Box Set of all 6 albums
The Boomtown Rats occupy a strange place in the punk terrain.
Despite having massive hits they are glossed over, despite being fast and exciting in their early days they are considered ‘not punk’, despite having great clever lyrics they are looked on as being a punk band for kids. It obviously rankles with frontman Bob Geldof who seems to be prepared to swop his world fame as the famine busting guy for some acknowledgement of his band.
They were definitely in the middle of all the punk lunacy but have somehow been removed from the narrative to a point where every time this site mentions them there is a lot of angry shouting about their name on the internet. Their debut album went round the classroom as school and people did like it although they were loathe to admit it. Their debut single was one of those singles that was played on the right radio shows and caused excited scrapping on the dance floors when it came out.
The notion that they were somehow bandwagon jumpers is somewhat laughable when you consider that all of us, from me, to you the reader to dear old Joe Strummer jumped the very attractive bandwagon at some point in those glorious mid to the late seventies. In the rush to condemn people are overlooking a lot of hidden gems and this box set of the 6 Boomtown Rats albums is a reminder that, especially. early on there was a pretty damn fine band with biting satirical lyrics, a punkoid energy, a warped sense of humour and a lyrical sharpness that should be celebrated.
What is it about the band that rankles people so much? was it Bob Geldof’s brazen honesty when he declared that he wanted to be a star in a time when everyone else was pretending that they were ‘doing it for the kids’, was it because girls fancied the singer! was it their dress sense- kinda pub rock with punk overtones- it didn’t seem to stop Ian Dury and the Blockheads, so was it their music…?
The 6 album box set is chance to re-listen and re-evaluate the music- which is always the least considered part of the Boomtown Rats story and it actually startles you with its initial punk rock energy and power.
Of course the Boomtown Rats were certainly not the Sex Pistols and nor where they pretending to be but in that wide ranging pantheon of seventies punkish bands they fit in very well. Looking After Number One is a great razor sharp slice of punk, stained with the nicotine and amphetamine rush of the pub rock circuit that birthed many of these bands. The Rats formed in Dublin in 1974 and grew up on the city’s pub rock circuit where they were eventually banned for being naughty in that time honoured seventies way before absconding to London in the beginning of the punk wars.
Looking After No 1 was their debut single and a huge hit and is convincingly snarling in a punkish kinda way as well as being fast and furious and was certainly embraced as a punk song at the time- its sprightly energy and tight and excellent playing bely a band who learned their chops in the pre punk years but were still alert and energised enough to understand the new high octane rock n roll.
The debut album is sign posted by the singles, which is telling, as the Rats were very much a singles band (although the albums are littered with tracks that could have been singles) – and that’s a good thing- the next hit Mary Of the Forth Form has dubious smirking seventies lyrics that have changed context in the modern times but still stands up musically as a raucous slice of 1977, Joeys On The Street Again hints at the Springsteen-esque street rock that would become their staple in the next few albums, whilst the rest of the tracks show off their musicianship whilst keeping it in the anthemic speed freak rushes of the period. It’s actually a fine album and if the band had disappeared at this point and Bob Geldof has retreated back to Dublin it would have been considered some kind of hip punk one off album.
Fortunately the Rats hung around and went more pop for their follow up album, Tonic For The Troops, where they managed to add a pop sheen that really worked added to their punky undertow in a series of witty and, on hindsight, brilliantly written songs by Geldof- whose lyrics are fiercely funny and laced with a black humour even when tackling very dark subject matter.
A Tonic for the Troops included the hit singles the yelping punk splurt of She’s So Modern, the charmingly eccentric Like Clockwork – which would have been a critics fave if it had been written by 10CC and their debut number one single `(and first number one single by an Irish band in the UK) Rat Trap- a glorious piece of Springsteen street psychodrama and smouldering street cool crammed into a piece of great new wave pop.
The album smouldered with a darkness on the edge of its town with songs like (I Never Loved) Eva Braun a song about Hitler’s girlfriend, sort of.
The 1979 released third album, The Fine Art Of Surfacing, saw the band move away from their neo- punk explosions into the kind of multi faceted sophisto pop that many of their peers would also tackle in the following few months.
Many of the bands that came in during punk had their own musical histories that, when unleashed, when punk faded way resulted in these multi faceted post punk period albums. Could this Boomtown Rats period be any different from the Clash’s London Calling or later Stranglers works? Fine Art of Surfacing saw the band score their huge number hit with I Don’t Like Mondays- which stands the test of time as one of those ambitious, mini pop opera singles and the dark Diamond Smiles- a song about suicide and fame as well as touching on the themes of paranoia about the fame that Geldof had so wantingly craved and then found so lacking,
It would be two years before the next album, Mondo Bongo, which sounded less consistent, although it did contain the band’s fab cod reggae hit Banana Republic- which was the stand out track on the album and a dig at their former home country of Ireland.
The last two albums were the sound of a band floundering in the new pop battlefields of the eighties and were the epitaph on a career that would be submerged by Geldof’s meteoric personal rise to A list world fame in 1985 with his Live Aid project that re-wrote the rule book on rock charity and made him an unlikely but quite brilliant spokesperson for the global situation.
All that pent up frustration and earnest intelligence that had always been there underneath that frowning brow and Jagger moves and in those excellent and yet ignored lyrics was allowed to rise to the surface and for a few years it was entertaining to see Geldof cut the crap and rampage round the world telling world leaders to fucking sort it out instead of posturing and you couldn’t help feel that this was the real stage he was cut out for- a stage where all that charisma could be allowed out instead of having to cower in the fiercely conservative and partisan world of British pop.
Of course no musician can ever be happy not creating and Geldof has made several attempts to keep his solo career and now reformed Boom town rats on track in a music world where he remains a curio- a massively successful and talented songwriter that is either ignored or sneered at.
This box set is a chance to reassess and break down some of those given rules of the punk police- maybe it’s time to admit that despite being a ‘kiddie punk’ band or whatever term was sneered at them the Boomtown Rats were actually pretty damn good all along.