PUB quiz question (for when we all start going out for a pint again): What do Frabjoy and Runcible Spoon, Crazy Elephant, Fighter Squadron and Silver Fleet have in common? Answer, they were all band names used by Lol Creme, Kevin Godley, Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart before they became 10cc in 1972.
Over the next few years, the four Mancunian multi-instrumentalists made some of the smartest music around, combining sharp wit with a keen pop sensibility in songs that were hugely commercial yet never insulted the intelligence. What a shame that such a talented quartet would come to hate each other’s guts.
Our story begins in Droylsden, four miles to the east of Manchester city centre, where Eric Michael Stewart was born in 1945. At the age of 18 he was hired by singer Wayne Fontana as guitarist for his backing group, the Mindbenders. They had several UK hits and toured with Herman’s Hermits resulting in crowd scenes compared to Beatlemania. In late 1965 the Mindbenders split with Fontana and went on the following year to reach No 2 in the charts with A Groovy Kind of Love, on which Stewart was the lead singer. However, he became dissatisfied with what he felt was the lightweight music they were making and decided to break up the group. He invested £800 of his earnings in a small recording studio above a music shop in Stockport, moving soon afterwards to larger premises which he named Strawberry Studios after his favourite Beatles song Strawberry Fields Forever.
Meanwhile school friends Kevin Godley, also born in 1945, and Graham Gouldman (1946) had played pop together at the Jewish Lads’ Brigade in North Manchester. Gouldman went on to sing and play guitar in a group called the Whirlwinds while Godley was on drums in the Sabres. The Whirlwinds recorded a single for HMV, a cover of the Buddy Holly song Look At Me. The B-side, Baby Not Like You, was written by Laurence ‘Lol’ Creme, born in 1947, who had befriended Godley at art college and joined him in the Sabres. The Whirlwinds then became the Mockingbirds, with Godley leaving the Sabres to join them. They recorded five singles, all of which tanked, before the band broke up. Gouldman also spent some time playing bass for the Mindbenders. And he established himself as a songwriter with the Yardbirds hits Heart Full of Soul, Evil Hearted You and For Your Love, the Hollies’ Look Through Any Window and Bus Stop, and the Herman’s Hermits numbers No Milk Today, East West and Listen People.
In 1967 Godley and Creme got together again as a duo and made a single on CBS, Seeing Things Green/Easy Life, under the name of Yellow Bellow Room Boom. They were still in touch with Gouldman, who had also invested in Strawberry Studios, and in 1969 he invited them to a recording session for Marmalade Records, whose boss Giorgio Gomelsky offered them a contract. He saw Godley and Creme as a double act along the lines of Simon and Garfunkel. They recorded a single at Strawberry with Gouldman on bass and Eric Stewart on guitar. It was released as I’m Beside Myself by Frabjoy and Runcible Spoon.
Plans for an album had to be shelved, however, when Marmalade ran out of bread and became toast.
Over the next few months the foursome worked together regularly, churning out tunes for the American bubblegum-pop producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeffry Katz, with whom they had signed a short-term contract. They recorded as Crazy Elephant, Fighter Squadron and Silver Fleet.
‘Singles kept coming out under strange names that had really been recorded by us,’ says Lol Creme. ‘I’ve no idea how many there were, or what happened to them all.’
Stewart says the Kasenetz-Katz deal was a key part of the band’s development. ‘It allowed us to get the extra equipment to turn it into a real studio,’ he told author George Tremlett. ‘To begin with they were interested in Graham’s songwriting and when they heard that he was involved in a studio I think they thought the most economical thing for them to do would be to book his studio and then put him to work there – but they ended up recording Graham’s songs and then some of Kevin and Lol’s songs, and we were all working together.’
Godley added: ‘We did a lot of tracks in a very short time – it was really like a machine. Twenty tracks in about two weeks – a lot of crap really – really shit. We used to do the voices, everything – it saved ’em money. We even did the female backing vocals.’
When the contract ended Gouldman went to New York to work as a staff songwriter for Kasenetz-Katz. The other three carried on at Strawberry Studios, one day trying a drum-layering experiment at their new mixing desk. The result was Neanderthal Man, a hypnotic chant released by Fontana Records in 1970 under the name of Hotlegs, which reached No 2 in the UK charts and was a worldwide hit. As Hotlegs, they released an album, Thinks: School Stinks, which failed to trouble the charts.
Gouldman was summoned back from America to play on a tour supporting the Moody Blues. The four then co-produced Solitaire, a hit album for Neil Sedaka, which convinced them to work as a band. ‘We asked ourselves whether we shouldn’t pool our creative talents and try to do something with the songs that each of us was working on at the time,’ said Stewart.
The first hit was Donna, a falsetto doo-wop parody influenced by Frank Zappa’s early work. ‘We knew it had something,’ Stewart added. ‘We only knew of one person who was mad enough to release it, and that was Jonathan King.’
He called King, a yet-to-be-disgraced prolific pop producer. King drove to Strawberry, listened to the track and fell about laughing, saying: ‘It’s fabulous, it’s a hit.’ He signed them to his label, UK Records, in July 1972, on a five-year contract giving them a pitiful four per cent of royalties.
Where did the name 10cc come from? In a 1988 interview, Creme said it represented a prodigious male ejaculation, to emphasise the group’s supposed potency. The average amount of semen released at one event is apparently between 2cc and 5cc, with anything more than 5.5cc classed as hyperspermia. (Nature note; a bull blue whale on the job knocks out more than four gallons at a time, through an 8ft todger).
Donna was chosen by Radio 1 DJ Tony Blackburn as his record of the week and it went to No 2 in the charts, equalling the success of Neanderthal Man. And that, if you’ll forgive the digression, reminds me of one of the strangest moments in my life. More than 25 years ago the missus and I attended a friend’s wedding in Wuppertal, Germany. The morning after, we and other guests visited the nearby Neanderthal Museum and spent rather more time there than planned. We were hurrying along a path back to our hotel when one of the party commenced an ‘amusing’ story. At that point I noticed an elderly couple approaching us, accompanied by a small Neanderthal Man in modern clothing but otherwise identical to what we had seen on posters at the museum! I dug my wife in the ribs and pointed to the bizarre apparition. We both tried to interrupt the story teller but he was in full flow and strode on regardless, so the moment passed. Weird, huh?
Back to 10cc and their second single, Johnny Don’t Do It, while in similar vein, failed to repeat Donna’s success. Their third, however, the Jailhouse Rock-inspired Rubber Bullets, shot to No 1 in June, 1973. The following month came their eponymous debut album, which contained all three singles plus another, the lovely The Dean And I, which went Top Ten in September.
The second LP, 1974’s Sheet Music, was a belter. It was recorded during daytime sessions at Strawberry while Paul McCartney used the studio at night to produce his brother Mike’s album McGear. Stewart, Gouldman and Godley have all said this was 10cc’s best work.
‘We’d really started to explode creatively and didn’t recognise any boundaries,’ said Godley in a 2006 interview. ‘We were buzzing on each other and exploring our joint and individual capabilities. Lots of excitement and energy at those sessions and, more important, an innocence that was open to anything.’
Sheet Music opens with The Wall Street Shuffle, a Top Ten hit single despite its clever lyrics (‘You need a yen to make a mark If you wanna make money’). Track two, The Worst Band in the World, failed to make the charts, to my disgust. ‘It’s one thing to know it but another to admit/We’re the worst band in the world/But we don’t give a . . .’
Silly Love, the third single taken from the album, made the Top 30. Somewhere in Hollywood is stagey and ambitious, and gives a clue to the band’s future direction. The Sacroiliac is a lovely little song about a person’s inability to throw shapes on the dance floor. And there’s still a lot more to enjoy on an LP which was one of the cleverest of the 1970s.
By early 1975 the band were beginning bitterly to resent the terms of their contract with Jonathan King. And they knew they had a potential monster hit on their hands with I’m Not In Love, recorded for their third album The Original Soundtrack. That song on its own persuaded Phonogram Records to buy out King and sign up 10cc for a million dollars. Stewart reminisced: ‘We were absolutely skint, the lot of us, we were really struggling seriously, and Phonogram wanted to do a deal with us. They wanted to buy Jonathan’s contract. Our manager Ric Dixon invited them to listen to what we’ve done. Head of A & R Nigel Grainge came up to our Strawberry Studio, heard the track and freaked. He said, “This is a masterpiece, it’s a done deal!” We did a five-year deal with them for five albums and they paid us a serious amount of money.’
I’m Not In Love was the idea of Eric Stewart, whose wife of eight years, Gloria, nagged him that he did not tell her ‘I love you’ enough. He told an interviewer: https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/classic-tracks-10cc-not-love/ ‘I had this crazy idea in my mind that repeating those words would somehow degrade the meaning, so I told her, “Well, if I say every day I love you, darling, I love you, blah, blah, blah, it’s not gonna mean anything eventually.” That statement led me to try to figure out another way of saying it, and the result was that I chose to say “I’m not in love with you”, while subtly giving all the reasons throughout the song why I could never let go of this relationship.’
Stewart worked out the basics of the song before taking it to the studio, where it was completed with Gouldman’s assistance. They recorded it with mainly guitar backing to a bossa nova beat. Kevin and Lol hated it. Godley said bluntly: ‘It’s crap.’ According to Stewart, ‘I said, “Oh right, OK, have you got anything constructive to add to that? Can you suggest anything?” He said, “No. It’s not working, man. It’s just crap, right? Chuck it.” And we did. We threw it away and we even erased it, so there’s no tape of that bossa nova version.’
Weeks later Stewart heard studio staff still singing I’m Not In Love and asked the other band members if he could revive it. Godley was still negative but said: ‘I tell you what, the only way that song is gonna work is if we totally f*** it up and we do it like nobody has ever recorded a thing before. Let’s not use instruments. Let’s try to do it all with voices.’
Stewart recorded all four members of the band each singing ‘aaah’ 12 times for each note of the chromatic scale, giving him a ‘choir’ of 48 voices to back his lead vocals. Apart from that, only minimal piano, bass and a synthesised drum sound were used. The band’s secretary Cathy Redfern provided the voice for the closing words: ‘Be quiet, big boys don’t cry.’
I’m Not In Love was a massive worldwide hit and has since appeared on the soundtracks of more than a dozen movies, ensuring its creators need never feel skint again. 10cc in their original form did not last beyond 1976 when they had one row too many and broke up, but Eric and Gloria Stewart remained happily married and celebrated their golden wedding in 2016. (Forty-eight voices say Aaah.)