The interview: Francis Rossi
With Status Quo headlining tomorrow night’s Symphony at the Tower fund-raiser, MALCOLM WYATT talked oil pulling, ice cream, world travels, old age and more with guitar hero Francis Rossi
When you phone a rock’n’roll legend, you don’t expect him to answer within two rings and launch into a breezy rendition of a classic from Singin’ in the Rain.
“Good morning, good morning!”
What’s more, Status Quo’s vast back catalogue included a 1976 top 10 hit in which the band revealed they ‘can live without the rain’.
So is this a typical way for Francis Rossi to start his day?
“I’m in showbusiness!”
And you never switch off?
“Well, if I tell you why I’m chipper, it’s too long a process, but it’s to do with what they call oil pulling.”
He’s off, from that point on alternating between a bit of rock’n’roll cheek and a few philosophical moments.
“You can either do it with olive oil, sesame oil, or I’ve been doing it with coconut oil. We’re all doing it. It clears out various toxins and leaves you kind of ‘la, la, la!’
“And anything that makes me feel like that in the morning, I’m going to have a go.”
I’ve had my own morning ‘upper’, I explained, a quick blast of Quo’s Caroline doing the trick before I called.
“Well, that probably does the opposite for me! Cor, d’you know… I’ve had this thing for some years now where I like to be on stage but I’m frightened to go on.
“It stays like that until I’m finished. But a few weeks ago I heard Graham Norton on his Saturday radio show, say, ‘Two more tunes and I’m finished – yippee!’ And I thought, ‘Oh. Whatever the gig is or whatever job one’s got, everyone’s really glad to finish.’
“It’s an odd one. We’re all doing the jobs we always wanted, but… that’s how it goes, I suppose.”
Francis is clearly in a pensive mood, however cheerful, with the 66-year-old happy to look back on his 50-plus years in a band.
It took a few personnel and name changes as 1962’s The Scorpions became Status Quo via The Spectres, Traffic (until confusion with Steve Winwood’s band), Traffic Jam and The Status Quo.
The first real breakthrough was their 1968 top 10 hit, psychedelic wonder Pictures of Matchstick Men, their personnel by then including Rick Parfitt.
South-East Londoner Francis already knew the Surrey lad, having met while both were playing in their respective bands at Butlin’s, Minehead.
They’ve now worked together as Status Quo for 47 years, and tomorrow play an open-air fund-raiser at Hoghton Tower for Lostock Hall’s St Catherine’s Hospice.
In fact, that date just happens to fall 30 years – give or take a few days – after the band gave us that perfect start to Live Aid in 1985.
“Is it really 30 years? Wow! When Bob (Geldof) first asked us, we were quite dismissive. But when we got there and did the show, well…
“It wasn’t until we walked out though, when we thought, ‘Oh!’ The amount of press coverage for a start.
“We didn’t have a problem with going on and getting finished, and it proved to be the best slot you could have.
“But no one knew it was going to get like that. And the audience was just unique.”
So where has that time gone, Francis?
“I don’t know. The older you get, the faster the time goes. And that whole relativity thing freaks me out the older I get.”
Quo’s Symphony at the Tower date is sandwiched between a few in Germany. Did their tour manager get confused as to where Preston was?
“It’s always like that, this time of year. You look at the itinerary and it looks great – a few days here, then a day off. But when you’re doing it, it’s like…”
There are a few of these moments in our interview. Francis very animated on the phone, but seemingly finishing sentences with hand movements or facial gestures.
“We go to Germany tonight, we’re back Tuesday evening, then on Thursday one of our tour buses goes to Europe and the other takes us to Preston.
“We’ll come out of Preston and go to a hotel, then in the morning get on a private plane we use occasionally and fly to Vienna, get in our bus again, and… oh, Jeez!
“I’m kind of sick of travelling, although I like it when we’re actually in the bus and moving and there’s no show.
“My brother retires in a week or so, and said, ‘Let’s go to Italy’, but I said, ‘I don’t want to travel’.
“He goes, ‘Yeah! We can get a nice hotel…’ I said, ‘I don’t want to stay in a hotel!’
“I’ve been living out of suitcases since I was 16. Holidays for me are pretty much coming home and being here.”
Here is just outside London, by the way, not far from his Forest Hill and Sydenham roots.
Meanwhile, Hoghton Tower will provide a lovely backdrop for Quo this weekend. Has Francis been there before?
“I’m not really sure until we get there, but I don’t think so. But sometimes you do turn up somewhere you haven’t done before, which is quite refreshing really.”
I take it fund-raising for the hospice on the night means a lot to you.
“Any we do supporting those serious charities do. But I do find it weird that our society needs charities. It’s a political hot one.
“My gardener’s parents are both getting Alzheimer’s and he’s struggling to find them somewhere to go. These are people perhaps just 20 years older than me.
“But I think hospices like this are very good, and make me think about the Macmillan people who looked after my mother so well when she was dying.”
At this point, Francis briefly becomes the interviewer, asking, “How old are you, if it’s not a rude question?”
I tell him I’ve been around as long as Rick Parfitt’s been in his band.
“Fantastic! I like people that are older! Well, in 20 years you’ll be older than I am now. How about that?”
It is a sobering thought.
So, apart from 100% Quo, what can those at this weekend’s outdoor show expect – something loud and live, a bit of an acoustic hits jukebox, or a bit of both?
“We might work on acoustic sets for future years, but this will be an electric show.
“We got an email yesterday about volume and how that’s becoming more of an issue everywhere in Europe.
“It doesn’t really work when we have someone like Rick, though, the loudest rhythm guitarist in the world!
“As for this, I’d love to say it’s going to be the best show ever seen. But I don’t know that yet.”
You’re not going naked like on the cover of the live Aquostic publicity shots then?
“It’s funny really that people have picked up on us being naked.
“They’ve seen our legs before, they’ve seen our tops before, and the bits they haven’t seen before were covered by guitars!”
On the night, Francis and Rick will be joined by fellow bandmates Andy Bown, John ‘Rhino’ Edwards and the relatively-new ‘Caveman’.
“Yes, Mr Leon Cave, our drummer. Actually, he plays guitar and bass better than any of us. Everytime he picks up a guitar in the dressing room, we’re like, ‘Keep it simple, boy!’”
It must be odd for him. Francis has been involved for 53 years, Rick’s been there 48 years, and next year it will be 40 years for Andy and 30 for Rhino.
“Isn’t that ridiculous!”
In any other band there’d be long-service awards, but not in the Quo. How do you think their apprenticeships are going?
“I think I might keep them now. It’s weird though. Time just sort of goes by. When John joined, people asked, ‘What’s it like playing with the younger generation?’
“I actually call him John Boy, because of that boyish look. Whenever he falls asleep, I try and put streaks of grey in his hair. But it ain’t working!
“Leon has brought a lovely vibe to the band. People don’t realise when they’re young that you’re all kind of mates together and as you get older you grow apart because you are different people.
“But Leon has brought a nice kind of muckership to us. John calls him ‘Neph’, as in nephew, and his dad’s more or less the same age as me.”
With 500 weeks on the album charts and more than 50 hit singles before the last century was even over, are you getting any closer to calling it a day?
“It must be getting closer. This French interviewer said to me, ‘You said once you want to die on stage’. I said, ‘Yes, I was a d***head. I do not want to die on stage!’
“I’d rather die at home, in my bed, with my family around me. It’s on the cards now, though.
“I say to the audience, ‘You realise when you come to see an old band there is a possibility one of us may fall over?’
“But to get to 66… I’m definitely in the death zone. It’s reality.”
I’m not sure if Francis would have been happy with the Rossi family’s ice cream empire. Could he ever have taken up any other profession?
“I don’t think so. I had no education. I was a dumb git. However, in the last couple of years I’ve been approached by the company which bought off my relatives, and we may actually go into relaunching Rossi’s Ice Cream.
“My cousins are already going, ‘You can’t go back!’ But we went to this place near Southend where they make it and it’s so much like how my grandfather used to.
“I would have said no, but I went, tasted it and went back to seeing it another way!”
While we’re on Francis’ family tree, as he’s back for dates in Blackpool, Manchester and Liverpool later this year, I mention his mum’s North West roots.
“Yes, I’d go to Liverpool for my holidays, and a few years ago went through Crosby, where my grandparents were. But I didn’t really recognise it too well.
“They said that house was haunted, and I remember being there and hearing this piano playing in a huge vacant front room, then seeing a nun walk past, into the scullery. I mentioned this, and they said, ‘What nun?’ I can still see her walking through though.” There are ghostly men in the sea at Crosby now, of course, thanks to Anthony Gormley’s impressive Another Place sculptures.
“I think those are fabulous! It‘s just something that grabs me, taking me back to being on the shore there and getting cockles with my uncle. I loved going to Liverpool.
“I remember travelling up, sat in the back of the car with a Pekingese and one of those red Scottish blankets.
“We’d leave really early in the morning, when it was still dark, and get there at 10 or 11 at night sometimes.
“I remember just laying there while we were moving, nodding … I think that’s why I love travelling in a bus these days.”
Going back to meeting Rick, at that stage in a cabaret band called The Highlights, at Butlin’s, do you think it was destiny?
“Sometimes I do, others I don’t. I was brought up a Catholic but don’t believe in that anymore, with apologies to anyone who does.
“I was taught that God was all seeing, all knowing, all loving, all powerful, but I’m not sure about that or the theories about creation.
“I’m the same with the Big Bang Theory. For that to occur it would have to be in a space, so how did the space get there?
“But one night after recording in the ‘80s, we went to watch Star Trek and Captain Picard was saying, ‘From the far flung corners of the universe…’
“I was wondering what the hell he was talking about. It seemed a complete contradiction. But then I thought, ‘That’s it – everything just is!
“In most religions there’s this idea that ‘as it was in the beginning, so shall it be in the end’. That’s just how it is with the universe!
“Have you read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything? He gets it down to this one singularity which is so infinitesimally small.
“He then says, ‘You might want to stand back now because there’s going to be a big bang. But where are you going to stand back to?’
“You see, you should never have asked me that question! Then again, the candle grease is still working!”
I’m not quite sure where to go from there, but ask if there’s one Francis Rossi or Quo track or album he feels more people should rave about.
“It depends what foot I’m on. Sometimes I feel that way, other times I’m just glad that millions around the world did get us. I had this song I wrote for the Rock Til You Drop album that I thought would lead to the planet standing still, listening to what this boy’s done.
“They didn’t, but the joy is that there’s a handful of songs which I don’t care whether people like or hate, because they make me feel so good, and proud.
“I tell this to my sons and anyone I work with. If you write those songs, when you hear them you’re solid gone.
“And that will happen to me all my life… or whatever’s left of it.”
Status Quo headline Friday night’s Symphony at the Tower (July 3), part of a month of celebrations marking 30 years of St Catherine’s Hospice. For ticket information and details of the following night, featuring BRIT Award-winning classical vocal group Blake and Britain’s Got Talent 2014 star Lucy Kay, plus a firework finale to the music of The Heart of England Orchestra, visit www.stcatherines.co.uk, call 01772 629171 or drop by at the hospice on Lostock Lane, Lostock Hall.
• Malcolm Wyatt is a Lancashire-based freelance writer, with his own blog at http://writewyattuk.com/