Okay, I’ve had a week to compose myself. Let’s do this.
As 2016 goes through it’s final curtain call, there have been more prominent, more universally mourned, losses than that of Rick Parfitt.
But you all know me by now. I can’t let him go without saying goodbye properly.
*Hey, have you seen the news….?*
You know when you get a text like that, it’s never going to be good news.
Some context: It is Christmas Eve, and I am on a train travelling up from That London to spend Christmas with my parents. The Train Manager (no, me neither) has just done his best Norman Collier impression, announcing that the next station is my destination; I’m packing all my stuff away, when I got the aforementioned text from Hel.
*No….?* I replied.
I checked the BBC app on my phone and there it was: “Status Quo’s Rick Parfitt dies.”
I stared at it for a moment before responding.
*Shit. Now I have.*
The train pulled into the station. I alighted. In a daze I walked along the platform, over the footbridge and out to the car park, where my parents sat waiting to collect me.
My mum got out of the car, we hugged, kissed, she asked me how I was.
“Rick Parfitt’s dead,” I said.
“Oh…..” she replied, understandably a bit taken aback by my reply, and possibly not at all sure who I meant.
I got into the car, front passenger seat, next to my Dad, the designated driver.
“Hello! You alright?” he said cheerily.
“Rick Parfitt’s dead,” I said.
“Is he?” he replied, not quite sure how to react.
For the next couple of hours, my phone was alive with texts, emails, tweets, from people I know – many of them you, reading this now – saying how when they heard the news I was the first person they thought of. I find that incredible, movingly so, as if he were a family member of mine, and you’d wanted to reach out and check how I was, having heard the news.
I apologise now to you all if my answers were somewhat brief. The wind had been knocked right out of my sails. But, y’know, thank you.
Some more context: yes, 2016 has been the cruellest year. Yes, I loved Bowie, but I didn’t really get into him until my mid-teens; yes, Prince too: a little later; yes, Leonard Cohen: god, it wasn’t until the last ten years or so that I truly appreciated him. The Smiths. The Wedding Present, Super Furry Animals, Teenage Fanclub, R.E.M.: all of these had yet to either exist or cross my radar.
But Quo, they were the first. And Rick Parfitt, well he was the first rock star that I ever wanted to be.
It was a love affair that was not without its critics. As Rick said: “People try to dismiss what we do but they can’t. People have terrible goes at us about the music being simple when it’s not really. It appears simple perhaps in its chording but generally, to actually play what we play and how we play it, it’s not simple. It’s bloody hard work.”
Let me take you back. It’s a Saturday morning in 1979. I’m in my bedroom, listening to Tony Blackburn on Radio 1. He’s doing a phone-in quiz, playing the intro to a current hit, and inviting listeners to call in to identify the record and win a prize. I have no access to a phone, and I certainly didn’t have the bill payers permission to call Tony, so I resort to hollering the answer at the radio.
The song in question is “Whatever You Want”, a record with one of the most distinctive intros ever. I find myself rebuking the callers who get it wrong. And then I realise: I don’t remember ever actually hearing this record before, and yet I still know it.
I was 9, maybe 10. And The Quo had got me, right there. They were ingrained and I didn’t know how it had happened.
A few years later, 1982. The BBC are showing a concert by Status Quo, from Birmingham’s N.E.C., a venue I would venture to in a few year’s time to see them for myself. I’ve written about it before and got a take down notice for a song I posted – the only one I’ve ever had, but I don’t begrudge them, I find it kind of funny. My brother and I commandeered the television, sat down to watch, and were utterly entranced. I hadn’t been to an actual gig at that point.
The lights dimmed, a single elongated synth note signified the start of the gig, smoke billowing at foot level across the stage.
A spotlight comes on, and there was Rick, standing against what appeared to be a wall of speakers, legs apart in that classic stance, white silk shirt open maybe one button more than was strictly necessary, white Fender Telecaster slung around his shoulders, Fender Telecaster necklace slung round his neck, blond mane shaking in time to his own rhythm, and he is fucking going for it, chugging out the opening chords to “Caroline”, our breath taken away. This was twelve bar boogie. This was rock’n’roll. This was exhilarating.
Fast forward a couple of years. My mate Paul and I are wandering round the sprawling metropolis that is Peterborough. It is around three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. Paul has it in his mind that we will be able to pull. I am less sure, considerably less confident than he. I take him to one side and explain that in the unlikely event that we manage to talk to any girls (I needn’t have worried, by the way) I’d let him do the talking but I implored him not to introduce me by my actual name (which isn’t Jez, by the way, but you can probably work out what that’s a derivative of). Instead, I want him to tell them my name is…Rick.
To me, it was the most rock’n’roll name of the most rock’n’roll person in the world, and if just a little bit of that denim swish could rub off on me I’d take it with both hands.
It was Rick who inspired me to learn to play the guitar. Every day I would rush home from school, rush upstairs, plug my guitar in and play along to Quo records, performing my own little Quo concert to nobody at all, perfecting the stance. My parents would describe it as me “getting my fix”, which when you think about the amount of narcotics they did at their peak is kind of ironic.
I shouldn’t have been so shocked about his death, really. He’d been beset with health issues for years: a quadruple heart bypass in 1997, a further heart attack earlier this year which curtailed his touring for good after doctors told him his lifestyle of touring, drink and drugs could kill him. Rick wasn’t having it though: he vowed not to become a “born-again Christian”, pledged he would continue to enjoy the “odd pint”.
In an odd way, it’s almost a disappointment that he died because of an infection following a shoulder injury rather than as a result of shovelling a colossal amount of Columbian marching powder up his snork. Not with a bang, but with a whimper, as they say.
So, to some tunes. We all know the story by now. Band found fame in the late 60s with their psychedelic pop songs like “Pictures of Matchstick Men”, dressed up to the nines on Carnaby Street clothes that Hendrix and The Who had already rejected. The realisation that this psych-persona would not afford any longevity, and the discovery of ripped jeans and boogie is often attributed to them hearing The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” in a club one night, but the moment when that first got incorporated into their music can be found here, a Goffin/King cover, 3:25 in when suddenly the bass seems to take on a life of its own, and the band in a new direction:
Then listen to this, from 1970s “Ma Kelly’s Greasy Spoon”, the first album they made in that prototype format, almost tribal, Native American in its sound:
At this point, fellow Quo stalwart Francis Rossi and Rick were writing songs together; it seemed obvious really, the lead singer/guitarist and the rhythm guitarist and backing vocalist pairing up, but it wouldn’t last. But that album proffered the co-written truly awful “Everything” (it’s so cringe-worthy, I’m not going to post it) but also the quite wonderful:
Surprisingly, though, as the sound got crunchier, and they had their breakthrough album with 1972’s “Piledriver”, it was Rick who provided the more peaceful moments. It’s my favourite album by them (when I was a kid, a friend of mine had the gatefold cover edition, which I didn’t; I rode my bike to his house in the next village and surreptitiously swapped them, tried to feign ignorance when he realised and cycled after me to get his copy back), not least because of the juxtaposition between the newly polished boogie with the gorgeous blues of tracks like this Parfitt co-written tune:
There’s an absolute monster on that album too, mind, another co-written by Parfitt, which showcases his incredible rhythm technique, topped off by a guitar lick nonchalantly thrown into the middle that I spent months trying to master:
Jesus, that’s still a beast of a tune.
They rarely wrote together after that album. In a post-death statement, Rossi has described his relationship with Parfitt as: “Without doubt the longest relationship of my life: this was also the most satisfying, frustrating, creative and fluid.” Emphasis on the frustrating, I think.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to pick his best tune from every album, although it’s very tempting.
One thing I’ve always loved about the Quo is that every now and again I’m surprised when someone mentions that they know or love a song by them. Christmas 1993, I was working in the Virgin Megastore in Cardiff. It was the year when Take That’s “Babe” and Mr Blobby’s ingeniously titled “Mr Blobby” vied for the top slot at Christmas. It was not exactly a time of fine pop pomp and tuneage. But at least it wasn’t X-Factor. Yet.
I had a friend working there, Ian. I knew Ian from college, we were a few doors down from each other in the halls of residence in our first term. Ian is into skater-punk bands like The Dead Milkmen, and brief loud noise-grunt bands like Napalm Death, and Death by Milkfloat. I’m working at Virgin over Christmas because he already worked there, knew I needed work and remembered that he owed me a favour: after he finished college and had no money, I was the Entertainments Officer at the Students Union, pretended he was still a student so I could give him as much “cash in hand” work as I could wangle.
He sidled up to me one day and told me that everyone there had their area of speciality, so if someone came into the store asking after a particular record, you could summon someone who would have a rough idea of what they were after.
“I’ve told them what yours is,” he smirked.
I knew without asking that he had told all of the music nerds and cool kids who worked there that I was a Quo fan.
“S’okay,” he said, “I played them ‘Lonely Man’ and they pretty much all changed their mind about them. And you.”
Still never been sure how to take that.
I had no idea he even knew that record, but it’s possibly Parfitt’s greatest, most unrecognised, most beautiful moment. If you listen to only one of these tunes, make it this one:
That should be the end. There’s so much more I could write about Rick Parfitt – the tragedy that touched his life when his daughter, Heidi, drowned in a swimming pool aged just two; the much lighter stories of how he and Rossi were referred to as The Doctors at the recording of the Band Aid single due to their supply of narcotics which got everybody else through the session, or the (possibly apocryphal) tale of how they once, in Australia, hit a kangaroo with their tour bus and, believing it to be dead decided to dress it up in denims and have their photo taken with it, only for it to suddenly spring back to life, simply stunned, and hop off, with denim jacket – containing tour bus keys – still on it – and how much he meant to me.
There’s the moment when he butts into a decidedly sub-average album closer, injecting it with much needed rock’n’roll ethos, sound, alcohol and God knows what else for a couple of minutes…
…to the story I’ve related before about how “Mystery Song” – probably my favourite Quo song ever – came to pass (as I can attest from the prick I made of myself at Glastonbury when Oasis came on, two spoon fulls of speed do not make you think clearly…an excuse they may have used when they signed the sponsorship deal with Levi’s which explains this album sleeve)…
…and of course there’s “Whatever You Want”, but you all know that one, you don’t need me to post it again.
So there I was, Christmas Eve, rudderless, when I check Twitter and spot this:
For the uninitiated, that couplet goes:
“She wears denim, wherever she goes
Says she’s gonna get some records by The Status Quo, oh yeah.”
And suddenly, despite the tragic loss, it’s almost okay, because I know that others – and there was a lot of outpouring of grief on my timeline, more than I had expected – and specifically another musician I love (Norman is “of Teenage Fanclub fame” in case you don’t know), who had named checked The Quo in a lyric, hadn’t been taking the piss when he did it, as I had often worried he may have been. I should have known better. I felt vindicated, in the same way as I did when I first heard that John Peel always carried a copy of “Down Down” with him when he DJ’d.
What I’m trying to say – and I don’t think he would dispute this – is that Rick always struck me as being an ordinary bloke who got lucky, right place right time, who got to be a rock legend – and like it or not, sniffy purists, that’s what he was – and was determined, having got to where he wanted to be, to live life to the full.
I have one last enduring memory I want to share with you. Indulge me for a moment longer, will you?
In December 2014, I went to see Quo play at the O2 in That London. I was sat right up in the gods, on my own as I generally am at Quo gigs – I don’t blame my mates for not wanting to fork out £50 to see a band they don’t really like – but have befriended a couple of old codgers sitting next to me. I can’t remember their names, but let’s call them Chas and Maureen for narrative purposes. (The names fit, by the way). Chas has a bad back, so he practically instructs me to dance with Maureen for the many livelier numbers his muscles can’t cope with. I’m happy to oblige; if you can’t twirl a septuagenarian around at a Quo gig, then where can you?
The band finish off, as they often do, with their cover version of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and suddenly Maureen and I are aware of Chas tugging at her shoulder and pointing at the stage.
Rick Parfitt. Rock star and cool dad.
Sleep easy, mate. You’ve earned a bit of a kip, I reckon.