Perfect Sound Forever

Suzi Quatro

by Ryan Settee
(December 2007)

It's strange how hindsight forgets certain artists and bands. They have their influence and popularity of the day, but sometimes they're left behind. Perhaps otherwise best known for her role as 'Leather Tuscadero' on the TV show Happy Days, Suzi Quatro would be one of those artists Id say. Originally, she set the template for every tough rocker chick, but now her influence is obscured, behind the Joan Jett, Runaways, Patti Smith, Blondie, the Go-Go's, Pat Benetar, riot grrls, Melissa Etheridge et al, who are the more obvious choices for visible women in rock and punk. I've run into knowledgeable record collector types who have no clue of what her first record or her earlier stuff sounded like, which is somewhat strange (her later material tends to be the stuff that gets around, and it's not her strongest, which could be the very reason for the misconception).

Originally, Suzi was in Suzi Soul and the Pleasure Seekers, which she formed when she was 15, in 1965, which had morphed into Cradle, in which producer Mickey Most discovered her and primed her for the big leagues of stardom. Thus, she had some good DIY credentials of being around and paying dues before she made it huge and sold tons of records.

You may not know it, but back in 1974, Suzi's first self titled album was a fresh blast of glam, rock n' roll, bubblegum rock and protopunk--something that you were likely to hear down at the local roller rink. And it's easy to see that this must have had some influence on the Ramones' sound, girl punk bands, and punk in general. Starting off with "48 Crash," with its propulsive tom beat and ascending riff, it's boogie chug-a-lug coupled with call-and-response vocals, starts off the album quite well. Next up is "Glycerine Queen," a bonafide hit, starting with a muscular riff and never letting up with rock n' roll attitude--quite simply, this absolutely smokes. Suzi takes on some gender-bending fun with a cover of the Beatles' "I Wanna Be Your Man"--tongue firmly in cheek, and the first side of the album ends off with "Primitive Love," with its tribal, primitive beat and repetitious chants. The covers continue with a rendition of Elvis' "All Shook Up," the proto-punk-y vibe comes back again with "Sticks And Stones," and the big hit single "Can The Can" solidifies the last part of the record. A cover of "Shakin' All Over" ends it off in great style. There's not a weak track on the record.

The back of the album has those liner notes that we've all come to know and love about 60's and 70's albums. Here's a great paragraph from the back of the album by Toby B. Mamis that says it all:

"This record combines the brutal, hardnosed rock and roll that Detroit has always been known for with the tight, rhythmic, almost sophisticated rock and roll that has been coming out of London in recent years. In some ways, it is an ideal assimilation of these influences, allowing Suzi Quatro to become the first lady of rock and roll in a relatively short period of time."

You could never say that the writeups on the back of those '60's and '70's albums were very humble; this one being no exception.

By the time her next album, Quatro rolled around (also from 1974), it showed that while Suzi still rocked quite hard, her attack was waning a bit. While far from a bad album, it shows that the first album's strengths (strategic '50's/'60's covers, boogie/ glam rock) were already a formula that was on the decline, both for audiences and musicians (even Marc Bolan realized that the glam machine was running out of gas after Tanx and he changed up the bands' sound after that). Starting off with the excellent "Devil Gate Drive" and a cover of Little Richard's "Keep A Knockin," the first side is pretty good, ending with a sped-up cover of "Move It" (which was originally Cliff Richard's first hit). The second side is where it really starts to lag- it's alright, but is missing the fire of even the second side of the debut.

By the time of the third album, Your Mamma Won't Like Me in 1975, it was clear that the glam/boogie thing was no longer really of interest to Suzi and the band. This is more like a funk/porn soundtrack album, with wah-wahs, synths, horns and clavinets. But they do it fairly well most of the time, starting off with the excellent "I Bit Off More Than I Could Chew" followed by a few missteps like "Strip Me" and "Can't Trust Love." Its interesting to note is that while the music was taming down from the first two albums, Suzi developed a harder edged rasp/sneer to her vocal style. Still, there's a couple of rockers like "Paralyzed" and the choruses of "Prisoner Of Your Imagination." Everything after this album was hit-and-miss to various extents, with Suzi experimenting with other styles to varying degrees of success and authenticity, while she occasionally returned to the hard rock genre so it gets a bit sketchy.

Now for the big question--on the first record (and some of the second), was she so far ahead of the glam/protopunk style that not even she had the foresight to stick with it? She was clearly onto something more energetic and sped up than even T-Rex (often considered protopunk themselves), rougher, and simpler in musicianship than most of the other bands of the day. There wasn't alot of studio trickery or embellishment to the first record- it was very raw, simple, loose, quick. Those are obvious trademarks of the protopunk sound. Plus, she fronted the band, sang, and played bass and wrote or co-wrote a lot of her own material, which became a big influence on girls and girl bands such as the Runaways (also considered protopunk in many circles).

"I am flattered to have been the woman to have opened the door for female rockers to be accepted into the mainly male industry. Joan (Jett) was one of my biggest fans, as was Chrissie Hynde. I always listen to and do my homework on any up-and-coming females. I do take my musicianship seriously! Enough said."-- Suzi, NY Rock Interview. "...Girls identify with me because I haven't got big tits"-- Suzi, Punk Penthouse fodder," Nick Kent NME 1975 (both quotes culled from Punk77 site).

But there were some problems with her shot at the big time. Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn (the hitmakers behind bands such as The Sweet and later Blondie), wrote a good portion of Suzi's songs, and a lot of the biggest hits, such as "48 Crash," "Can The Can" and "Devil Gate Drive." There's also the train of thought that when the glam explosion hit, Chapman and Chinn were looking for a female rocker to subvert the male dominated glam music scene, cashing in with a shock of their own, with a (gasp!) woman dressing up like a woman (check out Suzi in the flashy silver glitter jumpsuit on the back of "Quatro"). And hey, two can play that game--Suzi's aforementioned cover of "I Wanna Be Your Man" subverts sexual and androgynous stereotypes for a female version of glam, which creates an interesting perspective. But still, there is the train of thought that Suzi was in the right place at the right time (Detroit, glam explosion), and around the right people (Chapman and Chinn, Mickey Most).

There's also the train of thought that she needed to be backed by a bunch of tough looking dudes to be taken somewhat seriously, in a testosterone fuelled industry. The more that I think about this, the more that I think it's partially true; the '60's had girl groups, but they (aside from some obscure girl garage bands on the Girls In The Garage release series) were largely pop, soul, or R&B oriented. Suzi's attack was definetely more abrasive and more rock n' roll than most audiences were used to hearing; even Janis Joplin--perhaps the most visible woman in a rock n' roll band before Suzi-- was backed by a band of men. Personally, I think this indicates that Suzi can rock with the best of 'em, and yeah, that would indicate that she was much ahead of her time.

So the question remains--was she the original protopunk (glycerine) queen, or a gimmick or novelty prefabricated for trends? (something that also was levelled at the Runaways, and even the Donnas, currently). You be the judge. But don't let that take anything away from her place in rock history which she's still waiting to claim or the great music of her early records that are still waiting to be rediscovered.

ED NOTE: Quartro is still active now, involved not just in music but also radio and films. She also has a recent biography out too. See her official website for more details.

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