Friday, 16 December 2011
10cc "Sheet Music" (1974) (News, Views and Music 125)
10cc “Sheet Music” (1974)
The Wall Street Shuffle/The Worst Band In The World/Hotel/Old Wild Men/Clockwork Creep//SSSSSSSilly Love/Somewhere In Hollywood/Baron Samedi/The Sacro-Iliac/Oh Effendi!
‘Sheet Music’ is wonderfully named. No one else in the history of the recorded universe could possibly have made a record like this, 10cc’s most 10cc-ish album. It’s not that this album is oddball, as some reviewers assume, so much as that its completely unique, with a winning mix of sarcastic targets and tightly constructed riffs, with each subject turned round in our mind’s eye so that they’ll never seem the same way again after hearing this album. It all has a perfectly logical logic, it’s just not the sort of logic you usually associate with best-selling pop albums. No one is safe from the band’s jibes, from the bankers on Wall Street (see! This isn’t the first or even the worst recession we’re in now, whatever the papers think) to cannibals, terrorists, film stars, old rock and rollers, dancers, oil barons and even the band themselves. Sure there’ve been wacky albums on a whole array of mysterious subject matters over the years (Michael Jackson springs to mind, which is a shame but we won’t mention him again I promise), but no one else could ever have made an album like this one, one that’s so determined to sound different and strange and alien, and make our safe and cosy and understandable world sound so different and strange and alien, simply by cutting through the artifice and showing it for what it really is.
What many reviewers of this album miss, thanks to seemingly novelty songs about jumbo jets and cannibals sitting down to lunch is that ‘Sheet Music’ is also 10cc’s most serious album in many ways, in the same kind of way that true ‘proper’ dramas like ‘Dr Who’ and ‘Being Human’ happily sit comedy and drama side by side (unlike, yuk, soap operas or sketch shows which barely acknowledger their opposite numbers exist). Our bizarre world is made for laughing at but, at the same time, the very bizarre nature of a world where some have everything and others have nothing and there’s nothing they can do about it isn’t funny at all. The seriousness at the heart of this record comes from dissecting what’s wrong with the then-modern world, because its not the characters who are strange, oh no, its the world’s reaction to them that’s odd. Why should something as deep and emotional and compelling as falling in love be reduced to a few dispassionate clichés? (as it is in ‘SSSilly Love’). Why should oil barons and Wall Street bankers think they’re god’s gift to humanity, when they’re only the temporary owners of natural resources available to the whole planet or dealing in man-made commodities like finance that other species do not need to survive (as on Wall Street Shuffle and Oh Effendi!). Why should music become such a big and powerful statement when most of the people ‘elected’ to the role have no idea what to do with the spotlight when they’re given it? (Erm, on second thoughts don’t answer that, because I’ll be out of a job, although ‘Worst Band In The World’ is a spot-on parody of Justin Bieber 40 years early). Remember that this album was recorded in the grip of a recession similar to own ‘credit crunch age’ (one that peaked in 1976 – see Stephen Stills’ acerbic ‘Buyin’ Time’ for more) and its easy to see why this album is suddenly coming back round into fashion again. No longer a series of funny jokes about weird characters, ‘Sheet Music’ now sounds like a clever person’s attempt to write about subjects on everyone’s minds without making them overtly angry or sad.
If there’s a theme to this album then it’s a surprisingly serious one, of class. By and large 10cc came from fairly respectable middle class families, unlike many of the working band groups we feature on this site (The Who, 3/4s of The Beatles, The Searchers, Lindisfarne, The Hollies, The Moody Blues, The Kinks, Oasis, 4/5ths of the original Grateful Dead, etc) and came to fame young via their original bands (Eric Stewart in The Mindbenders, Graham Gouldman in The Mockingbirds but mainly as a songwriter, Kevin Godley and Lawrence Creme in a great long list of one-hit wonders), earning bucket-loads of money in a short time, so they’re exactly the sort of people who shouldn’t be writing songs about money and bankers. We’ve already seen on our other reviews, however, how 10cc kept their eyes and ears open to the world around them, even more than our other featured musicians, and you don’t need to experience something firsthand to be concerned or moved by it. Also, all four men’s sudden loss of fame somewhere around 1967/68 would have been something of a wake up call as to how the world was run and that success doesn’t necessarily relate to talent but to luck and circumstances. ‘Wall Street Shuffle’ is the most obvious sign of class inequality on this album, still 10cc’s darkest and most scathing single, effectively condemning bankers for causing all the evil in the world long before they were actually responsible for it. You can hear that outrage at work elsewhere too though, several times – the cannibal of ‘Hotel’ lives in a world where eating people is normal and its the American way of life of dog-eats-dog that seems alien to him (note the song title: the tourist is treating somebody else’s home as if they should bow top his superiority); the rich oil baron of ‘Oh Effendi’ loses his power when he loses his oil, showing how little power he really has by himself whatever his ‘friends’ tell him; the rock group in ‘The Worst Band In The World’ is powerful only because they’re an ‘empty’ band that won’t worry the people in charge too much; even the silliest songs here ‘SSSilly Love’ and ‘Clockwork Creep’ are about how distant people can become from their consequences, with respectively the crooner’s relaxed idea of love a far cry from the burning complex issues implied in the first song and the terrorist blowing up a jumbo jet in the second, treated as a joke because, well, its happened in so0 many films that nobody really cares.
Debut album ‘10cc’ (see news and views no 80) is one of the most impressive debut albums of all time, not necessarily because its great all the way through or contains the band’s best work but because it’s heady and still even today unique mix of the serious and bizarre came fully-formed and completely unlike anything else ever made. However, it’s on ‘Sheet Music’ where 10cc really let go and encourage their imaginations to go further than ever before, safe in the knowledge that their unique take on life really does have an audience out there, buying it in enough numbers to help make #1 if the song is right. Above all, enough of their audience ‘got’ what the band were up to to make them think they were onto something useful, a heavily produced cleverly layered sound with strong enough hooks, riffs and melodies to keep their listener involved. The band will never get quite as outrageously wacky and self-conscious as this again, gradually introducing an extra layer of seriousness from third album ‘The Original Soundtrack’ onward until the last few 10cc albums are very heavy and troubled affairs all round (see our review no 86 ‘Windows In The Jungle’). Unlike some other albums on this list the mix of 1950s rockabilly and smart alecky songs on this album mean that ‘Sheet Music’ is one of a handful of albums that could have been recorded any year at any time – certainly you’d never suspect that a semi-serious song like ‘Wall Street Shuffle’ was released at the height of glam rock (though ‘Worst Band In The World’ is probably a safer bet...) One other thing to note is that, although ‘Sheet Music’ is well loved by most fans (and band) today, at the time it got rather a mixed reception, peaking at just #9 in the UK charts less than a year after having a #1 hit with ‘Rubber Bullets’. The band’s career is about to be rescued by ‘I’m Not In Love’ and a much bigger advertising budget from new label Mercury than Jonathon King’s UK label could only dream of having for ‘Sheet Music’ but still, this album must have seemed somewhat out of place in its day, in a way that even the first eponymous record didn’t, with its 50s pastiches and knowing winks to the audience.
As well as covering subject matters lesser bands would not dare to touch, there’s another reason this album’s title of ‘Sheet Music’ is ironic. Have a go at playing any 10cc song from any period (but especially this one) and you can’t – well, you can only after a lot of hard work, a lot of talent and a lot of re-playing of the records anyway. 10cc hate the idea that any of their songs will ever become boring (still rock and roll’s biggest sin even today, despite the success of Justin whats-his-face) and make their songs out of lots of little passages that they then stick together, seemingly at random. The songs here really shouldn’t work when you analyse them but they flow surprisingly nicely despite the sudden disarming tempo changes, the switches of key, the sudden unexpected instrumentals and lurching tangents into something else entirely. All of these things should make this album harder to follow than, well, the Wall Street Shuffle and Dow Jones index, but ‘Sheet Music’ is still surprisingly easy on the ear for all that. Granted there are some great riffs underpinning all of these songs, something that makes any song much easier to swallow, but in lesser hands this album wouldn’t be music at all, just a lot of bits and pieces randomly assorted.
The lyrics are key to this album though. Read them through on a lyric sheet (if you can find the old vinyl editions) and ‘Sheet Music’ sounds like one angry rant, so venomous and outraged that you wonder how on earth you missed such strong emotions whilst playing the record. The answer is that the band hide their fury with a series of clever, quick-moving arrangements that never leave you long enough spaces to concentrate on the words, but if you choose to think about them then there is plenty of depth in ‘Sheet Music’ to enjoy. A song like ‘Hotel’ isn’t just a spoof on hoary old black and white films about cannibals and exotic lands but a clear spoof of colonialism. Not only that, but its been updated so that its not the British Empire we hear here in all it’s faded glory but the suddenly important American market (bearing in mind that all four 10cc men came from no further afield than Stockport or Manchester). The object of our laughter shifts so slightly, so imperceptibly, that as well as making us giggle we’re really questioning about what it means to be a foreigner in a distant land and whose values really matter or shock the most – the temporary visitor or the permanent resident. ‘Worst Band’ is another key song, effectively agreeing with all the critics who’ve ever hated a 10cc song and asking why it is that some bands are destined for stardom and some for a life of failure, because judging by the best-selling singles of the day there was no accounting for taste (something that’s true, arguably more so, today). Taken on the strengths of their melodies alone then these are 10 great pop songs. Taken with the lyrics then these are 10 great (or seven great anyway) subversive songs whose real meanings only hit you later.
One other thing that made 10cc largely unique in this time was the fact that they had four highly distinct voices – as well as being musicians all four members wrote songs and sang leads on a kind of rotating basis, so that each song sounded sufficiently different to its predecessors. More than any other album, ‘Sheet Music’ also includes the most obvious examples of the four men’s unique songwriting system, whereby they’d swap partners after each song. Given that there are four writers writing in pairs each time, that makes six possible combinations of writers they could have. On this album 10cc use all six of those combinations, for the only time on a single record. Let me emphasis again: this is unique in songwriting circles, as far as I know (CSNY come closest but they worked on perhaps two collaborative songs a decade on rotation, hardly the level of 10cc) and that fact gives 10cc a real edge on their competitors because, on this album, you never quite know where you might be heading next. In the future 10cc will split into the Gouldman-Stewart and Godley-Creme camps but not here, not yet; for now this is a real live bona fide band, possibly for the last time (yes, even as early as the second record). I for one love the later 10cc recordings, the darker, more edgy set of records Eric and Graham make together between 1978 and 83, which may well be some of the most under-rated records of all time, but for most fans the real spirit of 10cc, their ‘glory days’ if you will when they sound like nobody else on Earth, end here with this record.
Even if you don’t see this as the end per se, it’s clearly the end of one era, as the band leave Jonathon King’s funding-challenged UK label after this record to work with one of the ‘big boys’. King has become something of a hate figure in Britain these days, thanks to a criminal record and some almost as criminal novelty singles, but to give him his due the one role he fulfilled well was as record boss. 10cc were hired in 1972 on the basis of nothing more than a collective past record and the fact that the band owned their own studio and wouldn’t have to fork out for recording time. King had the vision to give this band their head, let them find their own style without curbing it and letting through such seemingly odd decisions as flipping intended debut A side ‘Waterfalls’ (one of the most commercial and glossy 10cc songs) in favour of questionable doo wop parody ‘Donna’, which by rights should have seen the band sued by Paul McCartney’s lawyers for re-writing his song ‘Oh! Darling’ had the ex-Beatle not been so sick of court cases in 1972 that he let the sleight pass. Between 1972 and 74 the band get weirder and weirder and their sales, whilst not poor, were falling as they were moving just a little too fast and were slowly leaving their audience behind (this album’s lead single ‘The Worst Band...’ didn’t even chart, being perhaps just a little too postmodern for its own good). Other record bosses would have been on at the band to go back to basics or withdrawn money from them in favour of somebody else, but instead King stuck by the band until bigger label Mercury that poached the band away soon after this record (according to the story, they were sold on the deal after hearing the demo-tape of ‘I’m Not In Love’, after which 10cc got double the price they were asking for).
Perhaps fittingly for an album where money is seen as ‘evil’ again and again in it’s grooves, this probably wasn’t a wise decision in the long run. Stewart and Gouldman, who had both tasted pretty big commercial successes in the 1960s, were thrilled and had just the right run of songs to maintain the wacky 10cc style and the new, weightier issues that being part of a bigger ‘group’ with a bigger budget entails. Godley and Creme, who cared more for artistic than commercial success generally speaking, weren’t so happy. The split won’t come till 1976 and it’s a sudden one, with the latter pair walking out after arguments over single ‘I’m Mandy, Fly Me’, complaining that the band was getting ‘stale’ and repeating itself, risking parody of their earlier work. I’ve been scratching my head over that decision ever since I read it because, while not the greatest 10cc moment by any means, ‘Mandy’ is nonetheless a perfect example of a 10cc song that couldn’t have been recorded by anybody else, ever. The split, to me, seems more about making the sheer energy, exuberance and uniqueness of these songs palatable for a mass market, robbing them of their what-on-earth-will-happen-next shock factor. It’s probably fair to say that Godley and Creme hang on to that shock factor far more than is good for them after the band split, to the point where some of their records, such as ‘Ismism’ and ‘L’ are unlistenable (even though others, such as ‘Freeze Frame’ and ‘Birds Of Prey’, are still just about melodic enough to become under-rated gems). ‘Sheet Music’ is the last time you can’t hear that split between commercial nous and eccentricity and, while its not everybody’s recipe for a great album, it is enjoyable enough to make it clear why so many people love it so. As far as I’m concerned some of it works admirably well, some of it works just fine and other bits are just one bit of cleverness too far (a criticism often labelled at 10cc in this period). There simply isn’t another record like it in the world. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is up to you.
The Wall Street Shuffle’ (Stewart/Gouldman) is easily the best known song on the album and has become one of 10cc’s most loved songs, even though it stalled at a lowly #10 on its first release as a single. If you’ve heard the excellent ‘The Producers’ special dedicated to 10cc then you’ll know how much work went into making this song sound so stupendous: Eric Stewart sings his lead in three-part harmony, all double-tracked; the guitar overdubs were endless and the backing tracks are full of dozens of splices where they switch from one section of the song to another, all lined up so carefully you can’t hear the join. ‘Wall Street Shuffle’ would be a great little pop song if it was down to the production alone, but there’s a great little riff at the heart of this song that effortlessly transforms itself from wobbly comical in the verses to an angry martyrdom in the chorus. It’s the lyrics, though, that make this song so special, saying in a few words what pretty much no one else (except maybe CSN) was saying on record at the time. Despite the Stewart-Gouldman writing credit, its was actually Lol Creme who came up with the title while 10cc were in the back of a limousine taking a shortcut through Wall Street to get to a gig, with the band staring out at the bankers going about their daily business and doing the same funny quick walk to get to their offices. This one off gag stuck in Eric’s head and was eventually turned into a song with help from Graham.
Focussing on the greed and avarice in the modern world, a land where bankers would ‘sell their mothers’ if it would get them a little bit extra, it’s actually asking why human beings developed a system that sees some prosper while others suffer. Given that the Cold War was still very much on in those days, if a little bit colder than it got in the 1980s and had been in the 60s, this was quite a censorious take on the capitalist way of life for the day (perhaps that’s why it sold so poorly). There’s also the question of whether money has ever really helped anyone, with a strong middle eight about reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes, so afraid of social interaction that he never got to spend hardly any of his riches (he’s have loved Amazon!) Emotion is lacking from those in charge, going about their daily business no matter whose lives are hurt by their decisions, but it’s not lacking from Eric’s deliciously bitter vocal which is one of his best with the band. 10cc try to hard the sheer danger in this song with their trademark ‘daft chorus’ made up of Lol’s falsetto and Graham’s comedy bass, but that’s not enough to cover what is, at heart, perhaps the most serious and angry song 10cc ever made. ‘Wall Street Shuffle’ sounded prosaic at the time – nowadays, some 40 years on, it sounds even more uncomfortably close to the truth about whose really running our planet for us. A truly remarkable song for it’s day and among the greatest moments in the 10cc canon.
Whilst ‘Wall Street’ wasn’t exactly a big seller, its predecessor ‘The Worst Band In The World’ (Creme/Gouldman) fared even worse, missing the charts completely. In truth, it’s a little bit too up itself to be a single, with all the clever tricks like stop-start passages and risqué lyrics designed to annoy the heck out of the radio shows of the day, but that’s no reflection on it’s quality as a song (it’s a close cousin of The Beach Boys’ ‘The Little Girl I Once Knew’, whose failure in the charts mortified Brian Wilson by limiting what he could get away with). Every single year sees some new wannabe with no talent who seems to hang around in the charts because of a) a song that vaguely catches a nation’s mood or b) is pre-determined by an epic advertising campaign, where record-buyers are practically forced into buying certain songs in the hope that they’ll go away (you could add in c) for modern tastes, when a band is on X Factor/Pop Idol/Strictly Come Dancing/World’s Greatest Musical Morons, etc, though I may have just dreamt that last show). This is a song all about that fact, but sung in the first-person by Lol Creme in the manner of one of these bands. There are some real classics in the lyrics: from the moody drumbeat that fills in the space in the first line where the word ‘shit’ is clearly supposed to be to the line about leaving the van to the roadies and the roadies in the van. Not to mention the line where Creme gives an ‘up yours’ to all the real genuine hard-working bands putting the graft in, working the hours and working their way up the hard way. Luckily the music isn’t quite as mean-spirited or as poorly turned out as the lyrics suggest, making the most of Eric’s trademark wail of a guitar sound and another strong second vocal from Graham in the middle eight. Some fans love this song, some hate it – certainly it’s a little too clever for its own good, especially as a single, but it’s all good fun and played with a certain joi de vivre that allows the band to get away with it. Only one aspect doesn’t work: the band are clearly trying to go for another neat track in the fadeout, with the song switching to another character, the record itself (back in the days when vinyl was the only medium for music and cassettes hadn’t quite taken off yet), inviting the disc jockey to ‘play me’ and then ‘fade me’. After two spot-on minutes of the band singing as idiotic failures this finale is a bit of a disappointment and the record fading away is a bit of an anti-climax to be honest. Still, for the most part, this is an under-rated minor gem.
‘Hotel’ (Godley/Creme) is, as we’ve seen, a very complex and subtle song, one where the ‘alien’ and ‘foreignness’ comes not from the cannibal sitting down to a meal but the Americans arriving on his land and thinking that they can ‘save’ the people on it, whether they want it or not. The record contains perhaps the best line of the record when the cannibals argue amongst themselves and sigh ‘I’m getting sick of things American – I’ve ate my way through half the Pentagon’. The British WW2 saying of ‘Yankee Go Home’ is subverted here, sung by a tribe of cannibals who desperately don’t want to be civilised by a culture that is itself uncivilised. The chorus of ‘they’ll never ever let you go’ has puzzled some fans, but if you see this song as being about Britain being invaded by all things American (though only the Coalition are cannibals living off the misery of others) it makes more sense – after all, we’re just an ‘island’ too and were just as ‘uncivilised’ once (though as this record often debates, whose to say we weren’t better off as primitives?!) A wonderfully clever and very 10cc song, with a wolf of a subject matter masquerading as a novelty song, on paper this song should be the best thing on the album. Alas there’s a few things about this song that don’t work: the long and boring opening which lasts for a whole 1:25 is more of an excuse to indulge Lol Creme in his falsetto and ‘gismo’ stringbender than an interesting part of the song and the attempted patois and stereotypes, though very mild by 1972 standards, are unacceptable now. A shame because ‘Hotel’s idea of what is ‘local’ to our culture and what is foreign, after several millennia of being ‘mongrels’ mixing cultures between cultures and refugees/travellers/warriors is a strong one for a song. Certainly the band seemed to like it, with Stewart and Gouldman writing their own version of the song as ‘Notel Hotel’ on 1981’s ’10 out of 10’ record (see review no 80), where the creepy building is really a metaphor for Earth (or so it seems).
‘Old Wild Men’ (Godley/Creme) is one of the weaker tracks on the album, with a recording that never makes it clear whether this is meant to be a genuine heartfelt tribute to rock and rollers of times past or simply another joke a la ‘Worst Band’ (Eric seems to be taking it straight, but Kevin isn’t). We’ve also heard a good chunk of this song being used three years before on the under-rated ‘Hotlegs’ album track ‘You Didn’t Like It Because You Didn’t Think Of It’ (effectively 10cc’s debut despite the name and poor sales; see news and views 36). It’s all very pleasant and for most other groups would be a welcome bit of ‘silence’ in between the heavier rockers, but this is probably the most boring song 10cc ever made, without any twists in the tale or even any major shifts in tempo, melody or keys to keep our interest. Most puzzling of all is the finale, a pseudo-religious hymn asking God for the salvation of all the band’s musical heroes from times past, but sung in such a way that we don’t know whether we should be taking it seriously or not. Certainly 10cc will never get this religious again and in fact poke fun at Christianity as soon as the next album with the rollicking rocker ‘Second Sitting For The Last Supper’. Even some of the lyrics are confusing (and not in a 10cc complex way): one minute the ‘old wild men’ are aged heroes from our past, the next they’re nobodies who never quite made it ‘waiting for miracles’. It’s interesting, though, that music is the salvation of everyone in this song, successful and rich and poor and down-trodden alike, so it may be that its music and not a deity that the band are praising in the last verse (because the presence of God can be heard in music?) As for the backing, there’s a pleasing mix of Eric’s snarling guitar and the usual peaceful hymnal feel played not on an organ but on a very early 70s synthesiser, which makes for an interesting mix of sounds. It’s just a shame there wasn’t a stronger song to go with it.
‘Clockwork Creep’ (Godley/Creme) is one of those songs you either love or hate, either the most bizarrely original thing 10cc ever made or the most irritating three minutes on record outside of ‘Agadoo’ and The Spice Girls (I think it manages to be both, all at the same time; incidentally what the hell were Black Lace doing turning our Christmas lights on in Ormskirk this year? Thank goodness I didn’t go or I’d still have ‘Agadoo’ going round my head now). In case you can’t work out what’s going on in this song, it really is a bomb singing to us and trying to warn the pilot of a jumbo jet that he’s about to blow, swapping the vocals with the plane itself. This song is so odd that I’ve heard just about every theory about it (the best: that this is a ‘hidden clue’ by the band about how they all died in a plane crash and were all resurrected as the four horsemen of the apocalypse – see the religious feel of the last song and the fact a clip from this song is recycles in the single ‘I’m Mandy, Fly Me’ about a man saved from a burning plane wreck). The words are odd, the tune is irritating (the chorus simply consists of tick-a-tick-a-time bomb’ repeated over and over) and the puns in this song are excruciating even for 10cc (‘the gravity of the situation, its only my willpower that keeps this thing in operation, we’re going to crash – that’s for certain, the pilot is too busy flirting, and he ain’t aware there’s a bomb down there and if he don’t do something it’s curtains!’) If that’s your idea of fun then you’ll love this song, which is kind of the musical equivalent of the Airplane films (why this song was never used in the credits I’ll never know as its tailor-made!) However the most interesting part of the song is the middle, when a full chorus suddenly cuts in about how what goes up must come down, treating the news like a madrigal round or a King’s Singers album. Hundreds of people are going to die, but it all sounds like great fun. This is only a brief section (it’s the bit re-used on ‘Mandy’) but the sheer amount of effort put into it gives the rest of the song an added class. Fun, but odd, the song ends on the sinister ticking of the bomb about to go off because nobody has heeded his warnings and the fade to silence is a pretty memorable way to end the first side of the record.
‘SSSSSSSSilly Love’ (Creme/Stewart) is my other favourite on the record, so much so that I even used it in a study of song lyrics I submitted for my ‘A’ Level English Language coursework (you see, this is a lifelong obsession and yes, I did go way over the word count!) This is a rip-roaring comedy song, full of tricky little rhymes and patter that are among the funniest 10cc ever wrote, but a serious message at it’s heart that, like ‘I’m Not In Love’, thinks the general rituals that go hand in hand with romance is too ‘sissy’ for an emotion so real and overpowering. There are some classic lines about how romance can be boiled down to tired crooned love songs heard so often they’ve lost all emotional impact and how love is all ‘cliches and toupees’ (a great line, no wonder Lol laughs his socks off in the background). By the end of the song we’re urged not to rely on worn-out methods of showing our love but to ‘take a little time’ and ‘make up your own rhyme’, because its being heartfelt that win the person of your dreams, not stealing lines from other people. There’s a terrific chorus too with all the band hissing ‘sssssssssssssssssssssssilly’ into the microphone – silly it may be but, together with the urgent, almost violent backing it somehow makes perfect sense. The band excel themselves here with the best group performance in their catalogue, returning to the rockabilly 1950s feel of the first album but with the power of a heavy metal band. If you happen to own the single version of this song then you’re in for a treat with the ending too, with Eric – one of my favourite guitarists – attacking the main riff of the song over and over and improvising like mad while the rest of the band keep going behind him (most of the best guitar solos on Paul McCartney’s 1980s records are by Eric too, except the one by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour on ‘No More Lonely Nights’!) It makes for a fabulous finale on a song that could have been twee but instead sounds tough and muscly, although sadly some nitwit somewhere chose to edit it down for the LP version, losing 30 seconds or so. Most fans forget about this song, which failed badly in the charts despite its obvious merits, but I rate ‘SSSSSSilly Love’ as one of the band’s greatest moments, a cutting song that’s still great fun and couldn’t possibly have been written or recorded by any other band.
‘Somewhere In Hollywood’ (Godley/Creme) is possibly the most complex song on the record and the closest in style to the film and record pastriches of the first record. Instead of teen comedy or horror movie (‘you gotta be nice to Vincent Price!’), however, it’s nothing less than a spoof of the whole history of Hollywood. Like the forthcoming ‘En Nuit En Paris’, it’s a multi-part prog rock epic that moves at quite a pace, covering the life and times of an actress, from her early days on the ‘casting couch’ to her success where in one of this album’s worst puns ‘Norman Mailer waits to nail her’, before her career fades to the point where she’s out taking Lassie, the studio’s true money-spinner, out for walks. All the way through the un-named actress sounds glamorous and exotic, but like many a character on this album she’s really a puppet being controlled from her first appearance to the last. Unusually the song is narrated not by her or an all see-ing narrator but by a concerned bit-part player acting the role of a ‘galley slave’ who finds the real actress beneath the facade to be much kinder and memorable than the parts she plays. The melody to this song is calmer than usual for 10cc and builds up quite a head of steam by the time we get to four minutes in, releasing all that tension in a wonderful release of music in the la-la-laahhed chorus that sounds like part-tribute and part-requiem that’s among the best sections of the whole record, dripping with sadness at both times gone by and the inequality of the star system. This is a much more thoughtful work than most 10cc songs and is a good record to play someone who thinks 10cc only wrote clever, sniping songs because, for nearly six long minutes, this is a song about beauty, with a melody as pretty and wistful as any of the characters. It’s also played unusually straight, barring the ‘Norman Mailer’ bit, with one of Kevin Godley’s better vocals for the band, sympathetic and graceful. The only downside is another weak ending without a twist or resolution to the story, although that said Eric’s bouncy guitar and Lol’s insistent piano duet on the fade-out is delicious and could have gone on much longer. Another great song, one that’s as comical or as serious as you want to take it, with a real heart about the characters in the song that we could have done with more of from 10cc.
Alas ‘Baron Samedi’ (Stewart/Gouldman) is a bit of filler. A clichéd song about voodoo and magic, it tells the story of the title character, a man whose lived for centuries and won’t die whatever’s done to him. He is in fact ‘real’, a ‘Loa of the Dead’ acclaimed in Voodoo circles in Haiti for raising the dead from their graves and choosing who to accept into the afterlife, dressed in a black skeletal costume not unlike the Grateful Dead logo, although weirdly his name is derived from the French word for ‘Saturday’. The opening tune is pretty impressive though, with multiple percussion parts driving the song on and a quite lovely instrumental section in the second half of the song that sees Eric and Lol trading licks on guitar and Graham’s bass rumbles trying to push their way in. Again, its one of the few occasions where we get to hear 10cc playing as a true band beneath all that overdubbing production trickery and they sound like a mighty good one too (there’s a BBC ‘In Concert’ show from shortly after this album’s release, often repeated on BBC4, that proves what a great and tight little band they were). The lyrics are a bit weird and again don’t have the p[ay-off we’re expecting but that said Eric somehow manages to rhyme ‘headless chicken’ and ‘virgin women’ and making it sound natural, which is an achievement in itself and the 10cc band harmonies on the chorus are excellent. There’s an unwelcome intrusion from a rock song, though, that seems to have been pasted onto the wrong song, with Godley’s tongue-in-cheek vocal here also at odds with Eric’s earnest delivery. The song really doesn’t need it and it’s a segue into something else too far, even on a track that seems so 10cc-like they’re already running the risk of parody. A strong recording nearly saves the song, however.
Talking of filler, ‘Sacro-Iliac’ (Gouldman/Godley) is another of the first-album pastiches that aren’t as brave or as original as most of the material on this record, telling the story of a ‘klutz’ who can’t dance and wants to ‘be alone at the bar’. As a song its nothing special, with some rather tired lyrics that list lots of dances and a plot that inevitably has the narrator turn into a great dancer by the end, although even here there are some gems: ‘Don’t wanna annoy yer with my paranoia’ is one; ‘I’ve never been freaky or funky or laidback, and the lush on the floor isn’t me anymore’ is another. The tune too is kind of pedestrian, perhaps deliberately given that this is a song about a man with two-left feet, although its nice to hear a folk influence added to 10cc’s long list of influences (and its inevitable it should come on a Gouldman song – in fact this song isn’t too dissimilar to his compact songwriting nuggets like ‘Bus Stop’ and ‘No Milk Today’, with the same ‘cute’ melodies). Where this song excels is in the performance: Graham’s lead is strong, but Godley’s whining, winging counter-melody steals the show, acting out the part of the girlfriend nagging her boy onto the dance floor. It’s one of the funniest performances in 10cc’s tenure in fact, although sadly there’s not enough of it and the song as a whole ends before it gets going.
The album ends with ‘Oh, Effendi!’ (Godley/Stewart), which is also the song that points the way forward most to the ‘Mercury’ years, with a much more ‘normal’ song structure and a very early-70s style backing that’s much closer in style to the band’s contemporaries (as long as you don’t study the lyrics too much). Godley effectively sings this song twice over, taking the verses in his ‘deeper’ voice and the choruses in his characteristic falsetto (along with Eric) and sounds very at home on this country-rock song. Like many songs on this album, it’s about the haves and have-nots of the world, telling the tale of an oil baron with a harem meeting up with a very American American, sung by Godley, coming to do business with him. The joke is that it doesn’t matter how much the American does to sound like a common or garden yankee, the Sheikh always has one up on him, knowing more about Capitalism and ‘The American Dream’ than he does. There are some clever rhymes here (including the all time top insult ‘Your gorillas are urban, there’s burban on your turban, and the sun shines outta your ass!’, narrowly beating the Dr Who Brain of Morbius script’s ‘You chicken-brained biological disaster!’) and a clever twist that sees the American riding off again as soon as ‘there’s no more goodies in the pipeline’ (this also makes for a fun farewell to the listener as the last track on the record). However, for all the good parts there’s something missing in this song, something big lacking, as if the band’s hearts aren’t really in this song and it’s clever patter. Already there’s been a shift across this album from songs with arguably too much packed into them into songs without enough ideas to sustain them – sadly this will get worse before it finally gets better.
Overall, though, it’s hard not to laugh or applaud an album that manages to pack so much into its grooves that I’m still fin ding bits I hadn’t noticed 15 years after first owning this album. 10cc don’t quite get things right all the time – otherwise this album would be firmly into our top 100, on the basis of ‘Wall Street’ ‘SSSilly Love’ and ‘Hollywood’ alone, but you could never accuse this band of not trying hard enough given the sheer amount of details added to even the most basic of songs. As we said in the introduction, there really isn’t another album like it – even the other 10cc albums have only passing similarities to this band’s all-out attack and wacky sense of humour – and that in itself is something to applaud, even if ‘Sheet Music’ is far from being my favourite 10cc album as it is for many people. Really, though, there’s so much going on here that there’s pretty much something for everyone who has a sense of humour here. And it’s important to remember that, funny as this album is, it’s also heavily serious at times, dripping with sarcasm and anger and bitterness and outrage – if comedy is meant to soften the blow of the way we live then nobody told 10cc that. An album that can make you laugh and cry at the same time is a rare commodity, but 10cc do just that here and, thanks to potshots at bankers, celebrities and terrorists, this album has never sounded so spot-on with its targets.