Rebel without a pause: an interview with rock queen Suzi Quatro
Suzi was big before she appeared in Happy Days – in certain international quarters. She was number one on the charts in Portugal in 1971 with her first single Rolling Stone, then supported Thin Lizzy on tour in 1972, and reached the top of international charts with her sophomore single Can The Can by the time ’73 rolled around.
Then it seemed she sold her soul to the devil – in lyrical delivery, at least, having back-to-back hits with Devil Gate Drive and Daytona Demon. She also played bass on a song called Dance With The Devil, making the demon theme a prominent one.
Fast forward 50-plus years and she’s still on a demon tip, releasing her 18th album this year, titled The Devil In Me.
The double LP goes beyond the expected rock content – delving into genres as diverse as garage and doo-wop balladry, to even a little pop. One thing’s for certain: Suzi hates to be pigeon-holed.
“I won’t be categorised; I won’t be boxed in,” says the 70-year-old singer/songwriter and bassist who still performs live. “I’ll play whatever I feel a track needs. And the tracks are diverse.”
And do not make the mistake of labelling her ‘glam rock’.
“I am rock’n’roll. I had on a plain black leather suit and no makeup, how could that be glam rock? It’s only because I started having hits in the glam-rock era that people sometimes labelled me that.”
Suzi’s own influences run deep. You can hear bits of her in Chicks On Speed – especially when they take on the song Warm Leatherette [nowhere near as brilliant as Suzi’s own version]; in Debbie Harry’s early work with Blondie; and of course in the music and aesthetic of Joan Jett.
But enough trainspotting, let’s hear it from the main girl herself.
Hi Suzi. How do you like living in the UK compared to living in the US?
Well, I’ve been here for so long, since 1971. But even though I have obviously put down roots here, I’m always gonna be the girl from Detroit City. I don’t wanna be quasi-British, you know? That’s all bullshit. I remain from Detroit – it’s in my heart, it’s in my soul, and it’s in my DNA.
Rock’n’roll appears to be in your DNA. You’re onto releasing your 18th album ‘The Devil In Me’.
And I’m very, very, very proud of it. In fact, I’d say it’s one of my finest works.
It is a very good record. The opening title track alone has some great guitar riffs; even a bit of piano that reminds me of the sounds of Jim Steinman/Meat Loaf – back when rock’n’roll wasn’t afraid to marry the raw with the classical.
Well, I won’t be categorised. I won’t be boxed in. I’ll play whatever I feel a track needs. And the tracks are diverse: we’ve got harmonica, we’ve got some Hammond organ, some Wurlitzer piano, and some great guitar licks. Some of my best basslines, I must say. I really played good bass on this album, or I tried to.
During Covid lockdown, was there a lot of work done from home or was there traditional studio time with you and the other players?
Obviously because of Covid, you have to find your way around it. I have a demo studio on my grounds, so we were able to do demos with just two of us in there, wearing masks. Then we brought the engineer in. Then we sent the demos to all the musicians who were going to play on the album, who went into a studio bit by bit. We did drums and bass on one day, him at one end, glassed in, me at the other – all Covid rules in place. Then we did keys the next day, all playing along to the demo. Then we made the video for The Devil In Me in my garage! Built a little set and went in there one by one.
How long did it the record take to make?
Everything was written and recorded during lockdown. All that creativity has come out of this one situation.
Did you find lockdown made you somewhat tentative in some of the recordings or did it make you want to lash out even more?
A bit of both. I myself as an artist have found the whole thing to be extremely creative. I can’t stop writing, so I don’t mind this at all. I’m already writing for the next album. So I’ve been loving lockdown, actually.
You’ve also been creative in the design and packaging. I love the way the double vinyl record sleeve opens out to look like notes and songwriting scattered over a desk.
A lot of care went into the look of it all so I’m glad you like it!
It brings to mind the layout and design of the ‘Grease’ soundtrack from decades ago, which looked like a scrapbook. Your artwork looks like scrawlings of someone working late into the night; a rebel with a mission.
Well I am the original ‘devil in me’. I wish I could say I’ve matured, but I haven’t. I’m still the same as when I started having hits. I still play the bass guitar. I’ve still got the same attitude. The same hair. I’m still real and I don’t like manufactured. If you’ve been around the scene for 57 years like me, it’s gotta be real, otherwise it doesn’t last.
Do you think artists today try too hard to be and look rebellious?
Well, as it [the music industry] becomes more and more of a business, you will get more and more of the contrived. I can only be organic, so it’s hard for me to look at it and be negative. But you can’t pretend to be rebellious. You either are or you’re not. And I’m a little girl with a big mouth, that’s who I am.
What artists do you admire?
I like Keane, I still like Oasis, and songwriting-wise I like Ed Sheeran. I like Adele. And my granddaughter keeps me up to date with everything, so I do hear everybody. But I like to stick to my teenage years because those are the years that really get in your blood.
One of my favourite songs of yours is the duet with Smokie’s Chris Norman, ‘Stumblin’ In’. If you were to do a duet tomorrow, who would it be with?
Rod Stewart. I don’t know why I said that…
Well they’d have to make more room in the studio for both of your big haircuts alone.
What do you think of today’s reality TV contests?
I don’t like reality shows that much. I think they’ve not been healthy for the music industry. They are undoubtedly entertaining, and I do watch them. But I think they’ve created a world of artists – and I use that term loosely – artists who want to be in the industry to be famous. This is not a motivation to be in this business. I would go off to a pub and play for free – and I often have done.
When you were at the height of fame in the late 1970s, did that change your frame of mind when you were out and about doing everyday things – like going to the shops?
When I first got famous – and you know it because it comes at you real quick and all of a sudden people are staring at you – I [figured] that I could either be one of those unapproachable, dark sunglass-wearing people, or I could have a life. And I’ve had a life. I don’t hide. There are some instances where you have to [hide]. One time I went to see Cyndi Lauper perform live and I said to my husband, ‘Let’s go back stage’. And he said, ‘No I want to sit out front’ [as part of the audience]. But as soon as somebody sees me it’s selfie city, so I put on a baseball cap and put my hair in a ponytail. And we’re watching Cydni, thinking I’m getting away with this. I went to the toilet, stood in the line, and the lady in front of me turns and says, ‘I love your music’. So I said, ‘The cap’s not working?’ She said, ‘Not all all’ and laughed.
You do have some big fans. I could put a post on Facebook that I’m interviewing Kylie Minogue and friends will be like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s nice.’ But I go to post that I’m interviewing Suzi Quatro and everyone’s all excited style. How do you think you’ve endured?
Well first of all, I’m real, as you can see right now. This is who I am and this is what endures. I don’t bullshit; I make no apologies; I talk it straight, and I’m approachable. I kinda do wear my heart on my sleeve, and what you see is what you get. In honesty, I’m a very sensitive artist but the difference is my strength. I will take the hurt on the chin; feel it, get over it, and then get up, dust myself off and keep walkin’. That’s where my strength is.
Aesthetically, you’ve stood as the rebel. Do you think that look and attitude was inspiring to other women?
If you haven’t seen the documentary Suzi Q, you need to. It’ll answer that for you. I didn’t realise what I was doing until I saw my documentary finished at the premier in London. I’m sitting in the audience watching it for the first time and there are all these women coming on screen – Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, Chrissy Hynde – and they’re all saying that the only reason they do what they do is because of me and that before that, they had no idea it could be done. That really affected me. It kinda made me realise that me doing what I did gave permission to girls around the world to be different.
You’ve certainly held your own around the boys. Even when looking at ‘Happy Days’, you gave it good to the Fonz now and then.
And I never had any problem with that. I never called myself a female musician. I don’t do gender. I’m a musician. Done! I will keep my ‘feminine card’, though, I must say. I mean, how political are we now these days? You can’t even have Snow White. It’s getting stupid. The world has gone stupid-politically-correct and I don’t pay attention to it at all. I don’t do gender and I never have. But I will keep my little ‘feminine card’ and I keep it in my back pocket. When I’m with guys – which I’m with all the time – if they step over that line that crosses into my sensitivities and across my right to be feminine, the card comes out. I do tell other girls that you can be a tough girl but you don’t need to lose your femininity. I’ve never lost mine, but I don’t abuse it as such. I’m as strong as any guy, and I have balls – they’re just in my head.
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