I’m Graham, fly me

I’m Graham, fly me

Graham Gouldman for Jewish News colour mag July 2022

Hanging in the hall of Graham Gouldman’s north-west London home is a painting of his late mother, Betty, done by his artist aunt. It’s not the sort of picture you might expect: she looks completely different from the capable Manchester housewife which she was. She’s glamorous — which she was in real life — but also faintly exotic in this rendering, with an added touch of mystery, as she is holding a guitar.

The guitar, in fact, is Gouldman’s, his very first, bought for him in Spain when he was only 11, by his cousin Ronnie. He no longer has the guitar itself, but he passes the painting of his mother every day, reminding him of his extraordinary journey as a phenomenon of the pop world, first writing hit song after hit song for other performers, and then becoming one of the founder members of the definitive art rock group, 10CC.

Unbelievably, it is 50 years since 10CC —Gouldman, Eric Stewart, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme — first formed and released their unexpected hit, Donna. Gouldman, who regularly tours with other musicians as the present incarnation of 10CC, frequently performs Donna on stage, and introduces it as though even he can’t believe it’s half a century since the song first went out on vinyl.

But Gouldman continues to have musical adventures. His most recent collaboration is a new song, Floating in Heaven, written with Queen’s legendary guitarist Brian May. It marks the historic first images from the new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that launched in December 2021 and went into orbit in January of this year. The telescope is the most powerful to be launched into space.

There is a nice synchronicity to the Gouldman/May partnership. Not only did Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, issued a few weeks after 10CC’s luminous I’m Not In Love, feature similar multi-layered voice tracks, but the two men have known each other for years. Gouldman leaps up to show a wonderful picture, a photograph of a gathering convened by Paul McCartney in 1974. Taken in Holland Park, it shows all the movers and shakers of the rock and pop world at the time, from Gouldman to Eric Clapton and Elton John. And there, right at the back, is Brian May’s unmistakable curly mop, unchanged until the present day.

“Our paths have crossed over the years”, says Gouldman. “I remember the first time was in Liverpool: we [10CC] were headlining and Queen supported us. One of their road managers brought in their own personal mirror. And we thought, why haven’t we got our own mirror? We’re the headliners!”

Graham Gouldman can barely recall a time when he was not passionate about music. “I’d been aware of music since I was seven, but it was getting the guitar and the timing of it — we were in the era of Elvis, Bill Haley and the Comets, the skiffle era…”

But just getting a guitar wasn’t enough. He started writing songs, he says, “as a consequence of being in a band. We wanted to make a record, but no-one would give us a song. That inspired me to start writing. And the Beatles — they were writing, and they were an inspiration, too”.

The “gift” of being able to write songs — and he has had no formal musical training — didn’t come out of nowhere. Gouldman’s paternal grandmother was “very musical, and in fact the family had a little band and would get together, someone played piano, someone played violin, someone sang. So there was definitely a musical gene”. As for the lyrics, he may have inherited some of his fondness for wordplay from his father, Hymie Gouldman, known throughout 60s Manchester as a poet and amateur playwright.

There was no chance that Graham Gouldman was going to have an academic career. He says he spent most of his time at North Salford Boys’ School “looking out of the window and dreaming about music.” At 17 he left school and went to work in a men’s outfitter’s for two years. “I used to take my guitar to work and write songs in the lunch hour when the shop was closed. I got the sack, eventually, best thing that ever happened to me.”

In 1962, the year that the Beatles’ first single, Love Me Do, was released, Gouldman was in and out of a number of bands: there was the High Spots, the Crevattes, the Planets and the Whirlwinds. This last band used to rehearse at the north Manchester headquarters of the Jewish Lads’ Brigade, and effectively became the house band for JLB discos. One of the Whirlwinds’ guitarists was Stephen Jacobson, brother of future novelist Howard.

After the Whirlwinds came the Mockingbirds, formed in 1965 —and this time there was a new bandmate, another Manchester Jewish friend, Kevin Godley. Gouldman, still only 19, wrote a new song: For Your Love, and the Mockingbirds recorded it. Nothing happened, until the publisher that Gouldman’s band shared with the Yardbirds gave them the song. With the unlikely addition of a studio harpsichord, it became a huge hit.

“The Yardbirds were a well-known rhythm and blues band, but they wanted to sell records, and so went to outside songwriters. I remember my manager, Harvey Lisberg, came round to my house with a demo tape and played their version. I was blown away. I was a fan of theirs, I’d been to see them”.

For Your Love kickstarted Gouldman’s songwriting career. He was extremely fortunate that at no point did his artistic parents ever say to him that he needed to go out and get a “proper” job. “They were extremely encouraging and nurturing”, he says.

He was on a roll. Between 1965 and 1967 he wrote Heart Full of Soul and Evil Hearted You for the Yardbirds; Look Through Any Window (with Charles Silverman) and Bus Stop for the Hollies; and, famously after a conversation with his father, No Milk Today for Herman’s Hermits, as well as a slew of other bouncy, feel-good pop records.

“For a while”, he says, “it looked like I was going to be a jobbing songwriter, and that was absolutely fine with me, I didn’t mind that all”. Every song sold to another band did well, but Gouldman’s own bands couldn’t break into the hit parade. Eventually he was headhunted to work in New York as a writer for hire, an exhausting process which he found draining.

Finally, in late 1969, Gouldman persuaded his American bosses that he’d be happier and more productive working in the UK. He, Kevin Godley, another Jewish musician long-time friend, Lol Creme, and the former member of the Mindbenders, Eric Stewart, began to work in Stockport, just near south Manchester, in Strawberry Studios.

“Without the studio, we would never have formed 10CC. But we were able to be a house band, working for other musicians who wanted to record at Strawberry. I went back to America for a time and while I was away Kevin, Lol, and Eric, calling themselves Hotlegs, released a single called Neanderthal Man — and it was a hit.”

Soon musicians — including Neil Sedaka — began turning up at Strawberry, keen to work with Gouldman, Godley, Creme and Stewart. four still young but experienced people, who could turn their hands to anything. “We did everything. We did recordings of songs I’d written in America, we did football records (for Manchester City and Everton) — anything, really, because it was good business for the studio.”

When they weren’t working for other people, the four would get together and write and record songs among themselves. The usual set-up was Gouldman and Stewart writing together, mirrored by Godley and Creme — but it was fluid.

Finally, in 1972, the four had a song called Waterfall (written by Gouldman and Stewart) in which Apple Records, the Beatles’ label, had expressed interest. “We didn’t have a B-side,” but Godley and Creme offered Donna, a sort of doo-wop pastiche, “and we played it to [the pop impresario] Jonathan King”.

King came up from London to see the quartet at Strawberry Studios. “He liked the song. He asked us if we had a name and we said no, because we weren’t a touring band.”

At which point, allegedly, King said he had had a dream the night before, that he was standing outside the Hammersmith Odeon, on whose facade there was a giant slogan: “10CC, the best band in the world”. There was no discussion, the four all agreed and so in July 1972, the band was born. (There is another explanation of the origin of the band’s name, but one unsuitable for family reading.)

“We were only ever doing the music for ourselves”, says Gouldman, “we weren’t following any trend, and that’s why I think the songs haven’t dated.” He can say that again: the day after our interview a 1978 song written by Gouldman and Stewart, Dreadlock Holiday, was blasting out through my local Tesco’s, with shoppers happily dancing in the aisles. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that it became the theme music for Sky Sports’ cricket coverage.

The 10CC hits — original, quirky, and memorable — continued even after Kevin Godley and Lol Creme left the band in 1976 to work on other projects. There was a brief reforming for one album in 1991, but effectively Gouldman is now keeper of the flame, touring with other musicians under the name 10CC and also collaborating with different songwriters.

He is admired as a writer, musician and producer by people throughout the industry, not least the legendary Beatles drummer, Ringo Starr. Starr has a rock supergroup called Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, every one of whom is a hitmaker in his or her own right. And so there was a lovely inevitability that there was an invitation to Gouldman, from Ringo, to play with the All-Starrs, beginning in 2017.

It produced a delicious Beatlesque “fan” song, Standing Next To Me, by Gouldman, who confesses that he couldn’t quite believe he was on stage with Ringo. One of their tour dates was two nights in Tel Aviv, where Gouldman, extraordinarily, had never played — “the audiences were great. Everyone loves Ringo.” That includes Gouldman, who speaks with great enthusiasm about the warm atmosphere in the All-Starrs, and how well he got on with Starr.

Perhaps some of the success of 10CC, Gouldman believes, lay in the fact that “three of us were Jewish and we had a sense of Jewish comedy”. The four guys, each multi-talented, wound each other up, laughed and joked, drawing on their long history of friendship. Some of that, at least, is reflected in the songs, using subjects like American prisons (Rubber Bullets) or campus life (The Dean and I) rarely heard in pop music.

He regrets the split with Godley and Creme and still says “we could have sorted it”. But, just as he was once happy to be a jobbing songwriter, Gouldman continues to make the best of whatever his musical life throws at him, seeing no reason to stop writing and performing “as long as I’m enjoying it”. He spent much of lockdown in his home studio, trying out new ideas and crafting new songs.

On my way out, we pass the painting of Betty Gouldman, holding her son’s first guitar. I could swear she winks.

  • 15 August, 2022