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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

'Innovative' doesn't even begin to describe "I'm Not In Love"

Nor does 'unique' or another similar adjective. 10cc's masterpiece merits so many more words, given its story, sound, and lasting impact.


While I've been back home with my family for the five-day Thanksgiving break, I actually haven't been at home all that much. Instead, I've been driving or been driven to all sorts of places, notably including going up to Marin County both Wednesday and Thursday for preparing and partaking in Thanksgiving dinner with my grandmother.


When I've been in a car, I've usually been listening to Sirius XM's 70s on 7 channel. Sometimes, that's because one of my parents have been driving, and that decade contains the music most impactful to them, being when they went through adolescence and the beginning of college. Other times, I've been driving by myself, and it's clear my parents' tastes have rubbed off on me when I turn the dial straight to channel number 7.


I could write about any of the vast list of songs I've heard the past few days (sans those by artists I've already discussed, per my Senior Year Soundtrack rules), but today I've decided to dive into the only track I've heard multiple times between when I was picked up Tuesday afternoon and tonight: the incomparable and innovative "I'm Not in Love," by 10cc.


The second single from 10cc's third album, The Original Soundtrack (1975), "I'm Not In Love" is a very untraditional and usual pop song in many ways. Its denial-based approach to expressing love sets the track apart from the pack thematically, while its ethereal multitrack vocal backing goes where no pop record had previously ventured.

When it came to the creation of "I'm Not in Love," its lyrics came first. Eric Stewart — who ultimately sang lead vocals on the track — took the title and lyrical theming from his fear that telling his wife he loved her too often would cause the endearing phrase to lose its meaning. Stewart's perspective is a fascinating one, because it isn't how we tend to think of love, but it's also understandable in terms of semantics and conversation. Saying you love someone is a profound statement when it's new, but each time thereafter the novelty wears off. Is there a point at which any word or phrase may become so expected in conversation that it doesn't register with its target? What are the implications in all sorts of interactions, including in romantic relationships? To this end, Stewart came up with as many ways as he could to say he indeed was in love with his wife, while not actually saying those magical words, to the point that the song's title was a denial of that very emotion.


With Stewart's personal story in mind, the song becomes one of the most heartfelt lyrical endeavors in the pop realm. For others — and even for some who do know the story, myself included — "I'm Not in Love" seems to call to a time earlier in a relationship, when the narrator knows they're falling for the other person but just hasn't been able to get those magic words out of their mouth. I can hear it playing in some cookie-cutter teen movie — maybe one that's trying to recapture the magic of how Say Anything used "In Your Eyes" — as the main character lies awake at night, trying to figure out if they're the one, if "I love you" is worth saying. (In the end, the answer will of course be yes, because that's how cookie-cutter teen movies work.)


Of course, I could keep talking about the lyrics and that story, but when you're talking about "I'm Not in Love," 90+ percent of the time you're talking about the voices on the rest of the track. Let's start with how the voice backing came to be: Stewart originally thought of "I'm Not in Love" as a bossa nova-style piece, but drummer Kevin Godley shot it down. Yet even as the band tried to move on, studio hands kept whistling and humming the tune. Godley came around to 10cc trying their hand at the song again, but he only envisioned it working if they "[did] it like nobody has ever recorded a thing before," suggesting to his bandmates, "Let's not use instruments. Let's try to do it all with voices." By that, Godley meant the band should use tape loops of voices to create a vocal 'wall' for their backing.


In 2021, following Godley's suggestion would be exceedingly easy: record yourself singing one or more notes (or even take a vocal sample pack from the internet), loop the note, and play it up and down the keyboard. Back in 1974, a decidedly analog approach was required. Stewart recorded bandmates Godley, Lol Creme, and Graham Gouldman singing each of the 12 chromatic notes 16 times — 48 voices for each note, and a total of 576 recordings between the three singers. Stewart then created tape loops out of those 12 notes, which were "played" using the mixing desk by quickly fading notes in or out as necessary. Moreover, Stewart placed tape at the bottom of the channels to make sure none could ever be completely faded out, creating a chromatic, yet ethereal bed of vocals which can be softly heard throughout the track beneath the other lines.


Going back to my personal hearing of "I'm Not in Love" as being from the PoV of someone unsure of taking that next step in a relationship, I hear the backing voices as being the conflicting opinions in the narrator's head: Should I really do this? Do I love them? If not, are my excuses valid? Why am I taking this long to make this decision? In being paralyzed by emotion and fear, the voices only grow louder and more contradictory. Importantly, we don't get a resolution to the tale. Stewart belts out a final title line near the end of the six-plus-minute track before the vocal loops swell, then fade out, leaving the narrator's fate unclear, undecided.


Add in a bit more manipulation to the vocal loops in slowing down some notes by half to create a lower octave; put in a heartbeat-like kick drum; play soft acoustic guitar, keyboards, and piano on top of it all, with a music box here and there; and there you have it: "I'm Not in Love." ...Aside from one thing.


"Be quiet. Big boys don't cry. Big boys don't cry..."


As if my hearing of the song needed additional ammunition, there's the above whispered part in the break between the second and third verses. The lines came from an ad-lib of Creme's early on in the recording sessions, which stuck with him to the point that the band tried to place it in the tune. When studio secretary Kathy Redfern entered the control room to relay a message, Creme knew he wanted her to say the words in the same whisper she had just used. After a good bit of convincing, Redfern agreed, and the last piece of the "I'm Not in Love" puzzle was placed.


Between its narrative theme and its radical production, "I'm Not in Love" remains one of the most unique pop songs ever created, while also having a widespread influence on many tracks which followed it. Just two years after "I'm Not in Love" was released, Billy Joel and producer Phil Ramone used their own 10cc-inspired vocal loops on "Just the Way You Are." One can argue that the subsequent use of voices as synths in more modern pop songs — especially in the cut-up style frequently heard in electronic productions — can trace its lineage back to Kevin Godley's innovation.


The song's influence spreads far beyond individual productions. 80s band Boys Don't Cry took their name from Kathy Redfern's whispers. Plus, as I alluded to earlier with my interpretation of the song, "I'm Not in Love" has been used in countless films and shows, most of them probably using it more akin to how I hear it than to how Eric Stewart first did. It's a song that's taken on a life of its own, far beyond its personal meaning and the band that recorded it — and even though it may not have artistic integrity, therein lies the beauty of music for many. In being an abstract medium, music is malleable in the emotions and meanings it can evoke in each listener. Stewart thought of the track one way, I hear it another, and countless others interpret it their own way, each of them developing their own personal connection to one of the most original productions in the history of popular music.

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