For Suzi Quatro, portraying intimidating rocker chick Leather Tuscadero on the 1970s sitcom “Happy Days” was art imitating life. A veteran musician who came up in the rough and tumble rock scene of 1960s Detroit, her tough-but-sexy small-screen persona wasn’t an act, and it’s served Quatro well in her pioneering role as arguably the first prominent female musicians to front a band, and rock as hard as a man. She was frequently mentioned when the Runaways released their first album in 1976, and it’s safe to say there could have been no Joan Jett without Suzi Quatro. Now 68, and with a new album — “No Control” — out today, Quatro remains an icon of cool, and notes that at least partially because of her tough image, guys didn’t mess with her, and anyone who tried got shut down, hard.
“I was 14 when I started,” she recalls. “I knew Iggy Pop when he was a drummer, I played with the MC5 hundreds of times. The Detroit music scene was very close-knit.”
At least partially because of that, she says, being female was never an issue in her early days. “For myself, I felt totally equal all the way along: one hundred percent,” she says. “They never treated me any different, and I wouldn’t be treated different, anyway. [I wasn’t] under their wing: I could hold my own.”
A schooled percussionist and pianist, she can read and write on both instruments, and is as passionate about how she plays bass as what she’s playing. “My feeling about bassists who use picks [instead of playing with their fingers] is, ‘How dare you!? How dare you play a bass like you’re a failed guitar player?,’” she vents. “The whole organic thing of playing the bass is the feeling of that skin against the string. When I play, I play from the gut.”
Quatro’s key collaborator on “No Control,” her 17th studio album, is her son, Richard Tuckey, whose father is Len Tuckey (of Nashville Teens fame), Quatro’s ex-husband and former musical collaborator. Her buzzwords for the album seem to be “organic” and “freedom,” as Quatro explains. “There was nobody putting any stops on me — not that anybody did in the past, or maybe they did and I never felt it. But this time I felt free: 55 years of experience and nobody telling me anything. I could just fly.” Indeed, “No Control” is nuanced, from the quirky horns and layers of “Strings” to the ballsy attack of the title track.
“Women have balls!,” Quatro affirms. “I’ve always said this: Women have balls, but they keep them in their heads so they don’t get kicked.”
Like Jimi Hendrix and Chrissie Hynde, Quatro found initial acceptance in the UK, and she’s chosen to live and perform overseas for much of her career, with early-‘70s hits like “Can the Can” and “Devil Gate Drive” enjoying much bigger success outside the U.S., although her 1979 debut with Chris Norman, “Stumblin’ In,” did hit No. 4 in the States. “I don’t think tastes are different [between the U.K. and U.S.], but England seems more able to accept the ‘first’ of things,” she muses. “What I was trying to present to the world, this rock n’ roll chick with a bass guitar, had not been done. England was ready to accept this person doing that.”
The 2019 Quatro, with her shaggy hair, raspy voice and cool-older-sister vibe, has the confident forthrightness she shows on stage, but also an unexpected vulnerability. A recurring theme for her is thinking like a man while operating with the emotions of a woman. Men, she says, “can be cut and dried. They can go from A to Z in a direct line. And I can be straightforward, clinical, get the job done. But at the same time,” she admits, “I can cry over ‘Toy Story,’ I cried over ‘Bambi,’ I cry over things that you’re not supposed to cry over. See? I can be so soft. I can be clinical, and I can be soft,” she says, before adding the zinger, “And never the twain shall meet. I am both things, but I do have a separation line, because I think it keeps you sane.”
However, on the new album’s title track, “No Control,” Quatro allows the vulnerability in. “I was crying when I did that vocal,” she says. “Like I said, this is where my strength lies, in my opinion. I am one of these kinds of people who do not shy away from pain. I walk into the fire of it, I feel it, and then I go through the other side, and I keep walking. You must always feel the pain.”
When asked to dispense advice for women in the music biz, she laughs: “God, how much time do we have?” First, she says, “If you’re gonna dare to play an instrument, don’t play at it: Play it. I never once called myself a female musician — I only called myself a musician. It wasn’t until I started having hits that people were asking me, ‘What’s it like to be in a male-dominated [role]?,’ I was going, Wow, I honestly never thought about it, and I don’t think about it now. I’m your original tomboy.
“And don’t ever, ever,” she continues, revving up, “let any … I’ll say ‘man,’ because it’s usually men —think that it’s clever or that you’re in control of taking lots of clothes off for a video shoot. Because you’re not in control of that: Somebody else has put that thought into your head, and you think you’re in control.”
And while she didn’t position it as advice, one major takeaway from her long and unique career is to be yourself. She recalled an early meeting with Elektra Records, where an executive opined that Quatro could be the next Janis Joplin.
“I just looked at them, and I went, ‘Wha? I’m not the second anybody.’ I love her to pieces, but I’m not like her,” she recalls. “This guy just did not see me; he saw me as somebody he could make famous, but he didn’t see me as who I am. And [veteran producer and label head] Mickie Most said, ‘I’ll make you the first Suzi Quatro.’ I said, ‘Yeah!’ Mickie didn’t know who I was, but he knew what I wasn’t. That’s the important thing.”