It’s been a long road for women in rock. The music industry has traditionally been run by men whose ideal female artist is a good looking singer who plays up her sexuality and does what she’s told. The path was more perilous for those who dared pick up an instrument and wanted to rock out like the boys. Undeterred, generations of female musicians have tried to kick against the pricks. Many of them can trace their lineage back to Suzi Quatro. Her hard stomping ’70s hits influenced The Runaways, who in turn would influence The Go-Go’s, who in turn would influence Bikini Kill, and so on and so on. The new music documentary Suzi Q follows Quatro’s career from ’60s garage rocker to leather-clad glam queen to unlikely TV star and is currently available for rent on Amazon, Apple, and a variety of other streaming services.
While Quatro has sold over 55 million records worldwide, she’s best known in the United States for her guest appearances as Leather Tuscadero on ’70s television series Happy Days. In the UK, Australia and Germany, however, she’s revered for a string of hit singles and albums released at the height of the glam rock era. Though marketed as a solo artist and singer, Quatro was also a band leader, strapping on a bass guitar and charging into battle ahead of a trio of beefy British goons who looked like they could give Mötorhead a run for their money in a back alley rumble.
European fanbase aside, Quatro is as American as apple pie, or more accurately a Ford Mustang, having grown up in the Midwestern automotive hub of Detroit, Michigan. Part of a big boisterous Italian-American family, she was inspired by Elvis and The Beatles and formed her first band, The Pleasure Seekers, with her sisters. Though relegated to bass guitar, it was a match made in heaven. “I really did, literally, plug it in and just said, ‘Yeah’,” she tells us, her first Fender Precision Bass cradled in her hands. They had a regional hit with “What A Way To Die,” described by sister Patti as “5 Catholic girls singing a beer and drinking song,” and dropped out of high school to go on tour with the blessing of their musician father.
Quatro laments the price of fame throughout the course of Suzi Q. “You have to say goodbye to a very comfortable perfect existence,” she says. Touring cost her childhood friends and a normal life. After struggling with The Pleasure Seekers, who later changed their name to Cradle, she went solo, alienating her family who thought she left them behind. After being discovered by English producer and manager Mickie Most she moved to London, vowing not to return home until she had a hit.
Quatro and Most struggled to find her musical identity and put it on wax before hooking up with glam rock hitmakers Mike Chapman and Nickey Chinn. Starting with 1973’s “Can the Can,” they would churn out a run of hits which featured pounding drums, loud guitars and Quatro singing at the top of her range. Her leather cat-suit image was a nod to hero Elvis and sexy sci-fi film Barberella. For all her success overseas, however, commercial success eluded her in the States. Upon her first trip back to her childhood home she discovered her mother had given away all her belongings.
For many aspiring female musicians, Suzi Quatro was the first woman they ever saw play an instrument and inspired them to follow suit. This includes the Go-Go’s Kathy Valentine, Talking Heads‘ Tina Weymouth and Joan Jett, who hounded her for autographs and emulated her style to the point that her Runaways bandmates told her to knock it off. While Quatro doesn’t dwell on the sexism she encountered along the way, it’s obvious she put up with a lot of bullshit, whether in the form of fetishized magazine shoots or a British talk show appearance where host Russell Harty slaps her on the ass. To cope she developed a thick skin, a relentless survival instinct and “a smart mouth, which kept the assholes away.”
Though Happy Days made her a celebrity in America, it also boxed her in and undermined her credibility as a rocker. As her music career waned, she threw herself into motherhood, raising two children with guitarist Len Tuckey. The couple divorced in 1992. Determined to keep working, she did musical theater, wrote rock operas, hosted radio shows on the BBC and appeared on television shows. By the 2000s, she was recording again and playing her old glam rock hits to appreciative audiences around the world.
Suzi Q concludes with Quatro returning to Detroit and ruminating on where her career took her and what was lost. She seems haunted by the original sin of leaving her sisters behind for a solo career and the effect it had on her relationship with her family. For their part, her sisters don’t seem to cut her much slack but profess their love and admiration for her. You know, families. Shit can get sticky.
Much like The Go-Go’s documentary, Suzi Q successfully rehabilitates Suzi Quatro’s image, from unfairly dismissed novelty act to female rock pioneer. The validity of the argument is backed up by all-star appearances from Joan Jett to Debbie Harry to Alice Cooper, who profess their enduring admiration for the tiny gal from Grosse Pointe with the big bass guitar. What emerges is a vivid portrait of a music industry survivor who refused to take no for an answer.
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician. Follow him on Twitter:@BHSmithNYC.
Where to stream Suzi Q
Source: New York Post
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