Sunday 20 October 2019

Status Quo headline Strawberry Fest

The date on the video tape reads November 25, 1984. The venue is Sarm West Studios in Notting Hill, London, and the glitterati of Britain's pop charts have pooled resources to record Do They Know It's Christmas, part of their contribution to the fight against Third World poverty.

While Paul Young, Boy George, George Michael, Bono and company are up front belting out the opening lines to the second biggest selling single in UK chart history, Francis Rossi is nowhere to be seen. Then the camera pounces. The lens captures a grinning Status Quo front-man, clearly nabbed in the act, and he flashes the cameraman a thumbs-up. Rossi, once the owner of the most famous ponytail in the rock music industry may insist that he prefers a woman in a dress, but 28-year-old video evidence suggests otherwise.

'I was looking at Jody Watley's bum,' he confesses. ' I got caught, and it's not really my thing. I prefer a girl in a dress and I think they look fabulous, but she looked particularly good that day. I was hiding up the back. I can't stand going down the front because of the clan pushing Sting out of the way. I can't do that s**t. I got up the back and was happy not being watched. I was standing looking at her bum thinking "that looks really nice in here". It's a good job I didn't touch it, or I'd have gotten killed.'

Today, a 62-year-old Rossi is relaxing at home in Purley, Surrey, after an afternoon nap. He's lived in the area since 1974 and four years ago, though he never thought he would, he downsized from a home on a three-acre site with 11 bedrooms, to a more modest one-acre site and a residence with a mere seven bedrooms.

He would need every inch of that space should his offspring come to stay all at once. There are eight children - Simon, Nicholas, Ciaran, Bernadette, Patrick, Finn, Fursey and Ciara - the results of two marriages and an early relationship with Bernadette's mum, with whom he remains on good terms.

'I've been married to my second wife, Eileen, an Irish-american woman for 23 years,' he says. 'I was married to my first wife for 12 years and before that I was with Bernadette's mum for a few years. I always said to her that if I cheated on her I would tell her.

' Then I went off with this Indian girl who was stunningly beautiful. So I left Bernadette's mum, and I would have been fine with her. She gets on well with Eileen and I said to her I would have been fine with you, and she said no you're fine with Eileen.

'She's that kind of woman. I'm very lucky with the women. I saw my first wife a lot over the past few days because we're doing something at one of my son's houses. I'm very lucky my wife Eileen is very tolerant. She's not a jealous woman at all.

'Eileen is very good with kids. I'm not that good. She was a teacher in New York and we've got four kids together. When we were naming them, we ran out of Irish names eventually. At the start everyone was asking about the name Fursey. Apparently it means daft one or stupid one. I think he's just a nice boy. Nicholas (older son) was all worried and said to Eileen "you can't do that" and she said "well you come up with a better name" and he couldn't. Now you look at Fursey, and he's Fursey, the tallest child I've got. They're all about six one. And this one is 15, and must be six three, with giant hands. They make him swim for the school. He almost walks on water. I'm sure he must be Catholic.'

The seeds for Status Quo were sown when Rossi met schoolmate Alan Lancaster at the tender age of 11. Next October, a documentary will be released with the two rockers retracing their steps around Peckham, where their story began. The Quo originated as The Spectres, then The Traffic, then Traffic Jam, there was even brief mention of a Rick Joint.

In the early days they used to rehearse in a basement in Lambeth Walk and one day their manager came down the stairs, saying that they needed to change the name. The band members were engrossed in the practice and when he suggested Crow Bars, he was told to get away. He tried again with Status Quo, and they agreed that would do.

It took the band three attempts before they first entered the UK singles chart, with Pictures of Matchstick Men.

Back then record companies were more patient with their clients, and because the initial deal that they were on was so miniscule, it meant their bosses could afford the time to look after them. Rossi remembers well what he was doing the day the all-important phone call came through.

'Pictures of Matchstick Men was recorded in October 1967, and hit the charts in early 1968. I was living with my ex-wife and her mother. I was about to become an ice-cream salesman which is what my family did. I was taking delivery of an ice cream van and I was thinking "s**t, I don't want to do this". The band made me feel like we were escaping the black and white world of the 1950s. Suddenly I got a call saying that Matchstick Men was about to enter the charts at thirty-something, and that was it. I cancelled the ice-cream van and luckily it all took off. It was a fabulous time - all new and fresh.'

Status Quo hold the record for the most appearances by a group (106) on Top of the Pops, though as you might expect with a bunch of highflying rockers, those trips to the London studios weren't always plain sailing.

'It was either on our first or second one when Alan and Rick (Parfitt) had gone out somewhere with these girls that Rick knew called The Highlights, and they had a bit of a night out in London. Rick can still do this. If you have to be up early the following morning, he's likely to get wrecked the night before, which is a bit unusual. They turned up late at Top of the Pops. Our manager at the time was really livid.

' The producer was a man called Colin Charman, who was not as nice as some of the other producers, and he came and told us off. He made us feel so bad. He tore us badly, which you wouldn't be able to do now.

'And we've never been late since. We don't do late anymore, from learning the first time.'

These days Francis Rossi is content to carry on being relevant. For a man whose fame was such that he once met a fan who had his image from the cover of the Rock Till You Drop album tattooed on the inside of his thigh (there are crazier ones but not suitable for publication in this newspaper and he advises that if you want a breast signed then get the guitar player to do it, as his handwriting is much neater) the years have been quite the rollercoaster ride.

No band stays at the top forever, yet Status Quo released an album last year that still sold one-third of what they could shift at their peak. Not bad for a band over 40 years in the game.

'Very early on in our careers our main rivals would have been Slade, but we were equally good friends,' he says. 'I suppose it was like the Blur versus Oasis thing. That was a PR stunt and once it started, it was a great angle to take. Who do you like Blur or Oasis? I like both. B******t!

'We were very close to Slade and we laughed a lot but I always find we are in competition with everybody. That's why I find it odd when we're watching X Factor and everyone each week says oh she's lovely or he's lovely, and then they win. Right, now they become competition to me. It's so strange.

'Somebody once said to me there are so many people with their head in the trough right now. People think the music industry is all very friendly. We're all just trying to stay alive. It's not an easy ride.

'And once you are successful you've got the gold, it's about trying to hang on to the bloody gold. Holding on to it is much harder than getting it.

' To get success, you know where it is. It's over there. You get there, then what? I don't know. People are getting on your coat-tails. Another band coming along, another band coming along - it's what makes us all so bloody insecure.

' The entire music industry changed. We've still got this serious hardcore fan base as quite a few bands have. But these days it is hard to get to the floating fan who has bought your hits over the years and he's just like I am - he just dips into certain people. Nowadays you have all these older bands around. In my day, older bands were just out of the fray. Oasis are a middleaged band today. We're an old age band, U2 are a middle-to-late band. There are younger bands coming along. It wasn't like that. There was us and nobody older than us.

'It would be very odd if acts like us, The Stones and U2 weren't around; then the parents of the generation at the time were right. This is not valid. This is not a good job - it's not real.

'So I still feel like I'm trying to prove to my parents' generation that this is valid, and I'm trying to stay successful in my eyes somehow. Growing up in this capitalist world the one thing that you don't do is fail. It's kind of weird but it is where we live.'

Rossi is happiest when he's coming off the stage after a gig. He revels in the tranquillity of going up the back-stairs to his room on the tour bus. Something about that that is totally unique, and he realises he can't get that if he doesn't go to work. As he gets older he finds it harder to go to work, and he loves coming home, especially at Christmas time.

After another year's hard gigging the house is done up like a grotto, and he can totally switch off.

'Generally my exercise and vitamin regime stops for a week. I don't practise guitar on Christmas Day or Boxing Day and from that point on, I have this room in the house where I have a log fire. I go in there and I light that and I have breakfast. Then I sit there and I do puzzles all day. That's when I'm happiest.

'And as the year moves on I start practising again. I go to the gym in the morning. I'm home by 11am and I have something to eat. I sit and do the crossword. Then I have my tea. I listen to some music. I can do that for months because I know when I go back to work all those things are gone.

' There's something about Christmas and the shut down where the sun's down and the days are short. I love that.'

I finish our chat by telling him that my news editor saw him in Bahrain in 1984. He tells me to tell him that it was crap.

'We didn't want to do it. There was a bunch of pilots in front of us and we weren't in a good mood. Tell him that we're better than that and to try again.'

Status Quo will headline the Strawberry Fest in Enniscorthy on Saturday, June 2.

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