10cc: "We realised we could record anything and people would be interested"

10cc, L-R: Graham Gouldman, Kevin Godley, Lol Creme, Eric Stewart
10cc, L-R: Graham Gouldman, Kevin Godley, Lol Creme, Eric\u00a0Stewart (Image credit: REX\/Shutterstock)

“We did fix ourselves in a good place in modern music,” reflects Eric Stewart. “I think we carried the mantle of The Beatles in that everything we wrote, recorded and released, whether it was a single or an album, was completely different each time we went in the studio. We didn’t have a George Martin around to keep us in check though, and the amazingly different ideas that we kept coming up with – musically, lyrically etc – would sadly eventually tear us apart.”

Indeed, as four gifted musicians who were all accomplished songwriters, 10cc should have been the next Beatles. They had the brains. They had the balls. They even had the Gizmotron, for God’s sake! If the band weren’t conceived by immaculate conception or artificial insemination then much of the kudos should go to Stewart as a savvy visionary.

Having made some money as lead singer and guitarist with The Mindbenders, Stewart had the foresight to partner with Peter Tattersall (former road manager for Billy J Kramer) and invest his savings in constructing a studio at number three Waterloo Road, in the middle of Stockport. Tattersall had recognised the need for a professional studio outside of London, to cater for the ever-expanding music industry in and around Manchester and all points north.

Stewart, like Tattersall, had always harboured an abiding interest in the engineering and production side of making music, and it was Stewart who dubbed it Strawberry Studios after John Lennon’s own homage to Strawberry Fields. A few months later, Graham Gouldman joined the partnership, investing earnings he had made from his success as a songwriter penning hits for the likes of The Yardbirds, Herman’s Hermits, The Hollies and Jeff Beck.

It was Graham who introduced Kevin Godley and his art school friend Lol Creme to Eric Stewart, who soon realised the pair had a close working relationship. As Creme recollects, “When we were 14 or 15 years old, Kev and I wanted to be Simon & Garfunkel, we loved all those harmonies and wanted to write cool songs. The music and the lyrics were very important to us. And we were tuned in to the same wavelength: we were two halves of the same person. We could finish off each other’s sentences.”

On the set of the movie To Sir, With Love in 1966, L-R: actress Judy Geeson, singer Lulu and The Mindbenders – Eric Stewart, Ric Rothwell and Bob Lang

On the set of the movie To Sir, With Love in 1966, L-R: actress Judy Geeson, singer Lulu and The Mindbenders – Eric Stewart, Ric Rothwell and Bob Lang (Image credit: Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images)

Gouldman, in the meantime, departed for New York to work for the inappropriately named Super K Productions under Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz, writing bubblegum pop songs for the likes of Ohio Express and Crazy Elephant. Though Gouldman felt his career had reached a low ebb, he was able to console himself by sweet talking his employers into allowing him to record some of the material he had written at Strawberry Studios.

As the in-house band, the quartet were handsomely paid to grind out a ragbag of assorted songs that Super K Productions would issue Stateside under any number of trite pseudonyms. Of all the material they recorded over three months, it was the darkling humour of There Ain’t No Umbopo, a Wild Man of Borneo scenario dreamt up by Godley and Creme, which gave a tantalising glimpse through the foliage of things to come.

The lucrative pay packet they received from the bubblegum factory allowed Stewart to upgrade Strawberry Studios, while Gouldman headed back to New York. Following the installation of an Ampex four-track machine and purpose-built control desk, they set about sounding out the capabilities of the new equipment.

It was while Godley spent hours behind his drum kit for a test recording that Lol Creme sought to relieve the boredom by strumming his acoustic guitar and ad-libbing a primal lyric that became Neanderthal Man. Released as a single in June 1970, it proved a runaway success for Hotlegs, as the three-piece now called themselves.

The single sold over two million copies worldwide, but the failure of the group to tour and capitalise on their success meant the public soon lost interest in what appeared to be nothing more than a novelty act. The belated release of their album Thinks: School Stinks nine months later meant they had lost all impetus and so returned to working as the in-house band for many of the acts that hired the studio.

Life continued in much the same vein, supporting whoever came in through the door, until Neil Sedaka arrived following the recommendation of Gouldman’s manager Harvey Lisberg. Sedaka had intended to record no more than two or three numbers with the band, but he was so impressed by their musicianship that he stayed to record the album that became Solitaire. It saw Sedaka return to the charts after several years on the chicken-in-a‑basket circuit.

At this point it occurred to the foursome to form a band on their own terms. Gouldman recalls: “We began discussing the idea of doing something for ourselves. We were studio animals after all, so why don’t we form a band? It was a no-brainer, and we should have done it before.”

So the quartet began writing their own material, coming up almost instantly with the doo-wop parody Donna. Invited to listen to their demo, Jonathan King recognised a hit when he heard one and immediately signed them to his own UK label. Still without a name, King chose the moniker 10cc, and whatever his many faults, he ensured they had a Top 10 hit.

“I suppose we have to give him a certain bit of credit,” says Gouldman, “because he did it. He took the songs we had recorded and chose the best and gave us a hit single. Unfortunately we signed away those songs for perpetuity: he was out to make money first and foremost. But everybody who was involved with 10cc in any way was a part of what we became, and we are proud of what we achieved, and that’s the point I’d like to make.”

Even though a second doo-wop skit, Johnny Don’t Do It, failed to chart, a string of exemplary singles followed in quick succession: Rubber Bullets, The Dean And I, The Worst Band In The World, The Wall Street Shuffle and Silly Love, each veering between art rock, musical cartoonery and high‑camp nonchalance.

With no preconceived ideas, their self-titled debut was recorded in three weeks. “The first album was 100 per cent instinct,” says Godley. “It was written and recorded very quickly in response to our first hit Donna. Prior to that, writing and recording was relatively formal and thoughtful, but this was about slapping ideas down as soon as they arrived and moving on.”

Hotlegs, L-R: Lol Creme, Eric Stewart, Kevin Godley. Inset: their 1970 Thinks: School Stinks album

Hotlegs, L-R: Lol Creme, Eric Stewart, Kevin Godley. Inset: their 1970 Thinks: School Stinks album (Image credit: GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images)

Gouldman also remains attached to the album. “The Hospital Song is one of my favourites. [Sings:] ‘I’ll wreak my wrath on all blood donors, and their sisters, visiting time and flowers, when sister brings that bedpan round I’ll piss like April showers.’ Lol really sings that last line with powerful gusto.”

The album also introduced the unsuspecting world to the Gizmotron, an effects device that had first been developed by Godley and Creme three years earlier. Mounted to the bridge of a guitar, the motor-driven device employed a series of serrated plastic wheels to vibrate the guitar strings and so duplicate the string section of an orchestra and various electronic effects otherwise difficult or time‑consuming to replicate. As a prototype synthesiser, it was a brilliant concept, even if annoyingly unreliable.

Their not-so difficult second album followed a short 10 months later. It wasn’t so much a hop, skip and jump as a quantum leap from their debut to Sheet Music. It was the flawless work of four individuals willing to collaborate on a first-hand job of work and who didn’t give a wang, dang doodle about what people thought or expected of them.

Stewart says, “Sheet Music was a thrill for us to record. We’d just scored several hit singles and our first No.1 with Rubber Bullets, and we were really flying high on those successes. We realised that, like The Beatles, we could record anything, in any style, and people would be interested.”

Sheet Music enshrined a rare moment when the whole band were singing from the same hymn book in the same church.

The pasta-based rationale of Life Is A Minestrone gave the band another hit when released as a trailer for their next album, The Original Soundtrack. This was a movie for the ears – scenes from everyday life shot in glorious technicolor, with the band seeking to embrace an ever more cinematic soundstage. From the mock opera of One Night In Paris (a Mad fold-in for Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody?) to the ethereal melancholia of I’m Not In Love to their Fellini folly, The Film Of My Love, there’s much to savour here, even if the album ultimately suffers by comparison to Sheet Music.

Even the success of I’m Not In Love did nothing to improve their anomalous image. As Gouldman explains: “Whenever they make documentaries about the 70s, people talk about glam rock and prog rock. I don’t tend to put 10cc in either category, but it still pisses us all off that we don’t get a mention.

“I know we didn’t have a frontman as such; Roxy had Bryan Ferry and Queen had Freddie Mercury and so on, and I know it didn’t help that we couldn’t project ourselves. We just didn’t have outgoing personalities. We were always known as the professors of pop, which I didn’t mind to some extent. But people often thought that we were more interested in the science of music, rather that the emotional side. But I don’t think you can get any more emotional than I’m Not In Love.”

How Dare You! (1976) proved a more cohesive work than its predecessor, much of the album forsaking immediacy in favour of more thoughtful constructs. Communication is the problem to be answered here. It begins with the implied obscenities of the title track and concludes in the unspoken farewells of Don’t Hang Up, which signalled the end of the quartet’s marriage.

“We had a different approach to that album,” says Gouldman. “I sensed the beginning of the end. I remember while we were making it that we all got the vibe that the inevitable was going to happen and it did. But the flame burnt very brightly while it lasted.”

Stewart was also aware of the mounting tension. “How Dare You! was recorded as the two main writing teams – myself and Gouldman, Godley and Creme – really started to push in opposite directions,” he explains. “But it all seemed to work at the time and I really did enjoy engineering and mixing the album. While we were recording it, Kevin was coming out with some heavy statements like, ‘I don’t want to do any more crap like this,’ after I played The Things We Do For Love to him and Lol, but we somehow managed to get enough songs together to release an album.”

No sooner had the band finished recording How Dare You! than Kevin Godly and Lol Creme upped sticks and left to record an album of their own, primarily to promote the Gizmotron. The proposed single album soon became a triple with a droll narrative written and performed by comedian Peter Cook.

Amid the sprawling, unfocused opus that is Consequences lie seven songs of varying excellence. Five O’ Clock In The Morning was extracted as a single and premiered on Top Of The Pops. It was an overtly mild-mannered number, sounding for all the world like a scholarly outtake from Sgt. Pepper, though the Gizmo is conspicuous by its absence.

Dismissed by critics and the public alike, Consequences was an unjustified flop, though the retail price of £12 doubtless helped to invoke the law of diminishing returns.

“We locked ourselves away for 18 months,” Creme recalls. “It was a great experience and I loved every minute of it. I know we went way over budget, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. We had the chance to work with Peter Cook for three months. He was warm‑hearted and generous – a comic genius really. And then we got to work with Sarah Vaughan on Lost Weekend – what a superb treat for both Kev and myself.”

Before the dope dreams had settled, the Mancunian musos decamped from Phonogram to Polydor, and within a year recorded and released L, a self‑healing antidote to the excesses of Consequences.

“This is my favourite Godley & Creme album,” says Godley. “Why? Because were starting from scratch when we made it. Hence the L plate! L was our way of bypassing the radar and our own brain drain. As we weren’t following up a hit, there were zero expectations from the record label and we knew our music needed seriously rehabilitating so we stayed invisible and downsized our approach.”

Making A Spectacle Of Himself: Kevin Godley today

Making A Spectacle Of Himself: Kevin Godley today

Recorded at Surrey Studios in Leatherhead, L marked a triumphal return to form. The songs tackle a range of themes that suggest the pair may have been spending some time on the psychiatrist’s couch enumerating their fears, phobias and inhibitions, from the suicidal impulses of This Sporting Life to the schoolboy tyranny of Punchbag and the cloistered suffocation of Group Life. Only the Zappa-esque Sandwiches Of You offers a light bite of relief, with cannibalistic overtones predating Hannibal Lecter by several meal times.

Creme remembers. “While we were recording L, The Police were also using the studio during the day and so Kev and I lent them our instruments and they worked really hard. Then Miles Copeland would come down and say, ‘That’s a load of bollocks, do it again.’ It may have helped them but it wouldn’t have helped us. We were thankfully insulated from all such pressure.”

Never standard-bearers for mediocrity, the release of Freeze Frame (1979) found the pair in an even more adventurous mode. Both agree they now saw the attraction of using the studio as a “writing tool” to continue advancing their creative curiosities.

As Godley elaborates: “Loops, echoes, effects boxes, harmonisers, you name it, we used it. Freeze Frame took this approach one step further. Example: I Pity Inanimate Objects. My original vocal was a monotone – one note all the way through. Not easy, I must say. Then we pushed the recorded vocal through a harmoniser (mostly used today to retune vocals) that was attached to a keyboard, which meant Lol could play my voice, like a piano, and make it do anything and go anywhere.

“The lyric was essentially about me exploring immobility in a moving world. How that might feel, look, hurt, frustrate. I was focusing more on lyrics around then.

Mugshots was one of those songs that grew from the sound of the word. Often there’s nothing you’re looking to say particularly in a song, but a sound, a word, a noise, anything that can instigate the germ of one and start to move you towards a result. If you’re open to where it’s taking you, it can gather layers of sense, musicality and mood en route, so I guess it’s like creative discipline.

“Your mind/radar trains itself to recognise what’s useful and reject what isn’t, be it a painting, filmmaking, sculpture, photography or music. It’s all the same under the hood really. It just comes out differently.

“Besides the creative aspect of working with Phil Manzanera on the album, it was also a major thrill to have Paul McCartney sing backup on Get Well Soon. He simply reacted to what we’d done with three or four vocal overdubs and gave it a whole new life.”

1981 album Ismisim was recorded at a chaotic point in their lives. “Music was changing, we were changing,” recalls Godley. “This was a seriously busy and schizophrenic time.”

They were now much sought after as video directors and had also been busy installing a small studio in Creme’s house when Godley slipped a disc. It reduced his ability to sing or stand for any length of time, and playing the drums was definitely out of the question, forcing them to employ Linn drums and programmable synths. Less singing and more talking led to the recording of the appetising starter, Snack Attack: an epicurean wrapper’s delight.

Seeing adversity as an opportunity, Godley produced further oral outings, as with The Problem, Ready For Ralph, Lonnie and The Party, the latter nothing short of a scathing monologue on the mores of showbiz sychophants.

As Godley explains: “The Party was a musical documentary of sorts, detailing people and events at a real party at our house.”

At one point Godley & Creme are accosted by a guest who, taking stock of their ‘shagged out chic’ offers a caution: ‘And it must be a blow to the ego, what! But forget about this video rot/And write yourselves a hit or three/Like I’m Not In Paris or The Dean And Me/I mean I really don’t like your stuff very much/It’s too avant-garde and aggressive and butch.’ You could hardly imagine U2 or Coldplay willing to rib themselves so mercilessly.

Life imitated art on this occasion as two songs lifted from the album gave them their first Top 10 hits after five years as a deadpan alley duo. Under Your Thumb nails a brief encounter between the quick and the dead, while Wedding Bells – an out-and-out denial of love – sounds uncannily like a fitting sequel to I’m Not In Love.

In the same year, Godley & Creme also wrote and illustrated their first (to date) book: The Fun Starts Here (Out-Takes From A Rock Memoir), which faithfully details the boorish and crass excesses of the music business. “It took two years to produce the artwork, though the text came very easily,” Creme explains. “It was very much based on our own experiences in the music business.”

Whereas films such as That’ll Be The Day and Stardust may have done much to invalidate rock’n’roll as an art form, The Fun Starts Here succeeds in knocking them all into a coked hat.

Their fourth album, Birds Of Prey, was released in 1983, at a time when the pair were more deeply engrossed in directing music videos and Godley was still suffering from back problems.

“I don’t think we were quite in the mood for recording when we made this record,” says Godley. “A lot was happening on the film front so our focus wasn’t as tight as it could have been. There are a few sparkles – it wasn’t a complete failure. It was e-drums all the way, with a bit of real percussion here and there, and I could actually stand up and sing by then.”

Godley and Creme with Peter Cook, holding a guitar fitted with a prototype Gizmotron

Godley and Creme with Peter Cook, holding a guitar fitted with a prototype Gizmotron (Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

The a cappella opener, My Body The Car, is a highlight, as too are Worm And The Rattlesnake, Save A Mountain For Me and the goosebump-inducing closer Out In The Cold, though much else makes for an uneven album.

The old guard was changing when Cry (1985) returned them to the singles charts. “Cry was a strange one,” says Godley. “We’d actually written the first verse 15 years before recording it. We could never get past the opening refrain until working with Trevor Horn and his team loosened us up to think of it in a different way. We were originally hoping to write a far more complex, perhaps more obvious song, but the process of action and reaction within the Sarm studio [in west London] setup took it in a very stripped-down and atmospheric direction.”

The song also benefited from one of the most beguiling videos of the time, though even this was a fortuitous accident. “The video – interesting as it is – was in fact Plan B. Plan A was to have Torvill and Dean ice skate to the song, but our schedules weren’t compatible, so faces, faces and more faces was the last-minute alternative. Thank fuck for faces!”

A further five years elapsed before the release of Goodbye Blue Sky (1988), and there’s more than a whiff of fire and brimstone about the whole album. The air of portentous doom was due in part to Godley’s involvement with a short-lived organization called ARK, that he had cofounded with Chrissie Hynde, Bryn Jones, Isaac Tigrett and Matthew Freud, among others.

“We were concerned with environmental issues and how to bring them to the public’s attention,” states Godley. “We wanted to push home a message that wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is now, and that slow sense of impending apocalypse inevitably seeped into the songs.”

Even if advocating retribution, Godley and Creme were both in buoyant mood while recording the album, as Creme recalls.

“This was all done at my home studio,” he says. “It was a beautiful summer and we were enjoying working together on an album again. We went back to basics for a more organic feel. We decided we could replace orchestrations with just a rhythm section and harmonicas, so we auditioned a number of players and finally choose Mark Feltham and Mitt Gamon. And for backing vocals we had the Londonbeat, whom we had worked with before. We wanted to recreate that band feel all over again.”

“I really like this album,” agrees Godley, “because it has a definite style and approach. We were kicking against electronica to a degree and aiming for a more soulful result. Drums were back on the agenda and we’d found a way to shoehorn a minimal kit into Lol’s studio room.”

A short time after the completion of the album the pair decided to part company. Godley, in his autobiography Spacecake, pays a tribute to his former colleague. “It was sad but timely. After 25 amazing, inspiring, enriching and life-defining years, we went our separate ways. Thank you Lol, you were the best friend and creative partner I could’ve wished for in the entire world… but please forgive me, I have to step off this cliff into something new…”

The ever-philosophical Creme entertains no regrets, and looks back fondly on his time as one half of Messrs Godley & Creme, and with equal affection upon the time he spent as part of 10cc when they almost got to boss the world around.

“I loved writing The Dean And I and The Worst Band In The World,” Creme says. “They epitomise the arrogance of youth. We were young, we were determined and we felt immortal, I suppose. But how many people ever get the chance to be in that position, to experience what we went through?

“We could just go into the studio and record with confidence because we were so well-rated that we thought people would dig it – and they did. And we were utterly grateful for the opportunity to do what we wanted, and I don’t think any of us would have any complaints about that. We were the luckiest bastards on the planet.”

Before During After – The Story Of 10cc is out now on four-disc and two‑disc editions via UMC. Godley & Creme Body Of Work 1978-1988 is available from November 17 via Caroline. For more information, see www.facebook.com/10ccBand and www.carolineinternational.com.

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