Outside of the United Kingdom, 10cc is known for two things—the epic denial ballad “I’m Not in Love” and the tooth-rottingly chipper “The Things We Do for Love”. Travel back a little from their radio fare, though, and you’ll discover a protean imagination that presages the swirling Everyman pop of the Flaming Lips, the symphonic yearnings of the Polyphonic Spree, the clever-cute storytelling of Belle and Sebastian and the sweet sonic restlessness of Stereolab. Simultaneously pointed and populist, 10cc crafts songs that burrow into your head and stay there until you could make sense of them.
The group began when multi-instrumentalists Kevin Godley, Lol Creme, Graham Gouldman (who wrote many 1960s British Invasion hits, including “Bus Stop”, “For Your Love,” and “No Milk Today”) and Eric Stewart (formerly of the Mindbenders, of “Groovy Kind of Love” fame) met as session musicians at Stewart’s Strawberry Studios in Manchester, England in 1969. Billing themselves as Hotlegs, they offered their services to everyone from Paul McCartney to Barclay James Harvest to Neil Sedaka, who recorded the surprisingly primo singer-songwriter effort Solitaire with the group. In 1970 Hotlegs scored a surprise UK hit with “Neanderthal Man”, a stomping bit of Blue Swede-esque silliness. A few years later they re-christened themselves 10cc—from, according to myth, the standard metric volume of ejaculate in a male orgasm, thus beating Pearl Jam, Firehose and a host of other trouser-snake oriented bands to the punch if it’s true. More English hits followed, and by the time of their fourth album they’d thoroughly refined their funny art school thing. In 1976, 10cc produced a weird, romantic commingling of barbed rock and tin-pan-alley ditty writing crafted How Dare You!, a grinningly uneasy ode to lost childhood, irrational fear and the discontent of modern life. It was a bit much, even for the men who created it. How Dare You! would be the last time all four worked in the same room together, though at the time no one knew the end was so near.
The cover of How Dare You! (designed by Hipgnosis’s Strom Thorgerson, the artist behind Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, Peter Gabriel’s early albums, and Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here) evokes the pervasive sense of disconnection that plays out in the music: The front shows a disturbingly tan couple arguing on the telephone in split screen, the back has another split screen of an obscene caller and a distressed stewardess receiving his call, and inside the gatefold is an overstuffed bohemian party where everyone is chattering into their own handset.
The record opens with orchestral fanfares like those that once introduced movies long ago, except tweaked and layered like Yes on a thick Zappa biscuit. The instrumental tumbles into “Lazy Ways,” a paean to lethargy that assures us by chilling out we’ll get more out of our day despite accomplishing nothing. Stewart’s schoolboy falsetto sells the argument fairly well but, one senses serious doubts behind this sentiment, as every with other one on the album. Musically, “Lazy Ways” and a number of other tracks resemble Steely Dan’s jazz-inflected take on radio rock, but 10cc’s bigger weirdo factor can’t be suppressed by all the technical grace. By the third cut, “I Wanna Rule the World”, the band sounds like the Fugs shuffling with Todd Rundgren, loose-ass funk underscoring a glimpse into a megalomaniac’s mind. It’s not far from where Roger Waters eventually arrived on The Wall and Animals.
How Dare You! is by turns unctuous and off-putting. Every track bursts at the seams with colors and ideas, but it can be witty to the point of irritation. The group seems always torn between wooing the listener and frightening them, and usually it settles for an uneasy marriage of the two, as on “Iceberg”, which begins gently enough but eventually turns into an ugly stalker scenario: “So you better not annoy me / Or I’ll do somethin’ that I might regret / You’d better not annoy me or I’ll do / Somethin’ you won’t forget in a hurry / And I might be back for some sloppy seconds.” In pure 10cc fashion, the last two words incongruously spark a jaunty 1930s tangent more appropriate to Manhattan Transfer or the Ink Spots.
This unrestrained yet carefully tailored mishmash of styles continues on “Art for Art’s Sake”, which functions as 10cc’s perverse statement of purpose. Jagged as hell, pumped full of ugly guitars that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Black Keys record, “Art” is like someone yelling “More cowbell!” in a crowded symphony hall. The clunk of lowbrow hitting high is followed by tweating cartoon birdies spinning circles around our head.
The band’s hyperactivity and in-your-face chops reach a pinnacle on closer “Don’t Hang Up”, a tart rejoinder to ELO’s “Telephone Line”, released the same year. On this six-minute plus marvel we encounter classic pop sensitivity to rival Love’s Forever Changes, full-tilt Latin frolicking, and the kind of naked heartbreak tender indie lads have been praised for in recent years. The cold buzz of an empty dial tone is the last sound we hear.
Soon after completing How Dare You! Godley and Creme left to pursue a solo career that eventually made them icons in the early days of music video, directing clips for Duran Duran (“Rio”), the Police (“Every Breath You Take”, “Synchronicity II”, “Wrapped Around Your Finger”), Herbie Hancock (“Rockit”) and Frankie Goes to Hollywood (“Relax”, “Two Tribes”). Stewart and Gouldman soldiered on with various lineups until the early 1980s but never achieved anything as oddly grand as How Dare You! again.
10cc - I’m Mandy Fly Me
// Notes from the Road
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