UNTIL a year ago, Graham Gouldman was going through what he calls his “why not?” period.
“Any time someone asked me to do something, I always asked myself ‘why not?’ and went ahead and did it. I really never considered whether it would be the best thing for me at that particular time – I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do.”
Gouldman is stretched out in the white sitting-room of his new mock-Georgian house on the outskirts of Rochdale. It’s three in the morning and he’s exhausted, having just been driven back from a recording session at Stockport’s Strawberry Studios.
Tired, but happy. The “why not” time is over, banished by the success of 10cc, which has been a victory for good pop music over geography, snobery, and the British broadcasting system.
While Bette Midler – his wife’s favourite – croons ‘Am I Blue’ in the background, Gouldman talks of the past few years, of the hit songs which ensured his comfortable income, and of the effort to find something more worthwhile than just being a cog in a song factory.
“When I worked for Kassenetz-Katz in New York, I’d sit in an office all day and maybe write two songs. Then, just as I was leaving at the end of the day, one of them would come up and say, ‘Look, gimme one more song. I’m hungry – just one more.’ So I’d go and sit on the bog or something and write another one. Then they’d say, ‘Now I’m really hungry…gimme just one more’.”
For the past three weeks, though, the 10cc experience has been not unlike those days. With ‘Rubber Bullets’ firing up the chart, UK Records wanted an album from them to capitalise on the hit.
The difficulty there is that, in the past, whenever they’ve tried to write songs for an album, they’ve always turned out to be singles. This time, though, the heat was on, and they had to have it finished by last weekend, in time for drummer Kev Godley to get married and jet off to Barbados.
So, one night last week, when they were stuck for a couple of tracks, Graham and Eric Stewart went into one room, and Kev and Lol Creme sat in another. Time elapsed until, Eureka, they suddenly had two more songs – which both turned out to be as good as anything else on the album. I won’t tell you which they are, but it sure proves that song factories can work, when they’re run on fun.
The great success of ‘Rubber Bullets’ amuses them no end, because it arrived with no assistance from the BBC – which took a look at the title, decided it was about Northern Ireland, and promptly buried it in the wastebin.
“We really don’t know how it became a hit,” says Graham. “I suppose it was in the discotheques – that, and maybe word-of-mouth too.” The chemistry of a hit single therefore remains a mystery to them – ‘Donna’ was a sleeper, too, and would ‘Johnny Don’t Do It’ have been a hit if they’d left it for another few weeks? Whatever, they’ve proved again that the godalmighty BBC can’t always stop good records from making the chart.
“It’s extremely funny,” Graham continues. “As soon as it got into the charts, five or six BBC producers rang Chris Denning at UK Records and said, ‘Can we have another copy of the single, please? We seem to have misplaced the one you sent us originally.’
“Before that, in fact, Chris had got a few shortened copies pressed for BBC play, because he thought maybe it was a bit long, but when the producers came through again he told them he hadn’t got any shortened ones left and they had to play the full version.”
The song, of course, contains references to “balls and brains” and “balling in the street,’ which worried the group. But again, the Beeb doesn’t seem to have noticed.
“They really don’t seem to listen to more than the first ten seconds,” Graham muses. “I mean, look at ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ – all that stuff about oral sex and so on. There seems to be a certain naivete there…”
10cc’s secret seems to be that they pack a lot of content into their songs, each one being a mini-cantata with characters and some sort of a plot. Their careful exploitation of the resources available at Strawberry Studios (part-owned by Gouldman and Stewart) is also noticeable, adding distinction to the songs.
“We’re lucky that we’ve got four singers, four potential lead voices.” says Lol. “One voice throughout an album can get wearying, sometimes.” And they use the contrasting voices brilliantly, imbuing the various song-characters with wit and point.
There’s ‘Headline Hustler’, for example, written by Graham and Eric. Clattering along like a near relative of ‘Rubber Bullets’, it uses topical themes: the Lambton Affair and the BBC, the CIA and Watergate. ‘Sand In My Face’ is about a man who takes a Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension course, and would be a perfect single.
The there’s ‘The Dean And I’ which, were it a movie, would star Doris Day and Rock Hudson, and which captures exactly that ice-cream soda world of graduation days and reluctant virgins.
“That one,” says Kevin, “was written by Godley and Creme and Rodgers and Hammerstein.”
There’s ‘Ships Don’t Disappear In The Night (Do They?)’ – a tribute to Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, who figure prominently in the chorus, with another refrain which runs “You gotta be nice…to Vincent Price.”
Eric and Graham wrote that one, and Kevin pleads: “When you’ve heard them all, will you tell us who’s the silliest?”
‘Fresh Air For My Momma’, written by Kev and Lol, doesn’t sound silly at all. It’s a ballad of the Pet Sounds variety with a strong lead vocal and immense harmonies, beautifully voiced – but it’s subtitled “The American Way Of Dying,” and bears a strong thematic resemblance to Evelyn Waugh’s novel, The Loved One, reeking of funeral parlaurs and coffins sliding into the flames.
All these songs demonstrate their collective fixation with American customs and life-styles, and they’re among the few Britons who’ve captured the atmosphere so perfectly. To them, the distance seems to lend perspective as well as enchantment, and they’re just as clever at it as Bryan Ferry, perhaps even more so.
‘Speed Kills’, by Eric, began in the days when he, Lol, and Kevin were Hotlegs: “We first tried it when someone suggested that we do another drum-based thing to follow up ‘Neanderthal Man’ about 18 months ago. There are 14 guitar parts on it – it’s supposed to be a kind of concerto, my contribution to the classics!”
It rattles along like a V-8 Ford (Pilot on a bumpy road, the mingled guitars sounding like Eric Clapton and Duane Allman in a hall of mirrors, while the thick vocal harmonies play a backing role to Eric’s virtuosity, in fact the whole album is spattered with his brilliant guitar, particularly noticeable in the case of his accompanying slide riffs and occasional solos). It may remind you a little of Manfred Mann’s Mannikin Cigars TV ad, speeded up and minus Vivien Neves.
The album will also include the three A-sides they’ve released to date, and – perhaps silliest of all – a Godley/Creme selection entitled ‘The Hospital Song’.
“It’s really a shame that Jimmy Clitheroe died,” says Kevin. “He would have sung this one perfectly.”
It’s the tale of a demented patient who sings to his anaesthetist: “I get off on what you give me, darlin’.” Lol, dubbing on the lead vocal, performs it in a furious, impotent, Woody Allen-ish half-suppressed scream.
“Lol,” says Kev, “can you try it in your Mitzi Gaynor voice?”
“Try to sound pathetic,” adds Graham. “Even more pathetic than you sound now.”
The great thing about 10cc – and living in Manchester has a lot to do with this – is that they’re so fresh. Anything but slaves to the trends and stultifying hipness which afflict the London music business, they have a new and exciting angle. After all, how many other groups would write a very funny song about bed-wetting?
© Richard Williams, Melody Maker, 23 June 1973