Like “See My Baby Jive”, “Rubber Bullets” is a really dense bit of popcraft – a restless concentrate of hooks and ideas. 1973 seems to have been a moment in pop when this overload strategy was commercially viable: intelligent, detail-rich, sometimes exhausting pop music has been made ever since but it’s usually been marginal, often self-consciously so. In ’73 10cc, ELO, and Roy Wood were regulars at the business end of the charts: what was going on? My guess: some of it’s a post-Beatles hangover (they quit instead of going further up and further in to studio solipsism); some of it’s a reaction to progressive rock; some of it’s a simple and agreeable desire for the charts to be more overtly clever than they usually are.
“Clever” is a weasel word in pop criticism, there’s almost always a silent “too” attached. “Rubber Bullets” is clever, though, a bit of wry pop marginalia. It’s a record that makes sense – or makes a certain kind of sense – when you grok its central conceit: a version of “Jailhouse Rock” from the authorities’ perspective. I appreciate the joke – and the track had an extra frisson at the time, as its sardonic glee at repressive tactics could be seen as a comment on police action in Northern Ireland. But now I know the riddle’s answer I can’t help but think, when I listen to it, “This isn’t actually as good as Jailhouse Rock, is it?”*
It’s still quite good, though – full of life and gallop and the occasional awful pun. And it’s an interesting record, because it’s posing a question which is enormously important to seventies pop – what do we do about rock and roll? Both in the sense of realising that the generation who listened to it are still listening, and in the sense of coping with the memory of its energy, and how that energy might be rediscovered. Rock and roll revivals were one recurrent, numbing answer – “Rubber Bullets” may not be a complete success, but 10cc’s solution is certainly more intriguing.
*(Which made it quite easy to mark, of course – it lost a second point, quite unfairly, for reminding me of the Beach Boys’ horrendous “Student Demonstration Time”)