The Boomtown Rats: In and out of the rat trap
edited: Sunday, July 21, 2002
By John Van der Kiste
Posted: Sunday, July 21, 2002
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Bob Geldof's initially much-praised, then much-reviled, group of the late 70s and early 80s. From Keep On Rockin, Autumn 1995
The Nightlife Thugs originally formed in Dublin in 1975. They got together when Bob Geldof returned to his native Ireland after working at various jobs in England and Canada, including a stint as a reporter with 'NME', and met guitarist Gary Roberts and keyboard player Johnny Moylett, who were planning to start a band. Johnny's cousin Pat Cusack, who played bass, was also thinking of starting a band with guitarist Gerry Cott. Pat, Gerry and Johnny were all studying architecture at Bolton Street College of Technology in Dublin. The five of them decided to pool their resources, Bob initially being asked to be their manager in view of his organisational skills, and so he claimed, only invited as an afterthought to be their vocalist and harmonica player. The line-up was completed when drummer Simon Crowe, an old friend of Gary, joined.
After a few local gigs they changed their name to the Boomtown Rats, taken from a gang mentioned in Woody Guthrie's 'Bound For Glory', while Johnny became the ever pyjama-clad Johnny Fingers and Pat the less lrish-sounding Pete Briquette. A tour of Holland supporting Frankie Miller followed, and by the time they returned to Ireland they had their sights on a record deal. At this time the Sex Pistols and the Damned were making music press headlines, and Eddie and the Hot Rods were enjoying their brief hour of glory, Bob went to see the latter when they played Dublin, and reckoned the Rats could wipe the floor with them. Going to London with a demo tape, they came close to signing with Virgin for a reported million pounds advance for ten albums over the next five years. Instead they went for a more modest, less demanding (only three albums) deal with Ensign, a small label just formed by Nigel Grange, who had left Phonogram - where the group had gone on the recommendation of Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott, ever eager to champion new Dublin talent.
By early 1977 punk and new wave bands were springing up all over London. As Bob related in his autobiography, 'Is That It?' (1986), 'The pop papers were suspicious of our ability, but the radio, desperate to get in on this New Wave thing, thought most of the records awful.’ Bands could disguise their inability in the studio and make great records with the right producer, even if they were hopeless live. When the Rats' first single, produced by Robert John Lange, hit the streets, ‘it had a connection with a musical past which, unlike the punk bands, we had never disavowed.’ 'Lookin' After Number One' had all the in-yer-face urgency of punk, but also a musical hook and freshness which left most of the competition trailing. Released in August 1977, it was almost the first new wave single which Radio 1 could include on its daytime playlist without looking over its shoulder. The group's first UK TV spot, on 'The Marc Bolan Show' (just two weeks before Marc's untimely death) and 'Top Of The Pops' followed in quick succession, and the single made No 11.
Their debut album was released in September, and by Christmas it had spawned a second Top 20 hit, 'Mary Of The Fourth Form', which owed not a little to 'Born To Be Wild'. At once the group delivered two fingers to their peers who claimed that appearing on 'TOTP' and on K-Tel chart compilations was betraying New Wave values and selling out, maaaan. The Rats were unashamedly a pop group, and wanted to sell records, Bob insisted; 'we never wanted to be part of a political or pseudo-political movement.'
Returning briefly to Dublin at the end of the year, the group appeared on 'The Late Late Show', a media event etched deeply into history by Bob's interview with host Gay Byrne. Pulling no punches, he voiced his utter loathing of Ireland in a scathing denunciation of nationalism, medieval-minded clerics and corrupt politicians with an articulate turn of phrase which took a media accustomed to 'thickie pop singers' by surprise. The powers-that-be in the emerald isle never forgave him, but even so Bob was soon welcome on radio and TV chat shows in Britain. There was no repetition of the Sex Pistols/Bill Grundy fiasco; 'Bob the Gob' was not only articulate but frequently very funny, and never dull. ‘Bob, why does Johnny Fingers always wear pyjamas?’ ‘He's such an insignificant little twerp - he's gotta do somethin' to get himself noticed.'
Back in England the Pistols had just imploded, the Clash (who dubbed the Rats 'the Bay City Rollers of punk') were still moderately fashionable, but the Rats' honeymoon with the fickle music press was almost over. As Bob said, 'people seemed to think we were taking the piss out of the whole music business just because we'd mess about, and indeed we were.’ He refused to let himself be set up as a figurehead, as he made clear in a 'Melody Maker' interview in May 1978; The Pistols are the ideal, Tom Robinson is the political spokesman, the Stranglers are maybe the musical intellectuals, and we're a dance band. That doesn't mean we're shallow. It means we're not going to force anything down people's throats, because there's enough of that going on.’
But they were selling records. A third single, 'She's So Modern', once again just fell short of the Top 10. In retrospect, Bob thought it was the worst of their singles; ‘it now ‘"about two people who imagine themselves to be emotionally detached and take a sterile view of everything,’ was a change of style with its more sophisticated tempo, and made No 6. The second album, 'Tonic For The Troops' (a line from 'She's So Modern'), was one of the best of the year, packed full of potential singles and showing a considerable musical advance on the debut, was released in July. Although it never went higher than No 8, it stayed on the album chart for 44 weeks, and ended up as the 20th best-selling album of 1978 in the UK.
Shortlisted for the third single from the album were the fast, driving 'Blind Date', and the slightly reggae-tinged 'Living On An Island', the latter ruled out after it was felt that its jokey suicide lyrics might lead to exclusion from the Radio 1 playlist. Even the ironic 'I Never Loved Eva Braun', with its opening vocal aside cheekily borrowed from the Damned's 'New Rose' might have done, but perversely they decided they were suddenly disenchanted with being seen as a singles band. Counter-strategy - to release the most album-orientated track as the next 45.
'Rat Trap', written about an old friend of Bob's in Dublin, trapped in the dead end job at a meat factory, with its story line and saxophone breaks, drew comparison with Bruce Springsteen. Unlike most of the other songs, they had never played it onstage before recording it, and while the song was basically Bob's, the arrangement owed much to Robert John Lange. Phil Lynott had been so impressed with the demo that when Bob expressed his reservations about using the song, he reportedly asked if Thin Lizzy could have first refusal on it instead.
Although it had been incorporated into the live set as the finale, and went down a storm on stage, Bob was not over-optimistic about its chances as a single, and he bet £10 with an employee at Ensign that it would go no further than No.15. To their amazement, it proved unstoppable. By November songs from the movie 'Grease' had a temporary stranglehold on the singles chart, and the nation (not to mention staff at Ensign) held breath as 'Rat Trap' entered at No 22, shot up to No 9, and inched slowly upwards to knock 'Summer Nights' off the top after seven weeks. 'The first new wave No 1 the BBC owned up to', the music press roared, recalling suspicions of sales data cooking at the time of the Pistols' 'God Save The Queen'. The Rats celebrated with a triumphant appearance on 'Top Of The Pops' on which Bob playfully tore up pictures of John Travolta and Olivia N-J, and mimed the sax breaks on a candelabra.
A promotional tour of the US early in 1979 proved a mixed blessing. The first album had been released on US Mercury, to critical acclaim but minimal sales. DJs and media men had been turned off the record by an over-zealous marketing man who had heralded its release by sending a dead rat wrapped in formaldehyde to DJs across the States with 'The Rats Are Coming' written on it. After the group trashed the Mercury HQ in Chicago they were dropped and signed with Columbia. While doing the endless round of inane interviews, Bob saw a ticker-tape machine at a radio station and watched incredulously as the latest news story unfolded. A teenage schoolgirl was shooting people dead at random in the street, and a joumalist rang her up on her mobile phone to ask her why. ‘I don't like Mondays,’ she replied before continuing her gory work
The idiotic remark inspired a new song, which Bob and Johnny recorded with a string section, and without the other Rats – a new wave record without guitars! - and former Sweet/Bay City Rollers producer Phil Wainman. Entering the charts at No.15 on release, it shot to No.1 and stayed there for four weeks, topping the charts in 30 other countries as well. In the US it reached No 73, the group's only American hit, before Columbia panicked and withdrew it after a week when threatened with legal action by the girl's parents. They tried to accuse the group of exploitation, though they were silenced when Bob asked what possessed the father to buy his daughter a gun for Christmas every year since she was ten years old.
An extended version of 'Mondays' appeared on the third album, 'The Fine Art Of Surfacing', a title taken from a psychology article in 'New Scientist'. So did the two subsequent singles, 'Diamond Smiles', another death disc - this time, about a debutante who hanged herself from a chandelier - and 'Someone's Looking At You', a gently humorous song about paranoia, with its memorable lines ‘They saw me there in the square, I was shooting my mouth off about saving some fish’, about Bob's appearance at an anti-whaling rally in Trafalgar Square organised by Greenpeace. 'Surfacing' was another instant success (No.7 and 26 weeks on the chart).
By the end of the 70s, with two consecutive chart-topping singles (even if 'Diamond' fell just short of the Top 10 in the competitive Christmas market - it was hardly a very festive song) and two Top 10 albums, the Rats were indisputably one of Britain's top-selling bands. It was a difficult position to sustain - and damned hard work too As Bob said, ‘I had to write the songs, produce the videos, do the interviews, create the artwork ideas and then go out on stage and deliver every night.’ Certain sections of the media were becoming alienated by his caustic wit, and criticised 'Surfacing' for being over-slick and over-produced. A music press reporter was allegedly fired for writing a positive piece on the band.
Gradually they fell out of favour. A subtle change of musical direction was discemible at the end of the year, when their deal with Ensign was completed and they signed with Mercury, aiming for a more spontaneous dance feel on the Tony Visconti-produced album 'Mondo Bongo'. The first single from it was 'Banana Republic', a reggae number with bitter lyrics inspired by their recent retum up, the less memorable 'Elephants' Graveyard (Guilty)', only scraped the Top 30.
Bob turned briefly to acting in movies, appearing in 'The Wall' and 'Number One'. But despite a punishing schedule on tour at home and overseas, the group's career went into a downward spiral. Gerry Cott was increasingly disillusioned with the change of style and left for a brief solo career. By the time of his departure, there had long been no need for two guitarists; with their increasing reliance on keyboards and a hom section, there was barely any need for a guitarist at all. Late in 1981 a new single from the forthcoming album, 'Never In A Million Years', which sounded like a clumsy attempt to copy the Phil Spector big-ballad style, only made the lower end of the charts, and the next album did little better.
'V Deep' was originally to be produced by Kevin Godley and Lol Creme - appropriately, perhaps, in view of an over-optimistic suggestion in 'The Times' by Richard Williams that the group might turn out to be the 10cc of the 80s - but after aborted sessions they retumed to Tony Visconti. Another reggae single, 'House On Fire', put them back in the Top 30, but the album was dismal - a lame attempt to jump on the prevailing musical bandwagon. Maybe there was always room for another Kid Creole & the Coconuts, another Modem Romance, but the Rats' identity was completely lost in the resulting mish-mash of funk, salsa and ska. Four years earlier, Bob had slammed disco as ‘the most insidious form of music and potentially the most fascist because it's mindless. But there's no getting away from it, these discos are attracting thousands. Good God, should we bring out a disco album!’ But 'V Deep' was no 'Saturday Night Fever'. A third single from the album, 'Charmed Lives', bypassed the Top 75 altogether.
Broke and diillusioned, the group toured British universities in order to finance their last album under the deal with Phonogram. Two singles, 'Tonight' and 'Drag Me Down' (the latter unashamedly hyped into the chart, up to No 50) came and went, and 'Dave', a harrowing song about heroin addiction, praised by Pete Townshend as the best single of 1984, escaped as a third at the end of the year. Its release ironically coincided with 'Do They Know It's Christmas', of which the story is too well-known to need recounting in detail. Suffice to say that Bob and Midge Ure had written the song, initially for the Boomtown Rats to record as a charity single, but Bob realised that with their reputation at a low ebb, it would probably never sell. The rest...is history.
Amidst the Band Aid headlines, the group's recently-completed last album, 'In The Long Grass' was released and went almost unnoticed One ached to like it, but on the whole the songs were no better than those on 'V Deep', and the band sounded at the end of their tether - and didn't they just look it on the sleeve. Six months later, they bowed out on stage at Live Aid, on 13 July 1985, watched on TV by millions worldwide, and the following summer at a parallel charity gig ‘Self Aid’ in Dublin. 'Saint Bob', soon to be knighted, was feted by royalty and statesmen alike, but for the group it was the end
One final footnote. When the compilation 'Loudmouth' was released in summer 1994 and the reissued 'I Don't Like Mondays' recharted at No.38, several record reviewers gleefully indulged in a renewed spot of Rat-bashing (‘dire post-punk pop - BG should stick to charity fundraising and naff if successful breakfast shows’). It must have been a grievous disappointment to them when the album entered the chart it its first week at No. 10 - exactly the same position as the infinitely more respected Pistols and their retrospective 'Kiss This' almost a year earlier. Someone else obviously remembered the band with affection. Meanwhile, give your well-worn Copy of 'Tonic For The Troops' another spin. It still sounds as good as it did in 1978.