Graham Reid | | 5 min read
The measure of how modest -- and successful -- Graham Gouldman has been comes when he quickly corrects the assumption he was on the British number one single Neanderthal Man by Hotlegs in 1971.
“I didn’t actually play on it,” he says . . . although it was recorded in the British studio he co-owned by some other guys who he subsequently ended up working with. Who they were he doesn’t say, but it is apparent to anyone who knows his history.
In fact, when Neanderthal Man -- a metronomic piece of moronic rock which was only recorded to test the new studio’s four-track facilities -- was released Gouldman was working in New York writing hits for others.
And when it comes to writing chart toppers or classic songs, Gouldman is your man.
Consider this partial list: in the mid 60s he wrote For Your Love, Heart Full of Soul and Evil Hearted You for the Yardbirds; he co-wrote Look Through Any Window and then wrote Bus Stop for the Hollies; he gave Herman’s Hermit’s No Milk Today and Wayne Fontana Pamela Pamela . . .
And all of them and more came in an 18 month period when he held down a day job in a men‘s clothing store while playing a band at night.
“Yes, 1965 and 66 were very good for me,” he laughs with what sounds like embarrassment. “I was 19 when I started. I was part of a bigger picture in that I was born at the perfect time in the perfect place.
“You’ve got to have a gift and ambition, but certain elements just clicked for me.”
Then for four years in Manchester he did what songwriters in the Brill Building in New York and those in Nashville did: he went to a publishing office every day and wrote songs.
He enjoyed the experience but his hit-writing career in England stalled so in 1969, more out of desperation than having a plan, he went to New York to co-write with Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz, the evil geniuses behind the bubblegum pop of Yummy Yummy and Chewy Chewy.
For Gouldman, who enjoyed pressure and discipline, it was like joining the fabled Brill Building because he’d go to work every day and just write songs. But he quickly learned it was a boiler room and although he didn’t much care for the Kasenetz-Katz music he sort of liked them as people and New York hustling songwriters -- but realised he had taken the gig out of desperation when he‘d been at a career low in Britain.
He last less than a year.
Even then, knocking out rubbishy pop, he had successes.
“I wrote a song as a complete joke and it sold a lot in France. I’m not even going to tell you what it was called,” he laughs.
(It was Susan’s Tuba by the universally derided 60s band Freddie and the Dreamers)
“[Kasenetz-Katz] were looking for someone to raise their game. It was a bad idea artistically, but had a wonderful side effect because although I was living in New York I was involved in Strawberry Studio in England.
“I said I didn’t want to record in New York so went back to England to record with people I knew. In a way [Kasenetz-Katz] were partly responsible for bringing us together.”
The “us” were his longtime friend and studio partner Eric Stewart, and songwriters/producers Lol Creme and Kevin Godley -- who had recorded Neanderthal Man. The four of them subsequently became 10cc.
Then the hits really started to come and Gouldman, the backroom songwriter, stepped onto the world stage.
10cc had a remarkable string of Seventies hit singles, among them the poppy Rubber Bullets, the breathy I’m Not In Love, the Pink Floyd-like Art For Art’s Sake, the radio-friendly Things We Do For Love, and the mock reggae of the enduring but awful Dreadlock Holiday which gets hauled out every cricket season.
If there is a hallmark of Gouldman’s work -- evident through out his career -- it is the diversity: close harmony pop for the Hollies; sharp-edged guitar rock for the Yardbirds; and from doowop to carefully crafted mini pop-operas for 10cc on their 75 classic album Original Soundtrack.
In addition to penning dozens of hits, Gouldman has guested on albums by David Hasselhoff and Gilbert O‘Sullivan; co-written with Andrew Gold, Gary Barlow and Kirsty McColl; produced artists as far apart as Neil Sedaka and the Ramones (their Pleasant Dreams in 81); and more recently was writing with Morten Harket of A-Ha and British pop-rockers McFly while still touring with a new version of 10cc.
Gouldman -- a good Jewish boy born in Lancashire in 1946 -- says his classic period from the early-Seventies to the mid-Eighties with 10cc was a gift, it allowed them to be self-contained as a band and explore any musical possibility.
“We were four very different characters bringing four different elements, but it was all compatible in a weird way. We’d all sung lead on different records before so when we got together it made every track different on our albums. We would change the sound to suit the song.”
Over four albums 10cc became one of the biggest, and most musically respected, bands of the 70s -- and their subsequent reunions (some more successful than others) only confirmed their individual and collective talents. They could turn their hand to anything from pure pop to art rock and beyond.
If there was a signature to some of Gouldman’s earliest songs it is the meaning he finds in the mundane: waiting at a bus stop on a wet day and offering a girl an umbrella; a note which reads ‘no milk today’ taking on a deeper meaning . . .
“I was writing by myself back then but my late father was a playwright and poet so anything I wrote I would take to him. Quite often he would come up with titles and bits of lyrics.
“No Milk Today wasn’t my idea. He went to visit a friend who wasn’t in and saw on the doorstep a milk bottle with that note ‘no milk today’. Most people would have ignored that but he said, ‘What about that?’
“He said the empty bottle wasn’t because you’d run out of milk, it was something much deeper, it’s about the home now being empty, the relationship inside had finished . . .
“I think the idea of finding meaning in things like that has something to do with coming from the north of England and a working class upbringing and observing the mundane and seeing it as some thing else.”
Gouldman -- still touring, producing and writing -- has come a long way from the bleak streets of his Manchester childhood where he grew up, and formed his first bands playing for the local Jewish kids.
But ever modest -- or maybe just disassociating from Neanderthal Man? -- he downplays his successes.
“You do what you do to the best of your ability. There will be times when what you do doesn’t work, but you keep doing it.
“It comes around.”