The 10cc Fine Art Collection

In which the Fab Four pick their Fabbest Fourteen to illustrate the ascent of sweetness, light, and the Technological Aesthetic to the neanderthal world of popular music

“O poo poo, Pete Erskine, yah sure do bug. You never have wrote a song, anyway.”
From a Thracian love-poem.

FIRST, THERE was that review (by P. Erskine, of the album How Dare You). Next there was Mr. E. Stewart’s (published) view of the review. Followed by the reviewer’s reply to the view of the review.

Then there was the disc jockey’s answer to the reply to the view of the review. Then there was reader Irvin’s overview of the disc jockey’s blah blah blah.

And now, finally (may I have the envelope please)…rrriiipp. Lights, cameras etc….We’re in an abandoned movie studio in Shepperton, England.

Around a simple Formica table sit all four members of 10 c.c. Modestly they apply themselves to an arrangement of fish patties and two veg.

All is quiet. Mr. Stewart is especially quiet. It was Eric, it must be remembered, who in a crazed defensive reflex, grabbed a pencil in his left foot and jotted off a curious letter to Gasbag, NME. A letter that served to thoroughly besmirch the legend of 10 c.c. as a band with the ever-ready witty retort.

Eric’s letter was passionate and voluble, but a concensus has it that it was definitely low on laughs.

“I felt tremendously insulted,” he explains, “that he (P.E.) had taken our whole integrity at such a low level. He talked about cash and money.”

The paragraph that probably stung the most was the one that ran: “But on any terms this album appears to be an unloved pre-fab job assembled by a group of musicians with little feeling for their music beyond a preoccupation with sound quality (and even that isn’t fully exploited here) and even less for each other.”

Grave stuff. But underline the word “appears” and the Erskine prognosis gets my vote, even though an hour or two in the company of the band indicates that there is a certain manly amor within its ranks. How Dare You, nonetheless does dispatch “unloved, prefab” vibes, and this despite the obviously zealous, eager-to-please intentions of its chief mechanics.

But first a backgrounder to the circumstances of the Shepperton meeting.

The band had been previously miffed by a Jonathan King issue called 10cc Greatest Hits which, they say, were not. They were, they say, largely ballast and bluff, and if NME wanted the real goods it had best send someone down for a look into the horse’s mouth.

Then came How Dare You and the above-outlined criticial holocaust.

The exercise, though, of 10cc offering a selection of their Fab 14, plus accompanying unbiased utterances still seemed a valid project, particularly since (a) they were loathe to enter into another “all critics are shit because…” dialogue and (b) because one of Eric’s charges was that reviewers are no better equipped for sizing up the merits or demerits of a piece of music than, say, the gentleman standing to your immediate left.

This, of course, is worth considering. Yet as their discourse develops, so does a disturbing uncriticial tendency to first acknowledge and then gloss over the unfabulous aspects of even these, their Hot 14. Everything begins to take on a tilt of unabashed wonderfulness.

In fact, for a band that claims to feed off a common productive paranoia, there is much unsightly throwing out of chests, not to mention the occasional cosmic boast such as this one from Lol Creme: “It’s one of the only bands in the world, if not the only band in the world, that’s got four good writers. We know the writers are good even if you don’t like bits of this and bits of that. The writers are good. The musicians are good. The producers are good. That the four people can work together like this…that has to be a unique situation and something that one should treasure.”

Or this one, again from Lol: “The two ways that seem prevalent in today’s music scene as a whole…the people who are writing shit because they think that’s what heavy rock should be, or the people who are writing crap because that’s what makes money. We don’t fit into either of those categories.”

By the quarter-way mark, the commentary is spiralling off into awesome new vistas where the complacency becomes almost surreal. The light turns from red to clear white and just as I’m about to pass out from radiation burns, I whip out my NUJ smoked glass eye-shield and try a couple of delicately placed body blows. The idea being to drop things onto a manageable plane.

They weren’t dropped all at once, mind, but together they went roughly like this.

Agreed, 10cc have a sure grasp of technique that is admirable, plus a directness of lyric that is rare. But often a piece is thick with technology and totally bereft of emotional drive. Musical lines are searched out and discarded with an almost phobic frenzy, as though repetition, however much organic or emotional sense it makes, is to be avoided whatever the cost.

In short, a fatal attraction for the Rock Epic.

Also harmonies. Often they drop one on another like snowdrops, occupying the same narrow band. They complement but they don’t complete. No competition, no tension.

There’s also a peculiar relationship with the idea of rock as surreal art. There’s an understanding of surrealism in so far as the moves are known (i.e. a bell here, a howitzer there), but, again,, the elements are applied technologically and exist as a kind of sub unit that seriously reduces the dream potential of a piece like ‘Worst Band In The World’ or ‘Don’t Hang Up’, which at its root is the kind of song that pops up in a Marx Bros, movie with rock technology applied.

And lastly, a peculiarity that seems to run through most of their work, and was actually expressed in the Original Soundtrack title. Namely a tendency to conceive a piece in visual terms and a failure to translate the image into an aural picture, the kind that is evidenced, say, in Bowie’s Station To Station. Much of the band’s music actually needs film footage or some other kind of visual stimulant for the image to be whole.

Having got that out of the way, and further noting that the above comments are largely inapplicable to ‘The Dean And I’, ‘Wall Street Shuffle’, ‘Fresh Air For My Mama’, and ‘I’m Not In Love’, we proudly present the (basically) unexpurgated tape of the band 10cc performing: “Talking About Our Music”.

The cast features Graham Gouldman, Kevin Godley. Lol Creme and Eric Stewart.

‘FRESH AIR FOR MY MAMMA’

Kevin: Yeah, that’s an interesting track because part of it was written before 10cc got moving. Parts of it were the B-side of ‘Neanderthal Man’ and somehow it wasn’t taken as far as it could have been there. So we decided to use that particular part in a new song. It was just a song I particularly enjoyed singing. It had some emotion behind it. I can’t remember all the words…what was it about?

Eric: It wasn’t entirely fiction. There was a lot of feeling and emotion in it.

Kevin: It was our first ballad.

‘THE HOSPITAL SONG’

Lol: My old man was in hospital for a long time and I had to visit him and I’ve always had a childhood aversion to hospitals. And it got to me…and that was personal and it was very pleasant lunacy. It wasn’t too black. The humourous element but it had some definite…

Eric: It was written in a very short time, wasn’t it?

Lol: Yeah. There was a race on, actually, who could finish first. Me and Kev were writing ‘Hospital Song’ and Graham and Eric were writing ‘Headline Hustler’ and we finished first, didn’t we?

Kevin: Yeah.

Lol: Yeah, we finished first. It’s interesting that all the songs in that album were developing a personality then and it was coming up by the last tracks of that first album. An identity was beginning to form…like those very bizarre songs. We were almost seeing how mad we could write…seeing how far we could go and ‘Hospital Song’ went quite far. It was a very exciting period and all these things were just arriving, like the ways of putting over certain emotions – like the heavy sound or light sounds. The humour. They were all coming together.

Graham: In fact, talking about that kind of harmony, people in the Beatle era…everybody used to sing very, very high, but because we’ve got two quite strong low voices we started using lower harmonies and a lot of people have started doing that now as well.

‘DEAN AND I’

Kevin: Well I’ve always had an affection for the 30s and 40s. I was very into art deco at the particular time of writing that and I just wanted to do something in that vein, yet up to date, in a way, which I think we did very successfully in that track.

Graham: We’re very into America.

Eric: Yeah, this is very Doris Day musical sort of thing (sings).

Lol: It’s interesting though, because it’s a field of music that Eric hates. He hates it. I mean when we first played it and we played it on guitars he didn’t like it at all.

Eric: I hated it. Absolutely.

Lol: And he only got behind it when it was in production.

Eric: Yeah, I hated it. This is the democratic side of the group at work. We’re prepared to try anything, no matter which one of the group hates the production or the song that we’ve got. We do try to go through and do it to its ultimate and that particular song reminded me tremendously of Hollywood musicals like South Pacific and Oklahoma which I abhor. I can’t say I really hate them – there’s not a word strong enough…a word to say what I feel about those musicals…I just hate them.

(Recorder interpolates with a suggestion that certain tracks show a strong visual dependency).

Lol: This is where we’ve failed. That is where we’ve taken on a project. It’s worked in some ways and it hasn’t worked quite well enough because every song we’ve ever done is by no means perfect. At least it’s the start of a good idea and we’ve taken it as far as we could at the time. Every time you look back on tracks you know you can improve on them, and the criticism is probably very valid…we didn’t go far enough.

Kevin: You see the three of us at one time or another were involved in art. We were students at art college for a long time so perhaps we’re still thinking in visual terms when we’re writing songs.

Eric: Yeah, it’s quite a valid comment. You’re quite right, we do work visually because it’s comfortable for us to see a thing, visually when we’re writing it. We see it immediately because we’re that kind of people. We’ve been brought up on that kind of thing and it’s never occurred to us that probably 90 per cent of the public who we’re selling the records to have not got the same conception that we have.

Lol: It worked to a degree, otherwise nobody would like them.

Graham: This is why it’s important to put a lyric-sheet in an album, so people can read and create their own mind pictures, the way we do.

Lol: You have to leave something to the imagination of the listener. You can’t give them it all.

‘WALL STREET SHUFFLE’

Eric: Graham and I wrote that. At the time there was the beginning of the downfall of the pound, although it’s been dropping ever since I can remember. But this time it was a very heavy run and the mark and the yen were getting stronger, and all these words you could use in other ways. So it was just a comment really on the financial time.

Lol: Well, Wall Street was important from my point of view because when we did the first album, writing-wise, Kevin and I did a lot of the writing, and Eric didn’t have that much confidence in writing because he hadn’t been doing much, and ‘Wall Street’ was important because it was one of the first tracks he’d written. He did write it with Graham but a lot of the ideas were his own. It was his first major piece of writing that was a) successful and b) very good.

This gave confidence to Eric as a writer and it created a whole new thing, because it took a lot of the weight off our shoulders. We’d already heard the effect the first album had shown and Sheet Music saw that style come into its full. You know, the fact that we could use wit and get away with it and take things lighter than most people take them and still make serious music, but not pretentiously heavy serious music, but good music that had humour to it. And the style came to its full and the writers came to their full when they got confident. So that song was pretty important really.

‘SOMEWHERE IN HOLLYWOOD’

Graham: This was the start of something new again in that it was quite a long track. It was very involved with totally opposing sections that worked together beautifully. There’s a fantastic melody and words and also, again, the whole thing works right from the start.

(Recorder: Isn’t it the start, though, of what might be called your epic syndrome?).

Graham: It’s only part of our writing as it exists. So what!

Lol: Yeah, we are into epics. We’re also into short ditties. We like everything. There are shorties like ‘Hospital Song’, ‘Clockwork Creeps’ and ‘Silly Love’…I mean, those are little ditties. There are more substantial things, bigger projects that we take on like the Hollywoods, like the Paris’s. Because you have that need. We don’t want to be full of short, meaningless ditties, and we don’t want to be full of long epics either.

‘UNE NUIT A PARIS’

Eric: This was originally written as a 20-odd minute piece by Kev and Lol and they brought it into Graham and me and we criticised a large section of it saying it wasn’t needed. It was just padded out to make it long. And this epic syndrome you’re talking about…it was too far in that direction. We’d overstepped the mark. So we started editing it down while they were actually playing it to us. Eventually we knocked it down to about eight minutes long.

We worked on that song for about two weeks, filling it with every kind of instrument we could think of and then eventually scrapped the whole lot and went back to piano, bass and drums, which is all the song is. The lyric sheet was written as a script with the characters at the sides of the lines. And then we had to find the people in the band whose voice and voices would fit the characters. It was a really interesting project and I think it worked fabulously. But critically, when it first came out, it was passed off as a 10cc-trying-to-be-funny-again track.

Kevin: That was a track that from a writer’s point of view was a serious piece of music. I forget who it was, but someone dismissed it as an extended piece of fun, which pissed me off no end.

Lol: Yeah, it was macabre. It was about a murder, and musically we’d tried to stretch ourselves by setting up a new musical problem and then trying to solve it. It was one that took a long time to solve and it required the help of all four minds to get it to work.

Kevin: I think what the epic syndrome is all about with us really is that when we write a song we don’t want to limit ourselves to the song, we want to pour out everything we’re thinking about and three minutes isn’t enough time. We want to live the whole thing for as long as we can and put everything into it.

‘I’M NOT IN LOVE’

Kevin: I think if I was to pick a track of everything we’ve done, this would be my favourite track. It’s got something that I think none of our other tracks have at all. It’s not clever in a conscious way but it says it all so simply in, what, six minutes.

Lol: When it was first written we listened to it and it sounded good but there was something that stopped it working when we came to record it. And what it boiled down to again was that there was too much in the song. There was a certain middle eight that is no longer there that brought the thing down and made it a bit of a bummer. When we came back to it we left out that bit and replaced it with the “big boys don’t cry” section…that whole atmosphere seemed to be more in keeping with, like, the strangeness of the thing. The song had a lot of feeling. It was, like, a one-take job straight off the top of Eric’s head. A lot of our songs are fairly cold in a certain way. They’re very precise and lack certain warmth. This one didn’t. It was precise and it had that warmth.

‘SECOND SITTING FOR THE LAST SUPPER’

(Recorder suggests that they have the spontaneity anyway, that a song like ‘Second Sitting’ is less “aspiring” than much of their work and sounds like it might have been written in a hurry).

Lol: In fact ‘Worst Band’ was far more spontaneous. ‘Second Sitting’, that was three or four days of the song being written…not being happy with it and changing it around.

Graham: We not only changed the feel, but it was a case of bringing in other writers as well, because when Eric and I had finished it we realised it was slow moving and we weren’t happy with it even though we knew it was good.

Lol: Musically it was full of good ideas, but lyrically the idea didn’t quite make the point. So we decided to try and make the point a bit more strongly. On the production side we decided to speed it up a bit. Have a bit of fun with it. So it became a rock ‘n’ roll thing.

‘OLD WILD MEN’

All: And here we are…

Kevin: That’s got a history of Hotlegs…me and Lol trying to record it on our own after Hotlegs split up. We got a few ideas out of it. It was the gizmo (a strangely amplified guitar).

Yeah it was the idea behind the gizmo. But the idea behind the song? I don’t know how it cropped up but we suddenly had this picture of Eric Clapton in a wheelchair. You know-what the hell are they going to be doing in 50 years time? Then we started worrying about it. ourselves.

Eric: I don’t think you could criticise ‘Old Wild Men’. For me it works beautifully…as a production, as a song, musically, lyrically. Soundwise, I think it’s one of the best things we ever did and we personally love the song because onstage it goes down so incredibly well.

‘I’M MANDY, FLY ME’

(A suggestion that this is aimless and lacks intensity)

Graham: There’s no time to set that mood up. When you’ve broken from that mood – and the song demanded that the mood is broken – you lose that element. Whereas ‘I’m Not In Love’…it’s all the way through.

Lol: In ‘Mandy’ it’s a different tale we’re telling.

Graham: It’s almost Eric and my way of writing a Kevin and Lol song because Kev and Lol were writing these songs in bits and pieces before we ever did it.

Lol: We had to make this album the best album you’ve ever heard and it had to be better than anything we’ve ever done before.

Graham: I remember discussions like “Is this music? Is this good music? What is music? Who am I?”

Lol: And what happens is you get awfully paranoid and you’re scared to actually pick up an instrument There is a paronia there. You see, people are going to say you’re trying too hard. But you’ve got to try hard in order to do better. You can’t just allow it to happen. If you don’t make a conscious effort to improve on yourself you’re just going to produce the formula. You know this is going to work. We know if we write a funny song that’ll work and people will get off. But you’ve got to work and try for this result.

‘WORST BAND IN THE WORLD’

(Recorder proffers theory of 10cc surrealism operating as a sub-unit).

Kevin: That is a problem. I don’t necessarily feel it is one with that particular track, but it’s always a problem when people tell you what you do, you know. They say you’re very witty, you’re very sarcastic, and the structures of your songs are great and then you sit down to write another song and you’re aware…and as soon as you’re aware it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous both ways. If we think we should not do it then we might stray totally away from it. If we accept it then it’s also difficult.

Graham: But the music somehow demands its own treatment doesn’t it? If the music is calling out for a certain atmosphere then it’s silly not to put it in. We usually try all sorts of atmospheres and there’s usually one that’s just right.

‘ROCK’N’ROLL LULLABY’

Kevin: I’m not sure why I selected this. I think I like it because originally I was fighting against the other three in the band to have this song included in the album. Since then we’ve all come to agree that it’s great. It’s musically and lyrically a very comfortable track to listen to. It’s not like one of our strange tracks where something odd happens. It seems to work in a way that even the simplest mind could follow quite easily, and most of the great songs you’ve ever heard in your life seem to work in that simple kind of way.

Lol: There are a lot of holes in that track. The song is down and the playing’s awful.

Eric: Yeah. But I find it satisfying on quite a few levels.

‘DONT HANG UP’

Graham: There’s an incredible amount of strength in the song, particularly from the vocal performance because that is one of the best vocal performances I’ve ever heard, technically and physically. And it was a very emotional thing to record because on the one hand you’re getting deeply romantic about the whole thing, the next minute you’re sort of playing Spanish guitars and castanets…all in one track. And it has a lovely conclusion to it which works beautifully.

Lol: It was a different direction in the writing. Usually our lyrics are very direct but this time they are used far more surrealistically.

Kevin: It’s a drag when you do attempt to use whatever lyrical power you have in this way and then someone says “can anyone tell me what this means…” In a review, I mean. You know, you can’t win.

Lol: And yet people like other people’s songs who’ve never written a direct thing in their lives. It’s pure imagery and pure abstract imagery. We try to combine a bit of both.

‘RUBBER BULLETS’

Eric: I was responsible for that, although I didn’t write it. It’s a kind of updated version of Angels With Dirty Faces (a Cagney movie). There’s a mail riot and the padre comes into tell them “Put down your guns boys”. Kev and Lol came into the studio with ‘Rubber Bullets’ prepared to throw it away because they didn’t think it was any good. And I thought it was a great commercial song. And Graham did too. The chorus “Load up with rubber bullets” was so grabbing. I thought it was a smash hit and said so straightaway. But it wasn’t finished and it was Graham who put in the middle bit and various other bits and pieces. I love it because it was the first number one we had and that was a great buzz. And I love it because onstage it works beautifully.

It’s great just to do a piece of rock ‘n’ roll instead of an intricate number. It’s a great relief.

© Andrew TylerNew Musical Express, 7 February 1976

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