Forever associated as the Telecaster-wielding partner to Rick Parfitt, Francis Rossi has stepped away form his role as Status Quo figurehead for a bout of activity that has seen him take on some new challenges. Co-writing his first ever autobiography with Mick Wall, he’s currently on a solo book tour, and has just released a country album with fiddler Hannah Rickard. The day job is never far away however, and despite the tragic passing of his partner of 50 years in 2016, there’s live dates, and a possible new album on the way from Quo. We sat down with Francis for a chat about the book tour, his relationship with Rick, guitars, and the Frantic Four. On the Level; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Francis, how are you today?
It’s not me, it’s a wind up. I’ve been looking for him myself. He’s not here.
You’re currently in the middle of your ‘I Talk Too Much’ book tou; how's that been going?
It’s very good. I’ve been enjoying it, mostly. There was one that was a bit iffy. The manager and agent came to see me, and it just unnerves me when they’ve come to judge. I don’t need them judging, so it threw me a little bit, and it threw Mick [Wall, co-author] a little bit. But other than that, it’s very good fun. I enjoy it; it’s different than normal, and there’s some very nice venues, nice seaters; very pleasant.
Is it unusual to be performing without a guitar in hand?
Well, I pick up an acoustic and do a couple of little bits, some tiny bits, about six or eight minutes here and there. At the end I did ‘Marguerita [Time]’ and ‘Caroline’. I might change that, because I always start with ‘Caroline’ [in Status Quo gigs], and I thought it would be kind of funny to end with ‘Caroline’.
There have been several Status Quo biographies, but this is the first time you’ve had an autobiography out, isn’t it?
Yeah, well, because everything was always about Rick and I. With Rick and I, I always had to give Rick equal of whatever I got, and vice versa. It kind of restricted the pair of us, and with an autobiography that’s about two people. It’s a contradiction in terms I’m sure. But it is the only time I’ve had one done on my own that’s about me really, and a bit of Quo. I think it’s alright, and people seem to like it.
What was it like for you to look back over your own personal story, removing yourself from that indelible partnership?
Well, there’s obviously stuff about Rick and I, and Quo, but I try not to analyse it too much. That’s one of the things I do generally, but I just sat talking to Mick. Chronologically, I can drift from when I was a baby to last month, to the last year with Rick or whatever, and then he had to put it in some sort of time aspect correction, and we had a book. People ask me; “Is it any good?”, and I say; “I don’t know!” I don’t say that reading about me is marvellous; I’ve never been good at saying; “Get our new album, it’s fantastic!”, because you may think it’s shit. It’s the same, I mean, if you’re interested in the Quo story or Francis Rossi, it might be interesting; if you’re not, why the fuck would you be interested? Give it to somebody in South America who’s never heard of me.
The book covers the highs and the lows of your career; in the past you've stated that Status Quo's pub tour to promote the ‘Under the Influence’ album was a professional low for you.
Well, it’s interesting you said the highs and the lows; the drugs were the ‘highs’, not the lows! [*laughing*] That whole PR exercise doing pubs; now, at the time, the song I’d written ‘Under the Influence’ was about dreams I was having after the start I made with my current wife. I was in bed with two women, and it was so real to the point that it was frightening; “What have I done?!”. And then I’d wake up. And so I had this lyrical idea, and then the melody came from something I did when I was 14.
It was the only time I can remember the band were all keen on the various little CD covers they had, various ideas for us, and we had this bent fork idea. It looked really good; you just kept looking at it. And then this particular manager, he said [disparagingly]; “What does that mean?” – and that’s a good thing! So he said he had this great idea; “I think we should have a pub sign”, and the song was nothing about under the influence of drink. It was about something else.
So that lead to the PR stunt, playing pubs.
It was ‘Under the Influence’; we’ll do a pub tour, we’ll get the PR, and that kind of even upset out agent. It made people think; “What, you mean they’re back playing in pubs?” - We weren’t. So it was that kind of thing, or when he decided to sue the BBC. That was all stupidity, really.
You’re talking about when Radio 1 weren’t play listing Quo tracks in the 1990s?
Yeah, exactly. I mean, they were cheating a bit, and they were trying to change their remit and do whatever they were going to do, and they did sort of coerce us into a show to celebrate their 25th anniversary [Radio 1's Party In The Park, Sutton Coldfield, 30th August 1992]. And they said, no, there was nothing wrong. We were taken to lunch – “Yeah, we’ll play your records” – and as soon as the show was done, they wouldn’t play the song. They said; “Oh, we’ll play it when it gets in the chart”. Well hang on a second, that’s only because Quo’s fans tend to put it in the chart.
So the relationship was strained?
I said to the manager, well, we need to sue them for the fee, because we drew 125,000 people and we didn’t get paid any money. They went into a thing with us about making an album, so that was okay to be in a partnership with us, but they wouldn’t pay our records. So, fuck you! So I said; “Get the fee for the money for the show”, and he again, thought it would be a better idea to sue them for not playing our records, which was a stupid idea. It got thrown out and ridiculed somewhat, but it happens.
In terms of the highs, there are albums in Quo’s career that you’re particularly proud of.
‘Heavy Traffic’ was a great album, and ‘Quid Pro Quo’ was a great album. I think with ‘Quid Pro Quo’ though, we’d got to a point where the songs were all pretty much the same bpm [tempo]; they were all pretty much in the same key, and it was almost like you were trying to make an album like AC/DC. And AC/DC do that, whereas on the so-called favourite albums; ‘Hello!’, ‘On The Level’, ‘Piledriver’ and such, and maybe even ‘Quo’, there were mixtures of stuff on there; Rick would write a nice little ballad, Bob [Young] and I might write a country-ish thing, and there were the heavier, rockier stuff. But to me, the problem was with ‘Quid Pro Quo’, it was just pushing towards the whole thing about it being the same; you were making it more of what people expected, rather than that mix and balance that Quo always had. That was the only thing. But they were good; I’m not saying they weren’t good tracks.
What would you say are your personal favourites?
I think, ‘Heavy Traffic’. We’d got to a point with Rick where we had to do certain things, and the levels of guitars had to be equal, which is the wrong way of going about making records, but I found one of the ones that I produced; ‘Rock ‘til You Drop’  was a good album. That was one I liked. Like most bands, we’ve had good albums, good tracks; shit albums, shit tracks; it just happens to everybody.
Going back to the Frantic Four reunion, and it’s been well documented that you thought the performances were sloppy, but looking back, are you glad that you did those shows?
From a nostalgia point of view, yeah, and for Alan [Lancaster, bassist] and John [Coghlan, drummer] to earn some money, but Rick and I - Rick particularly, he had to work very hard on those shows, because somebody had to hold it together. Alan and John had not done as many shows over the years, and that isn’t a criticism, that’s just a fact. And Alan was getting ill. I’m told he’s fine now, but I’m not sure that’s true, because he’s got MS, I believe. And John Coghlan, physically – and John knows that I feel this way – and he said to Rick and I; “I just can’t do this”. He physically had serious trouble doing it. Rick and I, and even Rick sometimes had trouble. You have to do something where you had to be quite fit, and people think you can get away with it, and we couldn’t. The second set of shows, the ticket sales were down, so I decided that people had seen it enough and didn’t want to us to do it again.
So there was no sense of melancholy or sadness on stage at that final night in Dublin ?
That was quite a good show, actually. Of all the shows, that was probably the best one; much better than they had been. But we could have worked harder, could have rehearsed longer. It was a shock when Rick and I first got to rehearsal; we just didn’t realise it was going to be that rusty, and fuck it was rusty! But you know, in hindsight, you work these things out in our schedule, and we thought that two weeks’ rehearsal would be enough; it just wasn’t, and you needed to get John and Alan back to physical state, using in-ear monitors and using clicks [click tracks]. But they can’t play to clicks – which is all weird to Rick and I. The click is a reference point to your timing, and if you’re not used to playing to it, you can’t listen to it, because what happens is you end up behind the beat and loose it.
Going back to a song you mentioned earlier, and did ‘Marguerita Time’ really split the band back in 1983?
No, I don’t think, but it was just one of the catalysts. Perhaps there were things going wrong anyhow. Alan was very, very indignant about the song, and it was something Alan was taught to be ‘manly’ or ‘macho’, and he did not see ‘Marguerita’ as macho or manly. Perhaps they were right; perhaps we should have gone down a more heavy metal / heavy rock route, but they worry about what you wear, and I can’t do that. It’s not me; I actually like pop music, rock music, country music, blues – shit loads of music. It’s all rolled into one, and when you start saying it’s just the one thing and it starts to become macho; it’s one of the things that Rick and I drifted apart over. Somehow, people tried to make Rick into this archetypal rock star; he may have looked it, but he wasn’t it; he was a great singer, he had a sweet voice, and he wrote nice little songs. He wanted to have one of those rough voices - which he doesn’t have, or didn’t have - and he didn’t want to write sweet songs anymore; it was all about ROCK ROCK ROCK! I was trying in a way to say to him; “Me thinks he protesteth too much!”
That’s surprising, given that Rick wrote songs like ‘Living On An Island’, for example.
Yeah, and my favourite was ‘All The Reasons’ [from 1972’s ‘Piledriver’]; fucking marvellous. We did a really great job of that on the acoustic tour. When the girls were singing it, it was particularly lovely, because you realise what a great song it was. But Rick wanted to be [*makes monster singing noise*]; I don’t know what got to him or what made him, but he became somewhat a caricature of himself, which would always upset me, because it wasn’t the guy I related to most of my life.
Moving on a little, and I wanted to talk to you about guitars, and in particular, your original green Fender Telecaster.
Oh, my favourite one, that’s a 1958. That’s at home now. It can’t function very well, because I pull the strings every day, the body’s got soft, and the bolts where it’s [the neck] screwed to the body, they keep moving around, and tuning is all over the place. So I had a couple of Status guitars made, and the guy that made them decided to put them in a green colour. I wanted grey, but strangely enough, the green Status I use now, it makes me sound better, and it’s a really good guitar. The engineer I use is a bit of an aficionado of the guitar, and we were recording and he said; “You’ve got to have that green [Status] one; there’s just something about it”. He’s done one like the original Tele, and this other one now has something about that can’t be explained, now that my favourite’s retired.
A strange period was when you were using the Charvel’s on the ‘Ain’t Complaining’  record; I’m guessing that was purely a sponsorship deal?
It was. We never used Charvels! [*Laughing*]. Well, I didn’t use them.
So they were never used on the album, and they were just in the press photos, basically?
They certainly were [just in the photos]. That’s show business for you! Years ago, Rick and I had an argument about the Shadows. They did these Burns [guitars] things for a while, and he [Hank Marvin] would go back to his Strats, but they would mime and use them on television. They had a Burns deal, and lots of people do that. It’s show business, yeah!
People tend to forget what an excellent lead guitar player you are; do you feel you get your dues?
I don’t say I don’t get my dues; I wasn’t a good enough player, and I’m still not really as good as I should have been. It was the bravado of youth, and me being shot down by my teacher and refusing to learn. So, I don’t figure I’m owed anything. I’m better than I used to be, but that’s about it, really.
Going back to Rick Parfitt, and you mentioned that by the end, he’d became a caricature; was your relationship in a difficult place by the end?
After the final heart attack in Turkey [in June 2016, six months before his death], he was slightly damaged. His children don’t like me to say that, but he’d been lying on the floor for up to twenty minutes, and that causes a problem. When we talked in hospital, I think he thought he was in 1985, the way the conversation went anyway. But he had become a caricature, which is what used to annoy all of us, and we would say; “Hello Rick, this is us; I don’t know who you’re pretending to be”. And I don’t know what it was; whether it was some of the medication he was on - fuck knows – because he could be a great bloke, and then this other guy would appear and we’d all be thinking; “uh-oh!”.
So there was a big change in Rick?
When we were younger, he’d buy half a pint, he’d sit there and play snooker, and I don’t know whether it was his daughter dying, or whether it was his marriage falling apart, I don’t know, and he just became this ridiculous person. I have a problem with drink, and I have a problem with society that thinks drink’s fine, and they tend to assume that drink is not a drug. And the sleeping tablets; for years and years he was on those, and obviously you need more and more, and you have alcohol with them and as I said to you, this other guy would appear and we’d all be thinking; “Who’s that?”, and we’d just get out of the way. So it wasn’t pleasant. And there was all these instances where he was going to do a book and tell all about ‘Grumpy Francis’ in the mornings; the reason Francis was grumpy in the mornings is because of whatever Rick had been doing the night before! He was letting himself down apart from us. It just wasn’t the guy we knew and loved, and he had no recollection of how it happened either, so it was sad.
Back to what’s happening currently, and you’ve a very busy period ahead; the tour, the book, and the new album [‘We Talk Too Much’] with Hannah Rickard.
Yeah, that’s a lovely album. I’m very, very pleased with that, and it’s had some great reviews. So I’m hoping for considerable success with that. It is difficult these days, but it’s No.1 in the country charts, and it’s No.15 in Switzerland, I believe, so it’s all looking a bit well. One can never tell.
What’s next for you?
I’m going for a sound check. [*Laughing*]. We start work, Quo on June 3rd in Berlin, and we finish on September 20th in the Summery – festivaly things, There’s talk about a bit of recording, there’s some songs, there might be a Quo album, so who knows? It’s funny, my P.A. said to me the other day; suddenly you’re somewhere and you go; “How did I get here?” I never thought I’d be doing an album with Hannah Rickard; I definitely didn’t think I’d do another book; and I love the idea of talking, but I never thought there’d be a possible way of doing a tour where people come to see me talk to them, but here I am, and lots of the shows are sold out, and I’m thinking; “Wow!”
With someone with your wit and stories, it’s bound to be a good night.
I hope so. I have to be very careful, or perhaps my ego gets carried away. I believe there’s talk about doing something next year, and I’m hoping we’re coming to Ireland; I’d love to come and do some stuff for the Irish.
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Francis Rossi & Hannah Rickard's 'We Talk Too Much' is out now, via earMusic. For a full list of tour dates, and all things Francis Rossi, visit FrancisRossi.com.