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She Beat Patti Smith to Punk Rock Years Ago, but Now Suzi Quatro's 'Stumblin' In' to Pop Stardom

updated 07/09/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/09/1979 01:00AM

She was the first queen of raunch'n'-roll, strutting onstage in tight leather jumpsuits, with her bass guitar thumping against her thighs and nasty language spraying from her lips. She was the original ripple of the New Wave that brought notoriety to Patti Smith and Blondie's Deborah Harry, but Suzi Quatro claims she "had no idea what it was back then. I was only being me."

Or just contrary. By mid-decade "when punk picked up black leather," explains Suzi, a native of Detroit turned Londoner, "I put it down." That has meant abandoning not only her punk androgyny but also the power chords of early Quatro cuts like 48 Crash and Daytona Demon. So at age 29, there is a pop feel to her new LP, If You Knew Suzi. She calls it "more mature," and though some of the knee-jerk critics are disappointed, Stumblin' In, her jaunty singable duet with Chris Norman, made the Top Five—ending four years of commercial oblivion in the U.S. A second hit single, If You Can't Give Me Love, is coming, and Quatro is about to coin her first gold LP at home. (The rest of the world has already bought more than 25 million of her records.)

Suzi will oblige by doing her first major American tour in four years this summer, but the feminizing move from leather to silk shouldn't cost her at the gate. "They go nuts and I go nuts," she says of her cultists. "A girl can get turned on watching me play just like a boy can. It's an orgy." But she's just talking a good game once again. "Orgies don't go on in show business," she observes, "orgies go on in the suburbs." In any case, Suzi leads a monogamous life with the lead guitarist of her four-man band, six-foot, 180-pound Len Tuckey, her old man for five years and husband for two. Off-road, they live in a simply furnished two-bedroom bungalow in Essex, 20 miles from London, with a Rolls, Porsche and Mercedes sprucing up the driveway. The Scots-born Tuckey, 31, does the cooking (favorites are Italian and curries) and relaxes by shooting varmints like rabbits and weasels. Five-foot-one, 100-pound Suzi's racket is squash—"with people I can beat."

Their "homework," as she puts it, is listening to Top Ten LPs, catching live shows and collaborative song-writing. More avocationally, she smiles, "We've been practicing having babies." The progress report? "We're getting better." Still, nothing is imminent. Suzi's a tireless rockaholic who can't stand being home more than six weeks a year and never more than two back to back. "I'm too fanatical in my career," she concedes. "I don't need booze or drugs. Working hard's my buzz."

The fourth of five children of a GM engineering executive, Suzi grew up amid the snooty opulence of Grosse Pointe. She studied piano with the Detroit Symphony's Mischa Cutler, but veered to the more aggressive guitar and drums, under "a million influences" from Presley to Billie Holiday. She played congas with her father Art Quatro's semipro trio Sundays and later made first chair on drums in high school ("That really pissed the boys off"). Still, as a shy tomboy, she liked "pretending to be black, hanging out in Motown's studios. I just couldn't get into the high school scene at all. I was fat, ugly and weird. I just couldn't do the makeup and the hairdos."

She quit school at 16 and, as the miniskirted Suzi Soul, gigged with her three model-thin sisters as the Pleasure Seekers. Later rechristened Cradle, the group toured from New York to Vegas and Vietnam hospital wards. "I always found the road exciting," recalls Suzi. "I liked stinking hotels and freezing dressing rooms."

In 1971 Cradle stopped rocking, and Suzi moved to Britain to work with producer Mickie Most, who, after scouting the sisters in the U.S., declared, "Suzi gives this band its balls." In 1973 she teamed with writers Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman (who still collaborate on much of Quatro's material and manage her) for a No. 1 U.K. hit, Can the Can.

Now, having made a similar long climb in the States, Suzi says she is "beginning the second phase of my life. I don't want to get stagnant or pigeonholed." She has appeared on Happy Days as Leather Tuscadero, Pinky's reform school sister, and will star in a TV film this fall. She also hopes to publish a nearly completed autobiography, Confessions of a Survivor.

Her secret: "Living sanely. You're all right, as long as you don't believe your own hype." Particularly one as elusive as her own. "When they all stop wearing leather," Suzy teases, "I may just pick it up again."

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