Being “early” is a blessing and a curse. A decade after Quatro’s heyday in the 1970s, you could see her influence everywhere, in the Go-Go’s, in Joan Jett, in Chrissy Hynde, but her influences absorbed her so completely that Quatro herself vanished. She was there first, it’s just that the world wasn’t quite ready for her yet.
Quatro grew up in a tight-knit Catholic family in Detroit. She and her sisters formed a band when they were teenagers called The Pleasure Seekers. Quatro, age 14, played a bass guitar almost larger than her body. All of the sisters were ambitious, but this was a family venture, and so when famed producer Mickey Most caught their act, and plucked Suzy out for a solo deal, it caused a rift in the family which seems to have never fully healed. Most flew the teenager to London, but didn’t quite know what to do with her. She wasn’t just a “girl singer” in front of a band. She was a “girl singer who played bass” and although there were precedents (Sister Rosetta Tharpe being the most obvious example), in the 1970s it didn’t exist, at least not in rock ‘n roll. Eventually, bored with waiting for something to happen, Quatro formed a band, and “Can the Can”—her second single, written by Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn specifically to highlight her bass playing—reached #1 all over Europe and in Australia. She was a tiny girl in black leather playing a huge bass, with three hulking guys behind her, and the effect was electric. In her memoir Unzipped, Quatro writes, “My first appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’ was like a shot of pure adrenaline. I stared into the camera, screaming, hair flying, a lone girl in leather with three heavy-looking ‘hooligans’ backing me. It was a huge shock for the audience. No one had seen a female performer like this before.”
More hits followed, with “48 Crash,” “Devil Gate Drive,” “The Wild One,” “Daytona Demon,” “Your Mama Won’t Like Me.” None of these songs date at all. They still sound like hits today.
What’s most fascinating about this documentary—including the interviews with Quatro, who is intelligent, clear-sighted, and vulnerable—is listening to the comments from the people Quatro inspired. It’s a legendary bunch: Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, Kathy Valentine of the Go Go’s, Donita Sparks of L7, Lita Ford of The Runaways, Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads. Lita Ford says she couldn’t believe “all that thunder [was] coming out of this little girl.” Joan Jett had the poster of Suzi Quatro in black-leather on her bedroom wall, saying, “She was integral to me finding out who I was.” Kathy Valentine remembers hearing “Can the Can” for the first time: “My brain literally exploded.” John Norwood Fisher provides some essential insights in his interview, remarking: “Maybe girls were trained to not aspire to these things. It takes a Suzi Quatro to come along and say ‘This is possible.'” Alice Cooper, who had Quatro open for him, says flat out, “Suzi was an innovator.”
The response to Quatro was often mixed. Nobody knew how to categorize her. She was greeted like The Beatles in Australia, but she had a hard time charting in the United States. The British press was at times hostile and/or condescending, one headline declaring Quatro a “Sexist Tool of Male Chauvinism.” (That a woman would choose to wear sexy leather because she liked it and because it was an homage to Elvis did not compute. Someone had to have forced her!) Quatro was a “tough chick,” self-described, but the sexism she experienced was often appalling (there’s a clip of a talk show host smacking her on the butt). She became known to American audiences mostly from a small recurring role on Happy Days as “Leather Tuscadero,” where she was basically “the female Fonz” (this is actually a perfect way to describe her). After those first years with #1 hits all over the world, things fizzled out. Quatro continued working. Her career has been very eclectic. She writes poetry. She wrote a musical about Tallulah Bankhead. She still tours, drawing huge crowds. But … what happened?