4. Status Quo, NEC Arena, Birmingham – 18/12/1997

Previously on Sweating with Strangers: young Hodge learns that bad behaviour sometimes pays, and is blown away by a real arena.

Sad times my dear readers, sad times indeed. This is the last post about Status Quo I’ll be writing for.. ooooh.. a good week and a half! I have OTHER bands to talk about next, but don’t worry, the Quo will return.

As I said at the end of my last post, after my first trip to the NEC I wanted more arena-sized rock shows, and I wanted them right then! But no strength of desire on my part was going to convince my parents that I needed to go to see Status Quo two years running.

Around this time, my appreciation of live Quo shows and my dad’s appreciation of them were going in somewhat different directions. In hindsight, I’m able to appreciate that the mid-90s was not the zenith of their live performance. Although the sets were less predictable than in later years, they were shorter, played at a rapid pace perhaps unsuited to real rock music, and watching videos from the time there seems to be a slight feeling of them phoning it in, certainly in comparison to their 2000 and onward renaissance. But at the time, I did not care – or notice – in the slightest. Any Quo gig was the highlight of my year (3-0 wins at home to Aston Villa aside), and I would have seen them every week if I could.

My dad on the otherhand, had been an old school fan of the band. He’d seen the original ‘Frantic Four’ lineup at the Cornwall Coliseum shortly after the dawn of the time, and had been to the ‘1+9+8+2’ and ‘End of the Road’ tours as well, so on their best day this version of the band was already a notch or two below his expectations. He had already bemoaned the fact that they played “too many covers” in the encore for a band with 20+ studio albums of their own, so when the studio albums started becoming filled with covers as well, he was not entirely enthused about the prospect of seeing them promoted live.

Here it is demonstrated in line graph form. We’re at stage 8 here. As you can see, changes were soon to come:

The net result is that we gave the 1996 ‘Can’t Stop’ tour a miss, and not without good reason. Looking at the setlist for that tour, it featured 5 songs from the album, as well as – inexplicably – ‘The Wanderer’, which really could have been sacrificed for such a covers heavy show. Add to that the fact that 4 or 5 of Quo’s regular setlist staples were also technically covers, and it was not exactly an original material heavy set. Radio 2 did play most of the Wembley show live one Saturday night, and I of course listened and recorded it, and then listened back to it many times. But that was as close as I got that year.

Incidentally, on that tour – and hence, on the Radio 2 show – was Maddy Prior, the lead singer of English folk band Steeleye Span, whose song “All Around My Hat” had been on the album, and a minor hit single as well, and she joined the band onstage each night when they played it in the encore. I can imagine the proposal: “Maddy, we’ve got to number 34 in the chart, how about you come and join us on tour. We’ll play the song together at the end, proper folky and stuff with the fiddles and everything. Oh, and Jeff will give it the rapidfire-pounding-of-impending-death undertones that you’ve always thought it needed”. Ok, sorry, I’ll lay off Jeff Rich now, he did always seem a like good egg.

By the summer of 1997, I had finally joined the official Status Quo FanClub, with the almost singular goal of getting early access to the next tour dates. When they arrived, it was as part of an advert for ANOTHER new album, but this time it was “Whatever You Want: The Very Best Of Status Quo”, which was the perfect bait for luring my dad in for another gig. No new stuff to promote, all the old favourites: he was in!

*Really, if you’re going to call a tour ‘Whatever You Want’, then it should be a setlist selected by the crowd, shouldn’t it? That would have been tricky for Status Quo though, as their audience is often split 50/50 between the casual fans who would just respond with “Um…. how about ‘Rockin All Over The World’?” and the die-hard nerds like me, who would shout out “PLAY THE B-SIDE FROM THIS RARE SINGLE FROM 1973 THAT THERE’S NO WAY ON EARTH YOU’VE REHEARSED!”.

Also helping to reel in my old man, was the addition of Paul Rodgers of Free and Bad Company as the support act. This was the first tour I’d been to where Quo had a ‘name’ opening for them. Although I only really knew ‘Alright Now’ and ‘Wishing Well’ at that time, Dad had been into Bad Company as well, and this was a definite sweetener for him. I remember thinking during the very first song that the guy could f*cking wail! What a voice! I only wish I’d listened to more Bad Company beforehand, so I could’ve appreciated it properly. The big numbers got the crowd going like no support act I’d seen then – or maybe ever since. He must’ve played for nearly an hour, so even factoring Quo’s relatively short sets at this time, that’s a pretty damn good rock show!

It was especially useful to have a great support act that year, as Quo had perhaps overestimated their level of support and booked themselves in for two nights at the NEC, resulting in only half of the seats being used. The arena’s ingenious solution to this – rather than have the back 3 sections exposed as sitting empty – was to simply drape a massive black curtain across the arena, just over half way back. Not exactly the subtlest way to hide the poor sales, and it definitely didn’t add to the atmosphere.

The other main/only difference from the previous gig was that this time Dad and I had company. When we’d first moved to the midlands, we’d lived next door to a kid from my school, Jason Taylor, and I became good friends with him and his family: his lovely parents Di and Mo, and his younger brother Adam, who had muscular dystrophy, and with whom I bonded instantly over our love of the mighty Status Quo.

This was the first time they joined us for our festive rock outing, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Di drove Adam, Dad and me up to the NEC for the show – presumably to avoid Dad getting lost on the way – and because they were seated in the wheelchair section, it was easy to spot them and wave across the arena while the lights were still up. This would be just the first time of many that we’d do this, and in decades to come I’d often turn up at a Quo show and think to myself ‘I wonder if the Taylors are here.’ Then I’d turn to the wheelchair area to find Adam and his parents already waving and smiling down at me. Even after we moved away from being neighbours, this was always a cool way to keep us connected. That’s the unifying power of rock and roll, folks!

We had successfully utilised my Fan Club membership to get seats much nearer the stage than last time, although still up on the side of course, and we had a great view looking down on to the stage. It was certainly an interesting set up, with the lighting rig just above the head of Paul Rodgers’ drummer and a curtain draped beneath it. When it came time for Quo to arrive, the curtain was removed, the house lights went down, and the rig slowly rose like a UFO, to the sound of Prokofiev’s “Dance of the Knights”. You know how that goes, right? You don’t? Well it’s now the theme to ‘The Apprentice’!

I wish I could find a video of it online, but alas, for those who didn’t experience it, you’ll have to take my word that it was a very cool effect, and really helped to build the atmosphere in the arena, although it seemed to serve no other purpose! 

The band then appeared on stage, and started with ‘Whatever You Want’, funnily enough. It seems it’s often the case that bands start with the title track from their new album, regardless of whether it’s a good opener or not. On this occasion though, it was more than appropriate, and an excellent opening track, and only the decidedly shortened encore was of any consternation at the end of another cracking show.

Setlist thoughts:

Status Quo Setlist NEC Arena, Birmingham, England 1997, Whatever You Want
  • With it being a ‘Greatest Hits’ tour, there was a pleasing smattering of rare tracks, such as ‘In My Chair’ and ‘Rock and Roll’.  ‘Mean Girl’ was a particular highlight for my Dad. He still has his 1971 7 inch single of this, and it’s a great live addition whenever they play it.
  • Favourite album track alert: ‘Get Out of Denver’ was my favourite track on the ‘Don’t Stop’ album, and was the only song from that album to survive to the next tour. Go me!
  • It seems crazy now, but this was the 4th Status Quo gig I had seen, and not once had they started with Caroline. It might be the last time that I saw them and they didn’t start with it, you’ll have to keep coming back to find out.

And that concludes the opening 4 gigs of my lifetime. For those who want to keep track, the current title holders are as follows:

Best opening:  Status Quo, Torbay 1991
Best gig:           Status Quo, NEC 1995 (technically, probably less of a show than ’91, but the joy of the venue and being able to see the band properly wins)

I’ll keep you updated if and when this changes, you lucky things.

So I was 15 years old, and knew one thing for sure: there was nothing within the scope of human experience quite like live music. For the first time, I left the show that night with my next gig already booked and planned, and it was in just a few months too. Yes, it was finally time to start branching out and experiencing OTHER bands…. just as long as my dad was willing to drive me to see them, of course.

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