Back in the days when the format still mattered, success in the singles market was a near-priceless commodity. A surprise hit and an appearance on Top Of The Pops could be relied upon to add a zero or two to the sales figures of a rock group. The flipside, of course, was that such exposure was equally likely to tarnish their credibility.
The chasm between ‘respected artist’ and ‘unknown quantity’ is vast, and suspicion runs deep. For a group such as Yes, with a long-standing and hard-earned respect, the 90125 era is now viewed by dispassionate observers as a blip; an endearing, fascinating distraction from the norm. And yet, by contrast, even almost three decades on, It Bites are still attempting to live down their Top 10 hit Calling All The Heroes.
Regrettably, City Boy fall into the latter category. Mention their name to the average rock fan and they’ll probably chirrup, “Ah yes, I remember their hit. Now how did it go again?”
Just like It Bites, City Boy faced another mountainous hurdle – the sheer variety of their music. With hard rock, prog, AOR and even pop all residing within their melting pot, pinning them down into one particular style was nigh on impossible.
They were very theatrical and quite posh, sort of like Supertramp playing a West End theatre.
Mike Slamer, City Boy’s guitarist, was raised on progressive music. “My earliest albums were releases by Jethro Tull, Blodwyn Pig and the Groundhogs – bands that did exactly what they wanted,” he explains. “Each of them had a very strong foundation in the blues, but then they spread their wings and went on to make some exciting and very unique music.”
Though they never fully embraced prog, over the course of seven fascinating studio albums, City Boy would navigate a similarly independent course. These days, there’s a tendency to bracket them with the intelligent, suave and defiantly eclectic art-rock of 10cc or, at a push, Queen.
“That’s a comparison I’ll encourage,” chuckles Slamer, “but it’s not without reason. We did have four really good singers. Well-structured harmonies were very important to City Boy and we liked to be quite artsy, dressing up onstage and being a little flamboyant.”
Looking back, Slamer believes that the inability to categorise the band’s music was both a blessing and a curse. “During the band’s lifespan, our record companies exerted a lot of pressure to become more and more commercial,” he says. “In some ways that stifled the writing, but it also made us a little more disciplined in our focus.”
Much like Genesis, who found one another at Charterhouse, City Boy had roots in a fee-paying public school where singer Lol Mason and singer/guitarist Steve Broughton first met. The line-up solidified in 1973 when Slamer and original drummer Roger Kent joined the nucleus of an existing Birmingham-based acoustic folk unit called Back In The Band. That group already featured Mason, Broughton, keyboard player/singer Max Thomas and vocalist/bass player Chris Dunn.
“It was the fact they had a manager that attracted me to joining,” recalls Slamer today.
In actuality, said manager was an inexperienced Swiss hairdresser by the name of René Sauter, but his bargaining skills were sufficient to blag the group a record deal with Phonogram. It’s here that a certain Robert John Lange, better known as ‘Mutt’, enters the picture. The Zambian had just arrived in England and City Boy were the first group he worked with. It was a long-term arrangement, Lange effectively becoming the line‑up’s unofficial seventh member.
Mutt was destined to become a celebrated name in the production world, and these days the multi-millionaire is an extremely private individual, shunning the press and protecting his privacy after a now-terminated marriage to the country-pop chanteuse Shania Twain. But back then, City Boy knew Lange in far less salubrious circumstances.
“When we met Mutt to discuss working together, he was brand new to London and had rented a little apartment above a dental surgery,” recalls Slamer. “The distant hum of drills was the background to our conversation. But he was a really interesting, creative person that constantly tried out new ideas. In a way, as a brand new band, we were lab rats. Mutt had produced records before in South Africa but there were new ideas inside of him bursting out.”
Lange is known to be a hard taskmaster in the studio, and Slamer acknowledges that his demands could be “extremely challenging”. However, the benefits far outweighed any sense of frustration.
“Back then Mutt would work 20-hour days, continuing long after we the band had gone home,” he relates. “Then he would meditate and do yoga to try and get his energy back.”
The albums City Boy and Dinner At The Ritz were both released in 1976, a whirlwind year for the band. Smart, incisive and beautifully crafted, the latter is a bona fide masterpiece. Longer, multi-part tracks such as State Secrets – A Thriller had become a cornerstone of City Boy’s oeuvre, and by the time of the group’s third album, Young Men Gone West, their sheer ingenuity was almost beginning to sound casual.
“City Boy were not your standard Top Of The Pops fodder, that’s for sure,” says Def Leppard singer Joe Elliott. “I saw them at the Top Rank in Sheffield on the tour for the Dinner At The Ritz album. They were very theatrical and quite posh, sort of like Supertramp playing a West End theatre. It was all a bit mad, but very entertaining! They had a couple of great songs but my favourite was Deadly Delicious, which I guess you would call pop-prog, all spiky guitars and buggy-eyed singing.”
In later years, Elliott has admitted that it was Lange’s work with City Boy, and not the platinum-selling records made with AC/DC, that won them over. “Yeah, we used one of their amps once on the Pyromania sessions as Mutt had worked with them and knew they had better amps than we did at the time,” the Leppard frontman reveals.
Creatively speaking, City Boy were on a roll. However, as chart success remained elusive, nerves began to creep into the Phonogram boardroom. “The record company had provided a lot of tour support and paying Mutt Lange to produce your albums doesn’t come cheap,” Slamer reasons. “It was only fair that they’d want some commercial payback.”
The band had a new song called Turn On To Jesus that the label believed had hit potential, though they were worried about its subject matter. One quick rewrite later and a slice of keyboard-enhanced bubblegum called 22.214.171.124. introduced City Boy into the Top 10 in the summer of ’78. Its parent album, Book Early, was also more commercially orientated than usual.
“Pop stardom was great and everyone’s lifestyle changed – there was money to put on a bigger and better show – but it also brought problems,” Slamer admits. “A couple of guys in the band had a taste of the high life, so to speak, and they wanted more. They began trying to push the band further in that direction, which was the wrong thing to do as 126.96.36.199. wasn’t written with the charts in mind. But they wanted to do it again, and again. Within a year or two we wound up in a very confused state.”
1979’s The Day The Earth Caught Fire was the last album released by a six-piece City Boy. Although there were arguments over direction that would cause Steve Broughton and Chris Dunn to quit, the band’s classic permutation signed off with a winning mix of first-rate musicianship, Queen-esque vocal harmonies and luxurious arrangements – its swansong, Ambition, lasted for 12 minutes and was broken down into four suites.
“If you asked me to recommend a City Boy album to a fan of progressive rock, The Day The Earth Caught Fire or Dinner At The Ritz would be great starting points. They paint a very accurate picture of what we were about,” says Slamer.
The four-piece City Boy went on to simplify their sound – some might prefer the term ‘dumbed-down’ – with Heads Are Rolling, their first Lange-less album, in 1980.
“I couldn’t dispute that statement,” responds Slamer, “but some of my favourite tracks were recorded as a quartet. Speaking as a rock guitarist, songs like Bloody Sunday were adventurous and full of harmony and power. They were everything I wanted to play.”
Alas, 1981’s under-promoted It’s Personal would be City Boy’s final album. “We redeemed ourselves with that one,” Slamer says, but even today some fans remain unaware of its existence. No surprise, then, that when the time came to seek a new record deal in 1982, there were no takers.
“After so many years together, if felt like our time had run out, and splitting up the band was very disappointing,” recalls Slamer sadly.
Within nine months the guitarist would relocate to America and form a new group called Streets with ex-Kansas singer Steve Walsh, resulting in two cult AOR albums. Slamer remains active in the melodic rock scene, though around the millennium’s turn he returned to more prog-orientated waters with another Kansas member, bassist Billy Greer, in Seventh Key.
However, it’s embarrassing to divulge that in 1982, City Boy’s former drummer/vocalist Roy Ward was the lead session singer on The Lion Sleeps Tonight, a chart-topper from the novelty pop group Tight Fit. Cue the instant torpedoing of all prog-rock credentials right there. “Yeah, perhaps Roy should have kept a little quieter about that one!” Slamer smiles.
Slamer is enthused about the renaissance in the popularity of progressive rock, though more in principle than anything else. “I couldn’t name the current generation of prog bands that I listen to,” he admits, “and that’s because the only time I’m exposed to music of any sort is when I’m in the car, so it all depends on which station I’m tuned into.”
More than three decades since their demise, the name of City Boy has fallen into obscurity, many of the group’s records remaining out of print. This fact has at least been remedied by the reissuing of City Boy, Dinner At The Ritz, Young Men Go West and Book Early as expanded double-disc editions. However, a reunion has yet to occur, and Slamer reckons the likelihood of such a comeback is extremely slim.
“Without going into detail or revealing their names, a couple of the guys still have a bad taste in their mouths over what happened back then,” he reveals. “And for the rest of us, it’s all so many years ago that we’ve long since moved on.”
The City Boy reissues are now available via Lemon Recordings.
They worked with Mutt Lange and knew their way round lengthy suites. But were City Boy prog?
“I really like City Boy and saw them live back in the 70s. Dinner At The Ritz has a long track on; the title track of The Day The Earth Caught Fire might have been proggish but they were not quite as prog as 10cc. Which is to say not prog at all, really.” Graham Smith
“I’d say about as prog as Styx in their 70s heyday.” Joshua Creasey
‘Yes, I do rate them. Not prog though. They were ‘art-pop’ for me, very much in the vein of 10cc or Quantum Jump. Very clever band.” Steve Pilkington
“Fine band, but not prog.” Harald Bjervamoen
“Really scraping the bottom of the barrell now…” Charlie Farrell
“I did check out The Day The Earth Stood Still as well, just can’t hear it. So I’ll stick with my original prognosis. Great magazine, keep it prog.” Daniel Black
“Don’t recognise the name.” Robert McCoy
“Nope. Not one little bit.” Andy Wyatt
“Oddly enough, I heard that track [188.8.131.52.] for the first time last week, and I was in radio back then! Amazing.” Joel Griffith
“I’d say they were more classic rock than prog. A very good band however you label them.” Tony Kinson
“They reminded me of Saga.” Paul M
“184.108.40.206. I loved that song!” Caroline Angus
“They appeared at a weird time for British music. The original wave of progressive artists were on the wane, and bands like 10cc and Supertramp seemed more in vogue, and I think they had more in common with them than harder rock bands like UFO and Thin Lizzy, who were also big at the time. Prog lite, perhaps?” Alex Peters
“I always thought they were American, and not as prog as the likes of Kansas and Starcastle. I’m a bit surprised to discover they were English!” Jane Anson
“Pretty boy rock. Not prog!” Steve Harrison
“Are you sure you’ve got the right band?” Rob Trevor
“WTF! I guess I did get the wrong act. What crap!” Steve Harrison
“There’s certainly a proggy edge to quite a bit of what they did. I think City Boy’s biggest problem was that they were never one specific genre. They spread their musical wings a bit too far which is why few people remember them today.” Ian Baker