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Suzi Quatro: "I've always been a rocker at heart"

Even down a telephone line from her home in deepest Essex Suzi Quatro fairly crackles with energy.

At the age of 68, and with her Detroit accent intact, despite living in England for more than 40 years, she is buzzing with life, eager to tell me about her latest project – writing an album with KT Tunstall – and forthcoming Legends Live tour, headlining a bill that also includes David Essex, Les McKeown’s Bay City Rollers, Smokie and Showaddywaddy.

It was in May 1973, at the height of the glam-rock craze, that Suzi burst onto our television screens, a five foot two bundle of energy in a leather jumpsuit singing seemingly nonsensical lyrics about canning the can against a solid hard-rock beat. That first hit single, Can The Can, written by pop songwriters for hire Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, went straight to the top of the charts, and was followed, in short order, by two more instant Chinn-Chapman classics, 48 Crashand Devil Gate Drive.

After nearly ten years of trying, Suzi was finally a star and, more than that, would prove to be a vital role model for countless would-be female musicians.

She was born in June 1950 into an Italian-Hungarian family (the family name was originally Quattrocchi) and was surrounded by music from an early age. Her Italian father was a semi-professional musician who worked at General Motors and her siblings – two sisters, a brother and older half-sister – all displayed some musical talent.

In her autobiography, Unzipped, Suzi described her father as a “party animal” and her mum as a “home maker”, adding “I got my dad’s zest for life and my mum’s heart”.

She was inspired to take up a musical instrument after seeing Elvis Presley perform on the Ed Sullivan Show in January 1957. “It never occurred to me that Elvis was a man, I just wanted to be like him”. And ten years later Suzi would buy her first bona fide leather jacket after seeing Elvis’s 1968 ‘comeback’ on TV

“But believe it or not the first instrument I played was bongo drums,” she says. “I was seven at the time, and my father used to let me come up on stage and do a number with him. I studied piano for a long time, and then I played in the school orchestra. When I was 14 my sisters and I formed an all-girl band and at that point I was given the bass to play. Luckily for me, when I put it on I felt had come home. I immediately felt it was the instrument for me.”

That band, The Pleasure Seekers, included Suzi’s sister Patti, who would later be part of the rock group Fanny, and Arlene. The girls sometimes had to don wigs and miniskirts, much against their better judgement, but soon became a vital part of the Detroit musical community, hanging out with the likes of Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper.

“I’ve never thought of myself as a female musician, just as a musician”

They released a couple of singles that went nowhere before changing their name to Cradle and pursuing a different musical direction. Arlene left to have a baby (who would become the actress Sherilyn Fenn) and was replaced by another Quatro sister, Nancy.

“We were writing all our own songs and becoming very serious about what we were doing,” Suzi recalls. “Pleasure Seekers was a show band, Cradle was more of a muso band.”

Already Suzi’s vibrant stage persona, singing and playing bass, was attracting some attention, and soon the record label Elektra came calling, offering her a solo contract. The same week hotshot British producer Mickie Most, who had already enjoyed considerable success with Donovan, The Animals and Herman’s Hermits, was in town doing some recording at the Motown studios with guitarist Jeff Beck and drummer Cozy Powell. He was persuaded by Suzi’s brother, Mickey, also a musician, to catch Cradle’s show at a Detroit dance hall and, impressed by what he saw, Mickie also offered Suzi a solo contract.

“So I had two offers within one week,” Suzi said. “Elektra wanted to make me into the new Janis Joplin and Mickie said ‘I’m going to make you into the first Suzi Quatro’. Obviously I went with Mickie because I thought, ‘OK, you see me’. I mean I’m nothing like Janis Joplin.”

So it was that in September 1971 Suzi packed a suitcase and headed for England, bound for a seedy hotel in Earls Court. The morning after she arrived Suzi was whisked away in Most’s gold Rolls Royce to the offices of his record company, Rak, on Oxford Street, where the producer outlined his plans. She would be signed to Rak, he would find some musicians to back her, an album would be recorded and then she would head back home.

It didn’t work out like that.

It took a year of trial and error, but eventually Mickie and Suzi settled on a song, Rolling Stome, that she had written with Errol Brown, a member of fellow Rak signing Hot Chocolate.

As evidence of Most’s clout in the music business at the time, among the musicians playing on the record was drummer Alan White, fresh from playing on John Lennon’s Imaginealbum (and later of Yes), and a young Peter Frampton.

Although a flop in Britain, Rolling Stone was a Number One in Portugal, and, suitably encouraged, Suzi was able to get a band together and start touring, earning a support slot on the same bill as Slade and Thin Lizzy.

The distinctive Suzi Quatro sound did not emerge, however, until Mickie Most sent Mike Chapman along to one of her gigs.

“Mickie wasn’t sure how to record me, but Mike Chapman got it,” Suzi says. “The reason Mickie couldn’t produce me was that he didn’t know how to use the raw energy that I have; I’m a rocker at heart. Mike saw that.

“If you listen to my first album all the songs are boogie style, and that’s what we were doing at gigs. Mike tapped into that.”

Chinn and Chapman’s genius was the ability to distil a music style into three minutes of pop magic, and that’s what they did with Suzi; Can the Can perfectly capturing the raw energy of her persona, but in a catchy, accessible package. >h4>“I got my dad’s zest for life and my mum’s heart”

Following the success of the single an agreement was reached, that Suzi would supply album tracks and B-sides, while Chinn and Chapman would come up with the singles, an arrangement that was already working well with another of the songwriting team’s customers, The Sweet. Understandably Suzi is very proud of that mid-Seventies run of hits.

“There is a lot of energy in those singles – energy is my middle name. Even at 68 I still have the exact same energy. I wish I didn’t but there you go.”

The meaning of the lyrics was not always clear, but that didn’t seem to matter.

“I always knew what the lyrics were all about,” she says. “Mike tended to go for what sounded right, and he could write a good teenage lyric. For instance 48 Crash was the male menopause – you wouldn’t argue with that one, right,” she laughs, (obviously assuming, correctly, she’s talking to someone the wrong side of 50).

At the height of her success Suzi was booked as support act for her old Detroit buddy Alice Cooper

“It was aptly called the Welcome To My Nightmare tour. I mean these were all old friends of mine from Detroit, and it was just great being with people I’d grown up with, but it went on forever.

“We did 30 shows on our own and then joined the tour and did another 80, it was non-stop madness.”

Although Suzi was, by now, immune to the temptations of being on the road, the same did not go for Len Tuckey, the guitarist in her band, who in 1976 would become the first Mr Quatro.

“Although I trusted Len, I still kept an eagle eye out for any trouble on that front,” she wrote in Unzipped. “He sometimes resented this and made comments like, ‘Oh Suze, I just want to have some fun like the other guys’, which just used to infuriate me.”

By the late Seventies the hits had started to dry up, although Suzi did have some success in America with Stumblin’ In, a duet with Chris Norman from Rak stablemates Smokie. And there is no doubting the influence she had already had on a whole generation of would-be female musicians.

“Joan Jett was my biggest fan,” Suzi says. “Her room was covered in pictures of me; she was a little bit obsessed. She would be at the gigs in California before she started her band, sitting in the lobby of the hotel with a pile of stuff for me to sign.

“I met Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads somewhere and I made some little dig against myself and she said to me ‘you don’t know how important you are to me’.”

Part of it was standing out in the male-dominated world of glam-rock, but there was also an element of playing the boys at their own game.

“I’ve never thought of myself as a female musician, just as a musician. I don’t do gender, and that’s perhaps why it fell to me to be a trail-blazer.

“Someone was going to do it sooner or later and it ended up being me because I didn’t try to be something I wasn’t. I was true to myself, that’s what was important.

“I’m not butch but I’m sort of tomboyish. It was cute and sexy at the same time, without trying, which I suppose is what made it work.

Realising that her musical career was winding down Suzi moved into other areas, most notably acting, taking on the role as the bass player Leather Tuscadero on the television show Happy Days.

The show’s producer, Garry Marshall, reputedly offered Suzi the role without having an audition after seeing a photograph of her on his daughter's bedroom wall and it certainly seemed tailor-made for her, a former juvenile delinquent now fronting a rock band.

In 1980 Len and Suzi moved into an Elizabethan manor house in the countryside near Essex, where she still lives, but Suzi’s restless energy and willingness to take on any number of different projects – musicals, roles in Minder and Dempsey and Makepeace, recording a Children In Need single – started to take a toll on the marriage and in 1992 they divorced.

“I couldn’t hold myself back and not do all these things and he couldn’t push himself forward and enjoy them with me,” she wrote inUnzipped.

The decision to divorce Len was a difficult one – her Catholic upbringing saw to that – and Suzi was all too aware of the effect it would have on their children, Laura and Richard, who were aged seven and nine respectively at the time. In her book Suzi says both children were “emotionally damaged” by the divorce, but she and Len stayed on good terms, and he only lives half-an-hour away from the family home.

Laura and Richard have now left home but both also live nearby.

After a year alone Suzi married German music promoter Rainer Haas in 1993 and, although both maintain separate homes it is an arrangement that suits them. “We go back and forth,” says Suzi. “It gives us space. It’s no big deal. The airport is just down the road.”

And she never stops working, be it the book of poetry she published two years ago, touring, recording or forming a ‘supergroup’ with Sweet guitarist Andy Scott and Slade drummer Don Powell.

“I have been in the business now for 54 years as a professional. When I say it I think ‘oh my God’! And I’m still going strong. And I’m now Dr Quatro (in 2016 she received an honourary doctorate form Anglia Ruskin University). I’m really proud of that, naturally.

More recently she started writing with son Richard. “He wanted to write with me about three years ago and I said ‘no, you’re not ready’, and he really took it to heart. So he went away and he got ready; he came back with some tracks and I went ‘oh, OK’ and now we are in the studio and it’s brilliant. He wanted me to do another straight out rock and roll album and that’s how he geared his ideas, so I’m in there rockin’!”

She’s also enjoyed the collaboration with singer-songwriter KT Tunstall.

“We get on like a house on fire. We write very easily together and it’s a nice collaboration. I was always a fan of hers, but I didn’t know she was a fan of mine until I was watching a little clip of the documentary about me that’s coming up soon, and there she was.”

That documentary was nearing completion as we spoke and Suzi promises that it’s a warts and all affair.

“If you are going to do a documentary about me I don’t need 8000 people saying how wonderful I am. That’s just boring. So I told the director, ‘if you do this, do it for real’. As long as something is honest I don’t mind it being in there. If it’s not honest, it’s out.”

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