Friday, 22 May 2009
10cc "The Original Soundtrack" (1975) (News, Views and Music 32)
10cc “The Original Soundtrack” (1974)
If only there had been a film to go with this soundtrack album. Even by 10cc standards this is one hell of a visual LP, populated by believable worlds full of lovers in self-denial, a blackmailing jealous lover, workers waking up in cotton fields, Jesus sitting down to a second final meal with his disciples, walking on the white house lawn and having an eye-full at the tower in France and even French prostitutes trying to hide from the law. It's a terrific romance-come-comedy-come-surrealist-come-Biblical epic-come-art noir-come-exploitation-come-Paul Robeson musical-come-X-rated flick. It's like a collage of all those films you see briefly at the Oscars, strung together where these different worlds rub shoulders with each other and somehow end up as their own self-contained universe. Even more than a film though, this record is a newspaper or rather a whole bunch of newspapers: it's part broadsheet ('Brand New Day' and 'Flying Junk' make serious commentary), part tabloid ('Blackmail' and 'Second Sitting For The Last Supper' are The Daily Mail to a tee), part comic ('Life Is A Minestrone'), part romance magazine ('I'm Not In Love'), part top-shelf rag ('Un Nuit En Paris') all forms of human life and interaction are here. 'The Original Soundtrack' might not quite be the best 10cc album (controversially I'm going to stick the ever-under-rated 'Windows In The Jungle' in pole position) or even the best '10cc' 10cc album (that's probably 'Sheet Music'), but it's the most 'complete' as an album. For most of the record you'll even think you've found the only 10cc album that hasn't put a foot wrong anywhere - till the unfortunate post-credits of 'The Film Of My Life' makes the joke strung out all album too literal and lets the side down.
This album may not exactly be confessional songwriting at its best (though 'I'm Not In Love' especially packs an emotional whallop), but it is gloriously crafted, gloriously performed, gloriously produced nuggets of sensational pop stuffed so tightly onto the record that it bursts at the seams, despite being only eight tracks long. ‘The Original Soundtrack’ used to be rated as by far and away the best of 10cc’s canon but now, with the mega-million seller ‘I’m Not In Love’ not exactly knocked from it’s pedastal but certainly drooping a little bit (God knows why), this third album is often reckoned to be about the weakest of the ‘classic quartet' period. To be honest, I can’t decide between this one and the quirky opening pair of albums the band gave us, but ‘The Original Soundtrack’ might well be the best of the original quartet by the 10cc quartet because it’s the fairest. Here all four men get their chance to shine, with alternating writing credits, vocals, guitar solos, everything. This is the band's democracy truly in progress and the last time that all four people are straining to make an album as great as it possibly could be with everyone pulling their weight, rather than simply getting through it as per 'How Dare You!'
We know now, of course, that it was all going to go sour just half a record into the band’s career, when Kevin Godley and Lawrence Crème decided they’d had enough of the commercial side of 10cc favoured by Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman and went their separate ways. Most fans will tell you this is when the magic left 10cc and their absent duo (not me – witness the fact that on our original 'compact' version of the AAA - ah those were the days some 400 odd reviews ago - there are no less than three post-Godley and Crème records on our list at numbers 73, 80 and 86 and an honorary mention for Godley and Crème’s ‘Freeze Frame’ LP) But whatever your views about the merits of later 10cc, the most interesting part of this record is that you can’t hear one iota of that mega-split about to happen (to be honest you can’t hear it much on fourth and final record ‘How Dare You!’ either, aide from the title) You see, 10cc were the ultimate democracy – all four men had been seasoned players in the 1960s (Stewart took over the lead vocals for the Mindbenders when Wayne Fontana left and Gouldman wrote countless top five hits for bands like the Hollies, Yardbirds and Herman’s Hermits). All four men wrote their own material with it’s own distinctive sound, more often than not collaborating with one other member of the group on a rotary basis. All four men sang lead vocals, auditioning for each specific part of a song before the four men would decide who was best suited to a certain section. All four men played all of the instruments between them, for the most part alternating on bass, guitar and keyboard duties. That hard-fought for and hard-to-put-into-practice democracy really pays off, on the group’s first three albums at least, so that even some hundred playings of each record later you still can’t quite remember what bits coming up next. The lyrics, especially, are top notch on this album (just look at hoe many quotable lyrics we’ve included above). 10cc at their funniest were the best comedians to grace the planet since Tony Hancock (and they could play instruments too). Practically every couplet on this album has something in it to make you laugh, some clever wordplay or pun that seems so obvious (and yet so complicated) that you can’t believe nobody ever thought it up before. Yet all of the clever wordplay are backed up by some scintillating melodies, simple enough to sing but broken up into so many multi-layered sections and segments that it must have taken a zillion hours of man-time to put together (well that’s what you get for having two artists and an engineer in the band). The most complicated sounding simple songs, 10cc sound quite unlike any other band that’s ever existed.
Most anti-fans cut in about now and say something about the records being too over-the-top, too clever-by-half, too weird, too cold and calculating to warm to. Personally, I can’t say I’ve ever felt that myself despite hearing that argument over and over again to the point where it’s become ‘fact’. You can only be too clever if your witty lyrics get in the way of the song and it’s meaning and that never happens with 10cc as there are enough strong hooks, melodic ideas and emotion-filled vocals to make up for it. Some of the subject matters in these songs are a little on the strange aside, but that’s a plus not a minus in my book – you instantly know it’s going to be a 10cc song when you hear songs about the walking dead harassing Vincent Price, about parents trying to sing their little off-spring to sleep by swearing at them in a sweet little voice, that life is a minestrone and death is a cold lasagne. 10cc also seem to care very much about the characters in all their little vignettes, even if each song is played for laughs to some extent – they get their fair share of happy endings and enough layers of meaning to be more than merely objects of laughter (listen to Eric Stewart’s stormingly angry vocal on ‘The Wall Street Shuffle’ for evidence – the words may be hysterical but the subject about corruption and earning insane amounts of money while the poor go without is obviously not a funny one). To answer Frank Zappa’s perennial question, comedy does belong in music, but only when it’s written and played by 10cc.
What makes ‘The Original Soundtrack’ stand out in 10cc’s early catalogue is the sheer scale of what the band are attempting. The first two albums are, for the most part, played by the usual drums-bass-guitars-keyboards line-up, even if the melodies and accompaniments keep swapping over every 30 seconds or so. Here the band have been given a full playground of instruments to play around with and they make full use of it – the vocal-chord backing track of ‘I’m Not In Love’, for instance, still sounds like nothing else ever made, even now 35 years on, pieced together painstakingly in the pre-digital age by having the band sing the same notes a zillion times over (or something like that) and then using the mixing desk as an 'instrument' hopping from note to note in seamless other-worldly denial. Eric Stewart, always more of an engineer at heart more than a rockstar, has raised Godley-Creme their gizmo and done some tinkering of his own for his guitar solos across this LP. All of them shine with that typically brilliant mix of clarity/control and excitement and energy. Few guitar solos are quite as memorable as the one that screeches through most of 'Blackmail', turning a jokey jovial song about a man getting dirty pictures of his ex into a howling tragedy of betrayal and indignation, only solved by the typically unlikely happy ending. Except perhaps the one that roars through 'Second Sitting For The Last Supper' or which zings its merry way through 'Life Is A Minestrone' (best use of a single guitar chord since 'A Hard Day's Night'?) It's not just the guitars either: 'En Nuit In Paris' sounds like a full radio drama, complete with sound effects, vocal murmurings and manic choruses (where everybody gets a part and plays it to perfection, even if Lol steals it with his single most camp vocal). 'Flying Junk' uses so many sound effects and audio verite it would have been Stockhausen's favourite pop song (after The Grateful Dead's 'That's It For The Other One' anyway).
Even 'Life Is Minestrone', generally considered one of the simplest hit singles in terms of composition, is an absolute monster of a production epic with so much going on packed into so many layers it must have taken more man hours than the rest of that week's top 40 put together. Would that my minestrone soup cans came half as well stuffed - this one has the best and crunchiest croutons ever! Even the simpler songs like 'Brand New Day' and 'Flying Junk' stand out because they have a particular kind of simple purity - the kind you can only get after hours in the studio stripping things down to their basics, rather than the sort that comes from one raw live take without overdubs. Of all the four original Godley-Creme era albums, 'The Original Soundtrack' is the one that makes best use of all the many things 10cc learnt during their days as a 'studio' band backing everyone else and using their odd lunch hours to experiment further; it also makes the best use of the band's all-for-one, four-for-all ethos that can only come after you've spent too many hours at the same microphones aiming for the same level of aural perfection.
Where 'Soundtrack' occasionally gets let down is in the songs. Not that the album doesn't sport some fine ones - I defy anyone to point to a finer sadder or happier single from the mid-1970s than 'I'm Not In Love' and 'Life Is A Minestrone'. But occasionally the material isn't quite as ambitious as the stitching holding everything in place and very occasionally borders on mediocre. 'The Film Of My Love' is slapstick, Carry On-style innuendo style humour on an album high on cerebral intelligent wordplay. 'Brand New Day' is the sweet Godley ballad we need after so much going on across the rest of the album, but it's far from the finest Godley-Creme song out there and skirts too close to the source material, being too reverential to work as the band's usual affectionate parodies ('Paul Robseon waking up from the cotton-fields'). 'Flying Junk' is an excuse to get as many references to drugs into a single song as anybody had dared in 1976 (while simultaneously managing to be deeply anti-drugs; 10cc really weren't your typical 1970s band) and while it sounds tremendous, it's basically a series of bad puns strung together. Even 'En Nuit In Paris' is more atmosphere than story-telling, with no real resolution and the nagging feeling that you've accidentally skipped a chapter somewhere (the song was originally intended to take up the whole of the first side - it seems likely that the ending went missing, because frankly there isn't one). No 'The Original Soundtrack' isn't perfect by any means - and yet if ever an album won marks for trying hard then it's this one. Every single solitary second has been filled up with...something (goodness only knows what half the time) and there's so much whizzing past your ear it distracts you. Plus the two singles from this album especially makes you wonder how you ever doubted the band's creative talents at all, ever.
Though, as we've said, every track goes somewhere entirely different, there is a vague album half theme of denial as a coping mechanism that allows us to carry on leading our lives which crops up continually across this record. 'En Nuit En Paris' features a brothel where nobody seems to think that they're doing anything wrong or breaking the law - not least because the chief of police is one of their best clients! 'I'm Not In Love', of course, is the ultimate song about denial - on the surface, as a lyric, the narrator is not in love. But absolutely everything else screams denial - the choirs of romantic oohs and aahs, Eric's lovesick puppy lead, the half-hint that keeps breaking through that the narrator has never loved anyone more in his life ever and it's breaking his heart. 'Blackmail' is the tale of a lover who simply can't let his ex go, accidentally making her a porn star as a result and putting her even further out of reach! 'The Second Sitting For The Last Supper' takes it as granted that Jesus is going to come down someday but, well the soup's going cold so could you hurry it up a bit - the song is in denial that every generation of Christians have asked for and half-expected the same thing to happen across two millennia and counting. Not to mention mankind's denial that someone might one day come down and save us - it's looking increasingly likely that the only person to save us is ourselves. 'Brand New Day' tries to fool the misery of the present with the hope of the future, that each day is going to be the one where nice things start happening and the slaves are freed - it doesn't happen, but it's a way of coping as good as any other. 'Flying Junk' wonders is a drug pusher really knows what a bastard he is and how many lives he ruins and figures that he probably doesn't care. 'Life Is A Minestrone' is us all in denial about the inevitability of the fact that we're all going to die one day and turning death (and life) into a joke, an unlikely metaphor that takes the 'nastyness' away. And as for 'Film Of My Love', well, clearly this lover hasn't got a clue with his cheesy chat-up lines and X-rated home movies - he might be the least obviously in denial but perhaps he's got the worst case of the lot of them. Whether used consciously or not (more than likely not) this is a very 10cc theme - life is full of surprises and should never be taken at face value, which is something they've been 'teaching' us since their Hotlegs days and 'Neanderthal Man' but reaches a zenith on this album with its hidden devastating secrets and pretend play.
One last point – the band have signed to Phonogram here (now renamed ‘Mercury’ and signed rather against their will I understand, after holding out for a better deal from another record company that never came off) and are obviously going after something a bit bigger, more serious and ‘arty’ than their first two albums on Jonathon King’s UK label were. This is 10cc in transition, preparing the next stage of pop chart domination by laying the groundwork for as many possible outcomes as possible during this period (as more than one wag has pointed out, there are more ideas shoe-horned into single songs on this album than there are ideas on whole 10cc records by the ends of their time together). They're clearly thinking of this album as their first 'blockbuster' judging by title, album cover (a rather disappointing Hipgnosis cover with pencil art of a complicated looking contraption showing a film on TV) and the sheer hard work that went into this album. As with so many cases, though, the big budget film of the series isn't necessarily better than the low budget sitcom, with '10cc' and 'Sheet Music' arguably having more character, even if you can't help but applaud the many moments when this album works. The 'failure' of their business contracts (reportedly the band's manager decided to get them a 'better' deal when they were all on holiday and they lost the deal they wanted) will have major repercussions for the band and hammer the first nail into the band's everything's-coming-up-roses coffin. From here-on in making albums quite as larger and life and detailed as this record will seem like hard work and will cost the band their patience, bits of their sanity and ultimately two of their members. is the high price worth all this? Yes and no - at different times 'The Original Soundtrack' is both the best and the worst thing they ever did, with the added bonus that even this album's weakest moments have been dressed up so well they sound great. If albums were foodstuffs this would be somewhere between a minestrone and a frozen lasagne - it's one of those ready-meals that looks brilliant from the outside and is great when you can (by fluke) get the cooking just right, but with a few too many lumps and items that lead to indigestion. It's brilliant, it's bonkers and certainly original with or without a soundtrack, but it's a little uneven in its spread of genius. One night listening to 'The Original Soundtrack' is like a year in any other place - but one night here is nearly 10cc's last.
First on our list is the nine-minute three-part epic ‘One Nuit In Paris’. As legend has it, this was Godley and Crème’s suggestion for the whole of the next 10cc record, a double-sided opus a la Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick As A Brick’. The other two decided against the idea, selecting what they considered to be the highlights of the sprawling work and turning it into a sort of mini-rock opera (hear the three-album long Godley and Crème magnum opus ‘Consequences’ to hear why this was a good idea). It’s one of the strangest nine minutes you will ever hear. Following the opening sound effects of falling milk bottles and impatient Parisian locals we get hit with Lol Crème singing in his best female falsetto as the boss of a French brothel. Advertising the wares of both establishments and girls to a bemused-sounding Eric Stewart, Godley and Crème put on their best feminine voices in contrast to Gouldmann’s deep growling bass. The whole thing would be horrible, a bad spoof of the ‘Les Miserablis’ musical 20 years too early, were it not for a surging paranoid chorus that keeps coming out of nowhere to trip us up and delivers us the warning that France will take away our innocence (hmm, and that message is brought to you by four people from Stockport!)
The band really get moving in the second verse, with a cracking band performance that shifts through more keys and shuffle rhythms than Michael Jackson has had plastic surgery. The piano work on this song is particularly strong, skipping from bar-room drawl to yearning broadway musical to boogie woogie rock and roll in the flutter of an eyelash. The harmonies are the middle section’s other strong part – 10cc rarely sing all together at the same time but it’s great when they do – having four oh so very different vocalists in the band give them a really distinctive chorus sound.
The third section gets even weirder, with even more vocals coming and going and a chorus full of girls practising their ballet steps voiced by four husky mancunians. It seems that the brothel owner is in trouble with the law – only to finds that the chief of police is currently in session and can’t be disturbed. The band turn in some suitably Cabaret-ish sleazy nightclub sounds on this song, but have enough of a tune underpinning the whole thing to make it work. Frustratingly, though, there’s no real end to the song – did the band simply not write it, feeling that it was long enoughb anyway, or did they simply pull it when they decided to shrink the song? Either way, without the denouement, this song is a comedy without a punchline and a moral without the twist. Anyway, it’s a 5/10 for the idea and 10/10 for execution – it’s that kind of a song.
Next up is the song that everybody knows, ‘I’m Not In Love’. Eric Stewart’s perennial about self-denial would have been a classic in songwriting form anyway (it was inspired by an argument he had with his wife, after she accused him of never saying he loved her and he replied that saying it everyday would become a cliché). It’s what 10cc did with it that makes it special though – Godley, Crème and Gouldmann all sang ‘aaaah’ to every individual note of the scale, so that Stewart (the engineer) could fade them up at any time he wanted in the final mix and swap around different notes to make up different chords. This is such a clever, unique selling point that it’s almost got in the way of the song, but listen again to how cleverly the narrator’s self-denial about falling in love becomes obvious to everyone but himself. There have been so many love songs in the last 50 years I think I’ll scream if I hear another one, but this song’s clever twist (it’s an ‘I’m not in love song’) makes it one of the cleverest 45s ever produced. The only down-side for me is the rather weak backing of a simple acoustic and keyboard, which do an effective job of conjuring up a romantic mood out of nothing against the narrator’s will but misses the band interplay and range of ideas of the band at their best. I’m also deeply confused as to the middle section where the band’s telephonist rings up to tell us ‘big boys don’t cry’ – what’s this section supposed to mean? If it’s the narrator’s (non) girlfriend then why does she say something she’s not supposed to know about? And if it’s the narrator’s conscience, then why does it have a female voice? I’m confused…It goes without saying that the band added the section in afterwards after realising that needed something else to liven up he middle bit.
‘Blackmail’ ends the side on another high, with one of the band’s best all-out rockers to break up the dreamyness that’s gone on on the record so far. Another slightly seedy song, this is a heavy-breathing narrator (Stewart’s whispering but sibilant vocal is tremendous) talking to himself about framing an old flame by passing on some revealing photos of here. Therein follows an epic guitar battle between Stewart and Crème which is one of the most mesmerising on record, easily the equal of the Stills and Young duels of the CSNY days. Stewart’s screaming heavily-drenched-with feedback solo is a masterpiece of timing, flying through the song’s many changes before giving up and holding onto one note as long as possible. This passage also successfully imitates the narrator’s desperation when set against the rhythmic piano and drums backing that suggest that time is running out for him to make his impression on her before he loses her completely. Only there’s a twist in the tale, not for the last time on a 10cc record – the old girlfriend’s new boyfriend is so impressed with the photographs that he sends them to playboy magazine, which makes her a superstar. No other group could possibly come up with a song like this – thanks to tight playing, great harmonies and a great riff 10cc pull it off easily.
‘Second Sitting For The Last Supper’ is the band’s other classic rocker of the period – so it’s a pity that on CD they’re programmed next to each other. No shame about the song though, which returns to the 1950s sound that 10cc first parodied on their early records. The lyrics are, if anything, even more controversial than the last song, however – wondering when Jesus will return from the dead to right all human wrongs as promised. It’s hardly a Christian song though – the song verges on sarcasm throughout about how ‘the greatest story ever told was so wrong’, how the church is now corrupt and in great contradiction to what it preaches and how if the bible really was true then Jesus would have returned to right human wrongs a long time since. The song just about gets away with it’s jibes thanks to some very real mournfulness and desperation in it’s verses (‘another loser in the soup kitchen, another reason for your visit – we think you better come down’). The most memorable part of the song is the chaotic ending where Lol’s piano yet again takes centre stage as the riff gets played faster and faster and gets more and more out of control, with Crème soloing over the top. Whoever said that 10cc could only play via overdubs and overproduction has never heard this record, which is one of their better 1970s updates of a classic rockabilly sound.
‘Brand New Day’ is, thankfully, quieter (hearing those last two tracks so many times in close proximity was beginning to give me a migraine to add to my CFS woes) and was, allegedly, inspired by a Paul Robeson film where the gravel-voiced actor woke up in a poppy field. This being 10cc, they decided to re-create the feel by having their highest-voiced member Kevin Godley sing the lion’s share of it. The opening cascading verse, where the whole song seems to open up like the morning does for the narrator, sadly gives way to a rather overly theatrical verse and a paranoid middle eight that take most of the good feelings away from this track. Not that it’s bad – the idea of waking up optimistically every morning only to discover by the end of it that you’ve spent another day toilessly working for a boss that’s ‘got you running everywhere, boy’ is one that many people can share. But for once 10cc have over-estimated both themselves and their audience here, switching gears before we are quite ready and letting their melodies fizzle out before we’ve heard their true merit.
‘Flying Junk’ is another controversial song, with a carefully concealed lyric about a drug peddlar (or a rag and bone man, possibly – the band cover themselves well with this lyric after being afraid it might get a radio ban!) Another 50s-ish melody gets a 70s makeover, one which really suits this song’s lyrics about a colourful character whose sales pitch is guaranteed to bring misery. Again, the best section of this song I instrumental – Eric’s howling guitar matched against tight and threatening mellotron-based sound effects makes for one of the best 15-second bursts on the record (at least it does the first time we hear it – the slower reprise isn’t quite so successful). So far so impressive, but this could have been an even better song if we’d heard from the narrator about how the con-man drugs pusher costs his patrons dear.
‘Life Is A Minestrone’ is a song that people either love or loathe, mainly courtesy of its daft lyrics about Minnie Mouse being more popular than the Pope and the fabulous metaphor of death as a cold lasagne suspended in deep freeze. Personally, I love it – it’s monkeynuts bonkers imaginations like mine that really embrace 10cc and all the daft things they have to offer and as a general rule the stranger their songs the better. Crème totally dominates this song in a way like no other – the bulk of the song is his including the daft lyrics, the vocal and the scrolling piano lick his too. But it’s whoever came up with the delightful middle eight (Stewart, perhaps?) that deserves equal praise, with this stabilising grounded section giving us a chance to recover from all the frivolity of the song. Although, thinking about it, this song isn’t actually that frivolous – the way that the subjects of life and death and the importance of things in life are handled is frivolous, but the subject most certainly isn’t. Stewart’s screechy and out-of-control guitarwork gives the song an added edge too, giving the recording a bite it needs to prevent it becoming merely another novelty single. But, however well it’s dressed, boy those lyrics are great – with the narrator enjoying himself ‘lying on the white house lawn’ (why does George Bush come to mind?!), ‘leaning on the tower of Pisa’, ‘having an eye-full at the tower in France’ and ‘hanging round the gardens of Babylon’. It’s as if Frank Zappa had just re-written the lyrics to ‘California Girls’ – priceless. And if life isn’t a minestrone then I want to know what it is exactly – a perfect monkeynuts metaphor. Oh yes, and if you’ve come to this record after only knowing the hit single version there’s a treat in store: a full 15 seconds extra music at the beginning with a jam before the band hit the familiar riff. It’s not as revealing as the album version of ‘Silly Love’ (Eric Stewart’s best ever solo, for my money, pointlessly cut for radio appearances), but its great to hear nonetheless.
You may have noticed that I’ve discussed seven songs out of eight so far and loved six of them. So what’s stopped me from putting ‘The Original Soundtrack’ on my list? The final track – ‘The Film Of My Love’ – which must be one of the un-funniest things 10cc ever did. In fact, it’s my candidate for the worst song they ever did. Gouldmann is very badly cast to handle this song about schmaltzy serenaders doing film soundtracks and this smoozy clichéd song falls into so many of the traps that people like 10cc usually spoof. Sure, it’s meant to be funny and deliberately bad, but it’s not so bad that it is funny – it merely sounds like the band are living out fantasies of being a middle of the road band, without any of the added bite or twists we’ve come to expect (I think I’m right in saying that this is the only 10cc song by the original band not to have at least one middle eight in there somewhere – and so plain and horrible is the tune that it needs one more than most). The metaphor – I’m making a film of our love, in cinemascope, with the magnificent seven, it’ll win an oscar, etc etc etc – is way way way too obvious. The song tries to spoof itself by ending ‘over and over and over and over again, over and over and over’, like most bad film soundtracks are apt to do, but it simply sounds like the band have run out of ideas. Unfunny dross that loses this album the two extra marks it needed to make it onto this list proper, even if it is still miles better than even the best Beautiful South lyric (Boy, do I hate that band!)
What a shame about the ending – but still, that’s 6/8 tracks that are very very good bordering on excellent so 75% worth of a successful album isn’t bad odds really. And the sheer amount of work involved on 10cc albums (as revealed by Eric Stewart on a BBC6 documentary recently, playing back particular passages from the master tapes in public for the first time) is hard not to applaud, no matter how poor the result can sometimes be. Clever, groundbreaking and expertly performed – few other groups come close to this.