It’s been a long while since I wrote a completely new or original ICA – 31 May to be precise – so I thought I’d best get my finger out for what is post #3000 since the blog was resurrected, thanks to WordPress.
The late and great Tony Wilson really detested The Boomtown Rats, always happy to boast that he had never once come close to having them feature on any of the punk or post-punk TV shows he fronted on Granada TV in the late 70s. He thought they were imposters, nothing more than a glorified pub band from Dublin.
It could be argued that Bob Geldof, thanks to his work with Band Aid/Live Aid in the mid 80s, became the best-known of all the musicians to emerge from that post-punk scene, although his band by then had become something of a footnote, having had no hits to speak of since 1981. It also could be argued that, with two #1 hit singles in the late 70s, Boomtown Rats were, for a brief spell, as commercially successful as just about any band from the era. Nevertheless, most folk seem to have a similar opinion as Tony Wilson as they are rarely recalled with much fondness, although I think that’s to do with the fact that those two #1s – Rat Trap (1978) and I Don’t Like Mondays (1979) – were so far removed from the typical post-punk sound that it became very easy, and fashionable, to disown them.
I’m not going to spend time arguing that Boomtown Rats were an exceptional band, but I’m prepared to say that there’s enough tunes on their first three studio albums from which to compile a more than decent ICA. As I will now attempt to prove, and with the absence of those #1 hits.
1. Looking After No.1 (from The Boomtown Rats, 1977)
The rabble-rousing debut single, which reached #11 in the UK charts (and #2 in their native Ireland) and also the first track on the debut album. The opening few lines reflected the impatience of the new young bands that were trying to push the rock dinosaurs to one side:-
2. Don’t Believe What You Read (Tonic For The Troops, 1978)
A neat reminder that ‘Fake News’ and the disillusionment with what is written and printed in the press every day is not purely a by-product of the mass media of the 21st Century.
3. Someone’s Looking At You (The Fine Art Of Surfacing, 1979)
One that I’ve often thought, substance wise, had a touch of the Howard Devoto about it, even down to the way Geldof delivers the vocal, expressing his fears and worries that those in charge are spying on all our comings and goings. A #4 hit when released as a single in February 1980.
4. Diamond Smiles (The Fine Art of Surfacing, 1979)
I saw Boomtown Rats in October 1979 at the Glasgow Apollo when they toured in support of The Fine Art of Surfacing. It was only a few months after my own debut gig at the same venue (The Police – May 79) and a time when I revelled in every live show I went to. I primarily went along to this one as a favour to a mate, but came away impressed.
This one was introduced as a song about a rich person’s suicide, which got a loud cheer….a week or so later, there was an article in a local paper in which staff from a Glasgow psychiatric hospital were quoted as saying Diamond Smiles was an obscenity that should be banned as it sought to make commercial gain from a real-life tragedy; indeed the staff had petitioned the BBC to ban the song. I can only assume someone working at the hospital had mentioned the reaction to its introduction at the recent live show.
5. Kicks (The Boomtown Rats, 1977)
Musically, a lot of the teen-angst songs from the post-punk era haven’t aged spectacularly well, and Kicks, the closing track on the debut album, is no exception. Lyrically, this one seems to have stood up well, in that it’s still the case that sixteen-year-old boys really do believe that having a girlfriend at that point in their life is the be-all-and-end-all.
1. She’s So Modern (Tonic For The Troops, 1978)
As my favourite three minutes ever from the band, this should have opened the ICA, but it somehow made sense to go instead with the debut single, so this’ll need to do for Side B. Opening with a manic but nonsensical chant of ‘ga-ga-ga-ga’, it goes straight into the 200mph call and response chorus that is guaranteed to get the arms, legs and all accompanying parts of the body flailing helplessly across the dance floor. It’s impossible not to join in. Reached #10 in the singles chart.
2. How Do You Do? (b-side, 1978)
I reckoned it would be a good idea to keep the frantic pace up, so I’m reaching deep for the b-side to Like Clockwork. Quite reminiscent of many of their earlier tracks, the band were already trying to move to a different style and pace, which probably explains why the decision was taken to exclude it from Tonic For The Troops
3. Having My Picture Taken (The Fine Art of Surfacing, 1979)
One of the things I most liked about Boomtown Rats was their ability to not take things too seriously. They never cared much about miming in time when they were on Top of The Pops, and indeed Geldof famously used all sorts of props for the saxophone break in the middle of Rat Trap. This was a song that went down well at the Apollo show mentioned earlier, probably because in the live setting, it was quite fast, guitar-orientated and sneering as if the band really hated being famous. The album version is a tad more polished but still good fun, and gave the first hints of the sound the band would start embracing with fourth album, Mondo Bongo.
4. Mary Of The Fourth Form (The Boomtown Rats, 1977)
Musically, it’s not a million miles away from Status Quo riffs, so maybe Tony Wilson had a point. But the idea of releasing a ‘punk’ single about a modern-day Lolita somehow seemed quite funny at the time, as there were a couple of girls in our school who talked openly about what they would love to do with certain teachers (and in particular, one who taught French). And besides, it’s a million times better than Don’t Stand So Close To Me.
5. Like Clockwork (Tonic For The Troops, 1978)
A #6 hit in the summer of 1978. There’s an awful lot going on in this one – the pulsing bass line that drives it along at a frantic place; the piano pieces that wouldn’t have sounded out of place if Steve Nieve was playing them on the new Elvis Costello number; the guitar breaks in the chorus that you might only pick up after repeated listens which have a touch of the Robert Fripp about them. Not forgetting a Devo-style lyric/chorus that worms its way into your brain. If ever a song was to be fitted into the category ‘new wave’, then this is it.
So there you have it. I’ve resisted using anything from 1980’s Mondo Bongo, which I know will disappoint Post Punk Monk as he’s a fan of that record, but in doing so, I’ve condensed the ICA into records from a particular decade. It’s not one that stands any chance of winning any future World Cup, but if the draw lands lucky, then they could reach the later rounds.
10 thoughts on “AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #320: THE BOOMTOWN RATS”
The only LP I owned was The Fine Art of Surfacing and it coincidentally contained my favourite Boomtown Rats song, Diamond Smiles. I’m chuffed to see it appear here.
I once had the misfortune to be on the very edges of Mr Geldof’s sphere, circa early 90s, he seemed a most unlikeable man, a boor.
A fine selection, JC. I love those first 3 albums… but then, my dubious tastes have long been known to irk the purists.
No Joey? Their best track by a mile. See also Gen X and Kiss Me Deadly. I guess you had to be there.
Maybe being a few years younger than some readers here The Boomtown Rats did appeal to me. Going back to their early singles some years after they were first released, I found they were excellent songs – the 6 you’ve included here for instance would all make my own personal Rats ICA. Plus, I Don’t Like Mondays was #1 on MrsRobster’s birthday, which makes her birthday 1000 times cooler than mine…
Well, Tony Wilson was right in regards to the first album. It’s pretty much Pub Rock. Okay as those things go. But as of albums two and three, they pivoted to New Wave with aplomb. As someone who was listening at the time to these ears, The 2nd and 3rd Rats albums were of a time and place with Elvis Costello + the Attractions. And good call on the Devotoesque lyric in “Someone’s Looking At You!”
Many of these songs are some of my top picks of Rats material. The hit singles were excellent. But after the third album, the band veered off into a direction that saw them piling on the synths, and with Geldof aiming for a Bowie-like sound. “In My Room” remains the best track never included in “Low,” and there was a reason why they switched from Mutt Lang to Visconti on production. Alas, the more sophisticated sound didn’t help them in the charts, which is a real shame, since I think they really came into their stride on the last three albums.
I always liked ‘Up All Night.’ They had their moments, the Rats. At least JC didn’t have much of a Clash problem.
Defo worth an ICA. Would bump Looking After Number One for Joey…. . Would also find room for Banana Republic They probably did jump on a bandwagon or two but they had the songs to back it up.
Everyone has an opinion, and that is a fine selection. I might try and find room for When The Night Comes, but wouldn’t know what to leave out.
When the organ solo kicks in on Someone’s Looking At You is a great moment, and especially good live.
If you’ve not seen it the 2020 Citizens Of Boomtown is well worth a watch
I saw them at the Edinburgh Odeon on that same 1979 tour (2nd time I’d seen them). With ‘Mondays’ having already hit #1 the crowd was markedly different from the first time I’d seen them in May the previous year. Very MOR, un-punk. After the first couple of songs Geldof addressed the crowd, asking them, “Dye wan’ us to do new songs or old songs?” “OLD SONGS!” bayed the adventurous cardigan-clad poptastic mob, and there ended the slim allure of The Boomtown Rats…
Before they performed Like Clockwork on TOTP an 11 year old me had no interest in music whatsoever. Then BANG it nearly knocked me off my feet. I asked my mam what type of music it was. And she replied ‘’Punk rock, they just don’t care’. I however cared a whole lot and started my (since then) life long obsession with music.