Suzi Quatro is a rock star for the ages. Though barely a footnote in the States, her success and record sales worldwide present an entirely different picture of this rebellious soul.
Since the mid-’60s, Quatro has been making a racket with her bass guitar, conventions of women in rock ‘n’ roll be damned. She formed the Pleasure Seekers with her sisters and friends, inspired by the British Invasion as well as their local Detroit music scene. The band quickly became fixtures in the local scene.
Their first single, released on the local Hideout label, was the garage-rocker “What a Way to Die” that showed these women were as tough as the guys on the scene and had the chops to prove it. Kicking out the jams for the next few years, the band went through various changes, the biggest of which would come in 1971 when the group, especially Quatro, caught the attention of British producer Mickie Most, who wanted to sign her to a solo contract.
With Most’s production style and writers like Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman on board, a string of hit records followed. “Can the Can,” “Devil Gate Drive,” “48 Crash,” and “The Wild One“ all hit the Top 5, two of them topping the charts both in the U.K. and Australia. In the U.S., however, fame would come later, thanks to her appearance on the popular TV show Happy Days, where she played rocker Leather Tuscadero. She soon hit the Top 5 stateside with “Stumblin’ In” in 1978.
She kept acting, starring in musicals like Annie Get Your Gun, and has continued to write and record new music and tour the world. A documentary, Suzi-Q, was released in 2019 to critical acclaim. We recently caught up with Quatro, as she celebrated the release of her latest album, The Devil in Me.
How are you doing?
Pretty good. You know, actually, it’s quite good saying pretty good in this climate. Nobody ever says great. That’s not the new normal.
Ain’t that the truth!
I have kept very creative during this downtime.
You made such a great run of singles at the start of your solo career. I played those records to death way back when, and they still hold up.
See, you played them to death instead of streaming them to death!
Yeah, it’s a totally different world concerning all that now.
Oh, I know. I can’t get used to it.
It’s safe to say you’ve been more productive than a lot of the – with nothing but respect – “older guard” lately.
Yeah, you can call me that! I don’t mind. I’m proud of the age I am and proud of what I’m doing.
The new album, The Devil in Me, comes on the heels of No Control. You are someone who prefers to look forward and keep moving.
Oh, yeah. I have to be. The three key words with me are creative, communicate and entertain. That describes me. Unless I’m doing that, I’m not a happy girl.
You also wrote a book during the COVID lockdown.
As soon as lockdown came, my gigs were canceled, obviously – 2019 had been a very high year, with No Control coming out to superb critical acclaim, which was my first outing with my son as musical collaborator. My documentary came out at the end of 2019. I did, like, 85 shows around the world, two-hour shows in iconic venues; 2020 should have been even better, and bang, lockdown. In the meantime, the record label had picked up the option for another album, so I told Richard, my son, ‘Okay, we’re not going to get down about this, we’re going to use it.’ We wouldn’t have had time to write this album. I, for one, have found this lockdown, aside from the difficult parts which we are all going through, to be just incredibly inspiring.
That’s great! It seems people have been falling in one camp or another, being in total hibernation mode or really using the time to unleash creativity.
Yes! That’s exactly what I’ve done. I wrote and released my fourth book, I am working on a script for a movie, I am writing songs for the next album. I am also writing another novel. I am finding something to write about every single day. Why not use the time? It is a creative time for me as an artist.
I would say the new album is a little more focused than the last one, and though you are working in a variety of styles, you make them all work together. It’s not all a retread of one style. You’ve branched out a lot.
Oh, God, yes. What happened was, we kind of found ourselves in a perfect storm, if that makes sense. We needed to beat the last one, and we’ve done that. I think it’s because we did the previous one together, my son and I, and got to know each other on a creative level, how we write you know and it was, like, Hey, we’re making an album. This time around it was more focused. Richard got his confidence up on that last album. He brought his own way of writing, and he brought his DNA of watching his mom onstage be Suzi Quatro for his entire life. It’s deeply engrained in him who I am, through his eyes. I brought my 57 years in the business, my 70 years of age, my experience and my life, and we just meshed it together. He kept saying it had to have a vibe, and I really trusted him with it. He kept saying, “I know what this album should be.” And I gave him the space to do that.
Tracks like “Hey Queenie,” “Motor City Riders” and “The Devil in Me” all recall your classic early singles, but they don’t come off like you are trying to recapture something. They just sound natural.
This is what’s so beautiful about this album. I can say it this way: Yes, I gave birth to Richard, but now he’s giving rebirth to me. We’re not treading on old ground, but he has lit my fire, and I didn’t know it needed to be lit! All of a sudden I’m seeing me through his eye, that’s what was happening. We’ve turned into a real formidable writing team. Even at 70, you can learn something new.
Listen to Suzi Quatro’s ‘The Devil in Me’
You were 14 when the Pleasure Seekers started, right?
Correct! This is my 57th year in show business, can you believe it? I am a schooled pianist and schooled percussionist. I studied classical piano and was in the rhythm section of the orchestra. When we started the band I was 14. Everyone chose an instrument real quick. I didn’t choose anything, so I was given the bass to play, which was a lightning bolt moment for me. As soon as I strapped it on I knew I was home. My father was a musician. We had every kind of instrument around the house, we all played. My first bass was a 1957 Fender Precision. I got the Rolls Royce of basses for my first one, how great is that?
Did the band become fixtures on the local scene?
We started in 1964. We kind of became like a show band. We did the club circuit. They liked the idea of an all-girl band; we were something different and we brought the customers in. In 1969, we played a festival my brother put on, and we did our show act and it bombed. We were cocooned in showbiz land, so we decided to change the band around then. We changed the name to Cradle. I took a back seat, and we brought my little sister in so she could become the lead singer. I didn’t like it at first but didn’t mind it on one level, in that I could really become good on the bass guitar. So, I sort of learned how to be the front person from ’64 to ’69, then from ’69 to ’71 I concentrated on my bass, so by the time I went solo, bang! There it was! I didn’t like Cradle so much. It was a heavier band, and it didn’t suit me.
How did Mickie Most become involved?
Elektra Records wanted to see Cradle, and Jac Holzman from Elektra saw us. He didn’t like the band, but he offered me a solo contract. My brother had found out that Mickie Most was in town to record Jeff Beck and Cozy Powell, so he got him to the gig to see us as well. Again, he didn’t like the band but offered me a solo contract. So, when you get offered a solo contract twice in one week, you know it’s time to go. So, I went to England. Mickie and I are in the studio, and he didn’t know what to do with me. So, I formed a band. We started to work, and got the opening slot on the Slade tour. By that time, we had our sound together and working as a unit, doing all my own songs. At that point, Mickie asked Chinn and Chapman to check us out and maybe write us a hit single. And that formula worked for a long time, until it didn’t.
Australia, Japan and England have always been key places for your success. I was surprised in looking up some chart information that “Can the Can” actually charted higher in America, but “48 Crash” seems to be the most well known of your early singles here.
Yeah, for sure! You know what “48 Crash” is actually about? Male menopause. (Laughing) But yeah, even in the documentary, Mike Chapman says, “I think ’48 Crash’ is her finest work.”
Any thoughts on why America didn’t embrace all those records the way so much of the world did?
I really don’t know. There was that little space in time, ’73-’74, when whatever was happening everywhere else in the world didn’t quite reach America. I have no idea why, but when I started to tour there in ’74, all I heard was Linda Ronstadt or the Eagles. I had to wait until Happy Days and be Leather Tuscadero to be discovered that way. Yeah, crazy. They still discovered me but without that huge catalog of hit singles. They just didn’t get it.
One very significant thing, I think, is you just kind of made your own statement just by being you. Years later, people like Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde would adopt a similar attitude, but you never went out there and made a big issue out of the fact that you were a woman. You just did your thing, and I think that gets overlooked. The press seems to prefer the damsel-in-distress routine so often.
I actually don’t do gender. I wasn’t trying to be sexy or show you what a woman can do, none of that, and this is why it worked. I didn’t totally get it myself until I saw my documentary, and I realized how many women I had influenced. I was in tears. I called Cherie [Currie], my friend from the Runaways the next day, and I said I just realized that what I did back then gave permission to women all over the world to be different. And she said to me, “And you just got that?” And the truth is, yeah, I did just get it because I didn’t think about it. It wasn’t manufactured. I never thought to prove anything by being a woman; I was just doing what I do. I don’t do gender. I am not a feminist; I am a me-ist!