The hits are the stuff of legend. From Down Down and Rockin’ All Over The World, to Whatever You Want and In The Army Now, from What You’re Proposing and Caroline to Again and Again and Marguerita Time, his band has sold a reported 100 million records since their debut in 1968, as well as opening Live Aid at Wembley Stadium, and winning a BRIT Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music, and being awarded an OBE in the 2010 New Year Honours for services to music and charity.
He’s got a new book out, too, which focuses on the very hits that the public loves. Songbook is his ode to a remarkable career, in which he’s never stopped writing classic songs. He’s about to tour that, too, with an extensive theatre tour of England, Scotland and Wales. It starts on March 24 and runs until the end of November, with shows throughout spring and autumn.
The tour will give fans the chance to enjoy an evening of music, along with his trademark chat, as he explores the high points of an incredible career.
The man who met Rick Parfitt at Butlins and who began his musical career by embracing psychedelia has never been out of the spotlight. To this day, there are headline shows in arenas, at festivals, and in theatres across Europe.
“I’m calling it Tunes and Chat,” says Rossi. “I’ll have another acoustic guitarist with me and we’ll be playing songs that people love, explaining how they came about. What? You want me to tell you how many songs? Fine. We’ll be doing about 20 songs, so it’ll be a really good show with plenty of hits and some deeper cuts that don’t often get played.”
The tour promises to be a unique experience in which Francis will reprise fan favourites as the audience enjoys acoustic versions of Quo classics, alongside previously not-performed-live tunes.
He’s played in theatres in recent years, on a hugely successful spoken word tour called: I Talk Too Much. That focused on his life and times, from watching his ice-cream-selling family as a kid to learning how to play music, from blowing a seven-figure sum on drink and drugs to the passing of his former bandmate, Rick Parfitt.
His new tour, in contrast, will focus on the music, as fans get to hear the songs they love – as well as the stories behind them.
Rockin’ All Over The World, for instance, came about when Rick was going down the A3 one night, drunk. Francis says: “Rick used to pick people up on the A3, people thumbing a lift, there was a lot of that then.
“The radio came on and Rockin’ All Over The World was playing. At the time, none of us were that keen about it, you know. We thought the song was alright, but we didn’t know what it would become.
“We got more stick for that record than anything we’d done in our lives, until In The Army and Marguerita Time. I still find it weird today that people go ‘And I like it, and I like it…’ And they think it’s rock. No it’s not. It’s a pop song. We do these big festivals, like Wacken, in Europe, which is like two million bikers – it’s not two million, it’s probably 100,000 – but it feels B.I.G. They’re the most delightful people. There’s something similar in Sweden, too. Everyone’s got black everything: black hair, black tattoos, black clothes, black leather. All these people come down the front to the pit when we do Rockin’. I don’t know what to make of it: it sounds like Singing In The Rain and all these rockers think it’s a rock anthem. I don’t understand. I’m delighted it was such a big hit for us but I think we’ve done far better songs.”
Songbook is a fascinating book – and tour – for fans who want to know more about their favourites.
What You’re Proposing, for instance, came about when Rossi was propositioned. “I said to Bernard: ‘We can’t say that.’ I told him what – or rather who – it was about. I said: ‘We can’t say that. People will realise who it’s about.’ I thought people would suss it. It was really quick, a really, really quick song. It’s very, very simple. I thought people would know who it was about but they didn’t. There was a fear that it would expose itself – or her. I’ll come back to that later.”
And then there was Marguerita Time, a song about the mother of his daughter, Bernadette, at a time when Rossi was heavily into drink and drugs. “I wrote it on piano. It came together easily. Even now if I hear the intro of Marguerita, it just sounds so happy. There’s was a girl in the video to that song and she was so happy. It was around the time that Liz and I were supposed to see the Everly Brothers and we didn’t go. She got pregnant that night and that’s what I now tell my daughter: ‘If we’d gone to see the Everly Brothers you wouldn’t be here.’ Lost in a fantasy. I was. I’d go to Ireland for a few weeks and just stay with Elizabeth. I couldn’t get anything for the last verse. Forget it. Let’s have a drink. I think I was getting through a lot of drink and a lot of cocaine.”
If there’s one thing Rossi has learned, it’s to listen to his instinct – rather than the voices of others. Though he consults with his team on everything, he’s learned that it’s his own voice that really counts. The Quo hit, In The Army Now, was a classic example of that.
He says: “I was in Ireland with my wife. I used to take three or four weeks to go and stay there with her in Dublin. It was great. She was just great to be with, and still is. She’d try and cook Italian food for me. Her brother would come. One afternoon, I went to the bathroom to do the crossword. There was this radio show that went out in Ireland but nowhere else by a guy called Casey Cae. He did a big radio show in America.
“He played this track, which moved me. It was In The Army Now, the original version, by Bolland and Bolland – two brothers. I don’t know if music does that to other people, but it just inspired me. Something just caught me. And it was the refrain that I really liked: ‘Ohooho, you’re in the…’
“I remember this kid at school, his dad was a John Wayne fan.
“He’d come into school with these naked pictures of women, which he must have got off his dad. The teachers found them and told his dad. Then he came in the next day with all these welts across his back where his dad must have hit him. He was always getting in trouble, and he’d go charging out the room crying when the teachers told him off. ‘I hate you, I’m going to join the army.’
“I hadn’t thought about him at all until we did In The Army Now. And I wondered if he’d gone through with it after all. I know that in World War One and World War Two people were recruited like that, all mates together. They’d get you to join up. I would never have had the guts to go, I’m a wimp. I don’t know if I’d have been a conscientious objector as opposed to just a coward. I wondered whether McCann ever got there, whether he had a couple of pints and signed on. I wondered whether he’d been with a couple of mates and they’d got some Dutch courage and thought: ‘Yeah, we’re going to defend our country.’
“I find all that weird, that idea that you could just sign up. I wondered how many people there’d have been like that, who decided to fight for King and country, or Queen and country. How many people woke up in a dormitory thinking: ‘How did I do this?’
“I kept thinking of that kid when we were doing that, plus there was something really haunting and catchy about that song for me.
“I always thought In The Army was going to be a huge, huge hit or a massive failure.
“Andrew Bown and I used to have a thing where we could pretty much guess where the songs would go in the charts. We could roughly guess what position we’d get to in the singles chart and we’d invariably be correct within a place or so. I was fighting for In The Army and the record company didn’t want it out, certain people in the record company didn’t want it out. ‘No, no, no. It’s wrong. It’s never gonna take off.’ And it was a massive hit. It was never going to be in the middle. That was either going to be a massive hit or a complete no-no and thankfully it was a massive hit.
“A girl came up to me in Belfast, we were staying at the Europa Hotel. That place got bombed all the time, it felt like, but we were still staying there. What we doing here? Put us somewhere else. ‘No, you can stay in the most dangerous hotel in the world.’ So, anyway, this girl comes up to me when I was sitting downstairs. I think I might have been drinking. So I’d be down in the bar and this girl comes up. She says: ‘Hello’. Oh, hi. So she starts talking. ‘Your band has made such a difference to me over the years.’ Oh, that’s nice. ‘But I’d just like to say I don’t ever want to see you again and I never want to hear your music again because I can’t believe you recorded that song.’ Right, I’m really, really sorry. Which song? ‘In The Army. I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘I just had to say that.’
“So that’s what some people felt about In The Army. I’ve never forgotten that girl in Belfast. It was the same with Rockin’ and the same with Margherita. And they sold so many copies but some people genuinely hated them. They felt offended, as though it was personal to them.”
As well as touring Songbook, Rossi has also recorded a CD EP, featuring acoustic versions of classic tracks: Jack To A King – Spinning Wheel Blues – April, Spring, Summer And Wednesdays – & And It’s Better Now.
“You know what,” he says, leaning forward. “I really love this. I’m finally getting to do what I’ve always wanted to do, which is just play, simply, without the volume turned up to number 11. It’s taken me all of my career to strip it back and get really simple. I’m letting the songs do the talking.”
Or, rather, he’s letting the Songbook do just that.