Pick of the Week #10
10 by 10cc
By Beppe Colli
Feb. 13, 2021

When thinking about the Summer "hits" of 1970, these are the names of the songs that came to my mind: American Woman, by the Guess Who; Question, by the Moody Blues; Instant Karma!, by John Lennon; In The Summertime, by Mungo Jerry. At the time, I bought the first two, and I'd do the same today. I have to add that my two favourite songs of the four were also those that were played less often on the radio, and that that Summer both John Lennon and Mungo Jerry practically owned the airwaves: one had to be patient just for a short while, and - presto! - here they were again.

Besides those songs already mentioned, my memory gave me the title of one of the most diabolical ditties ever released: Neanderthal Man. For those who have never heard of it, this is what I'll say: picture a "tribal" rhythm with almost no variation, coupled with these rhymes: I'm a Neanderthal Man/You're a Neanderthal Girl/Let's make a Neanderthal Love/In this Neanderthal World. That's it, more or less. For a few long weeks, the song became an earworm. And it was only thanks to technical progress having still to invent those particular devices that humanity was spared the sound of cars blasting the tune when beeping in the streets.

But I have to admit that, day by day, I started noticing in the song a middle part that featured good dynamics, voices, a kind of... "sound from space", cut, then thin-sounding flutes, then... it was back to the "Neanderthal" theme. And so, thanks to this song by Hotlegs - that was the name of the group - in my teen rudimental mental language I started asking myself this question: How can it be that people who release such a stupid song are also able to conceive such a charming intermezzo as a kind of "diversion"? And so it was thanks to this song that I started thinking about how music was not, like I'd always believed it to be, (just) a "manifestation of the soul", but that there was also a "deliberate" side to it, an act that considered song "elements" as "things".

I strongly believe that the refusal of the "deliberate" side of music-making is one of the main reasons why the music press of the time - also, the ex post judgment - had the group 10cc in such little consideration (I'm sure by now readers are wondering what this 10cc has to do with Hotlegs. Well, please be patient for a short while). Everybody knows that material achievements deserve mucho respect, so of course no-one ever questions the "hits". But was it "real" music?

Funny to notice how the press used to regard the "reflexive" quality of the music by 10cc as proof of its lack of "authenticity". There's a whole series of criticism: from Charles Shaar Murray who, in the New Musical Express (The Punk And I or Two Jews Blues, March 15, 1975), labels the attitude adopted by 10cc as "total nihilism"; to Andrew Tyler, who in the introduction to a long interview which appeared in the New Musical Express (The 10cc Fine Art Collection, 7 February 1976) thus spoke:

"Agreed, 10cc have a sure grasp of technique that is admirable, plus a directness of lyric that is rare. But often a piece is thick with technology and totally bereft of emotional drive. Musical lines are searched out and discarded with an almost phobic frenzy, as though repetition, however much organic or emotional sense it makes, is to be avoided whatever the cost."

Please notice: "But often a piece is thick with technology and totally bereft of emotional drive", as if one negates the other (if we change the context, the sentence can also be applied to such "Prog" groups as King Crimson and Gentle Giant).

To speak bluntly: "This rock 'n' roll song, is it real or fake? What if I dance to it, shall I look ridiculous? How can a group write a song about a dance that one dances while sitting without moving? Could a group so fond of jokes and wit be taken seriously?".

(There was a time when 10cc was considered as playing music that in a way resembled Frank Zappa's, and though the argument doesn't hold water, there are many interesting points to this argument.)

I think this is enough. I'll immediately say that here I'll only cover the four albums released by the original quartet, and the years 1972-1976. Let's start the story having a look at the Sixties.

A long, and (for the times) exhaustive, article by Alan Betrock, which appeared in the New York magazine The Rock Marketplace, and was later reprinted in U.K. magazine Zigzag (issue #44, January 1975) with the title 10cc: The Worst Band In The World? revealed the enormous quantity of material released by the future members of 10cc in the 60s and 70s.

Just the main points. Eric Stewart (guitar, keyboards, vocals) was mostly remembered for being a member of the Mindbenders. While Graham Gouldman (bass guitar, guitar, vocals), though quite young, had written a long list of hit songs, as recorded by famous groups of the time. I'll just mention three: For Your Love, by the Yardbirds; No Milk Today, by Herman's Hermits; Bus Stop, by the Hollies.

Today one can watch online today's Graham Gouldman playing those hits on an acoustic guitar, while sitting on a stool. It's easy to see that these are "sturdy" songs, sometimes featuring "strange" chords; funny to think about his young age at the time, and that he wrote "commercial" songs, written to be recorded, and sold.

(It's called "craft". And it was a side of making music that for a long time was regarded as merely "ordinary". But if it's clear that the "competition" is not Jeff Beck on a night when he could do no wrong, but "every-day's music", now that Carole King's Tapestry has passed the 50 years mark, it's all too clear why so much of today's music is so boring.)

A "solid" - though unspectacular - background for both Lol Creme (guitar, keyboards, vocals) and Kevin Godley (drums, percussion, vocals): two art students in love with the arts, including cinema.

Hoping that working in a recording studio could prove to be his future, Eric Stewart started one - Strawberry Studios, after the song by the Beatles. A little sing-song created on the spot just to try new equipment - Godley and Creme were already part of the enterprise - made a friend who worked for a record company go bonkers. So there was a new contract to be signed, and in a very short time Neanderthal Man, by Hotlegs, was at the top of the charts.

But things didn't go as planned. The singles that followed did not sell, and their new album - Thinks: School Stinks - a great piece of work miles removed from the style of their hit, sank without a trace. It's a fine album that can be still listened to with great pleasure, featuring fresh-sounding melodies (Take Me Back, Fly Away), moments that anticipate 10cc (Um Wah, Um Woh, Suite F.A.), a pastiche resembling the Beach Boys (All God's Children).

The four musicians - Gouldman becoming a group member after the album release - began doing an enormous quantity of mercenary jobs that paid for more studio equipment.

Again, almost by chance, there was a new group single - Donna - at the top of the charts. A new contract - a "stingy" one - gave them a new name, and made it possible for 10cc to have two new hits: Johnny Don't Do It, and the mega-hit Rubber Bullets.

Though "thin"-sounding, featuring just a few instruments, the group's first album, 10cc (1973), is quite fresh and personal. There are excellent vocals; a fine, melodic, bass guitar; funny lyrics, with many quotes from culture and movies: the "juvenile delinquent" who dies tragically in Johnny Don't Do It; the "weakling" who gets his girl back and kicks sand in the face of his rival after a "gym" course in Sand In My Face; a musical scenario "starring Doris Day" in The Dean And I; the "prison revolt, priest included" in Rubber Bullets. The most surprising... surprise is the fact that the closing number, Fresh Air For My Mama, is a gospel melody memorably sung by Kevin Godley (readers are invited, while it's still possible, to watch a BBC video from 1974 where the song is performed alongside Old Wild Man).

(Quick hint about the vocals. Graham Gouldman has a "low"-, "melodic"-sounding, voice. Lol Creme possesses a "cartoonish", rock 'n ' roll, falsetto. Eric Stewart is an impeccable "Paul McCartney sound-alike". Kevin Godley is the one with the "celestial" voice, and the "ethereal" falsetto.)

The group's chart success made it possible for 10cc to cease all "mercenary" work, in order to concentrate on their own music. Sheet Music (1974, which inaugurates the group's long relationship with celebrated graphic studio Hipgnosis) is in many ways the group's "perfect" album; excellent sound, full of inventions, rich with surprises, featuring songs that are impossible to forget: The Wall Street Shuffle, The Worst Band In The World, Somewhere In Hollywood, Old Wild Man (readers are invited, while it's still possible, to watch a BBC video from 1974 where the song is performed alongside Fresh Air For My Mama).

The group's chart success made it possible for 10cc to sign a new record contract. Sporting a "no expenses spared" kinda cover, The Original Soundtrack (1975), features two "epic" works: opening track Une Nuit A Paris, penned by Godley e Creme; and the innovative (and world-famous) hit I'm Not In Love, penned by Stewart-Gouldman, but whose elaborate development is the work of the whole group. (A long, quite detailed article appearing in U.K. monthly Sound On Sound clearly illustrates the point.) Not every song on the album is really first quality, but it's an embarrassment of riches all the same: Blackmail (a retro-kind of scenery in today's world, where fame is instantly achieved by means of a sex-tape), The Second Sitting For The Last Supper, Brand New Day, Life Is A Minestrone.

Solid, perfect, easy on the ears, multifaceted (but not sterile!), are just a few chosen words for How Dare You! (1976), sporting a memorable cover, that brings the work of the group's original line-up to its close. The enormous success achieved by I'm Not In Love must have been a crucial element, combined with the widely different background and goals of the group members, Stewart and Gouldman as the "musicians" who strongly believe that rock groups make a record, then tour, then make another record, and do another tour; and Godley and Creme (who by their own admission smoked a prodigious amount of stuff - Eric Stewart called it "wacky baccy", an expression I'd never heard before) as the "artists" who wanted to "sabotage" their colleagues more "commercial" tunes, and maybe not too convinced about the life of a real "rock group".

I chose ten tracks off the quartet's four albums. It's not "everything there's to know about 10cc", but it's definitely a start.

Rubber Bullets
The first 10cc mega-hit, Rubber Bullets is full of contagious vitality, it features many voices and moments la "prison movie-cartoon". "Double-speed" guitars at the close.

Fresh Air For My Mama
An album that for the most part inhabits climates rich in gaiety, parodies, and jokes, 10cc ends on a touching note rich with gospel. A memorable interpretation by Kevin Godley, his companions rising to the occasion.

The Sacro-Iliac
The discreet, well-mannered writing that's so typical of Graham Gouldman is all over this song, dedicated to a peculiar kind of dance. "If your mind is trippin'/But your disc is slippin'/Here's what you gonna do/Nothin'". The piece features a beautiful mix of lead and background vocals.

Old Wild Man
A quite touching moment, great arrangement, inventive sounds, great studio work, the melody being split between Eric Stewart and Kevin Godley. "Old men of rock 'n roll/Came bearing music/Where are they now?".

Clockwork Creep
A bomb on a plane, ready to explode, a multi-vocal conversation featuring the bomb, the clockwork, the plane, the narrator, with a fast-paced, tense, mood. Will our heroes succeed...?

Somewhere In Hollywood
The longest track recorded by 10cc up to that time, Somewhere In Hollywood places scenes and decades side-by-side, with a mood that turns from melancholic to light to bitter in a blink of an eye. Creative sounds, memorable vocal passages, a poetic moment for everyone to watch.

Brand New Day
The group's third album features two widely celebrated songs, but I have a special weakness for this exploration of a day in the life of a humble person whose future we guess won't be much different from now, and who lives in quiet desperation the life he's had to live: "At the end of the day/When you look around you/And the sun sets/Deep inside you".

Lazy Ways
A lazy, care-free moment featuring a contagious melody and an arrangement in technicolor. A spectacular "explosion" of sounds at the song's close, one's loudspeakers that appear "to come to life".

Somebody making a menacing phone call while holding a handkerchief on the phone, an orphan abandoned in a casket on the freeway, the comic face of terror in a song that's rich with variety in both sounds and arrangement. Starring Gouldman and Godley as the main vocalists, and "Iceberg - I've heard/That it's cool", with a pronunciation of "cool" that's impossible to forget.

Don't Hang Up
Sad Hollywood comedy, with an inviting phone "Hello" starting the track, and the irritating sound of a phone that's put down ending it. Intermezzi for castanets and guitars, the bass playing a dive-bombing at "You got a low impedance/She's got a rocky terrain".

This is the close of a beautiful story. The split was dramatic, Stewart and Creme did not talk to each other for decades (Stewart had married Creme's sister - ouch!).

Stewart and Gouldman played with coherence their role as musicians, and as long as the formula sounded fresh... (here opinions will vary). When considered inside this framework, Deceptive Bends is a solid album, while the group's line-up that toured in 1977 was more "dependable and professional" than the old quartet, and to achieve some goals this is in many ways preferable.

Stewart was a fine guitar player, and his solo at the end of Feel The Benefit (both on the album, and live - look on the Web for a 1977 concert) is full of soul and skillfully performed, with that change in the position of the pick-up selector that... "if you blink, you'll miss it".

While both new single (Dreadlock Holiday) and album (Bloody Tourists) were high in the charts, Stewart had a serious car accident, lost an eye, had problems with his hearing, and from there, as they say, it was all downhill. In the 80s he had quite a few successful collaborations, though, one for instance being Paul McCartney.

Godley & Creme went on as "artists" with no commercial calculations save for bills to be paid, and there's a series of albums - Freeze Frame being the perfect starting point - waiting to be discovered.

Then they started directing music videos, and that was that.

Beppe Colli 2021

CloudsandClocks.net | Feb. 13, 2021