We thought she was bad to the bone, so it’s a surprise to learn that the real Susan Kay Quatro – for that is her real name – was a good Catholic girl from a musical family in Detroit; someone who believed in hard work, fidelity and clean living. She is so far from her image that you wonder where the bad girl thing came from. Melbourne filmmaker Liam Firmager asks the same question in this excellent Australian documentary, the first to try to explain her longevity and place in rock history.
Quatro was on stage from age seven. Her father Art had a jazz trio. Her three sisters and one brother were all musically trained. Suzi joined her sister Patti’s all-girl band, The Pleasure Seekers, at 14. They were having some success when Suzi left for the United Kingdom, to strike out on her own. Patti and her father found that hard to forgive. The sisters are refreshingly open here about the schism that followed.
Quatro was invited to the UK by musical impresario Mickie Most, but the key production work on her early albums was by expatriate Australian producer Mike Chapman. Some British rock journalists turned on her after the first big hits, claiming she was entirely their creation.
The film does a reasonable job of rebutting that: a number of men were important in her career, including the guitarist she married, Len Tuckey. None of them stood up there and sang the songs, playing the strings off a Fender bass that was almost as big as she was, lighting up audiences in high energy gigs with her very real talent. Sexism takes many forms and an absurd and common form at the time said that girls couldn’t do hard rock. Quatro proved them wrong and inspired a generation of femme rockers – many of whom (like Joan Jett) are in the film.
Firmager is clever about structure here, holding back her songs, then letting them rip in a way that reminds us of the impact she had at the time – especially in Australia, more than in other countries.
She had hits here when her songs were barely charting in the United States. It’s fitting then that a skilful and sensitive Australian production is the first to recognise her achievements.