The Boomtown Rats

TrackAlbum
Lookin' After No. 1The Boomtown Rats
Rat TrapA Tonic For The Troops
(I Never Loved) Eva BraunA Tonic For The Troops
Like ClockworkA Tonic For The Troops
When The Night ComesThe Fine Art Of Surfacing
Someone's Looking At YouThe Fine Art Of Surfacing
Diamond SmilesThe Fine Art Of Surfacing
The Elephant’'s GraveyardMondo Bongo
Fall DownMondo Bongo
Banana RepublicMondo Bongo

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Contributor: David Lewis

The Boomtown Rats were the first Irish band to have a UK No.1. They were the first New Wave band to hit No.1. They had nine straight singles enter the UK Top 40. Their songs were provocative, brilliant and highly literate. Although they had six albums – their best work is found on A Tonic For The Troops – they were never boring and rarely predictable. With ex-journalist Bob Geldof as their leader and spokesman, they were always guaranteed to make an impression.

A vital part of the New Wave movement, they built a following through blistering live shows. Lead guitarist Gerry Cott had learned flamenco guitar, and this approach set him apart from other guitarists. The other really distinctive sound was the piano of Johnnie Fingers. All six members though are exceptionally good musicians. Geldof’s voice is more from the Dylan school of intonation and precision. But, like Dylan, it works.

My choices are biased towards A Tonic For The Troops, The Fine Art Of Surfacing and Mondo Bongo. This is partly because, growing up in rural Australia, these were the only albums I could get. But having heard the others since, I still think they’re the best three, although the hazy pull of nostalgia (and, for the record, I hate nostalgia) may bias me.

My first track is the Rats’ first single from their eponymous album, Lookin’ After No.1. It’s a theme that recurs continually in the Rats’ lyrics (and Geldof’s later career): that of personal responsibility. Listening to it, you can see why they were considered a punk band.

The next album, A Tonic For The Troops, is their masterpiece. Energetic, brash and arrogant, it is a joy to listen to. It’s Geldof’s most consistently smart lyrics, and the band is just perfect. It has the second part of the great trilogy which began with Joey’s On The Street Again, Rat Trap. Meeting Springsteen on his own ground, this mini epic describes working class life in Dublin. This was the single that broke the records earlier.

From the same album, a song I don’t think would be released today. (I Never Loved) Eva Braun is an exceptional lyric, possibly Geldof’s best (although I’ve got a couple of other contenders in this list). It is Adolf Hitler on trial, or perhaps in counselling. It’s not really, though, a song on Nazism. It’s a song on personal responsibility. Adolf denies all the bad things – out of his control. Of course, Geldof knows this is nonsense. Geldof returns to this theme again and again. One of the few rockers to criticise people for not thinking about consequence.

Geldof’s finest vocal performance is my next pick. Like Clockwork has a rigid beat, but a pulse which is pushed and pulled, its theme of time, and the lack of it, is enhanced by the performances.

The next album, The Fine Art Of Surfacing, was their biggest seller, with their biggest hit, I Don’t Like Mondays. It’s a document of Geldof’s mental state; success had brought pressure, and pressure takes its toll. Geldof completes the street trilogy with When The Night Comes. The story of the hapless Frankie has a nice resolution. And the pointless drudgery of office work suggests getting out of your dead end life might just lead to another dead end life.

Geldof’s growing paranoia and stress is documented in Someone’s Looking At You. He was under intense scrutiny, and he knew it.

Diamond Smiles is about the suicide of a young socialite. Geldof has said that he agreed with the journalist who saw it as being prescient about Paula Yates. Geldof has also said he feels sad while singing it now. Still, he is right to keep it in his set.

Mondo Bongo was an attempt to change direction. It sold less well and was the last album of the classic lineup. It features a move towards ska and reggae, plus Geldof, that retiring, self doubting, sensitive artist, rewrites the lyrics to Jagger & Richards Under My Thumb. It features a song on the fall of the British Empire (with a hint of sadness about it, from Irishmen …). These goodies aside, it has the magnificent The Elephant’s Graveyard, a scathing indictment of the justice system (with perhaps my favourite Geldof couplet: “not for want of trying / I have nothing left to say”.

The next track I’ve chosen is the gorgeously bizarre (or perhaps bizarrely gorgeous), Fall Down. Actually sung by drummer Simon Crowe, its beautiful lyrics are about Paula Yates, apparently.

The final one for the list is the swingeing Banana Republic. Geldof returned to Ireland to find much hadn’t changed. So he documented it. The introduction is a great reggae groove, but the song itself is just great. The purple and the green …

The Rats started to fracture after this. Gerry Cott left, and the next records sold less and less. Finally they broke up. They reformed last year, minus Cott and Fingers, and have been touring. Between their split in 1985, the members remained active in music. Geldof, of course, was hardly heard from again, apart from organising a couple of charity gigs and working in TV. The Boomtown Rats, though, are almost as strong a legacy as the rest of his notable achievements. Which still makes them an incredible legacy.

The Boomtown Rats website

The Boomtown Rats blog

Bob Geldof official website

Gerry Cott official website

The Boomtown Rats biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #167

7 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Jan 15, 2014

    Excellent list, David … though the albums passed me by at the time, and I picked up the singles. So let me be the first with a “Wot no …?” for I Don’t Like Mondays. I don’t think any other song conjures up 1979 as well, it was their biggest UK hit too. So often when you go back in time, things don’t work anymore, but I Don’t Like Mondays still sounds as fresh as ever. Saint Bob’s finest hour. Mind you, in recent years, I became addicted to the Tori Amos version from ”Strange Little Girls” because it works even better with a female voice.

  2. Ian Ashleigh
    Jan 15, 2014

    Peter, I thought the same when I read the list, but David gives I Don’t Like Mondays an honourable mention in his essay. The song defined the summer I spent driving a van around London to earn money for university so I do have a soft spot for it and it does still sound fresh. Also I am in favour of excluding a definitive single in favour of an album track that needs inclusion as my postings have (and will) evidence.

    I would agree with your assessment of the Tori Amos version, it is quite stunning and I would commend it to anyone who has not heard it.

    Oh, and David, your list is terrific.

  3. Rob Millis
    Jan 15, 2014

    Yes, I’m with David and Ian and stand against my good friend Peter “Singles!!!” Viney here. I was a toddler when I Don’t Like Mondays came out, you couldn’t escape it and frankly, even at such a tender age, it got on my tits. I was, however, a snobby teenager when I bought that 30 Years of The Marquee compilation – it featured Rat Trap, which to this day I think is a masterpiece.

  4. Peter Viney
    Jan 15, 2014

    With reissues, they had 14 chart singles so you still have to choose, Rob. And with B-sides that’s 28 before you get to the albums. I’d go for I Don’t Like Mondays because it still works in 2014. Don’t forget Rat Trap was also a #1 single, but for me, it’s more “time adherent” than I Don’t Like Mondays. Were they really “New wave”? Or were they more akin to Squeeze and The Police as being good musicians sailing under a “New Wave” flag of convenience?

    • David Lewis
      Jan 15, 2014

      The more I study it, the more I wonder about the whole ‘new wave’ phenomenon. Simon Reynolds excellent ‘Rip it up and start again’ is as good as any attempt to make sense of it, and better than most of them. The Rats were the Stones and Springsteen (who was lumped in with this movement anyway). The Police were the Beatles, Costello wanted to be Dylan, and Bacharach. The Pretenders were the Kinks, etc

      All great bands. It was convenient to fall under the label. Look at Dire Straits. Was anyone really convinced by Knopfler’s pink shirts? The label, though, allowed a lot of stuff a more mainstream label (such as ‘pop’ or ‘rock’) wouldn’t have allowed.

    • Rob Millis
      Jan 16, 2014

      Who knows whether they were New Wave or not really. To me, Rat Trap is up there with the E Street Band – this complicated piece in hit single length, kitchen sink and all, twisting and turning along to that final refrain. Marvellous stuff.

  5. David Lewis
    Jan 15, 2014

    The other point Peter makes is about singles. Most of my list was singles, I think. Geldof took the attitude that hit singles were easy to write… Noel Gallagher later took the same attitude. Of course, with the right mix of luck and talent, they are.

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