10cc: Big Boys Don’t Cry

TENSE SI SI: That’s just to prove I speaka da lingo but it’s also true about my interview with 10cc.

For one they are now the pop heroes of my 20s on almost the same scale as the Beatles were of my teens (which is in no way meant to relate to any clichéd musical comparisons). It ain’t easy to meet your heroes.

For two their new album How Dare You! had just received a roasting in several music papers including SOUNDS, 10cc were hurt and angry, and I was the first Pressman they had met since the crits hit the fans. It’s even less easy to meet your heroes when you represent an institution they thoroughly loathe (for a historical note on which can I refer you to ‘Headline Hustler’, last track of their first album).

I walked into their dressing-room at the Top Of The Pops studios, a chilling enough place at the best of times, to find Kevin Godley and Graham Gouldman viewing me with all the sympathy of a hanging judge and the Lord High Executioner. Hard, accusing, Mancunian voices.

Kevin said: “I don’t know why we agreed to this interview. You didn’t do that review in SOUNDS did you”

Not me guv.

“Just as well cos we’d have kicked your head in.” He did smile when he said that. I knew he was smiling because I could see all his teeth.

Graham said: “It’s amazing that we can get such bad reviews. They accuse us of being ‘complacent’. We’re far too critical of our every effort to get complacent. It’s not as if we rushed into a studio and said ‘We”ll do whatever we like because we can get away with it’.”

But surely nobody suggested that?

“And in the same review the guy knocks ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. A record that’s been No.1 for nine weeks, a million people bought it and he calls it ‘mind-rot’!”

I like the ‘Rhapsody’ too but what if it were the Rollers selling the same way? Wouldn’t you agree with the critic? Isn’t the principle of the thing that one person does have the right to say a million people’s taste in records is wrong? It’s only rock ‘n’ roll, it’s only free speech.

Kevin: “There are grains of truth in what’s been written about us. But the tone is like a school report which doesn’t encourage you with ‘Could do better next time’, it puts you down with ‘He’s fucking awful, useless, a dead loss.’ It’s vicious. They wring their hands with delight that they don’t like an album by big-name artists.

“On ‘Head Room’ they said we were beating about the bush. How direct are you supposed to be? Do you write ‘Wo wo I’m 13 and I haven’t fucked anyone’?”

Doubtless they forgot it all in a couple of days. Still for a few hours 10cc were feeling really pained at the way their work had been recieved. We tried to get off the subject but when Lol and Eric came in later and I was introduced they circled back instantly to their indignation and rage.

Not that they came across as nasties, or unheroed themselves. It was just hurt people. Again the awareness that rock stars are vulnerable despite the armour of success and wealth.

Okay they are illogical in implying as they did (and as Eric Stewart has since done in print) that the infinite care they take in composing and producing their music should absolve them from strong criticism.

But I’ve been trying to imagine what it would be like if (horrors!) a music paper was set up dissecting our creations week by week. I’d read it compulsively and probably be upset most all the time.

Hurt pride. Hurt love. 10cc talk insistently, as they have since Lol’s falsetto on ‘Donna’ first assailed startled eardrums, about taking care.

Graham: “The pressure is harder all the time. We always try to improve.”

Eric: “For ‘Une Nuit A Paris’ we recorded all kinds of orchestral backing tracks and erased the lot because it didn’t sound right. And the whole thing got cut from nearly half an hour to eight minutes because we are so self-critical.”

Kevin: “We don’t like making mistakes.”

Lol: “It’s not a production line. We are here to take music as far as we possibly can regardless of what’s fashionable. If on every song we can find a new way of approaching it that’s great.”

So it’s been said they are too scientific, too well-prepared to retain the essential element of good ole rock ‘n’ roll spontaneity: this time they wrote a couple of tracks on the spot in the studio, though to mixed effect.

The widely-praised ‘I Wanna Rule The World’ was developed from the sinister chanting of the title phrase and the widely-dismissed instrumental ‘How Dare You?’ grew out of a rhythm track. Even co-writer Godley concedes the latter isn’t one of his favourites.

We were still cold. You know the nagging feeling. You have good reason to feel that so-and-so is really nice, a potential friend, but you can’t find the password, the open up sez me, the warm touch or the exchange of emotional hostages. It was a struggle.

If I’d been feeling loose myself I might have told them how much I happened to like the album, six fine tracks out of nine (my exceptions are the by no means unpalatable ‘How Dare You?’, ‘Lazy Ways’ and ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Lullaby’).

Buttering up honestly. Could have turned the trick. However, I stayed in a defensive huddle and asked them what they thought of our Jonh Ingham’s view that they, along with Mike Oldfield and Pink Floyd, should be classed as MOR?

Graham: “I’d say Dana was middle of the road.”

Kevin: “No, Dana is the end of the road.”

Hey up! A 10cc pun! Des progres mes amis? A sweet and sour squelcher, the kind that seems to come so easy to 10cc.

Kevin: “It’s difficult when you find you’re good at puns and you can rhyme well. You become self-conscious about it. But should you stop using that ability?”

No chance. Once bitten twice high. However, I feel the verbal dexterity so adored by one and all on Sheet Music has been less than unblemished on their latest two albums at which point, chided by Kevin’s “Saying you don’t understand something you prove your own insensitivity”, I have to explain myself.

Herewith Sutcliffe’s Anatomy of a Pop Pun: for example the much-maligned line in ‘I Wanna Rule The World’ which runs ‘I get a pain in the Shirley Temples.’ The band say it’s meaningless fun.

I say it’s not much fun because it’s meaningless. Shirley Temple has strictly zilch to do with the business in hand, which is a crazy kid plotting to be dictator of the planet. Kein Kontext Liebchen. Confucious he say: wordplay in vacuum disappear up own black hole. Incompetent, irrelevant and perimasonic likewise.

Why is that one’s a bummer and ‘Clichés and toupés and threepés’ a classic when a ‘threepé’ just don’t exist, would appear to be meaningless in the biggest possible way? It’s because…the word is an organic part of the verbal sound and at a stroke creates a new, wild meaning in the context of ‘Silly Love’: a threepé is a grossly sentimental and artificial way of expressing lerv, right?

Well, possibly not. So, oh discerning poppickers, how’s about this one. In ‘The Film Of My Love’, which mockingly described a romance in movie set terms, they wrote ‘We’re gone with the wind/On the Orient Express/To join the Magnificent Seven.’

It’s like the answer to a puzzle question inviting you to make a sentence out of three film titles. Challenge overcome but is that wit? The whole lyric is on the same laborious level and to me the only thoroughly dull track they’ve ever put on an album.

Compare that to the 22-carat of ‘Wall Street Shuffle’, double-entendres sparkling all the way: ‘You need a yen to make a mark/If you wanna make money’ or the slickly sickly ‘Dumb waiters waiting sweating straining/All mass-debating my woman’ in ‘Don’t Hang up’.

Of course, I couldn’t articulate any of these careful thoughts to 10cc at the time to see if their built-in quality control department agreed in any way. Instead I stumbled into something that at last and briefly made us feel good together, unprofessional though it no doubt was for a greying newshound.

“Maybe I’ve done this all wrong,” I said without exaggeration. “Maybe the really important thing is that 15 months ago when I was really down because my marriage had broken up I only had to play Sheet Music and I felt better.” It had worked every time like a miracle medicine. Keeping me on the tracks.

And they were all really glad, said “That’s great” and things. That was my hostage. Theirs had already been handed over – the music they care about so much.

You might not wish to know that, as we’re British and we haven’t been properly introduced but it matters. A cold band couldn’t do that for me could it? You don’t go to a laboratory to get affairs of the heart sorted out.

The therapy was in the glowing humour and energy of the whole album, the strident, diamond-clear exultation of Eric Stewart’s guitar in rockers like ‘Wall Street’ – and in the mature empathy of the love songs. What love songs?

‘Old Wild Men’ and ‘Somewhere In Hollywood’: love songs, not for boy who met girl, but for doomed heroes and heroine. Very tender.

And MOR wouldn’t have saved my soul Jonh, not if it were the Last record on earth. Sound wallpaper over the cracks in your mind? No, no. This was healing balm, not Polyfilla.

MOR essentially is predictable, eschews surprise, craves acceptance without demanding attention. Whereas 10cc music is a living dialogue with the listener, mind and body, shifting melodies and rhythms freely, but always to match meaning and emotion.

To put it solely on an arithmetic level could the 10 separate tunes and arrangements, varying from sparse street noises and solo vocals to a cast-of-thousands melodramatic chorus in eight and a half minutes of ‘Une Nuit A Paris’ possibly be Middle Of the Road?

Could MOR ever encompass subjects ranging from nine-stone weaklings, to Arab oil sheikhs, a ferocious send-up of religion, a sex blackmailer and a child megalomaniac? Sex, politics and religion are the taboo subjects of polite conversation and MOR is pop’s murmur of polite conversation.

If they were MOR when they finally got round to writing a man-and-a-woman song would they have said ‘I’m not in love’ and ‘I keep your picture/Upon the wall/It hides a nasty stain that’s lying there’? No, they’d have said ‘Hey, toots, you put the life into living/You brought a sigh into sight.’ Sssilly.

Kevin: “10cc are not a safe band.” They are rock.

Hang about though, didn’t ‘Silly Love’ seem to say that love songs are impossible? And then they go and write one. Well, when we were chewing over what their ‘cc’ might mean they liked ‘consistently contradictory’.

Which is the delightfully inevitable result of their unique facility to write in every possible combination of a foursome.

Lol said: “When I write with Kevin I know we are going to be technical, with Eric it’s rock ‘n’ roll and with Graham – well actually we’ve only done one song together and that was ‘The Worst Band In The World’.

“I suppose if you’ve got a berserk idea you do it with Graham. And you get loving looks thrown in because this funny expression comes over his face when he’s really into something.”

Not that even the same writers maintain an obviously consistent point of view on life. Stewart and Gouldman wrote ‘Wall Street Shuffle’ which tears big business into unsavoury shreds – a socialist rock hymn to stand alongside ‘Power To The People’.

They also wrote ‘Art For Art’s Sake’, which says ‘Gimme a country/Where I can be free/Don’t need the unions/Strangling me.’ You might find more continuity in the solid rock structure that made both single hits.

But where do they stand, either side or none?

Lol: “We have to have a capitalist point of view. We are capitalists. But bread is not an end in itself.”

Kevin: “We write what we’re thinking now. So How Dare You! is 10cc’s feelings in four months of summer ’75. It’s not to say we don’t believe in what we write. But it might only be our opinion for five minutes.”

Searching to express a feeling I have about a lot of material, and lighting on a bad illustration, ‘I’m Mandy Fly Me’, I suggested they were rather “jet-setty” – and hackles rose again.

Lol: “That’s not the point at all. There’s a cast of characters in our albums which is always expanding.

“They could be anybody, ourselves, you. Anyone who has an imagination and a fantasy life.”

The jet-set idea was way off. Remember how often 10cc heroes specifically aren’t the glamourous, successful figures they dream about: ‘ain’t no Astair,’ (‘The Sacro-Iliac’), ‘You know you ain’t no Casanova’ (‘Une Nuit a Paris’) and ‘I know I never had the style or dash of Errol Flynn’ (‘Don’t Hang Up’).

Kevin: “We are actors. We ask what this guy we are writing about thinks.”

Lol: “We have put theatre into music with characters, even stage directions if you look at the words in that light.”

Eric: “We audition for the parts. Each of us has about six different voices and we try them all out to see which suits each song best.”

And that ultimately is their point of view. Dramatists, not propagandists or subjective emoters. That’s why they don’t sing cottonfield country blues and do sing articulate white rock.

Summing up their aims Lol came out with a phrase that would do for any heavy band: “We want to grab your ears by the balls.” The difference is that 10cc are likely to grab your heart and intellect as well. But probably the anatomical details are perimasonic – the important thing is they grab you.

And you get off on what they give you darlin’.

© Phil SutcliffeSounds, 21 February 1976

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