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Matt McGinn

Although full-on, nationwide anarchy didn’t quite happen, 1977 was still a busy old year for the UK. Abigail’s Party opened at London’s Hampstead Theatre and the Queen trotted the globe in her best Jubilee frock. Star Wars was released, the first Clash album hit the shelves and so did Shirley Hughes’s kid’s book Dogger. Gay News was found guilty of blasphemous libel and the Sex Pistols were dumped by two record labels for swearing on teatime telly. The IRA targeted the mainland in a series of bomb attacks while firemen and undertakers downed tools over pay. The Yorkshire Ripper struck, the pound note shrunk. Liverpool won the league but lost the cup to United. Orlando Bloom was born in Canterbury. Marc Bolan died in Barnes.

Oh, and Sid, Gabble, Winnie and Carpet - the Denim Gang - broke up for good. But I didn’t need Google to find that out.

I was in it.

Status Quo – along with Plymouth Argyle FC and Motorcycle Top Trumps - ruled our young hearts and minds back then, no question. We were only a handful of country tots, but every member of the gang did their best to act and dress like the big town boys the band seemed to be; fat flares, pumps and platforms, cheeky attitude, denim everywhere. All boxes ticked, except for the postcode.

Sid was the toughest, cutest, funniest, most popular kid on the block/down the lane, so he definitely deserved to be chief. The rules were clear though; if you had just one more patch on your Brutus jacket than him that week, you could have a go at being in charge til he overtook you with more badges. A bit organised – if not visionary – for a bunch of rural ten-year-olds, though of course we soon ended up with so much sew-on shit on the cuffs and under the arms you could hardly see the actual denim any more. Typically, the patches (which were big, bright colourful things attached mostly by our Mums and Nans) said stuff like ‘Kawasaki: Let the Good Times Roll’, ‘Forget your Troubles, Get On Suzuki’ ‘Love, I Love It’ and ‘Push My Panic Button’ or, if you were feeling really ambitious, ‘Massey Ferguson Drivers Do It On All Fours’ or ‘I Went To Devon County Show, ‘75’, just to make up the numbers. Thanks to the rulebook, this wasn’t even considered naff, let alone cheating. Sheer coverage was everything and anything went.

The undisputed kings of Thurlestone Primary(Turnout: 60 if the buses were running. Location: nowhere, turn left) for months, each Denim Gang member brought a fair collection of handy skills to the table. Gabble and Winnie – the Ginger Brothers - could sniff out a lost golf ball at fifty paces, which became our gangland currency; we sold the balls back to the golfers and bought extra pop and crisps . Sid could fight, make people laugh, pull a wheelie and actually talk to grown-ups, plus he had a seriously hard big brother who taught P.E. in the Navy. I was the softy who could draw, write stories and play instruments but, like Sid, got on well with the girls and had a few quite good rock ‘n’ roll records at home as well. We rode pushbikes covered with stickers , horns, mirrors, speedos and lamps, which went really well with the silly jackets. There aren’t any photos but I bet we looked absolutely fucking brilliant. Or maybe a right bunch of twats, depending who was looking.

Either way these were golden days filled with fun, danger and mischief. There were, and doubtless still are, so many ways country kids might nearly cark it in pursuit of kicks; besides some of the most foolhardy bike behaviour of all time, we climbed cliffs, got stuck up hollow trees, fell in bogs, rolled old stone millwheels down quarries at each other, cut ourselves open on rusty barbed wire and jumped about in the surf during winter storms. Every new day was like a fresh RoSPA safety video just waiting for it’s big chance go tits up, but there were young thrills to be had in other areas as well. Sid and me, who the chicks seemed to like best for some reason, kissed Dawn and Jackie – the only two tartan Bay City Rollergirls in the village - so many times after school it got a bit silly.

But, like all good things, it had to come to an end. One terrible afternoon, while showing off as usual, our esteemed Sergeant-At-Arms lost grip on his beloved Raleigh’s cowhorn bars and stacked it outside the farm, sliding denim-and-patches-first through a small ocean of wet heifer shit. Unharmed, he was nevertheless so terrified of telling his mum – who’d spent weeks sewing everything on for him - Sid decided to torch his beautiful, customised Wrangler instead, badges and all, and pretend he’d simply lost it. Stricken and suddenly rudderless, the Denim Gang went into jacket mourning, followed by a period of brave denial. But it couldn’t last. The patches came off. We were finished.

It’s been awhile, but I think this huge, scarring event may well have occurred round about the time Rick Parfitt started wearing a white silky shirt on stage instead of his old blue Levi. Fair enough – it went with his white guitar. But still. Spooky. I also began to feel during this period that both he and Francis Rossi were ignoring Alan Lancaster a bit on Top Of the Pops, in a way they hadn’t done before. Their two mic stands had always been set up closer together (to open up the middle-ground and show off John Coghlan’s upward cymbal hits, stick-twirling and general coolness, we figured) so you often got a view of the two of them singing at once, with Alan out on his own, unless all three gathered round the drums or lined up along the stage lip for some proper hair shaking. Nonetheless, this turned out to be more perceptive of me than I realised. Before you knew it, they’d got a dummy of him in instead and, well, the rest is history. Surely, we wondered, over our Shandy Basses and Frazzles up the bus shelter, it wasn’t all linked in some cosmic way to Sid’s bike smash and the Denim Gang’s gangs’ sad demise? Was there something in the air?

You could’ve been forgiven for thinking so. Before then, since we could remember – which admittedly wasn’t that far back at ten years old - Status Quo had, next to Barry Sheene, looked like the coolest, most propulsive thing in the world; it seemed as if a souped-up blue Suzuki GT550 had grown guitars and drums and turned into a rock group. ‘Down Down’, a song so loved and lauded there’s no point saying it all again here, even sounds like a motorbike ride; listen closely next time for the little tom-tom and bass guitar rev-ups, the gear-shifting key changes and those short, speedy bursts down the narrow straights. The song pulls into a layby a couple of times to fill up and check the tyres before kicking itself over again, and there’s a sense of air whistling by too. Maybe it’s those long, held-onto vocal notes, or just the sheer, cymbal-heavy, on-cam, powerband-loving forward rush of it all. Fender as cylinder, Paiste as piston. Never has a rock ‘n’ roll record sounded more at one with it’s machine. No wonder bikers loved it.

In live shots of the time, the Quo’s front line look like they’ve just been hit by a freak tornado. Their faces, open mouthed, appear almost shocked, like they can’t believe the strength of whatever the hell’s got a hold of them and their hair, frozen in mid-headbang, seems to be exploding. But while much has rightly been made of the raw power and racing pace of Classic Era Quo™, even musically-minded onlookers still rarely mention the quality of the actual tunes themselves. Strip away the motorcycle stampede and what have you got? Lo and behold, pretty harmonies. Country and western tunes. Beatles meets the Everlys. (Alan, metal guru though he was, even sounded a bit like Merrill Osmond, though you might not have got away with saying it.) Yep, Status Quo was a pop group, that had singles, just like Tina Charles, Showaddywaddy and everybody else on TOTP. (That’s ‘P’ for ‘Pops’, folks.) Good songs – of which Quo have nearly always had plenty to spare - aren’t enough on their own, though. You do ‘em badly, they become rubbish. With that in mind, it’s interesting to ponder the song often cited as the final straw that broke Lancaster’s heavy rock back. Honestly, it would’ve probably sounded as ballsy as any other record if he and Coghlan had been able (or present, in John’s case) to do to the song what they’d done to Caroline and Paper Plane, ie slam into 4/4 turbo and hit the crap out of it. ‘Marguerita Time’ – a song almost as famous for being shite as ‘Shaddap You Face’ – actually isn’t that shite at all, as far as being a passable basic tune is concerned. Like ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ and a hundred others-we-love-to-hate, it’s actually scuppered from the word go by a ghastly, slick production, some well cheesy instrumental breaks and lead vocals that are so creepily spot-on they sound like K9 off Doctor Who.

To illustrate the point, try thinking of ‘Doo Waa Diddy’ by Manfred Mann, if you can bear it. It has to be one of the most irritating records of all time, right? Now – and quickly, for your own sake - imagine the Ramones playing it instead. It doesn’t sound half so annoying any more, does it? Better than that, listen to The Melodian’s older, pre Boney-M version of Rivers Of Babylon, or any one of the beautiful renditions of The Lion Sleeps Tonight (aka ‘Wimoweh’) before Tight Fit stitched it up a kipper in their Tarzan garb back in ‘82. (Alright, so I admit it, I actually like Boney M and Tight Fit, but there’s no need to take the piss.) Just gorgeous, and further proof - as if it were needed - that with songs, half the time the story’s in the telling. Think how many toe-curling renditions of amazing records you’ve winced through down the pub, for instance. You know, you’re trying to have a quiet pint and there’s some third-rate git stood or sat up there ruining your night, making ‘My Sharona’ or ‘She Loves You’ sound like a fart in a test tube. You can spoil anything, it’s easy. I should know, I’ve managed it enough times myself.

Truth is, unlike AC/DC – a band who’ve never seemed all that bothered about writing pretty melodies – Quo have always been as much about singing catchy shit as generating groove and noise. But, for better or worse, without the toughness Lancaster and Coghlan lent proceedings, Rossi and Parfitt’s band became a different beast entirely.

You’ve only got to look at the photos. Alan – apart from the flares and platforms - looks like he’s joined Metallica ten years early and John seems to be lost on his way home from a Hawkwind gig. I’m not saying Francis and Rick are soft (far from it) or incapable of rocking a dark horse on their own (that would be blasphemous) but it’s fair to conclude that when bands really work it’s largely because of the people in them and how they rub up against each other. Malcolm McClaren called it ‘accidental synergy’ – which pretty much sums it up – and went on to confess that his most famous act never really recovered their collective mojo once founder member, songwriter and bassist Glenn Matlock walked away. A few huge groups (Floyd, Lizzy, Fleetwood Mac, The Stones, among others) have survived potentially crushing lineup changes and got bigger and stronger, but just as many have stumbled and fallen. It’s a tough one to pull off. Of course, plenty would argue that Rossi and Parfitt fall into the former category, and I’m not here to argue the toss. You’ve got to admire their grit and sheer tenacity; losing the other two – never mind all the subsequent personal and financial nightmares – would have finished a lot of groups off, but not this pair. They managed – against all odds – to pull out of the dive and get back up in the air again, thanks in no small part to Andy Bown, Rhino Edwards, Pete Kircher and others who helped keep the fires alive for so many years, albeit with some nasty hairdos, poor threads and woeful jigging.

That said, for many fans of the old Frantic Four, there’s really no contest, though true lovers of rock ‘n’ roll who’ve only ever heard Burning Bridges or In The Army Now could be forgiven for not getting what all the fuss is about. I’ve been brushing ridicule aside and pointing these people in the right direction for decades now and I’m not about to stop, it’s just too gratifying. First you show them a few cool snaps of the old line-up. Then you play them ‘Mystery Song’. After that, it’s a piece of piss, especially with youTube at your fingertips. It took me about two weeks to get my girlfriend to crack, at which point I snuck in ‘Living On An Island’ as we were driving through South Devon on holiday and it was game over. And if the music doesn’t do it, Francis Rossi’s personality will. Once people see or hear him speak, they just can’t help but adore the geezer.

There’s lots of reasons why people love ‘classic lineups’ of their favourite bands. Nostalgia obviously plays a part, but it also has to do with family and belonging. If you fell for the Quo in ‘73, or The Beatles in ’64, or the Jam in ’79, or Public Enemy in ‘88, you probably thought they’d be a gang forever and would’ve had you as a member if only they’d known you. That’s why it hurts when they break up and that’s why reformation tours sell out in minutes. Also though, it’s because for short, golden, limited periods, these classic lineups are absolutely the dogs bollocks. Well documented though it is, it’s worth reminding ourselves here that Lancaster was apparently capable of being at least as tough and stroppy as he looked in the photos, while some say Coghlan could turn pretty surly and awkward if the mood took him. Must’ve been a right pain in the arse, but I’d be willing to bet that the same characteristics informed some of Status Quo’s greatest music. That super-aggressive, panel-beater punch in the rhythm section was never gonna come from a couple of reasonable young fellas with nice feathercuts. They really sounded like you shouldn’t mess with them, if you liked your nose how it was, Mister, or didn’t want a pint of Watney’s over your head. Put all that with Rossi’s tuneful, knees-up spikyness and Parfitt’s 2-stroke triple-cylinder hammering and you had all you needed. Sadly, like the Denim Gang, it wasn’t to last.

Quo and me never really broke up, we just drifted apart. Having sounded like an advancing Levi’s infantry for a couple of years, they – understandably enough - went a bit soft focus at a time when I really could’ve done with them doing the opposite. In hindsight, there’s no way any group could’ve sustained that sort of intensity any longer, without some sort of retreat. Deep(er and)down I still loved them but in the battle for my early teen affections the punk rockers were in the lead and lines were begging to be drawn. The New Wave was some trick, but it worked. Kids everywhere went bananas for it, for a variety of reasons, but it was down to the words of the songs as much as anything else. Francis often jokes that a lot of his lyrics don’t have any meaning; disingenious or not, with someone suddenly yelling in your ear about White Riots , Rockin’ All Over The World didn’t sound half as incendiary, even though Joe Strummer and the rest were basically building a similar shed with the same tools, just a bit faster and with a fresh load of wood. It was all guaranteed – and doubtless designed - to set a 13-year-old’s pulse racing; anti-racism, new(ish) attitudes to women, the notion that all old farts must die, etc. Scratch the surface of punk rock and there were still songs about Princesses Of The Streets and Grey Cortinas, but at least it was a start, even if some of the Stranglers were about the same age - if not older - than Rossi & Co and Tom Robinson was a bit too posh with dodgy hair.

But, to re-visit the parlance of the time, the kids just didn’t care. The punk tide swept us all out to sea while Status Quo joined Deep Purple and Judas Priest on the backs of the new enemy’s jackets. Girls liked my spiky top, they thought it was cute and would come up and pat it, so that was the final nail, really. You couldn’t be in the teen version of the Denim Gang and have a Stiff Little Fingers button badge on your lapel. That would have been ridiculous.

I still say ‘punk rocker’ when people ask what I was as a kid, not ‘Quonut’, perhaps feeling the old pangs of teenage division even at this remove. Of course, when you look at it all now, beyond the posing and the politics there wasn’t that much difference between any of us at all. I first met Bob Young back in the mid-noughties because of a book I was writing about being a roadie, called, er…’Roadie’. My mate Greg, who was helping me out with the editing, rang up one day and said ‘I’ve met this geezer, Bob, used to work for Quo. We should definitely interview him, get some old stories’. I was excited – this was the ‘Young’ I’d wondered about as a kid, whose name appeared on the silver plastic Vertigo single labels, alongside ‘Parfitt’ or ‘Rossi’, in brackets underneath the song titles. I later realised these were simply songwriting credits, but the idea of actually meeting him still conjured up a bit of the old mystique. I’ll admit I was a bit nervous.

Of course, Bob – as Slade bassist Jimmy Lea rightly puts it – turned out to be ‘cream out of a jug’. He graciously gave us his time, plus some great quotes that made it into print and then – against all normal music industry guidelines - proceeded to keep in touch, come out for the odd pint/curry and become someone we’re still really pally with. On one level it’s all just normal, good-bloke stuff, but on the other hand this is the other guy in the room when Down Down was being written.

I can’t help it. I care about this kind of thing a lot.

It’s thanks to Bob’s good-heartedness, and with all of the above in mind, that I board the 15.23 out of Kings Cross, bound for possibly the most wished-for-but-unlikely reunion show in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Anyone who knows will tell you there was seriously no way this was ever going to happen; just a couple of years ago the idea – largely due to Lancaster and Rossi’s long-term, trans-global lovers tiff – was something even hardcore fans could barely bring themselves to mention out loud. So when the news broke, no surprises; tickets went flying out the door before most people noticed it was happening. Still, lucky me, I’m on the guest list - plus one - so I’m gonna meet my old mate William in Peterborough and get a ride over to Wolverhampton. Will wasn’t in the Denim Gang, but he knows a man who was (er, me) and loves Status Quo in much the same way I do. Oddly, neither of us has ever seen them live, in any incarnation, so we’re both well up for it.

Snow flurries and anvil clouds faff around in a blue and grey sky as the train trundles north. My thoughts are a jumble; what if we get stuck in a blizzard? Did I remember the SR toothpaste and the Blue Stratos aftershave? I think of Slade, Cup-A-Soup and pigeons as we pass by the backs of old terraced houses and an annoying woman yaps into her phone - right behind me - the whole way, but it’s too crowded to get another seat. How anyone does this every day beats me senseless, but I expect these nice commuters would be saying pretty much the same thing after half an hour on a tourbus. I try not to listen to too much Quo on my headphones but can’t resist it; I notice how much the live version of Is there A Better Way sounds like a Damned song while Big Fat Mama could almost be Rob Halford and pals, and wonder with a chuckle if any old gits will brave the neck pain and have a go at some headbanging.

Will picks me up at the station in his old Beamer and we head into the sunset, neither of us really (really finally) believing that this is all actually happening. A couple of cheery hours later we find ourselves pulling into the forecourt of the Mercure, an old fashioned, house-shaped hotel that’s so 1973 it’s almost like we planned it. The first thing we see is a sign saying ‘Parking Reserved For Lady Guests’, following which the receptionist tries to put us in the same room, as if we’re a couple, then splits us up into completely different buildings, like we’ve been a bit naughty. We dump our stuff and jump a cab to the city centre. It’s a memory-filled hop which has me in Flashback Land for a few minutes; Wolves was one of the first few towns I ever drove a band to in a van for cash and the one-way system is just as baffling now as it was then, even in the back of a taxi. Memories of reversing blind up to loading docks and pissed roadies trying to pronounce ‘Wolverhampton Varsity’ make me smile inside, and the sight of the Civic Hall front – like a mini, midlands Coliseum – is the icing on the cake. We cut past the queues of old campaigners and duck into the quieter of two nearby pubs (ie the one that’s not full of codgers and playing Status Quo really loud) for what turns out to be a nice, friendly chat with some local bar staff, then it’s back to the venue and in through the side-door to pick up our comps, which the lady looks impressed to learn Bob Young sorted out for us.

And we’re in. Fucking brilliant!

Our seats are up on the balcony, but we decide to grab a jar downstairs first, at which point we suddenly realise we’ve died and gone to ‘70s Black Country heaven. There are proper pies in glass pie-warmers behind the bar – not an olive in sight – and Mars bars for sale as well, while the accents all around us lend a breezy air to proceedings that can’t fail to put you in a happy mood. Pints in hand, we move through to the main room and that’s when it really hits.

Status Quo – the proper, real, four-piece Status Quo - are playing right in front of us. In about 10 minutes.

There’s a big, smart-looking ‘Hello’ style drape in front of the stage gear, but I can still see guitar tech Lloyd – who I know from my years in the trade – beetling about, getting everything ready. (I’ve decided not to bother him or Bob as it’s too near showtime). There are just moments to take it all in - the grins everywhere, the freaks and the odd actual Denim Gang-style jacket – before an edited version of Jackie Lynton’s original intro from Quo + Live asks us if we ‘want to rock’, the drape drops and…fuck me sideways, there they are.

Within seconds, I’m way too busy punching the air and doing the Quo Dance (thumbs in beltloops, twist the hips, come on people) to take notes, so you won’t be getting a proper review. It’s loud though, especially Rossi’s guitar, which, like everything else, sounds just right; tight as a gnat’s chuff, bright and sweet, right off the bat. No messing.

A fantastic version of Junior’s Wailing, a cheer, a pause, and;

‘How are you then, alright?’

Another cheer, another pause, then, just to finish us off, perfectly timed and delivered, comes;

‘Ladies and Gents, Alan Lancaster, John Coghlan’.

I find myself yelling as loud as I ever have, just like everyone around me. It’s a fantastic moment, like seeing Charlie George score in front of the old Clock End at Highbury, or something. Lancaster, sweetly, then says he’s missed us all ‘so much’ and we realise with a gulp and a sniffle that it’s completely mutual. Throughout, he is cheerful and friendly, full of smiles, thumbs-alofts and sailor-salutes to the crowd, even though he’s clearly wrestling with some sort of physical disadvantage. Still, like Ali, this is a man who was born to fight and clearly holds no truck with going down without one; his playing and singing is at least as gutsy, heavy and skilful as his bandmates around him, if not more so, given his apparent condition. Coghlan is deliberate, unshakeable and pretty much solo-free, ditto Parfitt despite the Samson job someone’s done on his barnet. Bob chips in on harp here and there and tries not to laugh when Rossi prods him in the belly mid-blow. And as for Mister Snooker Loopy himself – whose iconic waistcoat look suits him better in his sixties than it ever did before – well, you couldn’t love a frontman more if you wanted to. Even when he’s not singing, which is quite often during this super-unusual, largely hit-free set, Francis commands your attention, keeps hold of it and pays you back with chirps, gags and some of the best live lead guitar playing me and Will have ever heard.

And we’ve seen AC/DC.

Age suits the Quo, which is a relief, since most rock groups turn pretty embarrassing once they get past a certain point. I’d seen Wilko Johnson (66 and dying) turn in a magnificent farewell performance at London’s Koko just days before (both bands do amazing versions of Bye Bye Johnny, which ties the shows together nicely ) and realised that in the end it’s all about the same stuff. This is no lament for everyone in the room’s lost youth, it’s not even rage against the dying of the light. It’s a blistering rock ‘n’ roll show, being played by some of the all time best people at it, for one of the greatest ever crowds and, for once, that really is all that matters.

I’m not even sad when Quo leave the stage after the final encore. Like everyone around us – a fine collection of air-guitarists and headbangers of varied style and vintage – Will and I just feel so lucky to have been there. Plus we’re a bit pissed, away from the wives and are going for a curry. It gets a bit blurry after that. Bob rings from his ride home to see if we’ve enjoyed it, which is sweet of him, though I probably don’t come over all that sober. We then tell someone off in the Indian for moaning cos they ‘didn’t do Caroline’ and he’s ‘come all the way from Nuneaton’, but it all ends amicably. A fancy chicken dish, another cab, a quick, stumbly nightcap back at ‘70s Towers and we’re done.

Yeah, we’re hungover. Course we are. But so what. Our breakfast waitress brings over a couple of slightly scary, really bloody hot fry-ups and, on noticing my old Quo tee, proceeds to tell us in a lovely local trill what music she likes (‘soft rock, not the hard rock – you know, Meat Loaf’) and how the original Slade bassist was her cousin (‘not Jimmy, the one in the ‘N Betweens’, before they were Ambrose Slade’) which, to be honest, just about puts the cherry on the pudding.

The denim circle thus completed, we check out and hit the road in our three grand Deutche car.

The sun’s out, the sky’s the colour of my old Levi’s.

If only Sid could have seen us.