10cc made smart pop for smart people, and surprised many (including themselves) when they crossed over to the mainstream. Terry Staunton spoke to Graham Gouldman and Kevin Godley about life before, during and after the band’s glory years.
SO GOES ‘Son Of Man’, a tongue-in-cheek account of how a trio of studio-bound hermits called Hotlegs became the ’70s chart-topping quartet known to all as 10cc. The song that was neither music nor art was Hotlegs’ 1970 one-hit oddity ‘Neanderthal Man’, while “Graham on bass” was none other than Graham Gouldman.
And so, the 10cc story has come full circle. For ‘Son Of Man’ is written by Gouldman himself, alongside Kevin Godley, and serves as a fitting closer to their new Greatest Hits & More, a far-reaching collection that takes in Hotlegs, and various other pre- and post-10cc guises for Gouldman, Godley and the rest.
Both men have been heavily involved in the selection of material for the compilation, and Gouldman has particularly relished the opportunity to revisit some of his old songs made famous by other performers.
“I’ve done my own takes on ‘No Milk Today’, written for Herman’s Hermits; ‘Bus Stop’, done for the Hollies; and ‘For Your Love’ and ‘Heart Full Of Soul’, both recorded by the Yardbirds,” he says. “They’re brand-spanking new recordings, except for ‘Heart Full Of Soul’, which was released on a solo album I did in 2000.
“I thought it would be wrong to try and manipulate them or update them in some way, so I did them in the same style as the original hits. The guitars I used and a lot of the recording gear was kind of vintage, and I think the most important consideration was trying to capture the same sound and spirit as the originals.
“At that time, I was happy to be a songwriter, but I wanted to be part of a band. I’d been in The Mockingbirds with Kevin, but it seemed like everything I gave away was a hit, while everything we did was a disaster!”
While Gouldman was establishing himself as an in-demand tunesmith, the post-Mockingbirds Godley teamed up with art school colleague Lol Creme and fellow Manchester musician Eric Stewart. Their plan was just to have fun with studio technology, not to embark on a full-blown pop career. But, almost by accident, they came up with ‘Neanderthal Man’, which was only kept off No. 1 by Elvis Presley’s ‘The Wonder Of You’.
“There used to be a tiny little demo studio in Stockport, run by a guy called Peter Tattersall,” recalls Godley. “They got their first four-track machine in and wanted to try it out. So I played four tracks of drums, while Lol sang and played a bit of acoustic guitar, which the drum mics picked up in the background. It was just a little something we’d come up with in the back of a cab a few weeks earlier. It was only ever meant as a test for the equipment.
“But then a guy called Dick Leahy came to the studio to listen to something else, heard our little thing and said, ‘That’s a smash’. We thought he was insane, but he said he’d put it out if we finished it.
“However, some idiot pressed the erase button and wiped the whole thing, so we had to start again from scratch. But at least we had a bit of an idea of what we wanted to do. Ultimately, we ended up with the oddity that is ‘Neanderthal Man’, our first real record. It’s not really music, and it’s not really art. I don’t know what is, and I did it!”
When Gouldman joined the fold, the foursome set up camp in a studio complex of their own, again in Stockport. Called Strawberry, it was a not-altogether-serious riposte to the Beatles’ Apple empire, a label that the fledgling 10cc very nearly joined.
“Eric started Strawberry, and I came in as a partner,” says Gouldman. “The idea being that we’d do anything and everything — kind of house band/producers for hire.
“We did two albums backing Neil Sedaka (The Tra-La Days Are Over and Solitaire), and while we were recording the second of those we started doing bits and pieces of our own, in the downtime. We kept thinking about how much time we were spending on other people’s music — which we enjoyed — but we were four musicians and singers with our own studio! Why not do something as ourselves?”
These break-time sessions produced the band’s debut single ‘Donna’. Released in 1972, it was originally meant for the B-side of a Gouldman and Stewart song called ‘Waterfalls’, then under consideration by Apple (and later the B-side of 1973’s ‘Rubber Bullets’).
“It was when we were putting the finishing touches to it that we realised there was something more important going on that we should put all our energies towards,” says Gouldman.
The group signed to Jonathan King’s UK Records, a label that mostly concentrated on one-off novelty singles (more often than not performed by King under a variety of pseudonyms). King also gave the band its name, notoriously meant to refer to the average volume of male ejaculate.
The follow-up to ‘Donna’, ‘Johnny Don’t Do It’, was a flop (perhaps because its pastiche of early ’60s teen balladry was too similar to the debut), but the band’s third single, ‘Rubber Bullets’, landed them at No. 1, and started a long run of big hits, each sounding like the work of an entirely different set of musicians. But, with four potential lead singers and four writers able to work in a variety of combinations, 10cc’s versatility could be both a blessing and a curse.
“I can’t think of another band like that, either before us or after,” Gouldman says. “In one way it was great, but in another it was hard to put across a solid image. People didn’t know what to do with us, and the songs we were putting out were very different — not just from other bands but from each other!”
“We tried to treat each song as if we were a new group making its very first record. We’d all have a go to figure who would be the best person to sing it — not necessarily whoever wrote it — and we’d hold up a sign that said ‘NEXT!’ whenever someone’s attempt at the vocal didn’t quite work. It was very democratic and unselfish and saved long, time-consuming explanations. No one ever got precious about it. Whoever did it best got the gig.”
The band quickly established a reputation as one of the most experimental hit-making groups of the early ’70s, scoring with ‘The Dean & I’, ‘Wall Street Shuffle’ and ‘Life Is A Minestrone’, among others. Championed by John Peel, their spiritual home may have been The Old Grey Whistle Test, but they were a regular fixture on Top Of The Pops.
“The chemistry of the four of us made it what it was,” reckons Gouldman. “The push-and-pull of styles gave us just the right balance, so a lot of the experiments had a commercial streak as well. But we never kept an eye on the charts to see what else was happening. Everything that we did had to please us, first and foremost. There wasn’t interference from record companies, or even a producer. We didn’t set out to make records for anybody but ourselves.”
Godley agrees. “To be quite honest, we never recorded singles, as such. We just did tracks, and if some turned into 45s it was probably from some subconscious, in-built fondness for the form. We had a couple of really big hits on the first album, but, when we went back into the studio, we just concentrated on recording a second album’s worth of music.
“We didn’t pay attention to what might be the next stand-alone hit. The philosophy was one of not planning ahead and, if we were lucky enough to come up with something that remotely sounded like a single, discussing it when it happened.
“The four of us had a lot in common. We were all very cynical and very satirical in our sense of humour. It’s weird, as humour doesn’t usually work in music. But we were very much on the same wavelength for four years, and I think humour was a binding force. We were off the beaten track up in Stockport, very much self-contained. Wherever you are, when the sessions go on all night, you have to joke around a bit, just to stop yourself from going insane. So humour was very important and somehow it found its way into what we wrote. Sometimes in a cheesy way, sometimes in a good way.
“Some people might have thought we were far too clever for our own good, of course. But why do some people use the word ‘clever’ as a derogatory term? Maybe it comes from this notion that rock’n’roll — or whatever you call it — only comes alive when it’s brutal and crude. I kind of know what people mean by that, when music comes straight from the heart and bypasses the brain, but, yes, we were clever.”
Mini-operas & minestrone
After their 1974 album, Sheet Music, 10cc switched to Mercury Records and began work on their third long player, The Original Soundtrack. It’s regarded by many followers as the group’s masterpiece, but for the first time in their career the band had to contend with outsiders sticking their noses in.
“I started to notice things had changed after we recorded ‘One Night In Paris’ (the eight-minute mini-opera that opens the album),” says Godley. “I thought it would be cool to put it out as a single, but Mercury said, ‘You must be out of your minds!’ They reckoned it was too long and too elaborate to be hit. I still think they were wrong. A few months later, Queen put out ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and that was a bit of a hit, as I recall. It’s probably still No 1 somewhere in the world.’
The track eventually selected to be the album’s first single was ‘Life Is A Minestrone’. Its stream of consciousness lyric and ever-changing tempo was still as ambitious as any 7″ the group had released to date, and took the listener on a surreal odyssey to the White House and the Taj Majal, namechecking Minnie Mouse and the Pope along the way.
In contrast, the follow-up, ‘I’m Not In Love’, resembled a straightforward ballad, at least in chord structure and melody. But its dark lyric and elaborate musical construction were instrumental in catapulting the song into the stratosphere.
“Graham and Eric wrote ‘I’m Not In Love’,” says Godley. “They played it to us on a piano in the studio, and we thought, ‘Yeah, that’s quite nice. Not great.’ We actually recorded it twice, first as a kind of a bossa nova thing, like a lounge tune, but it didn’t work particularly well. It was just pure cheese. So we put it to one side and cracked on with the rest of the album.
“We thought there was something in the song itself, though, so we eventually came back to it. We were racking our brains to find a way of framing the song, which we knew was inherently promising. Finally, we thought, ‘Why don’t we do it just with voice loops?’ So we set about constructing it that way, and again the planets were in alignment. It just worked an absolute treat. We conjured this atmosphere from the ether, and realised we had something very special.
“If we were attempting it today, we would probably have found a voice sample on a keyboard and used that, but it wouldn’t sound much like it does. It would be built up from one anonymous voice, rather than a group of specific singers, i.e. us. One of the main ingredients that made that record work was the leakage — the hum of all the notes playing at the same time — just underneath the main vocal track. That gave it a very peculiar spookiness.
“I don’t remember how long it took to record the whole track, but we spent about a day creating the vocal tapestry, or at least the components of it. There was something like 256 vocals on it. They were all put on to a multi-track machine and then played very much in the way you would play a keyboard, but with faders instead of keys. All that was laid down next to a relatively simple backing track of guitar, synth and bass drum.
“The ‘big boys don’t cry’ vocal was done by a receptionist at Strawberry called Cathy Redfern. We had this very nice ambient thing in the middle, with tinkly musical boxes, and we thought it needed another voice, preferably female, rather than one of us trying to be female, so we just grabbed Cathy from the front office. Perfect. One of those magical moments that resulted in something immortal.”
“None of us thought it was going to be a hit,” adds Gouldman. “We played it over and over again in the studio, but it was only when we played it to other people that we thought of it in those terms. Typical 10cc attitude, really.”
Two out of 10
The group returned to the studio for 1976’s How Dare You!, their fourth album in as many years. Today, Godley admits the cracks were beginning to show, and that he and Lol Creme were growing restless to pursue other avenues.
“After we’d finished the record, Lol and I started to think more about ‘the gizmo’, which was this little attachment thing we’d invented for a guitar a couple of years earlier. We found a company that wanted to manufacture it, so we took three weeks out to see what it could do. Those three weeks were so much fun. It kind of reminded me of the early days of the band — that thirst to experiment — which had been subtly eroded. We were both thinking, ‘Why don’t we just carry on with this?’
“Around the same time, Graham and Eric played us a song they’d come up with for the next album. It may have been ‘The Things We Do For Love’, I can’t remember. But we thought it was dreadful, the complete opposite to where our own heads were. So we just thought, fuck it, why not bow out and carry on with what we’re actually getting a kick out of?”
Godley and Creme’s first musical venture after leaving 10cc was originally intended to be an unassuming showcase for the gizmo’s capabilities, but the eventual release, Consequences, ended up as a marathon three-disc concept album.
“We ended up locking ourselves away at Strawberry for about 14 months, I think. It went from a humble demonstration record into this huge, overblown triple album. The thing I remember most about that time was a piece of Lebanese hash about the size of a triple cheeseburger. That kept us going through the long nights.”
Gouldman and Stewart continued as 10cc, releasing Deceptive Bends in 1977, all too aware that the dynamic of the band had altered dramatically, now they were essentially a duo.
“At first we considered carrying on under a different name, but we felt that we could retain the spirit of 10cc,” says Gouldman. “Eric and I had written a lot of the old songs, and Eric had sung lead on a lot of them, particularly the last few singles we’d done. Also, we knew it was a great name, and we’d had a lot of mail from fans urging to carry on with it. We’d built up a following and we were reluctant to walk away from it.
“We knew we’d lost a lot with Kev and Lol going. We were very pleased with Deceptive Bends, but it wasn’t the same. It’s been said that Eric and myself were more responsible for the poppy element of 10cc, which to me is nothing to be ashamed of. Being mainstream is not a crime. You can still combine mainstream with avant garde abstract ideas and create something wonderful.”
More hits followed, including the group’s third No 1, ‘Dreadlock Holiday’, a rare single outing for Gouldman as lead vocalist. Though he retains a fondness for the album that spawned it, 1978’s Bloody Tourists, he’s less enamoured of the group’s later long players, Look Hear and 10 Out Of 10.
“I can’t listen to those albums, really. Eric had an accident and was out of action for a while, and we had a bit of time away from each other to work on various other projects. By the time we got back together, the times had really changed. There were some good songs on those records, but it wasn’t a happy time. We weren’t facing up to the inevitable — to the fact that it was over.”
The pair called it a day in 1983, and Gouldman formed Wax with Andrew Gold (the US artist responsible for solo hits like ‘Lonely Boy’ and ‘Never Let Her Slip Away’), having worked with him on material for 10 Out Of 10. The band enjoyed a modicum of success in Britain and America, most memorably with AOR classic ‘Bridge To Your Heart’.
But 10cc weren’t quite done. In 1995, Gouldman and Stewart teamed up for one more album, Mirror Mirror, which Gouldman now feels was a mistake.
“It was an album of two halves. Eric and I weren’t actually working together, we just had a producer who acted as a go-between. It was a bit of a nonsense, and neither of us wanted to do it, but someone made us an offer that we couldn’t refuse.
“It was also the 20th anniversary of ‘I’m Not In Love’, and we did a dreadful new version of that, too. We’d done it on TV, just a keyboard and an acoustic guitar, and there was a lot of pressure on us to put it out on record. At the time we thought of it as a means to an end, to help sell the rest of the album, but it was just pathetic. Not one of our finest moments.”
Godley & Creme also resurfaced in the early 80s, with some quirky singles (‘Under Your Thumb’, ‘Wedding Bells’, ‘Cry’) that owed much to the early days of 10cc. But the pair spent most of the decade establishing a career as video directors, helming such MTV mainstays as Duran Duran’s ‘Girls On Film’ and Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Two Tribes’.
The four original members of 10cc have kept in intermittent contact over the years, and now Godley and Gouldman are collaborating again — for the first time in almost three decades.
“We’ve always stayed in touch, with phone calls and Christmas cards, etc,” says Gouldman. “Kevin approached me about doing some writing again. He hadn’t really done anything musical for a long time, because he’d been so busy with video production. He said he wanted to get back into it just for the hell of it, not with any far-reaching plan to do anything major. That appealed to me, so we met up and wrote a few songs. We felt it was good, but it would probably have taken about five years to put an album out, with our other commitments. So we just put a few songs on the internet. There’s about five songs on our website now, but we’ve got loads of other stuff in the pipeline.”
For Godley, the project has sparked fond memories of 10cc’s early days — the desire to experiment, the total artistic control and the uncertainly of where any of it will lead.
“In a way, Graham and I have gone right back to the start. That’s kind of what the ‘Son Of Man’ track is about. We were just beginning, we were young and we felt anything was possible. We were finding our feet and learning how to create something with individuality, and that came about because we really didn’t know what we were doing. I can honestly say that it’s not a bad way to work.”
Godley on gizmos
Kevin Godley describes the guitarists’ gadget that saw him and Lol Creme part company with 10cc.
‘The gizmo was a device that you applied to a guitar like a tremolo arm, and it turned your guitar into an orchestra. It bowed the strings in a similar way to playing a violin or cello.
“The problem was that it wasn’t remotely reliable. It was affected by atmospheric conditions, heat and positioning. If you were lucky, it sounded like a string section, but if you were unlucky, it sounded like a chainsaw. It was very temperamental.
“Unfortunately, it came onto the market at about the same time as cheap synthesisers, and people preferred the reliability of a synth.
“Lol and I spent a lot of time travelling around industry fairs because it was felt that a couple of well-known musicians might help to sell it. But it wasn’t successful. You occasionally find one cropping up in a secondhand instrument shop. It’s become a bit of a collectors’ item. And it’s great for cutting hedges.”
© Terry Staunton, Record Collector, December 2006