Saturday, 16 May 2009

I feel cheated and small

1978 was a big musical year for me, the year I started to notice music rather than just let it float around me. Up until then I had just gone with the flow. I’d liked ‘Wig Wam Bam’ and realised it made me want to jump up and down more than Mrs. Chandler’s piano playing at assembly, but I still hadn’t grasped that there was an intelligence, an industry, an agency behind music, and that the records I liked didn’t just appear from nowhere and then disappear back into the ether like a burst of rain or a playground craze. 1978 was the first time I realised that there were people behind music, that they had a purpose, a modus operandi, and that some of them were much better at it than others.

It first occurred to me on a family holiday in Wales when we’d basically driven around all week listening to the radio in the breaks between castles and slate mines. Hearing the same records over and over clarified that there were major differences between them, and I started to think a lot about what those differences were and what they meant, as well as to ponder long and hard about why I preferred one record over another and what they said about me. I haven’t really stopped pondering since.

So, what was on the radio in 1978 that so caught my interest? Well, it wasn’t The Clash, Cabaret Voltaire, Kraftwerk or whatever supposedly seminal stuff I could retrospectively boost my cool with. No, I liked the poppy stuff, but the clever, crafted poppy stuff: Blondie, E.L.O, 10cc, Wings. & City Boy. I liked City Boy.

‘’ has all the hallmarks of great pop: it straddles genres (heavy rock and bubblegum pop); it is about relatable subjects (an unobtainable loved one; the frustration of phone boxes); it combines a strong melody, an insistent beat and harmonised vocals, and it is totally brilliant and utterly ridiculous in equal measure.

Starting off with the sound of the future, a recording of a pushpad telephone dialling the titular number (no dialling code, so presumably a local call, why not just pop ‘round?), the record starts well with some strident harmony singing giving way to a loping but confident instrumental introduction that I think Cliff Richard would later nick for ‘Carrie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’ (another classic unobtainable loved one / frustration of phone boxes track). The anguished singer here has got himself ‘just one more dime’ (I think may have identified the problem) and is pleading for the operator to hold the line as there’s no reply. A common enough scenario, you think, just call back later, but you are overlooking the sheer anguish of communicating across distance in the days before the mobile phone. You can bet that our narrator is in a piss-filled box miles from nowhere with a string of disgruntled people queuing outside pulling faces and tapping at the glass with their two pees. To make things worse, his girlfriend’s not answering because she’s not really his girlfriend she’s a strumpet with a penchant for casual sex and mental torture and the pips are going and the coin slot keeps spitting out that last dime like a sick child spits out Penicillin.

City Boy do this heavy situation absolute justice with a very serious record that runs the gamut from everyday annoyance to paranoid psychodrama to, ultimately, the abject humiliation of our hapless narrator ‘all over town’. It’s big and daft and catchy and made by men in aviator shades and satin jackets with the sleeves pushed up and I absolutely fucking love it.

‘’ was City Boy’s only hit. It got to number 27.

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