Suzi Quatro, rock frontwoman and perhaps the most iconic female bass guitarist of all time, was born in Detroit and based in the UK, but found consistent chart-topping success in Australia. This is where she met Melbourne-based director, Liam Firmager, via a mutual connection when she was touring the country four years ago.
Although she smoked ciggies and drank beer, Quatro was never a sex, drugs, and rock 'n’ roll musician, so the linear narrative of Firmager’s documentary, ‘Suzi Q’, doesn’t rely on salacious details. Between the crisp archival footage of concerts and early television appearances, Quatro’s poetry is interspersed throughout the film,. There are also slews of interviews with people who were influenced or touched by her in some way.
These interviewees includes Alice Cooper, Deborah Harry and Clem Burke (Blondie), Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth, Joan Jett, Cherie Currie (Runaways), Lita Ford, Wendy James (Transvision Vamp), Donita Sparks (L7), Henry Winkler, KT Tunstall, Kathy Valentine (The Go-Gos), Tina Weymouth & Chris Frantz (Talking Heads), actor Henry Winkler, and numerous members of the musical Quatro family and more.
‘Suzi Q’ starts with a clip of Germaine Greer from 1971, dismissing most of the all-female bands of the time, before the film segues into Suzi’s early family life in Detroit. She was born in 1950, the fourth of five children, to an Italian father, Art, and Hungarian mother, Helen. From a young age, she was encouraged to play piano, bass, guitar and percussion. She was inspired first by Elvis, then by The Beatles. So, along with “the neighbourhood kids” (her sisters and friends), they started an all-girl group - The Pleasure Seekers - where they sang and played the instruments. Her dad let her use his 1957 Fender Precision, and Suzi was put onto bass guitar.
'SUZI Q' TRAILER
The band soon had a record deal that saw Suzi - at the impressionable age of 14 - leaving home for a life on the road. They were regarded as the first hard rock female group. But the band struggled, renamed themselves as Cradle and Suzi began to take a back seat.
Record producer and Rak Records founder Mickie Most came from England, spotted Cradle, then took Quatro over to Motown Studios with Jeff Beck and Cozy Powell to jam. Mickie then decided he wanted to record just Suzi, not the band, which caused lasting frission in her relationship with her sisters (during an interview filmed in the current day, one mentions: “I'll never be a fan of Suzi Quatro”) and father (he sent her a surreptitiously-recorded cassette tape of everyone bad-mouthing her musical abilities).
At 21, Quatro moved to Britain to pursue her solo career, leaving her family behind. Len Tuckey, her guitarist and eventual husband and father to her two children, enters the story, as well as the songwriting and production team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman (who is interviewed here), who wrote songs specifically to accord with her image. They put her bass playing at the forefront along with her singing, recorded the single 'Can The Can' and came up with her leather catsuit (inspired by Jane Fonda's character from ‘Barbarella’). This was followed by three further hits: '48 Crash', 'Daytona Demon' and 'Devil Gate Drive'. Each sold over one million copies and were awarded gold discs.
The film isn’t afraid to touch on Quatro's divorce, complex family dynamics and her self-realisation that she missed a huge chunk of normal teenage development by leaving home and touring at such a young age.
This was the height of the glam rock period of the 1970s and Quatro, who wore leather clothes, portrayed a wild androgynous image. As a female singer, playing an instrument, fronting a band - she was the first. As the documentary notes of women in bands at the time: “They were making great music, but in the shadows”. Quatro changed the way people looked at women in music, with Debbie Harry remembering: “Here’s this little woman, petite, playing this enormous bass.”
Career-wise, Quatro struggled against the music press, who accused her of being an artist manufactured by the men on her team, and also with cracking the American market. When Chapman's Dreamland Records folded 1981, Quatro was left without a record label. She then appeared on TV’s ‘Happy Days’ for several years as Leather Tuscadero after the show's producer, Garry Marshall, saw a photograph of her on his daughter's bedroom wall. Marshall offered Quatro a spinoff TV series for her character, but she declined the offer, saying she did not want to be typecast.
That disdain for being typecast becomes a recurring theme in the documentary, as ‘Suzi Q’ goes on to trace her life over the next 30 years, as a musician, poet, author and actress, through to the present day, where we see Quatro and her adult son Richard Tuckey writing songs together, which became her newest album 'No Control'.
While the film doesn’t delve too deeply into the murk of her personal life, it isn’t afraid to touch on Quatro's divorce, complex family dynamics and her self-realisation that she missed a huge chunk of normal teenage development by leaving home and touring at such a young age. As she mentions, the tradeoff for fame and success is that “you have to say goodbye to a perfect comfortable existence.”
A picture is formed of a versatile, passionate and insatiable performer, who dedicated her life to being on stage, on her own terms. Without Suzi Quatro, music history would look a lot different, and a lot worse. ‘Suzi Q’ is not only an essential documentary for fans but for anyone with an interest in feminism and music, in general.