music: 10cc of near greatness

Someone said something that reminded me of a lyric, turns out it was from a 10cc song. They’re still famous for “I’m Not in Love,” a song so immaculately crafted that I unwillingly succumbed to its overwraught bathos (pathos? mythos?). It was number 1 in listener polls of “Greatest pop song ever” for years in the UK. But it overshadows the fact that they were four excellent songwriters, four talented musicians, and four decent vocalists who recorded some excellent pop-rock songs.

Their back story is interesting. I knew that Kevin Godley and Lol Creme went on to make lots of music videos. I had no idea that before 10cc the group wrote (as Hotlegs) the intentionally inept worldwide hit “I’m a Neanderthal Man” (one line repeated endlessly), or that one of them wrote some great hits for the Yardbirds and Hollies. We’re lucky that four musicians from the minor industrial town of Stockport in the UK found each other.

Many excellent songs

Their eponymous album 10cc had the minor hit “Donna”, and the “Jailhouse Rock meets pub pop-rock” pastiche “Rubber Bullets”. But they really hit their stride with their next album.

cover of the LP "Sheet Music" by 10cc, photograph by Hipgnosis.
great cover, great album

Not only does Sheet Music (1974) have a great Hipgnosis cover, it’s a great pop-rock album! It’s a mix of heavy songs and light songs, ably crafted with lots going on and a cynical outlook. “The Wall Street Shuffle,” “The Worst Band in the World,” and “Silly Love” all have real lyrical and melodic bite, and have stimulating shifts in tone between different sections. The faux “On de’ ub’er side ob’ de’ island” patois in some songs is embarrassing, but the songs reference colonialism, arms sales, exotic tourism, and other topics that were in the zeitgeist 50 years ago and now make less sense. (More on that below.)

“The Sacro-Iliac” has such a sweet refrain, with lovely chord changes as the vocals jump into falsetto territory. Read the lyrics to see how three of the band hand off the vocal duties. There are other treats, like this lyric shift that spans two different sections in “Somewhere in Hollywood”:

He’s armed and he’s dangerous-
-ly Close was the weather when I was a kid

10cc weren’t perfect. They’re “just” really good, but not great songwriters, or singers, or soloists. The keyboard playing isn’t great (but the guitars are solidly inventive; Godley and Creme left to make a triple-LP concept album to promote their Gizmotron mechanical guitar bowing device). The drums and percussion are varied (lots of tuned wooden blocks) but the band doesn’t swing or groove; “The Sacro-iliac” is indirectly about that. The sonics and musical arrangements are nothing special (they chased the pristine perfection of the likewise cynical and highly-crafted pop rock of their contemporaries Steely Dan when they reunited in 1992 to record …Meanwhile with Steely Dan’s legendary producer Gary Katz).

I’m Mandy, fly me

“I’m Mandy, Fly Me” (1976) is probably their masterpiece, with many sections and moods and sound effects. It starts by quoting an earlier song off Sheet Music, “Clockwork Creep” told from the point of view of a bomb on an airplane (!! the 1970s weren’t a happy time in many ways). Again, there are some gorgeous motifs and harmony with the rest of the band; when Eric Stewart sings:

I’ve often heard her jingle
It’s never struck a CHORD

, you know the melody is going to jump up and the others will join to sing a chord in perfect harmony, and they do. It’s trite, but it works so well.

There’s a drifting section that elliptically refers to a plane crash, a shimmering acoustic guitar break reminiscent of “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” and another pop song I can’t remember, it’s interspersed with a couple of strong electric guitar solos; the second guitar solo ends in a wordless vocal harmony straight out of Yes’ “Yours is No Disgrace.” Then it turns even more dreamlike as the narrator is or isn’t rescued by Mandy’s kiss of life “Just like the girl in Doctor No, No No No,” and finally he’s back on the street looking at the airline poster. The journey in the lyrics and the musical journey fit so well; the background of the song (read the Wikipedia article and this one) is fascinating. And it reached #6 in the charts!

Complicated pop songs

Rick Beato and nearly every old person in YouTube comments is frustrated by the machined simplicity of today’s pop songs. It’s boring and lazy to decry “today’s music” when there are more talented musicians making music than ever before (I’m partial to Vulfpeck, Cory Wong, Yvette Young, Polyphia, Matteo Mancuso, …). But when it comes to pop music with vocals, despite half-a-dozen credited songwriters there isn’t much going on musically in most hit pop songs beyond intense sonic production.

In the 1970s all non-classical musical artists worked under the Olympian overhang of the Beatles. Many responded by going beyond the constraints of pop and rock: Yes were making complicated long progressive rock masterpieces starting around 1971, other groups advanced genres less explored by the Beatles including hard funk and jazz fusion. Meanwhile more mainstream pop and rock artists responded by making more elaborate songs while still riffing on rock and roll sounds and influences. An early example is Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (1969), then in the mid-1970s there were a lot of complex pop songs in the charts. Wings’ “Band on the Run” (1974, recorded 1973) is the one we all remember, but I recall Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” (1973, 11 minutes long!) and of course the sui generis “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975) from Queen. 10cc were right in the middle of this.

The harmonies are Beatles-esque, the bass is often reminiscent of Paul McCartney… turns out McCartney recorded at 10cc’s studio and one member (Eric Stewart) later composed and produced with him.

Pastiche and Queen

The later 10cc song “`The Things We Do for Love`” (1976) was surely influenced by Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend” (1975). 10cc and Queen were both pastiche acts more committed to “the bit” than a particular approach to songwriting. Somehow I find Queen’s lack of commitment and direction (apart from the sensational “Now I’m Here“) more irritating than some guys trying to make good records without the histrionics. And 10cc even nod to the synthetic nature of making yet more pop-rock songs, decades into the form:

[Verse 3: Kevin Godley & Eric Stewart]
Well he’s been up all night
Breakin’ his head in two to write
A little sonnet for his chickadee
But between you and me
I think it’s

[Refrain: Group]

[Bridge: Eric Stewart]
Ooh, you know the art of conversation must be dying
Ooh, when a romance depends on
Clichés and toupées and threepés

“Silly Love” written by Lol Creme & Eric Stewart

Understanding references in old songs

Genius is my favorite crowd-sourced annotated lyrics site (I contribute, I wrote about scanning lyrics), but it’s hit-or-miss at explaining references in older songs; Genius started with rap, and its volunteers only fitfully annotate old songs. It’s easy to laugh at leaden explanations of lyrics like “Cristal is an expensive champagne,” but in 50 years they’ll be essential to understanding references in today’s songs. Eventually I hope people will explain references like “a Panzer division to chauffeur you home” in a 10cc song.

Of course the ^&%$#@! web search result spammers are on the case screwing up the web for everyone, creating web sites full of pages that claim they explain songs but are completely devoid of content beyond an invitation to “contribute” or “discuss with the community.” Like this one (I won’t deign to promote it with a link), that at first seems it will be great:

Discover the poetic beauty in ‘I’m Mandy, Fly Me’ by 10cc. This lyric breakdown takes you on a journey through the artist’s thoughts, emotions, and the story they aim to tell. From clever metaphors to evocative imagery, we delve into the nuances that make this song a lyrical masterpiece…
<lyrics follow>

F*** you, “sound recording-history” web site!

Music newspapers and magazines used to have long interviews with musicians discussing their latest records; it would be great to link these with songs and lyrics. Rock’s Backpages is a site that has many of these interviews and articles; I should pay for a subscription. What I really hope is some rock star or rock-loving tech millionaire will buy it out and make all that information freely available to the world. Music matters!

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