Friday 30 December 2016

Poem: 'Mars Is A Robot World'


even planets rust…
Opportunity touches down on
Meridiani Planum, 25 January 2004,
then 9 March 2005, Spirit Rover pauses
to see a vortex of dust devils spin by,
Curiosity sets down, Bradbury Landing
6 August 2012 in Aeolis Palus…
now Mars is a robot planet, where
each and every small soft apocalypse
 that falls, is seen and calibrated,
a sniff that tastes thin Martian air,
lenses that glimpse the pale green star
recorded forever beyond returning,
treads etch patterns in tumbled grit,
encrypting it into the topography,
setting up ghost-ripples in dead rivers
immersing in shimmering tides
 within the memory of shallow pools,
in evidence-trails of evaporation
left across a rim of scars, in a
squiggly striation-chain of eddies,
transient in the endless curve,
warping whims of hardpan where
soft wind is the only other sculptor…

in a million years from now
others will enter this star drift
seeking us and find no trace,
but for stilled machines
on this rusted planet…

Published in:
‘ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION no.485 (Vol. 40 No.6)’ 
June (USA – May 2016)

Thursday 29 December 2016

Album Reviews: Status Quo's 40 Years Of Hits


 Album Review of: 
 (2004, Sanctuary Midline 3CD) 

‘Technicolour dreams are all I see, technicolour dreams of you and me…’ Could that lyric come from any year other than 1968? It’s a film already playing inside your mind, the wistful long-haired teen-girl in Bridget Riley Op-Art dress slipping through a false-colour trip-treated enchanted forest. And that’s just one title from this lost trove of what the liner-notes accurately define as ‘bubblegum psychedelia’. Not the hard-edged manic ‘Nuggets’-style USA acid-garage-punk (apart from their early shot at the Blues Magoos’ “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet”), more the kaleidoscopic whimsy of its UK ‘sunny cellophane skies’ variant. It’s only the name beneath the song-titles, and the subsequent riffing twelve-bar Quo notoriety that tends to devalue the historic integrity of this stuff.

In fact Rick Parfitt himself admits that this is Quo ‘before they’d invented themselves.’ A group who stumbled into the charts by happy accident with “Pictures Of Matchstick Men”, and spent the next couple of years trying to replicate its success – most obviously with “Black Veils Of Melancholy” which randomises the guitar-hook only slightly and shifts the phase-control along a bar or two. And of course, they’re not all stone-gems, although some are – “Ice In The Sun”, “When My Mind Is Not Live”, or “Make Me Stay A Little Bit Longer”. Then there are contract-fillers when inspiration fails, covers of the Lemon Pipers’ “Green Tambourine”, Tommy Roe’s “Shelia”, or the Bee-Gees’ “Spicks And Specks” (twice, the second one abruptly curtailed by a voice cutting in ‘alright, come on’).

 This triple-set opens with that first ‘Picturesque Matchstikable Messages’ (1968) album plus all the a-&-b sides made under their earlier incarnations as The Spectres (a ridiculously over-the-top “I, Who Have Nothing”), and Traffic Jam (“Almost But Not Quite There”). They then spend the other two CD’s evolving towards their next career-phase, with the contents of three more complete vinyl albums, plus some lost archive rarities from the 1981 and ’98 vaults. Ain’t CD wonderful? Through the prettified, more self-consciously orchestrated harmonies – and less fun, of ‘Spare Parts’ (Sept 1969), developing their song-writing skills with Rossi, Parfitt, roadie Bob Young, and frequently overlooked bassist Alan Lancaster all strongly contributing. Until their own “In My Chair” rightfully returns them to the charts. Nudging them into the more Blues-Heavy ‘Ma Kelly’s Greasy Spoon’ (Sept 1970) with “Spinning Wheel” already recognisably ‘Quo’, plus the entendre-strewn “Lazy Poker Blues”, and “Is It Really Me” extending to a full 9:30min jam. Then ‘Dog With Two Heads’ (Dec 1971) with the downright weird “Gerundula”, and chart-hit “Mean Girl”. But me?, I’m flipping back to album one for ‘I see your shadow slipping through a silver glade, tip-toeing over crimson sands, moving me onwards into a sea of jade, leading me gently by the hand…’ Dayglo psychedelia at its most bubblegum trip-tastic.

Published in:
‘SONGBOOK no.2’ (UK – Feb 2004)

Album Review of: 
 (2009, Universal 2CD) 

If Status Quo had terminally totalled their Transit van into a motorway support bridge in the late-sixties, or if they’d deep-fried their brains to iconic LSD vegetables like Syd Barrett, or Brian Wilson, then chances are their cult-credibility would now be critically unassailable, with “Pictures Of Matchstick Men” up there with the Smallfaces’ “Tin Soldier”, Pink Floyd’s “Point Me At The Sky”, or Smoke’s “My Friend Jack” as quintessentially pristine examples of Freak-Beat. Then again, had their 747 fallen out of the sky in the mid-seventies they’d be remembered as monolithic metal monsters, the London variant of martyred Lynyrd Skynyrd perhaps, by those metal-heads who get dewy-eyed with nostalgia for far lesser entities such as Saxon or Uriah Heep. John Peel was an early champion, Bob Harris on ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ too. Trouble is, they are the band who never forgot how many bars make twelve. Everyone knows what a Quo record sounds like, those paralytic licks that go chinga-chinga-chinga at mind-numbing repetitions. No other group is so readily identified by so instantly recognisable a sound. It’s also universally adaptable and can be grafted onto just about any song you care to think of – as they prove through personalising a series of oldsters such as “The Wild Side Of Life”, “The Wanderer” – and that old John Fogerty track “Rockin’ All Over The World”. Not that all Quo hits necessarily conform to blueprint. ‘Cos they don’t. Think “Marguerita Time”, “Living On An Island”, or “In The Army Now”. But then again, enough of them do to give substance to the image. Sure, maybe their career’s long since gone beyond its commercial or credibility peak. Too bad. No defiant apologies required. Quo were hip, for a while, something we may need to remind ourselves of every now and then.

Published in:
‘ROCK ‘N’ REEL Vol.2 No.13 (Jan/Feb 2009)’ 
(UK – January 2009)

Wednesday 28 December 2016



Rick Parfitt died 24 December 2016, aged sixty-eight. 
This is the full previously-unpublished transcript of an interview 
I did with him during his promotion for the 2002 Status Quo 
album ‘Heavy Traffic’. As such he’s keen to talk up the new 
product, but in fairness, it’s a strong album, and it arrived on a new 
creative energy-rush following a low period of disappointingly 
unsatisfactory work. And he was as engagingly candid when criticizing 
the flaws of the earlier work as he was to enthuse over the new…

The Holiday Inn. Two adjoining rooms off the same corridor. ‘We’re better off when we split up while we’re doing interviews’ explains Francis Rossi. The ‘we’ being him and long-time Status Quo partner Rick Parfitt. ‘So recently we’ve been trying to get them done separately because people expect us to go into Morecambe & Wise. And we usually do…’

Status Quo are a band with total world sales exceeding 112-million units. That’s a lot. But for reasons still unclear without the use of mind-altering drugs, Status Quo are seldom accorded the respect granted their contemporaries such as the Who or the Rolling Stones, which is odd considering they cover pretty much the same terrain. Evolved out of Blues, for which they still have a tangible love and respect, and which still forms the basis of their ‘sound’. Today, they’re in the mood to talk about one of the more recent additions to the Quo catalogue. The 2002 album ‘Heavy Traffic’, and if Rock dreams are all about the open highway, then it’s here it hits all the green lights.

The album was issued to coincide with a charting single – “Jam Side Down” (issued 5th August 2002), an inevitable tour, and a ninety-minute Channel Four documentary done by the respected director/producer Jane Treays. She starts out, to an extent – confrontationally, but grudgingly and perhaps inexorably finds herself sucked in by the intense gravitational power of the live Quo set. It’s impossible to resist it for too long. And along the way – inevitably, some statistics get regurgitated. This is a band who’ve recorded no less than fifty-five British hit singles. That’s more than any other band, with no exceptions. Twenty-two of them made the Top Ten. They’ve also had more hit albums – a total of thirty-one, in the British album chart than any other band – apart, that is, from the Rolling Stones!

‘Rick doesn’t much like doing interviews’ Rossi had prior-warned me, unnecessarily. And sure, Rick’s more careful and considered in his responses than the more garrulous Francis Rossi – who confesses at one point ‘maybe I shouldn’t have told you that, I don’t know.’ But Rick is just as open and ready to trade the secrets of a Rock ‘n’ Roll life... in fact – swigging from a Budweiser bottle, his greatest cause for complaint is the catering ‘Just crammed a bit of lunch in quick, and I’ve gotta drink something with it. I would have had a diet coke but there ain’t one here.’ Later, grinning at the bottle after an especially good answer to my question, he goes ‘I’ll ‘ave to have another one of these...!’

You should be used to this ‘Holiday Inn’ setting, isn’t this where Rock bands usually stay? We are, we are. So I expected to get an omelette when I ordered steak and chips, or vice versa. They do tend to get it wrong most of the time. That’s one of the things about being on the road. Especially if you’re abroad and there’s a bit of a language problem. It’s really strange what comes up sometimes. (He adopts an exaggerated chef’s accent) ‘I think he said ‘an omelette with cheese, but it could have been a fillet steak’. But there are worse situations to be in, and you have to learn to cope with these things. So you don’t want to order anything fancy on the road. Stick to the basics – well I do. And anyway, really and truly, we now have our own catering on the road. So, in the routine of touring – between 2:30 and 3pm every day, Francis and I will go to the gig and eat. You have to learn not to make the mistake of eating one potato too many before you go on stage, otherwise you get that worst feeling of going out there a bit blown out, y’know. So it’s good simple, what I call ‘belly-tipper’, something that’s gonna serve you enough to get you through a gig without eating too much. So that’s why we eat early for a nine o’clock show.

Of course, it wasn’t always like that. You started out travelling to gigs, and sleeping in Transit Vans. Yeah, I’ve slept very well in Transit Vans, and – before that, in Thames Vans too. You sometimes wonder how you survived. I mean – apart from all the self-inflicted nonsense you put yourself through over the years with drugs and booze and whatever, I remember back when there was five of us, and we had a Thames Van, and all the gear, so obviously one of us is driving, one is sitting on the engine compartment which is in-between the two seats, one of is in the passenger seat – and they’re the lucky three! ‘Cos two have to lay flat out on top of the PA in the back of the Van. Now, you can only imagine – if the lights change or whatever and you have to slam the brakes on, we’d come down – like, almost straight through the bloody windscreen! But that’s how it used to be. And that’s what we used to do. How we ever came through that I dunno. But I mean, at the time we were young and it didn’t matter. We didn’t give a fuck. We were in the group, and just gigging, it was great. And compared to the way we’re looked after now – I mean, it was unbelievable. When you think back to how it was, but really and truly, it was great. It’s your apprenticeship, isn’t it? You don’t expect to go in at the top.

The ‘Heavy Traffic’ album features the chart single “Jam Side Down” – am I reading too much into it, or is there a hidden reference there to the band’s pre-Quo name ‘Traffic Jam’? No – it wasn’t deliberate, but we did think – ‘what a lovely link’. And it’s funny, I wasn’t sure whether people would pick up on this, but you’re not the first to have done that. So, I think it’s nice to just pick that little link up from the past, thread it up to now. And – I have to say, that I’m really proud, and I’m not just saying this – I heard myself there! as if I was just saying it – but I’m not! I’m really proud to have done this album, and let people know what Quo is now, because I think the album is really reflective of who and where we’re at. Who we are. And where we’re at. I think it’s the best album we’ve ever done... and yes, I’ve said that before as well. But with this one, all the round pegs have gone in the round holes, and all the square pegs have gone in the square holes. Everything’s come right on this album. I don’t know what it is. The band is playing well – and I’m only telling you this because this is what is going on at the moment, and I don’t really know why. We’ve introduced Matt Letley – the drummer, he’s been with us a couple of years now, but this is the first studio album that we’ve done with Matt. And I don’t know whether it’s him or... I don’t know what it is, but something has really fallen into place all over again. ‘Cos the early band was – what it was. It was rough, it was ready, and people loved it. Now we’ve set out on a kinda different road to become a really class, really good Rock band. And I think that we’re pretty much getting there. I mean – live, no problem. But on album – to get that kind-of vibe across, that good crisp rocking vibe, I think we’ve done it. And how we’ve done it – again, I don’t quite know. It just, was there. Everybody’s in the right frame of mind to do this album, the material is very strong, the sleeve’s right, the title’s right. I saw a poster in the audience a few weeks ago saying ‘HEAVY TRAFFIC: HEAVY QUO’, and I thought ‘Yes, that’s the message we wanted’. And ‘this is working.’ Y’know, something’s clicking into place here, ‘cos a few people obviously picked up on the album pre-release – they download it, don’t they? You can’t police it. But at least we’re not alone. That’s the only consolation I can get personally, the fact that it must happen to everybody. So anyway – all the pegs are in the right holes, it’s feeling great. The album is fabulous, and we’re just really now in the hands of everyone else, and hopefully they do their job properly. We’ve done ours, to a certain extent. We’ve made the album. Now everybody’s gotta work on it. Including us, on days like this – obviously.

You listen to this album once, twice, and there are songs and hooks that stick in your mind. I agree with you. Yeah, I was saying to somebody earlier – ‘I haven’t done this for years, back to maybe the old ‘Piledriver’ (1972) and ‘Hello’ (1973) days’, where I’d put my own album on. And honestly, I’ve got it in the car, and I’m getting home and wanting to listen to the album there too. I want to listen, and it keeps getting better and better. ‘Cos when you record it – one track at a time, and ‘oh god, I remember that one, three months ago we did that.’ But when you hear it mixed and packed up and there it is, it really is a class album.

On the track “Do It Again” you sing ‘I get a rush every night when 8:45 comes’. That’s about the excitement of playing live. So is that sense of anticipation still there? That is the paramount part of the day of being on tour, because – if anybody’s honest with you, you don’t want to do the travelling. You get sick of the travelling. The part that matters, and the part that means everything, is just before you go on stage, and being up there and having a great gig. After all these years – we did two shows recently in a bull-ring in Spain that were absolute magic. It was so great to be on there. You know the old term ‘hot knife through butter?’ – the set went past like that (he snaps his fingers). And people often say ‘Christ, where do you get the energy?’ And I tell you, on a good night it’s so – I won’t say ‘easy’ to do, but it’s so pleasurable to do, that it just goes past. And it’s still surprising – after all these years, that you come off stage and go ‘Wow! That was incredible! Amazing!’ And yet we still do it, everybody comes off really ‘up’ and really vibed-up. Then we did another gig in an arena the following night and the same thing happened. There were two gigs in a row where it was literally like having your back tickled. We got goose-pimples. So yeah, that part of what we do is still fantastic. If it wasn’t, to be honest with you, we couldn’t do it. It would be like work. And you don’t want it to be like work. ‘Cos – you know this as well as I do, if you really enjoy what you do, then it ain’t work, is it? ‘Cos it’s a pleasure. And our business is our pleasure – or our pleasure is our business.

You’ve been with Francis so long now that you must have developed a kind of musical telepathy between you. Oh yeah. We know what one another’s thinking. For the most part. We do have our times – for Christ’s sake, we wouldn’t be normal if we didn’t, and we’ve had our rows over the years. Quite serious ones at some stage, I actually threw a towel at him once!!! But yeah, generally we get on great, 75% of the time we get on really well.

So many long-term partnerships in Rock have ended up in animosity. Well, I can understand it, you see. What a lot of people don’t know – well, a lot of people DO realise this, I’m wrong to say that, is that it’s little things. It’s not the whole nucleus, the big thing of getting on stage and doing it, not the ‘I don’t wanna play tonight’ ‘well I do’ – it’s not that. It’s things like, if you go back on the bus after a gig, for instance, I might say to the driver ‘can you put a bit of heat on?’ And Frame’ll go ‘no, don’t put the heat on for Christ’s sake.’ And so you sit there thinking ‘well, whose gonna win this?’ So you strike a happy medium, in as much as we’ve been together for going on thirty-four thirty-five years now. Whatever it is, you learn to cope with that kind of thing. And if you don’t learn to cope with it, that’s when you gotta split up. It’s like you and your Mrs, or whatever. You leave the top off the toothpaste, and she goes ‘will you put the top back on...’ ‘I can’t be bothered, you’ve only got to squeeze the bloody thing.... It’s little things. ‘Put the loo seat down’ ‘No, I like it up.’ That’s the point. It’s all those kind of things. And you experience exactly the same, on the road with five people, y’know? Not everybody can have it the way they want it. So you have to learn. It’s a lesson in life, to give and take.

‘Frame’? That’s what I call Francis. I’m the only one who calls him that. Nobody else does. Don’t know why. ‘F.R.’ = Frame.

So you’re saying those personal things are more important in breaking a band up than the usual disclaimer ‘musical differences’? Not necessarily. Well, with musical differences – of course, we do have them. But we’re able – with the modicum of talent we have, NO – I won’t say ‘modicum’, with the talent we have at doing what we do, we’re able to iron that out. ‘No, don’t play it like that.’ ‘Well OK, let’s compromise a bit.’ And we can do that. Because there are two guitars so we can afford to give and take a little bit. He wants to play it that way, one way. I can play it slightly another way, but it will still ‘tune’, we will still be literally ‘in tune’ with one another. And that’s part of how the Quo sound is created. ‘Cos I always play a different inversion to what Francis does, and he always plays it differently to what I do. But, at the end of the day, it all adds up to the same thing. Which is that sound. People say ‘how do you get that sound?’ ‘Don’t know’. And honestly we don’t. I can only say, I play it my way – he plays it his way. And it adds up to be the same. But anything musically that we do really fall out about – and from time to time you do fall out, but then you have to weigh up – well, really and truly, what is the best way to do it? So sometimes I’ll give, and sometimes he’ll give. And that’s how we’ve managed to hold it together.

Andrew Bown has also been in – or associated with Status Quo for a long time. Twenty-five years now. Since he left the Herd. Actually no, not quite – because he left them, and he did a thing on his own in-between. He had his own band. But he played piano with the Herd in the early days. And he’d come and play a bit of piano now and then for us, and eventually the Herd split, and Andy wasn’t really doing a lot – so, ‘jump in’. So in he came, ‘Cos on stage we missed that piano you did on there, we can’t play it.’ So he played one bit, then another bit – and then, of course, he was in the band. And it’s twenty-five years now, I can’t believe it. But he’s a great writer as well – Andrew, a clever writer, and some of his writing on this album is very very good. When we went in to do the album, we knew that we were armed with this excellent material. And funnily enough I’ve been – not a lazy little git, but I only wrote a couple of the songs, one of which didn’t make it onto the album, ‘cos simply – it wasn’t good enough, ‘cos the standard of the material which everybody came in with was – WOW! I heard a couple of the demo’s up front and knew that this was gonna be good, and so it’s turned out.

On the sleeve of your ‘Famous In The Last Century’ (2000) album there’s a photo of Francis framed against a back-drop photo of Elvis Presley, and you up against one of John Lennon. I interpreted that as a deliberate statement of your respective influences. No. Not really. It wasn’t. It was just the way it came out. I suppose it means lots of different things to different people. But in fact, it’s not really meant to mean anything. It’s just meant to be an attractive sleeve. I didn’t even know I was coming out with John Lennon behind me. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know the concept of the sleeve. Why – I dunno. It was one of those albums where you just kind-of leave it to the record company, and you’re quite happy with whatever they’re going to do. However – with ‘Heavy Traffic’, it’s been a totally different thing. The deliberation we’ve had over that sleeve! Well – we thought ‘Heavy Traffic’ – OK, how’re you going to do that? Obviously, well – you’ve got a white line down the middle of a road. With what – a traffic jam? Sitting in a car looking at loads of other traffic? Obviously you’d do that, wouldn’t you? So no, we won’t go ‘down that road’. Radar – let’s have a radar screen – with lots of dots on it, too many dots – ‘Heavy Traffic’, ‘cos then we can have the radar-dish on stage behind the kibuki, with the blue light going round – you know, before we go on! Yeah, good, but not quite right. This is all us lot sitting on the tour bus trying to come up with something. Then somebody mentioned elephants. And ‘how about if we had the elephants stampeding down a road with us running away from them?’ Yeah – now that could be good. So we sent the idea off. And we do these weird photo sessions – you’re running past the camera with this look of horror on your face. It was hilarious to do, because none of us are actors. It was very funny to try to pull this expression of being frightened of being trampled by an elephant! ‘Go on, pull a face – AHHH!’ We got this mock-up back – adjust that, adjust this, make this bigger. Until we got the sleeve that we all want. With these fucking great elephants charging down this street looking awesome, with us – like, fleeing from them. We’ve done all this. It’s another aspect to this album, we got so involved with it. It’s all tongue in cheek, but it’s a good sleeve.

There’s a line on the album that goes ‘as the Brown-Eyed Handsome Man says/ you never can tell...’, which neatly gets Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry references into the same verse. “Blues and Rhythm”. Well – I can’t actually comment on that lyric, because I didn’t write it, and I don’t quite know what the content is meant to be there, but you are very possibly right.

Then there’s the ‘Too-Much-Monkey-Business’ word-flow of “Digging Burt Bacharach” – which is not about Burt Bacharach at all. No, it’s more meant to be reflective of a time, many years ago, way back in the sixties, and early seventies. Cat-flaps and stuff like that. Lots of things that you don’t associate with now so much. The link-up between Bob Young and Francis again – they used to write in the early days together, then they had this ‘void’ for a number of years, and now the fact that they’re writing together again has been a great plus for the band. Bob is a great lyricist, no two ways about it, and with Francis’ quirkiness, they work. Rossi/Young works as a writing partnership. I wish I could find a partner that good to write with. But it’s great for the band.

‘Mojo’ magazine issued a 2001 4-CD box-set called ‘Acid Drops, Spacedust, & Flying Saucers’ which collects rare British Psychedelic vinyl, and you’re on there with “When My Mind Is Not Live” (B-side of “Ice In The Sun”), which I understand is the first-ever Rossi/Parfitt composition. Oh Christ. Probably – I don’t REMEMBER the first song I wrote with him, but it could well have been that one, yeah. It’s way-back when, isn’t it? I thought our first was “Poor Old Man” – it was around the same sort-of time. Or – oh god, way back – 1968, ‘when my mind is not live’ (he sings the line), nice song that, I remember it well. Psychological isn’t it – no, PSYCHEDELIC! which indeed it was in those days of the old – what did you used to call it? – ‘paint’ lighting, you’d get water-colour slides which would sort-of go around in front of a light. It was all that. And we were dressed up like Christmas Trees anyway. All the colours under the fucking rainbow.

At that time I was sitting at home in Hull – watching you on ‘Top Of The Pops’ doing all that. More-or-less the same age, only I was watching it and you were out there doing it! Yeah – ‘Matchstick Men’. It’s a great piece of footage that. I love watching that clip – not withstanding the fact that it’s in black-and-white, it looks great, and the way we were dressed!

It must have been an amazingly strange time for you. Well, it was amazing. Doors that had – the big doors of life were opening, if you like, weren’t they? Oh god, this sounds cheesy. But it was – HERE WE GO! But little did we know how far we were going to go. If anybody around that time had said ‘in thirty-five years time you’ll still be doing this’ I’d have laughed at them. You couldn’t have imagined that we would still be sitting here doing what we’re doing, and still getting a kick out of doing it. You’d never imagine it. But I think, in it’s way – it’s the way we still think. We’ve never really analysed it. We just do what we do, on a daily basis, we just do it. If we’ve gotta record, we just go in and record. We don’t analyse it too much. We try not to at least, because I think that can destroy it – if you try to become the thing that you are, if you know what I mean – does that make sense? Don’t try to be it, just do it. Just do what comes naturally, and that’s what we’ve always done. I’ve used one analogy for this band for many years. I’ve had this picture in my head – of Quo as this steam train, steaming down the track, and all these trends and this dance-music and whatever – nothing against it, but that’s for other people, it ain’t for me – and trends and bits-and-pieces that come-and-go, they just bounce off this engine. And this engine just keeps going down the tracks. I see that. That’s the way I’ve looked at it. Rightly or wrongly, that’s the picture-gram that I get.

But at that time you were part of a generation of bands who were making it up for the first time, borrowing bits from Blues, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry. But at least yours was a direct continuity to that Roots music. Lots of the bands coming along later were copying off you, and off your contemporaries. Yeah, well. And on it goes.

But it’s like copying a video, each time you copy it you lose a little more definition. I tend to agree with you. I hope, at the time that we did it, we hadn’t lost too much. And we kind-of – I suppose, we took it from Blues-based Rock. People like Fleetwood Mac, early Chicken Shack, and the Doors – “Road-House Blues”. When we first heard that! Frame and I were out in Germany and we were in a Club and this ‘dum, der-dum, der-dum, der-dum, der-dum’ came on and I thought ‘Christ I like the sound of that. We’ll have some of that.’ There’s just something about that shuffle-rhythm, it’s just so infectious. And to enhance it, there was this couple dancing on the floor – and he would tell you exactly the same story here, they had that hip movement about them, and they were dancing so smoothly to this ‘dum, der-dum, der-dum, der-dum, der-dum’ shuffle-rhythm. And I thought ‘we gotta do that.’ So – away we went, and that was what really got us into this kind of shuffle-thing which led to all sorts of other things. And we found an identity really, with it. Because, obviously – with “Pictures Of Matchstick Men”, “Ice In The Sun”, and “When My Mind Is Not Live” and stuff like that, we hadn’t really found an identity. Even when we did “Down The Dust-Pipe” which went ‘dum, der-dum, der-dum, der-dum, der-dum’ – the fast shuffle, we didn’t realise that that was going to be the nucleus of what we were gonna do in years to come. We didn’t really think about it, because that didn’t turn us on in the same way that this “Road-House Blues” type of feel did. ‘That feel – we’ve gotta get that, we’ve gotta nick, we’ve gotta have it.’ So we worked at it, and here we are, still working at it, if you like, or maybe we’ve finally got it now...? But we had no idea that we were gonna kind-of turn it into something that people would turn around and go – ‘ah, that’s Quo!’ And how flattering. Yes it is.

Of course, now you could merely have sampled the Doors’ track direct, and lost out on that creative ‘personalising’ process. Just as the dance-group Apollo 440 sampled you. I hate to say it, but I loved that. However it goes, I loved it. And we’re still tempted to go there on stage. They’ve nicked us, and we’ll nick it back. It’s the intro from “Caroline” – the opening riff, that’s it. And as you know – on that, we bring it right down, get a bit of audience participation going, and in that part we’re so tempted to voice their...whatever it is. But we don’t go there. Great – but they’ve denied it or something, haven’t they? the silly sods. If they’ve done it why don’t they just own up? We’ve had it analysed, and it is definitely my playing. That’s it. It sounds a bit flash – it’s not meant to be, but nobody plays the guitar like that. Nobody does it like that – and that’s definitely the Quo intro.

With “Caroline” you were the top Festival Band, around the time of Reading. Fast becoming one anyway. Yeah – we were topping Reading by then.

And I saw Apollo 440 recently at a Festival, with the massive audience laid about in various states of inertia, and when they got to play that “Caroline”-sample it had exactly the same effect on that crowd as your original did at those 1970’s Readings, it jerked them up onto their feet. Its sheer energy and clear definition. It works on that most primal of levels. It’s strange. There’s something about it, yes, that is very infectious. And again, we didn’t set out to create this. Whatever way you look at it, primitive form or whatever you choose to call it, people love it. It has an infectious ‘thing’ about it where – it’s quite simple, but it’s got to be played from the heart. If you play it like – you don’t give it 100%, it ain’t gonna work! We know this. When we go out on that stage – as you may or may not know, we always go out and really give it some. It’s a great release for us as well. You get out on stage and you can just let it all go. That – coupled with having an audience who really WANT it, and are really up for it...? It’s so – I don’t know. We’re not the only ones, obviously, to get that kind of reaction. But there’s something just so satisfying about it. You know at the end of the day, you come off that stage, and you think YES!!!! You’ve gone out and you’ve done your job properly. And what that does for your head is a lot. It really is satisfying to do what we do. But it must be played from the heart. It’s got to be. You can’t fake it. And the fact is – we do go out and play it from the heart. And because we do, that’s why it has the clout that it has. Because we fuckin’ give it some! If we didn’t – it wouldn’t mean anything. You can either do it 100%, or not at all.

Tell me about the supposed Radio One ban on playing Status Quo records. I really don’t want to go there again. We’ve shut the door on that now. It’s gone. It’s done. It’s dusted. That’s it. They don’t fucking wanna (...mumble, mumble...) play us do they? But I’ve gotta be careful. I’ll be liable. But we weren’t just saying they weren’t playing us. They definitely weren’t. But life goes on after Radio One. Rightly or wrongly we had a pop at them. But we had to do something. Because it was a matter of principle. How dare they? Who do they think they are to just turn round and say ‘we’re not playing you’? What do you mean ‘you’re not playing us’? They’re just a bunch of (...pause – what, tossers? wankers?) – DJ’s. If we didn’t make the records they’d have nothing to play anyway. But we’ve survived. Through television. And Radio Two now, which is bigger than Radio One anyway. So they’ve kind-of shot themselves in the foot.

It’s strange to determine what is and what is not ‘credible’ when an Elvis remix gets to no.1 They won’t play Elvis – but they’ll play someone remixing Elvis. They won’t play Quo, but they play Apollo 440 sampling Quo. It’s bizarre. You just don’t know. They don’t seem to know where to plant the goal-posts, do they? They’re forever moving it. But having said that – I don’t listen to Radio One. Not because of what happened between us and them. But it ain’t for me. Call me old-fashioned. But I love Radio Two, there you go. I kinda like the music. They give me what I want to hear. And Radio One doesn’t.

Is the song “I Don’t Remember Anymore” – on ‘Heavy Traffic’, one of yours? No. That’s Andrew Bown. But I think he kind-of wrote it about me. Because I do the vocal on it. And nobody else COULD have sung it, because I suffer a bit from... er... memory loss – I was trying hard to think of the right word there – ‘insomnia’? No, that’s not sleeping. But I do. I suffer a little from that. And over the years, the way I’ve kinda lived my life – it’s no wonder! But it kind-of seems that the song is about me. And I’m quite happy about that. It’s a good line. A good lyric. And again – that’s another song that could just slot into the stage set like that (snaps fingers). We could end up doing most of this album on stage. There’s six new songs from this album going into the current set, and that’s unheard of. That tells us something about the album as well.

On that song there’s a lyric about being ‘an all-nite loon like Ronnie Wood’. Yes. I never really knew Ronnie until fairly recently. Just a couple of years ago in fact. I went to one of his art exhibitions. So we’ve met up. But there’s nothing more than that in it.

You played with the Faces early on when Ronnie was a member, I thought perhaps you’d met him around that period. It was the Smallfaces that we played with. Steve Marriott. Kenny Jones. Ian McLagan. And... er, Ronnie Lane.

But you played the Reading Festival with the Faces. Yes. We probably did. I used to knock about a bit with Rod (Stewart) in the early days. But I never got to meet Ronnie Wood back there, although I know his brother very well actually, Art Wood. He’s a pal of mine. Art goes in my local, and we’ve done a couple of gigs together – just, in the pub! He was in a cult 1960’s band called the Artwoods. They used to play the old Eel Pie a lot, didn’t they?

Status Quo made an almost surreal appearance on TV’s ‘Des O’Connor Show’ with the Beach Boys. I know. And what a coup that was. Well – to get Brian Wilson out of his house, let alone get him out of America at that time, was a real coup for us. But first and foremost it was a coup to get the Beach Boys. You know – we did this gig together, and we said, like you often do after gigs, ‘wouldn’t it be great to... we should do a record together’, and of course it never comes off. But this one time it did. We recorded a version of “Fun Fun Fun” together. We sent the tapes out. They were on tour. They always told us – and I have no reason to disbelieve them, that they went in and did the vocals – it was pitched quite high for them, straight after they’d played a gig. Because their voices were all ‘kicked in’. And they did it. Then a couple of nights after they’d played the gig they went into the studio and dubbed the vocals on. And I was kind-of surprised that they did it really. ‘Cos – really and truly, they’re a legendary band. They’re huge. The Beach Boys are massive. And the fact that they agreed to put the backing vocals on a Status Quo record – albeit one that they’d written! – and then the added bonus of getting Brian over. The publicity that it got. It was amazing. But it was impossible to try to have a conversation with Brian. Impossible. I found it so anyway. It was like ‘Hi Brian’. ‘Hi’. And that was it.

I heard Brian Wilson being interviewed by Johnny Walker around time of the Jubilee concert. I think he’s come out of his shell a bit recently. At saw him at the Palace. Did you see the gig he did at the Palace? He sat and played. He looked well. Bless him for being out there and having a go, because he has been to somewhere that most of us will never go. We went to his house in Beverly Hills. And it was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. You’re in HIS house. And his wife – who is very good for him, looks after him, makes sure nothing goes wrong – she invites us in, shows us through into the lounge where he’s sort-of sitting there playing the piano. And you got the very strong feeling of ‘what are you people doing in my house? Why are you here?’ And we sort-of went ‘Hi Brian’. And after ‘Hello Brian’ there’s not really a lot to say. He carried on playing the piano and we kind-of... hung out. But there’s still an incredible aura about the man. Knowing what he’s written. The BEACH BOYS! Consequently we’ve done quite a lot of gigs with them since, and they’ve done gigs with us over here and over in Europe. It’s been a good relationship. We’ve got to know them really quite well. And they’re fabulous. They’re so good.

What was your own level of involvement in the drug scene when you started out in 1968? Were you a participant? No. We missed it. Just missed it. ‘68, ‘69. Just kind-of missed it.

But LSD was supposedly an essential ingredient of psychedelia. Yes. But no, we weren’t part of any of that. I didn’t – we didn’t ever, well – I didn’t even smoke a joint until – I don’t know, late ‘69 I suppose. I sort-of started smoking joints around then. I don’t know how I started. It was just the thing to do. Everybody was. But I never got into acid. I’ve never been ‘on a trip’ in my life... and having seen Brian (Wilson), I’m really pleased that I didn’t go there. And Peter Green (of early Fleetwood Mac) as well. He’s... out there as well. Peter walked into a recording session of ours some time ago. A good number of years now. Thereabouts. And he just kind-of walked in. We’re halfway through a take, and – ‘there’s Peter Green’! You’re certainly inhibited about playing your three fucking chords when he’s standing there…!

Not if they’re the right three chords. Yes. Nowt wrong with that. But you didn’t really know what to say to him. I didn’t. It’s just... the situation’s a bit tricky. Nice enough bloke. Great player.

The drugs scene is a good illustration of the difference between the perception of being in a band at that time – and the reality. Ian Hunter once told me that when Mott the Hoople started out he’d only ever smoked the occasional joint, but that he never encountered heavy drugs until he got to America. That’s right. Same with us. Frame (Rossi) and I were in LA, at a party up in the Hills. We were invited up there by the record company. And there’s the ash-tray full of.... y’know, the legendary tale of the ash-tray full of coke. And sure enough, there it was! ‘Hey you guys – just help yourself’. We’d never tried it. Shall we have a go? Yeah, why not. Ten minutes later I said to Frame ‘has it done anything for you?’ He says ‘no’. I said ‘naw me’. We didn’t get anything off it. So we thought we’d best have another try. So we had another try – and that was the start of a really.... CHRIST!!!! A decade of fucking abandonment, you know. Mad. It got really fucking mad. 

John Peel wrote the sleeve-notes for your May 1975 EP ‘Roll Over Lay Down’. I know he did one. I’d forgotten it was ‘Roll Over Lay Down’. He was a big fan. He probably still is (John Peel died 25 October 2004). Through the 1970’s Peel-ly was fantastic for us. Our stuff was right up his street. And he was great to us. He would always be the first one to play our albums. He was largely responsible for putting us to no.1 with those albums. An awful lot of people used to listen to the John Peel Show, as they probably still do. It was the programme for the ‘Heads’. Haven’t seen him for years now actually. I know he’s still working though. Is he on Radio Two now? I tend to listen to Whispering Bob Harris now when he does a Country Music Show on Thursday evenings. Fantastic. But he was great to us as well with ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’. We used to do that quite a lot, yeah. And if you made the ‘Whistle Test’ – I mean, you were the nuts, weren’t you? – just to get on there! They were great times. But I’m very vague on a lot of it, because around that time it was all starting to kick in. Life was going a little bit mad.

Which bands of that period did you respect? I used to love Mott The Hoople. I remember going to see them play at the Oval – in the ‘Surrey Tavern’ it was called. And they were grouped around one another on stage. They stood in a circle…

Was that with Mick Ronson? Yeah yeah. When Ian Hunter was playing keyboards and stuff. And – Fender (Luther Grosvenor aka Ariel Bender) – whatisname? was on bass. He used to freak me out. He looked great. And the band stood all grouped in a circle on the stage, crouching down while they were playing. I’d never seen that before. And I thought they were marvellous. I thought they were great around that time. Who else did I go and see…?

Ian Hunter told me how uncomfortable he felt wearing all the Glam gear when they went through that career-phase. We never wore the glitter. But there was a fair bit of fucking hair-spray flying about! That, and the old paisley jackets and stuff. But no – we never went any further than that. Funnily enough I saw Dave Hill (of Slade) the other day. ‘Dave Hill’s Slade’ as it is now. They supported us on a gig in Germany – or somewhere.

You supported Slade on an early tour. Yes. We actually supported them in Australia. And – oh god, it was amazing to see them again. Slade maybe hasn’t got the power it used to have. But Don Powell’s still in there. And Dave hasn’t changed a lot. Physically he has – but his mental attitude towards it all hasn’t. He was a bit of a strange boy in the early days. And... nothing’s changed really (in a humorously thoughtful tone)! But it’s nice to see them all again. To see them out there still having a go. But it makes me feel really proud of what – with the greatest respect, Slade aren’t in the same class as they used to be, whereas we are still there and still one-hundred-percent committed to what we’re doing. And hopefully, we’re about to break out again! We’re ready for it. We’re THERE. I don’t know how to put it without sounding flashy. It’s a credit to us – really, that we’re still here. It’s a very strong album. There’s another one coming out as well. It’s going to be called ‘Hot Riffs’, and you wait till you hear THAT! It’s a covers album, it’ll be released for Christmas, it’ll be TV-advertised and hopefully it’ll do well. We didn’t really want to go in and do it, did we? We didn’t want to. But the record company ‘nudged’ us, shall we say. ‘Alright then’. So in we went. And... it’s like no other covers album we’ve ever done. Or that I’ve – indeed, ever heard in my life. We’re all really thrilled with this album, and I can’t believe that I’d be sitting here saying I’m thrilled with a covers album. But give it a listen. It’s really kicking arse…

RIFFS(Universal), issued December 2003, is made up of ten covers – including “I Fought The Law”, “Born To Be Wild” and the Kinks “All Day And All Of The Night”, plus five new versions of their own old hits – “Down The Dustpipe”, “Whatever You Want” and “Rockin’ All Over The World”

Status Quo: 'Heavy Traffic' album

Album Review of: 
(Universal Music TV) 

A new Quo album is the least envied assignment in Music Journalism. And sure enough, the album’s first four opening bars tell the entire tale. To venture further is only to reveal this unique brand of all-British Rock stripped down to its minimalist thong. But it’s engagingly unpretentious. Sure, Quo know their limitations. But they work damn well within them. So what did you expect – a Hip Hop album? A Free Jazz experiment? There are fourteen original tracks, with a strong – if unpretentiously autobiographical feel to them. ‘I started gigging in my early teens,/ sewed the great leather patches on my velvet jeans,/ got my first Fender Telly/ got my Marshall stack’ is probably pretty much as it happened (“Blues & Rhythm”). “All Stand Up” is a straight-ahead audience-participation rocker with a catchy hook chorus. The single “Jam Side Down” fades into some close Everly-style harmonies about failed love with some tortured metaphors about ‘I’ve got a butter heart/ you made it melt’. A rhyming jokiness taken to possibly racially offensive extremes (if you could only bring yourself to take it seriously), on “The Oriental” introducing ‘Mea from North Korea’ a ‘raver of eastern flavour’, and ‘May Wong from Hong Kong’ who ‘if you ever get some, you want another one, and another one’. Ho-Hum! Elsewhere they slyly rewrite John Lee Hooker’s “Dimples” into a blues-sleazy “Creepin’ Up On You”, include a harmonica-driven “Solid Gold” and an acoustic riffing rural-themed “Green”. Yet the Rock-life is what this album is really about – ‘if it hits you right/ just do it again’, which is pretty much what they’ve been doing for three decades. And yes, their three chord changes still chime as meticulously as synchronised gear-shifts. If this album did not exist the effect of its absence would be well below zero. It won’t change lives. It alters or advances nothing. It’s a further episode of what went before in an enduring Rock ‘n’ Roll Soap Opera. The Quo are not for now or then. The Quo are for life.

Status Quo: The Heavy Rock Years

Album Reviews of: 
‘JUST SUPPOSIN’’ (1980) & 
‘NEVER TOO LATE’ (1981) 
all by STATUS QUO (All Universal) 

Yes. As Soap Opera’s go, Francis & Rick are in a strange no-place. As other bands of a vaguely similar longevity – Kinks and Who, only increase their retro-value, name-dropped by everyone from Kaiser Chiefs to Thrills, the Quo get to guest on ‘Coronation Street’ as Les Battersby’s pet-band. Quo’s legacy is apparently limited to Oasis’ much-maligned “Roll With It”, or to a psychedelic TV-ad for Gordon’s Gin, to such an extent that it’s difficult to know who this ambitious lavishly-packaged re-issue programme (with bonus tracks and demos) is targeting. Yet Mark Radcliffe describes them as ‘design classics’ and these are Quo’s peak-years albums, spanning ‘Live Aid’ and their celebrity pinnacle, spawning hit after hit, not all of them conforming to that familiar three-chord stereotype – such as the slow lilting “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (on ‘Never Too Late’) or the stoned glide of “Living On An Island” (on ‘Whatever You Want’, the strongest of these albums). And true enough, their essential instinct lies in a solid respect for those early radio-days when Rock ‘n’ Roll was ‘delivering us from the days of old’, when ‘you couldn’t find a rhyme ‘cos you couldn’t find the time’ (“Again And Again”). And from there, evolving their sound by layering Everly Brothers harmonies over Chuck Berry-derived R&B for a Lumpen Rockariat fan-base. And, after all, before it got high-jacked by intellectualisation, isn’t that what Rock was all about? Repetitive? Of course it’s repetitive. But when they do that relentless heads-down no-nonsense boogie-thing it’s impossible not to grin yourself stupid. Admit it.

Published in:
‘SONGBOOK no.7: Summer 2005’ 
(UK – August 2005)

CD Review: Status Quo 'Quid Pro Quo'

Album Review of: 
by STATUS QUO (Tesco) 

One escape route from the major-label downloading file-sharing meltdown dilemma is to opt out of the conventional music industry-structure entirely, and distribute through other outlets. Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and James Taylor sign to Starbucks. And Tesco Enterprises launches its CD brand with Mick Hucknall, Nadine Coyle of Girls Aloud… and now, Status Quo. But in every other way, this is no radical departure for the Quo, did you really expect it would be? I mean, Quo are just about as predictable as your weekly checkout receipt anyway, right? And this CD is high on their signature sound. But can they still deliver? Listen to “Two Way Traffic” and it’s undeniable, a ‘work-work bizzy-bizzy bang-bang 25-hours a day’ boogie. “Let’s Rock” which is both a manifesto, and a recapitulation of their finest glory-day’s moments. And isn’t “Anyway You Like It” another way of saying “Whatever You Want”? With Tesco corporate-sponsorship, Every Little Helps, so they add their 2010 overhaul of their “In The Army Now” too. On this evidence, no La-di-das, they’re in rude health. In the interests of free-market competition we are legally obliged to point out that other supermarket chains also operate in your area.

Published in:
‘R2: ROCK ‘N’ REEL’ 
Vol.2 Issue.28 (July/Aug)
(UK – July 2011)

Friday 23 December 2016

Comic Strip Hero: 'Johnny Cougar - The Man With The Iron Grip'


 In the early 1990’s, as WWF Wrestling stars like THE ROCK 
 and HULK HOGAN first began achieving massive media celebrity, 
 a new Grunt ‘n’ Grapple Superstar suddenly appeared on the scene – 
 But hadn’t we seen this Redskin Grappler somewhere before? 
ANDREW DARLINGTON traces the eventful career of 
 a unique comic-strip sporting hero... 


‘It was the moment that the world of wrestling has been waiting 
for – the return to the ring of Johnny Cougar…’ 
 (‘Tiger & Hurricane’ 21 August 1965)

Devotees of the World Wrestling Federation’s Grunt ‘n Grapple extravaganzas of 1992 couldn’t help but have noticed the arrival of Johnny Cougar. He seemed to appear out of nowhere as the newest superstar in the gaudy media hoopla of the slam-ring. He was a Seminole Native American wrestler – ‘The Man with the Iron Grip’. ‘Wrestling heap popular’ grunts Johnny in an early issue of the monthly strip-magazine that bears his name. And although he’s a grappler of limited vocabulary, with a ‘HOKAHEY’ war-cry, and full Indian head-dress, he appears fully in context as an outrageously larger-than-life character. And one exactly attuned to the heroic exaggerations of Hulk Hogan and his muscle-bound ilk, the new wrestling elite who were by then dominating the SKY-Sports channel and the video racks of your local rental retailer.

Yet the genesis of ‘The Man With The Most Powerful Hands In Wrestling’ goes way back to those gentler days of the far-off mid-1960’s, with Johnny Cougar vying for audience’s attention with Jackie ‘Mr TV’ Pallo’s candy-striped shorts, wrestlers like the mighty Mick McManus (‘The Man You Love To Hate’) and ‘Camp Crusader’ Adrian Street. At a time when black-and-white Saturday afternoon TV was not complete without hectic bouts between such theatrical giants as Les Kellett (profiled in ‘Tiger’ as ‘Yorkshire’s Iron Man of the Ring’ 8 February 1964) and Mohawk Billy Two-Rivers who ‘still lives in the Caughnawaga Indian Reservation nine miles from the City of Quebec’ (as profiled by Charles Mascall in the 11 January 1964 issue).

 The then-newly inaugurated ITV ‘Associated Redifusion’ had begun broadcasting TV wrestling on Wednesday, 9 November 1955, at 9pm, with a bout between Jackie Pallo and Cliff Beaumont. And soon, with each contest garnished in smoothly reassuring voice-overs from somnolent commentator Kent Walton, it became a Saturday afternoon ratings fixture, head-to-head with BBC-TV’s ‘Grandstand’. ‘Every Saturday millions of fans gather round their television screens to watch the latest edition of ‘Grandstand’, the BBC’s all-action sports programme’ gushes a photo-illustrated feature in the ‘Tiger Annual 1967’. But where the BBC wound up its weekly sports marathon with a round-up of the latest results, ITV’s ‘World Of Sport’ provided all-in wrestling. And it was around this time that Johnny Cougar began, as a single-page picture serial in ‘Tiger’ – that now long extinct, but fondly remembered boy’s adventure comic. In the issue dated 31 March 1962...!

The 1992 monthly editions directly reprint many of those early bouts. ‘I, of course, am a great fan of Johnny Cougar’ explained editor Barrie Tomlinson to me at the time of the monthly’s launch, while he was simultaneously doubling as editor of ‘Eagle Monthly’. ‘While I was working on the next issue of ‘Johnny Cougar’s Wrestling Monthly’, I was reading through the picture-strips again, and I was very pleased with them! I think Johnny’s character comes across really well, and John Gillatt’s artwork is brilliant.’

Admittedly, there’s a possibility of bias here, for Barrie admits to also ‘having written many of the original instalments which are now being featured.’ But his evaluation of the illustrations is spot-on. Gillatt’s genius as a graphic visualiser lay in his skill at animating the protagonists, giving them independent life and personality. And Cougar allows him maximum opportunity to use his talent for expressive comic characterisation. Johnny Cougar – of course, is the hero. His black page-boy hair held in place by a sweat-band. His torso rippling with no-nonsense muscles that mean business. Johnny’s dominant character trait is a noble simplicity, uncorrupted by the modern world.

Unswervingly loyal to his friends – like manager Bill MacLean. He can be dignified and serious – to the point of the humourlessly dour, even when faced with the cutely comic antics of Splash Gorton’s pet penguin Waddle-Feet. And when he fights, ‘pouncing with the speed of a panther’, he wins fair and above-board, even when his opponents resort to all manner of devious and underhand strategies. But it’s here, with the villains – shifty, devious, vacuous, spiteful, that Gillatt gets to develop his humorously insightful observations of character to the max. He takes these mean-spirited low-life’s to the very brink of caricature, but always leaves them identifiably this side of the flesh-real.

I was a boy with spaceships in my head. I never dreamed of being centre-forward for Melchester Rovers, or scoring the winning goal at Wembley. In fact, I had little interest in sport at all. But I never missed a single weekly instalment of Johnny Cougar...

Launched on 11 September 1954 as part of Fleetway Publication’s two-handed retaliation to the phenomenal success of Hulton’s ‘Eagle’, ‘Tiger’ was designed from the start to be a sports-centred companion-paper to the more general boys-adventure weekly ‘Lion’, and it scored early with the success of blonde striker ‘Roy Of The Rovers’, the cover star centre-forward of Melchester Rovers created by the amazingly prolific Frank S Pepper (under his alias ‘Stewart Colwyn’). With a circulation soon peaking at a weekly 350,000, it did venture into non-sports strips such as Western hero ‘Buffalo Bill’, the highly-rated Science Fiction-strip ‘Jet-Ace Logan’ – at its best, uniquely produced by the team of Frank Pepper and John Gillatt, the ‘Rockfist Rogan’ World War II Flying-Ace text-stories, and ‘Olac The Gladiator’ set in ancient Rome – unless Gladiatorial contests could quality as sporting events?, yet ‘Tiger’ continued to heavily feature sports strips through-out its long and eventful career as a staple of the newsagent’s counter. Indeed, it persisted in doing so right up to its eventual incorporation with its some-time rival ‘Eagle’ on the 6th April 1985.

There were Grand Prix Motor-Racing strips including the long-running ‘Skid Solo’, Boxing strips such as ‘Brad Nolan: Champ Of The Barbary Coast’ – rescued from a particularly hazardous confrontation by the timely, if highly unlikely intervention of the great San Francisco earthquake, Bicycle ‘Wheelers’, Athletics-fused-with-SF in the performance-enhancing cybernetics of ‘The Trykons’, the crime-plus-sports angle of ‘The Speed Ace From Cell 465’ in which Racing Motorist Brent Daly, wrongly imprisoned, escapes ‘determined to gain evidence proving his innocence’. And many football-variant strips, including ‘Football Family Robinson’, and the football crossed with World War II action of ‘The Barbed-Wire XI’, plus regular ‘Talking Sport with the Skipper’ fact-features and Team pin-ups.

But ‘Johnny Cougar’ was to be one of its finest creations. Frame one, episode one, of ‘The Man with the Iron Grip’ begins as ‘two men were sweating under the harsh lights. The fans packing the hall in Atlanta USA were screaming for the kill. To them, it was just another heavy-weight match in the tough world of all-in wrestling. But, for one man, it was almost the end of the trail...’ Mat-man Bill MacLean’s days as champion are over. So ruthless promoter Ed Spiro needs a new fighter to manage. And as that first episode progresses he discovers his bizarre future champ by chance, while taking a holiday break in the Florida Everglades, ‘a tropical wilderness of savage beauty’. Johnny himself doesn’t even appear until the final picture, and then only as a silent observer of the action. Spiro, with trainer Lou Rossi, scrambles ashore by a clump of mangroves – only to be attacked by a ferocious real cougar. Emerging from the jungle in the nick of time, as episode two open, the tall redskin appears and wrestles the big cat effortlessly into submission.

‘Johnny Cougar has arrived!’ Spiro coincidentally discovers that the Seminole tribe have ‘never actually signed a peace treaty, and so are officially still at war with the USA.’ He uses this as a gimmick to promote his new fighter’s debut bout – a grudge-match against ‘Smasher’ Sloan whose ‘Old Granpappy was scalped by Seminoles in 1875’ and ‘I’m gonna get revenge’. The ‘Nevada Sun’ (dated 28 April 1962) headlines ‘JOHNNY COUGAR DECLARES WAR ON AMERICA’, and his popularity soars, ‘blazing a triumphant wrestling warpath across America’ until Spiro’s ‘merciless scheming’ contract cheats the na├»ve and illiterate Seminole out of his winnings.

Eventually, ‘Johnny is shocked to learn that his defeat by ‘Cowboy’ Ken Ritchie, the World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion, was deliberately planned by his own manager, Ed Spiro. Johnny also discovers that he’s been tricked into signing a contract under which all the money he’s won from previous fights also goes to Spiro.’ So, freeing himself from Spiro’s corrupt control, he’s rescued by, and teams up with, fallen champion Bill MacLean (in the 18 August 1962 issue) who translates his fighting skills and ring expertise into a management role for the long come-back trail. And Johnny Cougar goes on to a dazzling sequence of strange adventures.

He finds himself working as a stand-in movie stuntman for ‘Galexy Films’ where he anticipates a jungle wrestling scene pitched against MacLean, supposedly dressed-up in a gorilla-costume – only to discover himself in a bout with a real great ape! Later he gets to battle the picture-strip incarnation of real-life wrestler Mick McManus in an April 1970 story, and then meets up with motorcycle ace Splash Gorton for further adventures from August 1971. Splash is an eccentric ‘Beatnik’-come-Hippie character originated by artist Joe Colquhoun for a ‘Round The Isle Of Wight Race’ story in ‘Tiger’ from 8 November 1969. While the devious Mafiosi Ed Spiro continues as the arch-manipulator responsible for many of Johnny’s set-backs. It is Spiro who forces Cougar to quit America and re-launch his career through a come-back story-arc set in Britain, which sees the fighting Seminole striding ‘through the streets of London’ and facing a wrestler known as ‘The Spiderman’ – ‘well named, he had arms and legs of incredible length’, at Wembley Stadium!

But Johnny never forgets his ethnic Seminole roots. ‘The ancient spirit of his forefathers’ spurs him on when Johnny uses his ceremonial tribal Hunting Knife snake-bite style – ‘an old Seminole trick’, to suck out the poison from ‘a tiny dart coated with a muscle-numbing drug’ fired from a powerful air-pistol mid-bout into his left arm by Carl Sanchez – hired by Ed Spiro to ensure that Johnny loses the important fight. Needless to say, despite such unsportsmanlike behaviour, and ‘weakened by the residue of the drug’, Johnny does not lose.

‘The ancient fighting spirit of his race’ also ‘stirred in Johnny’s blood’ when Chief Nahzav sends a message ‘come quickly, a demon walks our land!’, and he finds himself facing the threat of the Kah-Na-Tac – a ghost warrior of the Great Spirit Manitou. But although he becomes involved in all manner of hair-raising plots with Racketeers, Gangsters (like bad guy Al Katraz!), crooked Promoters and increasingly outlandish opponents with names like ‘The Executioner’, ‘Hammerhead’, ‘The Clown’ – a disaster-prone wrestling joker with a talent for ventriloquism, or the fanged ‘Cave-Man’, each episode never fails to climax in the graphic violence of grip ‘n’ grapple with Drop-Kicks, Fore-Arm Smashes, Arm-Locks, Monkey-Climbs, Head-Locks, Flying Body-Scissors, Pin-Falls, Whirlybirds and Full-Nelsons in the square ring. And he never forgets those who have shown him loyalty. ‘Bill... without your help and guidance I would not be here now’ he confesses, ‘you have taught me everything you know. If I let you down...?’ ‘You won’t let me down’ retorts Bill brusquely, and confidently. His confidence is not misplaced.


Johnny Cougar continued to flourish throughout the ups and downs of the sports’ genuine media-profile. He was rapidly promoted to double-page spread status, and even briefly to the front-page, in colour. And his war-path soon spans the world. Fleetway’s 1974 ‘Tiger Annual’ runs a blend of new and reprint ‘Johnny Cougar’ strips alongside a lavish wrestling photo-feature with Les Kellett and Mick McManus. But he’s also there through the era of Sumo-esque mega-weights Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy (the real-life Shirley Crabtree in a leotard). And he’s there alongside Billy Two-Rivers (real-life father of ‘Red or Dead’ label founder and TV fashion guru Wayne Hemingway) whose speciality, not surprisingly, was the Tomahawk Chop. He’s even there as terrestrial TV channels quietly drop wrestling from its schedules amid cat-calls and ridicule over game-fixing, choreographed bouts and widespread corruption. Johnny lived on. He was well-scripted, just like his real-life counterparts!

He even survived the extinction of ‘Tiger’ itself, switching to fellow sports star ‘Roy Of The Rovers’ weekly comic. And then finally – if briefly, returning spectacularly into the new TV take-off of the American Gladiators of WWF wrestling in the 1990’s, with his own headlining title.

So why does the ‘Man With The Iron Grip’ succeed where so many others have failed? Sports stars have never been exactly uncommon in boy’s comics, even from the genre’s most heady of early days. Just possibly the greatest of all the comic-strip sportsmen, the gritty ‘bloomin Ada’ ‘Alf Tupper’ – star of ‘Tough Of The Track’, can trace his origins back to a text series featured in ‘Rover’ as early as 1949, through picture strips in ‘Victor’ from 1962. His eventual termination even provoked press eulogies from such unlikely fan-bases as ‘The Daily Mail’ and ‘The Guardian’. While the ubiquitous Geoff Campion, who illustrates the Cougar strips from 31 March 1962 to 28 September 1963, was simultaneously working on ‘Kid Gloves’, a Boxing rival-strip featuring the ‘hard-hitting, soft-hearted Heavyweight’ for ‘Valiant’. And of course, ‘Roy Of The Rovers’ was – and remains, a national institution.

But even among such contemporaries, Johnny Cougar was – and is, unique. A typically evocative frame shows a formula 1960’s family unit sitting in front of the TV watching an on-screen Johnny Cougar contest, Mum is knitting, and ‘look at that!’ yells Dad excitedly, ‘the Injun’s done it again!’. ‘What a Mat-Man’ adds his awe-struck hero-worshipping son.

‘Although slightly late in the day to fully maximise the renewed interest in wrestling it is nice to welcome Johnny Cougar back’ agreed Fleetway Editions supremo Gil Page, in a letter to me around the time of the ‘Cougar’ monthly. He reveals that ‘the idea for the monthly magazine launch was put forward as early as 8 January 1992’, at the time of the upsurge of Hulk Hogan’s celebrity as wrestling movie-star of his ‘Urban Commando’ celluloid romp. In fact in took a full six months after the date of that initial suggestion before the idea took form in the thick slickly packaged first issue. By which time the movie had gone into video. But that debut edition combines pages of strip reprints with features and colour pin-up spreads of WWF stars, Hogan, Johnny B Badd, ‘Ultimate Warrior’, and Lumbee Indian Tantanka. And priced at just £1 this formula proved an instant – if short-lived success. An article in the ‘London Evening Standard’ (dated 15 February 1993) suggests that the fall of the disgraced publisher Robert Maxwell might have been the culprit most responsible for its early demise, ‘when Fleetway was sold from the wreckage of the Maxwell empire to the Danish publisher Gutenberghus, his days were numbered.’ So, inevitably, Johnny Cougar was forcibly returned to his interrupted engagements in the Happy Hunting Ground.

John Gillatt artwork

But meanwhile, the various components of the Johnny Cougar story continue to work in other areas. John Gillatt, already a seasoned professional with a strip-portfolio extending back as far as 1956, taking in ‘War At Sea Picture Library’ editions (no.14 ‘Ram – And Wreak’), survived what he terms the ‘sad demise of the strip market’ – until the ‘Eagle’ relaunch, where he found himself working on the “My Pet Alien” strip (for the 1992 Annual), as well as the new ‘Dan Dare’. In mid-1992 he contributed a full-page art-spread to the ‘Young Telegraph’, then sports strips ‘Roger To The Rescue’ and ‘Billy’s Boots’ to the ‘They Think It’s All Over’ Annual (Dec 1997). He died, following a second stroke, 11 November 2016. Elsewhere, Barrie Tomlinson – who ‘started his career as a ‘sub’’ in the 1960’s comics, also retains a contagious enthusiasm for the genre. He enthuses that ‘the early issues of ‘Johnny Cougar’s Wrestling Monthly’ feature artwork by John Gillatt. After that it was intended to use the drawings by Sandy James (who took over penmanship from 1967 on)…’

While neglecting to point out that the highly successful Gillatt/ Tomlinson team did, in point of fact, continue into the long-running tabloid ‘Mirror’ football strip ‘Scorer’. Launched in August 1989 on a modest three-frames-a-day black-&-white basis, the adventures of David Storry – Premiership and England World Cup squad striker, with his Scottish manager Jack Hocherty, and Swedish girlfriend Ulrika (their on/off romance decided by a reader’s telephone poll in April 2001), soon expands to six frames, and colour with the addition of David Pugh to the team (formerly artist for ‘Dan Dare’ and a contributor to Games’ Workshop’s ‘Inferno’ magazine).

And although John Gillatt seldom seemed entirely at ease illustrating female nudity, throughout the ups and downs of the ‘Tollies’ footballing career Dave’s off-field amorous adventures extend to a series of alphabetised girlfriends, from Annabel to Beverley, to Cathy, through to Zara, including Catasha the Snake Woman, Bianca who turns out to be an undercover cop (‘You’re… you’re a cop! All this time, Bianca, you’ve been spying on me. I really thought we had something going for us’), and Tanya the sculptress who plans a nude statue of Dave, much to the amusement of his team-mates. He also meets Marigold – a sexy Lady Wrestler during an American tour, giving a new meaning to the term ‘Grip and Grapple’. He gets to eulogise Jack Charlton in another story. And even Johnny Cougar himself puts in a cheeky guest appearance in one memorable story-line from July 1992! ‘I hope that ‘Johnny’ will be the first of a series where we feature other ‘greats’ from the past’ Barrie concludes, still on the upbeat.

So Johnny Cougar retired again, after winning yet another hard-fought bout. HOKAHEY! But perhaps it’s still not too late for yet another return…?



‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ in ‘TIGER’ (31 March 1962 – 18 April 1970) and in ‘TIGER ANNUAL’ from 1964. Script: Barrie Tomlinson. Art: Geoff Campion, John Gillatt, Barracuda and Sandy James

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ From 31 March 1962. Script: Barrie Tomlinson. Art: Geoff Campion. Start of first single-page story-arc

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ Sept 1962. Johnny and Bill MacLean are working at a lumber-camp ‘trying to raise enough money to continue their trip to California, where the fighting Seminole plans to attempt a grip-&-grapple come-back’ 3 Nov 1962. Altering their plans they arrive in Liverpool, England, wrestling in a Fairground booth, eventually reaching Wembley Stadium by April 1963

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ Aug 1963. ‘The Brotherhood of Death’, Johnny is trapped in the Brazilian Slave Kingdom of Mestoza

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ From 28 Sept 1963. Increased to one-&-a-half pages as the superb John Gillatt assumes artist role during this story. Chief Nahzay summons Johnny back as a ‘demon walks’ the Seminole lands, it turns out to be a crooked scheme by Herman T Cahill – the Mayor of Marshtown, to drive them from their Everglades ancestral home

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ From 9 May 1964. Increased to two-page spread. Manager Maclean tells Johnny ‘we’re going after the biggest prize in wrestling – the Heavyweight Championship of the World’. By way of the Starbuck Rodeo

‘JOHNNY COUGAR vs. THE CLOWN’ 22 Aug 1964 to 6 Feb 1965. Later, in Apr 1967 Johnny will be re- joined by ‘The Clown’ in a sequel pitting them against evil financier Septimus J Sneed

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ 13 Feb 1965 to 20 March 1965. Moves to colour cover-spread for story set at sea with scheming tycoon Calvin Tubbs

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ Now, in ‘TIGER & HURRICANE’ following a merger, from 27 March 1965. Extended to 3-pages for movie stunt-man ‘Life Of A thousand Thrills’ story

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ 21 August 1965 to 30 April 1966. English Toff Lord Hubert Holroyd wagers his Stately Home on the outcomes of Johnny’s ‘Festival of Wrestling’ bouts, and despite villainous cousin Septimus Crabb, Johnny becomes ‘The First Stately Seminole Of Old England’

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ TIGER ANNUAL 1966’. Eight-page story, ‘Buffalo Joe Kane’ plots revenge after Johnny defeats him in the ring in Rocky Mountain pioneer-style town of Black Butte

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ 7 May 1966 to 24 Sept 1966. Two disasters – going home to Florida Johnny not only finds his tribe swindled out of their wealth, but he’s lost John Gillatt’s inspired art too (replaced by Sandy James). So he goes to the Bahamas, foils sinister oriental Doctor Fu, and salvages a submerged bullion plane

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ 1 Oct 1966. A Euro wrestling-tour leads Johnny to the crazy Republic of Rurania, helping poet-prince Nicholas against usurper tyrant Black Boris

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ 31 Dec 1966. A New Year 1967 colour cover-feature shows Johnny in Peace City, Friendship County USA, joining Mr Duncan as Honorary Sheriff in his ‘Declaration of War’ against Gangsters

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’TIGER ANNUAL 1967’. Eight-page story, losing his memory Johnny becomes involved with crook Nick Galdo’s gang who frame him for murder

‘JOHNNY COUGAR vs THE SCORPION’ ‘TIGER ANNUAL 1968’. 8-page full-colour strip, after defeating him in an Istanbul bout Johnny is kidnapped by Sheikh Selim, the ‘Desert Scorpion’

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ To 6 Jan 1968. ‘Only Johnny’s fantastic reflexes could save him’ when he wrestles a full-grown bull into a submission-fall in the San Monez arena during an adventure allying him with rebel Caraga to overthrow the island’s evil Dictator Dr Brand

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ 13 Jan 1968. Seminoles from the reservation wager ‘much money-wampum’ on Johnny’s Goldhill bout against gangster Babyface Nixon in an attempt to retrieve the redskin’s priceless ‘Golden Suit’

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ To 18 April 1970

‘JOHNNY COUGAR vs. MICK McMANUS!’ 25 April 1970 to 9 May 1970

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ 16 May 1970 to 14 Aug 1971

‘JOHNNY COUGAR WITH SPLASH GORTON’ From 14 August 1971, Splash Gorton character introduced into the Johnny Cougar strip, and the merged strip continues from 21 August

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ From 2 August 1983 to April 1984, reprinted series from 1967

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ ‘TIGER ANNUAL 1974’ Two Cougar strips, 8-pages with Splash Gorton, plus 6-&-a-half page reprint of his London come-back story-arc from 1963

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ in ‘ROY OF THE ROVERS’ 28 Sept 1985 to Dec 1985. Weekly IPC comic, uses John Gillatt art reprints from ‘TIGER’ 

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’ (1990 – ‘CLASSIC ACTION HOLIDAY SPECIAL’). Fleetway Publications’ one-off ‘special’ bringing vintage picture-strip stars ‘out if retirement’

‘JOHNNY COUGAR’S WRESTLING MONTHLY’ £1, No.1, Oct 1992 with free badge. No.2 (Nov) with Free Wrestling Tattoos. No.3 (January 1993) ‘It’s Submission Time For The Bandage Man!’. No.4 (Feb) ‘Redskin Mat-man vs Red Dakins’. Six issues until March 1993, 48-pages of reprints from ‘TIGER’ plus ‘Star Photos’

With thanks to Steve Holland for his factual information, 
and to John Gillatt, Barrie Tomlinson and 
Gil Page for their valuable in-puts