The whole story of music in the 70s seems - even at this early stage - to be one where people either are working within some kind of framework as to what music could be/has been and those who just blindly do whatever they think is right. Which is to say, there are art school grads who have ideas, and there are those who know when a song has a hook and a melody and is bound to be a hit. It is very rare to have both of those represented in one group, but 10cc were that group, and from the start they were going with/against the grain at almost all times.
10cc were basically Hotlegs - remember them? - with Graham Gouldman, now returned from his foray into American bubblegum and ready to work with his fellow Mancunian friends to subvert what rock 'n' roll was and perhaps make way for The New. They were named by Jonathan King (he wanted something a bit subtler than Shag, I guess) and encouraged by him to become a group, though that looked to be something the others - Kevin Godley, Lol Creme and Eric Stewart - were going to do anyway. Hotlegs did have other singles, one of which was heard by one Neil Sedaka, who went all the way to work with them in Strawberry Studios - first on Solitaire and then on The Tra-La Days Are Over, a final album with his co-writer Howard Greenfield; thus the Brill Building came to them, so to speak. By the time that album was out, 10cc were a going concern. (Thus, 10cc played on the original of "Love Will Keep Us Together" which would eventually be answered by another Mancunian band who also recorded in Strawberry Studios a few years hence.)
10cc were an unpredictable bunch; not really glam, not proto-punk, certainly not, though they wore enough denim, HRS*; they get compared to Steely Dan these days, but the supercool elegance of that duo was a whole different thing altogether. 10cc were what they were, and got away with things because no one could quite figure them out. Prog rock is where some slot them, Art rock others, but they weren't like Yes or Roxy Music, both of whom were starting to make waves at this time. I point all this out to show that excessive categorization of bands ultimately leads nowhere, as every band essentially is different, and that near-arthritic care to categorize takes all the fun out of things, after a while.
"Donna" is a song that both celebrates and subverts the old style; you can't do that without loving the old style of pop and being able to do it well - unlike, oh, Frank Zappa (whom 10cc are also compared to) there is no sense of snideness or meanness to the song. "Donna" is a song which they did in part because they could see the 50s revival all around them and wanted to gently poke fun at it/head it off at the pass, and make it modern. Thus the frankly ridiculous lyrics: "You make me stand up/You make me sit down" and the usual angst about the phone. Lol Creme is utterly straight when he is singing...just about...as is the reply from drummer Kevin Godley, who provides a second perspective on the girl in question: "Donna waiting by the telephone/Donna waiting for the phone to ring." Donna waits for that phone to ring (as it does in the song) and the declarations of love are there, complete with the touching "Donna I'd stand on my head for you."
Number two hits can and do stand as correctives to the number one songs; but this song seems to stand for The New as oppposed to being The Old. Friendly Forebears that they were, the song had to not just be accurate but good, and not just those but also successful; maybe people bought this because they thought it was like "Oh! Darling" by The Beatles (yet another group 10cc get compared to) and indeed some people mistakenly thing of this as a riff on that and nothing else. But it's not, because this isn't some simple tribute - it's pop being used, in a sense, against itself, the 50s ballad being warped sweetly to show how silly it is, and how complex even a simple phone call can be. In the nicest way possible, they are basically saying we cannot go back; as much as some might want to, alas.**
10cc were to go on subverting and inventing song ideas/conventions for some time; using Strawberry Studios as their lab, they would mess around and try things out and push boundaries, both politically and sonically. Sadly I don't get back to them here, but know that for the next few years they are always there somewhere, an active agent against dullness and mediocrity, against simple nostalgia and 'normal' perspectives. I hear their legacy in a few bands from Manchester - Everything Everything have their inventiveness, The Smiths their sense of going against the grain. (Hot Chip owe a lot to them too, especially in their lyrics and genial non-glam looks.) In their original line-up they only lasted a few years, but they showed what could be done, and how ambition and playfulness can lead to some pretty amazing songs.
Next up: automobile armageddon!
*Hard Rockin' Shit, which was more Allman Brothers/Foghat territory.
**I wonder sometimes what the Teddy Boys thought of Glam and of this song too - did they feel as if they were being...mocked? Or were they too busy hating people for buying a (not very good) song by Chuck Berry? (With the Teds it's actually a question as to whether they ever mentally left the 50s in the first place.)