2020 Interviews

Putting the Record Straight: In Conversation with 70s Rock Icon Suzi Quatro

Suzi Quatro in Suzi Q

The image and attitude of glam rock singer and bassist Suzi Quatro was arguable made immortal with a 1973 photoshoot – her leather jumpsuit unzipped to the navel, neck dripping in silver chains, hands on hips with an unflinching, confrontational gaze down the barrel of the camera. The same cannot be said for Quatro’s musical repertoire which, beyond a snatch of early singles such as “Can the Can” and “48 Crash,”  has largely fallen out of contemporary cultural conversation. But her legacy has lived on in generations of female rock musicians who may not have picked up their instruments without Quatro taking those first, expectation-busting steps.

Nearly five years in the making, Australian filmmaker Liam Firmager’s documentary Suzi Q offers an opportunity for rediscovery and reappraisal, both for the seasoned icon herself and for people who may have overlooked or dismissed her significance the first time around. I spoke to Quatro ahead of Suzi Q’s U.S. web premiere on July 1.

Suzi Quatro in Suzi Q

RH: Looking back over your career and the narrative surrounding it, all threads seem to lead back to those first photographs. It solidified your aesthetic and distilled the attitude of your music. So, let’s start there with the jumpsuit, which I understand was influenced by [Roger Vadim’s 1968 pulp sci-fi] Barbarella. Can you speak to the connection between that visual medium and the appeal of your music at that time?

SQ: [Laughs] I hadn’t even heard of Barbarella back then. That idea came from [producer] Mickie Most when we were discussing what I should wear for my breakthrough. I insisted on leather because I wanted to be like Elvis, and he must have gone home and watched or thought about the movie then came in with this idea. It worked for me as a sensible suggestion because I wanted to move around a lot onstage, and a jumpsuit meant I wouldn’t have to worry about that practically. I didn’t even think of it as sexy at the time, though those first pictures are remembered now as sexy — which I guess comes from the movie! But I think whatever sexiness I brought to it was there because I wasn’t trying to be sexy… I just brought myself.

RH: Do you find yourself looking to science fiction at all for connections to your work now?

SQ: I mean, I love The Matrix! Those guys wear a lot of leather, which I obviously really dig. But the image we created for me sort of became my own — it’s still what I wear onstage now, and it still works.

RH: For sure, you’ve continued working all this time. What strikes me there is all the huge names that appear in the new documentary that general audiences might have a clearer idea or memory of than they do of you — Joan Jett, Chrissy Hynde, [Talking Heads bassist] Tina Weymouth — who attribute their reasons for getting into rock music to you. How does that sit with you, carrying this sway with a whole generation of female musicians?

SQ: It’s funny, I didn’t purposefully do this just to provide opportunities for other women. I was only doing something that came naturally to me — it didn’t occur to me that there was anything I couldn’t do because I was a woman. But I had those first few hits in the 70s and then people started popping up who have retrospectively told me that I was the reason they got started. I didn’t have a female blueprint, so I followed Elvis, but I was the blueprint for these woman. I’m dazzled by how emotional they can get, and it’s very humbling for sure. I think I gave these women permission to be who they already were, because it didn’t fit anywhere before. I kicked down that door simply because I didn’t see the door in the first place.

Suzi Quatro in Suzi Q

RH: How has making, and subsequently watching, the documentary helped you to reconcile those feelings — of being both adored and to some extent dismissed?

SQ: Well, on the big screen, you can’t run away from anything. It allowed me to take stock of my contribution to music, but I also found the documentary quite useful for processing things I might not have wanted to accept before.

RH: Such as?

SQ: I think it touches on the situation in America very well. I wasn’t immediately successful there in the same way I was in Europe, Japan or Australia, so it was valuable to hear from other people why they think that was and what it meant. Of course, I got my recognition when I was in Happy Days [for two seasons as biker Leather Tuscadero], and so people in the States knew who I was, but it’s nice to see this documentary is helping a new audience to discover me again. It’s all part of that journey, even in a strange order.

RH: You’ve planted your roots in the UK for years now — have you found a sense of home there?

SQ: I will always be an American in the UK. I enjoy the sense of humour in England, I think there’s a very special and fair mentality here. But I just ended up here without planning because this is where we recorded those early singles, and — ever since then — it’s been where I’m based.

Suzi Quatro in Suzi Q

RH: How do you connect your roots in Detroit these days? There’s some really powerful sections of the doc that touch on your family and the fact you moved away so young.

SQ: It is so strange, knowing you have to move on while also missing your home. When I left Detroit, I left my teenage existence behind — I didn’t have one, because I was touring. I took away from Detroit the dance steps, the attitude, the musical knowledge, the edge, but it is quite strange to look back. I suppose part of me never really left.

RH: Suzi Q is an Australian production, and you’ve had some of your greatest success in that part of the world. What is your take on that relationship — how does it feel to be welcomed so openly by a place so far away?

SQ: I’ve done 34 tours in Australia over the years — I think possibly more than any other international artist. It is strange to have no prior relationship and for that to just click. I always think of it as having a love affair with someone you should never get married to, but I am very grateful to have such committed fans in Australia. Working with Liam has been a wonderful revisiting of that.

RH: The film was ramping up for a big cinematic rollout, but obviously that’s been halted by the coronavirus pandemic. What’s shifted for you now, and how are you keeping energised?

SQ: It’s been hard because I’ve been touring and entertaining for something like 56 years and last year was my busiest since the 70s, and this year was meant to be even more so. I’m glad I had such a great 2019 because everything has been cancelled for 2020. But I’m keeping myself busy — the documentary has led to interest for a feature film about my life, so I’m helping with the script for that. I’ve got a lyric book on the way, and I’m also lucky to have a studio in my home — so, I’m working on a new album. I’ve got 14 tracks so far, and I think that this moment of pause, reassessment and reflection made me realise that it’s been my creativity that’s kept me alive all this time. Right now, I’ve never felt more creative.

Suzi Q will be available to view online in the U.S. for 24 hours on July 1.

Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.