Eric Stewart is one of the finest singer/songwriters the UK has ever produced. As a founding member of 10cc, he’s responsible for hits such as, ‘The Wall Street Shuffle’, ‘The Things We Do For Love’, and one of the most famous and universally loved songs of all time, ‘I’m Not in Love’. Not only did Eric sing on many of the group’s biggest hits, he also engineered and produced each album himself. Adam Coxon went to meet Eric Stewart to hear all about his life and career in the music business.
So, I guess that we should start at the beginning! I believe that James Burton was one of your early childhood influences. Was he the reason that you wanted to be a musician?
ES : Three guitarists. James Burton (on Ricky Nelson records), Scotty Moore with Elvis and Cliff Gallup with Gene Vincent. I never had any desire to be a singer. The guitarists were the guys who fascinated me. It’s the Country Blues style which has stayed with me really.
Do you still get the same enjoyment out of playing the guitar today?
ES : Yes I do. I pick the guitar up everyday. I always come up with something I may use. If it’s good enough, it goes into the storage box at the back of my head and I’ll use it to write a song or part of a song.
I’d imagine that The Oasis Club in Manchester holds particular fondness in your memory as in a round-about way, it was because of you that Wayne Fontana got a record deal.
: I hope so. It was possibly a lovely two way blessing. I was there
as a punter. People in Manchester knew I was a guitarist. I’d been in
this wonderful group called, “The Emperors of Rhythm”. A lot of things
have happened in my life which have been pure luck. Just being there at
the right time, so to speak. I was in the coffee bar of The Oasis Club
one night and Wayne came in and said that his guitarist hadn’t turned
up and that he had to do an audition with Philips Phonogram. I asked
Wayne if I could help and so we did a little rehearsal in the dressing
room to see which key he was singing in. I already knew the songs.
So, we did the audition, I went back to the coffee bar and about a half an hour later, Wayne came running in. “Eric, Eric!”, he shouted. “Philips have offered me a recording contract!” I said, “Brilliant! You can buy me a drink now.” He said, “No! No! Listen! They want to sign you as well!” So suddenly I was in a group with a recording contract. We became Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders. We became a chart group quickly, with our version of, ‘Hello Josephine’ which went into the charts at Number 46 and when you’re a chart group, your money goes up. Pretty soon, I was earning more in one night than my father could earn in one week.
It all seemed to be going so well so, why did the split come with Wayne Fontana?
ES : One night we were on stage at a Wembley Ballroom gig and we were having a bit of a row with Wayne about which songs we should sing. Halfway through the set, Wayne turned to us and said, “I’m off! It’s all yours!”, and he walked off the stage. We thought, “What are we gonna do now?”. We decided to carry on and play the songs that we normally sang on a show and we went down a storm! The next day we had a meeting with Wayne and our management in Manchester and Wayne told us that he was leaving the group and he was going to pursue a solo career. This was following the trend of other singers which went on to leave groups at a similar time. We carried on as the Mindbenders. We recorded “Groovy Kind of Love” on the suggestion of Jack Baverstock. He had played the song to me and he thought that my voice would suit it. It was Number One in England and America.
So why did you make the decision to call time on The Mindbenders? Was it simply because you weren’t playing the kind of music that you wanted to be playing anymore?
: It came to an end rather drastically. It was the first time we were
asked to play Cabaret. You’re essentially playing to happy, inebriated
drunks. We were playing at this Cabaret club up in Newcastle. After
about the third night, the Compere came up to me and said, “Eric, your
music is beautiful but you gotta communicate with your audience a bit
more. Tell them a few jokes”. So, I tried telling a few jokes for a
couple of nights but I’m not a natural onstage joker and it was just
At the end of that week we drove home and I said to the guys if that was all that was in it for us now, I didn’t want it. So, the group folded as there was no-one else to take the lead vocal. At the same time, I had started recording B sides and demo’s in a little studio. This was Intercity Studios in Stockport which was above a Hi-Fi shop. The guy running it was Peter Tattersall and one day he said to me that the studio would be closing soon. I thought, well I’ve always wanted to get behind a control desk in a studio, I had this desperate desire to see what I could do. To put my own stamp on things. I suggested to Pete that we should open a professional studio and that I would finance it. He agreed and we found a building on Waterloo Road in Stockport. It had enough rooms to build a control room, a full studio, reception and a kitchen. It became Strawberry Studios. Named after The Beatles song, “Strawberry Fields Forever” which was my favourite record at the time. Strawberry Studios was where 10cc were born.
Would you say that Strawberry Studios gave you the freedom to be more creative and allowed you to develop your skills as an engineer?
ES : Yes. Mainly because we didn’t have to pay for anything. We had our own studio. We were able to experiment. We were always searching for something different. (Kevin) Godley and (Lol) Crème were brilliant at doing that. They would pull something out of the bag that you would never believe that anyone could ever write about. Around this time, our manager had met Neil Sedaka and he told Neil that there are three geniuses, Godley, Crème and Stewart working in a studio near Manchester and that he should book some studio time. So, he tentatively booked two weeks. Neil came over from America and stayed at The Midland Hotel in Manchester. On that very first day, we went to meet him and he played us some songs that he had written and we thought that they were great. We got on really well with Neil and he liked our input. So, he decided to book the studio for a month. We thought, Great! We can eat! Solitaire was the name of the album and he got some great hits out of it.
Would you say that working with Sedaka was again another turning point in your life and career? It was after those sessions that you decided that you didn’t want to carry on just getting session fees. You wanted to get your own band together.
: Yes. By that time, Graham Gouldman had joined us. Neil said to us,
“You guys can all sing. You’ve had hit records Eric. You’ve written
hit songs Graham. Why don’t you guys get together and write something,
you’ve got all the ingredients to do it.” It was that little click. We
thought, why not? Lets try and get our own deal together. So me and
Gouldman wrote ‘Waterfall’ and Kevin and Lol wrote the B side ‘Donna’.
The Beatles Apple label were kind of interested in ‘Waterfall’ but they
never really got back to us. Then I remembered Jonathan King from The
Mindbenders days and he had just started his own record label, UK
Records. I called him for old times sake and he asked me to go over and
he said he would listen to the records. So he listened to them and he
said “Eric, ‘Waterfall” is a nice song but ‘Donna’ is a smash. It’s a
hit!” He said that he would call our management and he would do a deal
with us. He asked what the group was called. We hadn’t got a name.
Jonathan said, “Ok, the weirdest thing happened a couple of nights a
go. I had a dream that I saw a poster over Wembley Stadium saying,
“10cc, the greatest group on the world!””. I asked him what it meant
and he said he didn’t know.
So, I rang the other guys and asked them
what they thought of the name and they said, “The greatest group in the
world eh? Let’s go for it, it might be a premonition”. So, Jonathan
released, ‘Donna’. It made the Number Two slot. It was a hit. We had a
reason to continue and to write. We’d spend days and weeks writing.
In the meantime, we had been recording another album with Sedaka, “The
Tra La Days are Over”. Around this time, Godley and Crème had written
another crazy song based on a James Cagney movie, ‘Angels with Dirty
Faces’ and it was about gangsters in a prison. ‘Rubber Bullets’ was
about the Attica State Prison riots in America.
The Police had used rubber bullets to stop the convicts rioting and escaping. It was more like a Beach Boys song than anything. Lots of mass harmonies. We released, ‘Rubber Bullets’ and the BBC banned it. They thought it was about Northern Ireland and the riots there. We said It’s not! Without them playing it, it somehow crept into the charts. Then as it got higher, we had to play on Top of the Pops, legally. Two weeks later it was a Number One! Then the ‘10cc’ album which followed was a Number One!
How would you approach songwriting back then? If you listen back to most any of the 10cc songs, they’re all incredibly intricate with such bizarre changes. How would these wacky changes and songs come about?
ES : Basically you had 4 ‘off the wall’ minds all wanting to get in on the action. We always said to each other, no matter how dumb you think it is, try it. Lol was always the one who would say, “What would it be like if…?” We were always like, “Come on, you can’t be serious”. We tried it though. It was that conflict between a straight brain and a wacky brain and how they compromised and what they came out with but you had to get it all in a three minute song! “The Dean and I” and “Rubber Bullets” contained as much as in one song as a musical!
Is it true that, ‘I’m Not in Love’ was initially going to be scrapped?
ES : I take it that you know the story of how the song came about in the first place?
Yes I do. (Eric‘s wife, Gloria asked him why he never said, “I love you“ very often. Eric argued that saying it too often devalued it‘s meaning. So, Eric came up with the idea for a song where the person in the song would list all of the reasons why he wasn‘t in love, when it was in fact clear that he was)
: I wrote all the lyrics first and the intro chords and then
collaborated with Graham Gouldman on it. Gouldman was the ‘Chordmaster’
and he knew the chords to every Beatles song! It was almost a Bossa
Nova feel that we had. We recorded it but none of us were sort of
leaping around, we said, it doesn’t work. So, I erased it and I wish I
hadn’t have done! We were economizing too. Those two inch tape reels
were £100 each! So anything we didn’t need, we recorded over. Walking
through the studio, occasionally I would hear the secretary walking
passed me and singing, ‘I’m Not in Love’ and then someone else, a young
guy, an engineer walking passed and whistling the melody and I thought,
“WHAT?!” There’s something here.
So I called the guys into the control
room. I said, “Ok, ‘I’m Not in Love’, we’ve scrapped it, I’ve erased
it but there’s something in it. Just listen to the people in the studio
walking round. There’s something there, we’ve just not nailed it.”
Then Kevin said, “Let’s do it all with voices. Let’s do the whole
backing track with voices”. Brilliant, but how? It was Lol who said,
“Tape Loops. Like the Mellotron”. You could make a loop that would
last forever if we could find a way to do it. So I started to think
about the mic stands and putting rollers on so that the tape could loop.
We spend three weeks doing the backing track, the “ahhh’s” on to
separate tape loops until we had 624 voices.
So after 3 weeks of going
“ahhhhh”, we were pretty sick of it. The backing track was very simple.
Me on electric piano, Kevin playing the bass drum on Lol’s Moog
Synthesizer which he had somehow tuned to sound like a bass drum and
also a little rhythm electric guitar. There it was. I did a guide
vocal which turned out to be so good that I couldn’t better it. So we
kept the guide vocal. Then we said, what can we do to fuck it up now?
Then Kevin said, “Why don’t we have a bass guitar solo?”. A bass
guitar solo in a love song?! A ballad?! Are you kidding?! OK, let’s
try it! Graham Gouldman played a beautiful bass guitar solo.
So we had everything down and Kevin was saying that there’s still room
for something else. Right at that moment, Kathy Redfern, our secretary
pops her head round the door and says, “Eric, there’s a telephone call
for you”. Kevin or Lol said, “That’s it! Let’s get her to say those
words that we scrapped! Be quiet. Big boys don’t cry. Big boys don‘t
cry”. We said, “Kathy, do you want to be a star? Will you come and say
these words onto the microphone”. And there she is for posterity.
30/40years later, she still gets fan mail! The way things happen with
that chemistry is amazing. But it was 6 minutes, 10 seconds long. We
couldn’t release it as a single, it was far too long. The record
company said, “Well, ‘Life is A Minestrone’ is great, let’s go with
that”. So, we said OK. That was a song which Lol and I wrote, when we
were on the way home from Strawberry one night. Lol turned the radio on
and we head the DJ say something and we thought it sounded like ‘Life
is a Minestrone’. By the time we got home because Lol lived near me, we
had written a whole chorus. We thought if Life is a Minestrone, we
were talking about pasta, what’s death? Death must be a cold lasagne!
They released it and it was a medium hit, it just kept the wind in our
Then we stared getting these telegrams from many people in the business. Roy Wood sent me a telegram saying, “Eric! You must release ‘I’m Not in Love’, it’s a masterpiece!”. Bryan Ferry nearly crashed his car, he had to stop his car and listen to it on the radio. He spoke to Kevin and told him that he had to get the song released. So we spoke to the record company and we said let’s go with this as a single. So the record company said, “Where are you going to edit it?” I said, “Would you like to tell me what you’d like cutting out of it?” They said, “No Eric, we’ll leave that to you”. I said, “Well I refuse, there’s not a part of that song I want to take out.” I was getting all stupid with it, I said, “Are you gonna tell Mozart to take something out of his bloody music? You wouldn’t dare!”. They told us that the BBC wouldn’t play it. It was true. The BBC refused to play it. Too long they said! BUT, it suddenly came in the charts at Number 29 and they had to play it by law and they had to put us on Top of the Pops. 3 weeks later it was Number 1 worldwide. Thank God I stuck to it and kept it full length!
You’ve been quite vocal in the past about not being happy with Graham Gouldman about using the name 10cc. Is that something you still feel strongly about?
: Yes I do. It’s not something I would do. I actually got a letter
from Graham Gouldman saying to me, “I just need to tell you officially
that I am going to go out on the road with a group doing our music but I
will never call it 10cc.” So he goes out on the road with a group
featuring some musicians that we had previously hired and some new
musicians too and he calls it 10cc!
I was the one who got the complaints about this. You’ve got all these people buying a ticket and Emailing me saying, “Where were you?” I got a whole boatload of emails to my website saying, “Where were you? I bought a ticket for 10cc and there was only Graham Gouldman there”. So, I had to send out a general email on my website and said, “I apologize for this but please don’t blame me. Myself and Lol Crème have never been asked to do a tour by anybody. No-one has ever asked us if we’d like to tour with Graham Gouldman. You go along and if you feel you’ve been cheated, ask for your money back. If you don’t feel like you’ve been cheated, that’s always up to you. You pays your money and you takes your choice.” I did write to Gouldman and said, “You can’t do this, you promised not to”. He said that it wasn’t his fault, it was the promoters. I thought that was a bit odd because he then releases a live CD and calls it 10cc. And it’s not 10cc! That’s got nothing to do with the promoters.
Are there any circumstances under which you’d consider performing live again?
ES : People do ask and someone has asked me recently. There’s always a possibility of something happening.
If you did perform live, I guess it would be a 10cc hits show and some of your solo material?
: Well, I haven’t really thought about it. What could you do? All of
the hits are there, which there’s probably enough for a show. Then
you’ve got all of the showstoppers. ‘One Night in Paris’ and ‘Feel the
Benefit’ and all of those crazy songs that were on the first four
albums. The ‘Old Wild Men’ Tour? Some guy contacted me through my
website. He said, “Why don’t we do a musical based on, ‘One Night in
Paris’? I can get the funding.” Now, ‘One Night in Paris’ is based on a
French story called, ‘Irma La Douce’. The basic story is a prostitute,
the death of a policeman and a guy who is trying to be someone else.
We started to research it and it took a lot of time. We found out that we would have to get the permission from the family of the writer of, ‘Irma La Douce’ because the writer was dead. The rights had been sold on and then onto to someone else and after two years of not being able to track the rights holder down, we bottled it. I said to Lol the other day, “Why the hell didn’t we do a musical? Everything you were writing was a bloody musical!” It never occurred to any of us at the time to do it. We missed a big chance there and we couldn’t get this one together with, ‘One Night in Paris’, which is a shame because I think it would make a wonderful musical. I can see it on stage, the prostitutes moving to that rhythm that Kevin put down on the drums.
How much input have you had in the many compilation albums that have been released?
ES : None whatsoever and I’m rather embarrassed about a lot of them. Universal chopped ‘I’m Not in Love’ in half on the ‘Tenology‘ box set! How could they do that?! How could they dare do that! There have been mistakes in the booklets of certain releases too. It can be quite frustrating really.
Do you feel any pressure when recording new material that people are constantly going to be comparing your music to the hits you had with 10cc?
: There is a pedigree behind me but if I’m doing something like singing
or playing guitar, that goes back long before 10cc. So, now I play
guitar better than I did in 10cc, I’m still developing as a guitarist.
To be compared with 10cc’s hits, no, I don’t think so because music has
shifted so drastically from where we left it. I think it had already
shifted by the time we were releasing, ‘Bloody Tourists’. The punk era
had really come in. We were well away from what was happening then.
What is interesting that is happening now in a few things that I’ve
been reading this week in the newspapers. Danny Baker doing these
programmes about the best LP’s. They’re all ‘60’s/’70’s LP’s, there’s
nothing after. So, if people start to go back and listen and maybe read
these interviews too, maybe that will awaken some people.
I do have people getting in touch from time to time from other bands saying, “I didn’t realize how good you were!” That’s always so nice. What worked in 10cc was this lovely raw talent that no-one was able to knock into shape. The fact that it was raw meant it kept coming up with new ideas like a plant springing out of the ground, that no-one had thought of hybrid-ing before. Whatever came out of the top of your head, you said.
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