Graded on a Curve:
10cc,
Sheet Music

Looking for some sophisticated English entertainment? Well put on the old school tie, break out the crumpets and watercress tea sandwiches, offer Viscount Basil Clement-Clawsey a cup of Earl Grey tea, and put 10cc’s Sheet Music on the gramophone. Then unstiffen your upper lip just long enough to say in your poshest English accent, “You’ll love this, old boy. They’re no Foghat, mind you. And by the way, you look quite dashing in your black silk stockings and whalebone corset.”

10cc were an English art pop band whose American success has been limited to two of their most traditional songs: 1975’s “I’m Not in Love,” which rose to No. 2 on the pop charts, and 1976’s “The Things We Do For Love,” which made its classy way to No. 5. Musically, 10cc’s closest American counterparts are Sparks, whose elegantly witty songs look at the world askew, and like 10cc have been rewarded by limited commercial success.

The difference between 10cc and Sparks is the former have a fuller sound and lusher vocals. 10cc is made up of a quartet of multi-instrumentalists and typically utilizes multiple vocalists on individual songs. Sparks is just Ron Mael on keyboards and brother Russell on vocals. The bands share a quirky sense of humor, but Sparks win the cleverness sweepstakes hands down. The trouble with Sparks is that, for all but diehard fans, a little of their music goes a very long way.

On their sophomore outing, 1974’s Sheet Music, 10cc bring another band to mind as well: Bachman Turner Overdrive. Just Kidding. I’m talking Queen. It’s there in the complex song structures (think “Bohemian Rhapsody”) and the vocals, which you can’t hear without thinking the Freddie Mercury of “Killer Queen.” And it’s hard not to detect the Bonzo Dog Band in their music as well, both in the absurdist lyrics and the odd musical touches—one rarely runs across a song (in this case “Somewhere in Hollywood”) that comes complete with tap dancing.

Zany. That’s the word that best describes songs like the Caribbean-flavored “Hotel.” Vocals come at you from all directions; the song’s basic message (when you look past the laughs) is “Yankee go home.” And you’ll find two, yes two dance numbers on the LP. “The Wall Street Shuffle” is equal parts art rock (with an emphasis on the “rock”) and bona fide critique of the free market economy—contrary to the amusing title, 10cc isn’t playing this one entirely for laughs. “The Sacro-Iliac” is the name of a new dance craze that involves sitting on your ass, and is recommended to people afraid to do the Swim (“’Cos you think you will drown”).

The subjects of the elegiac “Old Wild Men” are musicians past their sell-by date—“They are over the hill and far away,” sings keyboard player Eric Stewart, “but they’re still gonna play guitars on dead strings, and drums.” There is more than a hint of irony in the song’s old soldier plaint—it’s not the aging veterans of the Battle of Ypres they’re singing about, but musicians getting long in the tooth.

On the tick-a-tock “Clockwork Creep” 10cc sings about airplane terrorism from both the point of view of the bomb set to go off and the plane itself. Lines like “I’m a clockwork creep/And though my fuse is burning slow/Must keep my date to detonate/Good by ta ta and cheerio” are creepy indeed in light of later events, but it’s not like 10cc were soothsayers or something. “Silly Love” brings the Sweet to mind; a hard rock riff is accompanied by cheerfully goofy “Ballroom Blitz” vocals, while Eric Stewart’s guitar solo at song’s end proves him to be a guitar hero who generally prefers to keep his light beneath the bushel.

On the galloping “Baron Samedi” 10cc wander into Haitian voodoo territory, even if the only musical signifier are the bongos of drummer Godley. The subject of “Oh Effendi” is the exploitation of the deserts of the Middle East. Weapons (“gun running is fun”) and whisky go in, oil (and a whole pyramid!) go out. But if the song’s narrator thinks he’s getting one over, it’s the effendi who ultimately holds the cards, and he’s not playing around (“You gonna cut out my liver if I don’t deliver/Things are getting out of hand”).

“Somewhere in Hollywood” opens with stardust and piano, strays into Pink Floyd territory, then launches into the tale (told by a crooning Godley) of a starlet born on a casting couch. “She’s doomed” concludes Godley sadly, noting “Norman Mailer wants to nail her/He’s under the bed.” As for “The Worst Band in the World” it’s the best song on the album; “We’re the worst band in the world but don’t give a” (omitting the “shit” for comedic effect), sings guitarist Lol Creme, gleeful because he’s making a fortune because their fans will eat up anything they’re given (“It irrigates my mind with greed/To know that you adore me).” And of course they look down on the guys who do their dirty work (“We never see the van—we leave it to the roadies/Never met the roadies—leave them in the van”). This is a snider version of rock success than Joe Walsh’ “Life’s Been Good”—Joe’s the irresponsible but friendly sort, 10cc’s band is make up of sarcastic pricks.

10cc never made much of a dent in the American market, for the most part because they’re so quirky and their brand of humor is so uniquely English. But you’re making a mistake to pass them up the way you would an eel pie. Why leave them to the crumpet-eating likes of Viscount Basil Clement-Clawsey? He’s an upper crust snob and there’s a run in his stocking.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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