331. Suzi Quatro – Can the Can (1973)

Finally, a woman! The early-70s weren’t a great time for female-fronted number 1s. Most were either relegated to providing sweet harmonies in male-dominated groups or performing sickly solo ballads. US singer and bassist Suzi Quatro proved women could be rock stars too.

Susan Kay Quatro, born 3 June 1950, was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. Her family name was actually ‘Quattrocchi’ (four eyes) but was shortened by immigration authorities (her paternal grandfather was an Italian immigrant). Quatro’s father Art was a semi-professional musician inbetween his job at General Motors. Her mother, Helen, was Hungarian. She was born into a large family, with foster children also thrown into the mix. One of Quatro’s sisters, Arlene, is the mother of Twin Peaks star Sherilyn Finn, and another sister, Patti, later joined one of the first all-female rock bands in the US, Fanny.

Quatro’s eureka moment for her love of music came when, aged six, she saw Elvis Presley performing on TV. She later said she had no direct female role models in music, although she did admire Billie Holiday and thought Mary Weiss of the pop group The Shangri-Las looked hot in tight trousers.

Quatro had formal training in playing classical piano and percussion, and she was still under 10-years-old when she joined her father’s jazz band, The Art Quatro Trio. She went on to teach herself the guitar and bass.

In 1964, inspired by The Beatles, Patti formed an all-female garage rock group called The Pleasure Seekers. She became Patti Pleasure, and Suzi joined too, as Suzi Soul. Arlene was later part of the group, and another sister, Nancy. Bedecked in miniskirts and wigs, they initially attracted attention purely on their looks, but people stayed for the music. By 1969 they had changed their name to Cradle.

The following year, Cradle were performing to an audience that included Mickie Most, who had been invited to attend by Suzi’s brother Michael, who was their manager. Most had founded RAK Records in 1969 and was on the lookout for acts to sign, particularly a strong woman who could fill the void left by Janis Joplin’s death. She left Cradle and moved to London in 1971.

Her debut single, Rolling Stone, was co-written by Quatro with future Hot Chocolate singer Errol Brown, and Phil Dennys. It failed to chart anywhere apart from Portugal, where it went to number 1. Most decided that to achieve UK success, Quatro needed the help of one of the hottest songwriting teams in the country – Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn. They became the perfect match, with Chinnichap’s marriage of bubblegum pop and glam rock fitting Quatro to a tee. She also got herself a proper backing band at this time – Len Tuckey on guitar, Alastair MacKenzie on keyboards and Dave Neal on drums. They all wore dark vests and had matching long dark hair, looking like grumpy labourers next to Quatro, squeezed into a leather catsuit and rightly getting all the attention.

Can the Can is a fiery, rocking pop stomp set to a pounding beat. Quatro shrieks the words so high you can barely understand the verses, but that’s fine, because this song is a showcase for Quatro’s energy and personality, and the lyrics don’t stand up to much scrutiny anyway.

It makes slightly more sense when you learn that Chinn once stated the chorus and song title refers to the impossible. That is, you can’t put a can inside another can if they’re the same size, just as you can’t make a man commit if he has no intention of doing so. Hmm, it sort of works. But it never pays to pay much attention to Chinnichap lyrics, just enjoy the sound. Can the Can does slightly outstay its welcome though, and would have been more effective had it ended before becoming too repetitive.

Nonetheless, Quatro was established as a star in the UK, if not her own country (it took her Happy Days role to make it in the US), Chinnichap notched up their second number 1 of 1973, and there was a female rock star for young girls to aspire to be, at last.

Written & produced by: Mike Chapman & Nicky Chinn

Weeks at number 1: 1 (16-22 June)

Deaths:

Actor Roger Delgado – 18 June

191. Unit Four + Two – Concrete and Clay (1965)

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I was first alerted to Concrete and Clay when then-former Dexys Midnight Runners singer Kevin Rowland had released a version in 1999 on his covers album My Beauty. At the time, the general opinion was that Rowland was suffering some kind of breakdown, on account of the album cover featuring him in saucy drag and make-up. I found this a bit harsh, until I saw him perform at Leeds Festival around that time. He did indeed appear to have gone a bit mad, performing a short set in drag on his own to a karaoke backing. At one point he shoved his mic in-between the legs of a backing singer and sang into her crotch aggressively. Nobody knew where to look, apart from Rowland himself.

However, among the odd song choices, there was this enjoyable bossa nova track, which had been the lead single from the album. Only later did I discover it came from one-hit wonders Unit Four + Two. What was that name all about?

Well. Unit Four formed in 1962. Brian Parker had been the guitarist and songwriter with The Hunters, an instrumental group that once stood in for The Shadows when they were unavailable for Cliff Richard. He left to join Adam Faith’s backing group The Roulettes briefly, but decided he wanted to ditch the instruments and start up a vocal harmony group. First he asked his friend David ‘Buster’ Meikle to join him, then school friends Tommy Moeller and Peter Moules. Moeller became lead singer, and in 1963 they became Unit Four. Parker soon stopped performing with the group due to ill-health and a dislike of live appearances, so his spot was taken by Howard Lubin. He did however remain behind the scenes to co-write all their material with Moeller.

They were starting to get noticed, but the rise of The Beatles made them realise they needed a beefier sound so they decided to expand to a six-piece, recruiting Rod Garwood on bass and Hugh Halliday on drums. They didn’t see the point in having to begin again with a new name so they took the (sort-of) logical decision to become Unit Four + Two. They signed with Decca in 1964 and released their first single, a folk-pop tune called Green Fields. That and follow-up Sorrow and Pain went nowhere. For their next single they tried something different.

As already mentioned, Concrete and Clay was built around a bossa nova rhythm, and so didn’t sound like anything else in the charts in 1965. They added to their sound further when Parker invited ex-bandmates from The Roulettes, guitarist Russ Ballard and drummer Bob Henrit to the recording. This distinctive song featured that infectious beat, an acoustic backing and a memorable chorus professing of undying love. Perhaps not enough to get to number 1 separately, but as a package, it was a decent, well-deserved hit.

As was fast becoming the norm, it was pirate radio that had an important part to play in its success, this time, mainly Wonderful Radio London, and one disc jockey in particular, that would go on to become one of the most important of the decade, and beyond: Kenny Everett.

Concrete and Clay could have perhaps gone on to also enjoy US success, but unfortunately for them, Eddie Rambeau released a version shortly afterwards, which in effect split the vote, and both versions stalled. Decca rush-released an LP, the imaginatively titled 1st Album, and Unit Four + Two found themselves with that eternal problem all one-hit wonders have. They would try soul and even early psychedelia, but listeners wanted more of the sound that made them famous. But that sound was so ‘them’, if they tried to repeat the formula they were accused of peddling ‘more of the same’. They couldn’t win.

In 1967, Meikle, Garwood and Halliday left. As The Roulettes had also split recently, Ballard and Henrit joined as permanent members, meaning Unit Four + Two were now, confusingly, a five-piece. They went in a more ‘rock’ direction at first, then attempted a mror lavish version of psychedelia akin to The Moody Blues, but by 1969, the game was up.

Ballard and Henrit teamed up with Rod Argent from The Zombies to become Argent. Ballard wrote and sang their hit God Gave Rock and Roll to You, later covered by KISS, and Hold Your Head Up High. He left the group in 1974 to pursue a career as a songwriter, and did very well, writing So You Win Again for Hot Chocolate, which became their sole number 1 in 1977. Remember Since You’ve Been Gone by Rainbow? That was him, too.

In 1984 Henrit took over from Mick Avory as drummer in The Kinks, and remained until they split for good in 1996. From the rumours cirulating so far, it would appear it will be Avory back on board if the Davies brothers do decide to reform.

The original members disappeared into obscurity, by and large, although Halliday went on to become a director with English National Opera. Despite his ongoing ill health, Parker lived until 2001 when he died suddenly during a game of tennis.

Written by: Tommy Moeller & Brian Parker

Producer: John L Barker

Weeks at number 1: 1 (8-14 April)