CSFTD#32: City Boy – The Day the Earth Caught Fire

‘Classic Song of the Day’ is on its summer break but I couldn’t resist this one, which I came across by chance.  City Boy is another of those ‘might have been’ bands from the 1970s/80s which never quite made it across the line despite their excellence, for three possible reasons that I’ll mention later.

The six-man band hailed from the Birmingham area (a heck of lot of good bands have roots there though comparatively speaking it’s not really on the map these days) and started off by playing acoustic music at the region’s clubs in the 1970s.

Between 1976 and 1981 they churned out seven albums and 18 singles. The first five of them were produced by the South African Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who later famously became Mr Shania Twain; he produced her albums as well, including 1997’s Come on Over, which is still the best selling studio album by a female performer, anywhere. Lange has also produced, inter alia, AC/DC, Def Leppard, Foreigner, Lady Gaga and Muse. City Boys’ were amongst the first albums he worked on after relocating to the UK.

With that sort of pedigree you can imagine the huge and sometimes bombastic sound that ‘Mutt’ drew out of City Boy.

Probably the most famous of those 18 singles is the poppy 5.7.0.5 (1978), which got to #8 in the UK charts, #27 in the US Billboard Hot 100 and did well in South Africa and Australia, prompting Hall & Oates to feature City Boy in support on a 66-concert US tour. But the album it came from, Book Early, failed to make its mark in the album charts. I’m sure the album title must have come from the television adverts at the time featuring British holiday camp magnate Fred Pontin. ‘Book early’ was his catchphrase and the adverts were popular in the mid 1970s. (I’m equally sure that most people reading this won’t have a clue what I’m talking about).

However, even though 5.7.0.5 was City Boys’ most successful song I’ve chosen as this CSFTD the title track from the following (fifth) album, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, which featured an early recording contribution from Huey Lewis, on harmonica. It isn’t known if the album and song were named after the 1961 sci-fi disaster movie in which the Earth is blown towards the Sun by multiple Soviet and US nuclear weapon tests.  The lyrics suggest they were:

The first evacuee
I was headed for the sea, I saw them
The roadside refugees
The boys with bloody knees who waved
Abandoned cars that lay too tired to drive away
“A World in Flames Today” was all the papers
Had to say

Run for your life (The Earth’s caught fire)
Run for your life (The Earth’s caught fire) (repeat)

The album was written in the midst of the Cold War (see also CSFTD#25, The Scorpions and Nena) and there is an intriguing little reference to it in a later lyric:

The streetcar prophet said,
“You thought that God was dead-I warned you
The sinners and the saved
They fell down to their knees and prayed
Believers held their breath and stoned a witch to death
The leaders and the led said “Blow the bloody
Reds away!”

Apart from the smart lyrics City Boy was characterised by quite complex musical and vocal arrangements for their era with forceful guitars, and they are all evident in this track, during which they alternatively sound to me like Fleetwood Mac and early Genesis.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I2buwyhFQWU

Unfortunately it all went wrong for City Boy after The Day the Earth Caught Fire.  Two of the original members quit the band and the subsequent album, Heads are Rolling, was released as a quartet. It made waves only in the Philippines and only then on the strength of one song. Their final album, It’s Personal, didn’t attract much notice at all and the band failed to convince any major label to sign them. It split up in 1982, some of the members staying in the music business and others not. While the first four albums have been re-mastered and re-released quite recently there have been no reunions.

Nevertheless, as with many other performers in this classic track series, they retain a following and many comments on You Tube concern their powerful live performances and regret the fact they never made it to the top of their profession.

So why did they never ‘make it?’ There are two main theories. The first is that they were too similar to Queen and 10cc, who were both very popular at the time, combining Queen’s power, flamboyance and drive with the melodies and lyrical skills of 10cc. I’m not convinced about that and I’m not sure I hear too much of those bands here either, but it is a popular hypothesis.

The other is that in a pre-punk era when image was so important, they didn’t have an image. Most of them weren’t ‘pretty boys’ and by and large they looked like factory workers from next door. As someone said, if they’d had the looks to match the hooks they could have been huge. I’m ambivalent about that one as well, but it’s possible.

My own theory is that like several other CSFTD bands they were perhaps a little too ahead of their time for the popular music fans of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

©D J Bentley, 2016

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