If the Detroit music scene revolutionized rock, Suzi Quatro brought it to a wider audience with polished production and an ear for catchy hooks
By Chelsea Spear
In the late 1960s, Detroit’s most notorious export was an elemental new form of rock and roll. While their peers on the coasts were embellishing rock with flourishes from early twentieth-century popular music or incorporating avant-garde technique into their records, bands like the MC5 and the Stooges were breathing new life into the genre by stripping back anything that didn’t work and amplifying everything that did. Their songs featured a thicker bass sound and a drumbeat inspired by rhythms from the factory floor, and pulsed with guitar feedback like an electrical current. It was the kind of music you could hear from miles away and feel in the pit of your stomach.
If the Detroit music scene revolutionized rock, Suzi Quatro brought it to a wider audience with polished production and an ear for catchy hooks. Her life and work are the subject of a new documentary, Suzi Q, which makes a compelling argument that she belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Quatro was born Susan Kay Quatro in Detroit in 1950. Her father, Art, supported the family with a steady job at Ford Motors, but his heart was in music; he played the organ at Red Wings and Pistons games, led a jazz trio, and enrolled his five children in music lessons. In a new documentary, Suzi Q, Quatro describes the revelation of seeing Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show: “When (Elvis) went ‘woo!’, I had my first lightbulb moment at the age of five and a half: ‘I want to do…that.’”
Almost a decade later, The Beatles’ Ed Sullivan appearance inspired Quatro and her sister Patti to start a band, The Pleasure Seekers, with a few other girls in their neighborhood. Suzi sang and played her father’s hand-me-down 1957 Fender Precision bass. Over a five-year period, The Pleasure Seekers would graduate from sock hops and school dances to week-long engagements at Trude Heller’s in New York City and USO shows in Vietnam. They also became the second all-female band (after Goldie and the Gingerbreads) to get signed to a major label. Their fast tempos and unapologetically risqué lyrics set them apart from other all-female garage bands of the era. Suzi’s smirking vocals and ragged whoops on the single “What a Way to Die” would sound right at home on some of their peers’ later albums.
When the band was in Detroit, between tours, its members were able to connect with other rock musicians. In a 2018 interview with Rock Scene, Suzi recalled that “my first-ever jam session was with Ted (Nugent). I was playing a gig at Arthur’s in downtown Detroit, and Ted was in the Amboy Dukes. He said: ‘D’ya wanna jam?’ I said: ‘Sure.’ We played jazz. I didn’t know if I could do it. But Ted turned to me afterward and said: ‘How did you learn to do that?’ And I said: ‘I have no fuckin’ idea.’ I just rose to the occasion.”
One festival show brought the band a less pleasant realization. “When we did a festival in ’69, it was all full of people like MC5, Frigid Pinks, Alice—heavy, barefooted, blue-jeaned… And we were a show band,” Suzi said in the documentary. “We came with our costumes on and we died.” The Quatro sisters saw which way the wind was blowing, joined forces with vocalist Nancy Rogers, and re-formed as a power trio called Cradle.
The existing Cradle recordings have a heavy, bluesy sound. Rogers’s piercing wail gestured towards Janis Joplin, and the slower tempos and free-form songwriting suggested they could jam with the same skill that they could write songs. Suzi was uncomfortable with these changes. “I remember the drummer at the time saying ‘we have to get serious. We have to say something. We have to write our own stuff. We have to get political,’” she recalled in the documentary. “To me it took the joy out of the band.” She decided to stay with Cradle “because I said, ‘let’s get good.’ I just became this good bass player.”
While Suzi “took a backseat” in Cradle, her exuberant stage presence wasn’t easily hidden. Her brother, Michael Quatro, who was booking the band, invited British super-producer Mickie Most to a show. After a brief conversation, Most invited Suzi—and only Suzi—to an after-hours jam session at Motown, where he was producing a still-unreleased album for Jeff Beck. Michael fielded solo offers for Suzi from both Most and Elektra president Jac Holzman. In the book Contemporary Music Profiles, Suzi spoke of how Most “wanted to take me to England and make me the first Suzi Quatro,” instead of turning her into the Janis Joplin stand-in many A&R guys wanted. That was enough to get Suzi to jump the pond and sign with Most’s fledgling RAK label.
As a solo artist, Suzi’s music shares the warm, reverb-heavy production and melodic basslines of the Stooges’ finest moments and the spiraling, slightly distorted riffs of the MC5, but she had no time for those bands’ more experimental moments. Instead, she focused on tight, classic songwriting, leading with killer hooks and melodies that got stuck in your head for days. Songs like “48 Crash” and “Devil Gate Drive” bridged the gap between bubblegum pop and the nascent glam rock movement, and her swaggering stage presence and command of the bass guitar inspired generations of female musicians.
Suzi became a rock star in Europe, and her Detroit roots were a huge part of her mythology. She has shouted out her hometown on many songs across her sixteen-album discography, including the double entendre-laden “Shine My Machine” and the title track of her 2014 box set The Girl from Detroit City. Musically, her earliest albums owe a debt to boogie-woogie blues, a danceable blues subgenre known for its swinging tempos and walking basslines. An unsung Detroit studio artist who perfected boogie was a formative influence: “when I first heard the amazing bass guitar of James Jamerson, who played on all the big Motown hits of the 60s and 70s,” Suzi said in the Guardian, “I knew bass guitar was my instrument.”
Though Quatro became a star in Europe and Australia, she remains a cult figure here in the states, known mostly for her appearances on the sitcom Happy Days. Fellow Detroit native Alice Cooper chose her to open for his blockbuster Welcome to My Nightmare tour, but apart from a cult following in Los Angeles, her records didn’t really sell on this side of the Atlantic. In Suzi Q, director Liam Firmager makes the argument that American audiences weren’t yet ready for a female rock musician who could play as well as her male peers.
Quatro has always been known in the industry for her punishing work ethic, as well as her willingness to try new venues, like TV and musical theatre. Unlike many of her peers, she kept firm boundaries between her performances and the rest of her life. “I wasn’t a sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll girl whatsoever,” she notes in the documentary. “I didn’t feel the need to live the rock star life off the stage. Quite happy to do my job, to be who I am on stage, to come home, and to lead a normal life.”
These days, nearly fifty years after she first picked up a bass, Suzi Quatro is still going—though she can’t perform right now due to the pandemic. The landing page for her official website has the following statement: “I will retire when I go onstage, shake my ass, and there is silence.”
That hasn’t happened yet. ■
Chelsea Spear has returned to music writing after an extended sojourn in the proofreading mines. Her byline has appeared at The Arts Fuse, the Brattle Theatre’s Film Notes Blog, Crooked Marquee, and Scalawag, as well as in the pages of the Gay & Lesbian Review. She lives in Boston but dreams of visiting First Avenue someday.
Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month.