Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Afternoon tea with Graham Gouldman

Bowie was an ex-Anthony Newley impersonator. Bolan had been dealing in Tyrranosaurus Rex's fairytale whimsy for years. For the cynic it must have seemed that rock's new order of the early seventies was nothing more than cast-offs from the previous decade: Slade, Sweet and Mud had all frantically plugged failed 45s in 1968. 10cc had more form than any of them - singer Eric Stewart had previously served time with The Mindbenders, while Graham Gouldman and Kevin Godley enjoyed a hit-free career as two of The Mockingbirds.

Gouldman, though, was different. The Mockingbirds may not have taken flight, but as a songwriter for others he'd been astonishingly successful: For Your Love, Bus Stop, Look Through Any Window, No Milk Today and Heart Full Of Soul were stone classics in anyone's book. "The ones I gave away were hits, the ones we kept were misses. I'd always wanted to play guitar in a band, but I became resigned to the idea of being a writer. And then we started 10cc and that satisfied every aspect for me, everything I'd ever wanted to do."

In the garden of the Spaniards Inn, Hampstead, his trademark curls a little greyer, Graham Gouldman is telling me about his pre-10CC 1968 curio The Graham Gouldman Thing. Most of the songs on it had already been hits for the likes of The Yardbirds, Hollies, Hermans Hermits and Wayne Fontana - melancholy miniatures of life at bus shelters, evenings in bedsits, rainy romances that celebrated the magic of the every day as sure-footedly as John Betjeman or Ray Davies.

"Some things worked beautifully, especially Bus Stop. Listening to it now, the first thing I notice is how good it is to hear real instruments. (Arranger) John Paul Jones loved strings and woodwind - you hardly ever hear woodwind anymore." It sounds like Jones had been listening an awful lot to Bach and Eleanor Rigby. Thing's baroque majesty, though, must have seemed a little out of step with 1968's calls to arms - Street Fighting Man et al - and it "got nice reviews but didn't set the world on fire." In Britain, it wasn't even released.

Gouldman had been obsessed with music since he was seven, "and my parents encouraged me - the fact I was crap at school helped. My uncle bought me a radio so I could listen to Radio Luxemburg and I remember going to bed with it stuck in my ear. So I was learning in my sleep, the way you learn a language. I'd wake up with it half strangling me." 

He started to write songs while working in the back room of Bargains Unlimited, a clothes shop in Salford, unusually favouring minor chords which he found "more soulful. Major chords seemed pale and white. We used to go to the synagogue which must have had some sort of influence, the melodies there were very beautiful, mournful and aching." Gouldman met drummer Kevin Godley while rehearsing at the Jewish Lads Brigade in north Manchester and they formed The Mockingbirds - playing Gouldman's melancholy songs they soon earnt a deal with Columbia in 1964. One song Columbia rejected, For Your Love, was picked up by The Yardbirds, sold two million, and Gouldman the songwriter was on his way.

Hours spent in railway carriages between London and Manchester -"they had separate compartments then, a great environment for writing" - inspired songs like Look Through Any Window. But the greatest influence on Gouldman's mid sixties golden era was his father, Hymie.
"My father was a songwriter. No Milk Today was one of his titles. He used to call himself the mechanic - I'd bring him a broken lyric and he'd go 'D'you write them son? Ttcchh! Come back at five o'clock.' He used to say 'art for arts sake, money for God's sake.' I nicked that off him, too."

Just as The Graham Gouldman Thing was released, the hits suddenly dried up. "You're like a conduit when that magic happens. You think, how did I do that? What happened there? In 1968 I was still doing what I did, but I was out of sync with what has happening." After a short spell in The Mindbenders, Gouldman moved to New York and hooked up with the Kassenetz/Katz hit factory, responsible for timeless trash like Simon Says and Yummy Yummy Yummy.

"They wanted to legitimise themselves, find writers with more cred. It was pretty horrible." The final nail in the coffin was a song he wrote for Freddie And The Dreamers in 1969 called Susan's Tuba. "It was like The Producers - let's write the worst piece of shit imaginable!" The record sold a million in France. "I couldn't believe it. Where did we go right?" With the Graham Gouldman Thing and his sanity fast becoming a distant memory, a call came through from ex-Mindbender Eric Stewart who was setting up Strawberry Studios in Stockport. Still only 23, Gouldman boarded the next plane home, to join the ultra-successful band he'd always dreamt of.



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