The 10cc and Godley & Creme man discusses his varied career to date, and why songwriting is like sculpting air
For their 95th episode, those purveyors of riveting podcasting over at Sodajerker spoke with a singer, drummer, pioneering director and Ivor Novello-winning songwriter. As a founding member of 10cc, and one half of Godley & Creme, he had a pivotal role in some of the most innovative pop music of the 70s and 80s, before branching out into the world of music video.
Kevin Godley was born in Prestwich, Lancashire in 1945 and went to art college in Manchester, where he met his future bandmate and writing partner Lol Creme. Together with Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman they would form a collective based at the Strawberry Studios in Stockport. As in-house writers and producers for the likes of Neil Sedaka, and in bands of their own like Hot Legs and the hugely successful 10cc, they honed and perfected their unique and experimental version of pop. From their 1972 debut up to 1976’s How Dare You!, the original incarnation of 10cc were able to merge together classic songwriting with an experimental edge.
Outside of 10cc, Godley achieved further success as a member of Godley & Creme, including their standout 1985 hit Cry. He has also directed music videos for luminaries such as Sting, Paul McCartney and Blur, whilst also continuing his songwriting.
Sodajerker caught up with this creative tour de force in order to learn a little more about his methods…
There are so many interesting facets to your career, sometimes songwriting gets lost a little bit.
“Absolutely, it’s been pretty diverse but it’s essentially all the same stuff. It just comes out of different taps”
We read one great quote where you said that songwriting was like ‘sculpting air’.
“It’s exactly like sculpting air. I don’t know if it’s that different to any other creative pursuit. If you’re a sculptor, an architect or a designer I think your brain trains itself to think or to be intuitive in particular ways that are useful for your craft. But yeah I think it’s fair enough to say that it’s like sculpting air. It’s also like water divining without a forked twig.”
The great thing about songwriting is that all you need is a guitar or a pad of paper and you can make something from nothing in a matter of minutes. It’s probably a lot less complicated than other art forms that you’ve worked in.
“Yeah I suppose it is, but in order for it to become tangible you’ve got to do something with it. I don’t write the same way today as I did when I began because I don’t play an instrument, and drums, the only instrument that I do play, is hardly the best instrument to write music to. When I began to write music I used to work with Lol Creme and he used to sit opposite with me with a guitar and he’d strum and I’d warble and things would happen, but it doesn’t always work like that.
“I think it’s really about stimulating something and that can come from anywhere. It can come from visual stimulus or it can come from sitting with someone and playing, but increasingly for me it just comes from letting it dwell in the mind and more than anything else just singing to myself when I’m driving. I suppose my mind has become intuitive. If I sing something I can’t stop to write it down because I’m on the motorway. By the time I’ve ended my journey in an hour or so, if I can still remember it then maybe it’s okay, if I can’t then it’s not. I’m still sculpting air aren’t I!
“Maybe it’s a word, maybe it’s a phrase that becomes meaningful to you during the process in some way and you hang on to that. Another way of looking at songwriting is as a series of magnets. Once you have something started you have a sense of what this thing can be and it becomes a magnet. Every thought that you have, or note that you make about the song from that point on is like a few iron filings and if they’re any good they attach themselves to the magnet and it becomes bigger and fuller and more interesting…”
Another element that we think is quite important is having some sort of permanent space where you’re comfortable and you don’t have to watch the clock. You were quite lucky weren’t you to have that environment at Strawberry Studios?
“Yeah, we were. We were kids when we started. Well not kids but we were pretty young and I think that most people when they start to write try to emulate their heroes because they’ve set the bar of what songwriting is like. So we sat down and started to write songs and we weren’t happy unless they sounded like The Beatles or Paul Simon or something like that, because that was ‘proper music’. That’s fine but you will never sound like The Beatles and you will never sound like Paul Simon because you are not them. You tend to throw away the bits that don’t sound like them, which is weird.
“What tends to happen is that gradually your own style will develop and there will come a point where you’ll realise that in trying to go down this road you’ve actually gone down the other road. I don’t sound anything like the bloody Beatles but actually it’s not bad. That’s what happened, just referring to having time at Strawberry when we recorded the first 10cc album, we did it pretty quickly. In about three weeks or something, writing and recording and we just sat there and wrote, we didn’t think.
“We didn’t have time the luxury of time to sit and compare it to anybody else, we just cracked on, wrote something and recorded it, wrote something and recorded it and so on. So that wall came down at that point and we realised during that process, without thinking it through too much, that what we were doing didn’t really sound like anybody else We found almost by accident and intuition something that was purely ours, which was great. That is a key moment in songwriting, when you find your own way of doing things.”
There is certainly an incredible diversity in the two core songwriting teams that you had in 10cc. I think there was some overlap in terms of some collaboration between you and Graham, for instance you wrote Iceberg didn’t you?
“Yeah we did. I mean there was a bit of wife swapping, not a lot, but I think it was useful. When I sat down with Graham to write Iceberg I thought ‘right, I’m really gonna fuck you up. Let’s write something really dirty and horrible and sexy and violent,’ and that’s what we came up with. It doesn’t sound exactly like I wanted it to. I wanted it to sound a bit darker than it did. It comes across as quite a cheerful Lambert, Hendricks & Ross jazzy thing, which in my head it wasn’t, but once it had gone through the first filter of everybody else that’s how it came together but it was fun.
“Writing with Graham was great and I’ve done writing with Graham post-10cc. Writing with Eric was different again and we came up with something else but it’s still the same process. You’re prodding each other all the time, trying to get the best for the song once you know what the song is going to be. You’re trying to find elements that fit in to that basic structure that now exists or you think: ‘Actually it’s not great, let’s rip it to shreds and start again.’ But I think by that time we were so used to working with each other we kind of knew each other’s foibles and ways of working and what would interest each other, so off we’d go and there were very few disagreements…
“I was never of the mind that I knew exactly how this is going to sound when this is recorded. If I felt that it was a pointless exercise to record it. The interesting thing was following an idea through to a conclusion but being excited by every stage of the process. So you didn’t really know what you were going to get until you finished and even then you weren’t even sure you had finished.”
You never seemed constrained by traditional approaches to songwriting on songs like The Dean And I or I Wanna Rule The World. Your choruses are sandwiched between marches and chants and all these interesting sections.
“You have to blame that on our background. Me and Lol were two art school boys in the middle-to-late 60s. Everything was kicking off at art school and the basic ethos was that if you know what something is going to look like, throw it to one side and do it again. Just keep experimenting, why stick to traditional formulas, and we brought that to the studio. The Dean And I draws from Hollywood musicals more than anything else. It draws from Doris Day, Rodgers and Hammerstein, South Pacific and West Side Story. It comes from that world which is the other side of the coin to pop music and I remember that Eric had a problem with it, he wasn’t keen on it at all.
“The Dean And I was a hit, which is kind of bizarre as there isn’t really a proper chorus in there or a verse structure. It’s kind of jumping all over the shop, but as a whole it kind of works. It’s just the way we thought, we thought ‘why not follow the way we think and feel and see where it leads?’ That was a pretty good example of doing just that.”
We found the creativity, the songs, the arranging and production on those 10cc records kind of overwhelming at times. It’s amazing what you accomplished in such a short time, it was only ‘72 to ‘76 I think.
“Yeah, I know. I think it’s because we were left alone, we didn’t have the usual constraints of record companies peering over our shoulders and judging us. Because we were lucky enough to have our first round of hit records from a process that allowed us to do that, they thought ‘hang on this works, leave them be.’ We were allowed to carry on doing that and we were challenging ourselves all the time to go further, to do something better and it worked. It worked up to a point, but I think there was a point it had to stop because it was becoming too intense. Our brains were going to burst, ‘we can’t do this for twenty years,’ and maybe that’s what you’re hearing in the music.
“We got to a point where we were trying to jam as many ideas as we possibly could into a song. Maybe we were scared in the back of minds, saying ‘well this isn’t as inventive as it could be or we’re supposed to be.’ I think our downfall was the fact that we out-clevered ourselves, we wrote and recorded ourselves into a corner. It was always about the smart, the clever, the interesting. There wasn’t a great deal of emotion in our work, whereas I think that is the key to longevity. If you compare Bruce Springsteen to 10cc, we would go ‘yeah Bruce, but he’s a throwback, it’s rock ‘n’ roll.’ We’d go back in our studio and make something a lot cleverer than that and a lot more complex and dens. When you actually come down to it, the way to connect with the audience is to touch them. You have to touch an audience, you don’t have to outsmart them. I think what we did worked for a time because people were dazzled by what we were doing, but there was an element lacking.”
We’re also huge fans of your work as half of Godley & Creme, musically and visually. Did you see that as a continuation of the kind of songwriting you’d done together in 10cc?
“Well not initially. Initially when we left the band it was because we wanted to do an album that tested the Gizmotron, this device that we’d invented. We invented it back in ‘67 and we’d had a prototype lying about that we’d used a tiny weenie bit. We’d never actually tested the parameters of the thing, so we initiated a couple of weeks at Strawberry to try the thing out and we were so buzzing on that, that when Eric and Graham came in with a song they’d written to begin the next album it was like, ‘Oh God, that is so fucking dreary, it’s so predictable and boring. Why don’t we just fuck off and do something with The Gizmo?’ And of course at that age you are daring and ballsy and you take chances and that’s what we did, but it turned into a monster. It turned into our Heaven’s Gate for God knows how many reasons and the idea was to make a kind of music that was nothing remotely like 10cc.
“It was orchestral to a degree because the Gizmotron was designed to make orchestral sounds, but of course it moved away from there. I think we lost ourselves a little bit in that album, we got a little stir crazy. Even though there were some good moments in there, we lost the thread so there was a period of time where we had to pick ourselves up from that, where we realised: ‘Oh, we’ve actually spent 14 to 18 months doing something that people think is a pile of shite.’”
Storytelling is a thread that connects a lot of your work, through songs like Under Your Thumb and the music videos and projects like Hog Fever. It seems like that’s a thread that ties a lot of that stuff together, maybe?
“Could be, I mean I enjoy storytelling to a degree but I wouldn’t say it applied to the video stuff. I don’t really like music videos that tell stories. I hate those music videos where some guy is going ‘oh I love you but you’ve left me so I’m sitting in a bath smoking a pipe’ and then you see that and you think: ‘Well you’ve just said that, why are you wasting time showing it to me as well?’ It’s called show and tell, you never see a movie, unless its film noir, where you get a bloke walking down the street naked with a pipe in his mouth saying ‘I’m walking down the street naked with a pipe in my mouth,’ because it’s painfully obvious that you are because I can see it.
“The secret for me always in music video is to create an atmosphere that assists the telling of the story, it doesn’t bang you over the head with it. So I’m not into storytelling in music video, but writing yes and things like Hog Fever yes because there was a story to be told and so on and so forth. Screenplay writing there is a story to be told and you have to tell it, but you have to find ways to tell it that again touch people and lead you to the next part without ramming it down their throats or eyes or ears.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 90 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo, Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Paul Simon, Ben Watt, Justin Currie, Willy Russell, Lamont Dozier, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall, Dan Gillespie Sells and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 40-minute interview with Kevin Godley – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.