Even down a telephone line from her home in deepest Essex, Suzi Quatro still crackles with energy at the age of 68.
And with her Detroit accent intact, despite living in England for more than 40 years, she is buzzing with life, eager to tell me about her latest project – writing an album with KT Tunstall – and forthcoming Legends Live tour, headlining a bill that also includes David Essex, Les McKeown’s Bay City Rollers, Smokie and Showaddywaddy.
It was in May 1973, at the height of the glam-rock craze, that Suzi burst onto our television screens, a five foot two bundle of energy in a leather jumpsuit singing seemingly nonsensical lyrics about canning the can against a solid hard-rock beat.
That first hit single, Can The Can, written by pop songwriters for hire Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, went straight to the top of the charts, and was followed, in short order, by two more instant Chinn-Chapman classics, 48 Crashand Devil Gate Drive.
After nearly ten years of trying, Suzi was finally a star and, more than that, would prove to be a vital role model for countless would-be female musicians.
She was born in June 1950 into an Italian-Hungarian family (the family name was originally Quattrocchi) and was surrounded by music from an early age. Her Italian father was a semiprofessional musician who worked at General Motors and her siblings – two sisters, a brother and older half-sister – all displayed some musical talent.
In her autobiography, Unzipped, Suzi described her father as a “party animal” and her mum as a “home maker”, adding “I got my dad’s zest for life and my mum’s heart”.
She was inspired to take up a musical instrument after seeing Elvis Presley perform on the Ed Sullivan Show in January 1957.
“It never occurred to me that Elvis was a man, I just wanted to be like him”. And ten years later Suzi would buy her first bona fide leather jacket after seeing Elvis’s 1968 ‘comeback’ on TV.
“But believe it or not the first instrument I played was bongo drums,” she says. “I was seven at the time, and my father used to let me come up on stage and do a number with him. I studied piano for a long time, and then I played in the school orchestra.
When I was 14 my sisters and I formed an all-girl band and at that point I was given the bass to play. Luckily for me, when I put it on I felt had come home. I immediately felt it was the instrument for me.”
That band, The Pleasure Seekers, included Suzi’s sister Patti, who would later be part of the rock group Fanny, and Arlene. The girls sometimes had to don wigs and miniskirts, much against their better judgement, but soon became a vital part of the Detroit musical community, hanging out with the likes of Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper.
“I’ve never thought of myself as a female musician, just as a musician”
They released a couple of singles that went nowhere before changing their name to Cradle and pursuing a different musical direction. Arlene left to have a baby (who would become the actress Sherilyn Fenn) and was replaced by another Quatro sister, Nancy.
“We were writing all our own songs and becoming very serious about what we were doing,” Suzi recalls. “Pleasure Seekers was a show band, Cradle was more of a muso band.”
Already Suzi’s vibrant stage persona, singing and playing bass, was attracting some attention, and soon the record label Elektra came calling, offering her a solo contract. The same week hotshot British producer Mickie Most, who had already enjoyed considerable success with Donovan, The Animals and Herman’s Hermits, was in town doing some recording at the Motown studios with guitarist Jeff Beck and drummer Cozy Powell.
He was persuaded by Suzi’s brother, Mickey, also a musician, to catch Cradle’s show at a Detroit dance hall and, impressed by what he saw, Mickie also offered Suzi a solo contract.
“So I had two offers within one week,” Suzi said. “Elektra wanted to make me into the new Janis Joplin and Mickie said ‘I’m going to make you into the first Suzi Quatro’. Obviously I went with Mickie because I thought, ‘OK, you see me’. I mean I’m nothing like Janis Joplin.”
So it was that in September 1971 Suzi packed a suitcase and headed for England, bound for a seedy hotel in Earls Court. The morning after she arrived Suzi was whisked away in Most’s gold Rolls Royce to the offices of his record company, Rak, on Oxford Street, where the producer outlined his plans. She would be signed to Rak, he would find some musicians to back her, an album would be recorded and then she would head back home. It didn’t work out like that.
It took a year of trial and error, but eventually Mickie and Suzi settled on a song, Rolling Stone, that she had written with Errol Brown, a member of fellow Rak signing Hot Chocolate.
As evidence of Most’s clout in the music business at the time, among the musicians playing on the record was drummer Alan White, fresh from playing on John Lennon’s Imagine album (and later of Yes), and a young Peter Frampton.
Although a flop in Britain, Rolling Stone was a Number One in Portugal, and, suitably encouraged, Suzi was able to get a band together and start touring, earning a support slot on the same bill as Slade and Thin Lizzy.
The distinctive Suzi Quatro sound did not emerge, however, until Mickie Most sent Mike Chapman along to one of her gigs.
“Mickie wasn’t sure how to record me, but Mike Chapman got it,” Suzi says. “The reason Mickie couldn’t produce me was that he didn’t know how to use the raw energy that I have; I’m a rocker at heart. Mike saw that.
“If you listen to my first album all the songs are boogie style, and that’s what we were doing at gigs. Mike tapped into that.”
Chinn and Chapman’s genius was the ability to distil a music style into three minutes of pop magic, and that’s what they did with Suzi; Can the Can perfectly capturing the raw energy of her persona, but in a catchy, accessible package.
Following the success of the single an agreement was reached, that Suzi would supply album tracks and B-sides, while Chinn and Chapman would come up with the singles, an arrangement that was already working well with another of the songwriting team’s customers, The Sweet.
Understandably Suzi is very proud of that mid-Seventies run of hits.
“There is a lot of energy in those singles – energy is my middle name. Even at 68 I still have the exact same energy. I wish I didn’t but there you go.”
The meaning of the lyrics was not always clear, but that didn’t seem to matter.
“I always knew what the lyrics were all about,” she says. “Mike tended to go for what sounded right, and he could write a good teenage lyric. For instance 48 Crash was the male menopause – you wouldn’t argue with that one, right,” she laughs, (obviously assuming, correctly, she’s talking to someone the wrong side of 50).
At the height of her success Suzi was booked as support act for her old Detroit buddy Alice Cooper.
“It was aptly called the Welcome To My Nightmare tour. I mean these were all old friends of mine from Detroit, and it was just great being with people I’d grown up with, but it went on forever.
“We did 30 shows on our own and then joined the tour and did another 80, it was non-stop madness.”
Although Suzi was, by now, immune to the temptations of being on the road, the same did not go for Len Tuckey, the guitarist in her band, who in 1976 would become the first Mr Quatro.
“Although I trusted Len, I still kept an eagle eye out for any trouble on that front,” she wrote in Unzipped. “He sometimes resented this and made comments like, ‘Oh Suze, I just want to have some fun like the other guys’, which just used to infuriate me.”
By the late Seventies the hits had started to dry up, although Suzi did have some success in America with Stumblin’ In, a duet with Chris Norman from Rak stablemates Smokie. And there is no doubting the influence she had already had on a whole generation of would-be female musicians.
“Joan Jett was my biggest fan,” Suzi says. “Her room was covered in pictures of me; she was a little bit obsessed. She would be at the gigs in California before she started her band, sitting in the lobby of the hotel with a pile of stuff for me to sign.
“I met Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads somewhere and I made some little dig against myself and she said to me ‘you don’t know how important you are to me’.”
Part of it was standing out in the male-dominated world of glam-rock, but there was also an element of playing the boys at their own game.
“I’ve never thought of myself as a female musician, just as a musician. I don’t do gender, and that’s perhaps why it fell to me to be a trail-blazer.
“Someone was going to do it sooner or later and it ended up being me because I didn’t try to be something I wasn’t. I was true to myself, that’s what was important. I’m not butch but I’m sort of tomboyish. It was cute and sexy at the same time, without trying, which I suppose is what made it work.”
Realising that her musical career was winding down Suzi moved into other areas, most notably acting, taking on the role as the bass player Leather Tuscadero on the television show Happy Days.
The show’s producer, Garry Marshall, reputedly offered Suzi the role without having an audition after seeing a photograph of her on his daughter’s bedroom wall and it certainly seemed tailormade for her, a former juvenile delinquent now fronting a rock band.
In 1980 Len and Suzi moved into an Elizabethan manor house in the countryside in Essex, where she still lives, but Suzi’s restless energy and willingness to take on any number of different projects – musicals, roles in Minder and Dempsey and Makepeace, recording a Children In Need single – started to take a toll on the marriage and in 1992 they divorced.
“I couldn’t hold myself back and not do all these things and he couldn’t push himself forward and enjoy them with me,” she wrote in Unzipped.
The decision to divorce Len was a difficult one – her Catholic upbringing saw to that – and Suzi was all too aware of the effect it would have on their children, Laura and Richard, who were aged seven and nine respectively at the time. In her book Suzi says both children were “emotionally damaged” by the divorce, but she and Len stayed on good terms, and he only lives half an hour away from the family home.
Laura and Richard have now left home but both also live nearby. After a year alone Suzi married German music promoter Rainer Haas in 1993 and, although both maintain separate homes it is an arrangement that suits them. “We go back and forth,” says Suzi. “It gives us space. It’s no big deal. The airport is just down the road.”
And she never stops working, be it the book of poetry she published two years ago, touring, recording or forming a ‘supergroup’ with Sweet guitarist Andy Scott and Slade drummer Don Powell.
“I have been in the business now for 54 years as a professional. When I say it I think ‘oh my God’! And I’m still going strong. And I’m now Dr Quatro (in 2016 she received an honorary doctorate form Anglia Ruskin University). I’m really proud of that, naturally.”
More recently she started writing with son Richard. “He wanted to write with me about three years ago and I said ‘no, you’re not ready’, and he really took it to heart. So he went away and he got ready; he came back with some tracks and I went ‘oh, OK’ and now we are in the studio and it’s brilliant. He wanted me to do another straight out rock and roll album and that’s how he geared his ideas, so I’m in there rockin’!”
She’s also enjoyed the collaboration with singer-songwriter KT Tunstall.
“We get on like a house on fire. We write very easily together and it’s a nice collaboration. I was always a fan of hers, but I didn’t know she was a fan of mine until I was watching a little clip of the documentary about me that’s coming up soon, and there she was.”
That documentary was nearing completion as we spoke and Suzi promises that it’s a warts and all affair.
“If you are going to do a documentary about me I don’t need 8000 people saying how wonderful I am. That’s just boring. So I told the director, ‘if you do this, do it for real’. As long as something is honest I don’t mind it being in there. If it’s not honest, it’s out.”
Interview: Suzi Quatro
Suzi Quatro is a busy woman. She is still headlining arenas, releasing books, new music and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. She is about to release a more personal compilation of her discography titled Legend. We caught up with the original rock chick to hear more.
Why did you choose to release a ‘Best Of’ this year?
My entire catalogue has just been taken over by a new company so we decided to work through things and bring the tracks out. So, I said that this tour is a perfect opportunity to release a new compilation with new thought behind it. Re-master it. Make it special. Legend has got ten of the hits plus ten of my own personal choices from my extensive back catalogue of all the stuff I’ve written. That was hard to do by the way!
I can imagine! How did you choose?
Really hard because I have ten albums. Most of the albums I write myself so it’s a huge back catalogue. Except for the track ‘Hollywood’, every other track I’ve chosen has been played live on stage. I didn’t know I was doing that till I looked back at it. So now if there’s a Legend 2, I’d pick different songs for different reasons. I guess these ones leapt out at me because I did do them live.
I know lyrics mean a lot to you. Is there any here that you’re most proud of?
Well, I don’t write fiction so I’m always proud of my lyrics. I always go deep into lyrics when I write. They mean a lot to me like you just said. ‘Cat Size’- I like that one because it’s about Detroit. ‘Suicide’ is an interesting one. That’s funny because I saw a headline in a paper and it said ‘I’m a prisoner on 72nd Street’. It was a John Lennon article and then he died that way. It was so weird that I wrote a story about that being a prisoner there and then that… it was a bit of a weird one.
‘Free The Butterfly’ is very important to me. I was planning on divorcing my husband… my ex husband now. It wasn’t an easy thing to try and say so I wrote the song to say it. It affects people that song. It’s a goodbye but it’s a hopeful goodbye.
Did your ex husband ever comment?
Oh yeah, I brought it downstairs and I played it to him. I was playing it as my message to him. And bless him, all he said was “nice song Suz”. I did think he got it but I don’t think he wanted to acknowledge it. He’s not insensitive; he would have understood the message. But obviously didn’t want to dwell on it.
You’ve also just released a book on poetry. Do you have any favourite poets?
I like Shakespeare’s stuff. I like a lot of random poets. I don’t tend to go for a certain author or poet, I go for the poem. When I was in Australia during my last, difficult and emotional tour with my ex… and we split up pretty soon after that so life was tough. When you’re nearing the end of it, it’s real and everyone is on edge. I found a book shop in Melbourne. I wandered in there and I found these scented poetry books and they just answered my turmoil. I just used to ride in the car to gigs and read from them. So you could say the written word is extremely important to me. It helps me through.
I hope that my poetry and my songs do the same for other people. I know that I’ve had songs like ‘Free The Butterfly’ that have people in tears over that.
Quatro, Scott and Powell which is myself, Scott the original guitar player from Sweet and the original drummer from Slade – we formed a super group. We had an album out in Australia while we were on tour. It went to number 20 and now it’s coming out everywhere else in September and the album is called QSP. The reason I’m saying this is because I wrote a song with Andy Scott called ‘Pain’. People were coming into the studio while we were recording it and crying- one of these really poignant messages.
And my poems, I get loads of people saying, is that about me? Which means, I’m touching them. Which means it strikes a chord. I’m an artist- that’s what you want your creations to do to touch people. That’s the whole reason you do it.
Just to go back to the scented poetry. What scent would Legend have out of interest?
I would say, Lavender. I don’t know where that came from…
Well, I heard you’re a bit psychic aren’t you?
Yeah, I like to put it that way. Being an artist, all my channels are wide open. I don’t want to close the channels. It makes you easily hurt, sensitive and everything’s open. As an artist you don’t really have any other choice.
Do you think that’s influenced your decision when picking these songs?
Yeah, everything I do comes from a deep emotional place. It’s who I am. I hurt very easily and I feel everything to a meticulous degree. It makes me an artist. It just goes with the turf.
Does that make you more decisive too?
It depends on what the situation is. I have instincts that I trust unfathomably. So if I feel something, that’s what I act on. I don’t have the ability to bullshit or to lie. If you ask me a question, I’ll give you the answer. You might not always like it but I’m straightforward that way. I trust my instincts. I believe in what I’m doing and I trust that.
And I also wanted to ask you something about that’s very prevalent in today’s media. You’ve said you don’t associate yourself with any gender?
No I never have and I still don’t now. I’ve never had a time in my life where I thought to myself, oh I can’t do that because I’m a woman. I just never have. Maybe besides going into a urinal….
Hahaha! Well they do want to make more bathrooms gender neutral…
I think it should be an individual choice. I’m not the one that’s preaching anything to anybody. For me it was important that I felt that way. I was the first successful female rock ‘n’ roll musician because I didn’t do gender. That’s why it happened. I think everybody needs to make their own choices. I don’t think you should take away femininity and masculinity. I still believe that people are different. I just think whatever sex you are shouldn’t prevent you from realising your dream. There’s a difference there. I do love men and I do love women. I think the two are wonderful separate entities. It just shouldn’t hinder you.
Do you listen to any new music?
Yes, because I have a 16 year old granddaughter and she keeps me up to speed. I think my favourite one at the moment is Ed Sheeran. It’s so strange because I don’t know his entire catalogue but every time I’m riding in the car with her, she’ll be switching from radio station to radio station. Then she’ll stop on a song and I’ll go, who’s that? And she’ll say, grandma.. it’s Ed Sheeran. Every time! So I guess I have to say I like him. She gets fed up with telling me.
Would you consider a duet?
I would love to do one with him! Actually, I am doing a duet with KT Tunstall. We’re writing a few songs together at the moment. We’re both fans of each other, which makes it really nice.
Are you still an Elvis fan?
Huge. In fact I just completed a gig last weekend near Frankfurt, where he was stationed during the army. And there was a big Elvis festival there. I did five songs. One was my tribute to Elvis called ‘Singing With Angels’ which is very important. And that was recorded in Nashville. I’ve always had this tradition every album to record an Elvis track. I’ve loved him since I was six years old.
I noticed that you didn’t include a cover in Legend?
No, I chose songs I wrote myself. That’s what I wanted to do for this one. It’s a more personal thing.
Before I let you go… I have one thing I’m dying to hear more about. I read that you did a séance to bring back Janis Joplin?
Oh my god, where did you get that from? We were sitting around bored in a hotel room and we decided to bring somebody back. You’re just sitting there with a bunch of people, you know? I didn’t like it! You know when you’re just playing around with stuff and you’re just having fun. Oh I didn’t like it at all.
Did anything happen?
There was a few sorts of things swishing about and I didn’t like it. I thought this is not something to play with. It got to that stage and I was like ah ok! Turn the lights on, get me out of here. It started as something fun, but ended as something serious and I wouldn’t do it again. None of us knows that area. You shouldn’t mess with it. I would not recommend anyone doing that for fun or otherwise.
(Article source: Various)