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The Bridge Interviews

John Coghlan

John Coghlan

November 2021

There is a story about a drummer in a rock band who was constantly being criticised for having no sense of timing. He found this very worrying and began to suffer from depression. Eventually, seeing no other way out, he threw himself behind a bus.

No such fate could befall this month’s interviewee, a musician with a career going back over 50 years including nearly 20 as drummer and founder member of Status Quo. He is also a resident of Shilton and one of the most illustrious distributors of this magazine.

John was born in Dulwich hospital in 1946 and grew up in Upper Norwood, south-east London, He is an only child and his father was a furniture salesman.  He dates his interest in music to the time when he accompanied his parents to ballroom dancing at the Crystal Palace hotel. “There was a big band. I watched and watched. First I wanted to be the man who played the double bass. Then I noticed that the drummer got to sit down so I tried out the drums.”

The foundations of his career were laid early. He was in the air cadets while still at school. “If I hadn’t joined the air cadets my life would have been very different”, John reflects. In 1962 he and some friends formed a band and were allowed to practise in the drill hall. They would play music by well-known musicians of the era such as The Shadows. A couple of other boys used to come and listen. After a time they asked John if he would like join their band which practised in the nearby Territorial Army centre. Their names were Francis Rossi and Alan Lancaster. The rest, as they say, is history. The band was called The Spectres. Rossi and Lancaster played guitar and bass respectively while a classmate, Jess Jaworski, was on keyboards. When they left school he decided to leave and was replaced by Roy Lynes. One of their earliest gigs was in 1965 at Butlins in Minehead, a place beloved by The Bridge’s advertising manager. At Butlins, two years later, they met Rick Parfitt who joined them and completed their line-up.

In 1966 they signed a five-year deal with Piccadilly Records and released two singles. The following year they changed their name to The Status Quo. (“The” was dropped in 1969.) Their big breakthrough came in 1968 with Pictures of Matchstick Men. The title refers to the paintings of Salford artist L.S. Lowry. The song, written by Francis Rossi, reached number seven in the UK singles chart and led to the band’s first of many appearances on Top of the Pops. You can find this on YouTube (introduced by Jimmy Savile) and admire the frilly shirts and Carnaby Street fashions. Later they reinvented themselves, ditched the frills and adopted a harder-edged jeans and T-shirts image.

For younger readers who may not be familiar with the Quo, as they became popularly known, they were simply huge. They released more than 100 singles, over 60 of which became chart hits and 22 of which reached the top ten. Then there were 33 albums, many of which were best sellers. They made more appearances on Top of the Pops than any other band. John has many memories of those appearances on the programme which was originally broadcast live, at first from Manchester and later from London. “There would be six bands taking part and no time for proper rehearsals.”

Life was, of course, very busy with constant touring and recording. “We toured Europe, Scandinavia, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan”. He found it stressful and difficult to sleep. “You feel great after a gig but it’s impossible to go to bed and sleep for hours afterwards”. He was not drawn into the drink, drugs and hard partying lifestyle. “I preferred to unwind with a beer”. Are drummers the quieter members of bands? (aside from Gillie - “hardly!”) “Perhaps, apart from Ginger Baker [of Cream] and Keith Moon [The Who].” Because of the prevailing 90% tax rates he moved to the Isle of Man where he joined a number of exiles from the entertainment industry such as the Bee Gees and comedian Norman Wisdom, remaining for ten years. In 1981 he decided he had had enough and left the band, and more changes in the line- up took place over the next few years. “I took a year off and travelled. Then I played for a couple of bands and headlined some festivals.” He also made some recordings.

John has one daughter, Charlotte, from his first marriage, and one granddaughter. He and his wife Gillie have been together for 45 years and married for 39. Gillie is steeped in show business. Her father was the Stage Director for Odeon Theatres throughout the 1950s, 60s and early 70s, and her mother was a Tiller Girl.

Gillie herself worked as a secretary for agents for bands such as Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. They got to know each other after meeting backstage at Hammersmith Odeon and hooking up at a party for The Kinks. They had a memorable first date (see below). They married in 1982, soon after John left the band (“He was married to the Quo until then” says Gillie.) In the Isle of Man they had met and befriended Pam Ayres who lived there for a time. After she moved to Oxfordshire they stayed with her, liked it and decided to move here. They bought a house in Shilton, five minutes from the Rose and Crown, and have been there for 35 years.

Other projects followed. They spent nine months in Australia where John played in The Bombers, a band formed by Alan Lancaster, by then living there. They weren’t tempted to settle there. He and Gillie also had a show on BBC Radio Oxford for ten years. This came about through regular “Old Boys” lunches organised by a former publicist attended by former clients such as Bruce Welch and Brian Bennett (The Shadows), Noddy Holder (Slade) and Elkie Brooks. They would conduct unscripted interviews with guests at the BBC studios and then take them to lunch down the road in Summertown.

Gillie, meanwhile, has managed John’s various bands in his post-Quo era. She has also had a career in various television quizzes including Lose a Million, the Australian version of Sale of the Century and The Weakest Link (which she won).

One of John’s hobbies is vintage military vehicles and he still has an old French army truck. He recalls taking part in a D-Day commemoration in Normandy where he and other enthusiasts took four DUKW amphibious vehicles. They met D-Day veterans, some of whom had already celebrated their reunion with enthusiasm and helped them into the trucks before taking them for a trip in the sea. “We were able to drive onto the top of the the remaining bits of the Mulberry harbour at Arromanches”. He has appeared on various television programmes such as Find It, Fix it, Flog It; Shed and Buried; and Junk and Disorderly. He still has an interest in military aircraft from his days as an air cadet and enjoys seeing them flying into Brize Norton. He has been known to join the plane spotters at Fairford and was particularly pleased to have seen the U2 (the spy plane, not the band) landing there.

Thirty-one years after they last played together, John was reunited with Rossi, Parfitt and Lancaster for a documentary film about the band, Hello Quo, directed by Alan G. Parker. At the same time as the release of the film it was announced that the same team would have a reunion tour of the UK in 2013 and the UK and Europe the following year. There were nine shows including Manchester Apollo, Hammersmith Apollo and the final one at Wembley Arena. When the tickets for the tour went on sale they were sold out in 15 minutes. John remembers fondly the luxurious tour buses provided by Phoenix Buses which were equipped with bedrooms, a kitchen, wide screen TV and other conveniences; a far cry from the more basic way in which the band travelled in their early days. There won’t be another reunion as Rick Parfitt died in 2016 and Alan Lancaster returned to Australia, where he sadly died on 26 September this year. However, John continues to perform with his own band, John Coghlan’s Quo (pictured above). This was formed in the late 1990s and has toured the UK and Europe performing classic Status Quo tracks from the past. They are working most weekends. John went full circle by going back to Butlins in Minehead on 1 October. London, Glasgow, Cardiff and the Netherlands follow and, nearer to home, Abingdon on New Year’s Eve. He is also in discussion about appearing at the Corn Exchange in Witney. Look out for the date. Shilton is a long way from the rock star lifestyle, but how many other performers from the 1960s are still going?

And that first date? They went to the Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant in Wimbledon, driven by the Quo’s chauffeur. They hit it off and sat talking late into the evening until they were the last to leave the restaurant. The next day John called Gillie and asked if she would like to go out with him again. She said yes and they decided to go to the same place. This time they went by cab and asked the driver to take them to Fisherman’s Wharf. “Are you joking?” was the gist of his reply. “Why?” “Didn’t you know it burnt down last night?” They were the last people to eat there before it burst into flames. Truly a fiery start to the relationship.

John Coghlan
John Coghlan
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