Monday, 27 May 2013
10cc "Look, Hear (Are You Normal?)" (1980) (Album Review)
“Change your line of patter, make her laugh not at her” “You’re through gestation so welcome to the world, we’ve still got vacancies just waiting to be filled...” “The starving of the multitudes and feeding of the few, we’re only human and there’s nothing we can do, you must do something or we’ll all go up in smoke – we’d like to help you but we’re scared of losing votes” “We’re not progressing, we’re only marking time, you’re on your own, think of your children, they’re only children, but are they welcome to the world?” “You’ve been hanging on to a dream, hoping that time would turn your fear away, but you must stop, take a look around, what do you see? Do you see me?” “You’re living in a world where reason is a waste of time, nobody talking, the atmosphere is cold, touching you deeply, way down inside you, do you wanna be loved?” “Put your image in your pocket, hang your collar in the closet” “It’s easy to drink when nobody’s home, and I hate to eat alone” “When you’ve got TV on the table and TV on TV, all you do is chew your finger down to the bone” “They say the city’s rotten to the core, there’s no communication with each other any more, but we stopped talking to each other a long time before” “I’m lost I’m lost I’m lost I’m lost I’m lost I’m lost I’m lost I’m lost I’m lost I’m lost I’m lost I’m lost I’m looooooooooooooooooooost!” “The meaning be-=lying on her face made me look a little closer between n the lines” “L.A. smiles to hide the frown, L.A. promises to follow you down, L.A. teeth and L.A. hair, L.A. curves that shouldn’t be there”
10CC “LOOK, HEAR, ARE YOU NORMAL?” (1980)
One Two Five/Welcome To The World/How’m I Ever Going To Say Goodbye?/Don’t Send We Back/I Took You Home//It Doesn’t Matter At All/Dressed To Kill/Lovers Anonymous/I Hate To Eat Alone/Strange Lover/L.A. Inflatable
Even as recently as 1979, taking a ‘year out’ just wasn’t an option for mainstream bands who wanted to sell records. That sounds daft to modern ears I know – Adele’s next record will be titled ‘35’ by the time she’s brought up a baby and sales of her last album ‘21’ have properly died down – but that’s how it was back then, whatever the reason, however frustrating the cause. For many casual 10cc fans the lack of an album and – for the first time ever – hit single was a good excuse to stop caring, to say that the band had been giving a case of ‘diminishing returns’ since Godley and Creme split from the band suddenly in 1976 and that it was 10cc, not Pink Floyd, who were the real antithesis of punk rock and new wave, with all their production values, clever lyrics and quirky nonsense. And so another mighty band fell from favour, dropping out the charts quicker than you can say ‘Dreadlock Holiday’, with the first in a trilogy of ‘flop’ albums that have been ignored for far too long. Had Eric Stewart not had that awful car accident in 1979 – one that left him unable to play the guitar for quite a few months and forced a hiatus within the band – we might not have had the final pair of 10cc albums ‘Ten Out of Ten’ and ‘Windows In The Jungle’, thought-provoking, fascinating albums from a man whose fighting his way back from death and suddenly has a big announcement for us all, even if no one is listening anymore (both of these records are part of our ‘core’ 101 classic album reviews). ‘Look Hear’ isn’t an album up to those two – and its not even up to the quirky, nonsense-loving albums that came out before (hit albums ‘Bloody Tourists’ and ‘Deceptive Bends’) so its no wonder that fans forget about it. The sound of a band laughing in a fading replica of what came before and trying to ignore the massive changes that are taking place, ‘Look Hear’ is one of those albums that tries so hard to be like everything that came before that it doesn’t really have an identity of its own. But it’s not its fault. Given the circumstances its a wonder that the album manages to be even this good.
Because parts of it are good, if not quite great. Understandably, Eric Stewart’s not quite right yet. While he’ll be back on top form for ‘Ten Out Of Ten’ (his first album to address the very major changes in life perspective he’s just been through), for this album he’s still finding his feet and chuckling slightly more awkwardly and less sincerely in his songs than before. Of his songs for the album only the bizarre and faintly threatening ‘Strange Lover’ hints at the inner turbulence that must have been going through his mind (and will be heard properly on the next two 10cc albums) even if all the pieces aren’t quite there yet and the most traditional song on the album (co-written with Gouldmann) ‘It Doesn’t Matter At All’, the heartfelt single from this album that really deserved to be a hit record, despite being less hook-driven or quirky than any past release. Elsewhere, though, Eric sounds lost and like a funnyman trying to go back on stage to crack jokes before he’s quite ready, not realising that the jokes were funny more from the way he was telling them than from the content of the jokes themselves. A song like ‘L.A. Inflatable’, for instance, is an easy target by 10cc standards (the recent craze for beauty surgery) and ‘I Took You Home’ is the by-now traditional Eric Stewart torch ballad, only this one is so mild and so insincerely felt it sounds more like a match.
When your band is well known for having four singer-songwriters you can afford for one to have an ‘off album’, but now that Eric and Gouldmann are the only members of the band that people in the street can point to that’s a problem. For Graham, however, it’s the opposite story: the sudden overnight success of ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ (credited to both men, but more Graham’s baby than Eric’s) has given him new confidence and at last he’s stepped out of the shadows of the other, louder band members to offer his own voice of self-deprecating humour and a musical shrug of the shoulders. Gouldmann writes or co-writes eight songs on this album which is a record and a far cry from the days of the first two 10cc albums when he was lucky to get two. What’s more he sings lead on almost all of these songs too, instead of giving them to Eric to sing with his more naturally radio-friendly voice or the new members to sing. At long last, Gouldmann is an equal partner in a band that he was last to join in 1972 (after the other three bonded as ‘Hotlegs’) and often seemed to be overshadowed in, despite having the best pedigree of making hits of any of the four original members of the band. For my money, Gouldmann’s songs on these last three ‘forgotten’ albums are up to anything in his career (including the big hits he wrote for The Hollies and The Yardbirds et al) and are the ‘stepping stone’ between the often brutally funny 10cc songs and his more commercial work in ‘Wax’ in the 1980s. It’s an awful shame in retrospect that the break came just when Graham had finally proved himself a full ‘partner’ with ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ but the break did him good – while not all his songs on this album are winners (and the band recycle their loose reggae-ish rhythms a bit too often for comfort) they do show a new-found fire and pizzazz missing from a lot of his earlier work.
For only the second and last time 10cc are a six-piece studio band in this period too. After travelling the world in a highly successful world tour (captured on the live record ‘Live and Let Live’ in 1978) 10cc are far more of a ‘band’ here than they were on ‘Bloody Tourists’ – and again it’s unfortunate that the year’s break and poor sales of this album means 10cc simply can’t sustain this line-up in the long term. Poker-faced Rick Fenn is a gift for the band, with his deep daft bass vocals and his sterling guitar work and during the year’s gap he’s been busy, actually writing the best (and most 10cc-ish) material on the album. ‘Welcome To The World’ (co-written with keyboardist Duncan O’Malley) is semi-famous in fan circles for being one of the only songs not to be written by Eric or Graham (or Kevin or Lol on earlier albums). Put a fan through a ‘blind’ test, though, and they’d probably conclude this scary song about a baby being born into an uncaring, unwelcoming world and being ushered on by a bunch of juddery, relentless synth beats is the logical progression from such tongue-in-cheek songs as ‘Rock and Roll Lullaby’ (‘It’s daybreak in the land of nod, so go to sleep you little sod!’) and ‘I Wanna Rule The World’ (where megalomaniacs rule and the world seems to be upside down). Fenn’s other song of immigration hassles (‘Don’t Send We Back’) gets laughed at now for its faintly ludicrous patois and patronising accent but this, too, sounds more like the old band (and a sequel to his we’re-all-one-really cold war protest song ‘Reds In My Bed’). Just as Eric and Graham are moving on for various reasons, so Fenn is enough of a 10cc fan to offer up a reminder of the old sound.
The other band members are less vocal, but still key to the sound. While drummer Paul Burgess carries on to the end (albeit without his face on the cover and in smaller typing credits than Eric or Graham), percussionist Stuart Tosh and keyboardist Duncan O’Malley also take their last bows here. That’s a shame because whatever you think about the songs these last three albums undoubtedly sound better than most 10cc recordings, with a double drum attack that gives the band’s quirkier songs a more powerful edge and an electronic hubbub of noise that might be the most dated thing on the record now but was genuinely pioneering and contemporary at the time (indeed, the rest of the world won’t catch up with O’Malley’s work for some year yet). The four band members’ patience and belief in the band where they waited for Eric to recover from his accident seems to have been poorly rewarded and if a lot of these songs seem to be 10cc-by-numbers that’s not the fault of the band members who give their all right to the very end.
If there’s a theme on this album, it’s one of the world letting you down and of things not being how they ought to be. There’s no ranting, or raving (like there would be on a Pink Floyd or John Lennon record), but a feeling that from your birth (‘Welcome To The World’) to your adulthood, someone always wants a piece of you and something about the freedom they promised you that you would have isn’t quite right. ‘125’ is about the strange, curious mating rituals of human beings on the dancefloor, with the narrator’s conscience reminding him that if he must act he should act like someone sensitive and kind (‘Change your style of patter, make her laugh – not at her’. ‘How’m I Ever Going To Say Goodbye?’ tells the story in reverse, a ‘Dear John’ letter with a reggae-ish lilt where the rather serious and airs-and-graces-filled verses give way to a sudden outpouring of real emotion the narrator could never say to his beloved’s face. ‘Don’t Send We Back’ is a group of immigrants searching for refuge but being told by a cold, heartless country to go back home – where they’ll all probably die through no fault of their own (they have to go somewhere after all - something UKIP always forgets to mention during their political diatribes). ‘It Doesn’t Matter At All’ is written as a love song between a husband comforting his wife but might well be Eric’s ‘return’ song, Graham’s lyric saying that ‘it doesn’t matter at all’ what happens on his return as long as his friend is alright (if so – and it’s only speculation - no wonder it sounds like the one heartfelt song on the album). ‘Dressed To Kill’ returns to the theme of ‘125’, a hip young wannabe staring in the mirror and willing himself to be the cool young dude he looks like in his head. ‘I Hate To Eat Alone’ is the sound of a narrator getting fed up with his own small world with no one to share it with, triggered by the realisation that he has no one else to cook for when he stumbles home alone (along with ‘Lifeline’ from ‘Bloody Tourists’ it could also be a song about the loneliness of touring). ‘Strange Lover’ is one of those Eric Stewart songs that have an older woman trying to make a man of the hapless narrator and who changes his world forever (one look in your eyes and I’mlostI’mlostI’mlostyI’mlostI’mlost I’mlostI’mlostyI’mlostI’mloooooooooooooooooooo oooooooooooooooooooooooooooost’ howls the song’s fade in a belated show of emotion). And finally, we get the most 10cc-ish song on the theme: ‘L.A. Inflatable’ where everyone has had plastic surgery to look the same and everyone looks like an alien. This is a world where things have been taken to extremes and no one knows what to make of the world anymore – where nothing is heartfelt and people have stopped to talking to each other and acting like themselves. Viewed like this, as a kind of vague concept album, the record makes a bit more sense.
There’s no getting round the elephant in the room, however: ‘Look, Hear’ is less focussed, more unsure and less funny than any previous 10cc albums, without actually being as gritty or as impressively complex as ‘Ten Out Of Ten’ or ‘Windows In The Jungle’. Most fans call this album ‘average’ – but in my eyes its worse than that: along with perhaps ‘Deceptive Bends’ this is perhaps the weakest of the band’s run and just about the only one of the original albums I wouldn’t recommend to someone whose never heard of the band (the two reunion albums, however, are far worse). It’s not that its bad, just bland, as if the memory of what made the band great is only a distant memory and doesn’t come as naturally, with the slight change in direction only showing itself in flashes, not whole songs (‘Strange Lover’ being a musical if not lyrical hint at the dark edges to come which throws all that passion away on yet another song about a mysterious woman and ‘I Hate To Eat Alone’ possessing perhaps Gouldmann’s sombrest lyric about isolation, albeit with a chirpy melody that seems to make light of the song).
The trouble I have as a reviewer is in pointing out things that even the band must have known were wrong, but were powerless to correct. The three returns to reggae are embarrassing, completely the wrong sound for 1980 (after the band got lucky in stumbling across ‘the’ sound of 1978) but understandable, given that it was the band’s last ‘hit’ sound (and, indeed, these songs may well have been written in 1978 for all I know). The music often seems humdrum, faintly like something you’ve heard before instead of grabbing you by the ears and dancing, as so many past 10cc albums do – which is what writers tend to do after a gap away when they know they have to win their old audience back again. The lyrics, too, are without their usual twists and turns, stings-in-the-tale or ‘did I really just hear that?’ moments while you scramble to the lyric sheet to see what clever pun the band have got past the censors this time. Again, this is exactly what you’d expect from a band who are following up a hit album but after time away – they don’t want to scare off new fans or put off old ones. Unfortunately, this means they end up pleasing nobody, with songs too bland for the new fans who loved ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ and ‘Tourists’ in general and the old guard who think it a written agreement that 10cc songs should offer more layers and puns per minute than anything by anybody else. It must be reiterated though: nothing on this album is bad, the playing is top-notch throughout and the band continue to fly through more styles per album than most bands own records – it’s just that, by 10cc standards, it’s bland. You can listen to this album continuously for days and only pick out one or two tunes by the end of it – usually you can pick out three or four tunes per song so something is clearly wrong.
Sadly, no wonder it didn’t sell. There’s simply nothing here the general public hadn’t heard before and 10cc didn’t have the following to become just another well drilled pack of rock and rollers releasing albums in this album, not with a year away anyway. Still I wonder why this album has been quite as trashed as it is: it’s certainly not so bad you’d hate it (as many fans seem to do), there’s no debate-making thought-provoking attacks here and actually less insincere sludge than some other 10cc albums I could name (like ‘Deceptive Bends’ or even ‘Bloody Tourists’).
The sheep in the room, meanwhile, is on the album cover – where a lamb sits on a psychiatrist’s couch under the accusing banner ‘LOOK HEAR!’ (a very 10cc pun). The wording underneath reads in tiny letters ‘are you normal?’ Hipgnosis (in case you hadn’t guessed) were behind the very zany cover and have clearly been listening to a lot of 10cc’s records because this sort of soul-questioning, do-I-have-a-right-to-be-zany? humour is highly in keeping for almost every 10cc record. The idea of a sheep (typically an animal that’s meant to do as its told) asking for psychiatric help because he thinks he’s not like everybody else should be spot on the money (and may well be Hipgnosis’ witty response to being told what to do by Roger Waters for the first time on the cover of Pink Floyd’s ‘Animals’ which includes a song called ‘Sheep’) and it shows up how unusual this record is that it doesn’t quite fit. ‘Look Hear’ is a timid, uncomfortable record – it should be this album’s artwork peeking through a slot in the record sleeve (a la ‘Windows In The Jungle’), not proudly declaiming to the world ‘we’re weird and we don’t care!!!!’ Original vinyl copies come with a poster of the album cover, which was stuck on my wall for a time (and got some very interesting looks from my friends and relatives) which only made the matter worse somehow. Look, hear, this album is normal – that’s the main problem with it.
All ‘Look Hear’ really needs is a couple of hit songs (‘125’ came the closest from this album and even that didn’t chart), slightly more quirky ideas and a sense of that sombre, mocking humour that Eric Stewart will come to write in the next four years as he tries to come to terms with the fact that, by rights, he should be dead (it was one heck of an accident) and what does he want to do with his life now he’s got a second chance? Change those things around and 10cc might have managed to overcome the ‘hole’ a year away represents in any band’s discography. They would then have lasted as a sextet band, travelled the world again even more successfully than the last time and recorded side-splitting but deeper, darker albums way into the 1980s. Instead this album already feels like a winding down and you can feel the elements of the band’s two less than stellar reunion albums ‘Meanwhile’ and ‘Mirror Mirror’ in this album’s DNA, bland records made simply because the band still had a couple of albums to go on their contract and they were made to release them by the record company, or else. Thankfully the band aren’t quite that cynical or working under such duress just yet. Instead though what we have is an album that only intermittently catches fire, only occasionally makes us laugh and only infrequently tugs at our heart strings, which from a band who made us laugh, grimace and cry more than almost any other in the 1970s is quite a come down and inevitably ushered in a sequence of events that left the band dried up and over. The shock is that not one song out of the eleven on this album shines through – and as we’ve already seen the closest song to doing that isn’t by Eric or Graham at all but from a guitarist on only his second and sadly last album, desperate to keep the band in touch with their more progressive past. Thank goodness Eric didn’t lose his life in that awful car crash – but by having it he kicked in a series of events that effectively scuppered the band he and Graham had co-founded and pushed to acclaim and success, which had to downsize greatly a matter of months afterwards. Who’d have thought taking a year out would have such far-reaching consequences?
‘125’ is a surprisingly gruff and macho beginning that suggest the band had been listening to a lot of disco records, with an unexpected middle eight of pure reggae for good measure. 10cc wrote many songs about dancefloors over the years, perhaps because it is a place where people try and ‘pull’ another human being by acting wholly out of character and being an extension of who they want to be, not who they are. There’s usually a sticky ending, too, although that doesn’t really come in this track which simply has the narrator promising empty romantic platitudes. The narrator is nervous and edgy, though, his conscience trying to remind him to behave, basically, and treat her girl like a human being in a marvellous counterpoint melody sung by Gouldmann that rattles away in his ear as if he’s being controlled by a robot. Eric’s vocal ranges from nervous to energised throughout the song, finally hitting an unexpected crescendo in the middle where everything comes right, the rather awkward tempo finally clicks and Stewart simply soars into the heavens as only he can. You have to say, though, this is a great-sounding song where nothing much happens: Stewart’s garbled but witty spoken word patter throughout the song is hilarious (‘We can go on a ride, we can jump in a boat, we can dance by the light of the moon’) but somehow doesn’t get anywhere. There’s no great insight to this song, no real twist and however beautiful it sounds when you’re listening to it when you dig a bit deeper you realise the story of some nit on the dancefloor and the band chanting ‘reggae reggae reggae R_E_G_G_A_E’ isn’t really going to cut it alongside past classic (not least because reggae never really made it to the dancefloor – had the band been chanting ‘disco’ this song might have made more sense). You have to say, though, the sound of this recording is great – Fenn and Stewart’s twin guitars, largely playing a single note, sound superb, the double percussion driving force of Burgess and Tosh never sounds as right again as it does here and Eric’s vocal is terrific, as if the band have never been away and nothing has ever been wrong. I’d hate to put seething this flimsy up the with the very best of 10c’s work, but a terrific band performance is so strong it more than rescues a rather so-so song.
‘Welcome To The World’ is another little nugget of genius, Fenn’s caring, empathetic words matched with O’Malley’s churning, almost ugly synth beats for a track that’s both the most 10cc-ish on the album (questioning the act of bringing children into a world that’s already full and unlikely to care much for them – for all the laughs 10cc songs quite often deal with subjects like this) and the most contemporary, sounding more like Heaven 17 or The Human League before they brought in waitresses into the group. Eric and Graham alternate vocals, the latter sounding unusually uncomfortable though the former seems to be having great fun, on a song that alternates being seriously concerned with the welfare of all the new born babies that year in a world full of cold war, chaos and angst (‘Think of the children! They’re only children!’) and in-jokes (‘We’ll send them packing on a dreadlock holiday’). Two factors bring this song up above the average: Gouldmann’s wonderfully manic, eccentric bass guitar playing which is closer to jazz or funk than pop and a mournful, reflective middle eight where the band get their breath back and Fenn plays a lovely, lilting guitar lick. A clever, comical but deep song about over-population and the hopelessness at most people of changing it (‘we’re only humanoid, there’s nothing we can do!’ sings Gouldmann in mock horror at one point, while a politician is dismissed with the line ‘we’d like to help but we’re afraid of losing votes!’), this is one of the album highlights and one of the few songs from this album worth digging out if you’re a big fan.
‘How’m I Ever Going To Say Goodbye?’ is, alas, another lazy song. Co-written by Fenn and Gouldmann, I’d love to know who wrote which part because the contrast between insincere, apologetic letter-writing and sudden bursts of true emotion hidden between the lines is huge. Frankly, the letter writing is awful, cod-reggae from a band who seem to have forgotten how to play it and Gouldmann’s ideas of a Jamaican accent is the worst since Richard Madeley tried to do Ali G, while the twee Carribean-drumming is so bad Bob Marley must have been killing himself with laughter if he ever heard it. The second part, though, where the narrator admits that the worry of saying goodbye to his loved one has got him ‘drinking ‘smoking’ sinking’ and ‘choking’ before flowering into a gorgeous peal of harmonies is actually pretty good. A second or even third or fourth reggae song after ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ was sadly inevitable, but without the tongue-in-cheek spirit to carry the song off 10cc just sound like a white band feebly trying to sound black and failing badly. The worst thing is, there’s no reason for this to be a reggae song at all – had the band simply put another pop melody in place this song would have worked far better and, indeed, the instrumental middle section (where twin O’Malleys whirl around each other to great effect) might well be the most beautiful passage on the album. Some interest at least comes from the lyrics, which might (or might not) be about Eric’s accident and the problems this causes within the band. Gouldmann’s lyric about ‘changing my mind’ every few minutes sounds ‘real’, however tongue-in-cheek the delivery is, and the chorus worry about ‘how’m I ever going to go to sleep at night?’ is all too believable for a member of a band that might not exist any more. If my speculation is right, however, then Stewart deserved better than a bandmate asking ‘what are you going to do in the morning when I’m gone?’ and some awful cod-reggae. A mixed song to say the least.
‘Don’t Send We Back’ is the heaviest, hardest song on the album and features the long overdue return of Stewart’s ‘snarling’ guitar (last heard on ‘Blackmail’ and ‘Second Sitting For The Last Supper’). Fenn’s song about immigrants is a natural extension of his handful of other songs, giving voice to a minority without power that no one else will hear and musically this song does a good job at summing up their doomed journey across a cruel sea only to be sent packing again. Unfortunately Fenn’s lyrics don’t always live up to the music, the ‘we’ patois in the title is borderline offensive (at least it is now – it probably wasn’t in 1980) and the song’s good heart is undone by some pretty poor couplets that sound more like a travelogue (‘We crossed Malaysian waters, we sailed the South China sea, we stopped at Singapore and Jakarta, and you want to send we back to sea?’) Fans dismiss this song as politically ‘naive’ – which it is, but that’s not always a bad thing (certainly I’d rather a song was naive than nasty). The problem is rather that the songwriting is a little naive – rhymes that should be there but aren’t, that use of ‘we’ in the title and a chorus that ends rather dramatically ‘we won’t last the morning in the baking sun!’ Fenn is also far from a natural vocalist too and although he clearly ‘feels’ this song and the band were right to let him sing it, this is a song not really built for easy listening. That’s a shame because the sentiments are spot on (how can immigrants be both ‘taking our jobs’ and ‘living a life of luxury on benefits’ all at the same time? And if they don’t come ‘here’ – wherever here is - and can’t stay ‘there’ for fear of oppression then where are people expected to go?) and a song like this needed to be made. Musically, at least, this is the song – Stewart’s angry guitar bursts and the double drum attack are both powerful and suitable for this song’s stomach-churning riff and confusion and chaos, it’s just a shame about some of the words. A near miss.
‘I Took You Home’ is Eric Stewart’s ballad showcase for the album, which starts off promisingly with a lovely opening and a strong first line (‘I looked at your face and somehow I knew nothing could tear me away!’) but fizzles out from then on (ending the second verse with the rather lame ‘Isn’t it funny how it started? Well, you know...’) Eric’s memory of his first night of love, sheepishly in his girl’s bedrooms while her parents are sleep upstairs, is clearly heartfelt (and inspires another great guitar solo) and special to him, but doesn’t really have much going for the listener. Alas, this is one song where the band’s performance doesn’t rescue the song, which goes downhill rapidly when they all kick in (Eric should have done this one alone) and features some truly awful ‘bells’ (thankfully hidden deep in the mix) which make this song sound more like Wham than 10cc. There’s no resolution to this song, either, which sits out the second half with an instrumental and then simply fades – another verse about how the pair in the present day are still together/haven’t spoken in 20 years/are still living downstairs from the parents-in-law would have made all the difference; instead this is a frozen moment in time which isn’t explained except with a shrug of the shoulders and a ‘well...you know’. It’s as if Eric is afraid to let on just how much this experience means to him, which is fair enough (songwriters don’t have to reveal everything after all) but giving us that opening and then telling us ‘ok, that’s all you’re getting’ seems like an odd policy to me. Also, simple as this song is, there’s still room for confusion: in the first verse we’re at ‘her’ house (whoever ‘her’ might be), but the chorus (and title) clearly state ‘I took you home’ before adding meekly ‘you took me in’. Is this two separate incidents then? If so, which part happens which time? Still, a likeable song - if only for the introduction – which Eric was born to sing and which is a much more natural and ‘normal’ reaction to love than some of his other songs (this album’s ‘Strange Lover’ among them) which reaches quite a remarkable climax (in more ways than one) in the middle.
‘It Doesn’t Matter At All’ is one of the album highlights. A late choice as a second single, it died a death which is a great shame because while perhaps not as inventive or original as some of the band’s best biggest hits it features one of their loveliest melodies. A sort of ‘I’m Not In Love’ from the other perspective, this is someone deep in love trying to get his loved one to admit that she is too and that it’s the rest of the world who should be ignorant of their love. People call the narrator ‘crazy’ and ‘a fool’ for being in love, but that ‘doesn’t matter at all’ if she loves him too. The hint is that the narrator is being mocked for being overly-emotional and OTT in admitting his feelings (in contrast to the in-denial narrator of ‘Love’ who makes up excuses for his signs of affection) and – in the third verse – that this might be a one-way uncomfortable relationship, with the narrator a stalker (‘Hey I’ve been talked about the way I’ve been following you – but I don’t give a damn when it feels so right!’) Eric Stewart proves again that he’s one of the best pop singers of the day with a great vocal full of love and honey, the arrangement is subtle (with O’Malley’s muted, mournful sounding synthesiser part particularly spot-on) and there are more hooks in this one song than on the rest of the album. Of course, we’ve heard this sort of song lots of times before over the years and there isn’t the usual 10cc intellectual twist going on here – but arguably this song sounds better for not having one, adding a touch of emotion to an album that badly needs it. Lyrically, too, this is nothing special but it does its job and there’s a particularly strong second verse where the narrator says thinking without feeling is simply stupid (‘You’re living in a world where reason is a waste of time, nobody talking, the atmosphere cold!’) A likeable song – whatever the narrator’s motives really are – this song’s quiet, humble melody and appealing sounds should have made the song a much bigger hit than it was. Sadly it’s the only song from this whole album to be re-issued as part of the band’s ‘Tenology’ box set in 2012 – although at least its one of the best things here.
‘Dressed To Kill’ is another of this record’s weaker songs salvaged by a great band performance. Chiefly written by Gouldmann, it’s a finger-snapping rhythmical record that again features a ‘dancefloor’ and a hip young teen trying to get ready for his big night out and convincing himself that he’s a bigger shot than he really is. Musically, it’s very similar to previous LP ‘Bloody Tourists’s ‘Anonymous Alcholic’ (albeit played less for laughs), with the same dynamic, almost disco-ish sounds and a performance that, by past 10cc standards, is downright funky. The band have finally realised how to use their two drummers (Tosh and Burgess slightly out of synch pounding their drums in the intro, which gives this song a dangerous, slightly out of control air) and Fenn and Stewart’s twin guitar attack is impressive. Sadly, though, this song is much weaker than it sounds with some pretty banal lyrics that even spoken by a wannabe young teen seem pretty weak (‘Drink in all that funky stuff, drink it in till you get enough!’) There’s a rather twee nine note riff that sounds like it belongs in another song too, a retro rockabilly hook that seems to come from a quieter, more innocent age (even though, arguably, being a teen in the 1950s was twice as scary as in the 1980s). The song gets downright unpleasant by the last verse, too, when the narrator ‘steals’ a girl from someone else and the song hints that he deserves it for being as wet blanket (‘sitting in the corner, like little Jack Horner, make him break, take his cake, he’s going to be your fool tonight!’) – frankly if this is how dancing make people behave, even in jest, then I’m sticking with the geriatric ‘Sacro-iliac’ from the 10cc’s second LP! Mind you, the girl sounds like she deserves what she gets, described here as ‘a devil with an angel’s face’. Gouldmann sounds surprisingly convincing as an angry young teen even though (or perhaps because) he couldn’t have been less like this as a youngster and 10cc do a good job at having a go at an entirely new sound – it’s just a shame that the song itself is so weak and what we have is so uncharitable.
‘Lovers Anonymous’ takes that rockabilly element to the fore and sounds very like ‘Take These Chains’ from ‘Bloody Tourists’. It sounds very much like 10cc too, with its tale of a desperate young lover calling into a dating agency – only, this being 10cc, it sounds as if the ‘doctor’ of the song is actually a psychiatrist at a sex-help clinic, ready to ‘throw a line’ to any patients suffering. A very 10cc subject matter then (taking an existing exaggeration of a human condition to its extremes), but the song doesn’t make the most of the subject matter (perhaps worrying about censorship, although that probably wouldn’t stop the band who came up with ‘Head Room’ in 1976, a song that opens eyes and ears even now). In actual fact, this song is a little bit too 10cc-ish, with pretty much the same tune and words you’d expect if you’ve been following the band’s career from ‘Donna’ on through to ‘Dreadlock Holiday’. For the most part the song rattles along un-noticed, but two things do stick out – another wonderfully gritty Eric Stewart guitar part (which sadly only really flies on the fade-out) and a curious choral middle eight, reached by such booming synths and percussion that it sounds like some grand exotic film. This aside, this is a silly, half-hearted song that’s only here really as filler and not a patch on the band’s previous dating song ‘Marriage Bureau Rendezvous’.
Gouldmann’s ‘I Hate To Eat Alone’ is pretty ordinary too, sadly, an acoustic reflective ballad at one with his other, similar songs on the last few 10cc albums without the burning heartfeltness of ‘Lifeline’ or anything in the melody to make it stand out. All that said, this is still quite a sweet song about isolation and loneliness that does ring partly true (‘When you’ve got the TV on the table and TV on TV’ is a line surely borne out of personal experience) and it makes sense as a kind of sequel to ‘Lifeline’ (surely, this is another song about the emptiness of touring and being away from home?) There’s an intriguing postmodern lyrical twist too where the narrator realises he’s a character in a story, ‘stumbling through this story line’ and quite a deep ending where the narrator reflects that ‘nobody’s guilty’ for his isolation, it’s just that ‘I didn’t tell you I had to change – you just took it for granted that we’d remain the same’. By the sound of it the couple have been drifting apart for some time but are part of a wider problem where ‘nobody ever talks anymore’. Gouldmann will later re-write this song with the excellent ‘Don’t Ask’, the opener from next album ‘Ten Out Of Ten’, although here the narrator is fine until he has to sleep alone at night, not eat. A fair middling track, sadly its scuppered by the sheer absence of any real melody and a curious mix that leaves Gouldmann’s vocal so far in the background it’s hard to hear. Read it as a poem, though, and ‘I Hate To Eat Alone’ is quite affecting. Curiously fans seem to have a real love/hate relationship with this rather anonymous song – the ‘Amazon’ review of this album, for instance, almost all select this song as ‘best or ‘worst’ on the album. Personally I’d place it somewhere in the middle – bland and forgettable, but with some very good ideas.
‘Strange Lover’ divides quite a few fans too, but I personally like it – it’s a sort-of sequel to ‘Exclamation Marks’ from ‘Bloody Tourists’ (yet another song that’s a repeat of an earlier one from that hit record – like we said earlier, surely the band listened to ‘Tourists’s lots after their year away to see where they’d got to?) , but again not quite as good. Still, Stewart’s hapless out-of-their-depth narrators are always well drawn and believable and this song about a ‘strange lover’ is winningly epic and surreal (and so different to the sweeter, more earthly romance in ‘I Took You Home’. A sort of 1980s ‘Acid Queen’, this mysterious woman has ‘no shadow’ and is ‘pale at the moon’, with ‘no complexion’ only appearing ‘at night’. Now those awful Twilight films have made vampires cool again most fans will probably jump to the vampirish conclusion pretty quickly, but at the time most fans assumed the mysterious night figure was a prostitute from the way Eric cleverly delays the twist till the end. Just to make the point clear, the music goes all Hammer Horror at the end, with a marvellously spooky organ part from O’Malley and a scary ending where lots of electronically treated Erics scream ‘I’m lost I’m lost I’m lost I’m losssssssssssssssst!’ while the tape speeds up behind him. The song is certainly striking, especially when set into the middle of this album, although the more straightforward beginning is pretty good too, Gouldmann’s ‘nagging’ harmony vocal entering into a great cat-and-mouse call-and-answer with Stewart’s, a great partnership the band should have exploited more. Admittedly, this sort of thing is far less subtlety done than on past 10cc epics (even ‘Exclamation Marks’ is a little bit cooler about events than this) and the stop-start melody is beginning to get irritating by the end. However ‘Strange Lover’ shows exactly the sort of daring and verve we’ve been kicking the rest of ‘Look, Hear’ for not showing and to my ears at least is a welcome addition to the album.
The record then undoes much of that song’s good work by ending with ‘L.A. Inflatable’, another less than memorable piece that’s a bit of anticlimax and again sounds uncomfortably close to past 10cc songs. The general theme of the song is plastic surgery and whether having it done makes you any less of a human being – the narrator certainly thinks so, double-taking more at the un-natural and un-womanly L.A. curves ‘that really shouldn’t be there’ than he did at people’s ugliness. There are some good phrases here, such as the first verse’s suggestion that the woman is just too young and cute to be true, leading the narrator to ‘look a little closer’ and see all the imperfections he normally wouldn’t, the lack of lines on her face ‘belying her face’ (note the pun on ‘lying’ – very 10cc, on an album strangely bereft of bad puns!) The song moves on to dissect the Los Angeles lifestyle as well as the looks, empty days ‘being seen’ having fun with famous people without actually having fun at all, ‘a product of rock and roll living, a victim of Hollywood hate’ who can’t think for herself. Again a strong band performance rescues a so-so song, although I’d have liked it better still without all the overdubs – Burgess’ drumming and one of Eric’s best and grittiest vocals are magnificently raw and earthy (and might well have been the original take before everything else was added) and it seems rather a shame to have all those keyboards, bass and percussion on top. The album then ends on rather a twee free-for-all solo from the whole band taking it in turns to rock out which sounds like something a less inventive 70s rock outfit would do (lots of Elton John and Rod Stewart records end this way, for instance).
‘Look Hear’ isn’t the greatest LP 10cc ever made – in fact it’s one of the worst. But it’s says much for this band’s energy, commitment and style that a record as good as this is as bad as it got after 11 years together (with an album every year except that awful time in 1979). Fans expecting Eric Stewart to address his life-changing incident head-on would be disappointed (although just wait for what happens on the superb ‘Windows In The Jungle’ especially...) and fans expecting the band to have moved on during their year away were probably less than overwhelmed too. Certainly there’s an awful lot of recycling of ideas from ‘Bloody Tourists’ here, although as much of it is being done by a band now nervous and unsure of themselves after their time away instead of a band who’d finally recovered from the massive split of 1976 (when Godley and Creme suddenly left the band) instead of one on top of the world, it sounds like the work of a completely different group. The writing is clearly on the wall – and poor sales of this record did mean that half the band have gone by the time of the next year’s LP – but the wonder, really is that this album isn’t worse given the year away, the problems making it and the very real threat that the band might not be around to even make this LP. For years this album was unavailable on CD (in fact it took until 2008, making this one of the very final AAA albums to be re-issued on compact disc) and the humdrum so-so period reviews put many fans off buying it even then. Here’s our advice: don’t start here (buy ‘Sheet Music’ ‘Original Soundtrack’ or ‘Bloody Tourists’ – we would say ‘Ten Out Of Ten’ and ‘Windows In The Jungle’ too but they’re even rarer on CD and long overdue a re-issue themselves!) but if you’re a fan who already owns everything else and has still been put off by lacklustre reviews: don’t be. This is far from 10cc at their best, but if this is their worst and most ordinary record then – my goodness – that shows up what a wonderful lot the rest of them were. I mean, what other band could release an album featuring songs about plastic surgery, overpopulation, immigration, sex clinics and vampires and still have this as their most boring, generic record? Look, hear, if you don’t already know the ins and outs of this band and this is the sort of thing that ends up being ‘normal’ then I can’t begin to tell you how eccentric, imaginative, daring and original the other nine 10cc records are... Overall rating 4/10