MAY 17, 2017
“RUBBER BULLETS” (WRITERS: KEVIN GODLEY, LOL CREME, GRAHAM GOULDMAN)
RELEASED 1973 ON 7” 45
REACHED #73 ON BILLBOARD HOT 100
It’s December 1973, the last day of school before holiday break. I am ten years old and in fifth grade.
We have cleared our desks and moved them to one side of the classroom. Our teacher, Ms. Henry, had devised a spelling bee in which half of the class stood at each long wall.
Ms. Henry—a funny, vivacious brunette in her mid-to-late 20s—stood in the middle of the room and directed us, quizzing us on words, switching from one ‘team’ to the other.
This seemed less like a high-powered competition than a fun learning game. The way I saw it, you tried to win but enjoyed yourself and didn’t shun anyone if they didn’t get the answer right.
It did not depend on physical strength.
This was a game in which I might excel in—unlike dodgeball, in which I was likely to at least end up bruised.
When I think back, it’s impossible to ignore the privilege I had. My parents had books and magazines and newspapers and my school was pretty good. Spelling words in front of people didn’t scare me. But for some kids, their personal hell was a spelling bee.
Following this little competition, which as I recall went well, we celebrated the end of the semester. I’m sure we all brought in treats. Ms. Henry detonated the sugar bombs and Kool-Aid© and flicked on a boxy, institutional-styled record player that always sat on a ledge by the classroom windows. It was a party.
Until school was dismissed a while later, 45s played and we all talked and laughed and joked and ate cookies and ran around.
I don’t know where the records came from. Perhaps Ms. Henry brought them. What I do recall was the buzz, not from the sugar but from the records. This was the first time I’d ever consciously heard contemporary pop music.
Yes, we’d heard the Beatles, because my parents had Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but we never knew that there was other music “like” that, even if it wasn’t quite “like” that. Most of the time, the music around the house was my dad’s symphony recordings, our children’s music, and the opera, which my mom and dad both liked.
When a 45 with a blue label started to play, I was transfixed. Over a weird, vaguely ominous boogie beat, came a slightly nerdy voice belting out
I went to a party at the local county jail
All the cons were dancing and the band began to wail
And my life was never the same.
First off, to ten-year-old me, this was just goofy. Who goes to a party at a jail? They have a band there? What music do they play? The whole thing was so weird and so funny and swinging and it made me want to move around.
Years later I realized that 10cc’s “Rubber Bullets” was parody of Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock,” in which the inmates dig rock and roll so much that they don’t bother to escape when the chance comes. But it’s also a devastating comic reference to the not-very-funny Attica State Prison revolt of 1971, in which inmates took over the jail until the New York State Police put them back down. 43 men died.
Over a super-catchy melody, a guy sang about death row, gunfire, abused prisoners, revenge-minded policemen, and tear gas. The words themselves sounded good, and their meaning went right over my ten-year-old head.
I don’t recall thinking about the more insubordinate couplets from “Rubber Bullets,” although, at age 10, I already had an anti-authority streak, feeling strongly that President Nixon couldn’t be trusted. And these words ended up on the radio:
We don’t understand why you called in the National Guard
When Uncle Sam is the one who belongs in the exercise yard
We all got balls and brains
But some’s got balls and chains
While the lyrics are great, what I heard, felt, and saw was the sound. It made me feel that I could sing along, that there was music that I could embrace. And it wasn’t only me that liked it—it was a popular song. It was popular. It was pop. It was shared. It was of my time somehow, communicated to me, left room for me to be in. And it made me feel that nobody could make up any rules about it.
Sounds were going on like I’d never heard. The guitar solo screams like a fuzzed-out police siren. Underneath the whole thing rests a constant wah-wah guitar resembling gunshots. And it is all sung and played almost perfectly.
"Rubber Bullets" was rock and roll, with its instruments and voices and vibrations mainlining into my soul. This was pivotal; I’d discovered how much I loved music and wanted it, needed it, in my life. Just plain stumbled on the thing that would help me find my place.
Though at the time, I couldn’t explain WHY this music felt so good, it did and I knew it did. Within days of hearing these records I began fooling around with AM radio to find places where I could hear these crazy little pieces of contemporary art.
From the radio, I heard a wide variety of popular records—rock, pop, soul, funk, country, novelties, ballads. Eventually I felt the desire to make music myself. I started my journey.
So after all these years, thank you, Ms. Henry, for a great gift.