John Lennon: Francis Rossi interview
© Peter Klaunzer/epa/Corbis
As an impressionable teenager growing up in the 60s, Francis Rossi can recall the first time he saw The Beatles bring 'colour' to his black-and-white TV. Here, Rossi tells TG about the night he met his hero, the opportunity he had to write with Lennon, and why he let it pass…
Words: Greg Cooke
Even now Lennon continues to be a hero to successive generations. What's behind his enduring appeal?
"What I've always loved is simple, catchy pop tunes. And what I've always loved about John Lennon – ever since the first Beatles stuff – is that feeling that a song had just arrived without him having to think too hard about it. His solo albums are like that, too. You put one on and that voice sounds like all this only just occurred to the bloke a few minutes ago – and he's been gone 30 years now! To this day, I can't imagine what it takes to write a song like 'Imagine', but to be fair, if you see me sitting behind a piano it's usually for a kip…."
Tell us what it was about him that you felt was so unique…
"To start with, Lennon caught my eye just with how he looked and how he moved. It seems tame now, but I think people have forgotten what a properly dreary, black-and-white old world we lived in before Lennon and The Beatles came along. The next two things I realised after seeing him on the telly was that I wanted to be in a band and play guitar, but I'd got no proper interest in being a lead guitarist. He showed me what you could do and the energy you could get from just getting up there and strumming the thing."
'Sgt Pepper's' changed the face of music
Do you think Lennon had an effect on your early career?
"We got signed in '66, a couple of years before we launched as Status Quo in '68. We started out doing 'Pictures Of Matchstick Men' and all this psychedelic stuff on the first two albums, really just 'cos that's what we were told to do at the time. It was all off the back of 'Sgt Pepper's…'. That's what the record company thought was selling, so that's what we did. But later when we started rockin', I always thought in that way we were holding hands with Lennon and The Beatles around the back of the sofa, 'cos if John wanted to do a balls-out rockin' number no-one was going to stop him. If anyone else has said what the world needs is another cover of //Twist And Shout//, they'd most likely have been told to p*** off! But that song, with his raw screaming, well, he made it his. No-one was going to say don't stick that on the end of 'Please Please Me'."
Do you have any personal anecdotes about John?
"This ain't a story, but my real Lennon claim to fame was actually getting a call back then from The Beatles camp, saying John had heard a song I'd co-written in '67 called 'Almost But Not Quite There', when we were still performing as Traffic Jam. Anyhow, he'd really liked it and the word was he wanted to do a bit of writing with me at some point. This was just when were picking up our own momentum as a band, and I was very focused on that at the time, so the whole thing drifted away. You can imagine how many times since then I've thought about what might have happened. All I can tell you now is I've properly dined out on that story in the passing years – and had some quiet nights in!"
The Beatles forged a new approach to recording
Did you ever actually meet the man?
"I met John in passing, and the rest, not long after at the premiere of 'Yellow Submarine'. To be honest, none of us were bothered about going at the time, but we were just launching as The Quo, and our manager told us to get our arses off to it and get seen. Now, when I mention that to some people, they go almost religious, which makes me giggle a bit. And then I think, 'Bloody hell, yeah. I was there!'"
What do you reckon is Lennon's lasting legacy to music?
"You can ask what John Lennon brought to music, and hours later everyone will still be arguing about their favourite songs. Mine's 'Across The Universe'. For the last 40 years that little tune has sent a shiver down my spine every time I play it. But as someone who was around at the time, I can look back now and tell you exactly what I think Lennon and The Beatles gave to music. When they started out – and this even happened to us when we were first signed – nearly all new artists would be sent scuttling off to pick up their first single on sheet from some old scribbler down in Tin Pan Alley. Then, a couple of hours in the studio to lay down your tracks and vocal and you'd be out for the next lot. Lennon and The Beatles gave musicians the one thing we all totally take for granted now – time in the studio to write and record your own material. And it don't get much more important than that!"
Learn to play 'Across The Universe' in TG209 (on sale 26 November). The issue features John Lennon on the cover and honours the working class guitar hero's contribution to the guitar world, including interviews with 'Nowhere Boy' Aaron Johnson and 'Imagine' session guitarist Joey Molland.