Max Thomas tells us about the life in City Boy

These are excerpts of comments Max Thomas has left on the City Boy discussion boards.

Part I

The short answer to the question about why “What a Night” appears on some versions of the “Book Early” album is that it was released (in the UK, anyway) as a follow-up to 5705 and Polygram hastily added it to later pressings of the album so that they could sell more of the album on the basis of: “includes City Boy’s latest single.”
This is how I remember it anyway!
The long answer is a bit more involved….CB’s first single release was Hap-Ki-Do in 1976, and we nearly had a hit with it. In those days “Top of the Pops” in the UK only concentrated on the top 30, as opposed to the top 40. The BBC would only include one song per week on the programme that wasn’t in the top 30, and that had to be the fastest rising single of that week. We came straight in at 32 that week, and so we were offered to go on. Unfortunately, that was the first week for several years that the BBC (or the newly-appointed producer of the show) decided to allow only live music, and we were the first act on, and I remember NO opportunity for any soundcheck, and I also remember asking repeatedly for another plug socket so I could plug in the last of my four keyboards, and I finally got it about 30 seconds before we played.
It was a nightmare.

We’d even got Mutt Lange to be there in the mixing room to mix the sound, and he barely had time to make sure that everything was connected before we began. As a consequence, the song came across really badly…we played quite well as I recall, but the sound balance was appalling. We dropped out of the top 40 two weeks later.
So…Dinner at the Ritz came and went , and Young Men Gone West came and went (albums that we were all very pleased with, I might add) and the record company kept saying “where’s the single?” And we said we’d prefer to be a successful albums band anyway…and relations between us and them were a little strained at that time as I recall. Now, around the time of the recording of Dinner at the Ritz, Steve came up with What a Night, and that was recorded with Roger Kent playing drums…it might have been released as a single there and then, but this was when Barley had the news broken to him that he was out of a job. (I volunteered to perform that task)

YMGW was recorded before we auditioned for a new drummer, and then, having found Roy Ward, we began work on the album that was to become Book Early.
We’d been to the States a couple of times by then, and early in 1978, our management, Zomba, arranged for us to do a 4-month tour with Hall and Oates. This was good news for all of us…we would be playing in much larger venues than we had previously, and our management were confident that we would become much more widely known.
Lol and Steve had written “Turn on to Jesus” and when Polygram heard the early mixes of the album in the spring of ’78, they loved the tune, said it was very commercial, but pointed out that having “Jesus” in the title would cause all sorts of problems with radio stations both in the UK and in the USA.
We were on tour in Germany at the time, and I remember one of our managers talking to Steve and Lol for ages on the phone as we were lying around in this hotel room in Munich. Lol said “Right, I’ve got an idea…we’ll give them a telephone love-song – 5…7…0…5” (or something like that anyway! [I’ll tell him about this message when I see him in a couple of weeks’ time at his wedding, and he’ll probably say “I don’t remember that!”])
So the vocal was re-recorded, the record company expressed delight, and promised to really plug the song, and lo and behold, out of the blue – because it seemed like that at the time – we had a hit single on our hands in the UK, two months before we were committed to a four month tour in America! Fine, we thought, with a bit of luck, we’ll carry our success to the States and will become extremely rich and famous.
During our rehearsing for the forthcoming tour, I remember that Zomba phoned us at the house where we used to rehearse, in Napton, about 45 minutes from Birmingham. They’d been talking to Polygram about what to release as a follow-up to 5705, and had phoned to ask our opinions. We were so immersed in rehearsing, and so looking forward to conquering America, that I have to say that none of us were particularly interested. I don’t remember who made the decision to remix What a Night, but that was the choice. We managed to squeeze two gigs in the UK just before we left for the States, so we were hardly showing support for our fans over here. The Hall and Oates tour went very well, but 5705 obviously didn’t appeal as much over there, and by the time we came back to England in December ’78, we were already being branded a “one-hit wonder,” which, sadly, I have had to describe City Boy as to many people I have met since those days who are too young to have heard of the band.
So…that’s why some versions of Book Early have got What a Night on and some haven’t!!


Part II

Well, having told a bit of the history - as I remember it – of the band during the time up to 5705, it would be a bit unfair not to fill in some more about what happened later.

Look what you’ve started, Bikersully!

We got back from the Hall and Oates tour in early December ’78, and then managed to fit a few dates in Holland just before Christmas. Zomba (the management) had started to talk about us taking a tax-free year out of the country from April ’79 to April ’80. Our contracts with Polygram were to finish in early ’79, and they were confident that they could negotiate a big advance deal from one of the other major labels. If they succeeded, it would serve our best interests not to pay UK tax, so the plan was to go to the Bahamas to record the next album (which would be “The Day the Earth caught Fire”) and from there move to the US to be ready to do a lot of touring to promote the new album.

(Incidentally, Sheryl and I got married at the end of ’78 – neither of us could bear the prospect of being apart from each other for a whole year, even with occasional visits to and fro, so we were married on a bitterly cold day at the end of December in Birmingham Register Office. {I wasn’t a Christian at that time!} It was all so last-minute that Sheryl’s mother didn’t even know about it until after the event)
So, in late March, we flew to the Bahamas – Sheryl was pregnant with our first child Simon by then – and began recording at Compass Point Studios. That was all just a great experience, and we were very privileged to have had it. It was a bit of a strain sometimes…Sheryl and I, Mike and Sue, and the whole Ward entourage (Roy, his wife Shirley, and their young kids little Roy and Anita and Eleanor) stayed in one large house right on the beach. And Lol and Sheila and their young son Ben, Steve and his wife Rhona, and Chris and Derek King (who tragically died of cancer about three years ago) – he was one of the road crew, stayed in the main house (with swimming pool) at the sight of the studio. And Mutt Lange, of course.
It was during this period that some stresses and strains between some band members began to develop…I’ve talked of this on previous submissions to the website, but it was a couple of years ago, - I think I’ll leave it for now.
Zomba were true to their word, and they negotiated a new deal with Atlantic for the States and Canada (++?? Can’t remember) with a $1.2 million advance - $300,000 for signing, and $300,000 for the first of three albums (DECF). Apart from the recording costs, and the subsequent accommodation costs when we moved to New York State (six band-member properties and one for the road crew and rehearsing), we paid ourselves extremely fat wages during our time out of the UK.

So then we moved to New York. And then, events began that by Christmas would lead to Steve and Chris leaving the band, and the slow and rather agonised death of the whole thing would begin.
First off, more than 100 Americans were taken hostage in Iran following the speedy departure early in the year of the Shah of Iran (“King of Kings” he once described himself as….he was actually in the Bahamas while we were there!). As a consequence of this, supplies of crude oil became rather short on the world market. From sometime over the summer, ALL vehicles in the USA, whether commercial or private, were only allowed to fill up with petrol on alternate days. This, in one fell swoop, cut out all major touring by most major acts for the rest of that year. As the trucks carrying the gear could quite simply only travel on alternate days, no long-haul tours took place. So we were stuck largely in New York State, unable to do more than a few local gigs and a short tour of Canada.

Next, the “2nd. British Invasion” had begun. Despite the fact – as most commentators now agree – that the Punk THANG had started in New York sometime in the mid ‘70s, the British music business had become largely steeped in it, and during ’79 many American radio stations began playing only music that was regarded as being part of this movement. The rest continued to play the “dinosaurs” – Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles etc. City Boy was not part of the New Wave scene…we were definitely writing material and recording it in such a fashion that was definitely regarded as NOT Punk. But neither were we well established enough in the “Old School” to be played very much by radio stations who were still plugging that type of stuff.

We quite simply fell in the middle, caught between the two extremes. Sales of DECF were insignificant, and Atlantic had already got wind of the stresses and strains that were beginning to manifest themselves within the band.
Steve had been expressing a desire to “modernise” our sound. In the Bahamas, he had talked about trying to diversify his own material into other directions, alongside his work with the band. I have to say in retrospect that if (UNLIKELY!!) I were ever again in the situation of being in a band or even running a band, I would seriously encourage all other members to do the same as he was suggesting that he wanted to do. The whole music business is so fickle, and given that a band or artist can go from fame to relative obscurity in the space of a year, or less, it seems eminently sensible to try to keep all your options open…and diversifying whilst you’re still on top is a good idea.
I guess most of us at the time felt that he was out of order...some more than others.
I must skip over the details, as I would only feel happy putting my own interpretation of what happened down if all the parties involved could add their own. Suffice it to say that by Christmas ’79, we were a four-piece, tails between our legs, the promise of the earlier part of the year having gone, imminently due to fly to France (we had to stay out of the UK until April) to record the penultimate “Heads are Rolling” album.

We would never gig again.

Atlantic had already written us off. They responded to “Heads” very lukewarmly…and delivered the last part of the advance most reluctantly for us to record “It’s Personal,” which they never released. I think it was only released in Scandinavia because we were still signed to Polygram in certain territories.
Zomba half-heartedly tried to sell “It’s Personal”, but by 1982, all the contracts, including our management contract expired…and then the money ran out, and suddenly there were no more wages. And we were all out of a job, and out of a career. I’ll send this now. I don’t particularly want to end this sounding as though I still feel cheated or resentful or whatever, but I had assumed that I had a career for life as a songwriter at least, and I sometimes think that I took the longest of all of us to wake up to the fact that it WAS OVER! I am not sad and bitter about it at all now…it really was such a fantastic privilege to have done it, and I wouldn’t change any of it. That I became a Christian two years later is perhaps predictable…if any of you knew me well, you’d know that I am of that disposition – whatever that means! It has inevitably changed my life, and it continues to do so, perhaps more so now than 15 years ago when I took that small leap of faith. I don’t intend to preach to anyone on this forum, but some of the best stuff that I’ve written is on the CD I’ve been going on about, so BEWARE!

Love to you all…and I really do mean that, because I know how much many of you love the stuff that we did, so how could I not love you all for that? “Oh dear” Lol would say, “he’s getting all maudlin again!” (Drunk and depressed!!) (Actually I’ve only had two glasses of wine – but I think I’ll have another one now!)


Part III

Where is everyone?
I'm in Bath, England
Lol's in Birmingham. He's become a TV/radio comedy scriptwriter. He lives with my niece and he's marrying her in May, and I shall be his uncle!!! I jest not, this is true!
Roy lives in North Wales in a small village by a river. Don't have much contact with him nowadays. He always used to go on about re-forming the band, but we all live too far away, and yes, I know that we had some magic moments and some magic songs, but really that whole era is gone despite the eternal revivals and retrospective interest. We've all moved on in many different directions, and my songwriting doesn't generally fit into that City Boy framework any more.
Steve lives in New York, and works for Zomba.
Mike you know about..
Chris lives in New Jersey as far as I know, but I haven't spoken to him since 1979, the year of the split...which was very acrimonious at the time, and it's only been in the last few years that Lol and I have been in touch with Steve.
18000 we played to once in Florida at some outdoor festival.

Another great production!