Whisky a Quo Quo

Whisky a Quo Quo

After 45 years on the road, Status Quo are arguably Britain's ultimate kings of Rock and Roll. And with a career spanning 32 hit albums and an astonishing 118 million records sold, you'd assume that they'd truly earned the right to start taking things easy. Think again. Neil J. Ridley talks to Francis Rossi OBE: singer, songwriter, lead guitarist and now chairman of a new whisky company

Whisky & Culture | 10 Sep 2010 | Issue 90 | By Neil Ridley

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Some musicians are destined to have a short shelf life, to live and die with the fast pace and perpetual turnover of a ruthless music business. This is perhaps no better exemplified than by our televisions being filled with faceless X Factor contestants, certainly today’s big headlines, but ultimately tomorrow’s chip wrappers. So it is all the more extraordinary when you consider the enduring career of Messrs. Rossi and Parfitt, aka Status Quo; the band that refused to go quietly.

On the eve of their first UK date on a seemingly never-ending world tour, I travel to Rochester Castle, the grounds of which are hosting the sell out gig. The eager ‘super fans’ have been here since the early afternoon, turning the venue into a sea of denim and inflatable guitars. It’s a sight that frontman Francis Rossi must surely be used to seeing at every gig, but as he gazes out, there is a definite twinkle in his eye, which causes him to beam from ear to ear. “We’ve got the best fans in the world here,” he points out. Recently Status Quo clocked up more than 6000 live shows, playing to a total audience of 25 million; to achieve this level of success must require an unstoppable energy. So what’s the secret? “Energy” he laughs, “you’ve totally hit the nail on the head there. It’s been crazy at the moment. I’ve got the band tour and my solo record going on and you start to think to yourself what the f**k am I doing!!But as the day goes by, the ego and the energy start to kick in and suddenly it’s all manageable.”

”With such a busy touring schedule, do you sometimes forget what being ‘home’ actually feels like?

“Well, I’ve been staying on the tour bus during our recent gigs, but managed to get home to record some fresh tracks at my home studio,” he explains “which feels really good. It’s that new exciting energy that keeps me enthused.”

But do you ever feel jaded playing the same old songs night after night?

“Well we just played in Oostende to a fantastic crowd at a great venue and all of a sudden it’s like… hang on… we’ve finished!!Where’s the time gone?? The set’s gone so quickly, because it’s been a cracking gig and the songs just fly past. Other times it’s much more tough.”

How so?

“Well, we were playing at a huge festival in Holland recently and it was really hot,” he grimaces “probably 105 degrees, with the sun shining right onto the stage. Rick always uses this great analogy ‘tough gigs are like dragging a Morris Minor up hill, tied to your bollocks’… you know… really difficult! We usually play for an hour and three quarters, but this time, an hour nearly killed us. I’m no good lying in the sun, let alone playing in it.”

Rossi was born in South London’s Forest Hill into a large Italian family, owning several ice cream vans ‘which used to annoy the s**t out of the neighbours’ he recalls. A chance meeting at Butlins with guitarist Rick Parfitt sealed the early ‘Quo line up in the late 1960s and the band went on to become an unstoppable force, with songs like Down Down, Rockin’ All Over The World and Whatever You Want providing an unforgettable soundtrack to much of the 1970s and 80s. The two have been the band’s longest serving members, although Rossi has recently branched out on his own with his first solo record, One Step At A Time in more than two decades. It’s an interesting choice of album title for such a seasoned performer.

Has it been difficult to step out of the comfort zone of Status Quo, after all this time?

“Well I suppose it’s nice to have a break from the ‘Quo I guess.” he explains “The solo record has been like a holiday…as they say; a change is definitely as good as a rest. I had just moved into my new studio and to be honest, it all felt really easy and relaxed putting the solo album together. Then my manager said I needed to do some solo gigs, which was terrifying at first. But they went really well and I’ve got more in September and February. But one thing’s for sure, you have to commit to it physically one hundred per cent, otherwise it’s as boring as hell, for yourself and the audience.”

Your son plays in the solo band with you, doesn’t he?

“Yeah, Nicholas plays guitar with me, and he’s very, very good indeed. I’ve also got (‘Quo bassist) John Edwards’ son playing with me on the other guitar” he explains. “I remember telling him years ago that if he learnt to play properly, I’d promise to take him out on tour with me. Now I wonder why the hell I said it,” he jokes!

Has Nicholas taught you any new tricks in the partying stakes? “Partying?” he exclaims, “I’m not really into that anymore. People say come out to this or that club tonight after the gig and I’ll say lights…music… women… whatever. I’ve been there, done that! I’m quite a boring person.” he grins.

Our talk turns to the bottle of whisky, the aptly titled ‘Glen Rossie’, which has been sitting on its own chair beside us, patiently waiting for an introduction. For those not in the know, Glen Rossie is a blended scotch whisky, containing around 90 per cent malt. Its origins date back to 1814, although recently the brand went into administration, prompting an approach to Rossi from its new owners (The Brand Cellar) to become a minority stakeholder and chairman, or as the singer jokes, ‘The Frontman.’

What made you decide to get involved?

“Well it’s what most of us rock stars do isn’t it!” he laughs, “We make a few bob and then try other stuff on the side. We’ve tried limousine companies, private jets - Pink Floyd tried stage hire companies, as did U2. Most of the time I would steer clear of this sort of stuff, but I was so taken with the guys behind Glen Rossie, that I had to give it a go. Some entrepreneurs have such a neck and front, but they were so down to earth I thought I’ve gotta go for this. If they’d have turned up smoking cigars, acting all swanky I’d have told ‘em to f**k off!”

And is it true that it all started as a bit of a joke a few years back?

“Yeah”, he laughs, “it all started a few years ago. One of the catering ladies thought it would be funny. Rick and I were asking her what she was going to prepare for the meal before a gig and she’s like – ‘I’ve got something really special for you tonight.’ For the whole day we were going round thinking we’d be getting some gourmet food…and then she turns up with this (He gestures towards the bottle) Glen Rossie? I thought she was having a f**king laugh!”

What do the other guys in the band think?Have they tried it yet??

“As you can imagine, it’s gone down incredibly well on the tour bus” he smiles,(adopting the voice and posturing of a posh waiter.) “Glen Rossie anyone?”

It certainly has a ring to it, but were you surprised to hear the name ‘Rossie’ associated with something Scottish?

“I like it, but then, I guess I grew up with that name,” he says, tapping the bottle gently. “All the best Italians come from Scotland. My family are of Italian decent. Take my uncle Luigi – he even swore beautifully! There are certain places you visit in Scotland where you always bump into an Italian family, but I would have still never guessed there was a connection there.

“Our tour manager is called Glen Smith, which is a pretty common surname. Well ‘Rossi’ is at least as common in Italy,” he explains. “When I first visited Rome aged 19, I was really disappointed. In most American TV programmes like CSI, when they find an unidentified dead body, it’s classified as a John Doe or a Jane Doe.” “In Italy” he sighs, “they’re known as a Francesco Rossi!”

“F**king class isn’t it,” he deadpans, “I resemble a dead body!”

Joking aside, what does it feel like to be the chairman of the board?

“When I was younger the idea of that sounded fabulous, but really you have to know exactly what you can bring to the table. To me, Glen Rossie is a really smooth, easy drinking whisky - there’s no harshness, which I’ve had with whiskies in the past. I really love what the guys are doing and I don’t want to get involved on a day-to-day basis, because I don’t know their business-put it this way…they don’t tell me how to do a gig.”

And the new bottle design, complete with plectrum shaped logo- did you design that?

“Yeah it was between me and the manager,” he recalls “it looks simple and straight forward but the trouble is when we’re touring the world, I keep seeing other whisky bottles at the airport duty free shops and I’m like… ‘Ooh that looks really nice.’ I’ve really gotta stop looking!”

It’s clear throughout our interview that Francis Rossi is a man filled with as much drive as he had during the band’s golden era, several decades ago. I ask him if there was any particular highlight he will fondly look back on, to which I get a fairly unexpected response. “Appearing on Coronation Street was among the best couple of weeks of my life,” he reminisces.

“We used to knock around with Bruce Jones (who played the hapless character of Les Battersby) and he said he could get us into the storyline. It kind of went away, which we were all relieved about but then, a script suddenly turned up and I thought ‘Lord, how can I get out of this!’ But we had a read through, laughed our heads off and went up to Manchester to film it. (For those of you who don’t follow the soap, the ‘Quo were forced to become an unexpected wedding band for Les and his conniving wife Cilla, with hilarious consequences.)

A knock at the dressing room door from Rossi’s vocal coach means that he is due on stage shortly and that our time together must sadly come to an end, but it has been highly insightful to spend an hour with one of the true stalwarts of British Rock music. Sure, it is easy to dismiss the simplicity of the band’s ‘three chord’ songs, but those who do, totally miss the point. For it is this simple, yet fun approach to writing and performing, which has carried the band so far and led them to such unprecedented levels of success and admiration from fans all around the world. Long may Status Quo keep on searching for that elusive 4th chord.
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