Old blokes make records too; they just take their time over it. Graham Gouldman of 10cc has one out, his first for 11 years. Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra has two out, but they’re his first for 11 years too. Donald Fagen’s new one is his first for six years, but he may be in a bit of a hurry. How long have any of them got left? How long have any of us? It’s a race to the line, for each artist and his audience. Because I doubt that any of these three are adding many young people to their fanbase. We are all ageing together. It’s a little low on dignity, but there are worse ways of living your life.
Graham Gouldman is the last man standing in 10cc. Godley and Creme left in 1976, so long ago that even they probably can’t remember why. Eric Stewart and Gouldman carried on for a few more years, with diminishing artistic and commercial returns. (I bought every record, and each was worse than the last.) But Gouldman still tours regularly, playing all the wonderful songs he wrote in the 1960s for Herman’s Hermits and the Yardbirds, in the 1970s for 10cc, and in the 1980s with Andrew Gold as Wax. He was always the most traditional of the four 10cc songwriters, but craft is a muscle that needs to be exercised if it’s not to atrophy completely. Damon Albarn, asked for the 3,000,000th time whether Blur would record again, said it would be easy for him and Graham Coxon, as they are ‘daily musicians’, but the other two simply aren’t any longer. Gouldman’s album is fittingly entitled Love And Work (Rosala), because at the age of 66, what else is there? (I am reminded of my all-time favourite album title, by Stephen Duffy and the Lilac Time: Keep Going.) It’s a masterclass in pop songwriting, with echoes of every song you have ever heard given new life and a few new twists. ‘Let Me Dream Again’ is an irresistible country rocker with some R.E.M. jangle, ‘Cryin’ Time Again’ is a perfectly executed little pop song, so neat it’s almost gift-wrapped, and ‘Daylight’ is a moving and affecting tribute to his old friend Gold, who died last year.
Jeff Lynne, meanwhile, is out in California somewhere, recording a new solo album for release next year. Right now, though, we have two simultaneously released curiosities. Long Wave I haven’t heard yet: it’s an oldies package, full of other people’s songs he grew up with. Mr Blue Sky: The Very Best Of Electric Light Orchestra (Big Trilby/Frontiers) is also an oldies package, full of Jeff Lynne songs I grew up with. With extraordinary care, and just because he felt like it, Lynne has rerecorded ELO’s greatest hits, playing everything himself. ‘When I listen to the old versions,’ he writes, ‘they don’t sound the way I thought they did when I first wrote and recorded them. I wanted to use the experience I’ve gained producing records ever since and have a completely new try at them.’ In other words, the poor man needs to get out more. (Lynne hates touring: he much prefers sitting in a studio tinkering, possibly for years.)
But I am a fan. I am contractually obliged to buy this on the first day of release and listen to it immediately just to find out what he has done with these songs. And the answer is, not an awful lot. Most of them sound a little more forceful — ‘Do Ya’ now packs a real punch — and the older songs, like ‘Can’t Get It Out Of My Head’, are more focused and, oddly enough, better played. But to what end? Even I, rabid with enthusiasm, struggle to see the point of it all. And the truth is, I knew this before I bought it and expected nothing else. To be a fan is not just to experience disappointment, or even to expect it, but to welcome it, and be comfortable with it.
And so to Donald Fagen’s Sunken Condos (Reprise). All Steely Dan fans, or ‘Danoraks’ as we are known, understand that the first few plays of a new Fagen album mean very little, so this must be considered a review-in-progress. But what fun to have a record you know you’ll have to play 25 times before you make up your mind about it, before you decide whether it’s a work of genius or a dreary recapitulation of old themes, or both, or neither. The pleasure is in the process, for us as it presumably is for them.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 10 November 2012