Fighting their reputation and their record company, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme turn defence into attack.
KEVIN GODLEY and Lol Creme discuss their unorthodox behaviour by focussing upon one aspect of recording.
This involves the vocal overdub stage (and specifically centres on ‘Group Life’ and ‘Art School Canteen’, from their new album, L). The secret, they say, is “to listen blindfold” and to sing not to music but “to a space of time”, which means “that the brain forces the ear and vocal cord to co-ordinate.”
“Do you understand?”
“I suppose it’s just that we keep trying to find different ways of screwing ourselves up.”
CREME and Godley: are qualified artists, formed Hotlegs in 1970 with Eric Stewart and had a hit with ‘Neanderthal Man’, while their album, Thinks School Stinks, flopped, were joined by Graham Gouldman the following year to become 10cc, joined Jonathan King’s UK Records label, had a first hit with the band with ‘Donna’, followed by many more, recorded four albums with 10cc (10cc, Sheet Music, The Original Soundtrack and How Dare You!), left the band to develop the potential of the Gizmo and record a triple album, Consequences, have just released a second album, L, are currently working on a book of art reflecting their views on the growth of rock and roll, sit in the basement studio of Creme’s Dorking home and rap about their ever-changing circumstances.
Creme and Godley, you could justifiably note, are an odd couple. For two hours they passionately talk about their attitudes to music and business and sporadically halt to consider the implications of their words. At one stage, Godley realises with horror that they might sound
like “pretentious martyrs” but quickly redresses the balance: “So what? An article in a newspaper is the opportunity to put forward an opinion.”
They are as guarded as ever about the split from 10cc: the souls of diplomacy; but there are various points in our conversation when bitterness seeps through and Creme particularly is prone to the odd outburst. From the titbits that are gathered, we can piece the final days together quite well.
The rot, it seems, set in after The Original Soundtrack and the period leading to How Dare You! Apart from wishing to develop the potential of the Gizmo, Godley, and Creme were growing tired of working within the format of a group and mentioned indirectly in our interview that they felt that the popularity of the band was at a peak (‘I’m Not In Love’) two years after the band itself had peaked (Sheet Music).
After How Dare You!, Stewart left the band, not for the first time, and the next 10cc project was to be Consequences, with Gouldman tagging along with Godley and Creme. Stewart, however, returned after one of the famous 10cc truth sessions – a bottle on the table and shout it out. At this point, Godley and Creme had already started recording Consequences and slowly came to realise that they would have to leave the band to fulfil their ambitions. Originally, they had suggested that 10cc should “do a Roxy Music”, keep the band alive but flexible while the various members went about their own business. They felt that this would revive the freshness and optimism that was missing from How Dare You!.
That system, it appears, was working quite nicely and Kevin and Lol immersed themselves into the recording of their experimental volume. Eric and Graham, in the meantime, continued writing songs for 10cc and eventually asked the other pair to leave their project temporarily to record a band single. Begrudgingly, Godley and Creme agreed. The song Stewart and Gouldman showed them was ‘The Things We Do For Love’ and the four duly recorded it. They also put down ‘People In Love’.
The original 10cc versions of those songs were never released. Godley and Creme announced themselves dissatisfied with the results of the sessions, and refused to allow them to be released. Stewart subsequently said that he attemped to collaborate with Godley, and Creme on the song but due to their depressive state at the time, they were unresponsive. Godley and Creme simply state that the material wasn’t up to scratch.
The band had reached a crossroads. Godley and Creme announced their departure. Stewart and Gouldman retained the name and re-recorded ‘The Things We Do For Love’, which became the first post-split single, and ‘People In Love’. There was apparently some wrangling over the decision to keep the 10cc banner flying. Godley and Creme wanted the name to be dropped and remembered for the identity they had helped establish and not, as one of them put it, “dragged into the gutter”. Gouldman went on record as saying that it was “not fair on the public to scrap the whole thing”.
It is somehow ironic that since the split Gouldman and particularly Stewart have found themselves on the defensive and bitch bitterly about the media’s attitude to the new 10cc despite the unprecendented commercial success they’ve achieved, while Godley and Creme, whose record sales are a mere fraction of their former buddies’ and insist on not only walking tightropes but doing double somersaults as well, are happy as Larry.
A FEW weeks ago, Eric Stewart was publicly denouncing the theory that Godley and Creme were “the creative side” of 10cc and Gouldman and himself were “the commercial side.” Godley and Creme themselves would agree with his analysis, but would be more inclined to partition the sides as “an out of control influence” and a “controlling influence” with 10cc being the two of them put together.
“I think a preconceived idea is controlled,” Creme explains. “Knowing that a couple of acoustic guitars will be a good solid base and it feels right for something that is written on acoustic guitar. To our minds, that is the perfect reason for not using acoustic guitar, because you will not surprise yourself. You’ve got to come out of that studio when you’ve finished a piece of music and be excited by it, as if you’ve developed, as if you’ve pushed forward at least a quarter of an inch.”
To my, suggestion that Stewart and Gouldman were the traditional songwriters, Creme reveals, in a whisper, that Stewart wasn’t a songwriter at all, a claim which surprised me. Creme says that before Hotlegs and 10cc, Stewart’s major function was as a singer and guitarist. “As an actual professional songwriter, Eric’s ideas were, I think, brought out by me and Kev and the influences there, messing around with structures and that.” Check out the first 10cc album and you’ll find that Stewart collaborated on only three songs.
The main distinction between the two pairs, Creme continues, was the threshold factor.
“There’s a point in me and Kev where it’s too ridiculous and there’s a point in Eric and Graham, and anyone else who’s a songwriter, where it’s not even worth trying. Our threshold is much greater than theirs: we’ll go a lot further before it’s not even worth trying.”
“OUR writing has progressed so much since we’ve started.” Godley interjected. “We’ve explored those stages of wanting to write songs like other people. The first Hotlegs album was very influenced by the Beatles, Beach Boys and that and we were pleased that it sounded like a real record, i.e. it sounded like somebody, else. People are always trying to emulate their favourites, whereas we’re not. We’re always trying to develop our own personality through the medium.
“The music scene at the moment is heading towards a standardisation, rather like cars are. People say ‘What a great new car’ and it just looks like a Viva or a Capri. It seems to be like that in the music business. You can’t tell the difference. I think our big beef about it is that there was a time in the music business when the musicians seemed to be running things, with the business tagging along, but now it seems to be a certain reversal of roles, where the business seems to be dictating what sort of records are put out.”
Creme: “…and I don’t think the musicians even know it’s happening. They probably think they’re still in control but what they don’t realise is that they’re all putting out a cross between Wings and Abba and all the palatable elements. A lot of people are turned on by the thing of making a record and having a big hit, which is fair enough but it’s a question of priorities. Our priority is to come up with something that leaves some sort of…ah…musical scar.”
A line from ‘Business Is Business’, a track from L, summed their mood up for Godley. “Johnny be good, bad, but not indifferent.” “At least you know that you’ve affected them in some way, even if it’s a negative way. That has got to be preferable to ‘it’s all right’. “
NOW we get to the crux of it: Godley and Creme as the antithesis of the hit factory. If it works once, forget about it. Move on. Change for change’s sake or change for art’s sake?
One of the criticisms levelled against L was that Godley and Creme’s refusal to dwell on hooks was suicidal, that in attemping to give songs the kiss of life by injecting different moods and times, they were, in fact, giving the the kiss of death.
Consequences faced the same barrage of doubt. It was spoiled, some said, by its makers’ total indulgence. If only they’d cut down on Peter Cook’s narrative…if only they’d resisted the temptation to experiment with the Gizmo on the first two sides…if only they’d released an album of songs. If only Godley and Creme were that straight, 10cc would never have existed.
“From the word go, we’ve always tried to approach things in a different way…”
Godley and Creme are amused, sometimes angry, at the reactions that occasionally confront them. They innocently note that their attitude has not changed since their 10cc days and if it was acceptable then, why not now?
“There’s very little point in putting out a record that somebody else could have done for us,” Creme considers. “If you take the logical way out, every time you come to a song, it could have been recorded by a hundred different people because they are in command of the same instruments, certain licks and chord changes that everybody uses, so we try and push things a little bit further so that you couldn’t have got that piece of music by anybody else on the planet. All the stuff that’s out at the moment, you can get by anybody. It’s like that Commodores’ song. Although it’s a good record, it could be done by 15 different people.”
THEY feel that the spirit of 10cc – “a unit whereby we would try different ideas musically” – remains with them, and continue to insist that “rock be treated as an art form”. To my rather cynical remark that rock went out the window as an art form years ago, Godley bites back: “Not in this room it hasn’t.”
For all that, they must surely be aware of the commercial prospects of their work. You don’t have four hit albums and nine hit singles without taking that into consideration. Creme maintains that they are. The motives when recording those 10cc successes have not changed.
“Unfortunately, we’re not very removed from the Zappa approach, where if it sounds too commercial, we’ll stick the word ‘fuck’ in it. It’s almost that. If it sounds too obvious, we get upset and we deviate and that’s what throws people.”
Examples of the reluctance to fit in are rampant on L, especially on ‘Punchbag’ – “Bursting for the crap I know they’ll never let me have” – and ‘This Sporting Life’ – “There’s a fruitcake in the window, someone call the cops, for God’s sake get a camera, before the bastard drops”. But it was also a characteristic of much of 10cc’s output – ‘Rubber Bullets’ (“We all got balls and brains, but some’s got balls and chains”), ‘Hospital Song’ (“When sister brings the bed-pan round I’ll piss like April showers.”), the blasphemous ‘Second Sitting Of The Last Supper’ and ‘Head Room’ (obvious). In fact, all of How Dare You!, which marked a cynical high for 10cc, was banned in South Africa.
“FOR all yer experiments and stuff, what it has to boil down to in the end is great tunes, whether they’re very long ones or lots of little short ones. A good producer in my book is somebody who can make use of all that equipment, cerebral and technical, and make something that is stimulating. That’s what a good producer is, not somebody who can put all the pieces together so that lit will definitely be a top ten hit. That’s not a good producer. That is a businessman.”
Creme is getting a little carried away, but the conversation winds round to Consequences and the events since its release a year ago. Packaged in a luxurious boxed set, the album came out amid a furore from their record company, Phonogram.
From there on, it was all downhill. Godley and Creme took a cruel battering and the record company’s faith slowly diminished. Consequences had cost £250,000 to make, half of it coming out of Godley’s and Creme’s own pockets. It was selling at £11, which is where Godley thinks their credibility took a beating. It was priced above the heads of the kids who might want it.
IN RETROSPECT, both agree that mistakes were made. Maybe there was too much dialogue. Maybe they did experiment too much with Gizmo sounds. “It was like the bars being taken away after leaving the band. We went berserk,” says Godley, adopting an uncharacteristically neutral viewpoint. “It’s always going to be awkward when you have a vast business conglomerate whose aim is to make money. The unfortunate thing is that their business is to do with artists whose purpose isn’t that. Anyway, fuck Consequences. It’s been and gone.”
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Once burned, twice shy – and the record company began to watch Godley and Creme’s further movements from a safe distance. A single from Consequences, ‘Five O’Clock In The Morning’ (which was more 10ccish than anything 10cc were putting out), was released without success. Phonogram refused entreaties to release a second track, ‘Cool Cool Cool’.
The time came to record another album. Not that Godley or Creme were especially enthusiastic to rush into the studios and start again but… “we had been told that’s the way to make a living.” The pressure was constantly on to come up with a “commercial” album, with some “hit” singles. Godley and Creme resented the interference.
ORIGINALLY, Kevin and Lol intended to record L in three weeks and were initially recording one track a day, until they saw the futility of making an album that was, just for the sake of it, in stark contrast to the extravagance of Consequences. They slowed up. But they did de-escalate the approach considerably.
They decided not to use either Strawberry Studio (“Everybody uses the Eastlake studio system now. It’s characterless.”) and opted instead for an obscure 16-track hideout, Surrey Sound Studios in Leatherhead, near their homes.
The first track they played to their manager, Harvey Lisberg, was ‘Art School Canteen’.
“After that, there was an air of scepticism about everything we did,” Creme frankly reveals. “People kept saying ‘have you done any singles yet?’ That fucked us up a little bit. We were doing music that was coming out instinctively, and there was this threat at the back of our minds.
“These people wanted us to be 10cc, a pop group, but they don’t even know what ’10cc’ should be now, when in fact that’s what they’ve got, the spirit of what 10cc was in the early days, good ideas and hooks and they don’t realise it.”
© Harry Doherty, Melody Maker, 23 September 1978