Suzi Quatro interview by Billups Allen

Suzi Quatro illustration by Billups Allen

Splat the Movies, Episode Six: Suzi Q, a New Documentary Finds Suzi Quatro Still “Fightin’ Hard to Win.”

In a new documentary, Suzi Q, rock superstar Suzi Quatro recalls being impressed by the fitted black leather suit Elvis wore during his televised 1968 special. Several short years later Quatro donned her own version of the black leather jumpsuit and tore up stages around the world with her unique brand of rowdy rock’n’roll. While the music industry scrambled to catch up to her, her black-suited image helped change the perception of what a woman could accomplish in rock’n’roll. The image also led to her portraying a memorable character on a popular sitcom (Leather Tuscadero in Happy Days). She helped clear a path for acts like The Go-Go’s, The Pretenders, and The Runaways. She begets praise as an innovator from people like Alice Cooper and Henry Winkler, two icons whose posters hung on many a teenager’s wall in the ’70s. Quatro is no empty suit. She has the riffs to get it done. But like many innovators, she’s not a household name. And she’s been here for years.

Razorcake got to speak to Quatro the day after the documentary Suzi Q was released digitally in the U.S. Due to the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak, the film has seen only a few screenings, but is available now in the U.S. digitally through several channels.

Billups: The movie just became available on iTunes last night and I just finished watching it. I also saw an interview where you said the director told you off the bat that he wasn’t a fan. Would you talk a little bit about the synthesis of the documentary, your first contacts with the director, et cetera.

Suzi Quatro: He introduced himself. And I said, “Okay, tell me a little bit about yourself.” And he said, “I have to tell you I’m not a fan.” So I kind of went, “Right. Okay.” And he said, “No, no. Don’t get me wrong. I like your music, which I said fine.” So I said, “Okay. Yeah.” And I immediately thought he would be the right one to do it because he would be objective. He would fight for what points he wanted. He would ask good questions of people. He wasn’t a kiss ass. I wanted the truth to be told. I wanted the documentary to be real, which as you saw yourself, is real.

Billups: That’s a pretty bold start.

Suzi Quatro: So I thought, “This is the right guy.” And off we went. I laid down the ground rules right at the beginning. I said, “I obviously want to have editing rights because it’s my life.” And I stuck to it. Whatever’s in the film, even if it’s uncomfortable—if it’s hurtful or it makes me cringe, whatever I said, as long as it’s honest—it happened. And that’s how we went: if it’s part of the story it stays in. And I stuck to that. I took out some things that just weren’t true, naturally. And I said to him the things I took out—“This, this didn’t happen.” So I’m not going to let lies in there, but I’m really pleased because everybody’s been reacting to it the same way with that reaction that, “Oh my god, she’s put us out on the line here.”

Billups: Yeah. It’s great. I think rock documentaries can be dull if people aren’t real about their lives.

I certainly don’t want a documentary of people telling you how wonderful I am.

Suzi Quatro


Suzi Quatro: No. Who wants to see? Well, I certainly don’t want a documentary of people telling you how wonderful I am. But a funny thing happened. I was talking on the Zoom and my son happened to be listening. I said I didn’t want a film of talking heads saying how wonderful I am. And my son said, “Mum, Talking Heads are in your film.”

Billups: That’s funny. Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz from The Talking Heads did serve as talking heads in the movie.

Suzi Quatro: Really good line. That was great.

Billups: I liked that the film doesn’t rely solely on talking heads. They did keep that to a minimum and really told the story. I thought it came off very well. How hard was that for you? To see a film made about your life? I can’t stand the sound of my voice when I’m transcribing.

Suzi Quatro: Don’t forget. I’ve been in the business fifty-six years. So I have seen myself on many TVs.

Billups: Yeah. But this is a little different, isn’t it?

Suzi Quatro: I go back and watch it as a critic sometimes. When you see it on the big screen, everything is humbling. It makes me cry. It makes me proud. What it does mainly is it doesn’t allow me to hide from anything when life is blown up on that big screen. And everybody’s saying what they say. I can’t run away from anything. It’s there larger than life.

Billups: Yeah. I can imagine.

Suzi Quatro: You took on a real honest meeting. And I noticed all the people in it were talking about me—the ones who were saying nice things and all that—they really meant it. These guys dug down into themselves. They wanted to be in this film and they wanted to say what they said. And that is very pleasing for me.

Billups: Did the move to London, England bring anything to the table for you musically? It was a little before punk, but your big and rowdy sound was present in the glam, pre-punk scene. Were you the auteur of your sound when you started recording? Did the scene in England have an influence?

Suzi Quatro: The sound was in-your-face. It was no nonsense. It was just being out here. I am with my bass guitar, doing some music for you. That’s cool.

Billups: Right, right.

Suzi Quatro: Geez. You know what? I’m not polite. One of my songs on my Back to the Drive album is called, “I Don’t Do Gentle,” but actually I do sometimes do my share of ballads. But there are pictures of me—even before I had success sitting in London on street corners—looking very pumped.

Billups: Yeah.

Suzi Quatro: I was a little tomboy, you know, and I was there to do what I was going to do. And as you saw in the film, I wasn’t going to change for anybody.

Billups: Certain bands that were kind of your contemporaries, like The Sweet and Slade were very big in England at the time. I wondered if you were attracted to that scene at all when you got there or was it kind of burgeoning around ’72ish? They, too, didn’t have an immediate splash in America.

I pretty much carved my own way.

Suzi Quatro


Suzi Quatro: I had my first hit—my first number one—in May of ’73 (“Can the Can”). I formed my band finally, after floundering around in the water. We were looking for who I knew who I was, but we couldn’t get it on record. And finally I said, “I need a band.” Then I got a band. And then everything really started to gel ’cause I had all my own songs ready. Then we went on that tour with Thin Lizzy and Slade and I had twenty minutes at the beginning. The show and the band really cemented because it was all original material. I didn’t pay much attention to anybody else’s style. I didn’t then, and I don’t now. I pretty much carved my own way. I always was more of a boogie-based bass player, a rock-based singer. Even in The Pleasure Seekers, I was always like that. So my style was my style rating. It just took the right song to frame it and make a hit out of it. That’s all it took

Billups: How did the band come together?

Suzi Quatro: The band fell together quite quickly. I picked everybody. Obviously, people came for auditions and it was the right band at the right time. We all were kindred souls. We made a good sound together. You know, when you hear those old albums at first, the second, the third album, that’s good stuff on there. You can hear that the band jelled.

Billups: Oh yeah. I love it. I particularly like the backup vocals, the big power chords.

Suzi Quatro: Everything was big and loud. She’s the leader of the gang and all that kind of thing.

Billups: Would you talk a little about the process getting the documentary footage? Did they follow you around for a while and do a series of interviews about the film itself? Was that a long process?

Suzi Quatro: Yeah, sure. It took about four years because he did come to a lot of places. He took two or three trips to England. You can see by how classy the documentary looks. He did a good job. Really good. Nobody expected it to be that good. And it was okay that it took time because he covered quite a bit of my career and he was able to talk to a lot of people. It’s important. And yeah, we connect with them and we get along fine. I didn’t hide anything from him and he asked me some zingers, which I love. I love it when you don’t expect it. And then you got to answer it. I absolutely loved it ’cause I do that to people all the time

Billups: The documentary also covers your early days playing in The Pleasure Seekers in Detroit. Was there a scene of people that played like you guys at the time?

Suzi Quatro: There was. It was two different things. There was a college circuit, there was a rock club circuit, and there was a nightclub circuit. And because we were an all-girl band we often played the nightclub circuit, because that’s who hired us. Even though we had to wear these miniskirts and stuff, I always would put on a top hat or something to be different. I’m not going to be these guys, you know?

And when we came back, as it tells the story in the film, my brother started booking big festivals, late ’60s. He was a musician himself. Because my brother started doing this, my dad said, “Can’t you get your sister’s band down here?” We did one festival and we died because we played this festival in our nightclub clothes and did our nightclub bag. Well, this festival was hippie trippy and barefoot. There was another, all-girl band on the show. I think it was Girls Inc. And they were barefoot in T-shirts and jammed.

And then we decided to change the band at that point. So we became Cradle. I took a little step back because we brought my younger sister in and I became mainly a bass player, which was invaluable to me in my development as an artist. I’d already been a front person for seven years—the front person playing bass a little bit in the background. So I learned really, really good bass. And then when I finally went solo, Susie the front person merged with Susie the bass player and it became, you know, pretty killer.

Billups: What’s the difference between the nightclub circuit and the rock circuit?

Suzi Quatro: You get sucked into this nightclub thing. It’s good learning; I have to say that. You’re playing five shows a night, forty-five minutes on, fifteen minutes off. Even if there’s only one person in the bar, because they have the door open and they want people to hear the music to come in. So it’s discipline. And I always remember thinking, “Okay, if I can get this one guy at the bar, sitting there with his beer to watch me, then I’ve succeeded in learning my craft.” And I did it.

Billups: That’s interesting. There’s nothing much like that nowadays that I can think of.

Suzi Quatro: Yeah. It is interesting. And then you develop your pattern because there are a lot of smartasses. So that comes to the floor. You’ve got to entertain five different sets of people. You have the early ones committed, every drink. And then you get the people who stay ’til the late hours. And you get the drunks and you get the come-ons. And it was quite a learning experience for a girl who was fourteen to the age of nineteen.

Billups: I’m sure you had to toughen up very quickly during that time. The documentary speaks to that as well. And before all that, you even played drums for your dad?

Suzi Quatro: It’s true. My first instrument he bought me was a brand new pair of beautiful bongo drums. I wanted them really bad. I learned how to play them quite quickly. A lot of times, instead of going to a church, he would take me to his Sunday gig and he would let me sit in front of his trio and play the bongo drums. That was fantastic.

Billups: The documentary covers this pretty well, but I can’t help but ask because it’s a pretty big note in your career that you played a regular character on the TV show Happy Days. Would you talk a little bit about what that was like? It was such a big show and you made quite an impression making several appearances.

Suzi Quatro: I always was going to do everything in this profession. I knew I could act; it’s all the same instinct to be quite honest. If you’re an artist and you’re a communicator and an entertainer, you can turn that to every area. First of all, I was thrilled to be part of the show. I didn’t know how big it was ’till I got the part and spent some time in America. I asked Ron Howard—not that long ago we were talking on the phone—and I asked, “Did I ever feel like I was a green actress and new to the show?” And he said, “No, it was like you had been one all your life and that you had always been a part of the show.” Now that’s a strange one. And that’s how I felt. “I’m on the show now.” I’m sure I was nervous the first time I walked into the very first one, but I really just slid in there. It felt right to me.

Billups: It seems like it would be a pretty good group to be with.

Suzi Quatro: I took it serious. I wanted it to be as good as I could. In fact—the first episode we were rehearsing—I remember my entrance on Happy Days. We run the set rehearsing and we were all kind of hanging out at the same point. Erin Moran was there. Marion Ross was there, Tom Bosley. Henry Winkler. We were just kind of hanging out just before we started. I made a little speech and told them I want to say I’m new on the show. “I have never done this before. So any help that you can give me all of you I’d appreciate it.” And they did. Yeah. They all helped me. I didn’t want them to think I was coming with an attitude. So I thought it was a good way to begin. I didn’t want them to think, “She’s never acted before and here she comes on a number one show.” And they did actually help. Henry took me around the set. He said walk and sit on the couch. Come up a little bit on that line. They were all there for me. And we had a good relationship.

Billups: That’s the dream to work with an ensemble cast like that. You’ve watched the film a few times now. I wonder if your perception of what you thought it would be has changed or if it brought anything out of it you didn’t expect.

Nobody gets a perfect life. I didn’t make it overnight. I didn’t make it easy… There were hurdles, as anybody’s life is, and I wanted the record to be straight.

Suzi Quatro


Suzi Quatro: Geez. You know what it does to you? It’s quite something. I know what life I’ve lived. I know what’s coming, but it’s like watching a movie you’ve watched before and you’re still surprised. Like in Gone with the Wind, I always crack the same time. I’ve seen that film maybe a hundred times. And in this movie I cry at the same points and smiled at the same points. I went into the first premier in London. I was doing a Q&A and I had only seen it on the small screen. I hadn’t seen it with an audience, which is totally different. The big screen—I was kinda shitting myself, wondering if they’re going to like it, what the reaction is going to be. You just don’t know. So I snuck in to the film. I was only supposed to come out at the end on stage. I was waiting for reactions, you know? And I did find myself going, “Oh my god,” many times. I was like a little girl. And I thought, “I’ll just go out now and come back later.” But I didn’t. I said, No, stay here.” And the uncomfortable parts really are some of the best parts in the film. And I’m glad I didn’t take them out. Nobody gets a perfect life. I didn’t make it overnight. I didn’t make it easy. There were fights. There were hurdles, as anybody’s life is, and I wanted the record to be straight. And that’s what this film accomplished. The record is now straight.

Billups: I also wanted to ask you a little bit about your poetry, ’cause the film touches on you writing poetry but it doesn’t spend much time on it.

Suzi Quatro: One of the proudest things in my life is a book called Through My Eyes. The cover has a picture of me painted by Romero Britto. I’ve been doing poetry since I was about eight or nine years old, and I’ve always wanted to assemble a poetry book. It’s been out for about two years now. I’m real proud of it because it’s just everything I’ve collected over the years. And the film’s director Liam Firmager was quite clever because he said to me I want to film you reading a few of your poems. I said, okay. I asked, “Which ones?” And he said, “I don’t know.” He did know. So he picked out—which he didn’t tell me—what he thought would be integral to the film. He coached me to read them, not telling me where it was going to go or why he chose a particular one. So I read them not knowing where they were going to go, but a lot of people love that inclusion. They say it really brings you into the story and to the heart of me. That’s what that is.

Billups: From what span would you say the poems that were published cover? From your early band days? Or is it kind of a specific time?

Suzi Quatro: Oh, it goes from like eight years old. There’s a few from my youth, but then it starts in earnest from about the time I was going to leave and travel to England. It brought up lots of stuff. I continued and I found every time anything happened to me, good or bad, I would either turn it into a song or a poem. And I kept my poems all through the years. I knew one day I would do it.

Billups: I know you also had a new album last year.

Suzi Quatro: It was one of the best albums of my career. I wrote and produced the whole thing with my son. The album is called No Control. During this lockdown I have written fifteen songs for the next album and written the lyric book, and the documentary has led to me signing a deal to do a movie of my life.

Billups: Oh, wow. That’ll be a whole new experience. I was imagining during this COVID-19 period you must have another album ready to go at least. But sounds like you’ve got the next few years figured out.

Suzi Quatro: I can’t wait. I’m really involved. And the script will be delivered July 17 for my approval. That’s all my projects. I’m working on another book, too, because I’m the kind of person who has to create when I’m not gigging. So I need to get rid of this artistic energy somewhere.

Billups Allen spent his formative years in and around the Washington D.C. punk scene. He graduated from the University of Arizona with a creative writing major and a film minor and has worked in seven different record stores around the country. He currently lives in Memphis, Tenn. where he works for Goner Records, publishes Cramhole zine, contributes regularly to Razorcake, Ugly Things, and Lunchmeat magazines, and writes fiction. (cramholezine.com, [email protected])


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