10cc ARE SO damn good, it makes you wonder where they’ve been all this time. Geographically the answer is simple if drab: Stockport, Cheshire. Musically they’ve been most places.
Remember the Mindbenders? – Wayne Fontana’s backing group that did better than he did when he dropped them for a solo career. More recently, do you recall Hotlegs’ ‘Neanderthal Man’? But most of all can you recollect a string of hits in the mid-sixties by the Yardbirds, the Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, and others?
The Mindbenders and Hotlegs are most of 10cc, the other part is Graham Gouldman, one-time teenage songwriting whizz kid. In his early writing lies the germ of 10cc’s unique style. The composition which most obviously links up with 10cc’s music is one he wrote for the Hollies, ‘Stop Stop Stop’. The song was a story, a first person account of a spectator at a floor show who gets carried away. It was full of incident, atmosphere, local colour, and wit. Half of 10cc‘s songs are anecdotal, and others display elements of the same song form.
The band’s four single releases to date are included on the album, and all but their first, ‘Donna’, are story songs. ‘Johnny Don’t Do It’ is an accurate parody of those sixties motorbike death discs, which would doubtless have been taken as seriously as its originals were it not for the ironic effect of historical perspective. Its morbid humour works best in the variation of the last verse on the first: “Johnny was an Angel, an Angel dressed in black” becomes “Now Johnny’s with the angels, the angels in the sky” (while behind the celestial falsetto a radio news flash reports the fatal accident, asking witnesses to “please contact the police at Precinct 49”)
Most of these songs are located in America, and ‘Rubber Bullets’ even refers to the same police station as ‘Johnny Don’t Do It’. ‘Rubber Bullets’ is 10cc’s most complex song: it’s source is a combination of ‘Jailhouse Rock’ (just as the starting point of ‘Donna’ and ‘Johnny Don’t Do It’ was in earlier songs) and a prison riot B-movie script. In addition to the first person character of the prisoner who “went to a party at the local county jail,” there are four speaking parts – the prison governor, a narrator, Sgt Baker (of Precinct 49), and the prison padre – and with each change of character and situation is a variation of voice, melody and/or tempo. Like ‘Johnny Don’t Do It’ the song has a grim sense of humour, as in the rousing and catchy chorus/command, “Load up, load up, load up with ru-u-ubber bullets,” and the sweet falsetto of Sgt Baker when he warns the prisoners through a bullhorn that “Blood will flow.”
The band’s most recent single, ‘The Dean And I’, has a less obvious narrative, built around a father recounting to his children how he fell in love with their mother in the balmy days of college. Once again the incidents are related from different viewpoints.
The most straightforwardly comic of the story songs is ‘Sand In My Face’, the account of a nine stone weakling who loses his girl to a “surfboard Hercules”, but through Dynamic Tension builds a body big enough to get his girl back:
Now I’m stronger than Alex
(Where is he now?)
He’s left in disgrace
Cos I took back my girlfriend
(Ha ha ha ha)
And kicked sand in his face
In his eyes
In his ears
In his nose.
It’s a reworking of the strip cartoon in the Charles Atlas advertisements, a source of inspiration just as trashy as death discs and B-movies, bristling with witty detail (“I saw your body in an advert on TV, but what convinced me was your money back guarantee.”)
Elsewhere on 10cc are a depressive hospital patient who gets off on anaesthetic and anything else they dope him with, and avenges himself on the healthy by wetting his bed (‘The Hospital Song’), and a shit-stirring newspaper reporter on the make (‘Headline Hustler’).
In spite of the origin of these songs in Graham Gouldman’s early compositions, he isn’t 10cc’s main songwriter. The singles have all been written by Kevin Godley and Lol Creme (two with Gouldman) and only two songs on the album are not credited to them.
It’s necessary to balance the emphasis on the themes of the songs, for although the lyrics are fascinating, songs don’t get to be hits just because they’ve got clever words, and two tracks have already made huge hit singles. (After all, did you notice the “We’ve all got balls and brains, but some’s got balls and chains” line when they played ‘Rubber Bullets’ on the radio?) Gouldman discovered he could write strong melodies almost ten years ago, while Godley, Creme and Stewart found out you could get by without words when ‘Neanderthal Man’ was a hit with one repeated line. Despite the intricate structure of songs like ‘Rubber Bullets’, there’s always a melody to catch hold of somewhere, always a hook.
10cc’s sound is where Stockport fits on the map, since that’s where the band have their own recording set-up, Strawberry Studios. Their instrumental sound is as much the result of familiarity with electronic techniques as playing ability. Throughout the album the guitars, bass and drums are enhanced by electronics, multi-tracked, distorted, synthesized – no one-take stuff here.
What 10cc have done is to combine all the elements of pop – infectious melodies, interesting lyrics, and a distinctive vocal and instrumental sound – with (studio) sophistication. That’s why they’re cleaning up in the singles charts and why this album, if they take any more tracks from it, could end up as 10cc’s Greatest Hits. Volume One.
© John Pidgeon, Let It Rock, September 1973