Suzi Quatro is remembering a "pivotal moment". It was 1973, and the RAK Records boss, Mickie Most, asked her what she would like to wear to promote her wonderfully raucous single Can the Can. "When I said leather he said that was old-fashioned, but I stuck to my guns," she says. Most relented, sketching a jumpsuit inspired by Jane Fonda's character in the 1968 film Barbarella.
"I went to the photo shoot in the jumpsuit, and the photographer, Gered Mankowitz, said, 'Suzi, give me that Suzi Quatro look.' And all of a sudden I had a look I didn't know I had. I swear to God I didn't know it was sexy until we got the photos back. He said, 'Come and look.' And I just went 'Oh...'"
Can the Can rocketed to number one, followed by smashes such as 48 Crash and Devil Gate Drive, numerous Top of the Pops appearances and 55 million record sales to date.
I didn't go out there to change the world. All I wanted to do was play. I blew the door down, but, to be honest, I didn't see the door. I was just doing what I do
Quatro was the first woman bass player to become a major rock star. In Liam Firmager's 2019 documentary, Suzi Q, the likes of Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, Alice Cooper, Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads and members of The Go-Go's and L7 pay tribute to her influence. "Such a pioneer," says KT Tunstall. "The quintessential rock chick."
Quatro insists this was all happenstance. “I didn’t go out there to change the world,” she says. “All I wanted to do was play. Whatever happened happened around me. There was no blueprint for me to follow. I could not look at any other woman and say, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I blew the door down, but, to be honest, I didn’t see the door. I was just doing what I do.”
She has barely stopped since. Her forthcoming solo album, The Devil in Me, due in March, will be her 18th. She was doing 85-90 shows a year before lockdown put live performance in limbo. Even via Zoom – from the Elizabethan manor house in Essex where she has lived since 1980 – Quatro is a force of nature, forthright and single-minded but warm and smiley. "I still wear the jumpsuit," she says, grinning. "At 70. I zip it up and feel like me."
Quatro has been performing since she was 14. Seeing The Beatles on US TV was the trigger for her and her four siblings to start playing music. Their father had been a professional musician and still played in jazz bands after a day's work in the Detroit car industry, so there were instruments around at home. "I didn't speak up, and my sister Patti said, 'You're gonna play bass,'" she says. "My dad gave me his 1957 Fender Precision, the Rolls-Royce of bass. I found my vocation."
Alongside Patti and two local girls (and later a third sister, Arlene), Quatro played in a garage rock band, The Pleasure Seekers. In the 1960s, all-women bands tended to be vocal groups, not rockers. So they were in demand. "We were on the road a lot," she says. "I remember playing Pennsylvania or somewhere, walking around the neighbourhood and thinking, Wow, look at me. I'm supposed to be in school and here I am playing rock'n'roll at night."
Quatro never returned to school. She – and her father – felt she was safe because her brother Michael promoted their gigs and her elder sister’s husband managed the band. Not that Quatro didn’t toughen up. “This must be 50 years ago, but when one guy came to the front and made a rude gesture with the tongue, I just went – bang. With a Fender Precision. That’s gonna hurt.”
He was just fooling around, but Dad came in and – boom. I said, 'Dad, you've punched Chuck Berry!' He said, 'Well, goddammit, he shouldn't do that'
When The Pleasure Seekers supported Chuck Berry in Buffalo, her father came into the dressing room to find the legendary rocker grabbing one of his daughters. “He was just fooling around,” Quatro says, “but Dad came in and – boom. I said, ‘Dad, you’ve punched Chuck Berry!’ He said, ‘Well, goddammit, he shouldn’t do that.’”
In 1971, Quatro was playing with Patti and another sister, Nancy, in the heavier band Cradle when she was spotted by Most – in town to visit Motown – who told her she was a one-off. After an uncertain period, the “Chinnichap” hit machine of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman wrote and produced 10 of her 11 UK top-40 singles between 1973 and 1980. “They tailored songs to suit my personality and produced my original songs,” she says. “We were a perfect fit. After that it was nonstop attention. I couldn’t go to the pub any more, but I stayed normal, my biggest achievement.”
Quatro is at pains to point out that she always felt like a musician, not a woman musician, but the world didn’t always treat her equally. There is a jarring incident in the Suzi Q documentary where the 1970s English chatshow host Russell Harty – the Graham Norton of his day – slaps her forcefully on the bottom.
“He picked his moment,” she reflects, a tinge of anger creeping into her smoky Detroit tones. “If you watch, I slowly turn round, and in that moment I’m thinking, Do I hit him? Do I kick him in the balls? No, I’m on live television. I sat down, but if he had done that backstage he would have been singing soprano for the rest of his life. He got away with it because it was live on camera. I’m a professional, so I let it go, but I was very angry.”
Such behaviour is occasionally excused with a claim that times were different back then, but Quatro says, “It never was acceptable. You don’t touch somebody you’re not invited to touch. You just don’t do it.”
When I first went back to downtown Detroit after the 1967 riots, it was scary, so I carried a knife in case of trouble, and again when I was first alone in London. I'd never have used it. I mean, I'm 5ft 2in. My mouth is my best weapon
Thankfully, there haven't been that many occasions where "a guy would take a chance and touch. Each time they've regretted it. I've slapped. I've kneed in the balls. Len [Tuckey, her first husband and former guitarist] had to step up one time. So yes, it happened," she says. "The one who got away with it was [AC/DC's] Malcolm Young, who pinched me. He looked at me with those little eyes and said, 'I'm sorry. I couldn't help myself.' It was actually so cute that I said, 'Right. That's your one shot.' He thanked me for accepting his apology. If that was an act, it was a good one."
Quatro welcomes #MeToo, and any platform that encourages women to share experiences of abuse. “Women who were afraid to speak up are now coming forward.”
In 1974, with Quatromania in full swing, the English film critic Philip Norman memorably described her as “a rocker, a brooder, a loner, a knife-carrier, a hell-cat, a wild cat, a storm child, a refugee from the frightened city of Detroit”.
Did she really carry a knife? “Yes, when I first went back to downtown Detroit after the  riots,” she says. “It was scary, so I carried it in case of trouble, and again when I was first alone in London. I’d never have used it.” She hoots at the prospect. “I mean, I’m 5ft 2in. My mouth is my best weapon.”
Which is not to say she hasn’t paid her own price for success. The Suzi Q documentary reflects candidly on the cost. She insisted the programme had to be “honest, warts and all. I don’t mind looking vulnerable.” Quatro’s late mother was proud of her, but difficult scenes reveal the family resentment that it was Suzi – without her sisters – who was whisked off to fame by Mickie Most.
“Emotionally, that was very difficult,” she says. “And then I cried myself to sleep in London. But it was my one shot. I had to go.” In one awful moment, the star is filmed listening to a tape her father has sent of relatives at Thanksgiving, criticising her bass-playing, but she wanted the clip left in. “That tape nearly killed me,” she admits. “Instead it reinforced my determination.”
Quatro is in discussions about who should play her in the movie of her life, with Scarlett Johansson her favourite. 'We both have a nontrying sex appeal. What comes out is natural, and I see that in her. I've never tried to be sexy in my life'
She has never been afraid to branch out, and over the years has starred in the Happy Days TV series (as the rocker Leather Tuscadero) and in a theatrical production of Annie Get Your Gun (as Annie Oakley). She was even electrocuted in Midsomer Murders. She has written a musical, a book of poetry and a novel, and she has had a particularly productive lockdown, writing (at home, with her guitarist son, Richard Tuckey) two albums' worth of songs and a lovely Christmas single, My Heart and Soul (I Need You Home for Christmas). She is currently working on another novel and a book about lockdown.
Quatro has become the Joe Wicks of bass players, making 50 of her bass lines available, free, on the internet. "A lot of work," she says, chuckling. "I had to relearn songs I haven't played for years." In Suzi's Sunday Specials, a weekly Facebook spot, she plays a stripped-down song on piano and in Suzi's Thought for the Day on Instagram she tries "to be uplifting, to take people out of the darkness".
Despite her decades in the UK, she still considers herself “an American living in England”, so recent events at Capitol Hill made her “very sad. There’s so much unrest. I don’t like to do politics, because I’m an entertainer, and I don’t think I should use my platform in the wrong way. But I do have opinions. I believe in democracy, so I’m hoping this hasn’t messed that up. All countries have challenges at some point, moments where they have to see who they are. This whole time that we’re living through is a reassessment of everything we think we know.”
She is “in discussions” about who should play her in the movie of her life, with Scarlett Johansson her favourite. “We both have a nontrying sex appeal. What comes out is natural, and I see that in her. I’ve never tried to be sexy in my life.”
All this activity was briefly threatened in December, when Quatro contracted Covid-19 after hugging a family member, but after “five bad days, headaches and exhaustion” she came through it, as she has come through everything else.
“I’m very fit,” she says. “I’ve done nothing but exercise my lungs since 1964.” So, as soon as the pandemic allows live shows again, she will get back into the jumpsuit. “It really bemuses me when Patti says in the documentary, ‘Nobody is going to stop Suzi,’” she says with a sigh. “Why say that as if it’s a negative? This is my path. Why would anybody want to stop me?” – Guardian