Hit Parader, November 1975
FIVE YEARS AGO one of the most mindless, repetitious, quintessential singles thumped up the world record charts in double-quick time. It was called 'Neanderthal Man'. The group was Hotlegs. Today, that same group is the darling of Britain. They're called 10cc.
The group's debut revolves around Strawberry Studios in Manchester. Eric Stewart had just left the Mindbenders and was building it with top songwriter Graham Gouldman ('For Your Love', 'Heart Full Of Soul', a slew of Herman's Hermits). Hanging out were local art students Lol Creme and Kevin Godley. In the course of experimenting and testing the studio they layed down a series of drum tracks, with vocals coming through on the bass drum mike – a bit of a mess all round. Dick Leahy, a singles genius, was checking out the studio, they played him the tape as a joke, and he told them they had a smash hit. That was 'Neanderthal Man'.
"After the record was Number Two we were a bit big headed," muses drummer Kevin Godley. "We thought, 'We're stars now, let's piss off to Barbados for six months.' Really mature people we were."
Upon return they made an album of what "we thought was good music" and toured. with the Moody Blues, but things didn't gell, so they retired to Strawberry where for three years they produced and played for other people. It culminated with Neil Sedaka – their manager had met him in America, played him some tapes, and Neil visited the studio initially to do some demos, but liked the sound so much he stayed on for two albums.
"By this time we were getting cheesed off putting our ideas into other people's music, so we decided to start our own production unit making our own records. We did a nice track called 'Today' which didn't do anything, then a track called 'Waterfall'. A B-side had to be written, so we wrote 'Donna', recorded it, and realized it was a damn sight more commercial. Eric had an idea at the time to approach Jonathan King, and he liked the record."
Jonathan King, a millionaire from releasing silly singles, had supposedly chanced upon the name 10cc in a dream. Rumour also has it he based the name on the supposed fact that normal sperm emission measures 9cc; i.e. 10cc was superman material. Whichever you prefer, King signed them to his UK label and 'Donna', a ridiculous pastiche of Fifties unrequited love ballads, soon zoomed into the Top Ten. The follow up was a flop, but the third, 'Rubber Bullets', lodged them as a favourite in the hearts of all those who like their rock humourous, witty, precise, pointed, and with a backbeat you can't lose. The first album merely confirmed these feelings.
"We had to do 10cc in about three weeks, so we all came into the studio and wrote our balls off; whatever came into our heads. Although, obviously, there's thought to the songs, we didn't stop to analyze it, and when it was finished we all split on holidays, came back and listened to it and it had an identity, which was something we'd never had before. Obviously, we became conscious of it after that and became very thoughtful about the songs from then on."
It was the second album that confirmed 10cc as a major talent. Sheet Music was two sides of the things that made 'Rubber Bullets' fantastic; a never ending stream of brilliance, probably due to breaking from their previous songwriting pairs of Kevin and Lol, Graham and Eric, to try new combinations.
"It was a bit scary at first; we did it to see what would happen...Writing has a lot to do with rapport, and if you've never written with anyone before it's a weird experience, but two good songs came out of it and we continued. In the future we might have two of us start a song and then pass it on to the others, like a chain.
"We've each got different musical tastes; if one of us has an idea for a special song he'll know in his own mind which of the other guys will be the one to write it with. If it's going to be a rock song, the best person to write it with is Eric, whereas if I want to do something a bit more complex I usually work with Lol. We don't really draw from experience, because we haven't really led very colourful lives. We get a lot of inspiration from films...media. Read an article in a newspaper, or a documentary on TV. We try to look for interesting subjects; we find it difficult to write personal songs because two people writing together, it's difficult to write a personal song unless they're talking about the same person."
Thus, an album about hijacks, Arab oil barons, touristas, and the old wild men of rock and roll.
Also highly notable was the introduction of the Gizmo. All four are multi-instrumentalists, and there was a desire amongst them to have an orchestra at home, to try out arrangements and so forth. The Gizmo is the result, sitting just over the bridge of a guitar, rubbing the strings when you twiddle some knobs, sounding like a cross between a string section and a mellotron.
"The Gizmo is interesting because up to that time all our other outside projects had been art projects but this is like – well, mechanics is anathema to us, but once we had something to apply it to, it was really interesting to be working in wheels and ratios.
"We were doing a session one night and we strapped Lol's Stratocaster to the wall and got an electric drill with a big rubber knob on the end and ploughed into the strings. From there we graduated to an electric toothbrush with a plectrum at somebody's party one night. Then it was elastic bands and electric motors until – *click* – that's the way to do it. We now have a prototype, which Lol has been using in concert."
At your neighbourhood music emporium soon.
It wasn't until this year, though, that 10cc, renaissance band, really hit the big time. They had reluctantly toured last year, including two tours of America, but wanted to recreate their records live before feeling comfortable in front of an audience. The Original Soundtrack was recorded, and with it came a label change, to Phonogram. When the album was released they hit the road with a vengeance, reproducing their immaculate record production exactly. It wasn't long before single and album hit the charts' stratosphere.
"'One Night In Paris' came from a desire to get away from writing about America...let's write about something else. Originally it was to take up one side of an lp, but there was a lot of padding, so we cut it down to the good parts. It was like our tribute to George Gershwin in his centenary year.
"'I'm Not In Love' has 256 voices for the backing track. It was an experiment; it would be interesting to see if it worked. It was a series of tape loops, rerecorded, dubbed, overdubbed, tracked...We played them like instruments through the board. It was quite technical and we had to get it right the first time because we had to mix them all down to two tracks to get the other stuff on the tape."
This mood of experimentation is something they would like to pursue more often, but Strawberry Studios is a thriving business, and they have to book ahead like anyone else. They are now thinking of building another studio solely for themselves.
But what of their next trip to America? That will only come, says Kevin, when they have a hit.
"It's crucial we make it in America. If you want to make it as a world group as opposed to a quite popular band in England, you have to make it in America, and I'm sure we will sooner or later. But we have a problem in that the two tours we have done, not being headliners, we had to do it in 45 minutes. Our music is so varied it's difficult to get into it in 45 minutes. So on the gig front I don't think we've got through to people yet. We'll have to break our records first and then do a tour with the lights and everything."
His eyes twitch yet again. The previous evening's end-of-tour party had featured a pie and soda siphon fight. Kevin had gone to bed at six. It was now twelve. His eyes twitched again of their own accord. The price of success.
© Jonh Ingham