Pictures of Matchstick Men single
Status Quo began life in 1962 when schoolmates Francis Rossi and Alan Lancaster (both students at Sedgehill Comprehensive School in Catford, U.K.) formed a freakbeat band called The Scorpions. They changed their name to The Spectres, and in 1963 they added drummer John Coghlan. They began writing their own material and in 1965 they met Rick Parfitt; he and Rossi became friends and they made a commitment to continue to work together. In 1966, The Spectres signed a five-year contract with Piccadilly Records. The Spectres released three singles (two in 1966 and one in 1967); all three were commercial failures. By 1967, the band had discovered psychedelia and changed their name to Traffic (later to Traffic Jam), to avoid confusion with Steve Winwood’s Traffic. By this point the band’s lineup included organist Roy Lynes and they released the single “Almost But Not Quite There”, which also flopped. In late 1967 they changed their name to The Status Quo (shortened to Status Quo in 1970), and in early 1968 they released to psychedelic-flavored “Pictures of Matchstick Men” b/w “Gentleman Joe’s Sidewalk Cafe”. This is today’s featured single.
“Pictures of Matchstick Men” opens up with a four-note riff (D/F/C/G) repeated twice (the first time the lead guitar is the lone instrument; the rest of the band enters the second time. The same four chords are used during the verses. The opening riff is quite memorable – it’s very difficult to forget once you’ve heard it – and no doubt this is one of the reasons why this track is probably Status Quo’s best-known song. But “Pictures of Matchstick Men” also owes much to its use of phasing. The lead guitar (played by Rossi) and bass guitar (played by Lancaster) play the same melody throughout most of the song, at first in unison but in slightly different tempos. As a result, the lead guitar and bass guitar fall out-of-phase, resulting in a dissonant, aural strangeness not unlike flanging (but using a different tactic to achieve the result). This sound is augmented nicely by Roy Lynes’ wah-wah organ. The lyrical content is rather weird (telling the tale of a man who is haunted by visions of a face until he is driven to distraction), and, one suspects, LSD-influenced: “When I look up to the skies/I see your eyes a funny kind of yellow/I rush home to bed I soak my head/I see your face underneath my pillow/I wake next morning, tired, still yawning/See your face come peeping through my window”. According to Rossi, the song was for the most part written in the bathroom: “I wrote it on the bog (i.e. toilet). I’d gone there, not for the usual reasons – having a crap and what have you – but to get away from the wife and mother-in-law. I used to go into this narrow frizzing toilet and sit there for hours, until they finally went out. I got three quarters of the song finished in that khazi. The rest I finished in the lounge.” It seems a rather inauspicious beginning for such a classic song, but I suppose it’s plausible. In any case, this is probably about as psychedelic you could get on a pop single in 1968. As other fans have noted, the song is a tour-de-force that seemingly transports the listener into another world, and it’s as colorful as the band’s Carnaby Street clothing.
The B-side of this single, “Gentleman Joe’s Sidewalk Cafe”, was good enough that it was originally slated to be the A-side of the single, but then the A-side and B-side were swapped. In any case, this song is not without it’s appeal. It opens with a melancholy melody, which soon launches into a mid-tempo pop song, in which the protagonist frets about the possibility of losing his significant other: Hey Joe, have you seen my baby here?/Oh we used to share a table every night/Hey Joe, she’s the only girl who’s ever/Meant anything at all/If I lose her I lose all”. The melody is much simpler than the one employed on “Matchstick Men” – only three chords are used, and the song doesn’t use any psychedelic effects like phasing. Once again, Roy Lynes’ organ is put to good use, and it’s much more conspicuous than it was on the A-side. Overall, I liked the song – it remains somewhat of a fan favorite – even if the line about in which Rossi sings “Under a table we’d choose, she’d take off her shoes/And rub her feet against mine” was a bit too corny for me. Interestingly enough, the label on the single lists the track as “Gentlemen Joe’s Sidewalk Cafe”, even though all the discographies I’ve encountered have it listed as “Gentleman Joe’s Sidewalk Cafe”.
What’s really interesting about “Matchstick Men” is that in spite of how memorable it is, and in spite of its status as their first hit (it reached #12 in the U.S., and #7 in the U.K.), it’s not really representative of the Status Quo sound. The band itself never really took “Matchstick Men” seriously (which is perhaps why it almost ended up on the B-side). Nevertheless, they would dabble in psychedelia on their first full-length LP, “Picturesque Matchstickable Message from the Status Quo” (1968) and also on their second album, “Spare Parts” (1969), but they would struggle to repeat the success of “Matchstick Men”. In the 1970’s, they would reinvent themselves as a rock-blues boogie band (the aforementioned Rick Parfitt was now in the fold as the band’s rhythm guitarist, having joined the band in 1968; Roy Lynes had left the band in 1970). With this new direction, they went on to record 50 chart hits in the U.K. “Down Down” became their first and only #1 hit in the U.K. in 1975; they would eventually sell over 118 albums worldwide. They were less successful in the United States, where “Matchstick Men” remains their only hit.
The single (catalog #: 7001) was issued in the United States by Cadet Concept Records, a blues/jazz/folk label started by Marshall Chess, the son of Chess Records founder Leonard Chess. It was a subsidiary of Chess Records, and was arguably a vehicle for the Rotary Connection, a pet project of Marshall Chess which featured the late Minnie Ripperton on lead vocals (long before her salad days as a solo artist on Epic Records). Apparently, the label also secured U.S. distribution rights for U.K. bands, as shown by the fact that they issued “Pictures of Matchstick Men”, which was also the first single issued by Cadet Concept. It features the standard Cadet Concept label design – gray with black print, with “Cadet” printed in pink and “Concept” printed in orange, both words printed with a swirl-style font across the top of the label. The track name and artist are printed on the bottom; publishing information is on the left side, and the catalog number and track length are on the right side. Cadet Concept also issued “Messages from the Status Quo” (catalog #: LPS-315), their first U.S. full-length LP, in 1968.
The Status Quo performing Pictures of Matchstick Men on TV