After 50 years in business, all-grown-up rock icon Suzi Quatro is still playing bass harder than any other three bassists put together. Joel McIver heads to Quatro HQ for the full low-down.
If you need proof that the music industry was once a profitable place to operate, you could do worse than head to rural Essex, where Suzi Quatro – Michigan-born, but UK-based for decades – resides in a splendid mansion, the type that only 55 million album sales can buy. Ushered in by Suzi, we walk through corridors laden with gold discs, antique furniture and similar drool-worthy items until we reach the chosen interview room, where a certain Fender Precision is hanging on the wall next to the fireplace.
Right, that’s enough cheesy, Hello! magazine-style domestic detail. BGM isn’t here to admire the fixtures and fittings: we’re here to talk bass, and specifically the kind of soul/Motown-influenced rock bass playing which made that Fender’s owner a huge star throughout the 1970s and beyond.
Suzi, now 64, is evidently not to be messed with. Half a century of touring either turns an artist into lard or gives them a core of steel, and it’s obvious which option she’s taken. Asked what achievement she’s proudest of, she tells us: “Lasting this long, and still being sane. I never fell into the rock’n’roll lifestyle. I’m not a druggie, and I’m not a drinker. I’m a rocker on stage, but off stage I’m normal.”
Even so, life throws curveballs, and one particular incident a couple of years ago almost derailed Suzi’s bass-playing career completely. “In 2012, I was getting on a plane in Kiev the morning after a gig,” she tells us. “I was holding my gig bag, which was pretty heavy, because you don’t want your stage clothes to get lost, so I take everything with me. I was climbing up the stairs, which were steel and unforgiving, picked up the bag, slipped and fell over. I landed on my right knee, which broke, rolled over on my left wrist, which also broke, and I landed on my chin as well.”
Ouch… “I was out of commission for five months because of the opposite breaks in the right knee and the left wrist, so I had no balance,” she adds. “I had to learn to walk again. As a bass player, it would have been much easier to play if my right wrist had been broken. Playing octaves with my left hand was agony, but the doctor made me do it again and again. The result was interesting, though. All musicians develop little detours: if we can’t quite do something, we find a way to do it, like a little trick. I’ve got strong fingers, because I play very good piano, but I had to relearn with no cheating allowed. It was good, in a way. I’m back to full strength now.”
We’re here to talk about The Girl From Detroit City, her new 4-CD box set, released to celebrate the 50 years since she first stepped on stage with the Pleasure Seekers, a band which also included two of her sisters. “I worked very hard to get the box set right,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that it was really representative of me from the age of 14. Fifty years, you know! I went right back to the very first single the Pleasure Seekers ever made. There’s lots of unreleased stuff, like a track called ‘Desperado’ with Jeff Beck, which is just wonderful.”
Looking at the long list of songs on the box set, which bass parts is she most pleased with? “I like the machine-like playing of ‘She’s In Love With You’ (1979),” Suzi says. “It just doesn’t waver. Very few people can play it like that and sing the song, because the singing goes behind the beat. That’s awkward, it really takes skill. That and ‘The Girl From Detroit City’, a brand new song, which has an unforgiving Motown bass-line that you have to sing behind. They’re probably the only two songs that I’ve had to practise singing and playing. I don’t think about it, usually.”
Grabbing an acoustic bass, Suzi powers through a descending line with octave fills, saying, “There’s also this little bass riff in ‘Walking Through The Changes’, which is tasty. I wrote that song around the bass riff, and quite a few bass players get it wrong.”
Pointing to the Precision on the wall, she explains: “My dad gave me that bass in 1964. They threw in an electric mandolin to make him buy the bass, and a Fender Bassman amp as well, so when we formed the Pleasure Seekers it was given to me. Everybody picked an instrument, but no one picked bass, so they told me I was going to be the bass player. I said ‘OK!’ and put it on, and it was so me. I’m a percussive person anyway, so I went to the bass and I found my stage instrument. It just suited me.”
Suzi was pretty lucky to have a Precision as her first bass, we tell her, like she didn’t know that already. “Of course!” she replies. “Everybody else had cheap instruments. They all had this crap, but because I had a really cool bass, I had to be a good bass player. Plug the Precision into the board and it’s done. No fiddling around with the EQ, it’s done! There’s no other bass in the world that does that. I’ve talked about this with Paul McCartney. He was so jealous when he heard I started on a Precision. He hated me, ha ha! That’s quite a few years ago now.”
Fame first came calling for Suzi when she moved to the UK in 1971, having been spotted by producer Mickie Most, who hooked her up with songwriters Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. Hit singles followed and Suzi’s bass skills evolved fast. “First I played using my thumb like a pick, because nobody taught me any different,” she recalls, “and then a bass player from a local band came over and showed me fingers on the song ‘Money’. That was great because my thumb was bleeding. I just taught myself to play. I could read and write piano and percussion already, so I knew my chords and scales, and it wasn’t a huge jump to another instrument. I didn’t find it too difficult.”
“I had my influences: Elvis at six years old was one of them,” she adds. “I saw him aged six and I said, ‘I want to be like him!’ Otis Redding was a big influence too. But I just kind of planted my feet and there I was, with the bass slung low. Nobody else looked like that.”
Check YouTube for footage of Suzi on Top Of The Pops in 1974, when she played ‘Devil Gate Drive’ assisted by a different P-Bass to the one over in the corner. “I used Mickie Most’s white Precision for Top Of The Pops, because it contrasted against the black suit I was wearing,” she notes. When we tell her what a ballsy kid she was back then, she chuckles and says: “Yeah, and now I’m a ballsy old lady! You know, anybody can play the notes: it’s down to the feeling. That’s what you can’t teach people. It has to come from within, and everything I do is that way.”
“People ask me who my influences were on bass, and I tell them that my favourite is James Jamerson. My party trick is to say to any bass player, ‘I’m going to put on ‘How Sweet It Is’ by Marvin Gaye for 10 seconds and then I want you to hum me the bass-line’. What they hum will be completely wrong. They hear 10 times the notes that Jamerson plays. He leaves big gaps. You think it’s walking all the way through, but he isn’t. I actually met him in the Motown studio when I was 16. I was showing off on the bass while they took a break, and Jamerson pushed down the intercom button and said, ‘Not bad for a white chick!’ Then he said, ‘It’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play’, and I never forgot that.”
Suzi must be sick to death by now of journalists asking her about being the first female rock star, or even worse, how she fits into her famous leather catsuit on stage, so we’ll swerve all that ancient, patronising nonsense and simply ask her what it was like being a girl who played rock back in the 70s.
“I wasn’t the only girl musician around at the time,” she observes, “although there weren’t many, that’s for sure. The girl groups all knew each other. When I look back on it now, a girl rocker – who was an actual musician – had to break through sooner or later. It happened to fall on my shoulders, and one of the reasons for that is that I took myself very seriously from day one. The bass is a tough instrument to master, but I got very good very quickly because I already played piano and percussion, so I had a head start.”
She continues: “I never ever did gender, either: I still don’t. When I first came out, I said to people, ‘Do I look like a girl being a guy?’ and they said that I just look natural. I wasn’t trying to show that I could play like the guys – that wasn’t my stance. It was just, ‘This is me. I’m a girl. So what?’ Nobody ever really challenged me – I think because they could see I took myself seriously. Whatever you give off is what you get back, that’s my opinion.”
Did Most, Chinn or Chapman ever give Suzi direction about her bass parts? “Jesus, no. Never. They’d be dead!” she laughs. “I’m not the kind of person to be told what to do. You can maybe make a suggestion and I’ll take it on board and see if it’s right or wrong. My style, my performance, whatever it is, is organic: I don’t think about it. I’m very stubborn about this point. I don’t like basses with lots of fiddly bits on them. I see the bass, and the drums, as the engine. Without them, you’ve got nothing. I don’t want to be flash apart from at appropriate moments, unless you’re a lead bass player like Jack Bruce, who played that way and he was wonderful.”
This year Suzi will be playing festivals and executing a farewell Australian tour – not her last tour ever, she explains, just the last one Down Under. “My main stage bass is a Fender Jazz now, not an old one, which I saw in a shop and I grabbed,” she says. “I won’t take the old Precision on the road any more. To be honest, when I’m on stage doing my bass solo, which is always a big part of my show, the Jazz neck is a teeny bit slimmer. I don’t mind either neck, actually, but when you want to race around and show off, the Jazz neck gives you a little extra edge.”
What other gear has she got? “I take a Status out as a backup. The graphite neck makes you think you’ve died and gone to heaven. Then when you go back to the Fender, it’s like having a young boyfriend and then going back to your husband, ha ha! I also have a pink Fender Telecaster bass, but I won’t take that out either, because I bash it on stage. I have a belt on with my in-ears attached to it, which scratches it. It’s better to have the Fender Jazz, which doesn’t cost a fortune. I’ve also got a Les Paul Recording bass and two BC Riches: a Rich Bich and a red custom, which they made for me when we played on Top Of The Pops. For amps, I use Orange: they’re very good. No effects. Bass is bass!”
Suzi also breaks out a five-string from time to time, she explains. “I love five-strings. As you get a little bit older, it’s normal to lose one or two of your higher vocal notes. You can still hit them, but you don’t want to do that when you’re playing every night, because you’ll blow your voice out. So I drop the bass note a little and use a five-string.”
You may have seen Suzi busting out a slap line from time to time, and noticed that she does it with fingers pointed downwards rather than the conventional thumb style. “Let me show you how I do it,” she says, reaching for her acoustic and slapping out a Motown line. “I slap the way I learned, from double bass playing. Maybe I should have learned the usual way, but I’m quite stubborn about sticking to what I learned!” In the 80s, did she ever consider learning the standard Larry Graham/Mark King approach? “Yes and no. I stick to what I know I do best. For instance, I’ve never used a pick in my life, even when I play guitar.”
So what is Suzi best known for these days? In America, it’s quite possibly her stint on Happy Days from 1977 to ’79, where she appeared toting a bunch of basses that would fetch a huge price nowadays, even if their sound quality wasn’t exactly hi-fi. “I played my Gibson EB-0 on Happy Days, because it was authentic to the period,” she remembers. “It was a nice bass and it’s now in the British Museum with my jumpsuit, on loan. Live, though, it didn’t quite have the balls. It’s OK if you’re doing an unplugged thing.”
In this country and Europe, where Suzi commands a huge following, she’s renowned for her live show – and among bass players, for the lengthy solo she delivers. “My solo has evolved over the years,” she says. “I still try different things and find new lines: it lasts about eight minutes now. You need the right bass for that solo, though. For example, I like fretless but it’s more of a studio instrument: live, there’s too much room for error, especially when you’re jogging across the stage and dancing and singing. You don’t want to fuck up!”
Before we leave, Suzi shows us her forthcoming book of autobiographical poetry, Through My Eyes. “It’s very raw and exposed,” she explains. “I always turn anything painful into a song or a poem: that way the negative becomes a positive. Everything teaches you something.” After this long as a rock musician, what advice does she have for bass players? “Listen, and find your space,” she tells us. “You don’t have to create your space, but you do have to find it.” Amen to that.
The Girl From Detroit City is out now on Cherry Red.