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(Credits: Far Out / Alamy)

Music

Far Out Meets: Lol Creme discusses The Beatles, 10cc and reflects on a life in music

Lol Creme doesn’t prescribe to everyday pigeonholing. He’s too far-reaching, too chameleonic and too conscientious to fit neatly into a box the music presses might have laid out for him. He’s a guitarist, a painter, a poet, a filmmaker and a producer, dividing himself neatly across every facet of his being, whether the finished result is successful or not. He worked in close tandem with Kevin Godley for more than 20 years, whether it was writing synth-laden hits ‘Cry’ and ‘Wedding Bells’ or directing a series of colourful pop videos that rank among the most memorable from the 1980s.

Since departing from the Godley & Creme camp, the guitarist turned director has worked in close collaboration with producer extraordinaire Trevor Horn and regularly performs ‘The Dean & I’ onstage with Horn’s outfit, giving younger fans the chance to hear that helium-inflected falsetto in full force. Indeed for many fans, Creme was the voice of 10cc, regularly deviating from comically whimsical (‘Donna’, ‘The Worst Band In The World’) to the turbo-charged frenzy heard on rock anthems ‘Rubber Bullets’ and ‘Silly Love’. 

But much like Eric Stewart – his former 10cc bandmate and real-life brother-in-law – Creme has kept something of a low profile in recent years, and I’m unsure what to make of the artist when he rings. And yet there’s something reassuring to the voice when his voice – impressively Northern for a man who has spent much of his adult life in the South of England – appears on the other end of the line. It helps that he gets my Christian name right from the get-go, which impresses me, because it’s a name that goes further back than Catholic Ireland and headfirst into the valley of Celtic mythology. “I had to look it up,” he chuckles. “It’s very, very Irish, isn’t it?” I tell him I come from the land of Gilbert O’ Sullivan: Waterford. “We went there years ago, to Waterford Castle. I think it’s where I had my first Guinness. That’s the way to do it, right?” 

No arguments from me, but I decide this is the time to move away from the small talk, Creme has an album to promote. “You’ll have to forgive me,” he says, his wink viable over the phone. “I don’t do many interviews because my memory isn’t the best”. This doesn’t bother me because chronology isn’t necessarily the root of a good interview, and where he might lack in specificity, he more than makes up with good humour and aplomb. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t really like hearing myself speak,” Creme admits. “I get asked to do all these podcasts, but it’s not really something I’m comfortable with. It’s not like singing, where there’s music, and you can put some character into it.”

He’s talking in part about Frabjous Days – The Secret World Of Godley & Creme 1967-1969, Cherry Red’s latest release, a compilation of recordings Creme worked on in the late 1960s. The album is fascinating in its resolve, demonstrating the workings of a creative partnership that endured an impressive 25 years of fruitful labour. No, the recordings aren’t up to the standards of Sheet Music, 10cc’s batty but brilliantly inventive second album, but it’s an enthusiastic effort from two “amateur songwriters” hoping to make their mark on the work. An argument could be made that this shows the duo at their primitive and impassioned, much like The Beatles’ efforts sounded during the Decca auditions in 1962. The Beatles pop up later in the interview, but I ask Creme if this was their way of presenting themselves as England’s answer to Simon and Garfunkel? “I think Giorgio Gomelsky certainly saw it like that. It must have been because of Kevin’s wonderful voice that he wanted it like that.” The duo were named Frabjoy And Runcible Spoon, a moniker that clearly rankles with Creme all this time later. “It was from an Edward Lear poem,” Creme explains, although judging from the tone in his voice, he likely would have preferred “The Broom, The Shovel, The Poker, And The Tongs.” It would have been no less ridiculous but somewhat more dignified for them as a recording duo to proceed with. 

More happily, he says he’s happy with the presentation of the songs, all crackles and disembodied yelps, showcasing Godley & Creme’s penchant for melody, laced with a penchant for the ridiculous. Paul Simon’s influence can be heard on ‘Cowboys And Indians’, but ‘It’s The Best Seaside In The World’ holds a flavour that’s discernibly more British, while the furious, freak-out rhythms of ‘Animal Song’ seems to pinpoint the direction Creme and 10cc would follow for the rest of the 1970s. Intriguingly, the album also features ‘The Late Mr. Late’, a composition written by Graham Gouldman, a burgeoning songwriter Godley & Creme knew from their time in the Jewish Lads Brigade. “The album was mostly recorded by Kevin and myself, but Eric Stewart was involved,” Creme says. “Was Graham involved? I know he was flying in and out of America at the time. Kevin and I used to rib him all the time, because he would write something like 40 songs in 15 minutes. We would joke about the quality of the music.” 

Creme uses the term “art’s sake”, which 10cc fans might recognise as the hook for one of 10cc’s most enduring hits. As with many 10cc tracks, ‘Art For Art’s Sake’ features three distinctive voices, launching the song from simple 4/4 blues rock into something more esoteric, culminating in a middle eighth that flirts with something that, to my ears, sounds like early rap. Like many bands from the 1970s, 10cc had no distinct frontman, but more interestingly, they were also a band of songwriters, each of them eager to work with one or two other songwriting partners in the hope of pushing themselves out of their comfort zones. By the time they reached their third album, 10cc had settled on two distinct songwriting camps, leaving the more polished camp of Gouldman & Stewart to balance out the more avant-pop leanings of Godley & Creme. 

“I think that’s 100% correct,” Creme says. “Kevin and I were the ones in the studio who tended to say, ‘What would it be like if?’ It got easier to say that as it went on, because it worked on occasions. But we also needed Eric and Graham to pull us in from going too far.” Creme clearly values Stewart and Gouldman as musicians, particularly their guitar skills: “Eric’s a very good lead guitar player, and Graham’s a very good lead guitar player.” Creme always felt more comfortable on rhythm, although he does know a “few licks”, and played the flamenco solo on ‘I’m Mandy, Fly Me’, which is my personal favourite song in the entire 10cc oeuvre.  

Creme considers the yearning and moving ‘I’m Not In Love’ to be the artistic watershed of his career as a recording artist, although he’s also very proud of ‘Garden of Flowers’, a quietly moving power ballad he wrote with Trevor Horn. “It was a very dark time,” Creme sighs, discussing the backstory that led to the writing of the song. “We’re still dealing with it. Tragic, really.” Creme is understandably reticent to go into details – it really is too awful to commit to print – but agrees that Horn’s vocal is rich with emotion, a perfect counterpart to the song in question. He’s more relaxed discussing ‘I’m Not In Love’, which he credits to his “brother-in-law Eric”, feeling that the song stemmed from the bottom of his soul. But Creme can take pride in the tune, which decorates the soundscape with a collection of lavish piano strokes, each note more urgent than the one that came before it.

“Kevin doesn’t play piano, and I don’t think Graham ever played piano with 10cc,” Creme admits. “So, Eric and I always played piano. I tended to blunder on piano to get where I wanted to go. It’s the same with the guitar. ‘The Dean and I’ stemmed from a guitar tuning, and I didn’t remember the chords to it. It was a good thing we had as formative a musician as Graham, who told me what the chords were. I still play ‘The Dean and I’ to this day with Trevor’s band.”

10cc were endlessly creative, but in 1976, Godley & Creme made the brave decision to leave the band, and branch out by themselves to work on Consequences, a daring triple album that demonstrated the duo’s gizmotron (hereon referred to as “gizmo”) in full, unvarnished glory. The album was brilliant, but it baffled people at the time and proved an expensive flop that embarrassed Godley. “It came out at a time,” Creme says, searching for the correct adjective. “Punk?” I tenderly ask. “That’s it,” Creme agrees. “Johnny Rotten was on the pop charts, and as a musician, I was affronted.”

Well, as an Irish man, I have to applaud my fellow countryman for challenging the ideals of the monarchy at a time when England was celebrating an oligarch for 25 years of uninterrupted rule. Creme won’t go that far, but he does say he applauded Rotten, stating that the work was much more sophisticated than he initially pencilled it as. 

Consequences was a flawed effort, but it did have some moments of sonic innovation, as the duo let their device – nominally used to conjure the sound of an orchestra – dream up the elements that tie this earth together. Listening to the album in 2022, Consequences is weirdly prescient, considering the environmental themes and relentless air of annihilation that can be heard on the triple effort. At its centre is the sound of the gizmo, which fulfilled one of Creme’s wishes from an early age. 

(Credits: Alamy)

“The gizmo came about because whenever I was asked what I would like for my birthday or for Christmas, I would reply, ‘An orchestra,” Creme cackles loudly before describing the vision he experienced as he drove back from his studies in Birmingham. There was clearly a market for a device because no less a luminary than Jimmy Page was using a violin bow onstage with Led Zeppelin during their long instrumental passages. How could it be achieved? 

“Kevin and I broke into Strawberry Studios one night, and gaffa taped my guitar,” Creme says, knowing full where the story is about to lead to. “We got a drill and put a washer on the end. Kevin gingerly moved the strings.” It was a dangerous experiment but produced the desired result, so the two went further with the discovery. These days, the gizmo is enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity, producing a sound design the ebow simply doesn’t replicate. 

Like the majority of his successes, it stemmed from great risk, but humbled by his experiences with Consequences, Creme was understandably reticent by the task of directing the video to George Harrison’s ‘When We Was Fab’, which was an explosive cycle of pyrotechnics and Beatle references. “It was more money than what Kevin and I were used to,” Creme explains, and says he nearly talked himself out of the job. “I learned my lesson from Consequences about spending money, especially when it wasn’t my money. But George rang me up, and said, ‘I think we should do it, and let me worry about the money people.'”

The video ranks as the most impressive of Harrison’s career, jumping from one impressive set piece to the next. Between the wide pans and violin flourishes comes the presence of a walrus playing bass, standing between Harrison and Ringo Starr. “That’s our manager in the walrus,” Creme giggles. “We couldn’t get Paul McCartney, so we put our manager in it.” Harrison associates Neil Aspinall and Elton John feature among the celebrities, but Creme is quick to pour water on the rumour that Paul Simon can be seen pushing a cart in the distance (“I’ve never met Paul Simon,” Creme says.)  

“George Harrison was just gorgeous,” Creme adds. “By far my favourite…” He stops himself before the word “Beatle” leaves his mouth because he also holds Paul McCartney in high regard. “Kevin and I were recording Consequences when Paul and Mike were in Strawberry.” Creme is unable to confirm whether it’s him or McCartney playing the gizmo on ‘Liverpool Lou’, although Creme suspects it’s The Beatle: “Paul McCartney’s on another level,” Creme cackles. McCartney used the gizmo on ‘I’m Carrying’, padding out the ghostly track with a searing backdrop, giving it an added dimension that’s almost baroque in its execution. I ask if McCartney paid for the gizmotron, considering how often he used it in his solo work? “No, I gave it to him,” Creme replies. “You don’t take money from Paul McCartney.” We both howl with laughter, keenly understanding that the Beatle bassist is wealthy enough to procure his own copy of the instrument, but more interestingly, Creme says they had to tailor it to his needs because he’s a “left-handed bugger”.

The Godley & Creme partnership ended in the 1990s and, barring some vocal contributions on 10cc’s underwhelming …Meanwhile, the pair have not worked together on an album since 1988’s Goodbye Blue Sky. And yet Creme speaks with nothing but fondness for their work together, whether it was writing the folk-oriented ballads as part of Frabjoy And Runcible Spoon or experimenting with the many technological instruments the 1980s offered them. “When we wrote, I would play, Kevin would sing and I would sing,” Creme says. “Kevin, not being a musician, would listen out to mistakes, and say, ‘That’s good’. He would hear something I was playing. We were both very interested in words, although that changed by the time we started on the Godley & Creme records. Kevin wanted to do more singing. I did a lot of singing with 10cc, and Kevin wanted to do more singing. I basically let him do the singing, which was fine because I was working on the instruments. Kevin came up with some great words. He injured his back during ‘Snack Attack’, which allowed him to work on the words, while I played a rhythm to the words.” 

Creme surprises me when he says he’s actually godfather to one of Stewart Copeland’s children and says he still considers The Police drummer a firm friend. He communicates with Eric Stewart, and seems deservedly happy with his efforts, whether it’s directing the jaunty video to Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’, or singing harmony with Graham Gouldman: “Graham has a clear voice,” Creme explains, admiring his former bandmates technique as a singer. Creme has never done anything he hasn’t personally enjoyed, stating that he and Godley never directed a video they wouldn’t get some level of enjoyment out of. He’s also happy with the booklet to  Frabjous Days – The Secret World Of Godley & Creme 1967-1969, which brings him and his listeners back to his native Manchester. 

“Kevin’s dad had a music shop. I needed a drummer for something, so Kevin brought a mongrel of a kit from his dad’s shop. It was one of the first music shops at the time. He set it up in my living room, and the bugger is, he could play! I can play a lot of instruments, but I’ve never been able to play the drums. I can play percussion and get a rhythm, but putting my leg here and my hand here on a drumkit is like asking me to pat my head with one hand and do a circle on my stomach with the other. But Kevin could just do it. He knew where everything went.” 

And maybe that’s what made them such a strong team. 

Frabjous Days – The Secret World Of Godley & Creme 1967-1969 is out now.