It’s always something of a surprise when you find that a stalwart of the early Seventies singles chart has recorded a bunch of albums, because back then, singles acts and album bands were very different animals and only rarely was there any crossover. Album bands might release singles, but rarely expected them to be hits, while acts like Sweet could storm the top five regularly with singles yet rarely even troubled the lower reaches of the charts with their albums (a pity, because Sweet made some great albums). So it’s a bit of a surprise to find myself reviewing Suzi Quatro’s fifth and sixth studio albums, together with a live double LP offering, simply because I’d always assumed she was strictly a singles act.
The first of these, Live and Kickin’, makes its very belated UK debut with this release – the original vinyl offering never came out here, only appearing in Japan (where it was recorded) and Australia.
Back in the 1980s, I recorded a live performance by Quatro from the Reading Festival – then still very much a rock fest – that was broadcast on Radio 1’s Friday Rock Show. She was already seen as something of a has been by then, but this was blistering stuff – a raw, rockin’ show where she clearly had the crowd in the palm of her hand. So there was no question that she could cut it live with the best of them. This 1977 recording is a lot tamer though – either because it’s from a time when she was still a pop star (and moving from bubblegum rockers like Can the Can to a more countrified sound) or because it doesn’t have the determination of an act who felt she had something to prove to a crowd of heavy metal fans.
Much of the music here comes from her fourth album Aggro-Phobia, and once you realise that it’s not going to be as blistering as that Reading show (which becomes apparent right away with opener The Wild One, which is a lot more restrained here than at that gig), it’s not bad. Clearly live with few, if any overdubs for the most part (mistakes are left in), it’s essentially no nonsense, old school rock ‘n’ roll of a 1970s type, with as much honky tonk piano as guitar soloing, and tracks that are a little bit Alice Cooper (this has a sound similar to Cooper’s live album of the same year), a little bit Cockney Rebel (not least because one of the tracks is a decent version of Make Me Smile) – not so much in terms of music but in vibe, if that makes any sense. Perhaps it’s to do with instruments and recording equipment of the time – I’m not a musician, so I have no idea. It’s very much of it’s time, shall we say – and that’s cool, because it’s time was, contrary to what you’ve been told, pretty good. There’s a bluesy and grinding version of Heartbreak Hotel, blues ballad Cat Size initially gets lost in the mix before erupting into extensive guitar noodling and American Lady is a mix of pop-rock and patriotism that is a bit cringeworthy.
Things start to kick into gear with track 8 (or the last track on side two originally), Glycerine Queen, which is the sort of thing people might expect from Quatro – a no bullshit glam stomper that is great. In the rush to trash that whole era, critics have forgotten just how much of teenage rampage this stuff was (as I argue here) – this is pure pop, pure rock, entirely disposable and so entirely essential. What’s It Like to Be Loved is another pop rocker, but clocks in at 14.26! Well, this was the Seventies, and no gig would be complete without a lengthy jam session by the band and yes, a drum solo. Drummer Dave Neal is no Carl Palmer and this doesn’t do much (he’s quickly joined by Quatro on bass, which doesn’t help frankly). But, you know, it was a different time then and I’m willing to forgive this spot of indulgence, even if I will be pressing ‘skip’ on future listenings.
After this though, it’s all solid hits (well, Roxy Roller wasn’t really a hit, but it should’ve been) –Can the Can and Devil Gate Drive (which suffer with too prominent keyboard work – a bad mix perhaps) before finishing up with Tear Me Apart and Keep A-Knockin, a couple of no-nonsense rockers to end the show. On the whole then, a worthy effort – but someone should put that Radio 1 recording out!
The other two albums are possibly of lesser interest to the casual fan. Dating from 1978 and 1979, they were recorded when Quatro was starring in US sitcom Happy Days and are far removed from the sort of leather-clad glam rock that you might associate with her. Of course, acts are allowed to evolved beyond their initial sound – especially if that sound is long dead. If You Knew Suzi… sets out its stall on opening track Don’t Change My Luck, a soft rock number with a country edge that shows Quatro wasn’t especially interested in taking on the punks at their own game. Single The Race is On is similarly unadventurous, cod reggae touches aside, and probably sounded very dated in 1978, while ballad Wiser Than You closes the album, suggesting that a future of safe, inoffensive MOR was assured. But there are more interesting touches here too – the downbeat Suicide tells of the downside of the American Dream that is too bleak to qualify as ‘pop’, while Non Citizen is a more rocking variation on the same theme – though this is possibly the most dated sounding track on the album now.
The album does have a bona fide hit single – If You Can’t Give Me Love reached No. 4 on the UK charts. This is another country styled number, but everything comes together on this track – it’s a fine pop tune, instantly catchy and shows that the disintegrating team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman still had it in them (Chapman also produced both these albums, at the same time as working with Blondie).
There are several covers – The Easybeats’ Evie is turned into a fairly funky rocker, Tom Petty’s Breakdown is turned into the album’s closest attempt at matching the (American) post-punk pop sound of the late Seventies and Rick Derringer’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hoochie Coo feels like the closest the album comes to what was Quatro’s comfort zone – no nonsense heavy blues rock. The covers are let down only by a lacklustre of the Kink’s Tired of Waiting which is interesting only for odd new wave touches.
This new addition includes three bonus tracks – the boogie rocker (and interestingly named!) Cream Dream, an alternate version of Wiser Than You and most incongruously, a smoothed out cover of Springsteen’s Born to Run that actually works quite well (people who actually like Springsteen might beg to differ, admittedly).
In the end, If You Knew Suzi… is a bit of a schizophrenic album that sounds like an artist unsure where the future was taking her – a modern take on pop or country flavoured soft rock. It’s the latter that stands up best musically today, lacking the late Seventies production touches that nail the other tracks to a time period.
Suzi… And Other Four Letter Words seems to be an attempt to get back to basics, the 1979 album opening with furious rocker I’ve Never Been in Love that is the equal of any of her hits from years earlier. The cover is an interesting contrast to the soft focus pastel shades of the previous LP too, suggesting that all involved knew where Suzi’s strengths lay and were determined to play to them.
The fast pace is kept up with the bouncy Mind Demons, and the following track, She’s in Love with You (another UK hit single, reaching No.11) makes it three for three, the chundering bass and keyboard combo making this a real toe tapper. These are all songs of love, lust and desire – rock ‘n’ roll at its most basic and unpretentious, and all the better for it.
The cynical Hollywood is more laid back, but still pretty cool and – gosh – includes the word ‘fucking’ on a couple of occasions! Four Letter Words, ironically, contains no such profanity and this track, along with Space Cadets, is perhaps the closest to the sound of the last album, being a light pop number. But things get back on track with Mama’s Boy, a rocking number about a useless, ineffectual lover. Starlight Lady and You Are My Lover are both Sixties style pop ballads, helped by Chapman’s production that gives them the same touch he gave Blondie (the latter track could almost be Blondie!). Closer Love Hurts – not the Gram Parsons song – is a bouncy country rocker that is fairly chirpy if unremarkable.
There’s a bigger sound here all round – gone for the most part are the quirky new wave touches and the album feels more of a coherent piece rather than a collection of songs from someone looking for a new sound. It’s a lot better than you might expect.
While the quality varies, it’s always good to see stuff like this given a new lease of life. I have no idea if there is a sizeable Suzi Quatro fan base out there, but if there is, they will doubtless be snapping these up. Curious bystanders might be best staring with the live album and branching out from there.