Aug 07

10CC – “Rubber Bullets”

FT + Popular83 comments • 5,952 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. 1
    Rosie on 13 Aug 2007 #

    The political overtones of this song were, I think, pretty obvious at the time. The mayhem in Northern Ireland was it its most chaotic and the RUC at their most trigger-happy. This kind of tongue-in-cheek appropriation and inversion of a well-known classic (even more so in 1973) was far more effective than McCartney’s clunky and ham-fisted attempt at comment. I can’t remember if this one got banned by the BBC, but it did, I think, receive restricted airplay.

    All the same, it’s not Jailhouse Rock and I think it would be unfair to try to make a direct comparison. Each was in tune with the spirit of its time, 10cc reflecting the air of playful anarchy that was still around, even though it would all change within three months when the seventies was about to begin in earnest with the Yom Kippur War, the oil crisis, and the sense (once again) that it was all going to end in tears.

    I liked Rubber Bullets then and I like it now, and I won’t dock a point for not being Elvis in 1956 – six from me.

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    Erithian on 13 Aug 2007 #

    I’ll allow myself a quick moment of Manchester-born civic pride to mark a Manc band’s appearance at Number 1 (recorded in Strawberry studios in Stockport). I’ve often thought of this one as a song standing in for a video – you can imagine what Godley and Creme themselves might have done with it ten years later. I always used to try to join in with the double drumbeat at the right time, just as the “wakkadadack” intro faded. Happy days. And looking back, the line “we all got balls and brains” was a bit risqué for its time, wasn’t it? I wasn’t aware of it getting restricted play on the BBC, but this and the Ulster overtones were two possible reasons.

    Number 2 Watch – 10cc prevented a chart milestone, as they stopped Fleetwood Mac’s re-issued “Albatross” from returning to the top a mere four years after it originally got there. And looking further down, what a good time this was for chart pop, whether you deem it “(too) clever” or otherwise – “One and One is One”, “Stuck in the Middle with You”, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”, “Frankenstein”, “Broken Down Angel”, “Walk on the Wild Side”… Marcello’s right, it was a darn good year.

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    katstevens on 13 Aug 2007 #

    I’d never heard this song until this afternoon. First impressions? I’m not convinced by over-cheerful schaffle (sounding like the Beach Boys’ Fun Fun Fun but played with the T-Rex guitar sound) and the theme seems contrived rather than clever. From the middle eight onwards things get more interesting: the falsetto vocal by the drummer and the eerie solo give more bite.

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    Marcello Carlin on 13 Aug 2007 #

    It should be noted that “Rubber Bullets” is the only UK number one single to have any connection with Jonathan King – it appeared on his UK label. Make of that what you will, especially his retrospective comments about seventies pop stars all being automatic Vauxhall Conference promotions not good enough to cut it in the sixties…

    On yesterday’s POTP (August 1968) Dale played “Uncle Joe The Ice Cream Man” by what was left of the Mindbenders (Eric Stewart very audibly in control)…a strange and clearly transitory record, revelling in the second childishness common to post-psych British pop of the period…but already you can hear what would end up as 10cc revving up with those dual guitar leads and general toughening up of vocals and production.

    “Rubber Bullets”‘ extreme similarity of feeling, tempo and vocal delivery (Lol Creme IS Donald Fagen!) to “Reelin’ In The Years” indicates not only that 10cc was our Steely Dan (and explains why the latter never really progressed beyond cult status in the UK; they sold reasonably healthy quantities of albums but had only one really major hit single – “Haitian Divorce” at the end of ’76, though “Do It Again” and “FM” both registered lower down the listings) to Roy’s Todd, but also the overriding tendency in not-quite-glam Britpop (and American FM rock) at the time towards self-referentiality and post-modernism; these were sixties veterans who knew their way around both studios and demographics and knew that we had come sufficiently far to look back and warp the music we’d been through (Roxy Music were the same tendency in extremis at the other, far more glam, end of things).

    “Rubber Bullets” is entryism in reverse (i.e. smuggling in lyrical rather than musical radicalism) so that a buoyant piece of singalong bubblegum (the rhythm of which reappears in an unlikely 1977 number one) is used to croon sweetly about prison riots, with acknowledged allegories to both Irish and Vietnam questions (“Uncle Sam belongs in the exercise yard”), but the prog-rockers within the group also take the opportunity to extend the song out into limpid meditations on imminent apocalypse (Godley’s “Padre” sequence is still pretty chilling) and the song eventually fails to resolve, trailing away (in its five minute plus album incarnation) into grinding feedback.

    I think it all works; like “Donna,” which had only just missed the number one slot a year earlier, the record is equally effective if taken straight or ironically (I guess that’s why “The Worst Band In The World” stiffed in early ’74 since it is brilliant but only really works on the irony level); you can appreciate it either way. And it added to the non-embarrassment of riches which made 1973 a remarkably terrific year. I’d give it a seven.

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    Erithian on 13 Aug 2007 #

    Since you mention “Do It Again”, another piece of Mancuniana, and a timely one given this weekend’s sad news – in the late 70s the intro to “Do It Again” was the theme tune to “What’s On”, which began as a five-minute slot at the end of the local news, and expanded to become essential viewing for North-Westerners: the vehicle through which Tony Wilson introduced us to Manchester’s (and Liverpool’s) cultural life, and to the likes of Patrik Fitzgerald, John Cooper Clarke and Big In Japan. R.I.P.

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    Marcello Carlin on 13 Aug 2007 #

    Which in turn reminds me: 10cc built Strawberry Studios, the recording studio of choice for Martin Hannett and Joy Division. More words from me about Mr Manchester on the blog later on today.

  7. 7

    10cc were almost completely off my radar at the time — i *think* they appeared in the market-research project i conducted at school in order to induct myself into rock fandom (<---- didn't just go mad recently) but i am not sure if any of that still remains (i hope it does, i will post it if i ever find it!)

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    Rosie on 13 Aug 2007 #

    I’m struggling to find the link between Lol Creme and Donald Fagen, although if I really try I can see the common idea of the enigmatically subversive lyric set to a catchy tune. I did begin to wonder if Lol could have done The Nightfly (which, if it isn’t my all-time favourite album is certainly up there with the contenders.) Lol might well have come up with something like Kamakiriad, however.

    But what’s this about Steely Dan being only of ‘cult’ status in the UK? I loved the Dan and still do. So did most of the people around me. The singles chart was pretty marginal in 1973. Nobody would have called Led Zeppelin a ‘cult’ band but they hardly set the singles charts on fire. The things I and most of my circle liked at this time, and bought as albums, were Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, ELP, and all those other things that the punk movement professed to despise, presumably because the performers had O-levels and knew how to play their instruments. I thought 10cc were amongst the despised too – but their intelligent work stood out from the singles charts at the time.

    I think you can guess which side I’ll be on a couple of years down the road, can’t you!

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    Tom on 13 Aug 2007 #

    Steely Dan only had one top 10 album too though – Aja. I have no idea how widely they were liked at the time but cult band doesn’t seem too far off looking at the chart placings.

    (I am a big Steely Dan fan too – they were kind of a watershed in deprogramming my music press biases when it came to older stuff) (Said deprogramming still only partial)

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    Waldo on 13 Aug 2007 #

    Despite earlier claims, I really cannot remember this receiving restricted airplay on “Wonderful Radio One”. Quite the reverse, in fact. I felt it was one of the recurring sounds of that summer.

    It’s possible that 10CC did have Ulster in mind when “loading up with rubber bullets”, though the “Uncle Sam in the exercise yard” reference would suggest that their thoughts lay further east. The thing is, once we strip our own subjective political interpretaions away, we are left with a rollickingly fine pop song performed by a quartet of fine writers and musicians. It is a belting little number which clatters up country like a runaway intercity train, pausing only at Crewe for the “Sergeant Baker/Padre” section before taking off again. I remember being as pleased as punch when this hit the top, even though it did for Suzy Q, the dirty Manc buggers!

    Erithian – Yes, I too was captivated by “One and One is One” as well as with “Rising Sun” by the same pair. I used to think they looked pretty odd but that is not important. Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” I only discovered after the event. It was a big US Number One but had little impact here. Belting piece of music, though.

    Marcello – Yes, I’m afraid that the sticky hands of Jonathan King were all over this and all over 10CC, in fact. The “impressario” even gave the group its name. Good spot that this was his only chart topper; ironic , of couse, since it’s all about being banged up in the boob. Bloody Tony Orlando again. I agree in addition with your apparent comparison between 10CC and Steely Dan, though if I enlarge on this, I could very well find myself in “Pseuds Corner” for very good reason…

  11. 11

    i read about steely dan long before i heard em, and certainly they were TOTALLY off-radar in my school — compared to everyone else rosie mentions, who (for example) all sold out stafford bingley hall on a regular basis, and also compared to glam, which was had a big following among older kids

    (my “punk” experience w.SD is that they got a bit of a free pass by being cult, actually, and “clever” and “jazzy” — ie phds instead of o-levels?)

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    Marcello Carlin on 13 Aug 2007 #

    There is something of a difference between megabands like Zep, Floyd and Yes who deigned not to release singles in Britain because they were “above” that sort of thing and the likes of the Dan and Little Feat who were much praised in the music press and played by the Roger Scotts and Johnnie Walkers of that world but never really translated the peer respect into huge sales; I gather that The Nightfly outsold all the Steely Dan albums put together in the UK, and I’m sure that had “Stairway To Heaven” been released, uncut, as a single in Britain it would have had a run at the top at least comparable to “Bo Rhap.”

    Lol Creme ended up in one of the later incarnations of Art of Noise but more about that when we get to the second 10cc number one…

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    Marcello Carlin on 13 Aug 2007 #

    My dad loved Steely Dan, though, precisely because of the jazz input and that they had Proper Musicians like Victor Feldman and Phil Woods helping out, so that “validated” the whole thing…

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    Waldo on 13 Aug 2007 #

    The Dan for me dovetailed into the excellent Spyro Gyra in a easy jazzy sort of way. They were known initially, I think, as The Pleasant Music Gang. I wonder why they changed the name?!

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    Erithian on 13 Aug 2007 #

    When I gave an Australian friend a copy of “British Hit Singles”, she was aghast that Zeppelin had had no UK hit singles whereas Kylie had had plenty. “Weren’t they popular in Britain?” she asked…

    “Stairway” a long-running number 1 single? – have you thought this through? Bo Rhap had plenty of airplay at 5’ 48” or whatever, but would a single of that length have had enough airplay, even in an era where Purple and Sabbath were having hit singles? A nice “what if?” scenario though.

    By the way, a singing bassist deposed at number 1 by a singing drummer (even if he wasn’t the main featured vocalist) – what are the chances?!

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    Pete Baran on 13 Aug 2007 #

    As late as 1988 / 1989 Stairway To Heaven would regularly be number one in the Capital Radio Hall Of Fame (an all comers annual “voted for by listeners” chart which would fill Christmas to New Year). It had not quite become the Capital FM of today, but was a pretty good barometer of popular taste, so yes – I think Marcello is right. Stairway To Heaven would have been a pretty potent chart force and actually quite easy to cut for radio play if need be (in much the same way Paranoid Android was, but more if THAT much much later).

  17. 17
    Tom on 13 Aug 2007 #

    Wasn’t it also a regular winner in the John Peel Festive 50, back when it was still a yearly “all-time” chart?

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    Martin Skidmore on 13 Aug 2007 #

    Yes, until 1977 it was.

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    jeff w on 13 Aug 2007 #

    Ok, how on earth did this discussion get round to R*dioh**d?

    (In all seriousness I initially thought Pete was referring to this single and got all confused by his “more of THAT later” for a minute.)

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    jeff w on 13 Aug 2007 #

    Back to 10cc then.

    A really important band in terms of my personal music history. Not so much “Rubber Bullets”, which I liked well enough at the time but, like Wizzard, now remember mostly as something we used to sing along to in the car or during the Sunday night Top 20 chart rundown.

    No, it was actually a few years later – 1977 – when my sister suddenly decided to acquire (or get her then boyfriend to buy for her) the complete works of 10cc 1974-77, both singles and albums, that I really got into them. (You can always rely on anolder sibling to influence your listening habits, huh?)

    In particular, the Sheet Music LP (1974), released while they were still signed to UK Records. 12 year old me must have played that record on the family stereo a hundred times, risking the wrath of my sister on occasion. I was particularly obsessed with the one-sheet inner that came with the LP, which not only contained the lyrics but listed in detail all the instruments played by each member of the band and who sang and who wrote what. And as far as the instruments were concerned, it was a pretty exotic list – a combination of electrical gizmos (including the, er, gizmo, Godley and Creme’s own invention), obscure percussion instruments and probably a few made-up names for bog-standard instruments run through an effects box, used to describe the sound they made on the song. (This was before I really knew very much about what synthesizers were or how they worked obv – although IIRC 10cc only used them sparingly anyway).

    I loved the democratic element of the band – that no one member was seemingly more important than another, that they were all multi-instrumentalists and all wrote songs together in different combinations. (The Gouldman/Stewart and Godley/Creme axes were far less obvious in ’74, at least judging by the writing credits on Sheet Music.) And I think I was fascinated by the idea of a potentially limitless world of sounds waiting to be harnessed by musicians and used creatively in pop songs.

    That sense of adventurousness was mirrored in the unusual subject matters of 10cc’s songs. And yet they still wrote great pop songs, full of hooks as well as clever lyrics. For a long time, then, their second, third and fourth albums were my benchmark against which all rock and pop LPs with pretensions to significance were measured. 1. Is it catchy pop? and 2. Does it make me re-think what a pop song can be about? Later of course I had other or different needs but for a 12-13 year old boy that was plenty.

  21. 21
    Billy Smart on 13 Aug 2007 #

    I don’t have my heap of 70s music papers to hand at the moment, but there were two long NME pieces by Charles Shaar Murray which praise the virtuosity and invention of 10cc while condemning them as ultimately heartless. Although 10cc are one of my very favourite acts, its a view that I do sympathise with, which is why I find their second and third chart toppers problematic and disquieting records, genuine ‘guilty pleasures’.

    Rubber Bullets I do take pleasure from unreservedly, however! Though I do respond to it as a thrilling record, rather than as a song about rioting prisoners, while when I listen to Wizzard I am thinking with delight about a jiving woman! Perhaps the only 10cc single that I can gain unaffected joy from is The Dean & I.

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    Billy Smart on 13 Aug 2007 #

    Oh yes, can anybody remember what footage this song was used to compliment on The Rock ‘n’ Roll Years? Bloody Sunday and Kent State would both have been to early.

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    Doctor Casino on 13 Aug 2007 #

    Stairway To Heaven would have been a pretty potent chart force and actually quite easy to cut for radio play if need be (in much the same way Paranoid Android was

    I wish someone had done this for “Rubber Bullets.” It’s a pretty catchy song, but I think five minutes is pushing it on material like this! A lot of the lyrics are clearly just filling time, too…I mean, does “Is it really such a crime / For a guy to spend his time” add much to the narrative?

    Agreed with those who point up the multivalent quality of the thing in terms of irony – I’d add that it’s politically vague, too, to a degree that I sort of regard as craven pandering. Depending on where you stand, you can sympathize with those jolly convicts having a dance and being gunned down with “non-lethal” ammunition…or with the vicious authority figures.

    The band do tip their hand in favor of the former with things like the Uncle Sam line and the degree to which the authorities come across as arbitrary oppressors here, just keeping down the rock and roll…but then I have to wonder, is the abuse of prisoners really something we can treat in such a light and goofy fashion? 10cc seem to picture their cast in broad comic-strip mode, the “Hogan’s Heroes” of pop. I feel like in some future, more enlightened era this song will be cited as an example of how cavalier and cold-hearted the supposedly forward-thinking youth culture actually was. It doesn’t raise my ire that much, mind you – it just kind of makes me wonder.

    It is, however, about fifty million times better than “Student Demonstration Time,” which lifts “Riot In Cell Block #9” in order to systematically ruin it. The updated inversion of “Jailhouse Rock” here is, as Tom observes, considerably more lucrative.

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    Rosie on 13 Aug 2007 #

    Light and goofy? I’m not sure that the political element is that easily dismissed. It seems to me that Rubber Bullets is the musical equivalent of a Terry Pratchett novel – lots of froth and easy laughs, but behind all the slapstick there are serious points to be made.

    Ulster was a touchy subject in 1973. The BBC had already banned McCartney’ protest. Transferring the allusion to an American prison riot was a distraction but the message was clearly there for anybody who wanted to read it. Just as, in a different musical sphere, Verdi set Un Ballo in Maschera in colonial Boston, absurdly, when everybody knew that it was really about the assassination of the King of Sweden. But assassinating monarchs in mid-nineteenth-century Europe was a guarantee of being kept off the stage.

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    byebyepride on 14 Aug 2007 #

    10CC rock u r all teh ghey.

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    Doctor Casino on 14 Aug 2007 #

    Maybe you had to be there. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been unable to really get a song because of being American and 25, so I’m happy to concede that. “The message was clearly there” – not for me though! I’m really not sure what the message is, and I’m probably paying more attention to the song than its intended audience..

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    Rosie on 14 Aug 2007 #

    No, the message probably isn’t there to those who weren’t around at the time. It was important in 1973, but I don’t think Godley Creme and Gouldman were planning on having their little spat analysed thirty-four years hence.

    Rubber Bullets has, however, survived as a rollickingly good song, demonstrating that there is much more to it than a veiled political statement. It’s still familiar today. I don’t think that can be said of Give Ireland Back To The Irish, can it?

    On the other hand, if part of this exercise is a social history of the post-war UK as reflected in the popular music it generated, then drawing attention to the political implications is valid. It’s part of the raison d’être of the song even if that element has faded away leaving behind just the song. The fact that the song stands up on its own is entirely in its favour.

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    Pete on 14 Aug 2007 #

    Here for more details is a chart from Wikipedia of the number of rubber (and latterly plastic) bullet rounds used in Northern Ireland in the seventies:

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    Marcello Carlin on 14 Aug 2007 #

    “Rollicking” – there’s a word you never hear nowadays, and so far it’s been applied twice to “Rubber Bullets” here!

    The verdict of Dale, last time he played it on POTP:
    “Such a good single.”

    I imagine that a Dale Winton version of Popular could be written very quickly.

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    Tom on 14 Aug 2007 #

    A lot of 70s pop is rollicking.

    I think the political angle (I dunno if it qualifies as anything so bludgeoning as a “message”) is hugely helped by the rollicking-ness: a bunch of smart alecks thinking “let’s get a song mentioning rubber bullets into the top 10” feels more effective than a more straightforward protest (this is what Rosie is saying I think) (this is also why I think “Wham! Rap” is one of the best political songs of the Thatcher era)

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