10CC @Buxton Opera House 12/11/18

4 stars (out of 5)

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For some reason and lovely though it is, press tickets for Buxton Opera House invariably mean you are crammed up against the lighting rig way up in Ye Gods. It’s not the most comfortable way to spend an evening, I will cheerfully concede.

Support act Smith and Brewer wander on and are a competent and pleasant enough listen, with some interesting lyrics and quality acoustic picking. There’s a lot of it about, but you could spend half an hour in significantly worse company, even when they do the Buxton Water Gag (Buxton famous for bottled water, every band has one on stage, congratulates audience on very fine water, everyone goes ha ha ha politely).

10CC have always been an enigma. Their run of chart success, both singles and albums, suggest they should be up there with Queen etc etc but somehow, the mass adulation, instant recognition and media frenzy they managed to evade. So despite number 1 UK hits, a spectacular run, memorable records and huge sales, they remain a sort of large-scale minority (!) semi-guilty pleasure.

Probably because they never had a defined front person, a definitive ‘star’ or focal point in the pack. They were a band – and an art-rock band at that. You never knew quite who you should be looking ‘at’.

History has simplified things considerably in that respect and the only remaining member of the original ‘gang of four’ currently in 10CC is Graham Gouldman. I could at this point make the crack about it being 2.5CC or whatever but in fairness, drummer Paul Burgess has been playing with the band since 1973, which is pretty much the duration of, and lead guitarist Rick Fenn has been with them since about 1978 or so. Which is a while.

So, Graham Gouldman is de facto band leader, and the band do indeed take their cues from him, and the ‘act’ as such, is, as it should be, built around him. That said, he’s a bass player, and, well, you know. Bass man he don’t call for no glamour. Then again, Tom Robinson, etc etc…..

A strange and stagey start to the gig with the band coming on to the audio backdrop of a Graham Gouldman song about…being Graham Gouldman; with squirts of Hotlegs’ “Neanderthal Man” stirred into the mix. This is actually quite evocative and relevant, for Gouldman’s story is a strange one. Few are as prolific and successful as songwriters; he wrote “For Your Love” and “Shapes Of Things” for The Yardbirds, “Look Through Any Window” and “Bus Stop” for The Hollies, “Pamela” for Wayne Fontana and “No Milk Today” for Herman’s Hermits amongst many others. He went to live in the States for a while to churn out ‘bubblegum’ hits for the likes of Ohio Express and Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus. Strange Days Indeed, before Hotlegs who got to number two and sold two million and then, 10CC.

And straight into “Wall Street Shuffle”. Band don’t look overly enthused. It is clinical, but not in a good way; then “Art for Art’s Sake”; and they’ve burnt two classic 10CC 45s, both big hits, and neither audience nor band look particularly engaged by the proceedings so far. And at this point Mr. G and the rest of the band start to talk to the audience and this helps a bit and slowly but surely, they start to ‘unstiffen’. There’s tight, and there’s uptight, and that’s how it looked and sounded early doors, but as the set progressed, matters improved in this respect and that’s a good thing.

Still the hits kept on coming, “Life Is A Minestrone”, attributed to some misheard radio DJ. We have a lot to answer for, it appears. These are Clever Lyrics. And that also can have the effect of driving a bit of distance between the audience and ‘the turn’, but as the band warmed to the task and ultimately the mock-profound lyrics, and the sumptuous layers of sound started to turn things around. “Good Morning Judge” followed, once again reflecting Gouldman’s time in and understanding of aspects of the American experience, in lyrics but also in the chunky country feel this one seems to exude. Another top ten UK hit. Gouldman’s voice didn’t seem altogether ‘there’ on this one, though, which is strange because elsewhere he was spot on.

The band is outrageously talented; various members swap from bass to guitar, keyboards to guitar, percussion to key boards, guitar to bass without any great fanfare, almost just because they can. Indeed Gouldman seems just as happy waving a Telecaster about as he does his bass –and he has a few of those to choose from as well.

Yet another and very interesting hit follows – “The Dean and I”. It is such an effective pastiche of Beach Boys-stylee American youth culture of a time ten to twenty years removed from when it was written – counterbalanced with all the ‘fun’ of being a grown-up, and all that that entails. Perceptive, sharp-eyed and yet still affectionate in a strange kind of way, an early highpoint of the set.

Off we go into the album tracks and – good call – “Old Wild Men”, 10cc’s tribute to Bowie’s “Rock n Roll Suicide”. And the irony was not lost on the band members, especially GG, now 72. Of course, you only get to ‘old’ if at some point you manage to get a grip on ‘wild’, combined with a certain amount of good fortune. This was followed in short order by “Clockwork Creep”, which still has the theatrical power to shock, as we are invited to consider the curious dialogue between aeroplane and explosive device. The theatre, timing and delivery of this really was something else which had the effect of making the following “Feel the Benefit”, a classic Northern expression derived from being forced to take your coat off inside the house, sound a bit ‘baggy’ and prog-rock, really. Which is where a number of 10cc’s album-buying fans lived; in the prog rock bubble of interminable album tracks bereft of hooks, charm or justification. It wasn’t that bad by any means but….some did indeed enjoy it. In a set where they didn’t play “Worst Band In the World” and “People in Love” I struggle to understand, but, fair enough. In a body of work of this size, you aren’t going to get all your faves.

And to be fair, they reacted like they knew this and sweetly harmonised their way through a gorgeous “Things We Do For Love” which FM radio just embraces and celebrates. Very nice camp 70’s hand claps, too.

”Silly Love” then launches itself with careering, skittering intensity and great guitar work. Another high point is reached a few minutes later as “I’m Mandy, Fly Me”, complete with lovely jangly acoustic is announced by the correctly-mixed sample from “Clockwork Creep”. And for most of the time, the harmonies have that sumptuous, layered, multi-tracked gloss they need to bring this off. Can’t be easy to recreate this live even with today’s technologies. Very well done indeed, chaps, especially Paul Canning and Keith Hayman who absolutely shone on this.

And, just as I become aware of two stationary glitter half-balls towards the back of the stage, the band strikes up with “I’m Not in Love”. Recorded around the time of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, when musicians were waking up to the possibilities of multi-layered technologies, this remains one of the most awesome radio tunes ever. And dance floor ‘gnight ‘n’ thangyou’ tunes ever, as well. A number one all century long, it was co-written by Graham Gouldman, and many of the assembled gentlemen sent a silent prayer of thanks towards the stage for something which many will have their own ‘story’ about. I cheerfully predict this tune has not reached zenith point yet in terms of global ‘reach’ and impact. In many years time, this will turn up as THE theme tune to a Massive Film. Even more massive than the last one. And it is played with great accuracy and regard to the original even down to Gouldman’s curious bass meanderings under the girly whisper. One of the greatest UK number one hits ever, recreated beautifully. And what a way to finish your set – with a loose and bouncy chunker-chunk through “Dreadlock Holiday”, another number one hit, finished with ‘I don’t like Buxton – I Love it!’ Beats the generic ‘water’ gag of earlier, I’ll tell thee.

I would have been quite happy to go home at that point but no, the deserved standing ovation brings the encore, and a reflective “Ready to Go Home” leads into a stellar acapella version of the first 10cc hit, “Donna”. This was always a doo-wop pastiche just waiting for this treatment, but the success of this type of treatment depends on the quality of the delivery. Done badly, it’s awful. Done as well as this, it is a guaranteed show-stopper. Brought the house down. As did the only truly ‘rock out’ tune in the repertoire, the rubbery, sinuous “Rubber Bullets” which went all the way to number one in 1973. Standing ovation reprised, band take selfies, all look a bit stunned, which is such a distance away from the reaction and indeed my feelings two tunes into the set, after which I got the distinct impression it was going to be a Long Night For The Riot Squad.

Which it wasn’t.