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Graham Gouldman of 10cc: “The Beatles Permeated Everything We Did” (Interview)
Graham Gouldman defines the word wunderkind. In the ‘60s, in his late teens, Graham established himself as an in demand songwriter, penning smash hits for The Yardbirds, The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits and countless others. Moving into the ‘70s, joining forces with Eric Stewart, Lol Creme and Kevin Godley, 10cc were born.
They were the masters of clever thinking man’s pop, consummately written, arranged, produced and performed songs, sonic missives bursting with humor, pathos and invention. Stateside, they’re best known for the major chart hits, “I’m Not in Love” and “The Things We Do For Love.”
After 10cc split, Graham would go on to team with another pop wunderkind, Andrew Gold with Wax, whose impressive body work radiated top flight pop smarts.
Currently fronting a newly configured 10cc, Gouldman is the only original member in its ranks, and he’s just completed a European and US tour as part of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band.
Rock Cellar: What was the spark that spurred you to become a songwriter?
Graham Gouldman: The Beatles. Simpe as that. I’d sort of dabbled in songwriting. I suppose it was a combination of things that happened. I was in a band with Kevin Godley, who was obviously in 10cc as well.
But before that we had a band together called The Mockingbirds, and we wanted to make a record. The usual thing was you’d go down to London to the publishing houses and go around and say, “have you got any material?” and nothing came of that, so that along with the combination of being inspired and absolutely falling in love with The Beatles sort of egged me on to start writing.
Rock Cellar: What’s amazing is there are other musicians who were inspired by the Beatles and learned from them as songwriters, but they’d find success many years later. With you, you were scoring big hits with The Yarbirds, The Hollies and Herman’s Hermits a few years after they broke big in the UK.
Graham Gouldman: I think there are a few elements to that.
First of all, I think you have to have the gift. The gift is something you can’t learn and you can’t buy. It’s not clever; you’ve either got it or you don’t.
So there was that. I had encouragement from my parents with what I was doing because academically I was a complete failure. I’d discovered music quite early on. I fell in love with it and knew that’s all I wanted to do from an early age. Also equally important was the era I was born into. So the music I was listening to, both as a young teenager or even at 11 years old when I actually got my first guitar, really influenced what I did.
Imagine being a young teenager listening to Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, fantastic stuff. And then in England we had the skiffle era, which was sort of like folk music. Lonnie Donegan was leading the way with that, and he inspired a lot of people to pick up guitars or washboards or anything that made a noise and make music yourself, and this was really important. Then there was Cliff Richard and the Shadows, where we got into electric guitars and we were all drooling over Hank Marvin and his Fender Stratocaster, which we all loved and still do. Then came The Beatles along with people like The Kinks, The Animals and the Rolling Stones, really influential bands.
Rock Cellar: You established an incredible songwriting career in the mid ‘60s. Given you’ve toured with Ringo, one of the Beatles, how did Lennon/McCartney shape you as a songwriter? Are there any specific songs that especially resonate?
Graham Gouldman: I see a lot of it in my bass playing, because there are about five bass players who influenced me and there is no doubt Paul McCartney is one of those and he’s right up there because he, along with James Jamerson, was a melodic bass player. It wasn’t just playing the root note and fifths on everything, it was doing melodies that really enhanced the songs and were integral to the songs.
The rhythm of Beatles songs like (imitates the rhythm of The Beatles song, “Things We Said Today”) was a Beatles rhythm I used on “Bus Stop,” “No Milk Today.” It’s “Things We Said Today” that did it. I suppose going forward to 10cc you can really hear the Beatles influence on songs like “The Things We Do For Love.” That’s quite a Beatle-y song I think. If you listen to the bass part on that that is definitely McCartney influenced.
Rock Cellar: Had you had any personal encounters with The Beatles collectively as a group back in the ‘60s or individually in the ’70s prior to working with Ringo as a part of his All-Starr Band?
Graham Gouldman: I did see The Beatles live and I can’t remember the year. I did see them when they broke and they were wearing their Beatle jackets. “Please Please Me,” “From Me To You,” all the hits were played. I think they played for about a half an hour. The show in the North of England. It was in a massive marquee somewhere in Cheshire. It was fantastic, absolutely mindboggling. I could hear them because I was right near the front.
I didn’t encounter the Beatles in the ‘60s, but in the ‘70s I did. 10cc had its own studio in Stockport, which is near Manchester, it was called Strawberry Studios and Paul made an album with his brother Mike McGear, called McGear. Paul McCartney produced it.
We were in the studio during the day recording the Sheet Music album and Paul and his guys were in the studio in the evening recording Mike’s album so the studio was completely full of gear. We used to use their drums and Paul’s mellotron and stuff like that and that was pretty good. We sort of hung out with Paul quite a bit during that Wings period as well.
Rock Cellar: Did Paul ever express his opinion about 10cc’s music?
Graham Gouldman: Oh yeah. I know that he thought “I’m Not In Love” was fantastic.
Rock Cellar: I was recently listening to one of my favorite 10cc songs, “Headline Hustler,” and there are so many little guitar parts that sound exactly like George Harrison would have played. Had you told me George was on that track, I would have believed you.
Graham Gouldman: Yea, when I think about that, you’re right, it does have that flavor. The Beatles permeated everything we did. With 10cc we had all of our own separate influence, but we also had our common influences and one of those was definitely a love of The Beatles along with The Beach Boys and Steely Dan.
Rock Cellar: Speaking of Steely Dan, you can hear a bit of that influence on the ending chords to the chorus of “Art For Art’s Sake” which hits a surprising jazzy chord.
Graham Gouldman: We have been compared to them, but I don’t think that’s a good comparison. I think their music is a lot more sophisticated in a way than ours, and more jazz oriented and also they were sort of virtuoso musicians where I don’t think any of us in 10cc were virtuoso musicians, I just think we were very good and very good for ourselves.
Rock Cellar: Perhaps the Steely Dan connection could be more cerebrally with tackling left of center lyrical themes, presenting something that was digestible to the masses but was skewed as well.
Graham Gouldman: Yes, definitely and that’s why I say they were one of our common influences.
Rock Cellar: Touring as a member of the All-Starr Band, what has most impressed you about Ringo both musically and personally?
Graham Gouldman: Well, he’s a remarkable person. He’s very wise and he’s very funny. His energy is incredible. His fitness, his discipline with his health and everything is amazing. He’s an inspiration, really, to anybody. I have to pinch myself when I’m onstage and I’m singing away and I look to my right not more than two feet away is Ringo Starr. It’s like, what’s going on here? (laughs)
Rock Cellar: Being able to play bass locked into Ringo’s groove must be thrilling.
Graham Gouldman: It’s amazing. I often think, “I’m singing this song and Ringo Starr’s playing along with me.” It’s kind of surreal. He’s great. You’ll hear these odd fills and you’ll go (Laughs), oh yeah, “I’ve heard that one from some iconic Beatle record.” Nobody plays like him. He’s got this cool Ringo “lope,” it’s lazy but it isn’t lazy enough to be too far back and it’s just beautiful. He’s very open talking about Beatles records and how things were made.
Someone was saying, “You remember you did this on a Beatles song and it was in 5/4 time?” And he said, “I don’t give a shit what time it was, I just played along.” (laughs) He’s not a technical player; he just plays. And the other thing about him is he’s got this boundless enthusiasm for playing, as we all do.
What’s our main motivation? It’s nothing to do with anything else but the joy of playing live and playing with other musicians.
Rock Cellar: You mentioned 10cc’s studio, Strawberry Studios, its name has a Beatles connection, right?
Graham Gouldman: Yeah that’s true. It was named after The Beatles song, “Strawberry Field Forever.” Eric (Stewart) came up with that. Eric started the studio off with a guy called Peter Tattersall and I became a partner in it a bit later on. They wanted some money injected into it and Eric asked me to become a partner and thought this was a brilliant idea. Just to have a proper recording studio in the North of England was a good idea because there wasn’t one, really. The motivation was that it would serve the north of England to have a proper studio so people didn’t have to keep going down to London.
Rock Cellar: You wrote a string of hits for The Hollies, The Yardbirds and Herman’s Hermits. Peter Noone recently told me that “No Milk Today” is his favorite Hermits song. That song has some Beatles magic to it.
Graham Gouldman: Yes, it was influenced by The Beatles. I, like others, employed a chord progression that went from the major chord to the minor chord and back again and that’s something that’s in “Things We Said Today,” so that’s where it came from. That track had a lot of influence on me, not just with the rhythm I employed a lot. I’m a guitarist and for a guitarist that sort of rhythm, is a very lovely comfortable rhythm to write in and consequently I find it easy to write within that mode. That A minor rhythmic lift happens a lot in “No Milk Today.” I’ve used it in other songs as well.
Rock Cellar: From your songs cut by The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits and The Yardbirds to your work in 10cc, you’re a master of coming up with unique and often surprising chord changes, where do you think that comes from?
Graham Gouldman: I don’t really know, looking at my family history, my late father was a wordsmith and was very helpful with me with lyrics and wrote parts of lyrics with me for quite a lot of the songs. In fact, the whole idea of “No Milk Today” came from him. But his mother was very very musical and quite often a gift like that might miss a generation. As far as the words were concerned that definitely came directly from my dad.
Rock Cellar: On the tour with Ringo’s All-Starr Band, walk us through the back story behind two of the incredible 10cc hits you’re performing that you co-wrote with Eric Stewart. “I’m Not In Love” is a masterpiece. It’s amazing to find out that your 10cc band mates, Kevin and Lol, hated this beautiful song upon hearing initial version. How did the original version sound?
Graham Gouldman: Well, the initial version was kind of like a bossa nova. It just didn’t work, however there was something about the song where we all knew there was something there even though we hadn’t recorded the right version of it. And so much so that we actually erased that original version of “I’m Not In Love.” We used to erase anything we didn’t like. We didn’t want anybody to ever get a hold of it. It would be kind of interesting to hear it now because of the success of the song. But what happened to it shows how well the four of us in the original band worked.
Eric and I wrote the song, but it was Kevin who came up with a different rhythm for it and it was Lol’s idea to out in the voices. So there was real cooperation between the four members to produce something that was great. I think without those elements I don’t think the song would have done as well as it did. But who knows?
Rock Cellar: Eric brought in the initial idea and you fleshed it out.
Graham Gouldman: We’d never written a proper love song. We’d sort of balked at the idea but I said, “We could write a great love song.” And Eric came up with the perfect title which was “I’m Not In Love.” (laughs) I had the opening chord, that suspended chord and then Eric had the first part of the verse which was the major 6th chord going to the minor 6th chord and as soon as he’d done that I heard the second part (imitates that part). As with a lot of songs, there’s one of you that is writing and the other person is hearing the other section that could be coming up.
Eric and I always wrote the song way. I’d play guitar and Eric played a black Fender Rhodes piano. I wrote the words and music to the bridge in one go, that all just came out (sings, “ooh, you wait a long time for me.”)
Rock Cellar: When did you realize “I’m Not In Love” was special, when it hit the charts on a big way or while in the studio cutting it?
Graham Gouldman: When it was finished we went, “Wow, this is special.” But no one said it was a hit. We just thought it was amazing. As we were creating it we knew there was something special going on.
Rock Cellar: 10cc’s 1977 album Deceptive Bends was the first album you and Graham recorded without Kevin and Lol and that featured another smash hit, “The Things We Do For Love.” Was this relatively straightforward pop song the kind you could have done with Kevin and Lol in the band or would they have wanted to screw with the formula and upend convention?
Graham Gouldman: I don’t think Kevin or Lol would have recorded it. I know Kevin didn’t like it. Kevin and I, by the way, have always kept in touch with each other and have remained friends and we’ve recorded together since they left. But he hated it, he absolutely hated it! But we wrote the song and the record’s great. We obviously thought it was good because we wouldn’t have recorded it otherwise, but we thought two things. There are quite a few quirky things on the Deceptive Bends album, like “I Bought A Flat Guitar Tutor” and “Honeymoon with B Troop,” you know, strange things, so having something that was straight-ahead pop was not a problem for us.
But the interesting thing I always remember about “The Things We Do For Love” was we thought it was good but I remember that Eric was doing some backing vocal overdubs and he added one harmony and I remember saying to him, “That song has now just tipped over into being a hit.” Amazing.
Rock Cellar: It’s a perfect piece of production.
Graham Gouldman: Yeah, the production is great. The studio was a new studio that we were constructing and our board hadn’t arrived and we were using a very small desk that came out of a Rolling Stones mobile and there were bits hanging out of it. I remember we had an engineer who was always hanging out at the back of it trying to fix something, but boy did it sound good.
Rock Cellar: You co-wrote those with Eric. Paul McCartney speaks about when writing “I Want To Hold Your Hand” with John Lennon that when they hit a B7 chord it unlocked the magic. For those two songs, do you recall a lyrical breakthrough or chord change that set the song on a course of greatness?
Graham Gouldman: I can’t remember, but as I say I remember the tipping point for me in the recording process took it from being just a great album track to being a single was when Eric added that background harmony vocal. But you’re not always aware of what is gonna be a hit. I mean, there’s been things that I thought, “this is gonna be massive” and it completely disappeared and vice versa.
Rock Cellar: Was there a 10cc song that you would have bet would have been a hit that underperformed?
Graham Gouldman: Well, our second single which is called “Johnny Don’t Do It” and also “The Worst Band In The World,” two tracks I’m really really proud of but they sunk without a trace. (laughs) Who knows why? “Johnny Don’t Do It” was another pastiche after “Donna,” which was our first hit in the UK. So maybe we went a bit too far with that although I do love it. “The Worst Band In The World” I felt was one of the most interesting things we’d done.
People say to me, “if there one record that you would say represents 10cc?” it wouldn’t be a song Eric and I wrote.
Rock Cellar: What would it be?
Graham Gouldman: “The Dean and I.” I think lyrically and musically it’s just brilliant. I remember thinking when Kevin and Lol played it to us, ‘this is fucking genius!’ I just loved it and I loved being involved with it. I changed a couple of things, as we all did to each other’s songs. We took ownership of each other’s songs in a very good way. We never said, “That’s crap, we’re not recording it.” It was always, “If you think it’s good enough we’ll do it but I have the right to change a few things (laughs) if you don’t mind and make it better” and that happened.
Rock Cellar: 10cc were a band with four incredible writers, each supplying their own unique and distinctive sensibility to the group. How did things change in 10cc with the departure of two founding members, Lol Creme and Kevin Godley?
Graham Gouldman: It changed it tremendously. I think we did very very well with the Deceptive Bends and Bloody Tourists has some very good things on it, but there’s no doubt about it. This was 50% of the band going; it wasn’t like they only contributed 20% and Eric and I were the other 80%, this was a band that really relied and needed each other. I’m still upset to this day that they fucking left. (laughs)
I’ve talked to Kevin about it and he said, “You’re absolutely right.” They had this project that they were doing that was going on and on and they were getting bored with the cycle of what we were doing, which was writing, recording and then going on the road. Eric and I absolutely adored that; that’s what we always wanted. What we should have done was taken a year off and said, “Go and do what you want and when you’ve done it come back and we’ll start again.”
Rock Cellar: But we couldn’t and we had commitments. It was horrible.
Rock Cellar: Can you hear the influence of 10cc on bands from the past 20-25 years?
Graham Gouldman: There’s a band out today called The Feeling they’re from the UK and they’re very very influenced by 10cc and they’re very good I must say so no problem there.
Rock Cellar: And finally, the million dollar question, has there been any thought to 10cc regrouping to record new music or do shows?
Graham Gouldman: No, it won’t happen. I think there’s too much water under the bridge. I’m not sure who would want to do it and who would be capable of doing it or has no interest in doing it. I’ve got too much going on in my life to go there. I’ve got other things that I’m doing so I wouldn’t go there.
Kevin is the only one I’ve kept in touch with and we’ve recorded together in 2006; we had a project called GG06. I really enjoyed working with Kevin and we’re still threatening to do something again. (laughs) I’m always happy to do something with Kevin; he’s great.
I saw Lol in a rehearsal room with his band, The Producers, a few years ago; we were rehearsing in one place and he was rehearsing in the other and it was very nice to talk to him and Eric I’ve had no contact with for decades.
He’s gone off my radar, so there you go.