Francis Rossi, a man's man

Status Quo's three-chord hero reveals a surprisingly tender side. Photograph by Mary Scanlon
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Francis Rossi, ponytailed Status Quo guitarist and singer, one- time aficionado of alfresco sex and nostril-ventilating powders, the living image of denim-clad, blokeish London philistinism, is getting a makeover. In a couple of weeks, he will invite readers of Hello! magazine to examine the koi carp and en suite swimming pool of his home in Purley at the more raffish end of Surrey. Next Saturday, he will perform the ultimate naff indignity of pressing the button on the National Lottery show, where he will also perform his debut solo single, 'Give Myself to Love'.

After 30 years of the Status Quo repertoire - a series of pulsing iambic boogie shuffles, driven by Rossi's uninflected nasal drone - the song is quite a departure, a brassy, high-stepping strut with at least an octave of notes. It will be followed in September by King of the Doghouse, Rossi's first solo album, whose bouncy title track proclaims the Peckham superstar as the natural successor to Shakin' Stevens. All this is quite a gamble for the 47-year-old Rossi after three decades of spanking the plank in defiance of every changing music fashion, from punk to Britpop, but he is well used to abuse from the snootier critics. "One thing we always get after concerts," says Rossi wearily, "is: 'they plundered their back catalogue'. Well yeah - whose fuckin' catalogue can we plunder if not our own? It really annoys me. What are we supposed to do?" He mimics a concert reviewer: "'Quo came on and did a pile of shit of somebody else's and all their fans were disgusted'..." He is equally defensive when they are accused of being "three-chord" musicians. "What, you mean three chords and a crap melody or three chords and a great one? I mean, 'Nessun Dorma', the main part's three chords, and 'La Donna e Mobile', that's three chords..."

I regarded the little finger of his left hand - the digit with which he plays the Quo's trademark boogie-woogie - and remarked that if you counted the number of times - from 'Paper Plane' to 'Rocking All Over the World' - it must have waggled up and down on the fretboard in his career, it would be... He fixed me with his sharp green eyes, like a psychotic macaw, "Oh, well into the hundreds, I should think."

En route to the wine bar, our progress is interrupted by fans. His craggy features (the Telegraph once commented on his "striking" resemblance to Jacques Chirac) make him instantly recognisable in the streets around Virgin Records, his new label. "Goo on, moi son," ventures one of a trio of artisans unloading a lorry. "Yaganna stuff it to the BBC?" (Actually no. Rossi's attempt to sue the corporation for leaving Quo's new single, 'Fun Fun Fun', off the Radio 1 playlist was thrown out by the judge on 2 July.) But here comes another fan, a large and potentially life-threatening version in a Crombie overcoat; he crosses the road towards Rossi, searching his memory bank for an appropriate salutation, draws level and settles for a gruff, "Keep on rockin', man". (What here? I mean, right this minute?).

Over a Coke, the teetotal Rossi muses about his fans: "That's the only way some people can express themselves... They're supposed to be real men, you see, so when they come at you, they got to be a bit tough. They do the 'Keep on rockin'' routine, and they give you [he lands a hefty punch on my shoulder] this, just to be certain." But hadn't he always been a tremendous hard case? "No, no, I'm a coward of the highest order," he laughs. "I just hope they don't find out."

This is the first of three obsessions of Rossi's that recur in his conversation like the A major chord in a Quo song. He comes back again and again to the subject of masculinity, of which he has a powerful and eloquent dislike.

"I learned all about laddism at my secondary school. I hadn't been there long when kids were saying, 'You talk poncey, why you talkin' like that?' I was so intimidated by how people spoke. So I rolled it about a bit, got a bit tough" - his broad sahf-Lunnen accent becomes a grotesque parody- Cockney " - I gave it a lot of, 'I'll faarkin' 'ave you, mate' and so on. I learned to swear. I remember walking home in my first year at Sedghill Secondary Modern in Catford, saying **** and **** and ******, learning to be tough. And that teaches me things about my children and about life generally, that we do these things to people without considering. When we send a child into a school, we think they'll be all right, but we don't know what we're doing." He offers himself as a warning. "There was a boy in the class, we called him 'Nickel-arse' - really studious kid in short pants, and the stick he used to get - I thought there's no way I want to be like that. So I became a dickhead like all the rest."

His voice is pure Streatham, the south London manor of Del Boy Trotter, the street entrepreneur in TV's Only Fools and Horses; indeed, if you shut your eyes, you'd swear David Jason was in the room. It occurs to you that Rossi, with his shrewd gaze and OK-squire delivery, would make a very plausible street trader himself, except for the air of a European dandy he also exudes.

His family, as any Quo fan will tell you, were Italians in the ice-cream business in the Sixties. Were they picturesquely Italian? Did business rivals get threatened with immersion in vats of Raspberry Ripple? "Funny, everyone thinks it's my one family," says Rossi. "That was my father's side. My mother was from Liverpool, a Northern Irish Catholic. I could speak Italian for a time, but I must have been ridiculed for it somewhere because I got rid of it really quickly." Did he get on with his Italian aunts and uncles? "I don't really mix with any of them anymore," he says shortly. Was there a family row? "They were particularly nasty to my mother. They used to say to each other, in Italian, 'Here comes the white-blood'." Que? White-blood? "The white-blood, the sangrebianco," he says testily, as if anyone would be familiar with the insult. "I don't know what they were talking about..."

Possibly to escape this curious atmosphere, he married young, at "17 or 18". His wife nagged him to get a job, and he duly started to save up to buy a pounds 1,000 van. Along the way came an interview with Lombard Banking, full of splendid opportunities for smart youths. "They turned me down," he says with relief, "Thank goodness, or I'd really have been in the shit." Instead he and his band (formed when he was only 12) were introduced in 1967 to Pye records by Ronnie Scott, the songwriter, and released, that December, a single called 'Pictures of Matchstick Men' with an insistent, single-string riff that even a schoolboy could pick up. It went to No 7 in the charts by February. They were off. The thousand quid van remained, unclaimed, in its showroom window.

Rossi and I pored over the 1968 sheet music to their follow-up single, 'Ice in the Sun', exclaiming at the 18-year-old Francis's middle parting and hopeless moustache, laughing at the band's Carnaby Street threads - and suddenly we are talking about something else.

"That collar! The black satin cravat. Oooh yes..." [He affects a queeny shriek, more Dick Emery than Julian Clary] "... I love all that. I love gay people. I can't help it. It's like when people say to me about my son, 'Where's he get it from?', they think it must be his dad". What is he talking about? Rossi explains that his eldest son, Simon, is homosexual. "And there's a few members of my family who are gay, some cousins - I get on much better with them than with the macho dickheads." Proceeding warily here, I wondered if this was part of the general makeover: Francis Rossi as Mr Sensitive in his pink shirt. "But I've always been that way. For years I've lied to myself about it. I've wanted to be tough. I suppose it's just wanting to be accepted. I didn't think I could be accepted for what I am..."

You realise that he's been worrying away at this subject since the moment he winced at my "manly" handshake. Some extraordinary revelation seems imminent. Do you mean, Francis, that ... ? "I don't mean I'm gay, necessarily. I just don't see why men can't be gentlemen in both senses. For years I just followed my dick around, but since I've been with Eileen [his second wife], I've been very happy and content and I don't feel I have to shag her brains out the moment I get home. Being a gentle person - what's wrong with that?"

The moment passes. The idea of Rossi - who, to the untrained eye, is about as gay as Charlton Heston - coming out of the closet, shortly before the birth of his eighth child and the launch of his Jack-the-lad album, is piquant indeed.

His solo album is the result of a collaboration with Tony McAnaney, an old friend, who came to his house for a couple of days to write some songs for his publisher - and stayed for nearly two months. Rossi wound up singing three of the songs, his manager played them to some record companies, "and I was that flattered when Virgin offered me a deal 'cause I didn't go looking for it." How would he describe his own voice? "Only as getting better. I've read so much over the years about it being a monotone drone... but I know how to work with it now. I suddenly realised I can sing from my stomach now, I can get vibrato down there. It's because of all the exercising I've been doin'."

Indeed. The newly healthy Rossi swims 40 lengths every day in his indoor pool. It, the garden and his burgeoning family, are his obsessions - along with toughness and homosexuality, his conversation is bizarrely full of shrubbery, foliage and the niceties of landscaping.

"I do admit," he says, like a man with a secret vice, "I love my laurel bushes. I love trees. Every year, every spring, I get home in the evening, jump in the swimming pool, do my exercise. If the children are still up, I'll take them swimming, too, and when they go to bed, I'll walk around the garden and [he silently mimics lighting a spliff] I'll stand next to the laurel bushes, and they're so green and vibrant and fresh and new, and they do it all the time, every year. I just sit in the garden and gaze at the trees..."

Five of his children - Nicholas, Kieran, Patrick, Finn and Kyra, who is three - live with him and Eileen; another boy, tentatively entitled Furzi, is expected in late August. His own name, Francis, incidentally, was deemed "too poncey" by Status Quo's original manager, "so I had to change it to Mike, a real man's name, apparently". All his life, it seems, he has been just too poncey for the world he found himself in, and the middle-aged Francis is now desperate to reclaim a whole quiverful of subtleties his younger self had to shed. A rich, happy paterfamilias, launched on a new, bona fide singing career, he seems to have things still to prove. "It's something I need to do. Maybe to have people say, 'Oh, perhaps he wasn't so bad. Perhaps there is some talent there after all'."

Which singer, I wondered, did he most want to be like, now he was joining the ranks of the belters and crooners?

Tom Jones? Sinatra? You'll never guess. "Yeah, there's a voice I've always dreamed of becoming - but it's probably a female voice. There aren't many men singers I particularly like." And a minute later, the gender-bending, dendrophile ex-hellraiser is talking, with the warmth of total empathy, about Helen Shapiro