Aug 07

10CC – “Rubber Bullets”

FT + Popular82 comments • 4,980 views

#332, 23rd June 1973

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”)



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  1. 51
    Marcello Carlin on 15 Aug 2007 #

    FFS, there’s nothing “lazy” or “superficial” about 10cc or Abba!

    “Waterloo” sounds a lot more like “See My Baby Jive” in construction, arrangement and production, as both Abba and Roy Wood acknowledged, so much so in the case of the latter that he performed on the Doctor and the Medics cover version in 1986. Also it handles its central metaphor with exceptional skill, as the rest of the world except for Robert “Victor Meldrew” Christgau has long since realised.

    The “great balls of fire” in “Big Seven” was in reference to what happened after Jack sat on the candlestick. The track was subsequently sampled by the Dream Warriors on “Ludi.” He was mates with Marley, you know.

    “Pepper Box” which was “a huge dance hit whenever I played the clubs” (D Winton). Incidentally, is it a chicken/egg situation with “Pepper Box” and “Autobahn”?

  2. 52
    Rosie on 15 Aug 2007 #

    The Crucible was ‘about’ the Salem witchcraft trials, but both Arthur Miller and its audiences ‘knew’ it was really a dig at the House Un-American Activities Committee.

    There’s more to meaning than what’s on the surface.

  3. 53
    Marcello Carlin on 15 Aug 2007 #

    We had to do three Arthur Miller plays as part of our English Highers – Death Of A Salesman, All My Sons and The Crucible. They struck me as the forerunners of dysfunctional American TV movies starring Brian Dennehy and/or Cheryl Ladd and/or Tyne Daly and/or Frederick Forrest so it was quite amusing to see the Dennehymeister playing Willy Loman in the West End production a couple of years back. I thought the Crucible analogies were rather clunky myself.

  4. 54

    meaning includes:
    i. what author says openly
    ii. what author slips in secretly
    iii. what author is not aware of at the time but realises afterwards
    iv. what author and audience both recognise and agree on
    v. what audience sees but author didn’t
    vi. what audience explores and creates in subsequent use and discussion, with or without author’s approval
    vii. probbly i have forgot others

    these are sometimes at odds with one another: appeal is often made to one to trump another but this rarely works, not least bcz being at odds is a good thing bcz it provokes exactly the buzz the author wd have wanted (unless s/he is an idiot in which case who cares what s/he wanted)

  5. 55

    shorter sukrat: meaning is a cheerfully squabbly community!

  6. 56
    Marcello Carlin on 15 Aug 2007 #

    viii. what author leaves in by accident.
    ix. what author sticks on at the last minute.
    x. Number One was a sledge.

  7. 57
    Tom on 15 Aug 2007 #

    Just popping in to say that the no spoilers rule is ESPECIALLY STRICT on “Waterloo” :) (tho Marcello is right)

  8. 58
    Erithian on 15 Aug 2007 #

    The issue of whether the band intended the reference to Northern Ireland reminds me of what JRR Tolkien said about “Lord of the Rings” being an allegory of World War II: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations…
    I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of the reader. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

    Far be it from me to suppose 10cc were thinking along the same lines as Tolkien, but if the phrase “rubber bullets” was current, and you wanted to make the link to Ulster, I guess they weren’t about to stop you.

    BTW, Marcello, that nice analysis of “Waterloo” comes from the guy who hates spoilers!

  9. 59
    Pete on 15 Aug 2007 #

    Just to add that I don’t agree with my Dad with what its about (or at least I don’t agree with him with what its NOT about since it is clearly about more than just one thing), but if in ’73 someone wrote a song which lyrically seems to be about a US prison riot, a recent US prison riot might come to mind.

    Thinking about The Crucible, the ease with which its analogy pops out (what you might call the clunkiness of the analogy) is also why it works well as mass entertainment, and PARTICULARLY well in GCSE English groups.

    I think your being a bit harsh Marcello on some of the TV movie actors you pick. OK, I’ll give you Frederic Forrest for “Who Will Look After My Children”, and Cheryl Ladd is a given. But I think Denehey and Daly are better than that.

  10. 60

    adding: meaning when it comes to music — as opposed to words on the page — is an even wider territory to contest

    tolk’s point is that “allegory” tends to function as a critical-authorial stunt to shut down the reader/listener, i think — viz
    “this song is about pigs!”
    “do you not see it is really about CAPITALISM!?”
    “b-but PIGS?”
    “ur 1xdupe of the system and i DISDANE u”

    haha it is much easier to comment “on this song” when you haven’t heard it for 20 years, as i have not

  11. 61
    Marcello Carlin on 15 Aug 2007 #

    Perhaps it was an extended metaphorical meditation on contraceptives.

    Dennehy certainly is a lot better than that which makes me wonder why he makes so many of these weepies about redundant steel workers who won’t work for no Japanese and his son’s about to drop out of college and his daughter’s got cancer so he yells “SON? I HAVE NO SON!” and goes and rows a boat out into the middle of the lake at midnight and then we get an extended court scene because they’re cheap and give actors the opportunity to act and then they come out on the courthouse steps triumphant to speak to the waiting reporters and cameras and he shakes his fist in the air and then freeze frame/pognant piano music (see also: the later career of Karl Malden).

  12. 62
    Rosie on 15 Aug 2007 #

    xi what the author leaves out. Cf Pierre Machérey, “Le texte dit ce qu’il ne dit pas”

  13. 63
    Erithian on 15 Aug 2007 #

    Waldo – I remember a Judge Dread quote which went something like: “I’m no perv but I’ve seen a few 14-year-olds I wouldn’t mind giving one to.” Verily, this was a different century…

  14. 64
    Doctor Casino on 15 Aug 2007 #

    I think I’ve gotten in over my head here! I’ll just bow out of this one quietly – although I do want to say that no spoiling was intended re: “Waterloo,” which I didn’t even realize at the time of typing was in the queue at all! (It rather surprises me to find it there – but I’ll save that till the time comes.)

  15. 65
    Erithian on 15 Aug 2007 #

    Hell no, Doc, no offence meant – I was just winding Marcello up a wee bit…

  16. 66
    mike on 16 Aug 2007 #

    Like David Belbin above, I’m more of a “The Dean And I” man; it may only have reached #10 in the UK, but it got to #1 in the Republic of Ireland, and quite right too.

  17. 67
    Erithian on 16 Aug 2007 #

    Doc, just to add to what I said last night, my comment about spoilers (and I guess Tom’s as well) was a gentle chide to Marcello for giving us an analysis of “Waterloo” in this thread – the same Marcello who, when things were getting a bit heated in the “Telegram Sam” thread a few months ago, said “it would be nice if we could lay off talking about specific number ones UNTIL THEY ACTUALLY COME UP”!

    It’d be very harsh to criticise you for this if you didn’t even realise “Waterloo” had been a UK Number 1 – which will make your views all the more intriguing when we get there. And you were making a valid parallel with the record under discussion, after all. So no need to bow out : )

  18. 68
    Marcello Carlin on 16 Aug 2007 #

    Note that nowhere in the above did I mention anything about “Waterloo” getting to number one.

  19. 69
    Rosie on 16 Aug 2007 #

    What’s up with the link? Is it just me or is it screwed?

    I can get through to this page, and to Freakytrigger front page, but not to the latest entry nor to teh Popular front page.

  20. 70
    doofuus2003 on 20 Aug 2007 #

    The problem with no always on internet, or indeed when I am out doing field work, no connection at all, is that I can end up way down below the comments I’d like to refer to. Anyway, I saw both 10CC and Steely Dan in Leeds student union, and didn’t really put them together, but now I do kind of see the too clever by half potential link. I think, by the way, that the SD gig was one of only 4 they ever did in the UK until many many years later. Also, for what it’s worth, Leeds University was a major venue in those days – Bob Marley only got to play the Polytechnic.

  21. 71
    Erithian on 20 Aug 2007 #

    Better late than never doofuus! Love the bit about who got to play Leeds University.

    Re the umpteen levels of meaning discussed above – reminds me of a Peanuts strip I provocatively sellotaped to one of my Eng Lit exercise books at school. Peppermint Patty trying to answer a question in class: “What was the author’s purpose in writing this story? Err – maybe he needed the money?”

  22. 72
    Marcello Carlin on 20 Aug 2007 #

    Popular needs a sound-posting capability so I can answer that with a lugubrious plunger trombone as the voice of the teacher.

  23. 73
    Caledonianne on 21 Aug 2007 #

    RE Marcello @ #53

    Oh, yes – we clearly studied the same Higher English syllabus, though my English teacher was clearly most enamoured of All My Sons, which always took centre stage among the trinity for us.

    Years later I wrote an article about Salem, and it all came flooding back. (Also took in Brian Dennehy in DoaS in Boston) while in New England for the research.

    But I have a direct link between 10cc and Higher English. The boys were due to play Glasgow Apollo in February 1976, but when we got there the gig was cancelled because one of them had a sore throat. It was rescheduled for April – so that’s where I spent the night before my Higher English…

  24. 74
    Erithian on 3 Sep 2007 #

    Belated response to Billy in post #22 – “Rubber Bullets” didn’t feature in “Rock’n’Roll Years”. The Northern Ireland news featured in the relevant part of the 1973 episode was backed by Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home A Heartache” and David Essex’s “Rock On”.

    Surely somewhere on the Web there’s a listing of what music corresponded to which news item in this excellent series?

  25. 75
    Marcello Carlin on 3 Sep 2007 #

    Ah, I’ve got it – blow-up doll, blowing up troops, DO YOU SEE WHAT THEY DID THERE?

    The only thing I can remember from that lamentable series is that at the end of the 1989 one, to soundtrack the fall of the Berlin Wall, they chose that generational anthem “Kiss This Thing Goodbye” by Del Amitri.

  26. 76
    Geir H on 23 Dec 2007 #

    I believe this single is Jonathan King’s only connection with a UK #1 ever. By the time of “I’m Not In Love” he has quit working with them.

    The 10cc of this track is a strange thing. On one side, you have a feeling of novelty, that they are just having fun, not taking the whole thing too seriously, and the entire thing is very tongue-in-cheek.

    But then, along comes the “Sergeant Baker and his men….” line, hinting at some really musically talented guys behind behing it. And the perfect production (done by the band themselves already at this time) gives the same impression. So there must be more to 10cc than just a bunch of tongue-in-cheek guys making fun of pre-Beatles pop. And they would of course show us later on (no, not as late as Marcello hints upthread that I would think – their prime was while Godley & Creme were still in the band).

    “Rubber Bullets” isn’t my favourite 10cc single, just like “10cc” isn’t my favourite album. But it’s still a great pop song, pointing forwards towards even greater stuff to come from one of the finest pop acts that there ever has been.

    As for Jonathan King, time has shown him to be quite creepy indeed. In spite of that, I will always be thankful for the fact that he discovered two of my all-time-favourite bands.

  27. 77
    roger turner on 23 Jul 2009 #

    weird al yankovich ripped of “rubber bullets” for his song “trigger happy,” a song parodying the beach boys style with lyrics about shooting guns. it even features a line about calling in the national guard, yeah the national guard.

  28. 78
    Jonathan Bogart on 24 Jul 2009 #

    Ripped off? If I know my Weird Al, it was a deliberate nod.

  29. 79
    wichitalineman on 24 Jul 2009 #

    Weird Al’s Trigger Happy is a car-crazy-california era spoof, while Rubber Bullets is Beach Boys of a later vintage. Just a coincidence, I reckon.

    It might be mentioned miles earlier on this thread, but this is much more of a Beach Boys homage than an inverted Jailhouse Rock, innit? I can hear that in the lyric but it certainly doesn’t overwhelm the song or render it a pastiche – I’d undock that point! I remember seeing 10CC interviewed on tv at some point in the late 70s and they said the Beach Boys were an influence all four of them agreed on.

    I’m not sure why they always get the “poor man’s Steely Dan” thing beyond the occasional over-confident smirk – this and (especially) The Dean And I, both as complex and joyous as Heroes & Villains, sound more like Smile outtakes to my ears (multi-part structure, arcane Americana et cet). Very glad to hear that The Dean And I was a number one in Ireland!

    A couple more 10CC gems for non-believers: Channel Swimmer (flip of Life Is A Minestrone, Umbopo (under the pseudonym Doctor Father).

  30. 80
    Lena on 7 May 2013 #

    My name is Marc, and I’m The Groover: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/one-more-time-for-marc-trex-groover.html Thanks for reading, everybody!

  31. 81
    Lena on 2 Jul 2013 #

    A moment of reflection on the summer of ’73: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.com/2013/07/interlude-1-fleetwood-mac-albatross.html Thanks for reading, tout le monde!

  32. 82
    Larry on 1 Nov 2014 #

    First time I ever heard this was today. I never knew that 10cc were a glam band that sounded like Sparks! A major revelation to someone who knew them for “I’m Not In Love.” FWIW the lyrics also evoked Attica for me.

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