The Boomtown Rats

Screw the Ethiopians, I'm looking out for #1

The Boomtown Rats were a mainstream rock band from Dublin who were accidently mistaken for punks because they happened to release their debut album in 1977 and sported a snotty, cynical attitude. Led by charismatic lead singer Bob Geldof, who would later come up with the commendable idea to organize Live Aid and the "Do They Know It's Christmas?" single, the Rats' roots were in Bruce Springsteen and Thin Lizzy - hardly crucial proto-punk inspirations. Their debut single, "Looking Out For #1" is as facilely nihilistic as any concurrent punk single, but the Rats knew how to play their instruments and displayed a much broader musical range than the safety-pin rabble-rousers. Perhaps they covered too much musical territory -- the band was so interested in genre-hopping that they never developed a truly original sonic identity apart from Geldof's magnetic personality, which resulted in the band seeming at times like Geldof & the Backup Band. The Boomtown Rats managed to find considerable success in the British Isles and on the Continent, but except for the controversial 1980 single, "I Don't Like Mondays," never made any substantial inroads across the Atlantic. I'm missing several crucial Rats records right now (in particular I'd like to track down the debut), but from the evidence they were one of the more worthwhile acts to emerge from the New Wave. They might have sounded generic and too traditional compared to the Police, for instance, but quite a few of their tunes delivered good old fashioned '70s rock in a hip "new sounds of today" package. There's nothing groundbreaking or earthshattering about the Rats, just some really good rock'n'roll here and there. They seemed to have peaked early, though, and even starving Africans would reject the results of Geldof's post-Rats solo career. Sorry if that last bit sounded offensive; Geldof seems like one of the few rock stars who's also a decent human being, and starving Africans are no joke. Anyway, on with the show.

The Boomtown Rats (1977)

Their debut album was hard to find even back in the late '70s, but I'm holding out hope that I might find a copy.

Tonic for the Troops (1978) ***1/2

A strikingly solid effort from a band too often dismissed by critics as phony punks. Well, for starters, the Rats never even approached punk aside from "Looking Out For #1," so let's wipe that off the table, shall we, and actually listen to the music for once. I mean, come on, half the so-called punk rock released in the late '70s sounds like fodder for classic rock radio, anyway, and the "punk" tag (actually "new wave") is the only reason the Rats weren't sandwiched between Boston and Bruce on the "Six O'Clock Rock Block" in the Indiana. Anyhow, the Rats sound like Springsteen wannabes with a Bowie-damaged lead singer and yen for the type of bombastic overkill that Queen liked to inflict on hapless listeners. Good thing that the rockers are so catchy, and there isn't a bum track in the bunch except for the tuneless "Blind Date," with its absurd "We belong to Rome," chorus (just what the hell are they talking about?). There's a cute little song about how Adolf Hitler never loved Eva Braun on here, and another that points out that one of the best things about living on an island is that you can choose your own way to be killed. Two songs are borrowed from the debut, since the debut sold nada copies and was out of print (already!): "Joey's On The Street Again," the third-best Springsteen song Bruce never wrote (#1: "The Boys Are Back In Town," by Thin Lizzy, who shared a lot in common with the Rats), and a stunning lust ode to a slut, "Mary of the 4th Form," - you can practically feel the lecherous drool trickle down your thighs. One of the better leerers that Mick Jagger never wrote, then. There's also a song that makes fun of Howard Hughes, one that attacks newspapers (Geldof is an ex-journalist), a kinetic Costello/Parker-style rocker about the opposite sex, "She's So Modern," and some other neat stuff. Probably the best track is the second-best song Springsteen never wrote, "Rat Trap," in which our working-class hero claims that he's "Gonna get out of school/Work in some factory," and makes it sound like something to actually look forward to. To each his own, I guess - maybe Geldof was being ironic. I've never worked in one, but I can pretty easily state that factories suck. It's better than working fast-food, I guess, though, which I have worked before as an exploited teen, and all fast food joints SUCK in a major, major way.

Reader Comments

Ben Greenstein,

I guess you could call me a fan of the group, seeing as I have a bunch of their albums, but I don't particularly like them. So here are my coments on each of the albums that I have.

I'd say that this is probably my favourite of their releases, but I still wouldn't give it an above average grade. "Rat Trap" is phenomonal, "Like Clockwork" is really catchy, and "I Never Loved Eva Braun" is fun, if in really bad taste. And how can you say that "Looking Out For #1" is their only punk tune - if that's true, then what the hell is "She's So Modern"? Slick and well-written punk, but punk nonetheless. On a scale out of five, I'd give this one a three.

The Fine Art of Surfacing (1979) **1/2

Try as I might, I can't quite pinpoint exactly what's wrong with this album. Apart from an increased over-reliance on dated synthesizers (don't worry, there's still plenty of guitar) for that "up to date" sound, this doesn't sound that different from Tonic for the Troops. "I Don't Like Mondays," is in fact a great song, and the Rats' only U.S. hit - even though it was banned in many areas of the country. "Mondays," took its subject straight from the headlines - a young student shot and killed her fellow classmates and when she was asked why, said that she didn't like Mondays. And you thought events like Littleton and Jonesboro were only recent phenomenon - give a disturbed kids guns, and they'll shoot things with them. Aside from "Mondays," the pickings are rather slim: there's nothing really offensive -- the material isn't bad, merely lackluster. "Someone's Looking At You," and "When the Night Comes," are fairly strong relative to the company they're keeping, but neither one are knockouts. The overrangements and overproductions can't hide the fact that several melodies are repeated throughout this album. I didn't mind hearing this album several times, but even given repeated exposure I'm hard pressed to remember half of these songs, much less come up with anything interesting to say about any of them. The title gets it right: it's fine on the surface, but try to scratch any deeper and it rings hollow.

Reader Comments

Ben Greenstein,

I can pinpoint exactly what's wrong with it. Aside from "Someone's Looking At You," "Diamond Smiles," and especially "I Don't Like Mondays," which are all phenomonal, the songs all SUCK! Completely without listenable melodies, and pretty darn generic in the music department, as well. I would probably give this album a one, with an extra half star thrown in for the good sons. But the ones that suck are really lousy!

Mondo Bongo (1980)

As the title suggests, a foray into tropicalia. If the after-hours staple of early MTV, "Up All Night," is any indication, the results are much better than it sounds. Could be a disaster, though.

V Deep (1982)
In the Long Grass (1985) *1/2

This was actually slated for a 1984 release but was rejected by Columbia, who only released it later to cash in on Geldof's celebrity cachet as a result of Live Aid. It didn't sell many copies, either, and for the best of reasons - it's not very good. The record consists of bland mid-'80s mainstream rock devoid of interesting hooks or melodies for the most part, though I'm sure the record company could've broke off a few hits if they'd cared -- it's not much worse than most of the rest of mainstream rock in the mid-'80s that actually did find flash-in-the-pan success. The band sound tired, as evidenced by the turgidness of the music (where has the manic energy of the early Rats dissipated?) and titles like "Hard Times," "Drag Me Down," and "Another Sad Story." Actually, "Another Sad Story," isn't that bad, and is probably the best song on here. At the insistence of mindless and evil record company executives, the Rats' song "Dave," was forcibly changed to the ump-tillionth song entitled "Rain," for no apparent good reason. And you thought the executive managers in Dilbert were fictional creations. This was the straw that broke the camel's back - the Rats broke up that year.

Greatest Hits (1987) ****

In 1983 a six-song EP Ratrospective was released (the student radio station I used to DJ at had an actual copy, in fact, and it was the first Rats I ever heard), and after the Rats broke up, Columbia decided to add four more songs and call it a greatest hits. This is probably all the Rats most people need, and it shows the band in an interesting light -- it turns out that the Rats are highly eclectic, with nearly every song sounding radically different from the tracks preceding and succeeding them. From the topical balladry of "I Don't Like Mondays," the Springsteen pastiche "Rat Trap," the jump'n'jive "Up All Night," the soaring synth-pop "Never In A Million Years," the hyped-up New Wave "She's So Modern," the reggae foray "Banana Republic," the Rats cover a lot of ground, and generally cover it well. There's plenty of good, solid entertainment here, if nothing strikingly brilliant.

Bob Geldof: Deep In the Heart of Nowhere (1986) *1/2

Yee-ech. It seems that Rats were indeed more than just a backup band for Geldof; generic though they may have sounded at times, at least a real, solid band is preferable to a solo act with session hacks and synthesizers. I have nothing good to say about this record, except that the lyrics are decent and the melodies are kind of okay, but who cares when it's all drowned out by generic mid-'80s synth rock? The worst track by a country mile is the - gag - poetry reading Geldof saves near the end. And this is supposed to be the height of his solo career? If the rest is as bad as this, then I'll pass on his other solo albums, too. The world would be better off he devoted himself full-time to charity work -- there are still a lot of starving folks around the globe, you know.

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