Saturday 21 April 2012

STATUS QUO: Blue For You

(#166: 20 March 1976, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Is There A Better Way/Mad About The Boy/Ring Of A Chance/Blue For You/Rain/Rolling Home/That’s A Fact/Ease Your Mind/Mystery Song

“I like reality. It tastes like bread.”

(Jean Anouilh)

“Don’t you ever lose it, don’t you ever blues it

Don’t you ever change your way

People try to ban you, they don’t understand you

Don’t you think that that’s a shame?”

(Status Quo, “Rolling Home”)

I get quite a lot of emails from people, generally younger than me, seeking advice about how to set about becoming a music writer. Objectively I am probably the last person they should ask, since on closer questioning what most of them really want to do is to become a music journalist, an entirely separate and distinct thing from being a music writer. More than just a “thing,” music journalism, like any form of journalism, is a profession which requires thorough training; whereas I fell into being a published music writer out of a relatively limited number of options available to me a decade or so ago. No need to retell the story; it’s all there in the original blog and in the book. Nonetheless, the questions persist: what do I need to listen to? What do I need to read? Is there anything else I need to do? What is the difference between a good writer and a great writer? What is the leap I would need to make?

If most of these questions are unanswerable because of the inapt choice of verb – all these “need”s which should be replaced by “want”s – then the last couple of questions are without doubt the least answerable. I cannot even say, “Well, ask a great writer,” because no great writer knows whether or not they are great; greatness is a quality needing time and perspective to assess properly, and only braggarts and bores go out of their way to proclaim their own “greatness.” Plenty of less charitable adjectives have been thrown my way with regard to my supposed qualities as a writer.

But a differential between the merely efficient and the potentially visionary might be able to be reached, though it would involve going back into the world of journalism, a world in which I have next to no experience. When I was sixteen the opportunity did arise for a trainee journalist on the Glasgow Herald; they knew of me and made it fairly clear that they were keeping the vacancy open for me. My father was unusually enthusiastic about this prospect, I remember; but I was expected to go to university after school, and more importantly I wanted to go to university. Had I taken the Herald’s offer I would no doubt be better equipped for this kind of work now , along with the myriad other chances it would have afforded me. But it would have meant starting at the bottom, trudging the streets of Blackhill and Easterhouse, reporting on junior cup ties at Yoker, or on jam-making competitions in Lenzie. This is not the place to explain the many factors which drove me to get away from Glasgow over three decades ago, but suffice it to say here that I wanted to get out, to see more of the world, even if it were only another university campus.

Anyway, enough of my journalistic non-career. Suppose I were editor of the NME - I know it can never happen, but suppose I ran the paper, hired new, young writers? Where and to whom would I guide them? Well, I could always make with the pleasant generalities – try to listen to as much music as possible, try to read as much as possible, any music, anything on paper, as long as you can listen to it or read it; avoid cliché, don’t just recycle press releases, respect word limits and deadlines and last-minute emergency changes of plan depending on the news – but how would that make them anything more than efficient? The extra kick has to come from them. And I remain firm in my belief that, when it comes to selecting noteworthy writers, and to the messy business of awards ceremonies and yearly “best music writing” anthologies, what would mark out any British writer as special would not be their consideration of the potential sociocultural importance of Azealia Banks, or their backwards glances at the White Album or It Takes A Nation Of Millions, but what they thought about the new Status Quo record. If I were in the business of hiring writers, that’s where I would first direct them, since anybody who can write entertainingly and compellingly about the new Status Quo record is clearly a future master, or mistress, of their profession.

Me, I’m not too sure if I’m capable of it. It is also true that such an assertion is grossly insulting to Status Quo, as it would make them out to be nothing more than the rock equivalent of a mid-season, mid-table Blue Square Premier League 0-0 draw. Still, with Blue For You, the football analogy is not misplaced; Phonogram ensured that advertisements for the album were visible on the touchline of that year’s League Cup Final a full month ahead of its release. Moreover, the title and cover were almost certainly the result of a done deal with Levi’s jeans, where the band would pose in Levi’s gear, and thousands of special posters were sent to clothing and department stores throughout the UK. So instantly recognisable were the band that, like the Stones and Beatles before them, they did not need to put any title or group information on the cover.

I am aware that more than a few of my readers have long since buried their heads in their hands, wailing: “Oh, no, not THEM again!” But like a good reporter, I’m only reporting on what has already happened, and the fact is that in 1976 the Quo were huge. In July they managed to sell out a festival bill (20,000 tickets) at Cardiff Castle; their support acts were Curved Air, Hawkwind and the Strawbs. This was only a couple of weeks since the Ramones had supported the Flamin’ Groovies on bicentennial night at Camden.

And, it ought to be said, they were so huge they could get away with two singles from the album featuring Rick Parfitt on lead vocals, neither of which was an obvious hit (and yet they both made the Top 20); an album, moreover, that isn’t quite as approachable or predictable as might have been expected. For a start, it is clear that the Quo of this period were an entirely democratic organisation; Alan Lancaster wrote or co-wrote four of the album’s songs, Parfitt another two, Francis Rossi three (with Bob Young, although he was the co-writer on two of Lancaster’s songs), and all three share lead vocals between them. Rossi is certainly present on the album but his is by no means the dominant voice.

Furthermore, a look at the song titles themselves – “Is There A Better Way,” “Ring Of A Chance,” “Ease Your Mind” – suggests that they knew full well what was coming, and the need for change. I don’t intend to paint the Quo as art-rock minimalist project – less than two months after Blue For You was released, import copies of the first Ramones album began to appear in record racks, and AC/DC were also beginning to make themselves known outside of Australia – but I believe there is a great sense of awareness here that time is, in some senses, running out.

As for the songs themselves, there is not too much to say about most of them, and certainly nothing constructive to be said about the lyrics; for the most part it is business as usual – fairly morose lyrics about lost love and missed chances set against Quo’s staple musical trademarks. Yet releasing “Rain” and (a heavily edited) “Mystery Song” as singles represented a risk; there is no defining anthem as such on this record, no “Caroline” or “Down, Down.” Probably their best-known track from this period, their cover of “Wild Side Of Life” was recorded specifically as a single, some time after the album’s release (although it appears, in both demo and hit forms, among the bonus tracks on the Blue For You CD). “Mad About The Boy” is not the Noël Coward ballad. “\Rolling Home,” a Lancaster/Rossi composition, is not the same song as the Quo’s 1986 top ten hit “Rollin’ Home.”

And yet the first track is punk rock.

“Is There A Better Way,” co-written and sung by Lancaster, was probably Quo’s most atypical piece of work since “Pictures Of Matchstick Men,” a furious, guitar-heavy gallop of a naggingly familiar riff (which, on eventual recollection, turns out to be a speeded-up variant on “Roll Over, Lay Down”). With the exception of its incongruous 6/8 instrumental interlude and a slight Russian overtone to the melody, this is clearly a portent of what would in a year or two’s time be the lingua franca of British rock music, an attack which anticipates the Damned and Buzzcocks, although the compositional touches and the general air of the performance both suggest that this is punk arrived at from a pub-rock perspective. It is certainly the most startling piece of work here.

“Mad About The Boy” is a more familiar, Rossi-led jaunt, as is “Ring Of A Chance.” The former briefly tips its hat to Bolan’s “Hot Love,” the latter demonstrates their playfulness as they mess around with tempi in the song’s introduction and middle section, with some odd Queen-like harmonies making themselves briefly felt at the back of the mix. Both owe a curious debt to the fifties. The title track, however, is Lancaster again, and is a slow blues-ish canter with a tint of music hall which overall sounds surprisingly close to the Bay City Rollers; however, Rossi’s guitar solo is impatient to state its case. If Rossi is soloing again on “Rain,” then he doesn’t take long to wriggle his way out of the barlines, eventually playing out of tempo. Parfitt is anxious to underline his Cockney credentials (his pronunciation of the title in the chorus, together with his “ain’t” in the line “How can I write you when there ain’t no light?” and the whole is like a doleful British reversal of the optimistic “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.” There are times, though, when the track is just a breath away from becoming Queen or the Raspberries, especially in its outstanding harmonic middle eights. There’s a nice touch at fade where the ambiguous vocal harmonies from the latter are superimposed on the song’s central guitar riff, with its hint of discordancy aptly reflecting the tenor of the lyric.

“Rolling Home” plays like Quo at 78 rpm, a super-fast “Spirit In The Sky” variant. Again, as with “Ring Of A Chance,” their display of musicianship is almost throwaway; they can play with different tempi as assiduously as Zeppelin but don’t make nearly so much of a show about it; see also the trip-up missing bar in the first middle eight of the nonsensical “That’s A Fact,” which is funky like Zeppelin are funky. Lancaster takes over again on “Ease Your Mind,” another fifties throwback, if one of redemption.

The album closes with the full “Mystery Song”; beginning with a ruminative, mid-tempo prelude, the song’s more familiar riff then takes centre stage and gives rise to one of the group’s most assured and breakneck performances on the record; Parfitt sings of his dealings with a lady of the night, being hustled through the chorus like a drunken dodgem, in the same way that someone else would sing of “Roxanne” a couple of years later. Without warning, the song then turns into an Eagles jam session, followed by a bit of Who-style pseudo-build-up and then, towards fade, an electric hoedown. The song is fittingly named.

That’s about it. We’re still with the working class vote (that pronunciation of “rain”) but the household perspective is different; there are the parents downstairs, listening to Jim Reeves or Slim Whitman, occasionally banging on the ceiling to ask their son upstairs to turn Status Quo down; the son, meanwhile, is busy learning all the chords, that is when he is not indulging in simple headbanging. Note the stage photos in the CD booklet; Rossi, Lancaster and Parfitt, all heads firmly down, thrusting as though they had all accidentally landed on the same vaulting horse at the same time. The people’s rock band? I suppose they were – if the students were away unravelling the mysteries of Zeppelin – and even if they weren’t supposed or expected to change, they stayed there, rather like the Queen, finally making a virtue out of their absence of change. Yet Blue For You makes it clear that they knew change was coming. Yes, Status Quo were, and are, as real and reliable as bread, and sufficiently wise to know that bread alone can never be enough.