10cc: No, life is not a minestrone

10cc is one of the bands where I can actually delineate the point at which my evaluation of the artist went from good to indifferent (and in extreme cases, to bad).

With 10cc, I can point to a specific place on a piece of vinyl.

There are two early 10cc albums on Tim’s Big List. “The Original Soundtrack” (1975), their mainstream breakthrough in the U.S., and the album that introduced me to them, “100 cc”(also 1975).

(I’m not going to pretend I was cool enough to be buying this stuff when it came out. I suspect what happened was I first got “100 cc” when it reached the reduced-price bins, and was listening to it even as I was aware of the existence of the single of “I’m Not in Love.” I also know I read about them via rock magazines long before I ever heard them.)

The first song of theirs I heard was “The Wall Street Shuffle,” the first song on the 1974 “Sheet Music” album. I’d been led to expect something intelligent and Beach Boys-like. I was taken aback by the blare of the guitars, but the vocals were great, and I eventually picked out the lyrics.

That ended up being the most fun thing about 10cc. If I had a lyric sheet, I didn’t want one. I wanted to figure out what they were saying by myself. I laughed out loud at the “Rothschild, Getty” and “Howard Hughes, did your money make you better?” references. I had the song on a cassette tape recorded as I held a microphone to the radio. I was as high-tech as could be when I was 15.

At some point, I saw “100 cc,” with its ugly black and red cover, in a discount bin somewhere. I looked at the track listing, and saw it hat “The Wall Street Shuffle” and “Rubber Bullets,” their other pre-“I’m Not in Love” hit about which I had read but I had never heard.

As soon as it got home, it was on instant repeat, as was often the case with albums bought at the time. There was consuming and memorizing to do.

To my delight, 10cc was more than advertised. They were like the Beach Boys, but they were tougher. They were using studio tricks to get all kinds of odd sounds I can easily identify now, but were brand new experiences then. They were songs with layers, pieces to be pulled back to reveal even more each time. Even now, I’m astonished at their vocal work. It’s really under-recognized in rock’s canon.

Then again, everything I see about them classifies 10cc as an “art rock” band. When I read that, I have to confess I don’t even know what it means. What I enjoy are songs about Charles Atlas (“Sand in My Face”), yellow journalists (“Headline Hustler”), ghosts (“Ships Don’t Just Disappear in the Night”) and “Jailhouse Rock” come to life (“Rubber Bullets”). I like the multi-part “Somewhere in Hollywood,” which previews the style of the opener of their next album. “Speed Kills” is a prototypical guitar workout, and “The Worst Band in the World” gives away its joke in the title and builds on it.

“100cc” combined cuts from their “10cc” and “Sheet Music” albums and added an exclusive track, and showed the kind of muscle the band had. In fact, throughout the 1970s, I’d argue you’d have significantly better albums, classics, even, had 10cc been able to continually compile an album from two records’ worth of recordings.

And that doesn’t even account for one of my favorite lyrics ever. The bridge of “Silly Love” says, “Oooo, you know the art of conversation must be dying/When a romance depends on cliches and toupees and three-pays.”

One of the band members laughs in the background in the silence after the line is delivered. It’s so terrible, yet so fantastic. A pun, a weak, worthless, useless pun from a band that often and effortlessly delivers much better.

That’s subversive.

“The Original Soundtrack” starts out audaciously. “Une Nuit a Paris (One Night in Paris)” is an opera, with the four members of the band assuming different characters with their vocal ranges. It’s sung in odd accents. There’s a mini-playlet of sound effects running through the background. It’s a nine-minute progressive pop-rock piece with multiple tempos (like “Band on the Run” was earlier) with fantastic extensive vocal interplay (like “Bohemian Rhapsody” was later).

That’s a hell of a start for an album when played by somebody who already thought the band was great, but had no idea they had something like that in them.

And then came “I’m Not In Love.” I wasn’t a huge fan of the song on the radio, but thought the sound was interesting. And then came a couple of surprises. I eventually realized that sound was actually a wash of voices, and I realized immediately that the song had been eviscerated for radio play. As I heard the extended ending, I appreciated the song a little more, to the point where even now when the single version is played, I feel like too much is missing.

Then comes “Blackmail,” another playlet-in-verse with clever lyrics and guitar work I really dug. I’m not much for jam bands, but the last 90 seconds of the song are utterly vital. The instrumentation is lyrical.

Then the second side starts with “The Second Sitting for the Last Supper,” which is rockier than they were later. Again, the outro is an example of everything where it needs to be. And the lyrics questioning God were, I believe, the first time I heard something so explicit on record.

So far, so good. The next two songs were not to my taste, but also cuts I thought were capable of growing on me. But then came cut four.

If I were to list a least-favorite 10cc song from throughout their career, it would be “Life is a Minestrone.” It’s a pale, awful, one-joke song, like someone who barely understood what made 10cc great writing a 10cc song. It marked the first time with the band (although, to be sure, not the last) that I thought, “All right, we get it, enough already.”

Friends remember hearing “The Original Soundtrack” a lot when they were around me, but they never remember “Life is a Minestrone.” They remember the first side, the funny French song, the hit, and the one about the dirty pictures.

Yeah, I remained a fan. I loved “The Things We Do For Love,” even though no one around me appreciated the opening line’s reference to suicide (“Too many broken hearts have fallen in the river”), and didn’t understand why I thought it was so clever.

Every once in a while, I come across someone who really adores 10cc, especially the first two-and-a-half albums or so.

Hardly any of them like “Life is a Minestrone” either.

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