February 3, 2022

Why don’t you put a band together and do all your Quo songs?

This year of 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the formation of British rock band Status Quo, one of the most popular, but at the same time unfairly maligned, bands in UK rock history. Formed when a bunch of school friends poached a drummer from the local cadets band in 1962, they honed their craft as a holiday camp act at Butlins in Minehead, a venue which still hosts an annual Quo convention to this day. The band first hit the charts in ’68 with their psychedelic hit Pictures Of Matchstick Men, before reinventing themselves as denim-clad rockers and finding their feet, their sound, their fans and their stride in 1972 with the manic boogie of Paper Plane – a string of hugely successful albums followed, but their star started to pop, fizzle and fade as the eighties rolled around. The first of the so-called ‘frantic four’ line-up to leave the fold was drummer John Coghlan in late ’81, before the band effectively folded in 1984. They reformed soon afterwards, and went on to the most commercially-successful phase of their career, but without Coghlan and bassist Alan Lancaster; nevertheless, for a whole generation of long-haired, denim-clad boogie boys, Coghlan remains the only genuine Quo drummer.

Coghlan behind the kit, with Rick Parfitt and Alan Lancaster at the Frantic Four reunion in 2014 (photo: Steve Pilkington)

After moving to the Isle of Man and taking a year off to recuperate and regroup, Coghlan went on to play with various short-lived bands, before forming his own John Coghlan’s Quo, to entertain loyal fans by bashing out the classic numbers to an appreciative crowd. This year though, sees them embark on their last tour before Coghlan hangs up his Quo sticks for good. I have the privilege of chatting to the man himself, just over a week before the final tour kicks off with a sell-out show at Leo’s Red Lion in my own home town of Gravesend, Kent. I ask him about the bands he played with just after leaving Quo: Diesel, the John Coghlan Band, the King Earl Boogie Band, which was a Mungo Jerry splinter group, etc. He sums them all up in a sentence. “Oh that was a few years ago, and there was Partners in Crime which I had a record deal for; that was a great band, and it had a great singer called Noel McCalla. Wonderful. But that was then and this is now.”

Indeed, the Partners’ only full album, Organised Crime, was released in 1985, the same year as Quo played their iconic swan song at Live Aid, which was technically after they had already split. The idea that grew into John Coghlan’s Quo, (or JCQ to the initiates), to put together a band to play the old Quo stuff, was not John’s, as it happens. “Basically, I remember getting a call from a guy I know called Peter Barton,” he explains. “He’s an agent, and he said, ‘Why don’t you put a band together and do all your Quo songs? You’ve got every right to do it, ‘cos you played on all those albums and singles. So why not do it, you know?’ And we’ve been doing it about ten years now I think. It’s good fun, and we’ve got a good following of fans at the moment.”

So then I have to ask how he got the staff together to form the band; were they just guys he happened to know? “Yeah, people we know, and it was just one of those things, you know, right place right time.” Most of the original line-up came from a Reading-based band named Predator, but JCQ has enjoyed the benefit of various personnel over the last decade. “I found my band now – Rick Chase is a great bass player, got a great voice, Mick Hughes, great guitarist, and Pete Mace, guitarist as well, and a good voice. Pete Mace, who does some of the lead vocals, actually sounds like Francis Rossi sometimes. It’s not intentional, he just does; it’s quite freaky really!”

Alan Lancaster (left) and John Coghlan (right) with presenter Johnnie Walker in 2014 (photo: Gillie Coghlan)

Just as a side-point here, a band like this is a great way to hear some of your favourite classic rock played by professional musicians, and the inclusion of an actual genuine member of the original band is the clincher. Brian Downey of Thin Lizzy does the same thing, with a band he has put together named Brian Downey’s Alive And Dangerous. Wonderful stuff. But to return to the equally wonderful John Coghlan’s Quo, it’s clear John still enjoys playing, and more to the point, still enjoys whacking out those old numbers. So what has moved him to call it a day after the present tour?

“Well, I think it’s been happening for some time really. I’m 75; in September I’ll be 76. And I think it’s not so much the playing, it’s all the travelling you have to do, and you get fed up with it. I know some other people say, well you know, Charlie Watts did it and he was 80. But you know, the bigger the band, the more luxury you’ve got, for travelling and such, so I think it does make a difference. I don’t know, really you have to look after yourself. And for a start, my wife Gillie is a great chef; she cooks great, fresh food all the time. And I think that makes a difference; if you’re eating rubbish food all the time, you know you’re not gonna feel that good. You eat food that’s quick and fast. Anyway, maybe that is the answer, maybe it’s not.”

However obvious it sounds now, the nutrition aspect is something I’ve never thought about before – sure, all the travelling can be tiring and debilitating, but the necessity of eating fast food on the move is doubtless a contributory factor to an unhealthy lifestyle. However, when the holy grail moment happened and the classic Quo line-up reformed in 2013 for the tour that would be known as the Frantic Four Reunion, both travel and nutrition were taken care of. “When I did the reunion tour with Francis, Rick and Alan, we had caterers with us on the whole tour and we were travelling on those superb buses, you know, you sleep on them and you eat on them and everything else, and that was great, it made such a difference. We had four buses and I think two were for the crew, then Rick and Francis were on one bus, then me and Alan Lancaster and Bob Young with our wives on our bus. There was plenty of room, so it was really good, and it worked a treat. Last number, you walk off stage and the road crew put your dressing gowns on you, to keep you warm and dry if you’ve been sweating; then the bus would be there, you’re straight on the bus and the driver’s ready to go, and you drive to the next gig overnight. And there’s food on the bus that the caterers have fixed for us, so you go to the fridge, take it out and eat it, have a glass of wine or a beer, and go to bed when you’re tired. That’s the way it worked, and it was great for us.”

Tour schedule from www.johncoghlan.com

Sounds like it should always have been the way. Touring becomes less of a bind and more like a holiday. Coghlan warms to the subject…

“On days off, the buses would park at a hotel and if you needed a room for the night for a change, you’ve got a room there. So just go and have a bath or something, a shower, whatever you want to do, and get on the bus when you’re leaving that morning. Really, I reckon it’s the only way to do it. The days of carrying a suitcase off a car or the minibus, checking into a hotel, then you’ve got to check out again, there’s all that rubbish, you don’t have to do that on the buses, because that’s your home. And some of the buses will have two drivers, ‘cos if we’re doing Europe it’s quite long distances. Having said that, I was younger then. You know, makes a difference.” Indeed, when the reunited line-up played their final fling in April 2014, Coghlan was a mere stripling of 67 years.

I ask if JCQ ever tour – as far as I’m aware, their gigs tend to be promoted as one-offs, and never too far from home. John agrees. “Yeah, I don’t think we’ve ever actually gone on a proper tour of six weeks or something like that, most of our gigs are at weekends. Two of the guys weren’t very well some time ago, so we had to cancel some gigs, but they’re fine now. But you know, put it this way. I live in Oxfordshire right, my band don’t live too far from me, they’re more or less the same area, but if you think of getting up in the morning, having breakfast, the tour bus picks you up or the car that you’re travelling in, and you’ve got to go to Leeds, and you’re going up the motorway, and someone has a crash. You’re stuck on the motorway for three or four hours, then depending what time you get there, the last thing you want to do is arrive at the gig, do a sound check then go on stage half an hour later to do a show. It’s knackering. So that’s why we’re cutting down on distance, because we’re not young kids.”

I was surprised we didn’t get fined or taken to court…

While we’re on the subject of getting older, I decide it’s time to re-live my youth a bit. I only saw Quo once in the classic days, at the former Wembley Arena in 1979. A memory of a Coghlan drum solo comes back to me from the dusty recesses of my mind – I remember John whacking his snare drum then looking up as the echo came from the back wall half a second later. I think the back wall got as much of a cheer as John did. Anyway, that was on the If You Can’t Stand The Heat tour, and that album was the first one produced by Pip Williams – a contentious period in the band’s history, as they had been producing the albums themselves until then, in a fairly simplistic, straightforward way that seemed to go well with the whole aesthetic. Williams added a bit of spit and polish to be sure, adding a horn section and some backing singers, but it didn’t go down well with everyone. Coghlan agrees: “Yeah. I think a lot of people didn’t like what Pip did; they preferred us doing our own albums, arranging everything and producing ourselves. I think a lot of people preferred that.”

It’s not that Can’t Stand The Heat was poor material, but there wasn’t much hard rocking on it; the production was softer and the songs wandered some way into pop territory. A good album, with great artwork and a gatefold sleeve, but just not necessarily a classic Quo album. Williams continued the trend with the following set, the massively successful Rockin’ All Over The World. “Yeah yeah, I know. It’s just one of those things, a slightly different direction. But you know, that’s the way things happen sometimes. And you’ll meet a fan, and he’ll say that’s one of his greatest albums, and they love it – but trying to please all the people all the time is quite difficult.”

Coghlan performing with JCQ (photo: Richard Drake)

I’ve got to say though, Can’t Stand The Heat contains one of my favourite Quo numbers, the groovily-catchy Accident Prone. Coghlan lights up when I mention the song. “It was a great song,” he enthuses, “I think there was a great feel about it.” I read somewhere that they filmed a superb video for that, in a breaker’s yard, with cranes dropping cars all over the place. Massive fun by the sound of it, but I have never been able to track down the video. Coghlan remembers it well. “Yeah that’s funny, I remember that was in Holland. I don’t know how they got the permission – well we didn’t; we found out later that the person who owned it turned up and said what the f*ck are you doing? He didn’t know anything about it, but we didn’t know, and I was surprised we didn’t get fined or taken to court or something. There’ll be a fan somewhere that’ll know where the video is.”

That’s one of the things about Quo – their fan base is enthusiastic, to say the least. The band has always polarised opinion; even when they were hugely popular, they tended to draw criticism for the straight-ahead, simple chord structures of their songs, despite the fact that all the great blues and rock’n’roll guys used much more stripped-down arrangements than Quo ever did. But the people that loved them, really loved them. I mention some of the people I have met, who know the lengths of every song down to the second, and can list all the different mixes, and how they differ. Coghlan basically takes the view that it saves him having to remember all this stuff himself. “It’s quite amazing – in a word, they know more than we do, half of them. I always used to get, what’s your favourite album track? What’s your favourite song? And I said well, because there were so many we actually recorded over the years, I said you should ask a fan. They know more than we do, you know. Don’t forget, as Francis and Rick used to put it, you’re in the bubble, you’re in the band. So everything you do, you think is the greatest; you think this is good, then some fans will say well no, I think Down Down’s better, or something like that. So I always say go and ask a fan and they’ll tell you which they reckon is the best.”

As previously mentioned, when Coghlan left the band, he lived for several years on the Isle of Man, a self-governing territory that is surrounded by the British Isles, but makes its own laws. As such, it was a popular tax haven back in the day. In addition, Coghlan’s first marriage was crumbling, and his career was effectively dead in the water at the time. “I got divorced from Carol, and I had to leave anyway, because of the tax, so I went to the Isle of Man. I had lots of friends over there, so it seemed like the place to go.”

I knew Coghlan wasn’t the only famous face to settle on the island, but apparently when he was there, you couldn’t swing a cat without clumping some celebrity or other. “Rick Wakeman was there when I was there, and Nazareth. The Bee Gees were there; a couple of the Bee Gees were Manx, born in the Isle of Man. A lot of people don’t know that, ‘cos  the Bee Gees never publicised it. Their Mum and Dad had a Post Office, I think it was in Douglas. Pam Ayres was there for a while; Pam was a lovely friend of ours. You can do a year out for tax, so she moved back after a year; and Norman Wisdom; he was hilarious. He was a funny, funny man.”

John Coghlan and Alan Lancaster at the end of the reunion tour, 2014 (photo: Gillie Coghlan)

Anyway, after his period of self-imposed exile, John relocated to Oxfordshire with Gillie, where they still live. Speaking to John has been another tick off my personal bucket list; I’ve spoken to Francis Rossi in the past, and even chatted to the late lamented Rick Parfitt, a matter of months before his death. I’ll never get to speak to bassist Alan Lancaster sadly, who passed away in September 2021. It’s a sad loss for John and Gillie. “Dear Alan, he was living in Sydney, Australia for many, many years. Even when I was in the band, he was living in Oz. But thank God for aeroplanes, he used to get back to record, or fly off somewhere and do a gig. But Alan was good fun. He reckons that when I left, the whole thing changed, because there is a saying that you can get one drumkit, and you can get ten drummers to play it, and it will sound different every time; it’s the way you play it, the way you attack it.”

John may be giving up the bustle of regular band work, but he still intends to dust off his sticks occasionally. “Yeah. I might put a little blues band together, something like that, just to keep my hand in, and play around where I can, and enjoy it.” Great stuff; let’s hope so.

John Coghlan’s Quo kick off their farewell tour on Saturday 5th February 2022 at Leo’s Red Lion in Gravesend. It culminates at the Quo Convention at Butlins, Minehead, on 24th September.

Graeme Stroud is the author of the book ‘Status Quo: Song By Song’ available through Fonthill Media