Friday, 12 November 2010
"10cc" (1972) (News, Views and Music 80; Revised Review 2016)
10cc “10cc” (1973)
Johnny Don’t Do It/Sand In My Face/Donna/The Dean and I/Headline Hustler/Speed Kills/Rubber Bullets/The Hospital Song/Ships Don’t Just Disappear In The Night (Do They?!?!?)/Fresh Air For My Mama
‘We had a lot to say and we said it all’
Considering this album contains a #1 hit, a #2 hit and a #10 hit, this album – the first proper debut album of 10cc after more false starts than a fixed Olympics – hasn’t half been forgotten over the years. Not as flashy as the follow-up ‘Sheet Music’, not as plush as ‘The Original Soundtrack’ or as downright weird as ‘How Dare You?’, this album always seems to get overlooked, which is poor reward for a record that's arguably the most 10cc ish of 10cc albums and which simply by being the first release of a sound quite unlike any other around in 1970s music is hugely important. Like so many things with age the world has become blasé about 10cc, but when they arrived they were a breath of fresh air, music that could out-production glam while taking things more seriously and simultaneously being far less pompous than prog. Never before had pop music tickled the world’s funnybones and made them think and cry all at once while working on three levels: as tuneful pop fodder, as intellectual exercise and as emotional venting. Above all, this band were brilliantly weird, with this album especially full of ten catchy songs that could all have been big hits had the band written about normal subject matter, only they didn’t because mere pop songs would have been boring. This is a band with a message and who, a few holidays and re-thinks on from ‘Hotlegs’, are far readier for success this second (third?) time around and certain to make the most of it. Even by 10cc standards the sheer amount of ideas, hooks and switches in style are colossal and in other circumstances would be seen as showing off; instead its more likely that the band was simply grabbing a hold of their latest opportunity and grabbing it with every other limb in case it went away again.
Now, it was years before I knew this album as an album proper – all 10 tracks from the album are on the compilation ‘Best Of The Early Years’, a strong compilation with a weird name given that it contains ever-so-nearly all the recordings made by the band for Jonathon King’s record label – and I have to say that hearing this album in its proper order for the first time sounded really weird even by 10cc standards. That's a good weird though, in an unforgettable 'what the?...I've never heard anything like this before' kind of a way. Having been cooped up backing second-rate stars making second-rate albums for most of the past few years, the band are absolutely determined to stamp their authority all over this record and make an album that could never be confused for the work of anybody else. The topics, the sounds, the sudden interruptions from other 'songs' that really shouldn't fit - hearing the UK label recordings in one marvellous jumble of eccentricity is like having the happiest nervous breakdown of your life. Considering that this is the first record ever to carry the name '10cc' it's amazing in retrospect just how unlike anything else in popular music this is - and the band really don't get enough credit for that fact. Not least because Queen – working in the studio next door while the band were making follow-up ‘Sheet Music’ – stole the epic ideas, operatic values and even the vocal techniques for their own music which whatever you think about it is clearly working at a far lower frequency of levels.
What is perhaps interesting about this debut compared to the later albums is that while records like ‘The Original Soundtrack’ and ‘Sheet Music’ describe weird goings on usually without comment, the characters in these songs are in a struggle of some sort. Usually its against the establishment: ‘Rubber Bullets’ is underneath the laughs a plea for tolerance and that even life’s criminals deserve a break in life, taking in perhaps the bigger idea that we are all being punished for having fun. ‘Hospital Song’ has a hapless ignored patient getting revenge on the nurses and the visitors in the bed next door he doesn’t have, a tiny victory that’s the only thing that will bring him comfort (a lot of Godley-Creme songs are set in hospital, with ‘Get Well Soon’ from ‘Freeze Frame’ taking things even further by showing how thin the line between reality and hallucination is in a crazy world). ‘Headline Hustler’ is a particularly interesting song in this context , a reporter whose so jealous of the rich celebrities he writes about that he makes up stories about them to make a splash – a subversive idea of attacking authority. ‘Sand In My Face’ even has a victim standing up to a bully and winning his girl – and though it is an authority of one that’s kind of this album in microcosm. This is not as clear-cut as on later albums though and some rules are there to be followed: ‘Johnny Don’t Do It’ pays for the burglary of a motorbike with his life when the brakes fail, while ‘Speed Kills’ is another rule broken that ends in death (or so it is hinted by the sheer mood of the thing). ‘Fresh Air For My Mama’ is, underneath the sarcasm, quite a reverential portrayal of parenting when done with love, even if the narrator leaves anyway to give his mother space (though notably he regrets this when she dies). ‘The Dean and I’ too feels muddled in its message: what does its tale of ‘a working class boy not thought good enough for marriage who ends up marrying into the church’ really saying – that class rules are dumb? Or that the laugh is on the guy marrying the Dean’s daughter for working his way up the class and up the ladder to marry into a family when he’s then more worthy than they are anyway? Then of course there’s ‘Ships Don’t Just Disappear In The Night’, a song that questions the ‘rules’ of how the world is meant to work with its horror movie coming to life which sounds in many ways like one of Godley-Creme’s beloved art school lectures about how the world doesn’t have to work one way just because enough people tell you it does. Though 10cc and especially their debut are often described as ‘anarchic’ and ‘free-wheeling’ what’s interesting in retrospect is how staunchly this band believe in some rules for the betterment of humanity (namely the ones that prevent people from being killed). Breaking rules is, incidentally, a natural thing for a new band to do on their debut record: The Who and Pink Floyd, to name but two, had a similarly anarchic sense of fun on their debut records. The difference was though that both bands were barely out of their teens and slowly changed their minds about this; 10cc are already in their late twenties and will keep this irritation of the establishment up their whole career through, arguably long after they joined that very establishment and even on matters other ‘snarlier’ bands take as a good thing (it’s hard to imagine another band spending their reunion albums moaning about charity fundraisers the way 10cc do on  ‘Charity Begins At Home’ or annoyed at the high  ‘ASge Of Consent’).
This is, of course, a debut in name only, not line-up. By the time of this album's release in 1972 (perfectly mopping up the sounds of the end of the glam rock and prog rock eras) 10cc had been working together, off and on, for almost as long as The Beatles' entire seven year recording stretch. All four members of the band – Laurence Creme, Kevin Godley, Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart - had been veterans of the 1960s scene with a number of hugely successful, semi-successful or not-successful-at-all bands and between them had already chalked up some dozen top three hits (mainly courtesy of Eric’s stint in the Mindbenders and Graham’s compositions for The Hollies, Yardbirds and Herman’s Hermits) and became friends as well as rivals. In time The Mindbenders recruited Graham Gouldman as an extra guitar and songwriting voice; school pals Gouldman and Kevin Godley worked in 'The Mockingbirds' where they 'borrowed' spare songs from Godley's art college pal Lol Creme and when Eric Stewart decided being an engineering might turn into a valuable career and sunk all his money into a recording studio in Stockport he had three mates willing to help him out. By the 1970s the four members had worked, together and apart, on a quite mind-numbing array of wacky names, desperate to score a hit (we’ve already covered the only long-playing record among these names, Hotlegs’ ‘Think...School Stinks’and if you think that’s an odd name for a band and a record you clearly haven't heard about Godley and Creme as Frabjoy and The Runciple Spoon yet ...) The minute they found one – with the hypnotic tape testing jam  ‘Neanderthal Man’ – it was typically for a song they couldn’t possibly hope to repeat and after doing everything in their power not to repeat it and turn into pastoral ballad-wielding hippies instead the band fizzled out.
It was more chance than anything else that the band's breakthrough hit 'Donna' (a #2 hit in the UK, matching 'Neanderthal Man') happened to come under the name 10cc rather than, say, 'Doctor Father', the other moniker used that year. The band used and discarded names with every release back then so didn't pay much attention to the name - actually the idea was one of UK Records founder Jonathon King's and related both to a dream that he'd recently had where he picked up a music paper and read that a band named '10cc' were top of the charts (he was just a couple of singles early too, with third single  'Rubber Bullets' making it to #1). At around the same time he’d read that a new medical report had revealed that the average force of a male ejaculation was 9ccs (the joke being that 10cc were clearly better than average). The band probably didn't think twice about the name, never expecting to get a hit (for starters they'd actually intended the more 'Hotlegs' style B-side  'Waterfall' would be their first release, not the more cutesy-pie 'Donna', and had to re-think their career when it was) and had to pretend not to hear for the next few decades whenever the press asked them where they got their name from (especially one legendarily embarrassing appearance on kids TV programme 'Saturday Superstore'. 'We'll tell you when you're older!' Eric deadpanned to a hapless presenter). 10cc had waited so long for a hit and after rather letting the success of 'Neanderthal Man' slip away from them with a series of songs that often sounded great but sounded perhaps a little bit too much like 'other people', they decided to make a record that couldn't have sounded like anyone else and built on every single novelty single they'd released during their many years in isolation. As a debut '10cc' is best summed up as free-wheeled anarchism, or the sheer joy of being able to break rules you've been dying to break for years, with no need to pander to an established fanbase, teeny-bopper fan or even, by and large the record label (after the success of 'Donna', King let the band do what they wanted by and large, which is a great quality to have a in a record boss even if events since have put King's selling of novelty acts to impressionable teenagers in a rather questionable light).
You might not quite think that from hearing the albums as nature (or at least as Jonathon King) intended though. At first 10cc's productions sound repetitive and recycled and nearly the whole of the first side finds the band trying to spoof doo-wop in the style of their first hit ‘Donna’. That's clearly a mistake and slows the record down to a crawl - 'Donna' was one of those singles that just got lucky, released at a time when nostalgia for the 1950s was at a peak and when Lol's pretty brazen asexual falsetto caught the mood of the David Bowie and Marc Bolan world. It is funny but it's a punch-line that can only really be told once and hearing it straight after the failed second single 'Johnny Don't Do It' (another 1950s doo-wop spoof, this time of biker films and rebels without a clue, this time with an all too sarcastic synthesiser laugh to make sure we get the 'joke', something 10cc thankfully never feel the need to use again) and 'Sand In His Face' (which is punchier in all senses of the word, but still a 1950s joke about bodybuilding at the beach that stopped being funny circa 1959) is tiring. Hearing these three songs in a row might well be the biggest struggle of the entire 10cc catalogue as you fear with a heavy heart that the whole record's going to be full of songs about stereotypes like Donna and Johnny Kowalski (also known of course as 'Johnny Angel') and a nine-stone weakling. It's like hearing Shakin' Stevens ten years early, only the songs are actually funny - just as Stevens' albums sank without trace compared to his singles, though, these songs work best in small doses - you certainly don't need three of the things together (four if you count the nostalgia opening to 'The Dean and I' on track four until the song gets seriously weird from track five onwards and goes in directions only 10cc could walk in). 10cc are treating the first third of the album as if they're learning from the mistakes of the past when they couldn't find a second song for  'Neanderthal Man' to evolve into and went in the opposite direction, confusing everyone - only when 'Johnny' flops badly do 10cc realise that maybe doing something different isn't such a bad thing. Sadly the opening of this record is, I think, the one reason why '10cc' never gets talked about in the same breath as the other Godley-Creme albums, even though the rest of it is every bit as clever, original and downright bonkers.
Thankfully the third single is when 10cc are properly born. 'Rubber Bullets' always gets overlooked compared to  'I'm Not In Love' and  'Dreadlock Holiday', but it's the most 10cc-ish of the grand trilogy of 10cc number ones; deeply funny but also bristling with very real feelings of indignation and outrage below the surface. There's a party in the prison that gets out of hand – that sounds hilarious. There are savage beatings from the prison guards who don't get the joke – that sounds terrible. Where's the point at which we stop laughing? The 10cc canon is full of songs like this:  'The Wall Street Shuffle'  'Art For Art's Sake' and most of the late-period, overlooked 1980s 10cc are drawn from similar wells of comic-tragedies where life is absurd and only funny till someone gets hurt by that, while later album tracks like  'I Wanna Rule The World!!!!' (in which a 'weedy four-eyed creep' plots vengeance on bullies everywhere) and  'Rock and Roll Lullaby' (in which a weary parent swears his boy to sleep in the sing-songy voice he likes so much) are drawn from similarly 'real' places. The big difference from side one to side two (and unlike most albums this one was made more or less in order, ish) is that the prisoners of 'Rubber Bullets', the victims of 'Speed Kills' and even the over-exaggerated full-bladdered narrator of 'Hospital Song' are all real and recognisable. Yes the situations are funny (well maybe not the middle song, which is more bitter dark irony) but the people in them aren't laughing. There's a real crusade for things that have to change underlying these songs that will serve 10cc well and make them far more than just another novelty band who are only trying to make us laugh with their daftness and who more, often than not, aren't that funny (try The Beautiful South for one, who are to 10cc what a knock-knock joke about being a pair of curtains is to Douglas Adams). People tend to dismiss 10cc as a 'clever' band who wrote 'comic' songs, but that's as wrong as saying Gilbert and Sullivan only did the same for the Victorian age: both are at their best holding up a mirror to the then-modern world and showing how daft and as a result how tragic it is, getting away with more political commentary than their more serious-minded colleagues precisely because nobody takes a joke seriously (except fans in on said joke). There's a lot more anger, particularly on this first album, than 10cc are ever given credit for: anger on behalf of the bullied, generally, from prisoners to beach-going weaklings to scared movie-watchers terrified of Vincent Price. Godley and Creme will mine this source of phobia and frustration later on their own series of songs about bullies (most of them on their impenetrable second album 'L' in 1978), but for now it's the loudest shouting part of a whole lot of ideas on this record which are never really studied by the band as a unit again.
Most 10cc albums sound positively schizophrenic, with every single track pointing in an entirely new direction that the band will never attempt again, but this first album especially sounds as if it's being pulled in two, with the tongue-in-cheek parodies of the first side giving way to a much more serious and worried sounding second. Not everything on this album works – opener ‘Johnny Don’t Do It’ and the Beach Movie spoof ‘Sand In My Face’ take the joke a little too far and are uncomfortable for fans more used to the subtlety of 10cc at their peak – but then there are other tracks like the truly unique horror comedy song ‘Ships Don’t Disappear In The Night’ and the under-rated near instrumental ‘Speed Kills’ that demonstrate that 10cc had already mastered their craft this early on and knew at least some of the time what they were doing. No one else was writing material like this, no one. The band even get a joke in at tabloid journalists before any tabloid journalists have shown any interest in the band yet (with 'Headline Hustler' a far funnier look at the paparazzi than the sort of things most 'star' bands ever come up with, including most AAA ones).
A word, too, about how different 10cc were to anybody who had come before – and’ let’s face it, there haven’t exactly been many bands like them since. We’re used to the band’s sound nowadays but back in the shallow, empty world of glam rock (the worst music genre of all in my opinion, as at least disco was fun, sort of and punk had something to say, even if it didn’t always say it well) this was a completely new revelation – it was catchy, it was glamorous and it was easy to understand and singalong to but shallow it was not. There’s always so many levels going on in 10cc’s songs that it's hard to know whether to enjoy them as simple memorable pop songs, diatribes about the society at the time or a knowing song that’s already laughing at its clichés before we’ve had a chance to notice them. This album’s ‘Speed Kills’ is a case in point. Its sounds at first like a car song, with a song about ‘driving home’. Then we notice the gentle sexual innuendo about finding it ‘hard to make it’ one night and how its ‘got to be the right time’. But no, the song switches on us again and it really is a song about a car crash, with the song switching from finding ‘the right time’ to finding ‘the main line’ and we’re suddenly back in the driving seat again, as it were. Suddenly it's a song in mourning: it's not a fine day at all; the title was right, not the lyrics. All that in barely twelve words (and a lot of repetition). Nobody, but nobody else was making songs this complex for mainstream radio and the few that had tried it occasionally – The Beatles, Beach Boys, The Hollies and The Kinks – had pretty much given up by 1972, either breaking up or settling for simpler songs to soothe their dwindling audiences.
Part of the band’s magic sounds comes from the musicianship in the band. All four members were multi-instrumentalists of sorts, with a distinctive guitar-led sound that equally owed its sound to both Eric Stewart and Lol Creme (both playing lead guitar – and I mean lead guitar, as both are tugging the song quite forcefully in different directions – on most of these early recordings), a flashy sound completely in keeping with the glam rock sounds of the early 1970s and yet somehow deeper, successfully channelling the deeper feel of the lyrics. Not that you ever get much time to focus on any one part of each song as 10cc are always moving, always switching between keys, verses, lead singers and production values. It’s like hearing a bunch of mini-rock operas (back in the days when 10cc were still recording songs short enough to be mini not maxi rock operas) condensed into three minutes. There’s never been a sound quite like it since, which is possibly just as well as I’m not sure if my brain could cope with another quickfire band on this website. If you’re a fan its fascinating to hear 10cc’s early sound being put into practice for the first time here.
The debut album isn't perhaps the smartest card in the 10cc deck, thanks in the main to those opening three songs that let the side down rather. There is though much witty wordplay and a lot going on to distract you even on the first three songs, plus tracks four-ten end up not just going in a different direction to each other but in a different direction to anything the band - or anyone else - would ever do again. That partly stems from the fact that 10cc are already doing the single greatest thing that any band could do to widen their scope: they're writing in pairs or threes, with everyone getting a chance to write at least one song with somebody else (true democracy in any band). However all the band get their 'own' albums at one stage of another and compared to the records that come later this is Lol's shining moment: all but silenced by 1976 he takes lead on 'Donna' 'Rubber Bullets' 'The Dean and I' 'Johnny Don't Do It' 'The Hospital Song' and much of 'Sand In My Face'. Many of the quirky touches on this album sound much more like his contributions than the others' do, perhaps because that sudden success with 'Donna' has boosted his confidence. It helps that Lol belongs in this era a bit more than the others (Eric and Graham tend to have a very 1960s sound, even if they came to their biggest fame in the 1970s while Kevin is pretty much spot on for the slightly falsetto 1970 sound, but Lol is right at home in the era of Bowie and Bolan with a campness and sarcasm that's entirely fitting for this age). What’s interesting is that he is in many ways the least experienced: the only hit he’s ever been a part of before this is  ‘Neanderthal Man’. In many ways this album is more what people were expecting from that single – singalong surrealness. Don't worry though, like all 10cc albums (at least until 'Windows In The Jungle' and the two reunion albums) this is a democracy at work and it works precisely because there are four visionaries embellishing each other's songs and making them work (elsewhere on this album Eric gets just two lead vocals, Kevin just one, Graham nothing and 'Speed Kills' is shared meaning that Lol dominates half this record). In truth everybody gets to shine somewhere on every song and will until Godley-Creme leave the band, which is why their loss is such a heavy one - a band this tight-knit can't make up for missing members when everyone is so integral to the sound and spirit of a unified group. That split is in the future though (albeit unthinkably close at four years' time given how in tune the band are here), for now 10cc are one of the brightest and bushy-tailed bands of the 1970s and have stuffed their arrangements full of so many goodies I'm still discovering them years into owning them. '10cc' might not be the very best evidence of their talent, but it's not as far off as many people say - you can laugh, you can cry, 'Speed Kills' 'Headline Hustler' and 'Ships Don't Just Disappear In The Night' are three of the juicer oddball 10cc comedies and you can add in three hit singles ('Rubber Bullets' coming in gorgeous extended raucous minute-long feedback-drenched guitar solo nirvana which gets cruelly cut from all the compilations around); that’s not actually a bad return on a ten track album by a 100-watt band limited by the blandness of the opening three songs.
The first song on the album is one of the strangest.  ‘Johnny Don’t Do It’ doesn’t make much sense nowadays, but if you treat it as part of the early 1970s nostalgia for the 1950s and a time when rock and roll was ‘simple’ then it makes a lot more sense (the 1950s come into vogue again and again across this site, usually every time music seems to be getting too pompous – this is the second, following the ‘return to grass roots’ fashion of 1968 and it’ll be around again in the 1980s of ‘Grease’ and early 1990s). 10cc, though, aren’t playing things straight and decide to spoof not the obvious rock and roll records of the day but the doo-wop pool from where most of the early rockabilly classics came. The lyrics are sung straight throughout, but the oh so predictable death at the end, the weeping angelic choir and the bad boy main character with the very 1950s name of Johnny Kewalski aka Johnny Angel and his penchant for wearing black fits every cliche we think about records from this era. Lol takes the lead, singing in his falsetto as on ‘Donna’ and the result is equally tongue-in-cheek, sounding not unlike The Four Seasons as they labour a dodgy moral in high pure voices. For hang on a minute, what is the moral of this record that ends in a crash and death? Don’t steal transport awaiting repairs I guess, but that doesn’t seem enough somehow.Always check your brake-pads before you drive? Don’t put a railway siding at the bottom of a hill? Always make sure your girl is home in bed before the late train rolls down the tracks? Johnny, you see, isn’t going fast even though that’s naturally assume that’s what he’s doing when he crashes ‘with a girl in the front seat’ (and what even happens to his companion? We never hear). Everyone acts as if there’s a moral though because that’s what happens on songs like these, but this is no ‘leader of the pack’ about a boy done wrong but an accident that can happen to anyone (well, anyone who doesn’t get a regular MOT on their car and lives near a railway). The highlight of the record, though, is when the band suddenly give us something we aren’t expecting – the minute the train hits the song gets quiet and fades to Godley’s tapping drums, not the squealing noise we’re expecting. The song is a microcosm of 10cc’s strengths and weaknesses in this period: ‘Johnny’ is undeniably clever and is sown together with great panache, starting out as twee ballad and ending up as intense rocker, and yet there’s something mildly irritating about the sheer amount of jokes in the song and the way the bass and drums are following the doo-wop pattern so precisely you know exactly how they will go. It is, after all, insincere and with a joke aimed not so much at the characters as the audience for not ‘getting’ that this is a dumb story with a failed moral; somehow that’s less satisfying than laughing at the world on our behalf. ‘Johnny Don’t Do It’ is an easy song to like but a hard song to love and that’s the problem 10cc will have across most of this record, with only Gouldman’s rocky middle eight using his deep voice for the first time on a 10cc related record really catching the ear.
 ‘Sand In My Face’ is another song that takes its smug tongue-in-cheek look a bit too far for some but, again, the song is so cleverly constructed that 10cc are entitled to feel a bit smug about it. I actually prefer this song to ‘Johnny’, as this time around its spoof of beach movies and the nine-stone weakling wanting to ‘better’ himself features much funnier lines and a much more satisfyingly rich backing track. Lol’s eager narrator tells the story of Kevin’s nine stone weakling with nobbly knees leafing through the Charles Atlas Course for muscle building so common to the media back then. The joke is that we all know that those adverts are fake, that even in the days before photoshop they cut and pasted pictures or used models who looked only vaguely the same in ‘before’ and ‘after’ poses. The other joke is that somehow this works, the un-named narrator gets to beat the ‘surfboard Hercules’ Alex whose been taunting him and literally kicked sand in his face. Best line: ‘I saw Mr France, he had a girl on each shoulder and I wanted his pants!’ For the most part this song is about nervous tension, with a throbbing opening bass riff that will be recycled by the band for their similar pastiche  ‘Silly Love’ the following year that really sets the scene for the poor narrator who wants the perfect body and is desperate to sound tough but can only make a strange sounding ‘boing’ noise (a favourite sound of Godley-Crème who also use the gismo for the first time on an album track here too). The use of the band chorus joining in every other line makes more sense here as well, with a slightly huskier than normal sounding Lol being asked a bunch of inane questions by the others which actually punctuate a series of clever lines. Godley’s falsetto then gives us a rebuttal, telling us that he’s lost his girlfriend and wants to get her back anyway he can – although, in true 70s style, ‘what convinced me is your money-back guarantee’. The result is a dumb song that’s rescued by a powerful; band performance that keeps the song on a knife-edge with lots of great touches, from the vocals to a quite brilliant bubbling bass from Graham and some great production techniques such as some snazzy backwards drums. You’d never want to hear this song too many times in a row – as I must confess I just have writing this review – as you’re likely to start going mad, but as s poof songs about body-building courses go this is one of the best! Incidentally, 10cc must go to the same body-building courses as The Who on their ‘Sell Out’ album, with the ‘dynamic tension’ promised in the song actually coming from a 1960s advert for guitar strings.
 ‘Donna’ is an odd song. I can totally see why it was a hit – but also why 10cc really didn’t think it was a single (and why they went to Jonathan King as ‘the only person we knew daft enough to put it out’, at least according to Eric years later). Though many 10cc fans list this breakthrough song as a favourite I’ve never felt her charms were that irresistible as Creme gets to sing an even more ridiculously OTT falsetto on a lyric that makes little sense. What I think is happening – and as ever I could be wrong here – is that Lol’s pretty vocal claims all the things that Donna does to him, causing a sort of nervous breakdown that sees him stand up, sit down and stand on his head. Poor Donna, though, knows nothing of this and sits waiting patiently by the phone for a call telling her how loved she is that is heavily delayed (the fact that she gets the call twice suggests the first is in her imagination, Lol’s campest vocal telling her what she wants to hear). By 10cc standards though this is a flimsy song, cute rather than creative. What’s more the song’s most charming aspect – its melody – is ripped wholesale off The Beatles’ ‘Oh! Darling’..The problem might well be with me rather than the band though or even the fact that I wasn’t around when the song came out – in its day, when comedy records consisted of impressions of boring celebrities or were unfunny spoofs of rock stars by the ‘elders’ of the day getting their own back at the youngsters, ‘Donna’ must have seemed like a breath of fresh air spoofing not the parental generation but the elder brothers and sisters of the people buying 10cc records. Strangely the 1950s was still revered back in 1972 as the decade that begat the 1960s and created rock and roll so parodying any of it was anarchic. The fact that we’ve had ‘Grease’ and musicians making whole blooming careers out of spoofing it since (Shakin’ Stevens based his entire career on this song) has rather softened its blow. Strangely, given that 1972-1973 was also a big year for plagiarism court cases, nobody ever took issue with this strong-selling single – perhaps they were lulled by its gentle beat, fun harmonies and the contrast between Creme’s high falsetto and Godley’s gentlemanly calls on the telephone. There’s honestly not much more to add, with Donna a bored and lonely housewife waiting for the phone to ring – and receiving one of the oddest calls in the history of rock and roll (its Creme, again, doing his best Clark Gable impression as he professes his love, albeit Clark Gable doing his impression of Mickey Mouse). As most fans probably already know, this song was dashed off by Godley and Creme in about five minutes after Stewart and Gouldman’s  ‘Waterfall’ had been chosen for the A-side (the band had struck up a surprisingly fair sounding deal whereby whichever two writers got the A side the other two would always get the B-side thereby splitting the money, although this idea rather peters out after the first three singles). Unable to get a record contract, however, 10cc played Jonathon King the B-side which he loved more than the A-side, causing him to flip the single and release ‘Donna’ instead (not for the first time, Mr King got things badly wrong as ‘Waterfall’ might well be the best single song 10cc ever did in the 1970s, although I do have to grudgingly give him respect for recognizing 10cc’s talent when every other record label boss in the UK seemed to have cloth ears). In terms of the 10cc story the shadow this song casts is huge – however as a song it feels unfinished, a series of random scattered jokes, doo-wop calls and an unlikely romance that never really gets going and is never explained, with no sense of who Donna or the narrator are. This song is crucially important and as a result is rarely criticised, but it also has a lot to answer for, encouraging 10cc to step behind a cast of caricatures rather than staying true to themselves.
 ‘The Dean and I’ was the fourth and third-poorest selling single from the album and such gets short shrift from many 10cc reviewers. However lesser single as it might be compared to ‘Rubber Bullets’ and co let me put that in context – before Wings’ ‘Band On the Run’ broke the mould you almost never had more than two singles released from an album anyway. ‘The Dean and I’ is evidence of a hot talent, a collection of musical hooks and playful lyrics most commercial singles would die for – the fact that there are two even catchier singles on the record simply shows how full of hooks the others are (more hooks than a pair of curtains or a Peter Pan movie, that’s what I say). What ‘The Dean and I’ is missing is any kind of cohesion or any real break in between the long list of jokes and wordplay. The song starts with a catchy but also quite scary chanting chorus of ‘humdrum days and humdrum ways’ which, as far as I can tell, has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the song (and is cut for the single mix, which is otherwise the same as the album one). When it becomes a song proper, the song finds a parent telling his children how he met their mother at a prom ball. Alas, she was the daughter of a respected college dean who didn’t want his daughter to marry such a lowlife but somehow he worked hard, got a good job and won her over. As if to prove him wrong, this song is full of witty quick-stepping lyrics and lots of intellectual references (such as Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’), although the narrator still lets his humble birth show through, with his daughter ‘doing what she should’na oughter’ and memorably rhyming the word ‘now’ with the pained cry ‘eeeaeeaaaow’ as, spurned in love, the narrator throws himself off a train. Though many fans see the mention of a ‘Dean’ and assume this is a religious song, it’s really one about class, of how the only way to make money when you’re poor is to marry into it and you can only do that out of the hard work the rich won’t do for themselves. It is, in many ways, the most art school Godley-Crème song until the 1980s. There are some great lines in it, such as the student narrator enjoying a ‘gradual graduation’ in his love life alongside his studies, but somehow these characters feel like ciphers compared to other 10cc songs and oddly more lines miss than they hit (elevators? Heart? Awol?) Meanwhile this song’s ginormous crib is the Phil Spector song ‘And Then I Kissed Her’ which is recycled wholesale for the middle eight, immediately undercut by the best passage as Kevin gives us the truth behind this innocence portrayal of love (‘Now the paint is peeling!’ All that hard work to win over a girl from a good home – and it’s taken so long the narrator has forgotten why he ever wanted to date her in the first place. Circumstances have improved by the end, though, as with most 10cc spoofs when an unexpected bucket load of money comes the narrator’s way and the Dean is suddenly pleased to know him, showing again just how artificial we’re meant to think these songs are. Snobbery, lyrics dominating the fine song’s tune and words quite unlike any other song of the day, this is surely where Godley and Creme start their template for weird and wacky songs. Tiring, but fun. Eric didn't like it though (he calls it 'too South Pacific' in a 1981 interview on Multi-Coloured Swap Shop!' (not that this prevents him from playing some clever Hawaiian-grunge guitar). There’s only one reason this mess of images and puns and bad rhymes works and that’s Lol’s infectious and colourful vocal, so spot on for the times, the guitarist having such fun it seems churlish to think anything bad about this track
 ‘Headline Hustler’ at last moves us away from the doo wop spoofs for a parody of the journalists of the world, nice boys pretending to be nasty in order to get better splashes for their front page. You really don’t need to know about the lyrics of this song, though, as much as the music which includes a distinctive riff, a chorus that erupts out of nowhere, a classic Eric Stewart guitar solo and a catchy drum pattern from Kevin Godley. Eric takes the lead on this song and it’s one of his best, part innocent kid in a world out of depth, part naïve innocent and part raving troublemaker, desperate to secure the scoop his rivals can’t. Like many a 10cc song he’s intensely jealous: he pulls celebrities down in order to make a name for himself and become someone important himself, boasting ‘you’re gonna hear from me!’ while stabbing everyone in the back on his way up. What he doesn’t know – and what the song oddly doesn’t say – is that other people will surely do this to him in time in a great cycle of jealousy and bitterness. My guess is that despite the vocal this is really more Graham’s song as he was particularly keen on these ‘loser’ type characters fighting back (one of the joys of 10cc is their mixture of personalities: Eric feels like he would naturally be the cool sporty bright kid in the school everyone loves and who acts as if he knows how the world works, while the others are the eccentrics sitting on their own in the canteen). No scandal is too small or too private for this private eye, with his morals gone by the board the moment he sniffs money and power. Having been or at least been around journalist for some years I can say that this song is all true, especially concerning music writers! Hmm a catchy tune with the lyrics mixed low, a spoof of a section of the society with control over the masses and words quite unlike any other song of the day, this is surely where Gouldman and Stewart get their future writing template from and makes for a rocking end to this album’s first side. There’s another energetic band performance that really lifts a so-so song too, with the guitars waiting to pounce on a scoop and a memorable quirky drum pattern that keeps relentlessly stirring up trouble.
Over on side two  ‘Speed Kills’ is a curious little song, a comedy that takes a dark turn. In context of future 10cc albums it makes perfect sense: there’s usually some darkness amongst the laughter on every album to come, to the point where by the 1980s the darkness effectively ‘wins’ (there aren’t many belly laughs on ‘Ten Out Of Ten’ or ‘Windows In The Jungle’). Here, though, listeners don’t know who 10cc are yet; if they skipped the whole Hotlegs shebang then they only know the band from their quirky fun-loving singles. As a result this ‘joke’ is lost on modern listeners: namely the fact that there isn’t one. In vain you wait for the twist, the punchline, but it doesn’t come: instead the hint is that the narrator dies or perhaps that someone else dies through his carelessness. The song feels as if it is saying that there are some things in life that just aren’t that funny. Musically it sounds like a warm-up exercise, what with its repetitive and tricky little phrase – played, for once on this album, in unison by all four members – with lyrics added later. Not that that’s a bad thing by any means: some great songs were written that way (it may be the only time the flash of lightning that was  ‘Neanderthal Man’ was tried again) and the few lyrics there are fit really well, what with this song sounding like a car crash in slow motion, not fast exactly but frenetic all the same. Stewart’s guitar, especially, is the star on this track, breaking off from the song’s constraints to deliver a quite breath-taking solo around the song’s chord changes, as if railing against the devastating chaos we can hear happening in the song. This song is also pretty ambiguous throughout as to whether we really are listening to a car crash or the narrator’s metaphor for his lonely Saturday night – perhaps this song is all happening in his imagination? No wonder the song is called ‘Speed Kills’ – this is a quite frightening song at times, with its gradually increasing tension and voices intoning ‘one fine day...’ over and over, as if unable to believe the tragedy that has just happened out of the blue. And speed really would kill this song stone dead, as its hypnotic feel and curious detachment are quite unlike any other song out there and are what make this – for 10cc – comparatively simple song so compelling, the moment the laughs stop coming. It is also, spookily, pretty close to the real thing when a car crash nearly killed Eric (this song’s chief writer) and left him partly blind in one eye in 1979. Weirdly this album has already had one vehicle crash on it, in ‘Johnny Don’t Do It’, yet the closest 10cc ever come to doing this again is a crashing plane on  ‘Clockwork Creep’. In retrospect the mood sounds ominous, the sea of voices screaming for all they are worth but hidden behind a particularly loud band mix. It would do an awful lot for the anti-speeding lobby if they ever used it in one of their campaigns, that’s for sure.
 ‘Rubber Bullets’ is the song from the album that everybody knows and is 10cc’s ‘breakthrough’ template song much more than ‘Donna’ ever was, a scathing piece of rocky pop that is sweet and vague enough to get played on radio but angry and taunting enough to make it lots of fans. The song was inspired partly by ‘Jailhouse Rock’ (after the Beatles and Beach Boys cribs on ‘Donna’ and ‘The Dean and I’ worked so well) but also the many prison riots of the early 1970s and (depending which band member you listen to) the riots against British rule in Ireland where the army really did use rubber bullets to subdue the protestors across 1972. Oddly the BBC, so over-cautious about banning any reference to Ireland that year let this song through but it was banned in Persia of all places when riots broke out there and citizens began to take up the song. Once again 10cc take a source usually regarded as pure and innocent and hold it up to the light to contrast it against the harsh realities of the world. Creme’s angry vocal is probably the best of his long career, dripping with venom at those who dare to hurt others and stop them enjoying themselves or standing up for their ideals, although thankfully this song never reduces itself by preaching or pretending to know better than the perpetrators. The ‘party’ in the song is also surely a metaphor for everybody whose ever been stopped from having a good time by the law (and is a close cousin of Lindisfarne’s ‘We Can Swing Together’, whose characters also find themselves in the dock at the end of the song) and what the song is really saying is that the powers that be can’t bear to watch us having a better time than they are. Especially when it’s the people in power who are abusing it who should be locked up in the first place (and Uncle Sam belongs in the exercise yard!) Even Gouldman’s seemingly innocuous rejoinders throughout the song, added when Godley-Creme asked him to give their song an extra something ‘special’ (‘whatcha gonna do about it, whatcha gonna do?’) sound pretty harsh by the end, really drawing a line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (the ‘balls and brains’ line is also gentlemanly Graham’s, oddly enough, even though everybody assumes it to be a risqué Lol line). Things aren’t helped by the ineffectual prison priest who tries to diffuse the situation in the guise of Kevin Godley, little realising that he’s preaching to the wrong side and trying to calm down a party rather than an irate establishment who have nothing to be angry about (Jesus, surely, would be on the aside of the party animals). Even without the political overtones, however, this is simply a great rock song with an urgent bass riff superbly played twice over in stereo by Gouldman and some classy guitarwork which has l3eft many players scratching their heads over the years (Eric says he recorded a second solo at half-speed, lining it up with the first for an ‘extra’ whine, which must have been murder to play). The result is a song which sucks you in from the dramatic opening and doesn’t let you go until the fadeout. The album version also has a treat for fans who only know the song from the single, adding a further minute to the solo at the end where Eric Stewart excels himself on his retro solo which channels all the grief and hurt of the lyrics without sacrificing the tune or pop hooks, his anger truly spilling over. The result is a staggering pop song, one that pretty much invented our beloved website phrase of ‘catchy but deep’ and sadly as relevant today as it was back then. A deserved #1 and one of the all-time great songs in the 10cc canon.
Alas  ‘The Hospital Song’ lets a most promising second side down badly. Creme’s deliberately struggling-for-breath narrator is having a lousy time in hospital, losing his dignity by wetting the bed and living only for the time when he can lose his consciousness again in the delight of the drugs they give him and where the only ‘revenge’ he can take out this time for his rotten treatment is filling up the bedpan next time the nurse has to lug it around the ward. The juxtaposition between this song and the last can’t be a mistake – this is another real ‘us’ and ‘me’ song, although it’s less successful this time around simply because the narrator never really does get his revenge: the hospital pump him so full of drugs he doesn’t notice their poor care, ‘delirious and apathetic’ as he is. There’s also a strange upbeat chorus of ‘I get off on what you give me darling’ which is pleasant enough but seems to have wandered in from another song altogether (is this a hallucination?) This is, though, a rare character on this album who ‘loses’ – he doesn’t get better but dies from a nasty sounding case of ‘plastercasting love’ (which may well be a joke about the groupie plastercasters who liked taking models of musicians’ genitalia). Whatever the faults of this as a song, however, the recording makes up for a few of them with some memorable electronic trickery at the beginning as some guitars burst slowly, wearily into life as if coming round from an operation and there are some really lovely chorus harmonies, arguably the first time we get to hear those distinctive four-part 10cc harmonies together on record in all their glory. If nothing else this song also sums up the sheer hopelessness and misery of being at the mercy of authority figures for effectively your life (a greater even authority figure than a prison warden and one we could meet at any time). Having stayed in Stafford Hospital before now – yes the one that’s making all the fuss on the news about poor care and needless deaths - I can only think that at least one member of 10cc must have been in the same ward as me.
My other favourite song on the album is the truly oddball  ‘Ships Don’t Just Disappear In The Night (Do They?!?!?)’, a second ever Stewart-Gouldman song which sounds quite unlike any other in the history of music (and one which surely puts paid to the idea that only Godley-Creme were writing the bonkers material). This homage to horror movies everywhere has the narrator trying to comfort himself that these tales are only fiction – only for his imagination to get the better of him as he vows he ‘gotta be nice to Vincent Price!’ The song’s big memorable hook is a rumbling catchy guitar riff that starts off quite jolly and then gets ‘eaten’ by a simple piano lick that seems to close in on the song and taunts it throughout, as if chasing down its prey, just out of shot so that the two never meet. It’s the perfect accompaniment for a song about expecting the unexpected, always knocking us off-balance every time we think we’ve worked out where its going. Gouldman’s bass is also inventive throughout this song, pouncing suddenly when we are least expecting it and successfully conjuring up a musical sound of ghouls passing through closed doors and grabbing at us from the shadows. The words, too, aren’t your typical horror spoof, but a truly weird collection of thoughts ranging from the idea that we don’t like to think about the unknown except as a ‘game’ because it scares us and the rather more comforting thought that even if we do see something out of the unknown that scares us, it can’t actually harm us so it’s stupid to be scared of them (‘they can’t do nothing to yer – they just keep walking through yer’ as the chorus memorably has it). As well as old Vincent the song namechecks ‘Boris and Bella’ – the generic name for a weirdo vampire butler and for a vampiress (they should have used this song on the ‘Twilight’ soundtrack). This song would be just too weird and strange to pull off in lesser hands, but 10cc are masterpieces at tying their complex songs with production magic and the whole band excel themselves here, especially Eric’s bawling narrator who sounds both arrogant and scared all at the same time while there are major parts for all three of his colleagues with Kev’s ghostly harmonies mixed low, Lol’s urgent harmony and Graham’s deep growl making for a most memorable monster mis-mash. The wordless middle eight, which is truly creepy thanks to some multi-layered treated harmonies and otherworldly whistling, sounds like it’s come straight out of a horror film and is one of the most interesting and original passages on the whole record. Above all, though, this song rocks – yes, it’s a novelty song but, like ‘Rubber Bullets’, you can also enjoy this without the words as a fine piece of rocking pop. Critics had their knives out into 10cc records later in the decade for being wishy washy and too full of ballads – something I heavily dispute as you’ll know if you’ve read my other 10cc reviews – but here is perhaps the best rocker of the whole 10cc canon. And remember, you’ve gotta be nice to Vincent Price, who is surely wreaking revenge beyond the grave for seeing Christopher Lee make it to the Band On The Run cover instead of him...
 ‘Fresh Air For My Mama’ is a curious song with which to end this LP, being both a re-write of an earlier song from the Hotlegs album ( ‘You Didn’t Like It Because You Didn’t Think Of It’) and a song that, as far as I can tell, is the only genuine rather than tongue-in-cheek track on the whole record (although someone should have told that to Eric Stewart, whose ‘comedy’ falsetto on this record is excruciating and one of the very few album mis-steps).Lyrically this is a tale of leaving home, of going out and making your own way in the world, anxious to see what’s out there but equally anxious over the fate of the mama you leave behind. ‘Be gracious to your mam when you leave this neighbourhood’ is Kevin’s comment as he walks out the door, later worried that ‘the gap is sheer when you break away’. However the twist in this song is that the break is good for his family too, the Godley-shaped hole in the mama’s life allowing her to live out her own dreams (or simply getting some quiet: my take on the closing lines ‘may she rest in peace’ is that she’s enjoying the quietness without a musician in the house rather than dead). The recycling from ‘You Didn’t Like It’ is odder. It starts off well with the narrator ‘all alone in the darkness and my eyes are open wide’, perhaps enjoying his first night away from home but after that doesn’t fit much at all, a generation’s hands ‘tied to the Bowery’ as they try to make their way in the world that resort to prayer as per the earlier version. For the most part this re-write doesn’t work anything like as well as its world weary predecessor and Godley’s dramatic vocal can’t match his earlier triumph. This is another song rescued by its very lovely meandering tune, taking the slow route to independence, and another strong band performance with strong vocal and guitar support.
As ‘Fresh Air’ says, ‘we had a lot to say – and we’ve said it all’ (about as good an epitaph as you’ll find for 10cc, whose brief but glittering career covered so much ground in just four short years with the original Godley/Creme line-up). ‘10cc’ is a barmy, funny, witty, clever, intelligent, melodic and downright unique record that – even with the other 10cc records taken into account – is truly a one-off that shows what four men with a sense of humour and lots of time in their own recording studio can do. I don’t know why this record always gets overlooked: true there is one too many doo-wop parodies over on side one and I’m not altogether sure that ‘The Hospital Song’ deserves its place in the middle of the much superior, harder-edged second side. Even for all the experience in this band and the amount of ‘nearly’ debuts before this one the sound isn’t quite there yet – 10cc will develop their pastiche style on this record into something much more original and ‘theirs’ in a few years’ time but already the elements that will give them their greatest success are undeniably in place. There are some truly brilliant moments here, be it Lol losing his rag at the system, Eric haunted by ghosts or Kev leaving home, not to mention some truly glorious arrangements that make the most of every one of these songs’ many twists and turns. If only the band had placed the magical prog rock masterpiece  ‘Waterfall’ on this record (perhaps at the end of the first side so that each could have had a grounding in ‘reality’ away from all the glam and glitter) then I’d’ve been very happy with it indeed. As it is, this record is a truly mixed bag, with some towering works of genius nestling amongst tracks you won ‘t particularly look forward to hearing more than once and as a result we can only give it a mixed result. That’s no reflection on the energy or passion that went into this work though – if they gave marks for trying then 10cc would get 10 out of 10 every time.