Status Quo's Francis Rossi on rockin' the world, life on Purley's Webb Estate and going solo
Status Quo will be headlining at GuilFest this summer, but long-time Purley resident Francis Rossi says playing at the county’s other top concert venues isn’t always the joy you might think. In a frank interview, he reveals what he really thinks of Rick Parfitt, why ‘the bad boys of rock’ finally received OBEs earlier this year and what made him decide to go solo for the first time. Could this be the end of Quo, asks Angela Wintle?
Francis Rossi, one half of legendary rock band Status Quo, may be rockin’ all over the world on a 150-date tour this year, but given half a chance he wouldn’t leave his back door.
“I could never live anywhere else,” he says. “I just love where I am.” Home for him is the Webb Estate, west of Purley, a secluded, residential gated community built in the 1900s by a local estate agent, with the aim of creating ‘a garden suburb for city men’. Francis has lived there since 1974, firstly in a sprawling 1930s house with a formal Italian garden; latterly in a new build across the road.
“When I was younger, I used to drive out here and think to myself, if I work hard, I could aspire to a place like this,” he says.
Purley isn’t exactly rock ‘n’ roll, but that suits him just fine.
"Tony Hancock used to sneer at it, but let’s face it, I wear white socks... wrong. I had a ponytail for years... wrong. And I’m in Status Quo... wrong. Everything I do is wrong!”
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Playing in Surrey
Status Quo often perform in Surrey and as part of their tour they will be headlining at GuilFest, Guildford’s three-day music festival, in July.
They have also played regularly at the old Guildford Civic Hall (soon to be replaced by a �26 million state-of-the-art venue) and at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon. But although Francis relishes performing to a home crowd, he says British concert venues leave a lot to be desired – and Surrey’s are no exception.
“In France, they have purpose-built rock venues. In the UK, we have some wonderful old theatres, but they’re falling apart and the toilets are disgusting. They’re a disgrace and the Guildford Civic was no exception. When they said they were knocking it down, we thought: ‘Good. This one needs to go.’
“It’s the same at Croydon as well. Whenever we perform there, it’s like playing in some Communist state building. It really does feel like the party committee will be filing out to watch us.”
But he has high hopes for GuilFest, though: “There’s always a great atmosphere there and I’m very much looking forward to it.”
Francis peppers his conversation with expletives, but for someone who has always traded on his acerbic wit, I find him unexpectedly courteous. I’d read that what you see is what you get; that he’s London blokedom personified. I beg to differ.
Though he has always epitomised the rock archetype with his signature ponytail, waistcoat and tight jeans, he breaks the code at every turn. He says his laddish image was just a front he adopted at secondary school in Forest Hill, South London. The son of an Italian ice-cream vendor, he learnt to do ‘Jack the Lad’ so the other kids wouldn’t bully him.
But for all his youthful rebellion, he is now a fully signed-up member of the Establishment. Just to prove it, Francis and his band mate Rick Parfitt went to Buckingham Palace in February to collect OBEs from the Queen.
“I don’t think we really deserved it, but if they only had Jenny whatsername, a paramedic who did some really wonderful things, people wouldn’t remember. The system needs high-profile names to perpetuate it.”
Dressed in pin-stripe suits, their single hooped earrings the one remnant of their anarchic past, they received their honours separately. Afterwards, the palace band struck up a familiar tune. Francis looked up at the balcony and the cellist winked. “They were playing Rockin’ All Over the World!”
It was certainly some leap from their beginnings. Francis met Rick at Butlins holiday camp in Minehead in 1965. “I had a gig with my band, The Spectres, and Rick was appearing with a cabaret band. He was a kindred spirit.”
These days, they never socialise and have little in common besides the band. Francis once said Rick knew him better than anyone else. Is this still true?
“Probably, but sometimes that’s to our detriment. When we tour abroad, we sit on planes together, eat together, arrive at venues together and do promos together. Our hotel rooms are usually next door to each other. It’s been like that since we were 17. I haven’t been with a woman that long. But the more I get asked, the more it makes me worry. Is it alright? Well, it might not be... I don’t know!”
They were more alike when they were younger, he says. “It’s only in the last 20 years that I’ve started to accept myself for me. Over the years, I think we adjusted our personalities to suit the other.” Is he implying that Rick led him down the path of excess more than he might have done?
“Yes. But I’ve realised, as I’ve gotten older, that it’s that relativity which makes Status Quo work. He wears a black shirt; I wear a white shirt. He’s got blond hair; I have none. And yet the number of people who mix us up is incredible.”
Status Quo have had more hit singles than any other British band (22 of them in the Top 10) and opened the Live Aid concert in 1985. But we all love to laugh at Quo, with their so-called penchant for three chords, endlessly repeated lyrics and white trainers.
They’ve cannily stayed reliably constant, no matter what the fashion. But in recent years Francis has longed to stretch his musical muscles and in May is releasing his first solo album, One Step at a Time, accompanied by a six-date UK solo tour.
“I’ve never stopped writing songs, but there have been many tracks that weren’t right for Quo. Now seemed the right time to showcase them.”
One of his favourites is Talullah’s Waiting, written for his youngest daughter. “The songs are more sentimental than usual and I can see why Quo fans wouldn’t like that. They’re not as coarse as Quo sounds sometimes.” He admits, however, that the thought of performing solo terrifies him. So what does Rick make of it all?
“Pass.” Oh, come on, I persist. “No, it wouldn’t be fair,” he says, then relents. “Actually, I don’t know... but there’s no problem between us.”
So is this the beginning of the end?
“I hope not. I enjoy Quo, believe me. And I’d be a damned fool to leave – if only from the financial point of view.”
Away from the heady world of rock ‘n’ roll, Francis has found happiness in his personal life with his wife of 22 years, Eileen.
They met in the 1970s and struck up an instant rapport. But by the time he decided to marry her years later, she had just got hitched to someone else – and was pregnant. Undeterred, Francis flew out to the United States – her home country – and pleaded with her to return with him. She accepted.
He brought up Eileen’s first child as his own and they have three children between them. Francis actually has eight children by three women, but it’s Eileen, a former teacher, who has brought him lasting contentment.
“It sounds ridiculous for a woman who’s had four children, but she’s innocent in lots of ways and I think that’s wonderful. There isn’t anything she doesn’t know about me. There are loads of things other people don’t know, but she knows.”
Life may be rather more domestic these days, but he says retirement isn’t an option.
“In my head, it’s always five years away. I’ve just turned 61, so maybe when I’m 65... But there would be a massive void without Quo. And besides, what else would I do? Deep down, I’m just an insecure little show-off, and this means I’m somebody.”
My Favourite Surrey
Restaurants: It would have to be Akash and Mehfil in Wallington. I always have a king prawn biryani. I also like Osushi and Bagatti’s in South End, Croydon.
Place to shop: House of Fraser in Croydon, where I buy a new frying pan once a year.
View: Any window from my house.
Place to chill: Under a tree in my garden, doing the crossword.
Place to visit: I just love where I am. If I loved somewhere that much, I’d go and live there.