14 months may be all that had passed between seeing Status Quo at the NEC Arena for the 3rd time and seeing Status Quo at the NEC Arena for the 4th time, but so very much had changed in between that it felt like a different millenium (even though, technically, it wasn’t).
I was no longer a spotty 17-year-old sixth-former, I was a man, man, with a car and a job. I was taking a year out before university, but unlike many people who spend such a time finding themselves in warm climates, I was finding apples and parsnips in a walk-in fridge, for the shoppers of Safeway Evesham. Ostensibly I was doing this under the pretense of saving money for my upcoming life as a student, yet, here we were halfway through, and the net sum of 6 months of full-time employment was a Renault 5 and a tripled CD collection.
Furthermore, despite my plan having been to go to more gigs with my friends and less with my parents, I was going through my “I don’t need friends, I have a girlfriend” stage, so I was obviously taking her instead. The lucky thing therefore received the gifts of a copy of the Under the Influence album, and a ticket to the winter tour. Oh yes, I’ve always known how to treat my womens!
Another thing that changed that year, was that Quo temporarily abandoned their plans to make good albums again, and released another covers album, Famous in the Last Century. Depending on who or when you asked, it was a combination of record company demands and the desire to just have something out there to promote, but it was a very strange concept, regardless.
Firstly, the tracks chosen were almost exclusively old rock and roll numbers, which was hardly a fair representation of the preceding hundred years. This was also made clear in the title track – the one original composition – where Francis Rossi sang longingly of “Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee, Phil and Don and Bobby Vee, the way the music used to be, in the last century.” Eesh! I guess it’d be a bit much to expect one song from each decade, but this still seemed cringe-worthy narrow-mindedness.
Secondly, Rick Parfitt described it at the time as being the ultimate Quo party album, in that you could play it from start to finish as the music for a party. Now, anything said by Quo band members when promoting anything should be taken with a truck full of salt, but that is a pretty niche party you’re aiming for there Rick. I mean, I likes me some Status Quo, but I can’t say I know the exact four people alive who would consider that to be acceptable music for a house party.
Thirdly, it sounded like they’d recorded it in about an hour, but unlike the last two points, this is definitely a positive. Continuing the theme started with Under The Influence, the production on this album is much simpler and louder than their other recent records, with the guitars higher in the mix and no additional instrumentation of note. That’s probably a symptom of it being something of a throwaway record, but it did help increase the feeling that the band were moving in the right direction, sound-wise at least.
The final thing that had changed massively that year also played a big part in the sound of the band improving. The band got a new drummer after Jeff Rich, who had been behind the kit since 1986, left after recording the album and was replaced by Matt Letley. Now, it’s always easy to associate Jeff – as I have in previous posts – with the band playing all their songs at lightning pace. After all, before he was in the band, they played them at the right speed, when he joined, they played them too fast, and when he left, they slowed them back down. But, there are two important factors to consider:
- In Rossi and Parfitt’s 1993 book ‘Just for the Record’, Rossi said “we could play the songs at the same speed as the record, but it would sound so boring!”
- The story of Matt Letley’s first rehearsal: apparently, after playing a few songs, the other band members were soiling themselves, because it was absurdly fast. Yes, even the band that had been willingly playing their own music way too fast for fourteen years considered this a step too far, and it was explained to Matt – who always seemed too nice and polite to point out to such rock stars that they were a little nippy – that his role in the band was to stop the others running away with it. At this point I assume two things happened. One, everyone realised Jeff had been holding back the reins as best he could for all that time, and had probably quit knowing the effort of having to control ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ live would have killed him. And two, Matt decided that if he was going to have to rein them in, then he was going to rein them in to the correct goddamn speed!
And rein them in he did, to the point that the band almost instantly sounded like they deserved to be taken seriously again. As I’ve said before, I had never had any objection to the sped up live performances, but as soon as I heard ‘Caroline’ thundering away at the original pace, it immediately seemed like a better show, and made me question why on Earth this hadn’t been the way of things all along. Here they are doing it on a Top of the Pops special that year:
In the never-ending game of ‘What will they come up with next for a support band?’, this time the show was opened by an act called ‘Two Timers’, consisting of a man playing guitar, harmonica and suitcase kick-drum, with a female vocalist. Supposedly, they often covered Quo’s ‘Break the Rules’ in their live sets, and I wondered if that was allowed for a support act. At one point the singer said something like “here’s one for you lot”, and a large portion of the crowd held its breath, anticipating them fearlessly murdering a favourite of the headline band, but fortunately it was a just a song with a bit that went ‘Woah-oh-oh-OH’, and to which no-one paid much notice. Suffice to say, the Status Quo support act selection process was a wacky as ever.
Eventually, it was time for Quo to take the stage, starting with what would soon become the highly familiar sounds of the long ‘Drone’ and then the introduction to ‘Caroline’. For this tour, they started it behind a curtain, which then vanished as the song kicked in. They seemed to alternate the presence of a curtain tour by tour for a while, and although it’s perhaps not the coolest way to go, whenever I saw them start this way it always brought an immediate cheer and got the crowd going instantly.
I’d recently found a kindred Quo spirit at work, in fellow shelf-monkey Lee, and we were both active – if slightly reluctant – members of the rather infamous ‘Status Quo Message Board’, where fans discussed the band, their releases and tours. As such, in the build up to the show, Lee had regularly informed me of the various rumours he was hearing about how the show sounded and what different tracks were being played. By the time it came to the day of the gig, I was hyped to hear the new, heavier Quo, and some of the rumoured old-school tracks they had weaved into the set. They didn’t disappoint, with my first time experiencing the live monster that is ‘Big Fat Mama’ being a particular highlight.
For this show, with the absence of my Dad and with my own money with which to buy tickets, I was down on the floor, about 10 rows from the front and loving it. For some reason, I decided the most important thing was to get the bass player, Rhino, to wave at me. So I jumped up and down between songs calling his name, until he acknowledged me about 5 songs in.
I honestly can’t tell you why I did that. Perhaps I was trying to impress my then-girlfriend, perhaps I was just overcome with excitement at being so close to the band. Either way, she enjoyed it enough to go back again, and the next time we saw them, we were MUCH closer to the front and I was even more excited… but that’s for another day.
- Get used to the look of this set-list, for it doesn’t change a great amount over the next decade and a half. Although the other tracks will come in and out, the basic structure almost always remains: start with ‘Caroline’, end the main set with ‘Down Down’ into ‘Whatever You Want’ into ‘Rockin All Over the World’, then ‘Juniors Wailing’ and/or ‘Burning Bridges’ in the encore, and end with some form of ‘Bye Bye Johnny’. I could argue that it was far too predictable, but by the end of every gig at which I saw it I would find myself agreeing that it would be almost impossible to improve on.
- It’s funny that many people going to this gig would’ve hoped for as few covers as possible, then been overjoyed to hear ‘Junior’s Wailing’ for the first time in decades, even though it’s actually a cover.
- For the first time, my favourite album track wasn’t played. While I would’ve been happy to have heard nothing from the Famous in the Last Century record, I was always a big fan of their version of ‘Rave On’ by Buddy Holly, and it would’ve been nice to hear it live.
- With slower speed, came greater stamina. This was the start of a renaissance in the band’s live performances, and the first thing to notice was how much longer the shows were. Not just in the sense that they played for more time, but also that they played more songs as well. I’m sure this was an added bonus of playing at the proper speed, and it was most welcome!
- There is simply no excuse for ‘Living Doll’ being played. It wasn’t on this or any other Quo album, it didn’t sound good, and they seemed embarrassed to play it.
That’s it for now.