Aug 07

10CC – “Rubber Bullets”

FT + Popular83 comments • 5,949 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. 31
    Erithian on 14 Aug 2007 #

    I think the purpose of Popular is whatever Tom and its contributors want it to be, and looking at the UK’s social history is high on the list (thinking back to Tom’s earliest observations on Coronation year!)

    Interesting thought about whether the political implications have faded away leaving just the song behind, coupled with the idea of whether the writers were planning on having the text analysed 34 years hence. Yes, most pop is throwaway and intended for the here and now, but much of it is also a form of artistic expression – and just as we’d consider a play or a book in the context of the times in which it was written, intended political implications in a song never lose their validity. A Victorian music-hall or folk song is better understood if you know a bit of context, and come to think of it, we still talk about the controversial other verses of “God Save The Queen”, don’t we? (and I don’t mean the Pistols version)

    I just found myself thinking, though –I’d love to see this song shoehorned into “The Shawshank Redemption”!

  2. 32
    Marcello Carlin on 14 Aug 2007 #

    Well, it’s all part of this ever changing world in which we live in, to quote another big hit of the same period…

  3. 33
    Tom on 14 Aug 2007 #

    The Purpose Of Popular shifts around a bit but yes the UK’s social history IS something I’m interested in – I’m a little wary of making explicit connections myself in the reviews, because I don’t know a lot about 70s Britain beyond fuzzy childhood impressions (and even those won’t kick in for another few years). But the comments box massive do an excellent job of making those links.

  4. 34
    Matthew H on 14 Aug 2007 #

    What an odd band they were – or, at least, seem now. There’s no one so sly, so “clever” and so consistently at the top of the singles chart these days. Either we’re a bunch of idiots, or 10cc’s brand of hook-filled knowing winks fell out of fashion. Well, of course it did.

    I find myself wallowing in the fancies of ‘I’m Mandy, Fly Me’ and ‘The Things We Do For Love’ a little more, but ‘Rubber Bullets’ is, erm, a rollicker.

  5. 35
    intothefireuk on 14 Aug 2007 #

    10cc’s ‘Donna’ showcased Lol’s falsetto beautifully and introduced us to the sublime production & clever lyrics that they would become infamous for. ‘Rubber Bullets’ had the production & the clever lyrics but wasn’t as striking a piece of pop at least to this observer. As aluded to earlier ‘The Dean & I’ was their next masterpiece. Was it the influence of JK that led them to choose to rely on the more unusual vocals of Lol & Kev at this stage of their career ? Odd in that Eric Stewart was the better known singer (Mindbenders). IIRC they were derided for being too pristine, too clever & arty & too boring on stage and therefore they certainly fitted more into the prog asthetic and which made it all the more welcome that they decided to hang around the pop chart rather than concentrate purely on albums.

    Nice also to hear ‘balls’ on the radio.

  6. 36
    strawfoot on 14 Aug 2007 #

    I actually think Rubber Bullets is close to the perfect pop song with its classic structure. I seem to remember there being some doubts about realising it as a single, not because of the title but because it contained a slow middle section which was generally considered a bad idea. The song is definitely not about Northern Ireland and the 10cc Rubber Bullets are ‘not real’ they just make the convicts ‘squeal’

    I think the restricted airplay rumour is untrue, although if the BBC had actually realised that it contained the line ‘we all got balls and brains” things might have been different. Incidentally I believe that the ‘balls’ line was Graham Gouldman’s only ‘writing’ contribution to this song.

    Eric Stewart’s guitar solo was overdubbed to a half-speed backing track, that’s how he manages that incredible piercing quality and also why I can’t hit those notes on my guitar.

    With regards to Sheet Music. I was always fascinated by the fact that the four wrote in pairs and in all of the six possible combinations. I cannot think of another example where this has happened.

    My vote for similar sounding song/style would go to Beach Baby by First Class

    One final thing there is a line that goes “Padre you talk to your boys” – At the time the song came out I used to think the line was “Padre you talk to your boss” :)

  7. 37
    Marcello Carlin on 14 Aug 2007 #

    The BBC didn’t spot “even when she was giving head” in “Walk On The Wild Side” a couple of months previously either. Maybe they had trouble filling the censor vacancy at the time.

    There is, however, a reference to “great balls of fire” in “Big Seven” by Judge Dread, which was banned by the BBC at the beginning of 1973.

  8. 38
    Rosie on 14 Aug 2007 #

    If you called a song ‘Rubber Bullets’ in 1973 there was no way it wasn’t going to suggest Ulster in the minds of any but the most naive. I’m sure the song’s writers weren’t in the least naive.

  9. 39
    Marcello Carlin on 14 Aug 2007 #

    Whatever the motive behind it, the record is still approximately a trillion times better than “Belfast Child” by Simple Minds.

  10. 40
    David Belbin on 14 Aug 2007 #

    The great 10CC record is the follow-up, ‘The Dean and I’ imho, but this one holds up too. ‘Sheet Music’ and the first singles collection are well worth having still. I remember my friend Mike getting tickets for us to see Steely Dan at Sheffield City Hall in ’73 (a gig that was cancelled, didn’t see them for another 20 odd years). In preparation I taped a few tracks from their first two albums (tape was expensive then) – as I was trying to get my 15 year old head around the Dan, 10CC were the obvious comparison, but the Dan turned out to have a wider, more distinctive purview. 10CC remained a semi-respectable listen until the demise of the original line-up, a respect that died with ‘Dreadlocks Holiday’. As it happens, I’m going to see the half 10CC that’s still touring at the self same Sheffield City Hall with the same friend in November. Dunno what it’ll be like, but I’m mildly curious…

  11. 41
    Marcello Carlin on 14 Aug 2007 #

    Yes, after Godley and Creme left they sort of became Geir 10cc.

  12. 42
    Erithian on 14 Aug 2007 #

    I think after a while they only played “Walk on the Wild Side” after a certain time of day. I remember hearing an interview with a Radio 1 producer who was exasperated that every new daytime DJ wanted to play it and he had to talk them out of it.

    And Big Seven, like all the Judge’s records, was naughty from start to finish – he’d have been dismayed if the BBC had played any of them.

    For Doc C, katstevens and any other newbies to 10cc reading this, there are plenty of titles referred to in this thread that you can search out – plus I’d recommend “Wall Street Shuffle”, “Life is a Minestrone” and “Good Morning Judge” from their non-Number 1 canon.

  13. 43
    Waldo on 14 Aug 2007 #

    I accept that a song called “Rubber Bullets” released in 1973 was always indeed going to suggest Ulster. It’s whether one decides to persue the implied allegory through the rest of the number, which is a matter for personal interpretation. And this is the joy of the whole of this project. For some, this track is all about the tragedies of The Troubles; for Dale Winton (whom I actually think does a fine job of POTP), it is “such a good single”, although he also said that about “Pepper Box” by The Peppers, which was a penny dreadful and nothing else.

  14. 44
    Erithian on 14 Aug 2007 #

    Well don’t forget Tom’s comment circa “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” that every song recorded between 1967 and 1972 is about Vietnam at one level or other!!

  15. 45
    strawfoot on 14 Aug 2007 #

    Marcello, I don’t think Big Seven was banned for the ‘balls of fire’ line!

    I accept that the Rubber Bullets/Northern Ireland connection would be made and of course 10cc were aware of this, but my point is that the song way is in no way about NI. I could write a song called ‘Global Warming’ or ‘Friendly Fire’ but they would not be about those subjects as typically portrayed in the news. That is a clever aspect of ‘pop’ writing. i.e. take a popular phrase of the day and then exploit it, but the golden rule never refer to the ‘obvious’.

  16. 46
    Waldo on 14 Aug 2007 #

    Judge Dread (Alex Hughes) was a minder for The Stones amongst other things. He also never discouraged the rumour that he was one of The Great Train Robbers, who was never caught (there were three of these), although to mind, the prospect of that was absurd. It isn’t quite true that Dread would have been dismayed had Auntie played any of his singles. He once released a maxi-single, a format which provided a number one for a bearded, squeaky “bubble”, whom we will be discussing in the drought year, with the specific intent on getting airplay for the one clean track, an excellent version of Skeeter Davis’ “End of the World”. Alas the ploy failed and the 45 remained out of the grubbies of The Hairy Cornflake and all the rest of the Radio One nonentities of the day.

    Dread’s version of “Je t’aime” was rollicking, by the way, especially the line: “Oh, come on deary, this IS 1975…” God bless the old bastard.

  17. 47
    Tom on 14 Aug 2007 #

    Erithian – I think my point is that for every song then you’ll find someone willing to SAY it’s about Vietnam (I may or may not agree).

  18. 48
    Doctor Casino on 14 Aug 2007 #

    “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.”

    I agree completely… I’m just trying to piece together what those political implications actually are. Everyone seems agreed that calling it “Rubber Bullets” would undoubtedly have drawn attention and made people think about Ireland… but what the song says or doesn’t say about that issue is still unclear to me. There seems to be something to the reading promulgated by strawfoot and others, that it’s called Rubber Bullets and for the band that’s where any attempt at social commentary ends. The song isn’t clearly straight or clearly ironic enough to make a statement. I don’t think they can get off that easily, is all. But maybe we should table this discussion until we get to Doctor Casino’s first number one, the jovial, knee-slapping “Racial Profilin’.” (Although for my money, the Doc doesn’t really take off until “Tuskeegee Experiment (Sign Me Up)”!)

  19. 49
    Pete on 14 Aug 2007 #

    A random conversation with my Dad on this issue tonight (ie, trying to work out if he had reclaimed his Best of 10CC or the weight of records upon it had whittled its sleeve to pancake width) elicited the following terse reply.
    “S’not about Northern Ireland son. Its about the Attica Prison Riots.”

    Which is an interesting viewpoint, and one worth throwing in the pot due to its timing and the more direct corollary between Rubber Bullets and an actual prison riot. (More details for the uninitiated like myself).

  20. 50
    Doctor Casino on 15 Aug 2007 #

    On the other hand, maybe I’m being unfair. I’m listening to Abba’s “Waterloo” right now, which, aside from sounding an awful lot like “Rubber Bullets,” is also borrowing a political/historical situation in a lazy, superficial manner, more or less to just get it to rhyme. Granted that “facing my Waterloo” is sort of an established trope, I suppose it’s still fair that if Abba can do this about something a few hundred years old, 10cc might do it about something contemporary in which they have equal disinterest as far as thoughtful analysis or taking a stand.

  21. 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”?

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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)

  25. 55

    shorter sukrat: meaning is a cheerfully squabbly community!

  26. 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.

  27. 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)

  28. 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!

  29. 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.

  30. 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

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