LONDON – This may not be the best time to release a new album, but as he comes out the other side of a mild case of COVID-19, Graham Gouldman, one of the finest song writers in pop history, is hopeful. His new album “Modesty Forbids” just came out, his UK tour “Heart Full of Songs” is rescheduled for the autumn, and his senses of smell and taste are coming back.
“Luckily, I was back from a tour in Australia and New Zealand [when I got sick] and could be home during the time,” Gouldman tells The Times of Israel.
Usually Gouldman’s timing and taste are impeccable. He is one of pop music’s greats, though nowhere near as famous as he should be. The man who wrote timeless classics such as The Hollies’ “Bus Stop,” Herman’s Hermits’ “No Milk Today,” The Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul” and “For Your Love,” and his own 10cc’s 1975 smash “I’m Not in Love” (used in 2014 movie “Guardians of the Galaxy”), among many other hits, is as humble as it gets.
Gouldman began his phenomenal song-writing run aged 19 in the mid-1960s, and self-effacingly chalks it all up to coincidence.
“I can only tell you that I was born in the right time,” he says over the phone from his home in northwest London. “I had a gift, I had encouragement and a guitar. And the music I was listening to was so inspirational. So let’s put it down to that combination.”
How it started
Gouldman was born in 1946 in north Manchester to a Jewish family; in 1957 his late cousin Ronnie brought him a guitar from Spain.
“I was 11 years old and I fell in love with it,” he recalls. “My parents wanted me to take lessons, so I took two, but I didn’t want to play scales. I wanted to play pop chords and I taught myself.
“I wrote something the day I got the guitar and I was lucky with the music that was coming out at the time and the artists that were around the time. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for someone who wasn’t good academically but had a gift for music and was being encouraged by my parents and other people I met around that time,” says Gouldman.
This 60-year love affair with music became a calling in 1963 when the songs of a new band from Liverpool hit the air waves. Hearing The Beatles’ “Please Please Me” for the first time “changed my life, simple as that,” Gouldman says.
“I knew the Beatles from listening to ‘Love Me Do,’ but ‘Please Please Me’ — the second single — just changed my brain,” he says. “The feeling that I got from listening to it was so profound; and it happened to other people. I decided there and then that this was it for me. That I only wanted to do music.”
Gouldman says it’s lucky he wasn’t a better student. “I was one of those kids who keeps thinking about music all the time. Had I been good at anything else, my parents might have pushed me in another direction. But they recognized that I had a gift and they nurtured it.”
He started playing in bands in Manchester and performing at The Jewish Lad Brigade, a local club where two other future members of 10cc, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, also played. Together with Eric Stewart they became the most successful three-quarters Jewish band in history.
Gouldman is a proud secular Jew who prefers these days not to work on Yom Kippur. Although he grew up in a traditional house going to synagogue on the Sabbath and then to Old Trafford to watch soccer, he prefers to call himself Jewish by ethnicity.
“It’s my tribe, my brothers and sisters, and I think we are special and I’m very proud to be Jewish,” he says.
Gouldman is ready with an answer when asked about the now-replaced Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, under whose leadership the party has been accused of fostering systemic anti-Semitism over the last five years.
I’ve never been subjected to anti-Semitism in my work for over 60 years of being a songwriter and musician
“Something did change with him,” Gouldman says. “The way he acted or reacted to anti-Semitism in the Labour Party was a fucking disgrace, excuse my language. It’s all I can say.”
But, Gouldman is quick to add, “in the music business there is no color, creed or religion. I’ve never been subjected to anti-Semitism in my work for over 60 years of being a songwriter and musician. We see each other only as musicians, and it’s a multi-cultural, multi-colored and multi-faceted world that I’m very proud to be a part of.”
The start of Gouldman’s career was monumental. Working by day in a men’s clothing shop, Gouldman wrote a string of pop milestones.
The idea for “No Milk Today” came from his father Hymie, who saw an empty milk bottle and a note for from the milkman. “You should write a song about it,” he told his teenage son.
“Dad,” recounts Graham in his tours, “that is a really really crap idea. Who would like to hear a song about a milk shortage?”
“No, no,” explained the father. “It’s a metaphor for a broken relationship. For a house where love has left.”
The son understood and wrote the timeless hit performed by Herman’s Hermits.
Gouldman’s father also happened to be a creative himself, writing plays, poetry, newspaper op-eds and running an amateur dramatic society alongside his paid day-job in fashion. He was a massive help, says Gouldman.
“I credit him with so much, particularly in the early days — but even with 10cc,” says Gouldman. “The song ‘Art for Art’s Sake,’ for example — it was a thing he used to say: ‘Art for art’s sake and money for God’s sake.’ That was a phrase that he used to say, and although he wasn’t a cynical man, he found that phrase funny, and so did I.”
“My father was an artist himself, although he didn’t make a living from it. He should have been a professional writer, but he had a family to bring up and it would have a big risk to do that,” says Gouldman.
Gouldman also credits his father with the first verse of the 1966 Hollies’ hit “Bus Stop.”
“We talked about writing a song by that name, because I used to work as an outfitter those days and I took the bus to work every day. I came home one day, and he wrote the first verse,” says Gouldman. “I took the song to my bedroom and wrote the music and later the rest of the song in my head. And it was one of the most important songs I wrote, if not the most important. And I owe it to him.”
Working with the greats
For the star-studded Yardbirds, Gouldman wrote “For Your Love” — a song first rejected by the band’s record company — and “Heart Full of Soul,” with the barnstorming guitar of young Jimmy Page. “Evil Hearted You” followed and later earned a sumptuous dark cover by the Pixies.
These were all songs of yearning for love that, much later in his career, brought him an offer from punk royalty The Ramones to produce their 1981 album “Pleasant Dreams.”
“It was an unusual offer,” Gouldman says. “When they first approached me, I asked, ‘Why do you want me to work with you, we are so far apart musically?’ At that point, 10cc has been so successful. They said, ‘It’s got nothing to do with 10cc but with the ’60s, bands like the Yardbirds and the Hollies.’ They identified with them and they thought it would work. I was still rather skeptical about it and said let’s record two or three tracks and see how it goes before committing, and they liked it.”
The Ramones’ songs became international hits played by millions all over the world. Gouldman became an overnight pop prodigy whose songs were on radio and TV, and began to earn truly good money for the first time in his life.
“[But] I stayed in Manchester, which is a down-to-earth, no-nonsense place,” says Gouldman. “My parents and friends wouldn’t have allowed me to get big-headed and I’m not such a person. I was just happy.”
From Manchester with melancholy
The best of Gouldman’s songs have a strong melody and a touch of sadness. He was inspired in that respect by The Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun,” which used an unusual chord sequence. “It is much more soulful and more inspirational. I find it darker and deeper and I like this melancholy,” he says.
Another melancholic gem that Gouldman wrote but which went under the radar is “East West,” which he wrote for Herman’s Hermits. It’s a song about a success and missing home, a geographical and emotional distance and longing to belong — with the key line, “and I feel all alone – and I think of my home.” This short but poignant song was unearthed later by Morrissey with an excellent cover.
“It’s a very Mancunian song for some reason,” Gouldman says. “It makes me always think of Manchester, and I love Morrissey’s cover, it’s great. I never met Morrissey but I quite like him — he is so Mancunian and so am I. In fact, I like the Smiths and I love Johnny Marr; he is great, really great! He is someone that I’d like to work with one day. I don’t know him, but I hope our paths will cross one day.”
Such a meeting would be a cross-generation Mancunian music dream. With 10cc, the Smiths, Joy Division, New Order, The Fall, and The Stone Roses to name just a few, Manchester was and is a musical hub like no other.
“The city has always had a creative heart with lots of theater, classical music, rock music, literature, art galleries and so much more,” Gouldman explains. “Also, it being a university city, it has plenty of venues for music. I think there is a creative gene within Mancunians.”
After working a number of years on the commercial side of music (“Waste of time, nothing good about it”) in New York, Gouldman returned to England and worked with his future bandmates from 10cc in a recording studio in Stockport, as owners, producers, and the house band.
I think there is a creative gene within Mancunians
The four members, all multitalented musicians, joined forces. Each played different instruments, wrote songs and produced. The name 10cc was given to the band by pop impresario Jonathan King and, in contrast to mythology, Gouldman says it doesn’t have any physiological meaning.
With hits like “Donna,” “I’m Mandy Fly Me,” “The Wall Street Shuffle” and “Art for Art’s Sake” — and their number one singles “Rubber Bullets” and “Dreadlock Holiday” — 10cc became one of the most successful bands of the ’70s
But it was the hit single “I’m Not in Love” that left a lasting impression.
The song is a technical masterpiece, a studio work of art that was ahead of its time, multiplying the band members’ voices over and over and over to perfection. According to band member Kevin Godley, the group originally recorded this song as a “lounge-lizard, bossa-nova thing,” which clearly didn’t work. When they revisited it, they came up with a new approach.
“It was possibly out of desperation of not knowing what to do that we tried all the washy voices,” Gouldman recalls. “Forget instruments, forget guitars, forget drums. Just voices, like a heavenly choir, like a tsunami of voices.”
But with such clusters of talents and ambitions, the band’s lifespan was short. Godley and Creme went on to revolutionize the MTV-era videoclips while Gouldman kept the 10cc brand name and continued to tour under it, with new accompanying musicians.
“Looking back,” he says, “we were such a creative force that it’s a shame we couldn’t carry on, and it’s something that I’ll always regret. I tried to stop it, as we all did. But there was nothing that could have we done.”
“But I’m happy with what we got,” he says.
From fan to band mate
Gouldman still records and performs his own material, and is also part of the “Ringo Starr & His All Starr Band” line-up. They played together in Tel Aviv in 2018, and for Gouldman to work with a Beatle is still a moving experience, he says, taking him from fan to collaborator.
Still, with his body of work, does he feel he should have become more famous?
“There is nothing I can do about that,” Gouldman says. “I’m very happy with my career and very grateful. But it is one of these things; who knows why these things happen. Some people get recognized for not doing that much, and other don’t. I’m not dissatisfied with these things. It’s not for me to say; I am modest person. I hate to show off, and people who brag — maybe it shows that they need to big themselves up.”
“But I’m self-confident,” he says. “My works speaks for itself.”
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