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

Dead Set Favourites: Thoughts On A Final Playlist


Music is a very important part of most people’s lives so why shouldn’t the same be true in death? How many times have we attended funerals and known, without ever saying so, that the music played was wholly inappropriate for the life being mourned?

When it comes to choosing such musical interludes, sandwiched between oratory and final farewells, the deceased’s family generally have far more pressing concerns than making sure the song-list is appropriate. Amazing Grace for a committed rock’n’roll fan? Nearer My God To Thee for a card-carrying atheist?

So, just for the record, and to hopefully kick off an awareness campaign for well-organised music-lovers everywhere, the Top Five songs I want played at my funeral. This is by no means a comprehensive list; I’d prefer a Top 100 list but it may see the service extend a little long and people may run out of nice things to say, if indeed anybody does, before too long.

These Foolish Things – Bryan Ferry

Written in 1936 with music by Jack Strachey and lyrics by Eric Maschwitz under his pen name Holt Marvell. Maschwitz, who also wrote the lyrics for A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square, was one of the more interesting figures of British musical theatre. Aside from a long list of musicals and revues, he also worked in Hollywood, co-writing the adaptation of the 1939 film, Goodbye Mr Chips, for which he won an Academy Award nomination, and during World War II worked with MI6 and the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

He is reputed to have been involved with actress Anna May Wong and These Foolish Things was an attempt to assuage his grief over the end of their romance (Maschwitz was also later married to Hermione Gingold and had a long relationship with Judy Campbell, the mother of Jane Birkin.)

The song appeared in a London revue, Spread It Abroad, to little interest in 1936 but became a hit when it was recorded by Leslie Hutchinson. Since then, it’s been notably covered by such performers as Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Bryan Ferry nailed it so beautifully, creating a heartachingly coruscating rendition of loss and yearning that so many of us can identify with, on his first solo album in 1973.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbSp_xEa3PI&ob=av2n

Beyond The Sea – Bobby Darin

Its origins go back to a French song, Le Mer, written by Charles Trenet in 1946; American songwriter Jack Lawrence, also responsible for Frank Sinatra’s first hit, All Or Nothing At All, composed entirely new lyrics and it became an international sensation for Bobby Darin in 1959. This is pure swingin’ Bobby, a wonderful evocation of a time before he tossed aside Sandra Dee and a particularly hideous hairpiece and remade himself as a politically-relevant folksinger.

Actor Kevin Spacey did a great version of Beyond The Sea in his 2004 Bobby Darin bio-pic of the same name. I’ve included two YouTube clips. The first comes from a 1960 Ed Sullivan Show which shows Bobby unsuccessfully wrestling with his lip-synching responsibilities. The second is Kevin Spacey’s performance from the movie.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_4_XI8flZU&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbcjW9SQabc

April Sun In Cuba – Dragon

There had to be an Australian song but I’m ashamed to admit I was quite the snob in the 70s and avoided home-grown music like the plague. It’s only in recent years that I’ve discovered so much good stuff. So it was a choice between Khe Sanh, in my humble opinion the best Australian rock song ever written (take a bow, Don Walker) and April Sun In Cuba (written by Paul Hewson and Marc Hunter). The latter wins out only because I had a grudging respect for Dragon back then and it perfectly encompasses the late 70s summers spent at Tamarama, when I’d head to the beach in August and not come back until March.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHFFuukk9Y8

Disco Inferno – The Trammps

I worked in a Sydney disco in the late 70s and still love music of this period, when orchestrations were lush and lustily energetic, before disco fell victim to the plague of the synthesizer. I have many favourite disco songs but some, such as I Will Survive, are not quite befitting a funeral. Of course, Disco Inferno is not exactly a safe choice but it’s always been my all-time favourite so bugger propriety. Read into this choice what you will.

Disco Inferno was written by Leroy Green and Ron Kersey; Kersey was a member of The Trammps and also worked with such other Philadelphia disco groups as the Salsoul Orchestra and MFSB. It was a huge club hit in 1976 but gained wider popularity when an 11-minute version was included on the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever. I hope the mourners will perform the Bus Stop around the casket when this plays.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_sY2rjxq6M

Theme from The Love Boat – Jack Jones

Lyrics by Paul Williams. That’s all you really need to know. Paul is one of my favourite songwriters, an all-round nice guy and gentleman and the subject of a future blog or three. I had the joy of meeting him when I was writing the liner notes for a CD retrospective of his work, Songs For The Family Of Man: A Collection 1969-1979, and it’s the one instance I can recall where it pays to meet one of your musical heroes.

Timeless television entertainment of the very best kind, The Love Boat originally aired from 1977 to 1986. As fans of Gopher, Doc and Captain Stubbing will already know, Jack Jones recorded two versions during its run, the best with a sensuously pulsing disco influence. In the final season, Jones was replaced by Dionne Warwick. The song has also been covered by such artists as Charo and Amanda Lear.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmUlKPthrag&feature=results_video&playnext=1&list=PLB9F82C79012435FF

Words © David Latta. Photographs courtesy of the Glenn A. Baker Archives.