Credit where credit is due – Universal Music Group and its subsidiaries have been doing sterling work over the last few years, repackaging and reissuing Status Quo’s later catalogue to the world. Deluxe versions of all their albums from the mid-eighties have been making their way steadily into the shops, and we’re now into the new century with these impressive expanded sets of Heavy Traffic from 2002 and Riffs from 2003.
A bit of history – the classic Frantic Four line-up had disintegrated in chaos by 1984, but they pulled it together one last time for a triumphant opening set at Live Aid the next year. Reforming with a radically changed line-up, it was never quite the same; they went on to commercial success, but seemed to have pretty much given up on any aspirations as a serious rock band. Their reputation as primitive three-chord merchants took them over, and under pressure from their label, they even started releasing covers albums, specifically Don’t Stop in 1996 and Famous In The Last Century in 2000. Moving into the party sing-along market pioneered by Chas & Dave, there’s no doubt about it, Quo were under the cosh as the last century drew to a close.
Rick Parfitt told me once, “Album-wise, I think we lost our way in the ’90s. Both Francis and I really regret putting those covers albums out, because I think we lost a lot of our fans through doing that; they felt we’d been a bit disloyal to them, you know, and I tend to agree with them, I wish we’d never done it, but we were under a lot of pressure. Anyway, it carried on, and we got through it.” After Famous In The Last Century, Rossi went on record saying it was the worst thing they had ever done, and he didn’t think they’d ever do another covers album.
Somehow though, they managed to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Old animosities were buried, band leader Francis Rossi was reunited with his old mate, former Tour Manager and writing partner Bob Young, and the tide started turning again in their favour; later on, the Frantic Four would reunite for two massively successful tours before going their separate ways in peace. So what we have here is a band in transition; Heavy Traffic was the first album with Bob Young back on board, (and also the first to feature Matt Letley, their third drummer since original sticks-man John Coghlan left in 1981), and the new band started to make an effort to reclaim past glories, with mixed success. Unbelievably though, Riffs in 2003 was yet another covers set. Even though they had a whole new vista opening before them, it’s clear that they still hadn’t fully embraced it,and it would be a while yet before the new Quo really kicked into gear.
Nevertheless, what treats are in store for buyers of these current re-issues? Well, a nice, thick booklet full of new interviews and insider information for a start. To take the releases one at a time, Heavy Traffic has been expanded to a massive 3-CD set. The album was already 14 tracks and 56 minutes long, including the solid opener Blues And Rhythm and the sing-song party jingle Jam Side Down, as well as the misleadingly-titled country-chugger Diggin’ Burt Bacharach and the catchy and melodic Money Don’t Matter. It’s difficult to find real stand-out tracks though, with little to stand alongside the metal monsters of the early ‘70s. From track 6 on disc 2 all the way to the end of disc 3 is live material recorded at the open-air Heitere Festival in Switzerland. To be honest, every one of these deluxe reissues is packed with live stuff; it beats me how they manage to record so much of it – always hoping, I guess, for a decent enough result to release as a proper live album which never seems to materialise – so it gets packaged up and posted out as bonus material that is rarely, if ever, listened to by most punters. This set, for instance, would have been improved by turning the mics up before the boys started singing – it’s OK, and it’s a bit of fun, but hardly really worth the time. Really then, the actual bonus material that Quo completionists will relish are the 5 tracks that open disc 2, which are as follows: The Madness, a fast Edwards/Parfitt rocker, which was the B-side to the single release of Jam Side Down; You Let Me Down, a beautiful, folky Rossi-sung ballad that was the B-side to the single All Stand Up (Never Say Never) and is without doubt, for me, the highlight of this entire collection; a studio demo of a country song called Let’s Start Again, a genuine rarety and previously only known from obscure or non-official compilations; and finally, demo versions of two songs from the album, All Stand Up (Never Say Never) and Solid Gold.
Riffs is, so far, the last covers album released by the band, (here expanded to two CDs), and what we think if their covers sets will of course be dictated as much by the song choices as by Quo’s performance. As with their other covers releases, the band do a perfectly good job; they are mostly faithful renditions of the originals, performed with skill and panache. It would be a mistake to tar all three covers sets with the same brush though – Don’t Stop from 1996 was a pretty imaginative mix of well-known pop and rock songs featuring special guests, although they all sounded distressingly similar when overlaid with Quo’s chugging rhythm. Famous In The Last Century was a set of 12-bar rock’n’rollers from the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis and Dave Edmunds. Riffs starts with a different premise, covering songs that basically could have been Quo originals in the first place, pop-rockers that come with a riffy rhythm and a basic chord set built in. Thus we have decent performances of such fare as I Fought The Law from The Clash, Canned Heat’s On The Road Again, and blues standard Tobacco Road amongst others. For me, their version of J.Geils Band’s Centrefold is actually better than the original, more tunefully-sung at least, and the same is inevitably true of Iggy Pop’s Wild One; it could hardly be otherwise. Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild is less successful, but Elvis Costello’s Pump It Up and ELO’s Don’t Bring Me Down are inspired choices. Then the boys take the novel step of covering five of their own classics: Caroline, Junior’s Wailing, Down The Dustpipe, Whatever You Want and Rockin’ All Over The World, each of which is at least as good as the original version. (NOTE: Two of those songs were covers even when Quo originally recorded them – but which two? Pub quizzers take note.)
Disc 1 finishes with a clutch of bonus tracks, namely the non-album singles You’ll Come Round and the manic Thinking Of You, both from 2004, and Lucinda, which was the B-side to You’ll Come Round. They are great tracks all three, and worth the price to the completionist. Disc 2 is another live set, this time recorded at the Montreux Jazz (sic) Festival; for my money it’s a better performance than the one on Heavy Traffic, but the set list is similar enough to give the listener an attack of déjà vu.
What conclusions can be drawn? The live material is neither here nor there in my book; if you have the original albums already, then the only music to be gained is in the form of the non-album bonus tracks, three on each set. If this whets your appetite, then great, why not go for these re-releases, especially with the added attraction of the background material to be found in the booklet inserts. If your CD collection is a bit light on 21st century Quo though, and your purchasing choice comes down to eeny-meeny-miny-moe, I would be tempted to opt for the new compilation Quo’ing In, also reviewed by Velvet Thunder. Oh what the hell, Christmas is coming up soon, get your missus to buy you all three.
Deluxe reissues of Heavy Traffic (3CD) and Riffs (2CD) are available through UMC from 30 September 2022.