Ahead of the band’s UK tour, 10cc’s only remaining original member discusses writing songs that stand the test of time
With 30 million global album sales and a trio of UK No 1 singles (Rubber Bullets, Dreadlock Holiday and I’m Not In Love), 10cc were one of the most successful acts of the 1970s. The quartet of Graham Gouldman, Eric Stewart, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme wrote in two teams, with Gouldman and Stewart tending to contribute the poppier moments and Godley and Creme adding an experimental lustre. The unique combination led to a sound that had both mass appeal and an art-pop edge.
Before his time as a member of 10cc, Gouldman wrote a number of hits for other acts including The Yardbirds, The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, Wayne Fontana and Jeff Beck. He was also half of the new wave duo Wax, has pursued a successful solo career and was a member of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band in 2018. His contribution to songwriting was recognised in 2014 when he was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
2024 finds Gouldman taking 10cc back out on the road. The only founding member remaining, he will be joined by Rick Fenn, Paul Burgess, Keith Hayman, and Iain Hornal on The Ultimate Ultimate Greatest Hits Tour. Ahead of the tour’s March opening, we had the chance to speak with Gouldman about his musical legacy with 10cc…
What is the secret to writing songs that stand the test of time?
“I think it’s not being conscious of any sort of trend. Particularly with the songs that we wrote in 10cc, we were actually just writing for ourselves. I think most writers do that, but some people will look at the charts and go, ‘Oh, this sort of sound is in and this sort of BPM…’ but 10cc, we never took any notice of that. We just wrote what pleased us.”
Was it a competitive environment, were you all trying to write better songs than the other three and did that spur you on?
“It wasn’t competitive, I don’t think. But in a way, we were spurred on in the beginning. Donna had been a hit in 1972 and immediately the record company said we needed to get an album out. We had three tracks already recorded and we needed to do another six or seven.
“There were basically two teams, although we did mix it up a bit. There was myself and Eric Stewart, and Kevin Godley and Lol Cream. We’d be in separate rooms writing away and then when someone had finished a song they’d go, ‘We’ve got one,’ and then play it to the rest of us. We’d then mess around with it or change the arrangement, put our oar in, and then we’d record it and go and wait for the next song. So in that way, it was not competitive but we were spurred on by wanting to get something done quickly.”
Were there clear differences between the songs written by the two teams so that someone listening would instantly know who’d written them?
“Well, I would, definitely. I’m gonna generalise here – Kevin and Lol would be more experimental in their songwriting, whereas Eric and I were more mainstream pop/blues. But we also could be experimental as well; we proved that on our Deceptive Bends album that we did after Kevin and Lol left the band.”
How did the process tend to work between the four of you?
“No demos. If Eric and I wrote something, we would play it to the other boys, and then we’d work out an arrangement together. Someone might have a different idea for an arrangement or the production and that would happen as we went along. We’d normally put a very basic rhythm track down, which might be just drums and rhythm guitar, and then build on that.”
And who would have the final say on those arrangements?
“We all did. 10cc never had someone who was the arbiter, we were all the arbiters and for a long while we all agreed what was right. There was no disagreement about doing this or doing that. One of the things that we observed was to always try someone’s idea. However weird it might have been, or sounded, always try.”
Can you think of any examples of songs that came about that way?
“One of the best ideas that ever came out was the idea of doing a song just having voices and nothing else that turned out to be I’m Not In Love. That was the original idea for that, that there would be no voices. But even as we put down a rhythm track with the idea that we’d take that rhythm track off, because we needed a guide to put all the other parts on, there was a kind of magic imbued in that backing of myself playing rhythm guitar, Eric playing keyboards, and Kevin playing a Moog synthesizer.”
Those must have been special moments…
“It’s quite something to think that you’ve written songs that you were the first person in the world ever to hear it and now millions of people know them. You were there at the creation of things that have affected people’s lives. People come up and say, particularly with a song like I’m Not In Love, ‘I met my wife because of that,’ or lots of other stories that I wouldn’t even repeat.”
Does it surprise you which songs were successful and which weren’t?
“When you’re recording, you always think, ‘This could be a hit,’ or, ‘This is just going to be a brilliant album track,’ and quite often you’re wrong and the opposite will be true. That’s happened to me a few times. But the fact that the song has legs, the fact that you actually record it, means it must have something about it. It must have something about it to get finished, because you start off lots of songs as a writer and some you immediately get on this sort of track and it just sort of happens. Other times, it’s like, ‘I can’t think anywhere past this first bit and it’s okay, so forget it.’”
Is it handy to have bandmates in that scenario – to throw in ideas?
“That’s really important because, in a writing partnership, you can do something that’s throw-away, even a little figure that you like to play when you’ve tuned up the guitar, just to check it, and someone will go, ‘What’s that?’ You’ll go, ‘Oh, I just use this to check the tuning,’ and they’ll go, ‘That’s really nice. Let’s work with that.’ That sort of thing can happen that you wouldn’t think of doing if you were on your own.”
You wrote before 10cc and continue after 10cc, do you feel like that was your peak as a songwriter?
“I think I’ve been consistent. Whether people buy it or not is another matter. But artistically, yeah, I think I’ve been consistent.”
What would you say are your strengths as a songwriter?
“I’ve always felt more confident musically. When I get something, I know exactly how it should be. Chunks of songs come to me and someone might say, ‘Can we just try changing the chord there?’ and I’d go, ‘Yeah, you can try it, but it’s not right. It’s not how I want it.’ I hear it in a specific way. Sometimes lyrics come easy, other times I have to work more on them, but musically, things come really quickly for me.”
Where do you think that musical ability came from?
“It’s a gift. So you’ve either got it or you ain’t. It’s very simple, like anything that comes naturally to you. I heard an interview with the late Bobby Charlton and he said the same thing he said, ‘There’s nothing clever about it. Football is the most natural thing to me, I can’t understand why you can’t do it.’ You can talk about chords and arrangement, and you could write a good song, but who cares? You’ve got to write a great song, or something that connects with people or moves people. That’s what it’s really all about.
“A successful songwriter is someone who writes something that other people like, so much so that they will spend money buying it and a lot of people will buy it, enough for it to become a really well-known international hit.”
But you must have a bank of knowledge that you’ve built up through listening to songs and practising music from an early age.
“Yes, and songwriters from my generation talk about pretty much exactly the same thing, of listening to American music when we were young teenagers: Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, The Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Chuck Berry. Then on to the kind of skiffle era: Lonnie Donegan, Cliff Richard and the Shadows and all those sorts of bands. Then The Beatles, which was the icing on the cake.
“I always think that I was lucky and my contemporaries were lucky because that was the era that we were brought up in and the age that we were when we started listening to this music, when it became part of our DNA. And for me, it still is.”
Is it harder to have that collective consciousness now, when there are so many songs and fewer people are listening to the same thing?
“I don’t think so. But there was more of a unity with music. I mean, we would watch programmes on terrestrial TV regularly like Top Of The Pops. Then the next day everyone would talk about them. ‘Did you see so and so, that was crap, wasn’t it? But they were great weren’t they!’ So there isn’t that. I wouldn’t say it doesn’t play an important part in people’s lives. But it’s not an event. There’s no big event.
“Like, if there was a new Beatles album coming out back in the day, that would be a massive event that we would all talk about. But now, I don’t know. Maybe Taylor Swift has a similar kind of thing, but I’m not sure that her music will be played in 20 years, with all due respect. Maybe it will.”
And when you were listening to those early influences, were you the kind of person who was able to dissect the songs and look at how they were written?
“Not consciously, but because they exist in the writing side of my brain, that knowledge is always there. I’ve nearly finished a new solo album, and there was a song that came about just by me looking at a cover of an Everly Brothers record. I was with one of my co-writers and I started playing these chords and we wrote the song in about 20 minutes. Looking at the picture of The Everly Brothers, it set something off in my mind.”
Coming back to the upcoming shows…How does it feel when you’re standing up there on the stage playing songs that you wrote in the 1970s that still mean so much to people?
“Well, it’s very gratifying. I love doing it and it’s fun and it’s serious all at the same time. I’m very serious about the music and, with 10cc in particular, this wonderful catalogue of songs, a lot of which I co-wrote, and some of which I didn’t. But whoever wrote the song, when we were in the studio together we all adopted the songs as our own and put as much effort and love into them as we would have had they been our own.”
And is there one song from your catalogue, either 10cc or your solo work, that you’re most proud of from a songwriting perspective?
“I was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014 and I sang Bus Stop, a song I wrote for The Hollies, and I will say that I’m very proud of that. Musically, it’s really interesting. I love the lyric of it; the idea came from me actually having a fantasy. I used to work in an outfitters shop and would get the bus every day. My dad helped me with lyrics a lot. I mentioned this idea to him and I came home one day and he’d written the first verse. I read the verse and as I read the verse, I heard the melody and that was it. So it was another song that was written really quickly. All the best songs I’ve written or co-written have been written really quickly.
Was your dad a writer?
“He wasn’t a professional writer, but he should have been. He couldn’t afford to be; he didn’t have a patron or anything. But he wrote plays, he wrote stories, he wrote poetry. It was wonderful to have him in the house. If I’d written a lyric I’d show to him and say, ‘How can I make this better?’”
Lastly, what can people expect when they come and see you this year?
“All the hits and more.”