Then, nothing … well, at least in America. A brief flirtation with psych-pop, “Pictures Of Matchstick Men” was Quo’s only U.S. Top 40 hit, scaling the charts all the way up to #12. In the U.K., it reached #7. Quo never approached those heights again in the U.S., but back home, the band, after adopting more of a boogie-rock aesthetic, charted a mind-boggling 60 singles, 22 of them in the Top 10.
Prior to going down the mind-bending path of “Pictures Of Matchstick Men,” Quo plied its trade as a straight-up rock ’n’ roll band in the early 1960s, covering ’50s favorites from the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Bill Haley And The Comets and Elvis.
Later came a soul and R&B phase, “ … and then I’d heard ‘Hey Joe’ by Jimi Hendrix, and I thought, ‘I’m going to try to write a song in that sequence. I like that sequence and that vibe,’” says Quo guitarist/singer Francis Rossi.
And so Status Quo, who started out as The Spectres, recorded its most memorable, and perhaps most unlikely, hit of all, as “Pictures Of Matchstick Men” did what the band’s failed previous three singles — 1966’s “I (Who Have Nothing)” and “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and 1967’s “(We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet,” later recorded by The Blues Magoos — couldn’t.
With a new LP in tow, In Search Of The Fourth Chord, Quo is once again charged up and raring to go, as was Rossi when we did this wide-ranging interview.
Francis Rossi: I love punctuality. When we were really young, we were doing [the TV show] “Top Of The Pops” in England years ago. I think it was our second or third appearance. Alan Lancaster and Rick [Parfitt] had been off with these two girls through the night that they’d known and got there late and said they’d be all right. And our manager at the time, who was a plumber, he went to the producer of “Top Of The Pops” and said he wanted to really tell him off, and this guy sh*t down our necks.
I mean … he really sh*t on us. And we’ve never been late for anything ever since (laughs). He was so nasty. Bear in mind, we were like 17 or 18. It’s one of those things where ever since … in fact, we have that situation with our bus. It goes at midday. It doesn’t go one minute past. It’s gone at midday, you know. And I do like that.
FR: I just like to make records, and I love the idea that some people like the songs, and I think that’s that insecure little showoff when we’re babies … you know, “Please like me.” And I find that with all rock ’n’ roll stars, pop stars, whatever you call them. We all struggle.
And Madonna’s going through my mind right now. We all struggle when we’re younger. We’ll do anything — blow jobs, stand up, sit down. Anything you like. And then suddenly we make it, and, “Well, my goodness me, you couldn’t look at me. You mustn’t look at me. I need 1,400 people to look after me. Don’t dare come near me.” And yet it’s a very odd thing because with the very people we begged to love us, suddenly it’s “ … stay away from me. Don’t look at me. I couldn’t speak to you” — all that stuff. And yet, it seems to be the thing at the moment that the public loves about it.
Success and its aftermath
FR: I remember the other side of success just before [“Pictures Of Matchstick Men”], me thinking for some reason all the problems with my first wife there’d be no problems … my children? No problem. Mother-in-law? No problem. Mum and dad, everyone’s happy in the bars and lovely. What happens after you sell a few records is, wife’s still the same, mother-in-law’s still the same, the kids’ [diapers] are still full of sh*t, the mum and dad are still the same. So you realize that nothing changes at all, other than you sell a few records … oh, I thought it was going to be different. And that’s when you realize that one single isn’t a career.
FR: We all have our stars who we think, “Oh, no. No, he’s got credibility. He’s got integrity as a person.” Whatever. But in fact, no. He started out, or she started out or they started out as insecure little teenagers going, “Oh, please, somebody love us,” and their mum saying, “He’s really good, you know. He really is, my boy. He’s very good. He’s very talented.” And then he suddenly makes it, and he’s this big asshole that doesn’t want the world to know him because “I’m special. You don’t understand me.”
“Pictures Of Matchstick Men”
FR: When I was writing it, I was married already and my mother-in-law and wife had gone out so late. I used to have to write songs in the toilet. And it was a very narrow toilet in the place we lived. And then they had gone out, so I could go in the rest of the house or this bungalow thing.
Obviously, at the time, things were getting a little weird. People were taking all sorts of stuff, so there were all sorts of influences going on. I initially thought, “If I sing in falsetto, that makes it a little weirder than usual.” And then I tuned the top E string down to the B string, so I could play the (sings the famous warped guitar intro to “Matchstick Men”). And having them slightly out of tune … it makes that harmonic wobble come into.
You get that sound and you double track it, so the record began to sound a little like what people would term “psychedelic.” And then when we were making the record, either the engineer or the producer suggested what they call “skying,” which was phasing, so you had two 4-to-4 machines and you had the mix on a two-track and the final mix on another two-track, and a blank two-track where you go and you play both of them. And you put one voltage drop on one machine, so the machine slows down or speeds up and hence, when the two things being copied in stereo it gives you that phasing effect.
And that, to be honest, was instrumental … people used to love to hear that in those days, but to be particular, we didn’t have stereo radio, so the idea of mono with this strange (makes distorted guitar noise) going on, people were like, ‘Wow.” It made them listen. So the record had a strange out of tune guitar in it and we were just lucky and it just took off. Lovely (laughs).