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

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Getting There Is Half The Fun



Actually, it’s not. Especially when “getting there” translates into flying.

I hate flying. Not that I’m a nervous flyer, although I prefer being at the back of the bus rather than the front (on the understanding that planes rarely back into mountains). Rather, I hate the artificial atmosphere of the entire experience. I hate airline food. Even the smell of it wafting from the galley makes me want to heave. I hate sitting up for 12 hours and simmering slowly in my clothes. I rarely sleep on planes, even if I’m flying in Business Class. And I hate having to battle the boredom by watching movies that have been edited so they won’t offend six year olds and Midwestern grandmothers and shrunk to six-inch screens.

I’ve had some horror flights. In the 1990s, I would attend an annual tradeshow in Chicago. One year, owing to the deadline of a magazine I was editing, I had to fly Sydney – LA – Denver – Chicago in one hell-bound session. It was late at night when I arrived at O’Hare International Airport. I was already in a foul mood and even more so when I discovered my luggage had been lost. After two hours of fruitless form filling and arguments with people who didn’t give a toss, I caught a taxi to my hotel to find there was no record of my booking. I was close to ripping the throat from the hapless clerk. Happily, there suddenly appeared two colleagues, also in town for the tradeshow, who had decided over a prolonged happy hour that they would be sharing a room and didn’t need the spare. And my bag turned up the next day.

Another nightmare trip was Sydney – Bangkok – London – Helsinki. In London, I bought a new pair of socks and had a shower but, by the time, I reached Finland, after more than 30 hours since I left home, I was too dazed and disorientated to build a bonfire for my clothes.

So it’s important to find ways of surviving long flights. When it comes to new technology, I’m not exactly an early adopter. So when, at Sydney Airport before one trip, it was suggested by a good friend that I buy an iPod, I was initially reluctant, a strange reaction considering I have such a prodigious music collection. Luckily, the friend, thrice-crowned Rock Brain Of The Universe by the BBC and whose own music collection takes up a two-storey barn on his property outside Sydney, persevered.

So we raided the duty free shop for a 160Gb iPod Classic. I doubt if I’ve ever loved a piece of technology as much as this. I take it on every trip along with external speakers so I can  play music in my hotel room. I’ve graduated from earbuds to over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones that pretty much drowns out the background roar of jet engines. And it makes that time away from home a lot more survivable.

Of course, the problem comes with what to put on it. I pretty much cover every eventuality, every possible type of music I could imagine the need for. Rock, pop, 60s rhythm and blues, 40s swing and 90s neo-swing, 70s disco, jazz, blues, crooners, doo wop, French singers such as France Gall, Sylvie Vartan and Serge Gainsbourg, glitter rock, lounge and Northern soul, swamp rock and surf, soundtracks, Broadway musicals and British Invasion.

At just over 25,000 songs, there’s something for every mood. Ever the completist, I tend to go overboard when it comes to inclusions. There are 300 Beatles songs and I don’t even like the Beatles (notice how the world is divided into those who favour the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?). Bruce Springsteen gets more than 400 songs while I once had almost 500 KISS songs on the iPod until I realized they were all pretty much the same. So I replaced them with more than 600 David Bowie songs.

So while I won’t ever say that getting anywhere is half the fun, it’s a lot more enjoyable than it used to be and I travel in a better frame of mind. Which means that,  amidst screaming toddlers and seat back kickers and luggage mishaps and missed connections, horror flights are a lot easier to cope with.

Words and photos © David Latta