Thanks For The Music: The Enduring Gifts of Alan Lancaster and Status Quo


Recently, at a friend’s birthday celebrations, I met Alan Lancaster, one of the founding members of Status Quo. The party attracted a fair representation of the arts, with a leaning towards musicians, songwriters and music industry personalities. Some performed, others shared their recollections during speeches, a few simply mingled and chatted, relaxed in their relative anonymity.

Alan spent much of the evening talking with long-time Quo fans. He is small, almost boyish, with the lean insouciance of a rock star and a shock of gray hair. His features recall the 13-year-old who, with fellow schoolmate Francis Rossi, honed their musical skills in the school orchestra at Sedgehill Comprehensive in Catford, a south London suburb that produced talents as diverse as guitarist Robin Trower, comedian Ben Elton and author Andy McNab.

At that tender age, Alan and Rossi formed a band that would evolve to become Status Quo in 1967. They were together through the hard-rocking period of chart dominance in the early to mid-1970s and when they racked up a fair proportion of Quo’s 64 UK Top 40 hits.

As is so often the case in the world of rock, Alan fell out with his partner and played his last gig with Quo at Live Aid in 1985. He’s been living in Australia since then.

At 64, he’s a little frail, a little unsteady on his feet, a result of his ongoing battle with MS, which was first diagnosed in 2002. Doubtless he’s been asked everything over the years so he’s heard it all. His recollections are mercifully free of the venom that would normally be excused from someone who has survived fame, fortune and the music industry.

Even a sideways swipe at the question du jour of pretty much every fan he talks to these days – the ignominious serving up for Coles supermarkets of Quo’s biggest hit like a slab of cold delicatessen lunchmeat, complete with current band members performing in giant red hands – diffuses the revulsion he must undoubtedly feel with a deliciously ironic sense of humour.

Alan Lancaster

As he was leaving, I shook his hand and asked if I could say something. He was probably expecting yet another request for a photo opportunity or some probing analysis of bass riffs on Piledriver.

Instead, I simply thanked him for the music, for being so much a part of my teenage years. If he thought it a strange comment, if he was taken aback, he hid it well, maybe a moment’s hesitation before he answered and maybe his eyes were a little brighter and a little shinier and maybe his handshake was a little firmer than it would ordinarily be.

It could be that a lot of people say what I did and it’s just another ordinary day for a former rock god. I don’t mind that much. I meant it. Music is so immensely important to me. It carries the full weight of my life, of the memories of all the years that have passed. There’s rarely a day that I don’t share with the music that means so much. My iPod turned high in the room where I’m writing, in the kitchen when I’m cooking, in the car while I’m driving. Each song is a hermetically sealed vessel containing emotions of a time and place and mood and sometimes even a person; vividly bright pieces of the jigsaw that is me.

Music unites our past and present, and most likely our future as well. I can listen now to a song that I first heard when I was young and callow and know that it may still be bouncing around my brain when I take my last breath. It will endure. It’s the same for those of us for whom music is more than just background noise.

Alan Lancaster (middle back row) and the classic 70s Quo line-up

My tastes meandered widely in those days, from Karen Carpenter and Van Morrison to Chicago, the Bowie of Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, Alice Cooper and Lou Reed. And while, as the 70s progressed, my nights were increasingly given over to disco, the long summer days were bracketed by Status Quo at their most potent, pounding out across a thousand hotel beer gardens and backyard parties.

I most likely had cassettes of Hello! or On The Level to play in my car. Quo were unavoidable and their songs seeped into my conscious like osmosis. Roll Over Lay Down, a song co-written by Alan, remains as vitally anthemic as it was then.

As is to be expected, the boffins have weighed in with a scientific rationale for why music means so much to us. In early 2011, researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute found that people listening to their favourite songs experienced a rush of dopamine near the frontal striatum, the brain region associated with anticipating rewards, in tandem with a similar dose in the rear striatum, the brain’s pleasure centre. In essence, music activates the same pleasure responses as food and sex.

While music gives me such enjoyment, it can also take me to darker places. The weight of the past can become too heavy and there are those favourites I carried in my heart for decades, such as Bryan Ferry, that eventually came to represent my failures, far too painful to bear.

So while I was thanking Alan for his music, I was also thanking him for all the music. In essence, Alan was standing in for Karen and Van the Man and Peter Cetera and David Jones and Vincent and Lou and thousands more, everybody I’ve ever played more than a few times or nodded along to on the radio. I’ll never get the chance to personally thank all those great boys and girls so Alan had unwittingly become my conduit to the past and the person who grew up, for better or worse, with a love of the music of the times. For a moment, he was every singer of every song I hold dear.

He took it well, I thought. We shook hands, the barely heard echo of the passing decades gently faded and he wandered off into the night. I wish him well because a little bit of what make us all what we are travels with him.

Words © David Latta

Say Hello To My Little Friend: The Joy Of A Classic Car


Think of great movies and there’s often an equally great car or three associated with them. There’s Eleanor, the 1967 Shelby Mustang from Gone In 60 Seconds (the remake as opposed to the 1973 Mustang Mach 1 from the original); the 1981 DeLorean from Back To The Future; the 1977 AMC Pacer from Wayne’s World; the 1961 Ferrari 250 GT Spyder from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; the 1958 Plymouth Fury from Christine; the 1966 Thunderbird from Thelma and Louise; the 1949 Buick Roadmaster Convertible from Rain Man; and the 1968 Mini Cooper S from The Italian Job (the original rather than the supremely why-bother  remake). Even something as pedestrian as a 1979 Porsche 928 (in real life, the Porsche you have when you really want a Volvo) added a little extra something to Risky Business.

As the owner of a 1963 Cadillac, I have one notable association with Hollywood and that’s Tony Montana’s tiger-print upholstered convertible from the chain-saw-and-shower-curtain epic, Scarface. Although not one of my favourite Brian DePalma films (deferring instead to Phantom Of The Paradise and even the cinematic train wreck that is Bonfire Of The Vanities), Scarface would be so much less satisfying a homage to Titus Andronicus without Tony’s preferred choice of wheels.

Classic car owners can be a bewildering breed. What makes them eschew modern cars with their cup holders and ABS and extruded plastic aerodynamics is a matter best left for psychologists and their ilk. But there’s an immense pleasure in driving something different and rare, something out of the ordinary.

I can trace my car back to its first owner, Frederic Apcar, producer of expensive and elaborate Las Vegas extravaganzas at The Dunes casino. According to the original papers I hold, he took possession of the Cadillac, painted in Silver Mink with optional extras of bucket seats and red leather upholstery, in May 1963.

It came to Australia in 1965 and was converted to right-hand drive by Bill Buckle Motors in Brookvale, Sydney. From there, it passed through three owners before I finally took possession. I hadn’t been shopping for a Cadillac; my previous car was a 1968 Ford Galaxie and I had my heart set on a 1959 Thunderbird but it proved an elusive prize. When I found the Cadillac, an everyday driver from an owner who had two other Cadillacs including an amazing 1957 Eldorado Brougham, I knew I’d found my car.

My Cadillac is 5.7 metres long and weighs around two tonnes. It has power steering, electric windows, a back seat as big as a three-seater sofa, four ashtrays plus lighters, and a trunk larger than most granny flats.

It has never disappointed, despite the occasional and understandable difficulties associated with age and relative rarity. Parts are reasonably easy to locate and not too expensive. A trustworthy mechanic, however, is a necessity, one who understands classic cars and has a feel for their foibles.

A classic mid-century American car is a whale on wheels, a ponderous giant, powerful and strong. The sheet steel body panels broach no argument. I was once side-swiped by a taxi, which suffered severe panel damage. My Cadillac emerged with a length of crushed chrome trim along the front guard and a small section of scraped paint.

With the muted but throaty rumble of the eight-cylinder engine, I’m aware I’m not driving anything as common as a car. It’s a panoply of automotive history and demands respect in the way it’s handled.

It’s regarded with a charming reverence on the road, even from boy racers who recognise a fellow car enthusiast. Other drivers extend astounding courtesy, allowing you to merge easily (most likely because they’d rather have me in front of them than behind), fellow classic car drivers flash their lights and wave with the alacrity of members of an exclusive club.

On the expressway, the Cadillac comes into its own, burbling along quite contentedly at 120 kilometres per hour with the distinct impression there’s plenty more available if the need arises. But, as Peter Parker understood, with great power comes great responsibility. Despite the 390 cubic inch engine (equivalent to about 6.4 litres), speed is not an option. The 1963 Cadillac has drum brakes so while stopping in ideal conditions is not a problem, in the wet or on steep hills (or both) it can prove a challenge.

The one other notable problem when driving a classic car is the choice of music. In my case, I don’t bother matching the vintage; 1963 wasn’t a great year in the charts, a time of middle-of-the-road schlock (and not in a good way) largely moribund between the winter of rock’n’roll and the rejuvenating spring of the British Invasion.

On the open road, I’ll alternate between the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Mink DeVille and AC/DC, Alice Cooper and Cream with a little Gram Parsons and Joe Walsh thrown in for colour. If I want to nail the decade during city driving, I’ll go for soul or rhythm and blues and such artists as Little Eva, Mary Wells, Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin and Al Green.

The best accessory for driving is an iPod wired into the car’s sound system. Make it a 160GB and you’ll have a choice of 25,000 songs. That way, you’ll be prepared for any mood that takes you. Mick Ronson, Mott The Hoople and Edgar Winter one minute, the Partridge Family, Maureen McGovern and Tina Charles the next.

Yet, in the back of my mind, there’ll always be one question: what would Tony Montana prefer?

Words © David Latta

Par For The Course In Cancun


I’m one for the gaudy souvenir. No matter where I go, there’s always something just a little bit over the top that is worthy of taking home. As I stood before the pet shop window in a Cancun shopping mall, I was seriously considering a purchase that would not only commemorate my visit to this Mexican resort destination but forever remind me of my ignoble but nonetheless landmark introduction to the hallowed sport of golf.

Despite having been in the tourist industry for decades, where golf is not just a pastime but an important business lubricant, I’d never considered taking it up. I already had more than enough obsessions. I’d travelled with a lot of musicians and many have given up such harmless activities as trashing hotel rooms and throwing televisions into swimming pools to chase a little white ball around rolling greens. It’s all some of them can talk about. Even Alice Cooper spent much of his first stint in retirement playing golf with Bob Hope. It doesn’t get any more bizarre than that.

I was staying at the Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort, an enormous complex of almost 2,500 guestrooms, 15 restaurants and 12 bars perched on the edge of the Caribbean. The resort itself was somewhat of a revelation in that it is all-inclusive. The room rate included breakfast, lunch and dinner, every snack in between and all drinks.

Australians know the all-inclusive concept from the generally cheesy Club Med model but nothing prepared me for this. Every restaurant, from the buffet to the fine dining Italian, Brazilian, Mexican and steak house, and every drink, from the wonderful local dark Dos Equis to top shelf tequilas and Grey Goose vodka to Argentinian, Italian, French and Italian wines by the glass and bottle, were all free.

Our host, Brett, was a mad golfer and, as the other members of the group were focused on trying out the spa, I was his only possible golf partner. I’d warned him well in advance that I’d never even set foot on a course before but he overlooked such a trifling detail, something I’m sure he regrets to this day.

A Jack Nicklaus design, I’m reliably informed that it’s a 7,165-yard 72-par course with a signature 17th hole that’s a 151-yard par 3 that plays downhill to an island green. It meant very little to me then and even less now.

We fronted up to the Pro Shop on a wonderfully warm and humid afternoon and were outfitted with shoes with little spikes, golf clubs and an electric cart that included a chilled cooler full of mineral water. The first sign of trouble came on the practice range. Mimicking Brett’s stance, I fired off a few balls but no matter how I positioned myself they always went off at right angles. I could connect easily enough, I had the strength and the range but pointing them in the right direction, even a passingly similar compass point, proved impossible.

Sensing that this could be a far longer game than anticipated, Brett swapped the bucket of 20 used balls for an even bigger bucket of 50. And this for just nine holes. I considered even that overly optimistic on his part.

The greens were draped with iguanas of all shapes and sizes, lazily basking in the sun and seemingly oblivious to the danger that faced them. Some were huge, extras from Jurassic Park, and all had an upright, elegant carriage that intimated a fierce temperament. Luckily, none of my golf balls went anywhere near them, spearing past at sub-sonic speed into lakes, forests, thickets, adjoining greens, clubhouses, public roads, Mayan cultural landmarks, sinkholes, anywhere but where they supposed to go. I heard of no fatalities that day although there were times when an ambulance would speed by, lights flashing and siren wailing, on its way to an emergency call that I immediately felt responsible for.

We ran out of balls before the ninth hole and decided it was wise to give up. Later, in front of the pet shop, I felt the urge to rescue the iguanas in the window. I knew I couldn’t take them back to Australia. But I could set them free far from a golf course where they may come to harm from a golfer like me.

If the World Wildlife Fund was truly serious about saving endangered species, they should pay me never to play golf again. The iguanas of Cancun would, I’m sure, agree.

Words and photos © David Latta