Back To The Drive is not only the finest Suzi Quatro album, it is one of the standout rock albums of its entire decade. She was, indeed, back!
Suzi Quatro has been experiencing something of a career resurgence of late, with an excellent last album (The Devil In Me), and a successful show at the Royal Albert Hall already under her belt this year. She is also, of course, embedded in the memories of music fans of a certain vintage for her leather-clad Top Of The Pops appearances, with a run of great glam-rock singles and a bass which seemed as big as she was. In between that eternally nostalgic image and the current success, however, lies a hinterland which saw a deep trough followed by a remarkable comeback, and these two sets (released, ironically, on the Cherry Red ‘7Ts’ imprint, even though none of this music was actually released in the ’70s) contain pretty much all you need to know about that time – including some extremely strong music.
First up is the three-disc set The Albums 1980-86, which is a slight misnomer as one of these didn’t get a release until a decade later. It opens with 1980’s Rock Hard, which still holds up today as a fine album. Pick of the bunch here is the magnificent title track, an utterly irresistible, propulsive rocker which rolls the years away and is guaranteed to make you feel as if you are 20 or so again. Released as a single, it had some success in a few countries, but flopped in her adopted homeland of the UK, which is both baffling and scandalous – this is a song which should have catapulted Quatro back onto our screens and our radios again, but it wasn’t to be. Another largely unsuccessful single from the album was the catchy rocker Lipstick, which she also performed on an episode of the TV series Minder in which she guest starred. In the show she is seen performing the song in a club along with her band – it’s a heavier and more powerful rendition which would have been very nice to have had exhumed as a bonus track here. The version on the album is still a quality song in its own right, however. Interestingly, those are the only two songs on the album penned by her old songwriting team, the omnipresent glam-rock writers Chinn and Chapman. Most of the rest of the album is of good solid quality though, with just a couple of weak points in the shape of the unremarkable cover of the Dave Clark Five’s Glad All Over and the rather weak reggae excursion which is Woman Cry (the title surely a tip of the hat to Marley). There is one bonus track added, and it’s a remarkable one, being an X-rated and extraordinarily sensuous cover of Warm Leatherette – also done by Grace Jones. Suzi croons lasciviously and sensuously about the warm leatherette material of the title, and even waxes quite explicit on a couple of occasions (her previous album had been Suzi And Other Four Letter Words. This is just the four letter words). It wouldn’t exactly have made it onto our TV screens, though it must be said that even an edited, censored performance of this being aired on Top Of The Pops would have had an entire generation of teenage boys wiping the steam from their glasses. Even if they didn’t wear glasses.
All the signs were reasonably good for the next album, but 1982’s Main Attraction was a relative failure. The lowest selling Quatro album to that point, it suffered from an unfocused and ill-advised attempt to move away from her rocking core and seemingly chase an elusive hit. The first half of the album is mostly country-flavoured pop-rock, which is pleasant enough in the main, but leaves the listener wondering when the chains are going to come off and allow the album to rock. In fact, quite the contrary occurs as the second half of the record, and the old vinyl second side, bizarrely shifts straight into electro-synthpop territory, generally coming over like a sort of unexpected hybrid of Gary Numan and Donna Summer. There are a couple of reasonable track which could have been much better if allowed to breathe more naturally, but the ever-present ’80s synths stifle the material. The worst offender is Candyman, whose robotic and remarkably straight-faced repeated hookline of ‘The Candyman can’ makes it come across almost like a pastiche of Gary Numan performing Cars. It’s an album which isn’t all bad by any means, but frustratingly could have been so much better.
The following instalment, however, on the third disc here, could hardly have been worse. Recorded and planned for release under the title Suzi Q in 1985, the record company declined to give it a release until it crept out under the title Unreleased Emotion a decade later. A true career low-point, everything here points to material performed with little or no confidence, as it veers wildly from cod-reggae (the opening Pardon Me) to uninspired ’50s doo-wop (the dreadfully hackneyed Secret Hideaway). Even when there is an attempt at a heavy rocker, it is done in a clumsy way with the title I’m A Rocker (yes, really), and using one of the hoariest old heavy metal tropes of all – the jagged, oft-recycled riff which can be found in songs such as Judas Priest’s Beyond The Realms Of Death among many others. There is no spark of inspiration to be found anywhere, and it is unsurprising that the release was cancelled. There is a saving grace, surprisingly, among the few bonus tracks to be found here, with the single Tonight I Could Fall In Love. Surprisingly, because this triumph is to be found specifically in the remixed Extended Version. The regular song is another uninspired funk-influenced pop-rock effort, but with the remix stereo effects are liberally applied, with the instrument separation genuinely thrilling as it pans across the stereo field. It’s really well done. The same cannot be said for the remaining bonuses, being both sides of a 1986 single collaborating with Reg Presley from the Troggs. The A-side of this is a disco duet remake of Wild Thing, and no other explanation should be necessary. The B-side is so featureless I have already forgotten what it sounded like. There is another extended mix of Wild Thing, but while it is again an improvement, it cannot save it. Following this, there would be only one more album of original material (in 1990) for the next two decades, and people gradually either forgot Suzi Quatro or believed her to be a spent force. Astonishingly, that would be proved quite dramatically to be far from the case in 2006…
This is where we get onto the two-disc set Back To The…Spotlight, which gives us the first two post-millennial albums Back To The Drive and In The Spotlight. The 2006 release Back To The Drive is quite astonishing, and surely one of the greatest ‘comeback’ records in rock history. This was at a point where almost no new music had come from Suzi in 20 years, and what had appeared had been ignored, so expectations were not so much low as non-existent. Suzi Quatro had other ideas, as she rolled up her metaphorical sleeves, enlisted Andy Scott from The Sweet to both play guitar on the album and take on production duties, and casually delivered the best album of her entire career. The opening title track sets the stall out faultlessly, opening with a sample of the old hit Devil Gate Drive before a triumphantly joyous cry of ‘I’m baaaaack!!!’ ushers in a driving heavy rock riff which simply steams along. The song celebrates itself as a rejuvenated rebirth, and is utterly irresistible. Once again, it had ‘Number One single’ written all over it, but of course that failed to materialise. With a 12-track album though, could it sustain the quality? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’, with all but two songs original compositions, many candidly addressing Quatro’s career ups and, especially, downs and also her personal life. Typical of this is 15 Minutes Of Fame, a cracking Celtic-sounding rocker evoking Slade’s Run Runaway hit, while Dancing In The Wind is perhaps the pick of a very fine bunch – more cynical lyrics about the music business and the nature of fleeting fame married to a brilliantly catchy rock song. Wasted Moments grinds along on a powerful heavy groove, while the cover of Neil Young’s Rocking In The Free World is simply marvellous. Simultaneously crushingly heavy and yet sprightly enough to sound utterly exuberant when it wants to, Suzi’s vocal nails the song’s darkly tinged social commentary brilliantly, and it may well be the best cover of the song I have yet heard. No Choice is a huge power ballad of sorts which simply soars, while Sometimes Love Is Letting Go is an exquisitely candid and exquisite song, with Suzi looking back directly at her parents and her failed marriage. Free The Butterfly mines a similar vein, while the fist-punching Born Making Noise closes the album with joyous abandon. The bonus tracks feature a decent if inessential rendition of the Eagles classic Desperado and three demo versions which don’t add a lot, but that doesn’t matter, they are after all just bonuses. In its original 12-song form, Back To The Drive is not only the finest Suzi Quatro album, it is one of the standout rock albums of its entire decade. She was, indeed, back!
The follow-up to the album was some time in coming – a full five years in fact, with In The Spotlight appearing in 2011. This time out the emphasis is more on covers, with Mike Chapman (who takes on production duties here) contributing a couple of songs himself. A number of the cover versions are interesting, being interpretations of songs from other female artists, who may have been influenced to greater or lesser degrees by Quatro herself. Examples are Hot Kiss by Juliette And The News, Breaking Dishes by Rihanna and Turn Into by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. All of these are given the Quatro makeover treatment, with Turn Into being a particularly noteworthy success. There is also a version of the Goldfrapp song Strict Machine, done in a grinding heavy rock style with a powerful electronica base to it. It’s excellent, and the slight similarity to Can The Can is nodded to by way of a couple of lines from that song cheekily inserted to emphasise the link. There is also a relatively short cover of the Elvis Presley song Hard Headed Woman, with the tip of the hat to Suzi’s childhood hero and big influence done with obvious joy. Mike Chapman contributes the opener A Girl Like Me and the powerful Rosie Rose. As already noted, there are only two Quatro originals, but they are noteworthy. Both written by her alone with no co-writers, the first is the reggae-influenced Hurt With You which, in direct contrast to the Unreleased Emotion material, shows exactly how to use that style to great effect – no hints of ‘cod-reggae’ for the sake of it here, as the already excellent song is given an extra dimension by the treatment. It’s a standout, as is the closing Singing With The Angels – an overt Elvis tribute with the verses made up almost entirely from Presley song titles. It’s quite cleverly done, but more than that it is actually a lovely song, with the yawning ‘syrupy sweet ballad’ trap neatly sidestepped by sheer quality of songwriting and obviously heartfelt performance. It’s a fine way to close the album, but there is one more bonus added. Having been asked to cover an Abba song for a TV show, she chose to do Does Your Mother Know (here rechristened Does Your Mama Know for no obvious reason, as the word ‘mother’ is still sung), and it is a faithful enough rendition while adding a little more grit to proceedings. The album as a whole isn’t quite as strong as Back To The Drive, but it’s still very good.
It is worth noting that the Back To The…Spotlight set also features newly added brief notes from Quatro herself for each track in the booklet, alongside the lyrics. It’s a nice touch. The 1980-86 set also has a useful booklet putting the three albums into historical perspective. The clear cream here is the …Spotlight set, which is an essential purchase for anyone with any interest in what happened after the ’70s ‘Quatro peak’, but is also highly recommended to anyone wanting a couple of albums of great, gutsy female rock and roll with attitude to spare. The Back To The Drive album is worth the cost of admission on its own. The other set is also a good way for fans to grab a lesser explored period in Suzi’s career, and also recommended for the first disc alone, with the Rock Hard album and that Warm Leatherette cover. It’s been a long, strange trip – as someone else once said – but it’s great to have Suzi Quatro back and rocking again, an amazing fifty years on from her first hits and outlasting a good many of her erstwhile ‘glam rock’ contemporaries. See you down at the Drive…