THIS ALBUM really bugs me. So much so that I’ve spent the better part of a morning throwing away half-typed sheets of paper. The trouble is that while there is a lot on this album that I like, there’s enough to spark off an exegesis of discontent.
As 10cc move into a continually larger audience both their best and worst aspects seem to be developing simultaneously and with equal dominance. And what their position within that growing audience seems to be is as prime exponents of middle-of-the-road rock.
The rise of MOR-rock has been a largely undocumented, surreptitious affair. Rock was supposedly the antithesis of MOR, and barely maintained a residency in pop. It really attained lift-off with Isaac Hayes. A year later the Carpenters surfaced on a half-shell, white MOR at its California peak, but still rock as opposed to, say, the New Seekers.
Then the flowering: Carole King, Carly Simon. Paul Simon built on the groundwork left by Simon and Garfunkel. Neil Sedaka sparked an entire subsidiary industry of retreads: Frankie Valli, Paul Anka, The ever-rising rise of Elton John. The ever-rising rise of Wings.
MOR-rock found its true rennaisance, though, in Mike Oldfield and Pink Floyd. The Floyd, in fact, fit right back there alongside the Carpenters as early exponents, due to lack of ideas more than anything else. I knew something was wrong when my mother loved Atom Heart Mother and dismissed the Moody Blues.
What is MOR-rock? It seeks to produce music for the largest possible audience and offend none of them. That audience ideally extends from the cradle to the grave, from Sinatra fans to Zeppelin fans. It can be cotton wool and nightingales like the Carpenters, the tux and drool of Barry White, or literati wit and rapier satire from 10cc. Its prime (but not only) motivation is money; success is measured by volume of business.
It is music for people who listen to the radio as background, who think music is for dances and parties. It is the equivalent of the popular music of the late Forties-early Fifties.
The only people who automatically dislike 90 per cent of it belong to a species who seem to end up rock critics: mad fanatics who, if there wasn’t rock, would just fade away.
10cc’s mass acceptance would seem to be a sign that at least the appearance of intelligence still has a place in the world. And on their first two albums they were everything that was claimed.
But now they know that we know that they know they’re brilliant and witty, the strain to maintain that standard is beginning to show at the seams.
The major trouble on this record lies in its unresolved confusion. To judge from the cover, we are dealing with telephones and salacious calls via them. The back cover is fairly straight forward, but the front…Why is the exec yelling at the lady? What is he yelling? What’s their relationship? Who are the two people on the exec’s desk and why are they climbing out of the sports car behind the lady? Why are these same two people on the back and why are they doing what they are? You can have a field day conceiving your, own reasons; nothing on the cover relates more than minimally to the contents.
This confusion extends to the songs. In the middle of ‘Lazy Ways’, a lovely piece of fluff pondering over “Hazy days, With Lazy ways, You get less done but more out of your days”, there appears, for no reason, the verse:
Bring Love to me
With your body
Let me hold you
‘I’m Mandy Fly Me’ is possibly the worst offender. Beginning with the ding of the air hostess call, the rush of a jet and ‘Clockwork Creep’ on the in-flight entertainment, it soon drowns in an unintelligible mish-mash, lifted only by a driving break of quick-strummed acoustics, piano and guitar. Apparently a dream, or maybe real, it throws in sharks and gratuitous references to Dr No, throws out verses from half a dozen songs and generally wastes a great idea.
Lyrics aren’t up to days of yore, either. ‘Don’t wanna be a dancer in the Bolshoi Ballet, Don’t want to work for Daddy, In Daddy’s shop, OK’ does not get you into the English Lit text-books.
They also have the annoying habit of going for puns at the song’s expense. ‘Head Room’, a maudlin, tepid number about first sex, is lumbered with the carcass, “Cos it’s far too wet to woo”, while the similarly cumbersome ‘Don’t Hang Up’ cringes with “Dumb waiters waiting sweating straining, All mass-debating my woman”. Elsewhere, Lol gets a pain in the Shirley Temples.
There are some saving graces. The title track gets events off to a spritely beginning, although something of a copout in being instrumental. ‘Lazy Ways’ is almost the best song on the album. It’s also the simplest, both in concept and execution.
Just bettering it is the incredible ‘I Wanna Rule The World’. This is the 10cc that wrote ‘Old Wild Men’. This is 10cc as it should be. It’s gargantuan, epic, but all the ideas are harnessed to one notion world domination. Although it contains duff lines, the overall effect is magnificent and Lol’s kiddy-winkie ruler is classic.
By the end of Side One they’re prepared to tackle telephones, sub section: heavy breathers. It’s terrible, not up to the level of even Feiffer’s ‘Little Murders’ let alone Randy Newman. They constantly beat about the bush, refusing to face their subject in the eye, littering the landscape with cosmic muffins like “Life is a roller coaster that we all ride”. Is that better than a minestrone? Worst of all, it’s done Pointer Sisters style. Which is to say reheated second-hand Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Which is to say, pretty boring.
Side Two is saved only by ‘Rock N Roll Lullaby’, another tune that doesn’t aim for the sky, full of piano trills and dobro twangings in the corners, and glistening glockenspiels.
‘Art For Art’s Sake’ has a boogie for boogie’s sake tacked to the end. Then there’s the aforementioned ‘Head Room’. Are 10cc afraid of sex? Are they family entertainment only? It takes thirteen verses, trolling along in swishy-cymbal jazz syndrome, intersecting with a C&W band over one of the choruses. It has some lousy verses. It wastes a great idea.
‘Don’t Hang Up’ is an advance on the mini-opera avenue opened with ‘Une Nuit A Paris’. It’s much more fluid, with some beautiful music, but the middle section rests uneasily, and that nagging confusion rides again. Can anyone explain what “Rolled up in my camera, With the big cheese up above” means?
To tie it in to the cover concept, but not the title, it is a telephone conversation.
There’s nothing, intrinsically wrong with 10cc being MOR-rock. But their quest for the continued smash has taken them from the heights. There’s only one song here that matches the sustained imagination, wit and facility that permeated Sheet Music.
Then again, maybe they’re right in their pursuit of the £sd. ‘Art For Art’s Sake’ isn’t about just any band. It’s like the Firesign Theatre said, the Artist is out for your money just like everybody else, but he disguises it by peering into a crystal ball and fabricating fantasies.
And then again, maybe Art really is just that guy sitting over there in the corner.
© Jonh Ingham, Sounds, 10 January 1976