Friday, 8 January 2016

Boomtown Rats

Mention the Boomtown Rats to most people, and the response will be:
"Rat Trap"
"I Don't Like Mondays"
"Bob Geldof" followed by an impression of Geldof on Live Aid saying "Give us your f***ing money!" (a phrase he never actually said, but one that impressionists have been dining out on for years)

But is there more to the band than 2 singles, and a gobby lead singer?

Yes there is ...

Formed in Dublin in 1975, the original members were Garry Roberts (Guitar), Johnnie Fingers (Keyboards), Pete Briquette (Bass), Gerry Cott (Guitar) and Simon Crowe (Drums).
Vocalist Bob Geldof was originally invited to be the bands manager, but was offered the role of vocalist.  According to Garry Roberts:
"I had enough to do with trying to play the guitar, without having to do the singing as well.  He looked the part and could play the harmonica fairly well"
Originally called The Nightlife Thugs, history, myth or fact states that they changed their name to the Boomtown Rats (taken from the name of a childrens gang in Woody Guthrie's autobiography) during the interval of their first gig.
They relocated across the Irish Sea in 1976 in search of a record deal, and signed with Ensign, a newly formed independent label which was distributed and seemingly wholly funded by Phonogram (so not really an independent then ?)).

Their first single was released in August 1977, followed by debut album in September.
The single ("Looking After Number 1") took their formative influences of The Kinks, Rolling Stones and Yardbirds, bolted it to the sound of Dr Feelgood, and issued forth a sneering lyric of selfishness played at breakneck speed.
The album continued the R&B/Punk/New Wave hybrid sound, but there was evidence of a greater ability and texture.  There is a darkness about "Neon Heart" and "Close As You'll Ever Be", and a big epic story song/ballad in the form of "Joeys On The Street Again".
Second single "Mary Of The Fourth Form" (also on the album) retains the sound and urgency, perhaps with a bit more Stones-esque riffology going on.

Their next single, "She's So Modern" was unleashed in March 1978 and continued where the debut album left off - high energy punk/new wave R&B, possibly with a bit more polish in the production.
June 1978 heralded the release of the single "Like Clockwork" and the parent album 'Tonic For The Troops'.  This album showed the band to capable of more than 3 minute R&B thrashes - there is a noticeable ambition and musicianship that marks them out from many of their original peers.
The ambition can be seen in the subject matter of some of the songs: the tried and trusted anoyance of mundanity is dealt with on "Like Clockwork", similarly a warning of the media on "Don't Believe What You Read".  Thoughts of suicide prevail on "Living On An Island".  But then you get a tounge-in-cheek re-working of "Leader Of The Pack" (at least in intent) with "I Never Loved Eva Braun", and a suggestion of the sick bed of Howard Hughes ("Me And Howard Hughes").
The album closes on the song that brought them to the big time - "Rat Trap".
This song knocked John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John from the Number 1 spot (after what seemed like 212 years), and was performed on Top Of The Pops after Bob Geldof had torn up a picture of the aforementioned duo.  Another epic story ballad, from the same cloth as "Joeys On The Street Again".  The song was even compared in some quarters to Bruce Springsteen.
Apart from the tearing up of the picture, the Top Of The Pops performance is also memorable for Bob Geldof playing a candelabra in place of a saxophone (when you are 8, you remember these things for some reason)

A charismatic and errudite performer, Geldof was a lyricist who was not afraid to use long words.  His interviews were often entertaining, but not to everyones tastes (he was the subject of a long "hate" campaign from the NME).  He earned the nickname "Bob The Gob" and it was statements such as this which just proved the label:
"All I want out of pop music is to get rich, get famous and get laid"

Into 1979, the band were undertaking a world tour visiting America, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.  It was on the American leg of the tour that Bob Geldof became aware of the story of a 16 year old schoolgirl who had randomly fired in a school playground killing two teachers and injuring a number of children.  When asked why, she replied "It livens up the day.  I Don't Like Mondays".
That phrase, and the circumstance of the storys discovery were retained, and Geldof, with the assistance of Johnnie Fingers, composed a song intended for the next Boomtown Rats album:

"I was doing a radio interview in Atlanta with Fingers and there was a telex machine beside me. I read it as it came out. Not liking Mondays as a reason for doing somebody in is a bit strange. I was thinking about it on the way back to the hotel and I just said 'Silicon chip inside her head had switched to overload'. I wrote that down. And the journalists interviewing her said, 'Tell me why?' It was such a senseless act. It was the perfect senseless act and this was the perfect senseless reason for doing it. So perhaps I wrote the perfect senseless song to illustrate it. It wasn't an attempt to exploit tragedy."

"I Don't Like Mondays" was released in July and was soon to be the second Number 1 single.This was followed in November by the album 'The Fine Art Of Surfacing'.
Now, it is probably fair to say that sales of the album were no doubt boosted by the previous single.  But that would be too simplistic, and completely avoids the fact that this album marks the absolute high point for the band.

Opening with an exceedingly strong track ("Someones Looking At You" which was to be their next single later in the year), the attention and pacing of the album holds the listener (although the album could probably do without "Episode #13" (which was originally a hidden track anyway)).  The album is full of charisma, wit, direct and tuneful punk-pop with different styles making an appearance (the flamenco driven "When The Night Comes" for example).  On the whole, this is very much a logical extension to 'Tonic For The Troops', but it has something indefinably extra which sets it apart.
It has frantic, pop-punk thrash moments in the shape of "Nice n Neat" and "Keep It Up", Cars influenced big American Rawk on "Diamond Smiles", more Spanish guitar and solid bass on "Wind Chill Factor Minus Zero".  Whatever the musical style chosen, the lyrics and delivery remain steadfastly that of a wide-eyed storytelling Bob Geldof.
And now the downside ... whilst the album as a whole is more consistent and feels more focussed than 'Tonic For The Troops', you do begin to feel like you've heard all the tricks before and the band are not stretching themselves too much.

And then they did stretch themselves ... oh, dear.

Mondo Bongo arrived in 1981, and it seemed the new decade marked a new chapter for the band.  The punk/new wave tinged RnB was stripped back and self-indulgent experimentation took over.  Opening track "Straight Up" has the hallmarks of previous offerings, as does "Elephants Graveyard".  After that it all becomes a bit wishy-washy and sometimes plain unintersting.  Parts of the album read like a State Of The Nation address, namely "Another Piece Of Red" and the reggae driven, overtly political "Banana Republic".  In other places the record just sounds like a mess "Please Don't Go" and "Mood Mambo" being the worst offenders (to my ears).
At the end of this album, you'd be forgiven for thinking the game is up.

By 1982s 'V Deep', guitarist Gerry Cott has left the band, and there was a general loss of public interest.  To be honest, I think there was a bit of a loss of band interest too.  At times, you feel like they are treading water, or glossing the production to fit the prevelant 1980s sound (there are moments when the songs sound like out-takes from a Human League album).  There are nearly some great Rats songs on here ("Never In A Million Years", "He Watches It All" and "Skin On Skin").

Still together, but not really selling in the numbers they did before, possibly one last throw of the dice came with 1984s 'In The Long Grass'.  The opening track "Dave" is up there with their finest moments.  It is one of the Rats epic story songs, but this time delivered in a more sombre, downbeat tone.  "A Hold Of Me" is another highlight, if a little too much Stadimu Anthem-y, and "Drag Me Down" showed they still knew how to write an earworm-y type song.  But sadly, the rest of the album is largely forgettable.

After seeing the now infamous News Report in 1984, Bob Geldof's original intention was to pull the band back in the studio to record and release a single to show his support.
He had a moment of realisation that as The Boomtown Rats would have trouble getting arrested at the time, let alone sell enough singles to make a difference, maybe he should coral his friends and acquaintances.  This he did (as we all know) and The Rats also appeared on the record.  They're picture can be seen on the back cover, and I am sure that many a viewer looked at the photo, and in unison said "who are they?"

After a sell-out tour in early 1985, and then they're biggest ever performance at Live Aid (Bob Geldof had to be cajouled onto the stage), the band fizzled out, and Geldof commenced a solo career in 1986.

A series of partial reformations took place from 2008, in various permutations, but it wasn't until 2013 that the band properly reformed (sans Gerry Cott and Johnnie Fingers) and played at the Isle Of Wight Festival.
The reception led to a new 'Best Of ...' being released, containing two new tracks "The Boomtown Rats" and "Back To Boomtown", which are worthy tracks and almost make the compilation worth buying (as opposed to just being another cash-in repeating tracks you already own).

When I saw the band live in 2014, it was interesting to note that they played these two new tracks, and the rest of the set came from the first 3 albums.  Bar the inclusion of "Dave", the final two albums remain un-represented.  An admission of guilt, or just giving the public what they want to hear?

Looking After Number One

She's So Modern

Someones Looking At You

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