“I Would Have Thought In The Middle Of The Atlantic In The Middle Of The Night That Rockets Must Mean Trouble”: “I’m Not In Love” by 10cc
"watching for night,
with absinthe eye
cocked on the lone, late,
(Sylvia Plath, "Prospect," 1956)
This story begins in 1954, before most people had really recognised anything called rock, and a pop record which is half-perfect. That record, which stayed at number one in our charts for ten weeks, was “Cara Mia” by David Whitfield with Mantovani and his Orchestra and Chorus. Now, Whitfield was never the most subtle of singers and his in-your-face bellowing is somewhat distracting – it is significant that he was the first British reality media star (not from television, because at that time Opportunity Knocks was only broadcast on Radio Luxembourg) since his climactic high C at the end of “Cara Mia” is like a display of gymnastics, or an athletic field event; can he do that triple loop or throw that javelin beyond the stadium? It proves that technical prowess can often render itself unlistenable.
But the magic here lies in the extraordinary arrangement provided by Mantovani, who indeed co-wrote the song; the record begins with, and is secretly, if serenely, powered by a high-voiced cluster of ethereal choir. Lena pointed out to me that it was probably directly inspired by the closing “Neptune, the Mystic” movement of Holst’s Planets Suite, then less than forty years old, the ending of which Imogen Holst described as “unforgettable, with its hidden chorus of women's voices growing fainter and fainter...until the imagination knew no difference between sound and silence.” Mantovani’s trademark sleep-well-Britain strings are also in evidence. But the remarkable moment in the record comes halfway through where the song actually pauses; the choir stops and everything hangs suspended in a momentary mid-air limbo before a key change is gently introduced.
Whitfield did not live long – and, like so many of his contemporaries, was more or less obliterated by the oncoming rock ‘n’ roll boom, conveying them all to a Talking Pictures TV land of grey, sepulchral ghosts (listening to old pre-rock pop of the fifties is now largely akin to viewing faded parchment from unplaceable history). And I cannot imagine a surviving sixty-year-old Whitfield doing “Miss Sarajevo.” All I will say is that some records would have been likely to leave an indelible impression on children of an impressionable age growing up in, say, fifties Manchester.
* * * *
My chief prompt for this piece was White Star Liner, the new E.P. by the group Public Service Broadcasting which comprises four pieces commissioned to commemorate the Titanic. The work begins with jaunty, boisterous chords as the ship is assembled in Belfast and then sets sail, before descending into unsteady ambient drones as the ship comes to its inevitable end before being raised from the sea many decades later. The words of survivor Eva Hart are heard, with particular emphasis on her protest that there weren’t enough lifeboats on the ship and that hundreds of people died needlessly. Comparisons with the current refugee crisis sprang instantly to mind.
But this was not the first experimental musical work inspired by the disaster. Gavin Bryars composed The Sinking Of The Titanic in 1969 but it was not performed until 1972 (with some revisions) and was not released on record until 1975 as half of the first album on Obscure Records, the experimental music label set up by Bryars’ old friend Brian Eno (who himself was swimming in suspended waters throughout his own Another Green World at the time). The work takes its lead from the account of the ship’s wireless operator Harold Bride (who was badly injured but survived) who noted that as the ship sank, the brass band on deck appeared to continue to play – an episcopal hymn entitled “Autumn.” From this, Bryars imagined how the hymn would sound underwater and how its tones would reverberate throughout the atmosphere. In its original recording, it is a moving portrait of unwanted stillness – and Eva Hart’s voice can, again, be heard in places – with no moorings or even gravity audibly present.
That might also have had an effect on what 10cc did.
* * * *
The song begins with a chord, if it can be called a chord, hitherto unknown to the charts; a cluster, but not quite whole tones; augmented but not dissonant; a choir not exclusively of human voices. There is something not quite human about that cluster, or the patiently pulsing drum machine heartbeat which paces it. The opening suspended chord was Graham Gouldman’s idea.
Then two floating Fender Rhodes electric pianos, slightly overlapping in their overdubs, enter on the left channel, with a modest acoustic guitar being strummed on the right. One gets the feeling that this is bossa nova for the 30th century; but there is nothing restful or zestful about the tempo or chord sequence, which may have owed something to Ace's hit of several months previously "How Long" or even Hall and Oates' "She's Gone" from 1973. Then the chords swerve into an indecisive minor key as the choir swells temporarily, to allow the small and troubled voice of Eric Stewart to sing with as much defiance as his tiny resources allow: "I'm not in love, so don't forget it/It's just a silly phase I'm going through." Then, slightly bolder in the hope that this may postpone a scent or punch, he proclaims: "And just because I call you up/Don't get me wrong, don't think you've got it made."
Why is he "not in love"? The contralto section of the choir (Lol Crème) responds: "It's because..." but then every "because" dissolves into the uncertain ether, with no actual reason being stated. But the singer's fear systematically increases in the second verse; there is a quiet relish of desperation as he almost begs: "So if I call you, don't make a fuss/Don't tell your friends about the two of us." Or, some might comment, even tell the police.
Now I don’t wish to dispute what Eric Stewart, who co-wrote the song, has said about its inspiration. I am sure that the idea did indeed come from his wife who once complained to him that in all the years they’d been married he rarely, if ever, said to her “I love you.” Although Stewart protested that if he did say it all the time, it would be rendered a cliché, he did think about writing a song about loving someone which determinedly avoided saying “I love you.”
But once released into the air, music becomes intangible, open to as many alternative interpretations as there are listeners. But as with "Every Breath You Take" (and, unfortunately, "Knock Three Times") it is startling, or possibly amusing, to see how many couples use or used this song as a romantic, arms-around-each-other last-dance-of-the-evening number when its subject matter could be perceived as anything but - that, however, was 10cc's modus operandi; as with two years previously, when they got folk dancing to a jaunty little bubble-rock song about a prison riot and massacre, "I'm Not In Love" leaves me with a feeling of bemusement that what could easily be interpreted as a grim study of the mind of a stalker should have proved so...enticing.
A second "it's because" vanishes with the song's heartbeat into a diffuse black hole, through which the neurological scanner camera now passes to reveal a state of indefinable collapse; choral drones, backed either by kazoos or a very early prototype of the Fairlight sampler, glide at right angles to plucked piano and synthesiser tones. A bass guitar meanders briefly but sturdily through this matrix of the random, then gives way to a whisper whose gender is not immediately identifiable, a looped whisper of "Big boys don't cry," proceeding steadily from left channel to right. Not only does this recall Holst, Mantovani and Bryars – not to mention Mike Oldfield, or the Beach Boys – but the abrupt irruption of a rational female voice amidst introspective male musing will be heard again seven years later: “I care enough to know I could never love you.”
The song's structure reasserts itself, but the singer's mind continues to batter itself to death with its own and only vaguely remorseful denial. Stewart's teeth and lips bear down with subtle aggression on the "nasty stain" section of the line "It hides a nasty stain that's lying there" - and he puts undue passion and despair into the sudden octave leap of "lying" (and we’ll have to think about that “nasty stain” at length). There is a third "it's because" before the song proceeds into its most conventional section, as Stewart maintains "Ooh, you'll wait a long time for me" - the only part of this record which recalls the Beatles - before the first verse is repeated, this time with a tumescent fear ("so don't forget it" gets an extra intermediary syllable in "forget" as though underlining it with genuine threat, and "got it made" stops just short of being howled).
"I'm not in love," concludes the singer; then, with one final, agonised glance at the world which he is about to vacate, repeats it half an octave higher before he too disappears into a madness. The opening motif returns, but the choir increases in intensity and number until it is almost oppressively flooding the speakers with tones which nearly go beyond any recognisable music (Ligeti's Atmospheres is the nearest useful comparison point) as though steadily annihilating the mind. Finally, the opening distant cluster and pulse return, but now in stasis, the disintegrating icicles of keyboard confirming that the support system is about to be switched off, or the iron door to be closed shut forever.
The above refers to the full, six-minute version of the song which appears on the official 45 rpm single issue (as opposed to the unsatisfactory 3:30 radio edit which still gets most of the radio plays). It used to be that I was very apt to take the song and performance for granted; but then I heard it again, somewhere in the middle of the last decade, in the context of Radio 2's Pick Of The Pops, featuring the Top 20 from that week in 1975, and was reminded what a radical break it actually represented. Look through the rest of that list and there are the gloomy fag-ends of glam rock, cynical by-the-book singles from artists too long in the game to try harder, ghastly MoR offcuts, even ghastlier novelty hits and bizarrely inexplicable reissues. In that chart is really only “Autobahn” by Kraftwerk and “Disco Stomp” by Hamilton Bohannon to point towards the future in different but comparable ways. And then, at the end, at number one, came "I'm Not In Love," and in comparison to nearly everything which had preceded it, the record sounded like 200 years from tomorrow. It's easy to see how this inspired the young Trevor Horn - Dollar's "Give Me Back My Heart" is an explicit homage, and could even serve as a sequel, to "I'm Not In Love" - but given the common factor of Strawberry Studios in Cheshire, which 10cc owned and where they made their records, the innovations of Martin Hannett's work with Joy Division also come to premature mind (hear "The Eternal" towards the end of Closer and the influence is quietly evident). So, yes, "I'm Not In Love" served as a harbinger for much of what I loved in pop music at a crucial age, but also continues to stand alone as a portrait of emotional and mental collapse rare in its acuity and unsentimentality. The ice is sufficiently cold to form a pick. Or the singer's end, the choir of gas emanating from the oven adjacent to the window he neglected to keep open.
Alternatively, is somebody likely to say something about moments in love?
"Is it the sea you hear in me,
Or the voice of nothing, that was your madness?"
(Plath, "Elm [for Ruth Fainlight]," 19 April 1962)
Date Record Made Number Two: 26 July 1975
Number Of Weeks At Number Two: 3
Records At Number One: “The Hustle” by Van McCoy and The Soul City Symphony, “One Of These Nights” by Eagles and “Jive Talkin’” by The Bee Gees
UK Chart Position: 1
Other Information: The song was initially tried out as a straight bossa nova ballad but nobody liked it and the group therefore turned their attention to the epic, multi-sectional “Une Nuit A Paris” which, with its florid piano, quasi-operatic choirs and hilarious non-sequiturs, may or may not have influenced “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Then Godley and Crème, or Godley, or Crème, depending on different sources, suggested redoing the song with voices rather than instruments. Much of what you hear on this record comes down to the four musicians “playing” the studio console, sliding volume sliders up and down (10cc can fairly be divided into the pop minds – Stewart and Gouldman – and the experimental minds – Godley and Crème). There also originally existed a vocal bridge but, again, nobody liked it.