CRAM SESSION: An intro to art-rock oddballs 10cc and Godley & Creme

Read a primer on the hits and misses of two of the most perplexing pop groups of the 1970s.

June 10, 2016

Like some kind of pre-historic Art Of Noise, 10cc began as a few bored sessionmen with a lot of strange ideas and plenty of studio time at their disposal. Working as the in-house producers and session musicians of Strawberry Studios and initially scoring an unlikely novelty hit under the name Hotlegs (the drum-tracking experiment “Neanderthal Man”), Eric Stewart, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme soon grew restless and formed a group with friend and contract songwriter Graham Gouldman.

The group was subsequently dubbed 10cc by their eventual label boss Jonathan King which, depending on who you believe, was either a name that came to King in a dream or a reference to the volume of semen in one load of ejaculate. An unlikely start for a hit pop group and, as we’ll see shortly, the music itself was often even more perplexing.

10cc – 10cc (1973)

[quote]”Oh, Donna.
You make me stand up.
You make me sit down, Donna.
Sit down, Donna.
Sit down.
You make me stand up.”[/quote]

Yup, that was how 10cc decided to introduce themselves to the world. Is “Donna”, their debut single, a novelty song? By many metrics, yes. That said, it’s also naggingly catchy and so weirdly constructed that it becomes compulsively listenable, even addictive. Their whole debut album follows suit, deftly mixing strong pop hooks with absurdist wit.

“Rubber Bullets”, for instance, is based on the lyrical premise of what would happen if the Jailhouse Rock occurred in an actual prison (SPOILER: it ends badly) and sets it to Beach Boys-inspired vocal harmonies, while “The Hopsital Song” is a cheery ode to angrily urinating in your hospital bed so the nurse gives you more morphine.

Occasionally you’ll get a more serious track like “Fresh Air For My Mama” (the heartbreaking ballad that closes the album), but the defining characteristic of 10cc is just how much fun it is. Whether it’s the best 10cc album is debatable, but it’s easily the most entertaining.

10cc – Sheet Music (1974)

Less hooky and immediate than its predecessor, Sheet Music shows the band stretching the limits of how many ideas one can cram into a pop song without it collapsing in on itself. This means verses, choruses and bridges are sacrificed in favor of mini-suite-like arrangements that are halfway between an even more unstable Brian Wilson and a less malevolent Frank Zappa.

It’s once you begin to noodle each song’s internal logic that the real fun begins. “Hotel” is a merciless potshot at Jimmy Buffett-esque tropical pop, “Clockwork Creep” is a broadway musical in miniature, and “The Sacro-Iliac” is the distinctly un-danceable soundtrack for a non-existent dance craze. If you’re a J Dilla head, you’ll recognize the woozy grooves of “The Worst Band In The World” sampled on his song “Workinonit.”

“Somewhere In Hollywood”, probably the album’s best track, sounds like someone hurled a Steely Dan record against a wall and put it back together with silly putty. Disorienting? Sure, but there’s an argument to be made that they were never more inventive than this.

10cc – The Original Soundtrack (1975)

Yes, this is the one with “I’m Not In Love” on it. Does that song give one a good idea of what to expect of The Original Soundtrack? Yes and no.

Undoubtedly, this was the most subdued, restrained, even “serious” album 10cc had put out up to this point, and production-wise they’d never been so ambitious. On the other hand, the same quantum leap in ambition that led to “I’m Not In Love” also gave us the 8-minute album-opening mini-opera “Une Nuit À Paris”, easily 10cc’s silliest moment on record (which is saying something).

Still, for the most part this is 10cc with their mischievous side kept in check, which means that on the one hand it’s as focused as they ever got, but on the other hand it lacks the playfulness that made their first two albums so endearing (or irritating, depending on your perspective).

Ultimately, if their first two albums made you wish they’d rein it in a little, The Original Soundtrack is as good an entry point as any. On the other hand, if you loved their weirder stuff and dread the prospect of a more “mature” 10cc, feel free to take this as your cue to skip right ahead to those Godley & Creme solo albums.

10cc – How Dare You! (1976)

Though it doesn’t have the madness that made their first two albums such a thrill or the widescreen production of The Original Soundtrack, How Dare You! nevertheless manages to be the most consistent batch of songs 10cc ever did. It was also the band’s last album as a quartet – Kevin Godley and Lol Creme would jet after this, leaving Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman to carry on as a duo (or 5cc, as some less charitable critics called them).

Still, this doesn’t sound like the work of a band about to splinter: Kevin sings like an angel on Stewart and Gouldman’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Lullaby”, Eric and Lol share writing credits for “Lazy Ways”, and things generally sound all hunky dory (minus the truly twisted “Iceberg”, a stalker’s internal monologue set to chipper lounge music).

The singles here were the genuinely pretty ballad “I’m Mandy”, “Fly Me” and the atypically hard-edged rock ‘n’ roll stomp of “Art For Art’s Sake”, but the truth is it’s pretty much all good. A fine end to 10cc’s “classic” period.

10cc – Deceptive Bends (1977)

Godley and Creme’s first move after leaving 10cc was to put out Consequences, a lavishly packaged 3LP concept album about environmental armageddon that was ignored by the public, savaged by the critics, and born into the world just as punk was picking up steam (oops). 10cc, by contrast, played things relatively safe and wound up with two hit singles and an album that suggested they still had plenty of creative fuel left in the tank.

Of course, it didn’t quite play out that way, and there are a few tell-tale signs of their impending decline on Deceptive Bends – a little bit of McCartney-esque schmaltz here, a little stupidly sexist lyrical content there – but for the most part it’s a solid pop album that still retains much of 10cc’s distinctive musical identity.

In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Deceptive Bends’ strongest moments simply wouldn’t have worked with Godley and Creme on board. For instance, it’s hard to imagine anything as plainspokenly pretty as the 11-minute “Feel The Benefit” fitting comfortably on any of their three previous three albums, to say nothing of the unabashedly sentimental balladry of “People In Love” (which Kevin Godley has openly dismissed as “bland crap”).

Whatever one thinks of this incarnation of the band, the change in tone was a good fit, and ultimately proved to be a fairly shrewd move: by embracing their sweeter, sunnier side, 10cc made the loss of half the band seem like nothing more than a mere speedbump. (For the record, their next album is the one with “Dreadlock Holiday” on it. It’s not here because it’s not very good.)

Godley & Creme – L (1978)

If Deceptive Bends showed 10cc at their warmest and most welcoming, L is the sound of Godley and Creme running screaming in the opposite direction. Musically, this is like 10cc at their most unhinged, mixing smarmy ’70s jazz-rock with Zappa-and-Roxy-Music-derived weirdness to brain-scrambling effect, and lyrically? Man, if you thought these guys were snarky before, you ain’t heard nothing yet.

“The Sporting Life” turns suicide into a game show, “Punchbag” is a surprisingly frank account of being bullied in school, and “Business Is Business” is an absolutely scathing satire of the record industry (Godley, still hurt by the reception to Consequences, sings with venomous gusto). The album also includes the utterly demented “Sandwiches Of You”, two more (relatively) subdued vocal pieces, and the migraine-inducing “Foreign Accents”, an instrumental where the percussion provides the melody and everything else is used rhythmically.

It’s a hell of a wild ride for such a short album, and a commendable recovery after the fiasco that was Consequences.

Godley & Creme – Birds of Prey (1983)

If 10cc’s next few albums saw them retreating ever further into the pastel blandness of mushy soft-rock, Godley and Creme’s next two albums had the opposite problem: left to their own devices, their restless experimentation could grow undisciplined and self-indulgent. However, one wonders if getting two UK top ten hits in the form of “Wedding Bells” and “Under Your Thumb” (from the otherwise inconsistent Ismism) may have inspired them to rein themselves in a bit, since Birds of Prey is the sharpest set of pop songs they’d penned since leaving 10cc.

The twist here is that they were now flexing their muscles as a kind of left-field synth duo, one that had the audacity to start an album completely a capella (“My Body The Car”, the album’s one true experimental track) and end it with a jazz number sung through a vocoder (“Out In The Cold”). In between you get snappy, danceable numbers like “The Worm And The Rattlesnake” alongside dark story-songs like the chilling “Madame Guillotine.”

This was also their most “serious” album yet, a sort of loose concept album about heartache, broken relationships, and callous, confused people using each other for their own gain. If you’re wondering how Godley and Creme went from being “the funny guys from 10cc” to the band that gave us a song like “Cry”, this was the midway point.

10cc – …Meanwhile (1992)

Though 10cc quietly disbanded in 1983, some record exec at Polydor decided that a reunion would be a good idea after a greatest hits compilation went platinum and, presumably for lack of anything better to do, they reformed.

Originally it was supposed to be all four original members (Godley and Creme owed Polydor another album anyway), but due to a mix of prior engagements, the acrimonious breakdown of Godley and Creme’s professional partnership and Godley’s health problems, it wound up being just another Stewart/Gouldman album, albeit one with Godley and Creme providing the occasional vocal cameo. Nevertheless, this would be the last time all four members of 10cc would collaborate in any capacity, so it marks as good a point as any to close out the 10cc story (there was one more album, 1995’s Mirror Mirror, but by all accounts it was just an awkward merger of two abortive solo albums by Stewart and Gouldman).

…Meanwhile may not be much to write home about in and of itself, but it is a significant step up from anything they’d put out in the ‘80s and, as such, is probably the best entry point for anyone curious about what they’d been up to after the hits started drying up. Plus, it leads off with two of their sharpest songs in ages – “Woman In Love” and “Wonderland” are as close to Steely Dan territory as the band ever got, aided in no small part by the fact that Steely Dan’s own producer Gary Katz was manning the mixing board. Hardly a masterpiece, but still an album that deserved a warmer welcome than it got.

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