10CC: 10CC (1973)
1) Rubber Bullets; 2) Johnny Don't Do It; 3) Sand In My Face; 4) Donna; 5) The Dean And I; 6) Headline Hustler; 7) Speed Kills; 8) The Hospital Song; 9) Ships Don't Disappear In The Night; 10) Fresh Air For My Mama.
An album so utterly brilliant and well-balanced that it comes off as no surprise that so few people actually know about it or remember it these days. You'd expect that when a skilled, experienced popmeister (Graham Gouldman) teams up with an inventive and innovative guitar player (Eric Stewart) and a couple of brilliant freakout weirdos (Lol Creme and Kevin Godley), the results should blow the roof off the public conscience. But no — public tastes are much too differentiated these days, and while the bold adventurous mind will want to shrug this stuff off as way too commercial, the unpretentious pop-loving spirit will shy away from it as way too odd. Those are the ways of the world, in which Captain Beefheart and Karen Carpenter will never shake hands.
This is pop music, very much so — in fact, this is inarguably the original 10cc's most accessible record — but thoroughly irradiated with Satire and Unpredictability. Listing all of its musical ingredients would take a sleepless night of research, but ones that are recognizable off the cuff include [a] the Beach Boys and surf stuff in general ('Rubber Bullets'), [b] doo-wop and its tributaries ('Johnny Don't Do It', 'Donna'), [c] psychedelic pop-rock (splattered almost everywhere), and more, much more. You keep recognizing the oddest touches in the oddest places. Why does the buildup to the chorus on 'Headline Hustler' sound so much like solo George Harrison, with its weeping slide guitar and pleading vocals? No idea. Just cool, without any easy logic to it.
No single melody overstays its welcome, indeed, most understay it: after a little while, you abandon all hope of discerning between verse, bridge, and chorus, and simply begin treating every composition, including the shortest ones, as little independent mini-operas (although this is still way too timid compared to the band's even more radical approach on the sophomore album, Sheet Music). Normally, there's always a chance such mini-operas will devolve into unmemorable pretentious chaos, or will treasure the "story" far above the music, but not with Gouldman always steering the band into the "hook" direction: cleverly combining time honoured melodic phrasing with unexpected twists makes much of this unforgettable.
Besides, what's wrong with the stories? "Rubber Bullets" is about suffering for trying to ameliorate your cell block conditions ('...is it really such a crime for a guy to spend his time at the local hop at the local county jail?' — indeed!). "Johnny Don't Do It" is about a wannabe biker with way too few braking experience. "Sand In My Face" is about getting your girlfriend back from the local beach bully ("dynamic tension make a man out of you!"). "The Dean And I" is about, oh well, the extreme forms of college romance ("it was no infatuation, but a gradual graduation"). And that's just the first side, and I haven't even mentioned "Donna", probably the sweetest, tenderest parody on doo-wop ever made — Frank Zappa (who, by the way, is unquestionably one of the godfathers of 10cc-style music), for all his doo-wop affection, only wishes he could approach the same effect on his own tribute albums like Cruising With Ruben & The Jets.
Less you did think, though, that it's all about the stories and that the music comes in as an afterthought, there is also a special near-instrumental ("Speed Kills") which gives the band ample opportunity to showcase its playing skills and dexterity. It rocks with a vengeance, and, the title notwithstanding, would certainly sound cool even today blasting from one's car windows on the highway. The curious "synthesized guitar" riffage on it, produced by a special device that Godley and Creme called the "Gizmo", is a little outdated today, but since they play music with it rather than merely fart around, it doesn't really matter all that much.
Finally, one shouldn't forget about the immense diversity of ways they use to arrange and present this content. Vocal arrangements alone draw on almost the entire experience accumulated in that respect over the past several decades — solo crooning, group harmony, echoey Floydish background, highest falsetto, deepest bass, opera, theatre, it's all in there (all of the group members happened to be vocally endowed, a rare blessing even for "supergroups"). Instruments range from basic guitars and pianos to just about everything I've still got to learn a name for. The only thing they don't bring in is the "wall of sound" à la Phil Spector, but I'm just mentioning it for the sakes of ending a paragraph with a negative, always the cool thing for a reviewer to keep in stock.
In the heart against brain battle, both sides come out equally satisfied — a rare feat indeed, as the heart just can't stop digging all the catchy melodies and singing along, either to "hum-drum days and a-hum-drum ways, hum-drum days and a-hum-drum ways" or to "he was an angel, such an angel", whereas the brain is simply left dumbfounded by how many wonderfully creative musical and lyrical ideas one can fit in per record inch, provided "one" means "four scruffy-looking guys from early 70s England" — then again, there also used to be those four scruffy-looking guys from early 60s England that did pretty much the same thing. A tendency at work? Hearty thumbs up, from both departments.
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