Like Madness and the Jam, the Boomtown Rats generally matched considerable Anglo-European success with near-total American commercial obscurity. Despite a string of intelligent, irresistible pop singles and intricate, skillful, unpredictable albums filled with assorted musical styles and sounds, the only US hit the Rats ever had was the morbid ballad “I Don’t Like Mondays.” While their albums are not uniformly excellent, the band’s commitment to quality and growth, plus singer/songwriter Bob Geldof’s magnetic personality, help elevate even lesser efforts to listenability, and much of their work is downright brilliant.
The six future Rats left the unemployment lines in Dublin to enter the rock sweepstakes and had become a going concern on the Irish concert circuit by the time new wave came along. While the resulting upsurge in record-industry openness towards young, energetic bands undoubtedly helped them get a contract, it was clear from the start that the Rats were a different musical breed. Produced in Germany by pre-metal Mutt Lange, the first album is more tradition-minded than punky, but there’s no mistaking the verve and independence which tied the Rats solidly to less accomplished, more enraged outfits. From the Springsteenish “Joey’s on the Street Again” to the Dr. Feelgoody “Never Bite the Hand that Feeds” to a Mott the Hoople-styled ballad, “I Can Make It If You Can,” and the album’s sarcastic standout, “Lookin’ After No. 1,” the ambience is hip, but the rock is fairly routine. Geldof’s incisive lyrics and the entire band’s credible musicianship invest the stylistically diverse selections with character, making this a top-notch, timeless record.
Assumptions about the Rats’ musical intent were dispelled with A Tonic for the Troops. Taking giant steps forward in invention and sophistication, Geldof turned from a junior rock singer into a skilled vocalist with a recognizable style; the band likewise exhibited new-found intricacy and multifaceted versatility, thanks in large part to Johnnie Fingers’ keyboard cleverness and Lange’s layered production. Troops is not a total departure — “Rat Trap” picks up precisely where “Joey” left off, and “She’s So Modern” merely improves on “Mary of the 4th Form” — but “Me and Howard Hughes,” “Like Clockwork” and “Living in an Island” display development on all fronts: writing, singing, performing, arranging. (The American version deletes “Can’t Stop” and “(Watch Out for) The Normal People” in favor of two tracks retrieved from the first LP, which had sunk without a trace upon its release by the Rats’ previous US label.)
The Rats took another big leap on The Fine Art of Surfacing, but with less rewarding results. Substandard songs get unenthusiastic treatment, and an overwhelming sense of self-importance highlights the ennui, despite impressive technical aptitude and obviously strengthened confidence and stylistic reach. The record does contain the powerful “I Don’t Like Mondays” and a few other standouts — “Someone’s Looking at You,” which is clumsy but melodic and charming, and “When the Night Comes,” a showstopper with ace Geldof lyrics and a swell arrangement that uses Latin-flavored acoustic guitar for color — but otherwise Surfacing is a slick drag.
On first listen, Mondo Bongo is even more outlandish, but a little application reveals a number of great tracks in a percussion-laden Afro-Carib style, delivered up in gonzo fashion by co-producer Tony Visconti. “Up All Night,” “The Elephants Graveyard” and “Don’t Talk to Me” are rollicking good fun, but “Mood Mambo” takes the genre detour too literally, and a totally unnecessary rewrite of an old Rolling Stones tune (“Under Their Thumb…Is Under My Thumb”) adds to the record’s shortcomings. Neither a triumph nor a disaster, Mondo Bongo is a halfbaked but entertaining digression. The Canadian-only Rat Tracks has a live cut, a remix of “Up All Night” and several otherwise UK-only obscurities: five tracks in all.
Total confusion as to the band’s direction and frustration at the disinterest shown by the American audience may have been the reasons why Columbia tried to avoid releasing V Deep, opting instead for a 12-inch condensation of it. (The company eventually came around and issued the entire LP, including the EP’s contents.) Although heavily stylized and partially overproduced, V Deep (the band’s fifth LP and its first as a quintet, following the departure of guitarist Gerry Cott, who then released a couple of solo singles) contains some of the Rats’ strangest songs, but also some of their most evocative and moving efforts. Geldof is at his driven best, and the band keeps pace in a number of styles (including an encore of Mondo Bongo‘s sound and a Dennis Bovell dub mix of one track) that don’t neatly hang together, but paint the group in a most fascinating light. A fine album to be savored repeatedly.
After V Deep, the Rats dropped out for several years, prompting the US issue of Ratrospective, a mini-album containing “I Don’t Like Mondays,” “Up All Night,” “Rat Trap” and three other familiar cuts. In late 1984, Geldof surfaced as the co-instigator of Band Aid, an all-star 45 fundraiser for Africa that inspired a wave of similar ventures throughout the music world. The band returned to action in early 1985 with a new single, followed several months later by an entire new album, In the Long Grass, which had actually been recorded in 1983 but initially rejected by their label. (The inner sleeve thanks people “For making an unbearable year tolerable…”) The Rats look miserable and spent on the cover; the lyrics are unremittingly bitter, defiant and angry. Matching the verbal onslaught, the music is as dense and rugged as any they have ever made, yet uplifting in the band’s stalwart refusal to buckle. An extraordinarily powerful record. (In an ironic final bit of tampering, Columbia forced the Rats to rewrite the lyrics of “Dave,” a song on the UK LP, resulting in an entirely different vocal and title: “Rain.”)
Later that year, Geldof organized the massive Live Aid charity concert/telecast and was mooted for Nobel Prize consideration, but it hardly aided the Rats, who met 1986 without an American label and decided to call it quits. Acknowledging the group’s demise and taking fair (and dignified) advantage of the attention Geldof had earned, Columbia expanded Ratrospective by four tracks and called it Greatest Hits, a fair compilation improved by Arthur Levy’s enthusiastic liner notes.
In mid-’86, after making enormous efforts on behalf of others, Geldof took a few steps in his own behalf, writing an autobiography (Is That It?) and signing a solo record deal. Best heard on CD or cassette (the vinyl version has three fewer tracks; others are truncated), Deep in the Heart of Nowhere bears the onerous marks of Rupert Hine’s tritely commercial overproduction, but also contains some swell tunes and affecting lyrics. “This Is the World Calling” and the outstanding “Pulled Apart by Horses” (amazingly omitted from the vinyl version, but wisely included on the UK Love Like a Rocket EP, along with another of the deletions, two mixes of the title song and “This Is the World Calling”) both resemble Rat tracks and allude to recent experiences; “In the Pouring Rain” could easily have come from The Fine Art of Surfacing. The record contains some true wretchedness (the melodramatically recited “The Beat of the Night”) that will confirm skeptics’ worst fears about Geldof’s ego, but this is by no means a bad showing. Musical supporters here include Dave Stewart, Annie Lennox, Midge Ure, Brian Setzer, Eric Clapton and Alison Moyet.
Four years later, with Hine again producing and ex-Rat Pete Briquette on bass, Geldof adopted a jolly and appealing neo-folk approach for The Vegetarians of Love, a casual and light, mostly acoustic, album that gains a mild Irish accent from violin, accordion and pennywhistle. But while the sensitively played music sounds lighthearted, Bob hasn’t changed his outspoken and pointed (but amusingly couched and casually conversational) lyrical ways. After ironically listing all the things he doesn’t care about in “The Great Song of Indifference,” Geldof spends the rest of the album airing his philosophical and emotional angst. “Crucified Me” is a quietly bitter love song; “The Chains of Pain” addresses several world crises with a cry of optimism; “The End of the World” and “Thinking Voyager 2 Type Things” go all existential. “I’m thinking big things,” he sings, “I’m thinking about mortality/I’m thinking it’s a cheap price that we pay for existence.”
The CD edition of the 1990 EP picks the rockingest and poppiest tune (co-written with Dave Stewart) from Vegetarians and adds a trio of non-LP cuts, two of which (“Out of Order” and “One of the Girls,” played on garage guitar and accordion) are well worth hearing. The four-song 12-inch replaces “One of the Girls” with a remix of “The Great Song of Indifference.”