Monday, June 17, 2013

Dustbin Romancers and Clockwork Creeps: HOW DARE YOU! and The Unmaking of 10cc

"I don't think we perceived ourselves as anything. You know, people said, "Well, what sort of music do you do? Where do you see yourselves?" We were like, "Well... we're us! We just do what we do. You pigeonhole us if you want to – if you can – but really, it's 10cc music."
-Graham Gouldman in The Quietus-

As consistently brilliant as Pink Floyd, as bold as Queen and as conceptually innovative as Roxy Music, 10cc remain one of the unsung essential English rock groups of the seventies.  The original lineup of Eric Stewart, Graham Gouldman, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme remains one of the most dazzling and talented ensembles ever assembled and their greatest work becomes more and more invigorating, and necessary, with each passing year.  Despite the genius that oozed out of the original 10cc lineup they remain Rock's forgotten boys, but two essential box-sets from the past year are helping introduce their chaotic and joyous prankster pre-punk to many eager young ears so desperate for music that holds the corporate leash rather than travels by it. 

While 1975's astonishing The Original Soundtrack (powered by the most perfect pop song ever created "I'm Not in Love") is typically held up as the great 10cc album I would like to make an argument for the audacious and jaw-dropping follow-up collection How Dare You!, the final 10cc album from the seventies featuring the merry pranksters of the band Godley and Creme. 

1976 was a pivotal year for British music.  It was the year before punk exploded.  It was the year of Bowie's Station to Station, Led Zeppelin's Presence and Queen's A Day at the Races.  The great bands of the early seventies were beginning to fall apart in a dizzying downward spiral of addiction, excess, internal squabbling and even death while Lydon and Strummer were waiting in the wings gearing up to burn the whole bloody beast to the ground. 

In hindsight 10cc were a more authentic punk band than most punk acts.  This was after all a group that labeled themselves "The Worst Band in the World" years before punks bragged about not being bothered to learn play their instruments.  If you only know 10cc through tracks like 'I'm Not in Love" and "Things We Do for Love" track down "Clockwork Creep" and "Speed Kills", songs that are both hilarious and sinister and out sneer Lydon at his nastiest.  Alongside each album's perfect pop creations, there are downright dangerous and eerie elements to 10cc...they were like court jesters with Molotov Coctails hidden behind their backs. 

10cc were riding high in 1975 after their landmark release The Original Soundtrack solidified them as both commercial and critical heavyweights, so the band should have felt on top of the world when they entered Manchester's Strawberry Studios in the late part of the year to record How Dare You! but the band was already beginning to splinter.  Kevin Godley would recall decades later to Get Ready to Rock that by the time of How Dare You! the band had "lost their innocence" and that unlike in the beginning when the band did everything on their "own terms" they were now feeling the pressure of recording a "hit single" and that the album was "the beginning of the end of the band."

Perhaps it was the fragile state of the band as they entered Strawberry Studios to record their final album together that helped add so much to the collection's central concern of dislocation.  Recalling The Pretty Things SF Sorrow and foreshadowing Pink Floyd's haunting The Wall, How Dare You! is very much a concept album only, unlike those other two classic recordings, it isn't a set cast of characters that are followed but instead it is a spirit that is channeled.  This album is a portrait of lost souls all with "daydreams resting on the back of (their) eyes" all trapped in a self-imposed isolation that becomes especially suffocating when they attempt to break out of their comfort zones.  From a wanna-be dictator, to a prank phone-caller, to a rock star who has been corrupted by cash, to a drowning man rescued by a mystical stewardess from the sky, How Dare You! is a bit like the Magnolia of seventies rock albums.  It's a haunting, intoxicating and ultimately heartbreaking collection guided by the wicked sense of humor that was a running motif through all of 10cc's original catalogue. 

It is that sinister sense of humor that can be felt in the incredible album design that Storm Thorgerson and the legendary team of Hipgnosis came up with.  Has their ever been an album design that is so simultaneously baffling and fascinating?  Thorgerson discussed the album's design in great detail in the book Walk Away Rene:

"It took a whole month before I was able to reduce 10cc´s "How dare you" to some workable bottom line. In this case it was that there were a lot of connections in the lyrics involving puns and unlikely word associations. As soon as I said that to Peter he suggested telephones (because they connect, of course) and we both immediately thought of that old film thing of split-screen phone conversations. The band rejected the filmic side of the idea, but liked the telephones because, unbeknown to us, they already had a phone song on the record (Don´t hang up). What a connection indeed! They wanted something modern and sophisticated so we did a style piece, a parody of Sanderson ads, full of tastefully furnished rooms occupied by very tasteful people, "Very Sanderson, very 10cc. We chose characters and situations from the songs and then added a sub-plot involving the couple that appear in every shot, in the desk photo or behind the blonde lady where we see them getting out of the car. This sad lady in the foreground is a gin soaked housewife, wasting away in rich suburbia, whilst her smooth businessman husband works too hard and consequently neglects her. Hipgnosis goes socially conscious. He is furious at being interrupted at work, again. How dare she! THe inner spread for the album it´s a paranoid nightmare about going to a crowded party and being totally unable to talk to anyone - better to be on the blower than face somebody directly. 10 cc themselves are in there somewhere as are the characters from the front cover".
A further discussion of the amazing artwork was given to Q Magazine a few years back as well:

"Of the four characters on the "How Dare you" cover, three, alas, were not to be traced. According to Aubrey Powell, co-founder of Hipgnosis, the girl getting out of the sports car was Mandy Mills, an ex-wardrobe lady in Marc Bolan´s employment who also appeared on the cover of UFO´s "Phenomenon". The guy in the same car was Bruno Geffin, who Powell says shifted from property development to running a lightning company, which supplied the lights for a Bruce Springsteen UK tour, although his management weren´t able to identify him. The office bound male was one Douglas Kent, who gave up acting and moved to Devon. "He was always playing Zappy businessmen in commercials in the late ´70s", says Powell. However, the housewife in the housecoat gripping the phone in gin-soaked misery and talking to the suit was Helen Keating, actress and self-confessed player of "Cocky, busty blondes, the tart with a heart." Keating was working for a photographic agency when her first sleeve job arrived. The 10cc guys were lovely. A smashing job. It was a lovely day, I remember. I just had to pose with lots of fake tears, like someone had just had a go at me over the phone. An unrequited love job, that was the mood. She no longer seeks album cover work - "Only if the price is right. It´s not the kind of work you go looking for."

Perhaps it is the interior of the gorgeous gatefold that accompanied How Dare You! that says it all about the content of the collection. 10cc are presented as four figures lost at a party that they clearly weren't invited to, Godley, Creme and Gouldman are on phones talking to presumably more accidental tourists while Stewart catches a light on his fag from another lost stranger.  Nearly everyone in the crowded room is on a phone or lost in a daze of not communicating with each other.  It may well be the loneliest party ever and even though the four members of 10cc stand out they still stand apart...very much apart. 

How Dare You! opens with the title track, a thrilling travelogue instrumental that promises a great journey ahead.  A Godley and Creme composition, "How Dare You" begins with an introduction that sounds like an impossible collision between Martin Denny and Kraftwerk.  Powered by Kevin Godley's hypnotic percussion (drums, congos and bongos are featured) and Eric Stewart's stabbing guitar work, "How Dare You" is a perfect introduction to 10cc's most daring album.  Keeping with how incredibly cinematic How Dare You! is from beginning to end, the title track was later used in a British teleplay called Barmitzvah Boy.

One of How Dare You's most hypnotic tracks "Lazy Ways" was also used in a film shortly after its release, by the legendary Polish director Walerian Borowczyk in his masterpiece La Marge.  A rare track that veered from the accepted writing teams behind 10cc, this dreamy Creme and Stewart track worked so well in Borowczyk's film that it is hard to believe that it wasn't written for it.  Still, it works perfectly well here for this concept album about a lost soul on a physical as well as spiritual journey.  A lovely and yearning song, "Lazy Ways" features one of Stewart's best ever lead-vocals and has a surprisingly creepy and intense bridge dominated by the interplay between Gouldman's acoustic guitar work and Godley's drums.  Culminating in a thrilling moog driven closing section courtesy if Creme, "Lazy Ways" is one of the great 10cc tracks and was deserving of an A-Side single release. 

Penned by Godley and Creme with assistance from Gouldman, "I Wanna Rule the World" predates several of Pink Floyd's The Wall's efforts, stylistic and thematic, by several years.  One of the most overtly experimental tracks on the album, "I Wanna Rule the World" is one of two songs that both questions and pokes fun of rock's aligning with the corporate world in the seventies. 

If How Dare You! has a clear masterpiece then it is indeed "I'm Mandy Fly Me."  Inspired by a number of promotional posters National Airlines put out in the mid-seventies this shimmering jaw-dropping number is as triumphant as any single The Beatles did in the late seventies and 10cc managed it without a George Martin at the console.  Lushly orchestrated with some extraordinary Beach Boys inspired harmonies, "I'm Mandy Fly Me" is just exquisite from beginning to end and is a wonderful companion piece to "I'm Not in Love" as well as "Clockwork Creep" (a snippet of which opens the track).  Powered by Eric Stewart's beautiful lead vocals and astonishing guitar work, 'I'm Mandy Fly Me" is one of the great Stewart and Gouldman compositions (although it should be noted that Godley chipped in his considerable songwriting skills as well).  Gouldman recalled in a nineties radio interview how the song came about and how Godley's songwriting contribution came into play:

"So I brought it back, the idea back to the studio, where we were writing for the How Dare You! album, and put it to the guys: "Anybody interested in this 'I'm Mandy Fly Me'". I'd switched it to Mandy. And Graham said "yeah, that sounds like a good idea. I've got some ideas, I've got some chords. Let's slot those things in, try it, mess it around". We wrote it, and we didn't like it. We, we scrapped it. It just wasn't going anywhere.
But, enter from stage left, ha ha, the "wicked villain" Kevin Godley, twiddling his moustache, says "I know what's wrong with it. Let's sit down again." He said "I think it just gets too bland, it just goes on, on one plane, your verses and your middles and your der-der-der, they're all going on the one plane. What it needs is someone to go 'Bash' on the side of your head". So we changed the rhythm completely, and we put two whacking great guitar solos in there, in the middle of this quiet, soft, floaty song. Once we'd got that idea in, it, it just gelled into something else. Again, impossible to dance to, as a lot of 10cc tracks were, but once Kevin had put that in, he became the third writer in the song so we were quite democratic in that way. "

The main criticism over the years of How Dare You! is that the second half doesn't live up to the first.  10cc perhaps would have been better off placing "I'm Mandy Fly Me" towards the end of the second side because it really is a hard track to follow.  It doesn't help that Side A's closer, "Iceberg" is probably the weakest song on the album but it does at least give the phone creepster pictured on the back of the album an anthem.  "Iceberg" also contains strong hints of the Tin-Pan Alley and Brill Building aspects that played so heavily in the development of 10cc.  It also contains an eerie pig-grunting conclusion that foreshadows Pink Floyd's epic masterpiece Animals by nearly two years. 

Despite the fact that side 2 of How Dare You! has often been criticized, there is no denying that one of the albums greatest songs acts as its opener.  A kindred spirit to Pink Floyd's stunner "Have a Cigar", Stewart and Gouldman's "Art for Art's Sake" confronts the notions of how art and commerce both interact and compete with each other.  Opening with one of the most evocative segments found in any 10cc track, the six minute "Art for Art's Sake" is a triumph and was deserving of its top five British placing as a single in 1976.    The multi-track backing vocals (that 10cc had perfected with "I'm Not in Love") are particularly striking here, as it Stewart's stinging guitar solo that carries the song through its final thrilling minute. 

"Rock 'n' Roll Lullaby" return the band to the fifties roots that they had navigated so well on several of their early seventies recordings.  Godley and Stewart trade off the yearning vocals on this Gouldman and Stewart penned track that states that, "childhood dreams are gone too fast", a devastating line that sums up the concept behind much of How Dare You! perfectly. 

Godley and Creme's "Head Room" features much of the trademark lyrical double entendre that made them such an endearing musical team.   Telling the tale of a young man's discovery of the opposite sex and the idea that, "a flick of the wrist" before leaving the house just would no longer do, "Head Room" is the lightest and silliest moment on the album but Eric Stewart's surprising slide guitar towards the end of the track give it a much more layed and compex feel than it perhaps deserved. 

The original How Dare You! lp closes with one of the spookiest and otherworldly songs 10cc ever delivered.  Godley and Creme's epic "Don't Hang Up" simply put sounds like nothing else ever layed down to vinyl.  Both ambient and theatrical, "Don't Hang Up" is simultaneously nightmarish and lovely and brings How Dare You! to a wonderfully startling conclusion.  Narrated by perhaps the same lost man who set off on a journey at the beginning of the album who realizes he, "never had the style of dash of Errol Flynn", "Don't Hang Up" is a fitting and chilling conclusion to the team of Godley, Creme, Gouldman and Stewart.

The gaps between the two distinct teams behind 10cc widened upon the release of How Dare You! in 1976.  While it was another commercial and critical hit the shadow of The Original Soundtrack loomed over it.  Godley and Creme both especially felt the band needed a break and they set out to record their mammoth Consequences while Stewart and Gouldman waited.  Godley would tell Something Else that simply "too much planning" had went into How Dare You! and that he and Creme needed more of, "the element of surprise" back.  The three-lp Consequences became a bit of a monster though (Godley would call it their Heavens Gate) and Stewart and Gouldman grew more and more impatient.  Creme recalled the final days of 10cc in a 1997 Uncut interview:

"The pressure was in leaving the group to do it, not on what the finished thing would be. It was really, really hard for Eric and Graham and we knew that, but, you know, we had other things to do. We had loads of bravado and confidence in those days because we'd left a band that was so successful. We sealed ourselves completely from outside pressures of any sort. We entrenched ourselves in the studios and indulged ourselves completely, had a marvellous time. The pressure came when the record company decided it was going to be a coffee-table boxed set which had to commercially compete with the punk thing."

The original line-up of 10cc split in the fall of 1976 after some final thrilling concerts that showed that despite the internal issues they were still at the absolute height of their powers as a live unit.  A bruised but defiant Stewart and Gouldman re-entered Strawberry Studios in the winter of 1977 to record the first 10cc without Creme and Godley and much to everyone's surprise the album, appropriately entitled Deceptive Bends, became one of 1977's great masterpieces.  Fuelled by the need to prove that Godley and Creme weren't the only two geniuses in 10cc, Gouldman and Stewart's follow-up to How Dare You! was nearly its equal (but that's another article). 

Godley and Creme continued into the eighties with several incredibly distinct albums and many pioneering music videos for other acts.  Gouldman and Stewart would continue with 10cc but after Stewart was badly injured in a tragic 1979 car accident the two could never again recapture the magic they had conjured with Deceptive Bends.  A regretful Godley and Crème would later briefly reteam as side players for 10cc's 1992 Meanwhile LP but the magic was gone...the fire was out...the band was gone. 

In a 2012 interview with The Guardian celebrating the release of the box-sets Tenology and Original Album Classics Graham Gouldman emotionally stated:

"It's a tragedy that we didn't stay together. It was a flame that burned incredibly brightly, but we could have lasted so much longer."

 I suspect it is a sentiment that each member of 10cc probably shares but perhaps ultimately the timing of the band's demise was right.   This misfit band of geniuses needed a decade as open as the seventies for their impassioned and wild explorations.  It is hard to imagine them outside of the decade and I imagine them very often...
-Jeremy Richey, 2013-


Steve Langton said...

Absolutely magnificent piece, Jeremy. I have this album on LP, cassette and CD and it remains one of my all-time favourites. You really have done this great work full justice, and you know what? I actually prefer the second half to the first, and intend to explore the whole album again tonight. Thanks for such a quality post.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much Steve! I really appreciate the kind words and you reading.