Previously on Sweating with Strangers: you want to see Reel Big Fish in a small room? F*** off up the Zodiac. Or something like that.
2002 was a pretty great time to be a Status Quo fan. For those of you who either haven’t been paying attention or could do with a recap, in the twenty years since I had been born and instantly fallen in love with the band, Quo had split up, opened Live Aid, reformed, made some weird synth-heavy 80’s pop albums, teased a hard-rock recovery, made some weird synth-heavy 90’s pop albums, teased another hard-rock recovery, and then made a bizarre 50’s rock n roll covers album while simultaneously becoming a proper live rock act again. Hence I found myself tiptoeing a fine balance between the hope that the improvement would continue and the fear that they’d become a fully-fledged Chas n Dave tribute act at any moment.
Yes, Quo had spent fifteen years or so producing a collection of records that all sounded unique and different, while simultaneously becoming more and more known for making songs that all sounded the same. “It’s all just 3 chords and one riff!” cried the critics. “WE WISH!” responded the fans!
But towards the end of 2001, something marvellous was starting to happen. Whispers abounded that Quo had a new album in the works, and that it would be a true return to form. A lot of the positivity stemmed from the fact that Francis Rossi had returned to writing with Bob Young, who was the band’s tour manager and unofficial fifth member in their 70’s glory days, and with whom he had written many of the band’s classic hits, such as ‘Caroline’ and ‘Down Down’.
Having had so many false dawns, many fans like me were hesitant to believe without firm proof, and it finally came on the band’s winter tour at the end of 2001. The band did something unheard of for them – either before or since – they played as yet unreleased songs live! I know, what a crazy idea – playing new music to the thousands of people who might actually want to hear it! But yet, I’d never known them do it, and so it seemed like a serious statement of intent and confidence when ‘Never Say Never’ and ‘Solid Gold’ – both penned by the Rossi/Young partnership – appeared in their full glory.
But I know what you – oh keen eyed reader – are thinking: “Why Hodge, you said you weren’t going to miss another Quo winter tour, and yet here you are talking about the 2001 tour, in a post about the 2002 tour. What gives?”
Well, it wasn’t for the want of trying, I can assure you. In 2001, my first winter at university, I managed to convince a whole gaggle of friends that it would be a laugh for them to join me watching Status Quo live in Plymouth. But when the day arrived, the band postponed due to illness – an action that would become all too common in the coming years. Funnily enough, it seemed that spending November and December touring the UK on a bus wasn’t a great idea for men in their fifties. But they continued doing it every year for the next decade and a half regardless, and so the excitement of gig day would often be tempered by the fear of cancellation.
This usually resulted in simply waiting until February or March to catch the band, but when they tried to reschedule in early 2002, a second bout of illness wiped out the Plymouth show, and with it went my hopes of seeing them and hearing the new material live that winter. I got the strong impression my friends were pleased for the reprieve, and for the return of their ticket money, but I was more than a little gutted.
Small consolation appeared a couple of months later, when bootleg recordings of the two new live tracks appeared online, and I was finally able to get my earballs around them. Simply put, I was blown away.
‘Solid Gold’ was aptly titled: it chugged along brilliantly and more heavily than the band had in years, and the lyrics told of a band no longer caring about public opinion, which bade well!
‘Never Say Never’ was a proper uptempo Quo boogie number, perfectly designed to get a crowd going, even if the lyrical content is somewhat chucklesome. Not that it’s badly written, but there’s just something funny about a 52 year old rockstar singing about the hardship of the working week and looking forward to letting his remaining hairs down at the weekend. “Yes Rossi!”, the crowd of ageing businessmen screams back. “Our employess have worked hard this week! We should rock out to celebrate!” But hey, if it works, it works, and these two tracks alone were enough to get me salivating at the thought of the new album.
Throughout 2002, more details and tracks trickled out about the album that was to become Heavy Traffic, and somehow, for this one moment in time, the band seemed to be getting everything right.
With fans crying out for a louder album, the title and the cover art it spawned fit perfectly – completely glossing over the fact that the title track was quite literally a song about traffic congestion. They promoted the album by recording a music video and then playing a live show on HMS Ark Royal, which is about as heavy as traffic gets. And they recorded a live show for ITV which was broadcast the day before the record was released.
But most of all, the success of the album was down to the fact that it absolutely rocked. The Rossi/Young partnership was reborn, and Mike Paxman was still convincing people to pay him money to tell Status Quo to record three chord boogie songs with the guitars turned up. The result was a brilliant record which is the undoubted high point of their later years for me, and for many fans I’m sure.
For someone like me,who had managed to stay a passionate fan without ever – arguably – having witnessed the band at a creative high, the whole year was one of pure excitement, which culminated in a winter tour that felt like a celebration, and which there was no way I was going to miss.
Having exhausted all the Status Quo goodwill I had with my friends after two cancellations, and with no realistic means of getting to and from Plymouth on my own for the show, I entered my paying-people-to-take-me-to-Status-Quo-gigs phase, and bought my housemate Adam a ticket, on the proviso that he would drive there and back.
As a music student and keen guitarist himself, he wasn’t adverse to Quo, and seemed to enjoy Heavy Traffic, though he did point out how incredibly simple the drums on the album are, which stuck with me and takes the shine off it, even now.
Perhaps Matt Letley was still too new to the band to have the confidence to add any complicated contributions, bless him, but it really does seem like he took his role as the band’s pacemaker a little too literally, and offered little else on this record. Lesson: don’t let music students critique your favourite music.
On the day of the show we hurtled across Devon in Adam’s busted, broken down old car (I’m not judging, I had no car and was grateful for the ride. But it doesn’t change the fact that the A38 dual carriageway is a scary place to be in a car that feels like it’s about to fall apart).
We made it to the Plymouth Pavilions alive, and settled in for my first visit there since I’d been ice skating and swimming for my 9th birthday, and my first standing Quo gig since 1991. Even seventeen years ago, a standing Status Quo gig was a mixed blessing. It always felt exciting, like the atmosphere would be incredible, but half way through you’d remember that a lot of these people were tired, and would really prefer somewhere to sit between songs.
Continuing the 2002 theme of Status Quo inexplicably doing things properly, the support act were a young hard-rock band called Hurricane Party, who perfected the art of sounding exactly like Led Zeppelin long before Greta Van Fleet worked out how to monetise sounding exactly like Led Zeppelin. Regardless, they were really good, and leaned into the comparison by ending with ‘Rock and Roll’, which is simultaneously a great song, and Zeppelin’s most Quo-sounding track, and so it really set the crowd up nicely for the main event.
Adam made the observation that opening for Status Quo is a pretty daunting task, as having opened Live Aid, Quo are perhaps the most famous opening act in history. I thought that was a cool comparison, and decided to lay off the bizarre winter tour opening act selection process from now on. Lesson: do take music student’s to see your favourite bands, but only if you’re confident in the band’s live prowess.
Obviously, I had no fears that Quo would impress Adam, but I was surprised at how much they managed to impress me. Even at this relatively early stage I was so used to the band sticking to tried and tested formulas and not changing to fit their current release, that I was shocked even to see the stage decked out in the striking yellow and black tape that had featured on the album cover. And I was even more surprised when the traditional drone intro was replaced by a radio traffic report, which began sounding like any other report, but built into an admittedly cheesey introduction for the band. And as if that wasn’t enough, the band then walked on stage having eschewed the faded blue jeans for which they were famous and replaced them with black denim much more suited to the heavier theme! What was happening?!!
Sure, they then opened with ‘Caroline’ as always, but we can’t have it all.
The show was an epic success as far as I was concerned, and it certainly seemed like the majority of the crowd shared my sentiments. Perhaps it was the mammoth eighteen month gap since the last time I’d seen them; perhaps it was the power of those darkened jeans; but most likely it was just a band re-energised by a new creative energy, and rediscovering their groove a full forty years after starting out. Whatever it was, this tour became the template for Quo’s live shows for the next 14 years, and the Heavy Traffic album the benchmark against which all their subsequent records were judged.
It was so exciting to know that the band were back, were cool again, and would not be making any further stupid career moves.
Wait… what’s that in the back of the tour programme? News of an impending third covers album? Oh. And it’s called Rocking All Over The Riffs?
As you were.
- When I say this tour was the template for their future shows, I’m not exaggerating. This is basically the setlist for the next 14 years, with the Heavy Traffic songs lumped together in the middle. It’s an odd way to advertise an album, with the positive spin being that it sets the album apart as special, but the less happy way of looking at being that it suggests the tracks never quite managed to fit in naturally, and that they always feel like the new tracks being sold to you. Personally, I think ‘All Stand Up’ (which ‘Never Say Never’ had been renamed by this point), would have been a great song to throw in after ‘Caroline’, but alas it never happened.
- ‘Heavy Traffic’, the song, only lasted through the tour which shared it’s name, and that’s a shame, because I think it’s one of the best modern Quo songs – congestion focussed lyrics not withstanding. The first time I heard it – during a Radio 5 interview they did before the album release – it was played without introduction, and it took me a while to realise it was Quo, as I simply couldn’t believe they’d release something that sounded so good! But it made way after this tour for a song with an even dodgier lyric. More about that in a future post.
- Completing the lyrical oddities, ‘Creeping Up On You’ is a great track that just about stays the right side of wrong, lyrically, with Rick Parfitt telling the object of his affection he’s coming to get her, basically. I think it’s ok, because she’s going to ‘wear his ring’, presumably meaning she’s going to marry him, and I think that makes it consent based and honorable, right? In any case, it does rock serious balls. I remember a fan referring to as ‘a bit Quo-by-numbers’ when it came out, and I think they intended it as a negative. What? All I want from Status Quo is to make songs they could write in their sleep, and to turn up the guitars when they record it. When played live, ‘Creepin..’ features keyboardist Andy Bown abandoning his usual post to play harmonica and a third Telecaster guitar! Rock perfection.
I could probably write for another three days about how much I loved this album and tour, and how great it is to feel excited about your favourite band getting back to their best, but I’d better stop before I lose you all.
Thanks for reading. Don’t forget to share it by whatever means necessary, and stop by next time for a return to the rock ‘n’ roll canteen that is Exeter Uni’s Lemon Grove.