Album review

Sheer Smart Attack

Hard to believe now, but Queen—Britain's Second Favourite Band, remember—were once considered an inferior 10cc, their "Bohemian Rhapsody" an attempt to outstrip "Une Nuit A Paris", the magnificent three-part pseudo-operatic suite from The Original Soundtrack. Not sure how this happened, but fast-forward 30 years and Queen are rock royalty, while 10cc, if they're lucky, might get VH1 to do a Bands Reunited on them.

But 10cc, capable of brilliant singles and sustained feats of satirical invention that played at 33rpm, are the greatest British pop group of the post-Beatles era. And although they have long been ill-served by a series of budget compilations, this latest two-disc set—comprising their eponymous 1973 debut album and the all-time-classic 1974 follow-up, Sheet Music, in their entirety, plus every B-side from the same period—does them justice. Pseudonymous work aside, The Complete UK Recordings includes everything they put down for Jonathan King's label before their million-pound transfer to Mercury in 1975.

It's the perfect showcase for 10cc's Total Pop. No other band has ever boasted four multi-instrumentalists and vocalists who produced and engineered themselves and wrote in every conceivable member permutation.

Art school kids and future video auteurs Kevin Godley and Lol Crème, their minds somewhere in Hollywood, would create mini movies for the ears such as "Donna", "Hotel", "Rubber Bullets" and "The Dean And I" while '60s veterans Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart, supposedly the straight men, were no less adept at three-minute song compression ("Headline Hustler", "The Wall Street Shuffle", "Baron Samedi"). Then there was Crème and Gouldman's startling "The Worst Band In The World", the ideas avalanche that was Crème-Stewart's "Silly Love", Stewart-Godley's farcical mercenary scenario "Oh Effendi", Godley-Gouldman's enigmatic dance routine "The Sacro-lliac" ... Sometimes, three of them would join forces to pen something archly funny (Godley-Crème-Gouldman's "Sand In My Face") or achingly sad (Stewart-Godley-Crème's "Fresh Air For My Mama"). If you only buy one reissue this year, make it this super technoid missing link between Zappa and ZTT.

When the band split after 1976's How Dare You!, leaving Godley and Crème to develop their "gizmo" and Gouldman and Stewart to continue as 10cc, the consensus was that Eric and Graham would miss Kevin and Lol's demented vision while the latter would be all brain and no heart. Consequences (1977), a condensed version of which appears on the first of these three twofers, almost bears this out. Godley and Crème's first effort alone, it remains a definitive flawed masterwork, a triple LP of sound FX, spoken interludes courtesy of comedian Peter Cook, instrumental passages and the odd moment of heart-stopping beauty such as "Lost Weekend" (feat. jazz diva Sarah Vaughan). The following year's L was the model of concision with its seven tracks and half-hour duration. With their use of cold electronics, strange time signatures, and Crème and Godley's cartoon falsetto and basso profundo voices, "Sandwiches Of You" and "Art School Canteen" suited the New Wave/synth era, while "Punchbag" rhymed "atrocities" with "Socrates". Clever boys.

The next couple of LPs contained more songs about buildings ("An Englishman In New York") and food ("Snack Attack"). On Freeze Frame (1979), with cameos from Phil Manzanera and Paul McCartney, the songwriting is more focused. "Brazilia (Wish You Were Here)" and "Mugshots" fuse world music and musicals—sort of Sondheim in the bush of ghosts. Just as Gouldman-Stewart's fortunes were waning, Ismism (1981) saw Godley & Crème's commercial breakthrough, with spectral romance "Under Your Thumb" and Motown pastiche "Wedding Bells" both Top 10 hits, while "The Party" was a withering attack on media luvvies set to metallic white funk.

There was a two-year gap before Birds Of Prey, and although it was their penultimate album of original material (the last being 1988's Goodbye Blue Sky), it was their best so far, with tracks like "Madame Guillotine" and "Woodwork" potential hits in a world more attuned to sophisticated, cerebral pop. The History Mix (1985), featuring the pair's final chart entry, "Cry", makes explicit the connection between 10cc and the Fairlight generation, being a de/reconstruction and sampling exercise involving the band's back catalogue from "Neanderthal Man" to "I'm Not In Love" and beyond, co-produced by our heroes with 10cc fan Trevor Horn, and JJ Jeczalik of The Art Of Noise (who Crème would later join). Better than Queen, all told.

Rating: 5 / 10


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