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Cherie Currie Chats with Suzi Quatro
Intro by Jeff Clark
Suzi Quatro’s early singles – “Can the Can,” “The Wild One,” “Devil Gate Drive,” “I May Be Too Young” “48 Crash” – work on so many levels. They’re simple. They’re catchy. They’re tough. They’re fun. They’re hard rock, they’re glam rock, they’re garage rock, they’re power-pop, they’re almost bubblegum in a way, they’re basic like mid-to-late 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, and they’re proto-punk – all in one. Some of those styles were hot at the time, some were considered outdated by then, and some didn’t really become “cool” until later, after punk and new wave bands started citing their early influences. Released in the midst of that movement, I’d also nominate 1980’s “Rock Hard” to the list of her greatest A-sides, and while we’re at it, “Cream Dream,” the non-LP B-side to 1978’s “If You Can’t Give Me Love,” is quite possibly the best thing she ever recorded.
And right at this very moment I’m sure many of you are scratching your heads going, “Huh? I only remember Leather Tuscadero with Richie and Potsie and the gang channeling the mighty power of rock ‘n’ roll to bring down super-square Officer Kirk…”
Well, there was that, too. But oh, if you knew Suzi…
Well, now you can, as you should. On July 3rd, filmmaker Liam Firmager’s documentary Suzi Q, which has already received wide acclaim from festival screenings and its release in other areas of the world, will finally be available on North American video-on-demand streaming services and good old fashioned DVD. The enlightening look at one of the pioneering tomboys of rock ‘n’ roll traces her professional and personal life from 1950s and ‘60s Detroit through her 1970s breakthrough as a star across Europe, Australia and eventually her home country; coming in the midst of her seven appearances on Happy Days, her 1978 soft-rock duet with Chris Norman, “Stumblin’ In,” reached #4 on Billboard’s singles chart and became a million seller, oddly doing better in the U.S. than in Norman’s native England, where he was at least marginally known as the singer of the band Smokie.
As the hits dwindled in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Quatro branched out into other areas, some of which Suzi Q also documents – she’s dabbled in acting, she’s written and starred in stage musicals, she’s hosted weekly radio programs on the BBC, she’s written a memoir and also a novel. She even released a double-CD new age “self-help” album in 1999. She’s been on a modest comeback ever since, releasing albums every few years juggling new original songs with covers ranging from Neil Young to Goldfrapp to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. At age 70 Quatro still tours, and her latest LP, last year’s No Control, includes material co-written with her son, Richard Tuckey.
Like many similar life story rock docs, Suzi Q features an array of famous fans and friends gushing about the subject; in this particular case that includes Alice Cooper, Deborah Harry, Donita Sparks (L7), Kathy Valentine (The Go-Go’s), Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club), KT Tunstall and Henry Winkler (The Fonz), as well as three former members of seminal rock band The Runaways: Cherie Currie, Joan Jett and Lita Ford. It’s clear that Quatro had an enormous influence on that band and their subsequent endeavors. Jett in particular basically adopted Quatro’s whole look, sound and approach for her own successful career, but there are numerous other parallels and precedents. With her sisters and friends, Suzi was part of a teenage all-girl band in the ‘60s called The Pleasure Seekers (later, briefly, Cradle), whose first single’s B-side was “What a Way to Die” a teenage beer guzzling rebel song that includes the line “I may not make it past 21,” which kinda seems like another way of saying “Hello world, I’m your wild girl!” The Pleasure Seekers and The Runaways both signed to Mercury Records, eight years apart. The Runaways – Jett and Currie in particular – often wore leather or silver jumpsuits, a look that Quatro had well established for herself. Onetime Runaways bassist Vicki Blue produced Quatro’s “Strict Machine” video and made her own documentary about Quatro that has never been released. Taking the association to an absurd level, following Cradle’s breakup Suzi’s sister Patti joined all-female band Fanny, whose drummer Brie Howard released an album with Currie last year. Heck, the four of them – Cherie, Brie, Patti and Suzi – could form a granny rock supergroup with Lita and the Milligan sisters, and hire Mike Chapman to produce their album!
But back here in the real world, with Suzi Q now coming out in the States I thought it’d be cool if Cherie Currie – whose long-in-coming new album Blvds of Splendor, featuring Brody Dalle, Billy Corgan, Slash, Duff McKagan, Juliette Lewis and producer Matt Sorum, is now widely available on digital after a limited vinyl release for 2019’s Record Store Day – would interview her friend Suzi Quatro for Stomp and Stammer. To my delight, she agreed – and here’s the transcript to prove it…
Cherie Currie: My dear wonderful friend, Suzi… I’ve gotta say this – this is my first interview, ever!
Suzi Quatro: “Oh my God! Well, I’ve done it for years on the radio, so I know what it’s like. And actually, Cherie, what it will teach you, if you do more, it will show you what questions not to ask! Hahaha!”
I already know that! Now, you were my inspiration growing up. But who were your inspirations? And were you aware of the very few other female rock musicians and bands that preceded you?
“I come from a big, big musical family, so I was exposed to music since the age of six, bigtime. I saw my dad play, I saw my eldest sister – by nine years – all her music I knew, all my brother’s music I knew, all my other sisters’ music I knew. So I grew up with it. But my first litmus moment was seeing Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show. I saw him when I was six years old. And I tell people this: I went into that screen, at six – he was doing ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ – and I knew that I was going to do what he did. At that age. Isn’t that crazy?”
That is! For me, it was fourteen. But six years old? That’s outstanding. And as you said, you grew up in a musical family, and you took drum lessons as a child, and piano lessons, right?
“Yeah, the first instrument I ever played was bongo drums. And my father let me play in front of him [with his jazz band, the Art Quatro Trio] sometimes. And then I took classical piano. So I read and write and play classical music on piano. I still play my Beethovens here. And then I went to the school orchestra, and I learned how to play drums… And then I taught myself bass guitar at fourteen. So I’m kinda like an all-around musician, but bass is my ‘stage’ [instrument], that’s me. And privately, I usually compose on piano. Not always.”
In 1965, you and your sisters, and I believe a neighbor or two, put together the all-girl band The Pleasure Seekers, and you were the bass player. Was that something you chose or did they say “You have to play the bass for us”?
“It was a combination of things. First of all… nobody even knows this… when I was little, I used to go down to the basement of our house, and take a great big broom, wrap rubber bands around it and pluck it like a stand-up bass… And when we had the family sing songs, all five kids, and we always were driving someplace and everybody would go into harmony notes and all that, my father used to be in the front driving, and he’d be going, [in a deep bass-like voice] ‘Boom, ba-boom, ba-boom-ba-boom-ba-boom…’ And I used to think, ‘That’s hard to sing, dad!’ And then, when the band started… again, Ed Sullivan Show – we were watching The Beatles, and of course the phone started ringing off the hook, and me and my eldest sister [Arlene] and another girl, everybody screamed about forming an all-girl band! And everybody chose an instrument. I just didn’t speak up quite quick enough – which is unlike me! – and my sister Patti said, ‘You’re gonna play the bass.’ And I said, ‘Okay…’ And my dad gave me a 1957 Fender Precision – I don’t know if you know about it, but it is the Rolls Royce of bass guitars! I got given the best bass to begin with! Anyway, I put it on, and [it’s] another lightbulb moment. I just went, ‘Oh, my God. This is me.’ And people do say to me I look like I was born with a bass in my hands, hahaha!
“The original band was just Patti and me [as far as Quatros]. Then we lost our keyboard player, and my dad said, ‘Why are you looking for an outside girl? Your sister Arlene plays!’ She had three kids by this time, but she joined the band. And then once she left, my little sister [Nancy] came in. So there was never all four sisters at any one time, but there was three, and then three.”
So your father was a true influence, musically, for you.
“He was an influence in every respect. He was one of these real charismatic performers, and I used to watch him play, and I got a lot [from that]. But his work ethic is what really stuck with me. He said to me, ‘When you go on a stage, and do a show…one thing you have to remember is every single person in that audience paid – they took a dollar out of their pocket, and they paid to see you. And if you don’t go out there and give them all of you, the best you can, then get off the stage.’ And that stuck. You know me, Cherie. That’s me, isn’t it?”
You and I, we both missed out on what would be considered a “normal” teenage childhood, obviously. What was life like as a member of The Pleasure Seekers? Were you wild and rowdy, or well-behaved? Did your father keep a close eye on you?
“Well, don’t forget – we had Arlene’s first husband, Leo, managing us. So we had three sisters together, and a husband. And he kinda watched us, but not all the time. But to be quite honest, I am not a wild girl at all. I’m wild on the stage, and when I come off I’m pretty normal. My mother’s upbringing stayed with me. She’s my moral touchstone. I don’t need to take the rock ‘n’ roll ‘image’ off the stage… I can be quiet off and crazy on. That’s me. And then I balance the two things out. You have to have a private life, you have to have private self too. Or you’ll go mad.”
That’s true. Well, when I was a teenager we had the Sugar Shack in Los Angeles, which was an under-21, teenage dance club. And you had Dave Leone, who ran Detroit’s teen dance club, the Hideout, at the time, and he wrote some songs for The Pleasure Seekers. How’d he get involved? Were you regulars at his club?
“We used to go there dancing, yeah, and I think there was… there was a band on, and we were all dancing and stuff, and we had already started The Pleasure Seekers – we were practicing, I think we had three songs. And [Patti] told Dan Leone that the band [onstage that night] was crap and we could do better, so he said, ‘Okay, you’re on next week.’ So, we went up there and did our three songs, all the same three chords, you know. And he liked us a lot. Golden World signed us up first, we did a few tracks for them, and then Dave Leone wrote two songs and took us in the studio, and we put them down. On the Hideout label, they came out on eventually. Yeah, boy oh boy… good memories!
“We were doing all the clubs when I was fourteen, from about the age of fourteen until I was eighteen, maybe nineteen. We were more of a show band, to tell you the truth. Which was invaluable, because you learn how to entertain – you know, play different instruments, and dance steps, and all sorts of things. And then we got serious, and the band changed into Cradle, and we started to write our own material, the band got very serious, and heavy, and jamming. I didn’t like Cradle as much. To me, the fun part was The Pleasure Seekers. I enjoyed that entertainment value of that, you know. [With Cradle] I took the back seat a little bit, because little sister [Nancy] was coming in. And she was that generation. So, I got real good on my bass at that point, actually.”
The Pleasure Seekers were part of the Detroit scene of the mid ‘60s. What was that like? Did you know or associate with any of the others of that scene, like Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent…?
“Sure! We were friends with all of them, we played gigs with them. All the neighborhood bands… sure, I know them all. I grew up with them.”
Did you have any sense of being part of something exciting on the rise? Were you in competition with the guy bands? Or were you given a boost up from them?
“I never even got in the headspace of that. And I believe I say it in my documentary, too – I don’t really do gender. I never did. I didn’t care who was in the band – I didn’t care if it was all-female. It didn’t matter to me. It mattered more to Patti. So if there was any kind of attitudes in the scene, I didn’t even see it. I didn’t even give a shit. I never considered myself, ever, a ‘female musician.’ All I ever called myself was a musician.”
What about Motown? That label put Detroit on the musical map in the early ‘60s. What that a big deal for you when you were young, or was it not “rock ‘n’ roll” enough for your tastes?
“I was always based in rock ‘n’ roll. I mean, even in the ‘show band’ days, anything heavy, anything that required anything like that, it was always given to me. I sang 99% of the songs. But, saying that, I am a Detroit girl, and I’m a huge, huge, Motown fan. I can do all the dance steps, all the Temptations routines – give me a glass of wine and I’m off on the floor! I can say that James Jamerson, the bass player from The Funk Brothers, he was my inspiration, still to this day. I’ve taken a lot from Motown – not in my sound, but growing up in Detroit, that stays with you a lifetime… The [Motown] bass and drums [sound] is equal to nothing else in the world. It’s the best.”
Well, I think you’re the best. You’re so original, Suzi. I had never seen anything like you before. And when I think about your music, it was so iconic and fresh for a person like me, who was listening to Elton John, and David Bowie of course, Alice Cooper… I mean, you had an edginess that was so unique, and a toughness, but yet there was such a cute, darling quality about you. So, I’m gonna fast-forward, and bring the 1970s into the picture now, and that look – that iconic jumpsuit. You had black, you had silver… what made you decide that was going to be your look?
“I remember watching the Elvis ‘Comeback Special,’ being the fan that I was my whole life, and he had that leather on, and I decided leather – that was the main thing. ‘I’m going to wear leather when my time comes!’ Which, I was always waiting for my time to come, standing in the shadows, waiting for it. I got my first leather jacket when I was eighteen. And then when I got to England, and we made [second solo single] ‘Can the Can,’ and it was time to discuss ‘image,’ I said I wanted to wear leather, and actually [producer/label owner] Mickie [Most] was against it. He thought it was old fashioned, but I stuck to my guns like I always do, and I said, ‘I want to wear leather!’ And then he said, ‘What about a jumpsuit?’ And I thought that it was a real sensible idea, ‘cause I’m that stupid. I don’t play the sex character – I didn’t think of it in that way, honestly. I just thought that I could jump around and nothing would move, and that’s great ‘cause I jump around all the time. So I thought, ‘Good – I don’t have to tuck in a shirt sleeve, or worry about [anything] coming undone. [It’s] like a skin!’ And then I got the pictures back. And I kinda went, ‘…Oh…’”
Hahaha! Did you hire somebody to make these suits especially for you?
“Sure! Yeah, they had to come measure me up and make them. Mickie wanted a jumpsuit to fit, and I thought, ‘Great!’ I honestly thought it was logical. I had no idea! But then that just shows you how, even though I had a jumpsuit, I didn’t play the sex cat. I never did… I think Mickie got the idea from [Barbarella]. I didn’t know anything about that.”
Well, when I put on that corset for “Cherry Bomb” for the very first time, looking in the mirror and seeing myself, I saw something completely different. When you first saw yourself wearing that jumpsuit in a mirror, what went through your mind?
“I knew it was it. It was when I had that first photo session, and the record was playing behind me on the speakers, and the band was there dressed in the leather, and I had my jumpsuit on, and [photographer] Gered Mankowitz was shootin’ away… it was the pivotal moment of my life as Suzi Quatro. He said to me, ‘Give me that Suzi Quatro look.’ And…I had one! But I didn’t know I had one. But I did the pose, and… I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget that moment. I said, ‘Oh… now things make sense.’”
I will say that when I see photographs of you from back then – and I know each one of them by heart – your face, the way you look, there isn’t a hint of acting. It was so subtle, and yet so powerful. It was exactly who Suzi Quatro is. There was no make believe.
“Thank you for saying that. Because that’s exactly how I see things myself. And, like me or don’t like me, it’s your choice. But I am real. That’s the main thing. I am real. That’s why I’m still here.”
“Can the Can” went to number one in England, Australia and Germany. Obviously a major milestone. After that happened, and you had some solid success with subsequent singles, how did that impact your confidence? Did you feel vindicated?
“Not vindicated. No, I felt that the wait had been worth it. I just said, ‘Yeah – I believed in myself, and I’ve done it!’ That’s how I felt.”
Your songs were big in various European countries and Australia, but they didn’t make as big a dent on the U.S. charts or U.S. radio. Neither did The Runaways, by the way. Was that disheartening to you? Or were you too busy to care?
“I had no idea. I just thought maybe it was a little too early. They hadn’t seen somebody like me before. I think it took Happy Days for them to really see that kind of girl, and bring it into every home. That’s when it happened. But I was having so many hits everywhere, it didn’t matter to me, and I still toured [the U.S.] all the time. I toured in ’74, ’75, ’76, ’77, you know, and then I got into Happy Days, and I had a huge million seller with ‘Stumblin’ In,’ so it was just at a slightly different time in America. And now everybody’s rediscovering me in America, so yay! Hahaha!”
How weird was it that “Stumblin’ In,” of all things, was a big hit in the US and didn’t do well in England? To me, I thought Americans were just a bunch of dorks! For that to be a huge hit, and not ‘Can the Can’ and all that, but I was at least glad that they caught up.
“And it’s fine. You know, everybody’s path is different, and it was my path to be the bootprint and kick down the door. And I’m glad that I did that. And I’m glad that all the women followed through it. I’m proud of that. I didn’t do it for that reason, but I’m proud of it.”
Alice Cooper was always a big supporter of you, as well as The Runaways – he helped get us signed to Mercury Records. I know The Pleasure Seekers were on Mercury. But, I was there at [L.A. arena] The Forum for the Welcome to My Nightmare U.S. tour. What do you remember from that tour? Was it insane?
“Well, I always thought Alice called it the right thing, ‘Welcome to My Nightmare’ – we did 85 shows! Crazy.”
I remember they played “The Bitch is Back” by Elton John before you came on. That was always the lead-in song.
“Yeah! Hahaha! I know! Nice intro! My mom got mad at that. She didn’t like it, hahaha! She said, ‘But you have such a sweet image!’ I was like, ‘No I don’t, mom!’ But I guess I do.”
Now, they made a movie about The Runaways, Dakota Fanning plays me. Who would be your choice to play you for the Suzi Quatro life story feature film?
“I don’t know. You know, there’s been a few suggestions. Billie Eilish has been suggested, Miley Cyrus has been suggested. A few people. Um… I’m gonna be organic with this, because I’m very involved, obviously, writing the script and everything – I am going to know the person that should play me the second I lay eyes on them, and I’m gonna go with my gut. I will just know. There’s a certain part of my character that they have to have in them. They can’t act it. And that’s what I’m lookin’ for.”
Your son Richard wrote songs with you for your most recent album No Control. What was that like?
“Oh, it’s one of the best albums of my entire career. He pushed all my Suzi Quatro buttons. I never had such rave reviews in my entire life, where they’re dissecting the songs and quoting my lyrics back to me. It’s been fantastic. And during this lockdown we’ve written the next album – fourteen songs.”
Looking back on your life, Suzi, what are the profound moments that stay with you?
“Oh my God… for me, it’s always the first times with everything. My first number one will never leave me – you know, you get a crate of champagne from the record company, everybody wants to know you, calling you for interviews. My first big gig, where they were all there to see me. My first acting role, my first musical, my first radio show – it’s all a matter of firsts. And the fact that I’m still creating. That’s fantastic. And I’m not gonna stop ‘til I drop.”