10cc: We Don’t Want To Be Superstars…

IT’S CRAZY, totally unpredictable, this life with 10cc.

Eric Stewart reveals that he never wants the band to reach a peak; Lol Creme dearly wishes to raise the standard of popular music; Graham Gouldman knocks the system whereby audiences come to pay homage; and Kevin Godley is content to remark how cynical and humorous they are.

All contend that 10cc are both simple and direct. Yes, SIMPLE and DIRECT. That’s what they said.

The 10cc European roadshow has reached Copenhagen. This tour of the Continent has confirmed that the band are very close to attaining the same popularity elsewhere in the world that they enjoy in Britain. And as all this happens, they sit back and endeavour to remain unaffected by the stardom. It would be a mistake, they believe, to take all this adulation too seriously.

All the big bands stay in the Plaza Hotel when they visit Copenhagen. One reason, they say, is that it’s near the Golden Mile Of Porn, the seedy stretch of nudge-nudge-wink-wink land. Another reason could be that the gig is just across the road. It’s called the Tivoli and 10cc conquered the ice-cold Scandinavian punters there with, everyone was saying, one of their best-ever shows.

But, for an afternoon, the band are content to stay in the Plaza’s coffee room, for a truth session, which are as much a part of 10cc as Strawberry Studios, or ‘I’m Not In Love’. They are what has made the band such a happy, productive and successful unit.

It’s the band’s form of group therapy. They all get together in a little room at Strawberry, their own Manchester studios, put a bottle in the middle of the table and let rip. There is no agenda. Anything and everything is discussed. If there’s something to get out of the system, that’s the time to do it. They own up to what’s wrong; what they’ve failed to do; what they could do better. The members are, they admit, ruthlessly honest with each other at these sessions but if it helps clear the air, all the better.

Just before Sheet Music was recorded, Eric Stewart decided he was leaving the band. He phoned Creme to deliver the bad news and the immediate reaction was “down to the studio for a session.”

Stewart had got so involved in engineering he thought he’d forgotten how to play the guitar. He felt he’d be better out of the band than contributing so little because of that phobia. The rest of the band forced him to lift a guitar and put a solo on a track and he overcame the problem.

They see other bands become tense because they’re not frank with each other. There’s the story of when Paul McCartney and Wings came to Strawberry to record some tracks. 10cc felt there was a very bad atmosphere among Wings and found out that some of the band wanted to do this, and others something else, but nobody was telling anybody anything.

Eric Stewart suggested they converge upon the little room, slap a bottle on the table and get whatever was bugging them into the open. They did, and the bad vibes disappeared.

Success is something the band obviously want, and talk and think about often. But when they tell you that they’re not into a superstar trip, they are quite sincere.

There’s real commitment: it’s all for the music, nothing but. It’s totally incidental that they’re going to have a bit of fun and make a bit of bread on the way.

Gouldman: “Some people would say Queen are superstars and some people would say Paul Simon is a superstar. Now, to me, Paul Simon IS a superstar. Maybe people do think we’re superstars but we don’t think so. It’s totally irrelevant once you get in the studio anyway. Kevin says ‘I demand you do this, I’m a superstar’ and we tell him to f – off. Anybody can be a superstar now.”

Creme: “The only reason Paul Simon is a superstar is because we respect him beyond all doubt. There are all these groups around and one day it’s this one, the next, another. It’s just the day of the plastic superstar at the moment.”

Gouldman: “And have you noticed in all the popular dailies that everyone is a supermum or superdad or superbaby. It’s debasing language. Everyone is getting into this superstar thing. And all these poor mothers up and down the country are getting bad consciences because they aren’t super-mums.”

Stewart: “It’s this respect thing that we’re talking about. When I look at somebody like Lennon or Paul Simon, I’ve got tremendous admiration. I look at him and see the fantastic things he’s written.”

So it has been established that 10cc want no part of the superstar hype but they do want to keep on the periphery of what might be called rock’s heaven. They don’t relish the safety of what “finally making it” brings.

Stewart explained their dilemma.

“We’re talking about being close to the edge. We’re running along the edge of a cliff always and we could go, bump, one way, or fall over the other side and become what you call superstars and be safe. Neither would be right, so we keep running along that edge. It’s nerve-racking.

“We analyse ourselves a hell of a lot and we discuss the progression of other bands in terms of success, not in terms of musical quality. You see bands rise like rockets whereas we creep up there slowly all the time. It’s funny. You feel sometimes that you’re never gonna be quite in that league, although you know deep down that your music is better than most of the people in that league.”

They were obviously going for long-term acceptance.

Creme: “Yeah, we hope we’ll still be doing concerts in possibly ten, 15 years’ time if we want to. For example, Victor Borge can do the same concert because it’s always basically good classical music. He could stop and come back and do the same in 20 years. The music is universal and timeless.

“It would be nice if we could go on and do some of our music in 20 years’ time and it would still sound like music.”

But if, as Stewart said, he always wanted to run along the edge of this musical cliff, wasn’t that tantamount to claiming they never actually want to reach a peak?

“I hope we don’t,” he replied. “I’ve seen other groups that really made it. They get to a peak and then they seem to say there’s nothing else to do. It would be horrible to say, ‘well, we’ve conquered America. We’ve conquered Japan. We’ve conquered the world.’ Where is the stimulus to carry on?”

Gouldman: “The stimulus for me is the enjoyment of recording and playing together and getting a lot of fun, shedding a few tears.”

Creme: “The anguish, the heartache. It’s a masochistic life-style.”

Stewart: “But the life-style ISN’T dangerous. It’s safe. It’s comfortable. We’ve all got our own houses and cars and things like that.”

Gouldman: “Yeah, but what I say is this: that once we get in the studio or start writing, it doesn’t matter whether we live in a tent.”

Stewart: “Look, it’s like a racing driver. Say he wins every race in the year and he’s world champion, next year he’s got the same stimulus to go out and do it again. That’s really dangerous, isn’t it? He’s got something to live up to. When you reach that superstar bracket, there’s no danger anymore ‘cos you’ve done it all.”

So what happens when 10cc became one of the biggest bands in the world, as they must if their growth continues at the current rate? Will the danger of being under the pressure to create new things disappear? Would they be safe?

Gouldman: “I don’t think we’ll ever be totally safe from ourselves, because as soon as somebody starts weakening, the others’ll pull him up immediately, like at truth sessions.”

ONE MAJOR criticism made of 10cc – and the one that has been a barrier to acceptance in many quarters – has been the degree of calculation they take in their music. The most recent poke in the side is the time-factor taken to record albums; the last couple have been spread over three months in the studio and they plan to take even longer with their next opus, which, incidentally, they start work on in July.

It is a criticism which 10cc gratefully accept. Sure, they calculate what is going to be done and there’s a clinical element in the methods they adopt in approaching their task. But that, they feel, is what they are about: they go in to make the best recorded work of all time and they’re not about to spoil that ideal by rushing.

The calculation, they maintain, is not cold. There is a very warm feeling in what they do, Lol Creme asserts.

“The reason that the vocals work on our tracks, more so than a lot of other English bands’ records, is because they’re felt. The vocals are felt and they’re not allowed to stay down on tape until they’re felt properly.

“Some people say that’s calculation, waiting until the right take instead of using the first, but the first might not have the sort of feel we have in mind. There are several ways you could describe a feel so we wait until whoever is singing it has exactly the right nuance in the voice and the right expression in the way they say the words.

“That’s feel and it takes a lot longer to do it our way. I think it’s kidding yourself to think that you get p –, do the first vocal and that’s really loose. You’re deluding yourself. Bum notes aren’t feel!

“Each track has got to completely consume you. If it’s a specific atmosphere, that atmosphere has got to absorb you completely and if it doesn’t, then that track has failed.”

The criticism had been answered, but on another level, they also agreed that 10cc lacked basic rawness – because they were not a raw band.

Creme again: “Bands like that are being true to their life-style. They get boozy and stoned and the music is exactly the way they live, but we’re not like that. It’d be a total fabrication for us to do that. The only way we can do it is like observers in a way. We’re more like journalists in every aspect.”

Gouldman: “I don’t necessarily agree with you that the life-style has to reflect in the music, ‘cos I feel that when we’re in the studio, or when we’re writing, the rest of the world just does not exist.”

Creme: “But if you listen to whatsisname in Little Feat, it’s just that he goes out and does it. He’s exactly the same outside and inside. We are the same outside as inside. We look at everything and make jokes about it and we take it all in, and when we get into the studio, we just spew all those sort of things out. The music is the same as we are.

“I just feel we’re pretty objective. It’s usually that the music seems to make a comment almost like you would write a column on a topic. Our tracks tend to do that sometimes, not consciously but they do seem to be journalistic in as much as they’re almost a column about a particular subject.

“Musically, they’re journalistic in that they sum up everything that we’ve heard.”

Involved in the band’s making of music is an earnest yearning to advance the cause of pop, to educate an audience into appreciating something better.

Stewart: “Without being pretentious, it would be nice to feel we are furthering musical awareness.”

Creme: “Secretly, I desire us to raise the standard of popular music, but it does tend to sound a little bit pretentious. I suppose, to be honest, we are trying to improve things a bit, or at least trying to put people in the music business in the frame of mind where you should try and do better, as opposed to trying to make more bread by having a formula system and knowing what’s gonna work.

“It would be nice if we were part of a guild, as it were, as it was in the early Sixties, where everyone was just doing it because it was great. Everyone was trying things.”

Creme: “We’d like to keep the flame burning. We do run the risk of losing our audience anyway by moving away from what they want all the time but if that happens, it happens, but you can’t stand still.”

Stewart: “Most successful bands and artists sort of reach a peak and then hang on to it for dear life and keep going in the same direction constantly. They get an audience with a certain kind of music and they just hold on to it. It becomes so boring they stagnate.”

Despite the need for calculation, warm though it is, despite the necessity not to feed their audience on a staple diet of what’s proven to work, despite the lengthy spells in the studio working it all out to the last detail, the hour comes when the band have to say “that’s it We can do no more. We will do no more.” It was a hard decision to take on any track, they said, but if it wasn’t taken, they could continue striving to make songs better till the end of time.

“It’s the hardest decision to make throughout the whole recording session,” said Stewart. “Kevin usually says ‘no’, so we spend another day messing about. But that has to be done. You’ve got to try every idea that comes up just in case one of them is an absolute killer.”

Creme: “It’s frightening now to know that in three weeks’ time, we’re going to have to start thinking about writing a whole pile of new material. You’ve got this horrible thing in the back of your mind that says it has got to be better than what you’ve done before. That’s the biggest pain of all.”

Godley: “Sometimes, a track’ll sound good and it sounds finished but you think, ‘is there something that’ll take it right over the edge?'”

10cc ventured close to the edge at times with many of their songs – ‘Une Nuit A Paris’ and ‘I’m Not In Love’ were two examples which could have gone either way.

Creme: “You’re always looking for that sound that’ll just lift it up and away. It’s that element of…magic that each track has. It can be the simplest of things. It could be obvious. It could be complicated. We don’t know until we try it, something that will take the piece of music above what it was before.”

Godley: “It’s such a frightening thought, ain’t it? In the air, there are all these musical ideas and you’ve got to reach out and grab one.”

Stewart: “Basically, you’re looking for the most natural, simple way of making the thing work on all levels. And then again, you’re in danger of over-producing and then looking back for the simplicity that you first started with.”

Simplicity was a word very rarely used in description of 10cc’s music, yet Stewart had lent importance to its use.

“Things are simple on our own terms,” he said. “A track like ‘Rock And Roll Lullaby’ is a really simple song with a very simple rock and roll backing.”

Gouldman: “You see, you can’t say that we’re complicated all the time. We’re not simple all the time. We’re not writing witty, satirical songs all the time.”

I offered the excuse that because people did not expect simplicity from 10cc, they did not look for it. Creme took up the point.

“Well, we don’t expect simplicity from us. We expect directness. There’s a slight difference. Directness is getting to the heart of your song by the most direct means. If the song is about a subject, then the lyrics should be direct, and it should put over that atmosphere without any doubt whatsoever. That’s directness.”

How could they infer they are so straightforward, I asked, if they were changing the pace of a song three times in four minutes? Creme again:

“All right. Take a song that changes. I mean…’Don’t Hang Up’. That, to me, is direct. You want to cry when you hear what the guy is talking about. It’s obviously sad and something has gone wrong with the marriage. There’s nothing that detracts from the fact that Kevin is singing about that subject. Even though the notes may be complicated, the actual feel, the atmosphere, is direct.

“The heart is pouring in at the end. That’s direct and it took a lot of trouble to do it. There’s no subtlety in that thing. It’s about as subtle as an avalanche, it’s so obvious.”

Gouldman: “That’s just how we feel. On a guitar solo, Eric could play 5,000 notes per second but it’s better playing five or six beautiful notes.”

Creme: “The melody is far more important than the technique.”

Godley: “What usually happens is that the song itself dictates the way it should go. There are different attitudes to different songs.”

Stewart: “The songs affect us more than we affect the songs.”

In that case, they’d like people to get the feeling, which they apparently aren’t, that the music is simple and direct?

Stewart: “It’s a funny thing but you can’t take it into account. Your own personal knowledge of music is probably streets and streets ahead of the person in the street who’s gonna listen to it, and there obviously is a danger that we’re gonna go over their heads and they’re not gonna see the simplicity the way you do. It’s simple to us…”

Creme: “…because it’s not as complicated as Beethoven.”

Gouldman: “The thing we have in common with the people who’re listening to the music is that we’ve got the same instinct for the things. The difference is that we know how to work it.”

Creme: “We might do the most complicated things but if we don’t get off on it, it’s been a waste of time.”

Wasn’t it also true that 10cc treated many things with contempt? As a band, through their lyrics, they had destroyed many a myth. As individuals, they look up to no-one, especially anyone connected with the music biz machinery. Even on stage, they refuse to adopt the normal mannerisms, to chat politely with their audience. Instead, the band, particularly Lol Creme, partake in back-chat, practically searching out hecklers who’ll cry ‘get out with it.’

Stewart: “Sacred cows and things, yeah, are lovingly demolished. It’s not really contempt. It’s ridicule. Things like greed and money. It’s stupid really because we’re successful and want to earn money to improve the whole thing on the road, in the studio. You’re looking for money and yet you’re knocking it all the time.”

Gouldman: “That doesn’t mean to say you can’t write about it.”

Creme: “As far as we’re concerned, anything and everything is there to be used. It’s all ammunition. Why not? I think you can make something interesting out of it if you have a certain viewpoint or angle on it. We’ve got sympathy for some things and not a lot for others. It’s very difficult to analyse.”

Gouldman: “In a way, we’re knocking the idea of an audience coming to pay homage to the group. Sometimes when we played, particularly on the last English tour, we were told that the people at the gigs were frightened by us, that they were very awe-struck and we don’t want that. We want to communicate and you can’t communicate with something when you’ve got a barrier. That actually happened at some gigs.”

Creme: “I’ve been told that people were scared of the group. They’re in awe, the audience. I can see what they mean. I used to be in awe of classical music and orchestras. ‘How can they play like that?’ They were magical. We try to overcome that by doing what we do on stage, by taking the p – out of ourselves as much as taking the p – out of them. It brings everybody down to one very low level.

“We’re in fact knocking the superstar thing. Rather than being totally separate from them down there, which I think you ought to be by the way, which is a total contradiction, they should come to see something they can’t do themselves. That’s why they’re there.

“They can’t be you so that’s why they watch you. We’re in a very fortunate position. We’re by the machinery that elevates you to what is called a star. When you’re actually there, there should be an effort made to put it on one level. We’re all there together to enjoy the music.”

Stewart: “We don’t want to be superstars because none of us is personally on an ego trip. We’d rather tell the audience, ‘look, I’m just like you. I’m a nice guy, playing this music and having a laugh and hope you enjoy it.’ It’s slightly humble really, which is totally the wrong way of going about it. It’s complete contradiction.”

Creme: “We’re asking them to like us. ‘It’s not our fault if we’ve made a little bit of money out of making hits. All we do is sit down and write music which we thought you might like to listen to. Please enjoy it and don’t hold it against us because we’re going to drive off at the end of the show in a big limousine.’

“We’ve got a complex, it’s as simple as that.”

© Harry DohertyMelody Maker, 17 April 1976

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