural.”
With a greatest hits compilation about to be released, thoughts turn to pop producer, Mickie Most, the man who discovered Quatro and brought her over to the UK. Almost 15 years after his death, his influence on Quatro is still considerable.
“I was very close with him and he was very much a father figure. He’s extremely missed but I think he’s looking down proudly as this collection of my work gets released. It ties in nicely with the Legends tour because all the tracks I suggested we put on the record work well live. There’s songs from the beginning of my career right to the later albums, so you get the whole rainbow.
“One of the tracks is my duet with Chris Norman, lead singer of Smokie. Stumblin’ In was a million-seller in America, but just missed the top 40 here because when we got offered a spot on Top Of The Pops, Chris was nervous it would affect his relationship with his band mates so he said no, and you never say no to Top Of The Pops. Consequently, we lost that hit in the UK though it remains a huge fan favourite.”
There was a two-year hiatus in Quatro’s 70s chart run as Mike Chapman, one half of glam song writing legends Chinn & Chapman, moved to the States, eventually working with Blondie. The duo not only wrote most of Quatro’s hits, but were also huge sellers for Mud and Sweet. The hits resumed when Quatro began working in America.
“Mike wanted to start afresh so, when he moved, he stopped working with everybody,” she explains. “Then I got cast in Happy Days and while I was in the US, we got hold of Mike and asked if he wanted to work with us again. He went to the opening night party for Saturday Night Fever, and the next day said, ‘I’ve got the song for you’. Based on his night out the lyric went ‘well I’ve seen you before on the discotheque floor’ and that became If You Can’t Give Me Love, one of my biggest hits. Mike didn’t want us to go down the exact same route as before and felt my voice suited the country/rock style we used and it worked a treat.”
One of the joys of being a survivor in the entertainment industry is when your career is rediscovered and reassessed. One of Quatro’s recent achievements was being made an Honorary Doctor of Music at Cambridge University.
“That really was a thrill for me,” says Quatro. “I might have to open up a practice with a little sign on the door saying ‘Dr Quatro is in’. I’m also extremely proud that my novel The Hurricane has just been ordered by the five major universities for their libraries. Having my writing put in those places was a real ‘Oh my God’ moment. I’m so lucky to be doing a job that I love.”
With so much success to look back on – and all that’s ahead – you might expect it would be difficult at times to remain grounded. But Quatro has created the perfect way to avoid any diva antics: an ego room.
“I have all my trophies, costumes and achievements in there,” she discloses. “My viewpoint is that an ego is absolutely necessary to succeed. You need to be sure of yourself, not be afraid to show it and just put yourself out there. That’s all part of the public Suzi Quatro but I don’t think you should display it the rest of the time. So, the best thing to do, is to put it all into a room. You can go up and visit it, take your applause and come out again. To me that’s healthy. I’ve even had to have an extension added to the room.
“My dear friend, Lynsey de Paul and I were having lunch and I told her I’d had to move my ego room to a bigger space and she said, ‘so now it’s your inflated ego room’. She had some great lines and she’s much missed. On the face of it we were like opposite ends of the spectrum. She couldn’t have been more feminine and I couldn’t be more tomboy. We had an inauspicious beginning when I misunderstood something in the press that she didn’t actually say, but years later we sat together at an awards function and from that moment on, we ended up being best friends.”
Links with stars from the 70s are peppered throughout our chat, but it’s not restricted to past events as Quatro has formed QSP, a new trio alongside Andy Scott from Sweet and Slade, and drummer Don Powell.
“I’d worked with Andy before but it was my husband who felt there was a connection there and that we should form a supergroup. We went into the studio a couple of years back and gelled pretty quickly. We began with covers, but then starting writing, and that’s when you really create something. The band supported me on tour in Australia. I supported myself which is hilarious. Only a Gemini can do that. The album charted over there so now it’s coming out here very soon and we’re excited about it.”
Despite so much going on, the F word has been bandied about from time to time. It’s not the expletive you’re expecting though, this F word has far bigger implication. Final. It was something Quatro hinted at during an Australian tour, and has since retracted.
“I said it in 2015 during my last Aussie tour but people misquoted it thinking I was retiring. It was my 31st tour over there, but when I got back reality set in and I went ‘no’. Then I announced on a radio show ‘you’re never going to hear the F word from me again and that’s final’. I don’t think I’ll ever say it again. I’ll know when I’m done and won’t need to announce it.”
That time seems like a long way off, although Quatro has admitted to having an extensive bucket list. Surely this goes against her endless enthusiasm and rejection of retirement?
“It is a strange expression but we all have things we want to do. When I first got into the business it was never just for five minutes, or to only do rock ‘n’ roll. I call myself an artist and although rock ‘n’ roll is my main thing, and what everybody first turned on to, I like all of it. The radio, the novels, the poetry, everything that you can call being artistic. I’m one of those creative kinds of people and if I’m not creating I’m not happy. End of.”
The Best Of Suzi Quatro: Legend is released 22 September, 2017
The Hurricane is out now on Newhaven Publishing
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Thought for the Day: “There's a time for departure even when there's no certain place to go.” ― Tennessee Williams