A celebration of Strawberry Recording Studios, Stockport,
1967 - 1993.
|Let It Rock
1973, October, Pages 36-8
Gary Herman finds plenty of rock power under the bonnet.
ONCE UPON A TIME, MANCHESTER was best known to the pop/ rock world as a big town about 30 miles east of Liverpool - a place every tour had to visit and every cabaret singer had to stop at. A population of a million and not one potential John Lennon or Mick
Jagger among them, although the same river that watered the talent of Liverpool flowed through Manchester. Thus, despite the presence of John Mayall and a dedicated fraternity of Mancunian jazz and blues men, Manchester first hit the national pop headlines with Freddie and the Dreamers, Herman and his Hermits, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders
and, of course, the Hollies. Any pretence at R and B origins was soon lost as it became obvious that these groups owed more to Manchester's character as a focus for cabaret and concert performances than as a centre for musical experiment and growth. Everyone played in Manchester, it was a consumers' paradise for popular music rather than a culture for the development of that music. While there were plenty of kids strumming guitars all over the city, it seems that most of them were doing it not so much because music was a vital means of expression for them but more for the sort of secondary reasons that always accompany the accessible popular arts like music and football; simply as a way of earning. Of emulating favourite entertainers, as a pastime or whatever. In any event, the truth is that Freddie and Herman and their gangs became more or less comedy pop entertainers, while the Mindbenders and the Hollies found niches for themselves in the more straightforward pop world.
Pop can mean all sorts of things to all sorts of people. In some ways it depends a lot on the circumstances in which a performer actually achieves success. Pop is a music which doesn't swim against the stream. It lays great store in the record as a commodity, which is dominated by the idea of profit rather than by the idea of expression, which is rooted in notions of provided entertainment rather than collective enjoyment.
The story of 10cc and Strawberry Studios is really the story of pop in Manchester from the early sixties until today. Starting tomorrow it may be another story altogether - Lol Creme, Kevin Godley, Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart, who are 10cc, and Strawberry Studios, all insist that what they are doing now is the most personally significantthing they have ever done,
Where to start, that's the problem. There's such an embarrassment of interwoven stories that it's almost impossible to pick one point and say 'This is where it began". But a lot of people will have heard of Graham Gouldman so perhaps we should start with him.
Graham Gouldman is one quarter of 10cc and one third of Strawberry Studios. Like his fellow three-quarters he was born in Manchester and prefers to live and work there rather than in London. Like Lol and Kevin he comes from a traditional nice Mancunian Jewish family and when he was young wanted to be a pop star. He still does. Back in the sixties he tried hard in a succession of schoolboy bands. Kevin Godley was in one of them and Lol Creme was in the opposition. Writing songs was a sideline until one day in 1964, while Graham and Kevin had a group called the Mockingbirds. Then Graham's friend (and now 10cc's manager) Harvey Lisberg, sold a song called 'Listen People' to those same Herman's Hermits we mentioned before. It wasn't released in this country - in America it sold a million. Then along came the Yardbirds 'For Your Love' (incidentally first recorded by the Mockingbirds) 'Heart Full of Soul' and 'Evil Hearted You'; along came the same Hollies and 'Bus Stop','Stop, Stop, Stop' and 'Stop All The Dancing' and back came. Herman for 'No Milk Today', Graham Gouldman realised he wasn't going to make it as a pop star and became a song-writer. A signature on a piece of paper and a contractually agreed output of songs, most of which were never used, put paid to that brief but lucrative episode. There is that much of the artist in Gouldman (if not the egotist) to argue that he couldn't write songs to order that nobody was even hearing. Even a writer has to have feedback from his audience, and for that he must have an audience in the first place.
So towards the end of the sixties Graham Gouldman took his reputation to America and got a job with Kazenatz Katz, the people who invented Bubblegum. In some ways the experience was valuable. There is a kind of music called formula pop, and bubblegum is the zenith (or should it be nadir) of this kind of music. One thing Graham Gouldman can't be accused of is being an out and out formula writer. The commercial context may have been really appropriate for him, but like Lieber and Stoller or Goffin and King, Graham Gouldman was able to transcend that context and produce some original and unique pieces of pop writing. The complete loss of identity involved in the Kazenatz Katz set-up had a sobering effect. It also brought Graham, Kevin, Lol and Eric together.
For a while Eric Stewart actually was a pop star. He was the leading light of the Mindbenders after Wayne Fontana left to pursue a solo career. Eric used to write some songs for the group but his real interest was in production and engineering. In 1968 he put some money into refurbishing an old studio in Stockport on the outskirts of Manchester.
Strawberry Studios was conceived and born. It is one of modern technology's more wonderful creations, situated in a back street in one of modern technology's first birthplaces. There's a stark contrast between the grimy street scenes outside, - old iron and red brick work - and the spaceship like atmosphere inside - plastic, leather, shiny steel, bright red, black, silver and white. A studio floor that would be prohibitively expensive in London, a £20,000 custom built Helios mixing deck with 16 tracks and virtually every electronic refinement: a Moog, Dolbys, a Mellotron, guitars, a Bechstein grand piano and more. Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman each own a third of the studio. Originally they had intended it to be used for demo work only, but that idea grew.
Eric Stewart spent more time working in the studio until he left the Mindbenders and they disintegrated. Lol and Kevin wound up there doing sessions and decided to give up careers as graphic designers to become involved full-time in music. Among the sessions recorded at Strawberry were many Kazenatz Katz titles (it's also rumoured that the studio was responsible for most of the crop of football songs of a year or two ago). Working on these sessions as musicians were Lol Creme and Kevin Godley with Eric Stewart at the mixing desk. Lol and Kevin found that to be relegated to guitar or keyboard playing automons on a bubblegum-session was not to their taste. One studio, two musician-writers and one musician-writer engineer just had to get together in their own right.
The beginning of the beginning was already apparent in 1969. Graham's association with the Yardbirds had left him in touch with Giorgio Gomelsky, impresario extraordinaire. Gomelsky got Graham, Kevin and Lol to record an album for his unfortunate Marmalade label. It was never released though two tracks can be heard on a Marmalade sampler (100° Proof - The Sound That Spreads). They are 'The Late Mr. Late', a Gouldman song featuring Graham and Kevin, and 'To Fly Away' which is by Kevin and Lol without any assistance from Graham. Marmalade folded and Gomelsky moved on, having written words more prophetic than he probably realised: "These titles. . . were an experiment,which we feel will probably lead to a more permanent musical association between (Kevin and Graham). "
The real association actually began in 1971/2. Having just completed yet another television jingle or football song or something, Kevin, Eric and Lol began to mess around in the studio with a simple nursery rhyme tune one of them had begun humming in a car some days before. It went "I'm a neanderthal man" (repeat). They added a lot of bass, a lot of drums and a lot of echo and Hotlegs was born. 'Neanderthal Man' sold a fair number of copies, largely on the basis of what several grand worth of recording equipment can do if you can play around with it outside commercial studio time. Of course, it was a one-off job, but a tour with old friends the Moody Blues came up so Hotlegs left their cosy studio for the nasty world of live performances. They were under-rehearsed and only Eric had enough previous experience to know what to expect. They were joined for the tour by Graham Gouldman, who had just returned from America, and they opened, to Kevin and Lol's dismay, at the Festival Hall. That really was the deep end for a couple of studio musicians.
Well, Hotlegs was fun, but it didn't last. A few months after the February 1972 tour, the four were back in Strawberry Studios playing around. This time Kevin and Lol came up with 'Donna', a piece of whimsy that had something to do with a passing fad for Paul Anka and his successors ~ I remember hearing the song on Top of the Pops. I thought it was fun and very well made, and then I realised it was another Jonathan King product.
In fact the only connection Jonathan King has with 10cc is that their records are released on his label UK Records. At the time UK had just started. A King magnum opus, the LP
Bubblegum Rock had just been banned in the States on the grounds that it was offensive because of its use of homosexual themes. It was offensive, but only because it was ill-conceived and badly produced. The vast American gay market that Jonathan King was after never got to hear it in full and he can be thankful for that. 'Donna' on the other hand was just what is expected from King - well-produced, drifting, between parody, whimsy and the downright kitsch, but with an attractive and simple melody embelished by an interesting and original arrangement. It turned out that it was not produced by King at all!
After the song had been made, a record label was needed; someone thought of UK, since King was looking for material and 'Donna' was the sort of number that would appeal to him. The only problem was that King was generally a one-off merchant. As it happened, however, this time he was only too happy to release a band that was going to carry on with one name and one set of personnel. And that is precisely what Graham Gouldman,
Kevin Godley, Lol Creme and Eric Stewart, alias 10cc, wanted to do.
Why 10cc? The name is unimportant. It was King's idea and he says it came to him in a dream. You can think what you like. A lethal dose of heroin, a rather large ejaculation or an extremely small motorbike, What is important is that 10cc is a framework in which our Manchester lads can find happiness in the pop world and satisfaction as performers, song- writers and record producers. You might as well call the group Strawberry Studios, because that is really who they are. And when the group goes on the road this autumn it will be a mobile version of Strawberry out there on stage.
London holds no attraction for Eric, Lol, Kevin and Graham. In the middle of Stockport they have everything they need. A quiet life and a place to work, a reason to work (the weather is terrible) and people to work with. Everything they need, that is, except a live audience. On the Marmalade sampler you can begin to see how Graham Gouldman's writing begun to change under the influence of Lol and Kevin. He says that he had begun to realise that you didn't have to make songs to fit a verse verse-middle-8-verse framework any more. The songs on the 10cc's album, like 'Rubber Bullets' change tempo and key, use snatches of traditional rock or pop phrases, weave themselves around instruments and vocals. They don't mimic the Beachboys: that similarity is because their situations are so similar. It seems more likely that America has infected their musical souls. "We like American things and the way American words sound, even though we do come from Prestwich," Graham Goulman comments. In some ways their music is spectacular - it makes use of all the apparatus available to them in the studio. The Moog is always there, there's lots of echo and reverberation effects - a full sound tracked on bit by bit.
For the tour they are preparing more numbers and a mobile desk with echo and portable double-track facilities. They don't want to leap around, they want their audiences to leap around and they want to achieve a sound as near as possible to the quality of their studio sound. The important things are the audience and their songs as personal expression.
Somehow it all comes together. The studio and the performers, the writers and the audience. Of course they're all still complete professionals. "Working with Neil Sedaka was an education" Lol says. No multitracking for Sedaka at Strawberry, just everybody sit down and everybody play and Sedaka really knows how to play piano. But 10cc. are developing a style of their own, a sort of electronic nostalgia. On the album there's a death song, a song called 'Speed Kills' and one called The Dean and I'; and there's a song about Dynamic Tension (remember Charles Atlas) called 'Sand In My Face'. The production is impeccable and the playing superbly professional. Behind the superficially funny lyrics (some of them are very funny) and the close harmony singing there's a serious intent. What each member of 10cc has learnt in all these years in and out of the pop wilderness is the art of presentation, and what they are presenting, bears listening to.
When you come to think about it pop is all about presentation. Presentation and packaging almost exclusively, because that's what sells the product. But if your package is good and there's something worthwhile inside it, then that's something different altogether. All that's left is for this strange mixture of American highschool, electronics, Mancunian pop and Mancunian Jewry to get on the road and meet their audience. It should be some meeting for 10cc feel that "live performance is the logical extension of what we've been doing all this time." It may be a somewhat unusual-progression to see a studio go on the road, rather than a performing band go into a studio, but the spark that can come from contact with a live audience (and an English audience at that) could turn 10cc into a great rock band, up with the Kinks (with whom they bear some affinities) and the Who.