Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Wiseacre Duos: 10cc, Part III


"Everything was done to the max. No compromise. We never said 'that'll be alright.' Eventually it got overdone." - Graham Gouldman.


10cc's tunes, as you might've gathered by now, were not standard radio fare. Their witty, sometimes silly, cacophonous and euphonious compositions really put them in their own class. They were sometimes referred to as the U.K.'s answer to Steely Dan. The band's countrymen embraced their scathing lyrics (laced with punnery) and sometimes boppable melodies and made many of their singles sizable hits. But they couldn't crack the American charts. Until a majestic, otherworldly, and altogether absurd track called "I'm Not in Love," caught on in 1975. It was a smash, a song that was often programmed amongst the "yacht rock" of  Seals & Crofts and Ambrosia, but was far more musically dense.

"I'm Not in Love" was pulled from the album The Original Soundtrack, which sported another fascinating bit of cover art by Hipgnosis, the English art design group which created many memorable album covers (including numerous for Pink Floyd) from the late 60s through early 80s. Soundtrack featured a peer into a film editing machine, a frame with a cowboy in some alleged Western. Reels of film and strewn celluloid hang in the background.  The track takes the prototypical love denial piece and positively eviscerates it, while somehow remaining pop friendly. Eric Stewart's heavenly voice informs us, ad nauseam, that he just doesn't love his unnamed counterpart. In fact, he even informs them "I keep your picture on the wall.  It hides a nasty stain that's lying there"! Stewart admitted later that the song was an ode to the very phrase "I love you" and how it may lose its gravity by being repeated offhandedly so often between couples. 

The ethereal voices that open the track feature the band singing monosyllables over and over, an effect that becomes almost hypnotic.  As Steely Dan had done a few years earlier, 10cc studio wizards (the band members themselves) devised a way to loop sounds into a multi-track recorder. A likely arduous process that as Gouldman states, can be accomplished these days via an emulator (computer which duplicates the functions of another computer).

The Original Soundtrack is a fully realized work, a culmination and taming of the wild creativity and advanced musicianship that was honed on the band's debut album and the sophomore effort Sheet Music (still my personal favorite). As with that of other wiseacre duos, styles are shifted from track to track with what seems to be relative ease. A shake-your-fist-at-God lament, "The Second Sitting of the Last Supper" (with trenchant lyrics) is all heavy guitar with some sprinkling of piano. "Brand New Day" sports more lovely "pianistics" overlaid with vocals (by Stewart and drummer Kevin Godley) that evoke a "Negro slave spiritual".  It almost sounds like a Broadway show tune.  In fact, many of 10cc's songs remind me of that particular style, but with a much more sinister paradigm.

Case in point? Soundtrack opens with "One Night in Paris", an over eight-minute long suite in three parts. A short opera, if you will, with cabaret style vocal and very vivid portraits of Parisian red light districts. It is rumored that Queen were inspired to record "Bohemian Rhapsody" after hearing this track. Crazily cinematic.

And speaking of cinema, "The Film of My Love" is a very funny (and mildly obscene) love song, every verse an allusion to that most enduring of media (check the album's name!), sung by Gouldman, again in cabaret style. "Flying Junk" is the album's one misfire, the inevitable drug tune, though with some nice, Beatlesque vocals.   "Blackmail" is the darkest track, a sleazily observant tale of tabloid photographers and assorted scandals. That selection has some serious squealing guitar and the simultaneous use of the "Gizmo", a device described as a "sixteen wheeled machine you fix to the bridge of a guitar.  Depress one of the buttons and the wheel would revolve as it is pressed down on a string, creating a droning note, like a violin." This device would be, erm, instrumental in the parting of the ways of our two wiseacre duos during the next album.......

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