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The Boomtown Rats

Plastic punks in the sense they used the class of ’77 as a platform for their own egos (the clue was in their debut single, `Lookin’ After No.1’), The BOOMTOWN RATS were more affiliated to new wave than their initially loose connection to the SEX PISTOLS and The CLASH. With a lean R&B sound lying somewhere between EDDIE & THE HOT RODS, SPRINGSTEEN and The ROLLING STONES, the colourful sextet were a compelling live proposition nevertheless. Unkempt frontman BOB GELDOF’s moody charisma, agnostic aura and stage presence helped give the group a distinct edge and identity until their sure-fire sell-by-date, coincidentally in the wake of the Live Aid concert.
Formed in Dun Laoghaire in County Dublin, October 1975 saw the Irish band switch names from The Nightlife Thugs to The BOOMTOWN RATS; former journalist-cum-songwriter Bob Geldof was inspired by the gang of young oil workers in WOODY GUTHRIE’s autobiography, Bound For Glory. Initially rehearsing in lead guitarist Garry Roberts’ kitchen, former NME journalist Geldof, pyjama-wearing keyboard-player Johnnie Fingers, rhythm guitarist Gerry Cott, bassist Pete Briquette and drummer Simon Crowe, upped sticks in ’76 to punk’s new capital, London, where Nigel Grainge (formerly an A&R man for fellow Dublin-ites THIN LIZZY) signed them to his Phonogram-funded Ensign Records.
In the long hot summer of ‘77, The BOOMTOWN RATS surfaced from out of nowhere, ready to gnaw at the heels of the punk elite as `Lookin’ After No.1’ climbed up the chart drainpipe to er… No.11. Incidentally, the B-side was a cover of Robert Parker’s R&B hit, `Barefootin’’. A nationwide tour of Britain and beyond, promotional signings and a Top Of The Pops appearance proved commercially constructive; Bob’s warm and intelligent persona not the usual gob ‘n’ grease one expected from a punk rocker.
Arriving only a month after their explosion on to the scene, eponymous parent set THE BOOMTOWN RATS (1977) {*8} – produced by Mutt Lange – strode into the Top 20. Garnering mixed reviews from the NME, Sounds and the likes, punk-rock was transformed into something akin to power-pop meeting BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (proof in the pudding on one track in particular, `Joey’s On The Street Again’), while `I Can Make It If You Can’ had all the softer/70s traits of MICK JAGGER and Co. On reflection, while it disappointed the hard-nosed safety-pin punks, `Mary Of The 4th Form’ (their second Top 20 hit), the DR. FEELGOOD-like `Close As You’ll Ever Be’, the quirky `Never Bite The Hand That Feeds’ and finale `Kicks’ were top-drawer tracks.
The year punk died – 1978? Well that was down to spiky-top fashions and bubblegum-punk songs from the Stiff parade, SQUEEZE and fellow big-hitters The BOOMTOWN RATS; among others. Bob and the buoys were playing it for the kids, and the kids were “buoying” into the cheesy hook-lines of `She’s So Modern’ and their first Top 10’er `Like Clockwork’. Memorable though they were, it was the LYNOTT-like sprawl of chart-topper `Rat Trap’ that catapulted the band as contenders to the crown of COSTELLO and The CLASH. All three tunes from Top 10 set, A TONIC FOR THE TROOPS (1978) {*6}, and encapsulating an era of sharp egos, self-belief and wily wit (something that Bob had an abundance of), the remainder of the record was down to name-checking via `(I Never Loved) Eva Braun’ – Bob as first-person Hitler – and `Me And Howard Hughes’.
The BOOMTOWN RATS subsequently secured a second number one spot and a massive worldwide smash with `I Don’t Like Mondays’, a stunningly effective, piano-driven belter instigated (if that’s the appropriate word) by a recent and tragic true story of 16-year-old Brenda Spencer from San Diego, who sniper-shot nearly a dozen of her school colleagues (killing a principal and a custodian); the song title was the phrase she calmly used on how she felt after the shooting. The accompanying Top 10 album, THE FINE ART OF SURFACING (1979) {*6}, showed the ‘Rats at the peak of their power, while they stretched their run of Top 20 hits to seven then eight with `Diamond Smiles’ and `Someone’s Looking At You’.
Happy and content to latch onto any bandwagon, the cod-reggae of `Banana Republic’ shot them into the Top 3 again, while the ELVIS COSTELLO-esque jerky beats were all over the lowly-performing `The Elephant’s Graveyard’; both lifted from their unchallenging first LP for Mercury Records, MONDO BONGO (1981) {*4}. What the Americans made of them was obvious as only “Mondays” had sprouted any chart wings for Columbia Records (scraping into the Top 75) and, with their ska-beat revision of The ROLLING STONES’ `Under Their Thumb… Is Under My Thumb’, everything was OTT – and then some.
Floating their Caribbean cruise-ship down the Swannee River, 1982’s show-boating V DEEP {*4} was equally out of its depth; Cott had now left his berth. With Tony Visconti at the decks (the DENNIS BOVELL-produced swansong hit `House Of Fire’ the exception), flops such as the BOWIE-esque `Never In A Million Years’ and TALKING HEADS-like `Charmed Lives’ were beyond description. It was a sad reflection on a band that not so long ago were at the top of their game – whatever that was.
Back to basics and hoping that audiences hadn’t deserted them, the ‘Rats returned after a gap year, punching the time-clock with a couple of minor hits by way of `Tonight’ and `Drag Me Down’ from what turned out to be the band’s swansong set, IN THE LONG GRASS (1984) {*5}.
Setting his sights on a solo career and other more humane projects, BOB GELDOF’s profile remained high when he and MIDGE URE wrote produced the massive-selling charity single, `Do They Know It’s Christmas’; the Irishman would duly mastermind the mammoth undertaking that was the Live Aid concerts from London and Philadelphia the following July.
Many years down the line since they finally folded in ‘86, The BOOMTOWN RATS quartet (without Fingers or Cott) were back for a proper live tour that spawned LIVE RATS 2013 {*6} – recorded at the Roundhouse in London.
At the pension age of 68; though still looking as menacingly cocky as any nostalgic punk, Sir Bob and his BOOMTOWN RATS turned in their first studio set for three and a decades: CITIZENS OF BOOMTOWN (2020) {*6}. To say the Top 50 record was retrograde rock would be an understatement; single `Trash Glam Baby’ a back-handed mash-up of MOTT THE HOOPLE versus PHIL SPECTOR; `Sweet Thing’ equalizing The STOOGES and The MONKEES; `Monster Monkeys’ akin to JOHN KONGOS’ He’s Gonna Step On You Again and RUFUS THOMAS’ Walking The Dog; `Here’s A Postcard’ almost the spit of LLOYD COLE’s Perfect Skin; `She Said No’ derivative of the ‘Stones; `K.I.S.S.’ very Subterranean Homesick CLASH; `Rock’n’Roll Ye Ye’ almost an anthemic JOAN JETT hit (there were more), the musical magpie scenario was treading on a few toes. Putting these minor foibles to one side, and taking the premise that it was nigh-on impossible not to be subliminally pollinated by something or other in these modern times, Bob’s ‘Rats still packed a punch – V Deep right Into The Long Grass.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Mar2015-Mar2020

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