City High: self-titled

Maurice Bottomley

City High

City High

Label: Interscope
US Release Date: 2001-08-27

I thought I would hate City High when I first read about them. Look at the ingredients -- an over-hyped, MTV-driven, debut set from a teen-oriented Rap/R&B trio featuring two moody guys (former child actors) plus one (suitably gorgeous) female. It gets worse. The less-than-reliable Wyclef co-produces (watch out for all those Fugees comparisons) and, wait for it, they write meaningful lyrics and don't want to be seen as another pop band. A better recipe for half-assed drivel I can barely imagine. And yet . . . and yet. Well, it's not going to change the course of musical history but it's not at all bad. Kids' stuff almost certainly, but infectious and engaging nonetheless.

City High are Ryan Toby and Robby Pardio -- plus 18-year-old Claudette Ortiz, who is very photogenic and whose light vocals will not cause Syleena Johnson to rethink her technique. Toby and Pardio are useful musicians but rather derivative both as rappers and singers. All three have ambitions as songwriters -- a more positive statement will have to wait. One senses a certain contrivance in the elements that have been assembled for the disc -- a bit of hip-hop, nursery rhyme hooks, a couple of sentimental ballads, a would-be-tough High School ethos and a stab at social consciousness. Questions of authenticity and sincerity keep nagging away throughout. Even so, the whole enterprise is somehow oddly likeable, even if a peculiarly adolescent earnestness provokes as many guffaws as it does thoughtfulness.

Things start promisingly with "Didn't Ya", a mid-tempo cheating song in mainstream urban style. Catchy hook and pleasant vocals ride a tight production. Very TLC and well-suited to radio or the early stages of any club set. "Three Way" follows with a more bouncy, masculine take on the same theme and nods to Blackstreet. So far so good. Then comes "Why", one of a number of slow jams that begin to raise a few doubts. There is a sense that the angst and adult sentiments ("Why should we screw if we can't get along.") sit somewhat uneasily on the trio's youthful shoulders. It just about works, thanks to some neat piano and production pushing the song towards an updated doo-wop feel. I am far less happy with the Donny Hathaway tribute that follows. This is so obviously an attempt to ape the Fugees success with "Killing Me Softly" that it is hard not to be prejudiced against it. Anyway, it's a Leon Russell song and though Donny made it his own it never ranked among his best moments. File under less than adequate.

"15 Will Get You 20" is catchy to the point of irritation. It too has serious pretensions -- ignore them. A promising head-nodder on first hearing, it soon palls. Radio stations will love it. It is a work of art compared with "Cats and Dogs", the one truly unlistenable track on the album. Just skip forward to "Caramel". Although this works better on the single -- try the Trackmasters re-mix with Eve adding some rap muscle -- the CD version is fine. It is superior pop with urban, hip-hop and Hispanic flourishes. Ortiz does the lyric proud -- a gentler, Kandi Burris-material girl declaration -- and the melody skips along without a care in the world. "Best Friend" and "Sista", two more slow jams on the triangular tip, are just so-so. As a whole City High overdo the obvious possibilities of the two male-one female line-up. "Sista" is the beatier and more effective offering, but both strive and strain too much for comfort.

"What Would You Do?" was the lead-off single and you are probably sick of it by now. Its tale of degradation and survival is a bit Junior High essayish, but it has real spirit, a great chorus and is a fine piece of pseudo-deep social observation. People are getting it all wrong comparing it unfavourably with grown-up rap like Mos Def or Common or soul-poets like Curtis. This is the Shangri-Las for the Dre generation. "I Can Never Go Home", "My Boyfriend's Back" and "He's a Rebel" are the song's actual ancestors. In fact the whole set is best seen in that tradition -- teen-anthems with the odd glance at the travails of modern life. Ghetto-sensitive Brill Building pop. Can you get with that? I love it.

Mostly downhill from thereon, it has to be said. The obligatory soft rock track ("So Many Things") need not detain you, while the kitsch-epic "The Only One I Trust", with its mock-Spanish ballad structure, is unintentionally hilarious. It is, I think, supposed to be heart-breakingly poignant. Similarly "City High Anthem", a bathetic plea for a lost generation, is a collection of clichés beyond any chance of redemption and sounds like a storyboard for a more than usually bad TV movie. A suspicion, which rather dogs this project, that these are well-behaved high school kids acting out the lives of their more delinquent classmates reaches crisis point here.

The finale, "You Don't Know Me", lyrically dips its toes in the same treacherous waters but is saved by a great arrangement. A tasty slab of old school funk -- complete with clavinet and brass -- it ends proceedings on a positive note. City High demonstrates just enough of those to warrant investigation. My advice would be to steer the music further clubwards, don't try quite so hard on the message front and go for songs which play to Ms Ortiz' sweet but limited vocal range. "Didn't Ya", "Caramel" and "What Would You Do?" show the way. Jerry Wonder's Booga Basement has not produced the new Fugees but we are going to hear more of this New Jersey trio, of that there's little doubt.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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