Perhaps I should open with a few stats, seeing as today’s interviewee is associated with plenty that make for impressive reading.
For starters, 10cc, the band Graham Gouldman formed with Eric Stewart, Kevin Godley and Lol Crème in 1972, have sold more than 30 million albums worldwide, with their biggest hit, the Stewart/Gouldman-penned I’m Not In Love, played more than five million times on US radio alone, its online videos viewed an estimated 30 million-plus times.
But it’s not just about his part in an impressive run of 11 top-10 10cc hits stretching from the quirky Godley/Crème No.2 Donna – released 45 years ago this week – and the following summer’s first No.1 Rubber Bullets (Godley/Crème/Gouldman) through to 1978’s UK chart-topper Dreadlock Holiday (Stewart/Gouldman). In fact, my subject’s catalogue of successes goes back to the first half of the 1960s, involving various acts he was either a part of, guested with, or wrote for.
You’ll know a lot of those songs, including The Yardbirds’ For Your Love, Evil Hearted You and Heart Full of Soul, The Hollies’ Bus Stop and Look Through Any Window, and Herman’s Hermits’ No Milk Today and East West, not so long ago covered by Morrissey.
Add to that tracks he wrote for, with or had covered by the likes of Cher, Wayne Fontana, Tony Christie, Shirley Bassey, Chris Isaak, The Monkees, The Pretenders, Fun Lovin’ Criminals, The Four Tops, Pixies, Kirsty MacColl, Tori Amos, The Flaming Lips, Blondie, Boney M, Morrissey, Dana, Scorpions, Paul Carrack, Gary Barlow, and McFly.
He also produced albums in the early ‘80s for the Ramones (Pleasant Dreams) and Gilbert O’Sullivan (Life & Rhymes), as well as his buddies Godley and Crème, contributed to film soundtracks, and issued solo material. And then there was his partnership with the late Andrew Gold in Wax, singles like Bridge to Your Heart leading to another two million worldwide sales.
While occasionally back on the road with 10cc, Graham takes his own band out from time to time, still insisting ‘a good song can always be performed acoustically’, as he aims to prove when his latest Heart Full of Songs tour gets underway, a 23-date tour starting on Thursday, September 21st at Peterborough’s Key Theatre and threading through to Friday, October 20th at London’s Shaw Theatre. And as well as engagements in Scotland and Wales en route, his itinerary includes a return to his old home ground, visiting Salford Quays Theatre this Sunday, September 24th.
Gouldman was at home in North West London when we spoke, his home for ‘many, many years’, telling me, ‘I’ve moved around a bit, but this is where I like to be’. Yet North West England also remains special to him, having been brought up in Broughton, so to speak. Does he still have friends and family there?
“I have got friends around. All my family have moved down, but I always love going back up, as I get to see my old mates and I love being in Manchester.”
Does that mean a swift pint at the old local?
“I wish there was time, but there never is. The only time I get to see them is after the gig. We have a drink together then.”
Which Salford would he recognise most – that of the modern quays or the Dirty Old Town that Ewan MacColl wrote about?
“Dirty old town.”
That was your Salford, yeah?
“It was, and the city’s changed dramatically. It’s lost a bit of its character, but if character means dirt and muck, then forget it.”
I seem to recall, I tell him, that one of my past interviewees, a certain Elaine Bookbinder, better known as Elkie Brooks, is around the same age, and also hails from Broughton.
“And on the same road! I’m not sure if we ever met but I knew her brother, Tony, who played drums in the Dakotas with Billy J. Kramer. Actually, last time we played at the Bridgewater Hall with 10cc a few months ago, Tony came along, and that was very nice.”
Of course, The Hollies’ Allan Clarke and another former writewyattuk subject, Graham Nash weren’t so far away either.
“Well, the North West produced some fantastic bands and artists.”
Indeed, and that includes revered film director Mike Leigh, and John Cooper Clarke, who while three years younger than Graham, I suggested looks a little older.
“We all look a bit older … because we are!”
Then the next generation of Salfordians included The Fall’s Mark E. Smith and New Order’s Bernard Sumner. It’s quite a breeding ground really. How much does that local identity shape you all?
“Oh, dramatically. And it has to. It’s all part of what you are, and so many things influence what we do musically. But of course those are shaped by your upbringing, where you live and what’s around you.”
Graham’s Heart Full of Songs live shows started around six years ago, initially backed by 10cc band members, opening their shows by performing a selection of his hits written for other artistes. And it quickly proved a successful venture, Graham going on to undertake his first stand-alone tour in Spring 2013, and another the following year.
10cc’s renewed success over the past three years has been such that this is his first chance to revive the idea, now with Iain Hornal (guitar), Ciaran Jeremiah (best known for his keyboard work with The Feeling) and Dave Cobby (percussion) in his band. And this time he’ll not only be playing and talking about some of his old songs and explaining their origin, but also showcasing new material he’s equally proud of.
Now aged 71, it’s been 60 years since Graham got his first guitar. Having made his live debut in primary school with a skiffle band, he was playing with local bands by the time he was 15, with plenty of encouragement from parents Betty and Hymie Gouldman.
“Dad was a writer in his own right and helped with lyrics and came up with song titles. He was kind of like a wordsmith. His name was Hymie, and we’d call him Hyme the rhyme!”
Graham was barely a teenager when he saw his first concert, one that would inspire his future direction – catching Cliff Richard and The Shadows at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. Was that a defining moment?
“Yeah, Dad got me tickets for that. It was absolutely a defining moment … one of the major defining moments.”
So what was first for you as an artist looking to make your way in music – the voice, the guitar, or some of that handed-down writing ability – your father’s turn of phrase?
“The guitar, I would say. I was bought a guitar when I was 11 years old, and that day … that was it. I’d been interested in music and aware of music from being around seven. I loved drumming and the drums and still do, but I was not destined to be a drummer, as I found out quite quickly. But the guitar is one of the loves of my life. I have quite a nice collection, and I love them all.”
And as it turned out, you soon got to work with a local fella by the name of Kevin Godley who knew how to hit the skins a fair bit.
“Oh yes – a very, very fine drummer!”
Graham played in a number of Manchester bands from 1963, including the High Spots, the Crevattes, the Planets and the Whirlwinds, a house band at his local Jewish Lads’ Brigade, also including writer Howard Jacobsen’s brother Stephen on guitar and bongos, and future 10cc bandmate Godley on drums. Having secured a recording contract with HMV, they released a take on Buddy Holly’s Look At Me in June 1964, backed with Lol Crème’s Baby Not Like You. But soon the Whirlwinds has passed, by February 1965 reborn as the Mockingbirds, signing with Columbia.
While that label issued two singles, Columbia’s rejection of Graham’s first single for the band turned out to be a personal turning point, For Your Love instead becoming a hit for The Yardbirds. Around then his band also began a regular warm-up spot for BBC TV’s Top of the Pops, broadcast from Manchester. And as Graham told George Tremlett in The 10cc Story (Futura, 1976), “There was one strange moment when the Yardbirds appeared on the show doing For Your Love. Everyone clamoured around them – and there I was just part of an anonymous group. I felt strange that night, hearing them play my song.”
The Mockingbirds made five singles, those Columbia 45s followed by one on Immediate and two on Decca, taking them up to the summer of ’66, during which period Graham worked in a men’s outfitters shop by day. He’d signed a management deal in 1965, writing a string of hits, many becoming million-sellers, and in ’66–’67 recorded singles with two other bands, High Society and the Manchester Mob, both featuring singer Peter Cowap. Then in March ’68 he stepped in on bass for The Mindbenders, writing two of their final singles. He also wrote for producer Mickie Most in 1967, before a spell at the Kennedy Street Enterprises show business management offices in Manchester, staying four years.
In time Graham was working on solo material, 1968 debut LP The Graham Gouldman Thing helping attract the attention of Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz, who invited him to New York to write formula bubblegum pop, a period that included his writing and singing lead vocals for Ohio Express. By the end of 1969 he was burned out and at a ‘creative lowpoint’, but convinced his employers he could carry on back at Strawberry Studios in Stockport at a fraction of the price – without hiring outside session players – with his old pals Godley, Crème and fellow Mindbender Eric Stewart. Kasenetz and Katz took the bait, booking the studio for three months, the quartet’s partnership reconvened in late 1970 after a further spell for Graham in New York, by which time his pals had scored an international hit with Neanderthal Man under the name Hotlegs.
Meanwhile, work continued in Stockport, a number of one-off singles for various labels following before the band were signed in the summer of 1972 by Jonathan King and renamed 10cc. And you probably recall the rest of the story. So, with such an amazing back-catalogue, what would Graham say was the first great song he wrote?
“Erm … well, any song that you write you think is pretty good, otherwise it wouldn’t get finished. Of course, whether it is pretty good or not is another matter. The first record we (the Mockingbirds) ever made was a song I wrote called That’s How (It’s Gonna Stay). I wouldn’t say that’s my finest work, but I have affection for it because it kind of started things off for me.”
And at the heart of it all, as you’ve suggested, a great song is one you can pick up and play on a battered old acoustic guitar, yeah?
“Exactly. That’s the mark of a good song – that it works without the production. Some songs are still good songs but rely on the production. I’m Not in Love is a very good example of a song that had a massive production, but if you play it on an acoustic guitar, it’s still a good song.”
As I seem to recall from your rendition on stage with Neil Finn and Roddy Frame in the late ‘90s for the BBC’s Songwriters’ Circle. In fact, Graham returned for another fine show broadcast by the BBC in early 2011, alongside Travis front-man Fran Healy and recent writewyattuk interviewee Ron Sexsmith.
“Yeah, and I loved that, because I met Ron, who I was a fan of. I was delighted to meet him and we kept in touch. And I love his work. A lovely guy too.”
I’m guessing that the Songwriters’ Circle partly inspired Graham’s current Heart Full of Songs format, although the prototype was that pre-show spot with the reformed 10cc.
“Yeah, I really liked doing that, and that led on to doing this. But there are so many songs we could do with the 10cc catalogue that I felt I was infringing on that part of the show, so I dropped myself as our support act, so to speak! I decided I wanted to do this show independently of 10cc, so much so that on the first tour I did, two of the boys from the band were with me. But second time one wasn’t available, so I decided I should do it as a completely separate entity. I’ve got Iain Hornal, an amazing singer-songwriter and guitarist in his own right, and Ciaran Jeremiah – and ditto for him. We did that a couple of years ago and it worked really, really well, so I thought I should carry on.”
You talk about a few of the better-known songs in the show, so I won’t ask about all that. But for me Bus Stop is a perfect story song, this tale of a daydreamer going about his 9-5 life, one so many of us who have been in that working environment would recognise. You could say something similar about Look Through Any Window (written with Charles Silverman). Let’s face it, they’re not the sort of songs you’d write while coked up in a hotel in LA, are they?
“Ha! I think I was the opposite of being coked up in a hotel in LA – I was sober in Salford, M7! But you’re right. Those songs have a kind of domesticity about them, an ordinariness about them, which gives them a charm.”
And something we can all relate to.
“Yes, I think that’s true. Even though it’s part-fantasy in Bus Stop, many songs have that bit of fantasy involved.”
I think of something like Rod Argent’s She’s Not There and Chris White’s This Will Be Our Year for The Zombies around the same era. Many of us at some stage of our lives would think those tracks were written specifically about us and our day-to-day experiences.
“Absolutely. We identify with it, and even if we don’t always understand lyrically what’s going on, there’s some connection. The power of music is so amazing – I can hear two notes of some songs and I’ve gone!”
I wasn’t old enough to remember Bus Stop, No Milk Today, Heart Full of Soul or For Your Love first time around, but it wasn’t long before they seeped into my conscience. And it’s fair to say that Graham and his 10cc bandmates punctuated my ‘70s youth with a number of songs, most notably I’m Not In Love, taking me back to long hot summers. That’s a powerful emotion he untapped there.
“Yeah, it’s like smells as well. They have a similar effect, and such an immediate effect as well.”
We all think of the myriad of voices and effects on that track, but did that also start with Eric, you and an acoustic guitar?
“I’d play guitar and Eric would play keyboards, and the sound of the keyboards – the instrumentation you use can affect the song you write. And pretty much every song we wrote together was done that way.”
There’s often a telepathy of sorts between songwriting partnerships. And you two seemed to have that.
“Definitely we had it. It’s something you can’t manufacture or buy. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. I’ve written with many other songwriters, and most of the time we’re on the same page. But sometimes you can be writing with someone and it’s driving you mad that you should be writing the greatest song ever … but you’re not. That takes nothing away from the other writer, but you’re just not gelling. It’s like with people … it’s like love.”
“Yeah, but it’s a difficult question to answer. There could be billions of people. But I did refuse to answer the question, ‘What’s your favourite song?’ Such a stupid question.”
Actually, I’d put I’m Not in Love somewhere up there with The Beach Boys’ God Only Knows as a perfect ‘in denial’ love song, perhaps even the antithesis of a love song. That opening line, I’m not in love, so don’t forget it’ carries a similar punch to Tony Asher’s ‘I may not always love you’ introduction.
“Definitely! Ha! Well, it’s up to you …it’s ambiguous. I always like the idea of someone interpreting for themselves a non-specific lyric.”
Of all the songs you’ve written, is there one in particular where it irks you somewhat that it didn’t get the success – be that commercial, critical, or both – it deserved?
“Yeah, a song I wrote with Andrew Gold, called Ready to Go Home. I love that song, and it has a similar quality to it – although it’s a different type of song – to I’m Not in Love. When we play it, there’s a kind of a something that happens to the air. It just has this effect on an audience, and mainly it has an effect on me. It’s quite emotional really. It was written a few years after my Dad passed away, and Andrew had lost his Dad, and we were talking about the legacies – what we’re left with, what we’re going to do and where we’re going to go, and how we have to be accepting.
“Some of the lyric is ambiguous and was kind of stream of consciousness writing. You sort of look at the words and think, ‘I don’t know what that means, yet I understand what it means!’ It’s like looking at an abstract painting. It might just be a series of squares and yet I’m feeling this. It’s the same sort of experience.”
Graham’s status as one of the world’s leading songwriters was publicly acknowledged with his induction into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame – an arm of America’s National Academy of Music – at a special ceremony in New York in 2014. Previous inductees include Noel Coward, Irving Berlin, Burt Bacharach, Neil Sedaka, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and Leonard Cohen. Hallowed company, I suggest. Furthermore, America’s Broadcast Music Incorporated followed suit, Graham awarded Icon of the Industry status at an event in London, where he performed an acoustic rendition of I’m Not In Love, accompanied by Lisa Stansfield. Such accolades must make him proud, I put to him.
“Well, that was a great honour. I’ll tell you something funny though. One of the greatest accolades I ever had came from my seven-year-old grandson, Max. I have a new six-track CD coming out and I played it to him, asking what he thought. And he said, “Grandpa, it’s almost as good as The Beatles!’ Now that’s an accolade!”
Graham Gouldman’s Heart Full of Songs UK tour dates: September 21 Peterborough Key Theatre, September 22 – Buxton Pavilion Arts Centre, September 23 – Colwyn Theatr Colwyn, September 24 – Salford Quays Theatre, September 25 – Leeds City Varieties, September 27 – Aberdeen The Lemon Tree, September 28 – Dundee Cardyne Theatre, September 29 – Glasgow New Auditorium, September 30 – Oswaldtwistle Arts Centre, October 1 – Gateshead Sage 2, October 3 – Liverpool The Epstein Theatre, October 4 – Bury St Edmunds The Apex, October 6 – Pontardawe Arts Centre, October 7 – Cardiff The Gate Arts Centre, October 8 – Bewdley Bewdley Festival, October 9 – Gloucester Guildhall, October 10 – Harpenden Public Halls, October 11 – Horsham The Capitol, October 15 – Worthing Connaught Theatre, October 16 – Milton Keynes The Stables, October 17 – Winchester Theatre Royal, October 18 – Bristol St George’s, October 20 – London The Shaw Theatre. Tickets are available from all venues and from www.grahamgouldman.info