10cc: How Dare You!

In the February Esquire, Douglas Davis discusses the new meaning the word “tough” has taken on in photographic circles: “It has come to mean (particularly in the recent visual arts) a work that defies the expectations of its audience yet, in the deepest sense, serves that audience.

‘Tough’ does not mean punching, sneering, thumbing the nose. It is not a picture unwilling to please. It simply refuses pleasure on the normal, accepted ground. The picture jabs with you, even fences now and then…” 10cc is “tough” in very much the same way. Using the icons of pop – honeyed McCartneyized vocals and Beatley chorales, cowbells and sleigh bells, fat drums and chromium guitars under Cole Porterish rhymes – these four like-minded Englishmen resolutely veer off the expected pop course and zoom instead into the most unlikely (but on second thought the most perfectly apt) trains of thought imaginable for a rock’n’roll band. Until you’ve heard it, it’s hard to conceive of a standard rock-band chorus earnestly singing the refrain, “Art for Art’s sake / Money for God’s sake…” or an automatons’ bass chorus rumbling ominously, “I wanna be a boss / I wanna be a big boss / I wanna boss the world around…“; this is the stuff of literary satire and B-movies, not rock & roll. But in 10cc’s world – where cartoon characters romp through the icy wastes of stark, technological reality, where real life and movies get all mixed up – it all fits together, and it sounds real good, too.

How Dare You!, the band’s fourth album, seems at first to possess a bit less breakneck dazzle than ’73’s startling Sheet Music (a record that definitely improves with age) and to contain nothing approaching the romantic lushness of the group’s classic single, ‘I’m Not In Love’. But the music is so blazingly bright, the songs so brashly witty, and the effect so cumulative that I hesitate to go out on the limb in judgment just yet. And like the album’s wonderful cover and sleeve illustrations, every song on How Dare You! is gem-hard, multi-faceted, and informed by some delicious irony. In regard to this last aspect, check out this romantic commentary from ‘Headroom’:

I’ve never been kissed before
It’s been on my list before
A flick of the wrist before would do
But when you get down to it
It’s got a good sound to it
Don’t meddle around with it
’Cos it’s far too wet to woo…
When Mummy and Daddy play
They tell me to go away
But by hanging around
I can learn all the rules
Now I got the technique
I’m away…

The group is all the more impressive because – unlike Beefheart or Steely Dan – it holds itself rigidly within the stylistic parameters of pop. For that matter, ironies notwithstanding, there are some exquisite pop-song performances on the album: ‘Lazy Ways’, ‘Rock’n’Roll Lullaby’, ‘I’m Mandy Fly Me’, ‘Don’t Hang Up’. Each plays against the mood created by its music, even as it tends to advance that mood. The band’s cinematic style, with its quick cuts, startling transitions, and sharply focused production, is as brashly inventive as its content. There’s always more going on than meets the ear, and what’s going on is generally sardonic, nasty, mean-spirited, and – yup – tough.

© Bud ScoppaPhonograph Record, March 1976

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