Off The Beaten Track: Music Reviews and Musings by Mary Leary
In Search of the Fourth Chord (CD); Pictures: Live at Montreux (DVD)
This should be simple. A powerhouse of seminal hard rock, Status Quo recently reissued its 28th album, along with a career-charting DVD. Quo’s been wildly popular in Britain, Europe, Japan, Australia, and several other countries–with the odd exception of the United States. It’s churned out an impressive quota of good-to-great music in 45+ years of output. Yet the style it helped create, “heads-down boogie,” seems strangely old-fashioned, hard to explain to anyone who didn’t have a visceral reaction to its first blasts.
I’m left attempting to chart historical significance, i.e, musically and stylistically, Quo influenced straight-ahead rock including AC/DC, the Ramones, and Backstreet Girls. Which still doesn’t explain the Quo phenomenon. Although killer boogie is an inarguable selling point, the band has emitted several different rock and pop styles, at worst meeting contractual obligations or arid stretches with fluff. So the huge popularity? Fans associate certain Quo songs and shows with different times in their lives. There’s fierce loyalty toward a group that has attempted to live up to a position of adulation–and expectations–not dissimilar to that of a British soccer team. Followers have been stoked by the band’s efforts, resilience, and comebacks (from personnel changes, creative lulls, serious health challenges, and litigation).
Since acquiring the latest CD and DVD I’ve been reacquainting myself; filling in some gaps. I’ve paid more than my usual attention to rock lyrics (especially when they’re somewhat veiled by Cockney accents). From those words, along with co-leader Francis Rossi’s recent Montreux interview, I’ve gleaned an ingratiating humility, along with an insecurity I’d never have suspected from Rossi’s Piledriver-era rocker stance, one of the coolest things – in a particularly European way–I’d ever seen.
Quo was born when two of its original members formed the Scorpions in 1962. Five years, two bands names, and several recordings later, attention grew with some successful psychedelia. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Rossi, bassist/songwriter Alan Lancaster, and guitarist/singer/songwriter Rick Parfitt were quick enough studies to join the Nazz and the Move in going the Lemon Pipers one better. Quo drew some international buzz by meshing fuzziness with harder rock and a high-pitched guitar tone and tenor lilt that to me has always sounded rather “Celtic.” Here’s one from that era:
Despite the thrill of success, Quo disliked the industry packaging that went with it. And the band craved more of a challenge than it was getting from pop/psychedelia, itself a near-dead trend. By 1970 the band was entering a new phase, melding some of the best effects (including Rossi’s high-pitched guitar) from tracks like “Pictures of Matchstick Men” with more concise, harder rock like “Gerundula,” “Railroad,” and “Mean Girl.” From here it morphed into what some feel to be its ultimate incarnation, combining increasingly deft vocal phrasing with power chords and a beefed-up attack. The band was honing the intuitively exacting dynamics more often associated with Pink Floyd or the Beatles than with relatively uneducated rockers (occasionally taking the volume down to a whisper before reopening the throttle, changing key for the last third of a song, or stopping and starting on a dime). Some of the hippie-dippier fans fled and were replaced by arenas packed with tight jeans and platform boots.
Americans, other than collectors and rock mavens, have tended to ignore Quo. Either some of the British nuances got lost in translation or the music was simply too thoughtless to be countenanced (back in the day, you weren’t going to impress many radicals and intellectuals by banging your head to sounds that seemed too dumb or unquestioning of, well, the status quo). Me, I first heard “Railroad” on a jukebox in Spain. The German friends who turned me onto the European freak scene were right: this stuff was irresistible. At one point I had an early Foghat album (I got over them pretty quickly), was glad when djs spun Deep Purple, and have never parted with my Jo Jo Gunne vinyl.
Like many of the working and middle class kids responding to these bands, I tended to forego politics for dependable, life-affirming release. Hell, great rock, once discovered, is a necessity for some of us.
It didn’t look good for the band when Alan Lancaster got terminally cranky and crack drummer John Coghlan wearied of touring, as did the rest of Quo, which announced it was done with live shows after the exhaustive End of the Road tour. Recharged by a successful End of video, a new rhythm section, participation in Live Aid, and a change of pace with “You’re In The Army Now,” Quo was back on the road two years later. This is a few years after I’d stopped paying attention (roughly 1977), when Rockin’ All Over the World convinced me the band had been taken over by aliens… and was emitting pap. Now, looking back at years of overlooked Quo, I feel somewhat sheepish for giving up. The reasons, including musical explorations and curiosity, along with being back in the States, don’t really matter. I see now that Parfitt and Rossi loved playing music enough to carry on through all sorts of things, including some mediocre emissions.
As I’m about to quip, “Hey, it’s a job,” loyalty throws a hand over my mouth. Reviewing video for this piece has been more fun than seems legal. Going back to the ‘70-‘76 hey day, this is what we’re talking about: Perfectly-timed head jerks and terminally cool struts leading to a Quo trademark: head-down, then hair-whip-back axe huddles. The sound is so infectious I can’t stop leaping away from the computer to shake my ashes. When a dress shirt and tie-wearing churchgoer hustles his five-year-old son past my window I pump the volume, hoping the stressed-looking child will hear a religion that never gives that backbeat a break.
Ricocheting around my computer to classics like “Paper Plane” and “Roll Over” only raises the stakes for the latest album – seemingly a losing proposition. But I’m delighted by much of In Search of the Fourth Chord. While it’s unclear just how many new chords have surfaced, Rossi and crew have continued their mid-late 2000s trend of returning to harder rock.
In Search brims with creative energy. I’m nodding to “Beginning of the End” and “Alright” before becoming fully alert for “Pennsylvania Blues Tonight,” which employs a classic Quo weapon: a sinewy signature guitar line, adding a bridge that recalls Weezer circa Pinkerton. Other bootie-shakers include “I Don’t Wanna Hurt You Anymore,” “You’re The One For Me” and “My Little Heartbreaker.” While Quo. could probably churn out most of these rug-cutters in its sleep, boogie’s like any other proclivity – if they’re still dishing it out, I’ll bring a spoon.
Despite a couple of duds, on the whole this is a winner. While the dirge-ish “Electric Arena” is sure to evoke waves across… arenas, it pleasantly showcases Rossi’s lead playing, which has always shown confidence without promising more than he can deliver – and than he does. Which brings up another point: I’ve rarely heard an ugly note from this band – whatever the style, there’s an inviting, warm aesthetic, partly drawn by Rossi’s voice and/or group harmonies .
Still, I hardly expected Pictures: Live at Montreux (filmed in July, 2009) to approach the excitement of early-70s performances. The show’s sheer breadth – an hour and 46 minutes – seems ridiculously ambitious. And how could Rossi, now nearly bald (which precludes all that hair-whipping), and Parfitt, currently rather (as the Brits would put it) tubby, ever nail their own vintage rockismo? For the first few numbers I was feeling pretty depressed, like, here’s another bunch of decaying rockers going through the motions for the paycheck, the ego, and to please the fans. I shouldn’t have doubted these guys.
Filming vacillates between views from the stage and from within and behind the crowd, along with some bird’s-eyes. If the show wasn’t great, the well-chosen lights and colors, the stills and video projected behind the stage (of career highlights, fans, or just interestingly juxtaposed scenes) wouldn’t matter. But when the band gets acclimated, around “Mean Girl” (the fifth number) and moves beyond finding its groove to playing as if this were the only show it will ever play, I can’t remove my eyes from the screen. Then the projections just contribute to a sense of awe at what this band has been, and been through.
An almost childlike theatricality, culminates in a drum solo that feels like a fireworks display. Standouts include “Down Down,” “In My Chair,” “Ice In The Sun,” “Beginning of the End,” and “Roll Over Lay Down.” Songs are ordered thoughtfully, holding interest. Psychedelic-era tracks have been folded back into the mix, along with some of the pop (“Living On An Island,” “In The Army Now”) I’d written off – which now wins me over . The real magic’s in the fun Quo is obviously having – a thread weaving through most post-1970 footage I’ve seen. There’s a triumph, a marvel in this magic. I mean, Parfitt and Rossi recently crossed the line into their ‘60s. Within the past 12 years, Parfitt’s survived throat cancer and quadruple heart bypass surgery. And there’s a genuineness that I don’t get from, say, the Stones. These guys LOVE what they’re doing, love their audience. They project the vitality of rockers who are still rockers… just older.
As with any exciting concert, I don’t want it to end. I find Quo’s Telecasters and stacks of Marshall amps as riveting now as when looking at the best old footage – okay, absolutely honest: I’d give a lot to be at one of those early-‘70s shows. But this is as close as I’m going to get. Unlike some concert films, Pictures makes me feel “a part of.” This is a good thing, since only a handful of Quo videos catch great performances, and these can be expensive and/or hard to get stateside.
The special features include interviews with Rossi and Parfitt. Both are lively and charismatic; these are not boring conversations. The other features include webcam close-ups revealing just how much these guys are sweating in the July heat, along with some mistakes and recoveries. My only quibble with the video is the lack of shots including keyboardist Andy Bown and bassist John “Rhino” Edwards. Also — and this is not the producers’ fault, unless I want to blame them for feeding my addiction– I’m wishing I could afford to fly over and catch one of these shows. Hear that, boys?
Imagining how it would feel to be 24, perhaps disinterested in all of this, I’ll add: If you like rock ‘n’ roll, and get the chance to see Quo live, don’t write it off as a bunch of boring seniors. These are still mannish boys, giving off the scent of joyful macho swagger that matured in the early ‘70s, with a bottom note of the ‘60s’ sense of endless possibility. I’m just saying.
Recommendations: The band’s music has been licensed by many concerns ( a recent check of worldwide releases brought up 145 albums). Here are the very best : Dog of Two Head, Ma Kelly’s Greasy Spoon, Piledriver, On The Level, Best of the Early Years, Picturesque Matchstickable Messages from the Status Quo, Heavy Traffic.