There was always something about 10cc that I never could take to with open arms. From their very name in, there was always an aura of the smug and knowing about them, something of those clever clever kids in the upper Sixth, smirking at jokes that only the 'in-crowd' will get. And yet underneath all of this annoyance, there was always bedrock enough to their output to not be able to dismiss them out of hand, and 'Rubber Bullets' is a good enough example of what I'm getting at.
Built around a vibe 'borrowed' from the Beach Boys' 'Fun Fun Fun', 'Rubber Bullets' basically re-writes 'Jailhouse Rock' from the point of view of the authorities. While Elvis and the Purple Gang were out to have a rocking good time in clink, 'Sergeant Baker' and the National Guard are out to put a stop to it with the titular ammunition and the rather ill humoured claim "I love to hear those convicts squeal, It's a shame these slugs ain't real". It's a nice idea, a clever one maybe and it canters at a fair old trot (apart from where it goes all slow and hymnal when the 'Padre' talks to the boys) but it's a loveless piece of work, the sound of a clever band busy slapping themselves on the back to celebrate their own cleverness.
Only it's not that clever. Not really - the Beach Boys themselves had already pulled a similar trick by re-writing 'Riot In Cell Block Number Nine' as the (frankly execrable) 'Student Demonstration Time'. Unless that reference was part of the joke too. You just can't tell with those crazy 10cc guys. I could go on, but easier I think to let them be hoist by their own petard - enter 'Rubber Bullets' into Wikipedia and you get Eric Stewart discussing the song -
"That's a double track solo on that. It's, it's very, very high, of course, going through a Marshall stack, then I slowed the tape to half speed – seven and a half [inches per second] – and recorded it, you know, going [plays singles picked notes slowly] and when you speed it back up you've got an octave up, but there's a screaming fuzz on the top of it, that's an octave higher than it was recorded. So it's a very unusual sound done in that way, just an experiment. Because 10cc, we love to experiment, we used to love to waste time".
That's fine Eric, you waste as much time as you want experimenting. Just don't expect me to waste mine in listening.......and that would have been my full stop if I'd been feeling particularly bitchy. But as I said up front, it's never quite that easy to dismiss 10cc out of hand, and so it's not here.
For a start, 'Rubber Bullets' is a very well constructed song full of prog-like twists and turns that never disappears up its own arse. And that's because no matter how clever it likes to think it is, 'Rubber Bullets' is never ever pretentious; it doesn't aim itself direct at the 'proper music' chin stroking muso and it's poppy enough for to welcome everyone to join in the party (which puts it at least one step higher that 'See My Baby Jive').
Secondly, despite it's jocular tone and Americana references, its 1973 setting would have lent 'Rubber Bullets' a harder, political edge than is perhaps apparent now. With violence ever flaring in Northern Ireland, parallels between Sergeant Baker's attempt to put down rock and roll with the British Army's use of rubber bullets to quell disturbance (with three actually killed by those bullets during 'the troubles' between 1972-73) are glaring. The band don't explicitly side with anyone and the 'Load up, load up, load up with rubber bullets' can be taken either way, but the use of a dumb sounding voice on the above "I love to hear those convicts squeal, It's a shame these slugs ain't real" suggests where sympathies mainly lay.
'Rubber Bullets' is a song that's both clever in a good way and clever in a bad one. Yes, they still sound too bloody smug for their own good (and running at over five minutes, there's a good ninety seconds of smugness that could have easily been pruned), but it's also a startling example of wrapping salt in sugar and getting a song of subversion to the top of the charts - 'Load up, load up, load up'; the tune rolls off the tongue with ease and in it's own gleeful way it's a more chilling statement than any protest song of genuine anger could have mustered. And how clever is all that?