THE BOOMTOWN RATS
These Irish gentlemen start off as fun and quirky rockers with a politely punky vibe. They too quickly move away from that initial sound, move into mostly failed experimentation with latin and reggae rhythms, and end up at pointless and mediocre 80s pop. They were probably never a truly great band, but their second album is a near-classic in my book and they have some genius moments scattered throughout the catalog.
The Boomtown Rats
A Tonic For The Troops *
The Fine Art Of Surfacing
In The Long Grass
THE BOOMTOWN RATS (1977)
The first Rats album starts out GREAT, with two powerhouse rock songs. “Lookin’ After No. 1” was the band’s first big single, and it’s a super-charged sneering rocker – almost a punk song, but really just a kick-ass rock song with a punky attitude. Then comes the muscular “Mary Of The 4th Form,” which sounds like a more bad-ass Stones song than anything the actual Stones were tossing off in the late 70s. Both tunes have great hooks, and globs of energy. The rest of the record isn’t even close to the opening two-fer. “Close As You’ll Ever Be” is a decent energetic pop song, and nothing else particularly grates – it’s well-perfomed but pretty unmemorable. The quirkiness of the follow-up hasn’t really infected the band’s sound yet, though Bob Geldof is already quite a ham on this record. “Joey’s On The Street’s Again” is the band’s first Springsteen/Lynott-style number – it goes through the motions alright but lacks the kick and hooks of its future brothers “Rat Race” and “When The Night Comes.” This is very much an early work, as the energy on here would be amped up and coupled with far more interesting material on the next release…
A TONIC FOR THE TROOPS (1978)
A totally underrated and excellent late-70s rock album. The band takes the forceful rocking sound of the debut and mixes it with New Wave weirdness, more elaborate lyrical conceits, and far poppier melodies. This sounds pretty damn close to classic Glam rock at times. It’s hard to really describe this thing, but here’s an attempt: imagine The Clash mixed with Sparks. You get a lot of nasty punky vibes, but also a lot of quirky keyboard-driven pop melodies and goofiness. You also get a lot of AWESOME and incredibly catchy songs, delivered with tons of verve and attitude. The A side of this record is one of the best slabs of New Wave rock music I’ve ever heard – it’s muscular and punchy, but also melodic and entertaining and glammy and joyous. The opener “Like Clockwork” has great weird hooks and a wacky arrangement. Same goes for “Living In An Island.” “(I Never Loved) Eva Braun” is the absolute highlight – sung from the perspective of Hitler, it’s a tongue-in-cheek glam-pop epic with all sorts of exciting melodic ideas and a totally theatrical Geldof performance. It also rocks. The rest of the album is nearly as strong – the only bad tune is the dopey “Can’t Stop” on Side 2. Single “She’s So Modern” is probably the closest these got to an actual punk song. The closer is the epic story-song “Rat Trap,” which milks the same Springsteen/Lynott vibe of “Joey’s On The Street’s Again,” to much greater effect. Though it lacks a truly inspiring melody, it’s full of energy and excitement, and Geldof just sells it. This record is by far this band’s peak, and a classic of late-70s rock.
THE FINE ART OF SURFACING (1979)
A major step down, though there are still some gigantic highlights. About half of this record is as good as anything they’d ever do – unfortunately, the other half is practically a throwaway. The band applies a more ‘experimental’ approach this time out – a path that would soon lead them so astray from their original quirky rockin’ sound that they’d become unrecognizable. They hadn’t gotten that far yet, and there are still some great energetic moments on here. The best songs are the two singles. There’s “Diamond Smiles,” with its 50s vibe and catchy melody, and a forceful vocal performance by Geldof. Then comes “I Don’t Like Mondays,” which is by far the band’s most famous number – it’s an orchestrated pop song based on a news story about a school murder, and it’s surely one of Geldof’s all-time greatest moments on a record. But it also came to define the band to the general public while also misrepresenting them something awful. As such, it’s probably the main cause of the band’s ultimate derailment from what they did best. It’s a blessing and a curse when the big misrepresentative single phenomenon occurs with bands. Blue Oyster Cult and “Don’t Fear The Reaper” comes to mind – that song both cemented and destroyed the hard rock band’s rep. Anyway, there ARE some other winners here: “When The Night Comes” is probably my favorite of the three Springsteen/Lynott-esque tunes (the other two being “Rat Race” and “Joey’s On The Street Again” from the previous two records). Great harmonies on the chorus! The opener “Someone’s Looking At You” has a nice build and some good vocal hooks, though the synth sounds distract from the impact. This whole record has a decidedly more “new wave” flavor, and sounds dated in parts (particularly in the keyboard department). The rest of side A is OK, with some weirder synth-pop ideas added to the band’s signature sound, but not a lot of great hooks. There are three songs in a row on Side B that flat-out SUCK – “Nothing Happened Today,” “Keep It Up,” and “Nice’n’Neat.” These are harbingers of the thin writing style soon to permeate this band’s catalog. As a whole, this is the last really essential album from these guys — it has some of their big singles and big moments, but it doesn’t really hold up as a classic.
MONDO BONGO (1981)
I imagine this album effectively derailed all the momentum the band built up with “I Don’t Like Mondays!” It’s full of weird percussion experiments, and not many of the songs make an impression beyond their experimental production. You might call this the band’s “Combat Rock,” as it still retains enough of the old sound to appeal to old fans…but the band was clearly losing focus and trying way too hard to find a “new” sound. It’s also similar to that late-period Clash album in its being full of weird miniatures and concerned with grooves and percussion more than classicist song-writing. An odd move for a “punk” band to be making. Getting Tony Visconti was an interesting choice – and for this record, a good one. Because even if I don’t find much of this material particular memorable, it’s almost always INTERESTING, and sounds really cool. And even though they’ve dialed back the guitar to the point of absurdity, this is actually a more consistent listen than the previous and way more famous record. It just doesn’t have the peaks, and there are only a couple tunes that make a serious impression. “The Elephant’s Graveyard” is the most classic sounding Rats song, and it has some fantastic hooks. It also sounds like an Elvis Costello rip, but that’s not a bad thing (actually, Geldof steals a lot of Costello’s phrasing and vocal sound on this record). Definitely the best song here. The other winner is the single “Banana Republic,” a reggae experiment that works great. Visconti gets a real exciting drum sound on a lot of these tracks, which allows stuff like “Mood Mambo” and the weird new wave-y Stones cover “Under Their Thumb” to really POP. I like the anthem-like chorus of “Go Man Go.” I have the US version of this, which includes a weak re-mix of “Up All Night,” the single from the next album. This record is really only worth hearing if you’re a big fan of the first three, but it’s certainly got a great deal of charm and a lot neat ideas.
V DEEP (1982)
This is where the band totally loses me. It’s another Visconti record with an experimental approach – there’s even less of the old rock vibes this time out. They had lost their guitarist Gerry Cott, who was apparently unhappy with the band’s odd new direction. He made the right decision, as Geldof was now apparently interested in 80s production techniques, dance music, and extended groove-based numbers. This is a lot darker and far less catchy than before, and there’s not a lot of humor or showmanship to be found. Too much emphasis is placed on synths and atmospherics. Barely any of the songs possess memorable hooks or melodies, and Geldof doesn’t really sound interested while singing the material. That being said, there are some decent moments. The reggae-pop of “House On Fire” is fun and goofy, and the “real” version of “Up All Night” is ten times better than the revamp that ends the US version of “Mondo Bongo.” The “Say it ain’t so Joe” refrain on that tune is probably the best moment on this record. The album opens with two interesting tracks that go for an “epic” 80s sound – “He Watches It All” and “Never In A Million Years.” Neither of them make a huge impression on me, but they’re nice enough while playing. There are some absolutely horrible and garish tracks (“Talking In Code,” “Charmed Lives”) and a dumb jazz experiment called “The Little Death.” Geldof just doesn’t work for me at all in this darker experimental context. He has a gruff voice that’s PERFECT for punky rockers and Costello-like tracks – but it’s not much of an instrument as a mood-creator. This album is nearly a total wash – it’s saved only by the professionalism of the band and Visconti, and a couple decent moments. But it’s not worth anyone’s time.
IN THE LONG GRASS (1984)
Yuck! No more Visconti, and they’re not really experimenting with rhythm or atmospherics anymore. Instead, this is just a big boomy synthy 80s rock album, and it’s mostly just DOA. The hooks are barely there, and the vibe is way more faceless and lame than anything they’d put out before. At least “V-Deep” had some oddness in its grooves. More than anything, though, this album is clearly the work of a tired band lacking inspiration or direction or a signature sound. There are some decent tracks – “Drag Me Down” has a couple good hooks, and some singing from Geldof that harkens back to the early days. But the production and the synths render the tune ugly and dated. The B-side opens with the moderately fun “Tonigh” – a horrible sounding track with some OK melodic ideas. Though I must say that opening the song with a synthesized version of the “Love Supreme” theme might not have been the best idea! (Not sure how intentional that was, but it’s undeniable). The closing “Up Or Down” is bouncy and fun and uses a synth line to good effect for once. Other songs either just wallow in mediocrity (“Another Sad Story” “Over And Over” “An Icicle In The Sun”) or just totally suck (“Hard Times” “Lucky”). The opener was the single “Dave,” which sounds far less fun and energetic than a Boomtown Rats single SHOULD be. That wouldn’t be a problem if it had a decent hook, which it doesn’t. I can’t imagine old fans were happy with this, and certainly no “I Don’t Like Mondays” fans could find similar efforts on here. I belive Geldof was focusing heavily on his charity efforts at this point (Live-Aid and “Do They Know It’s Christmas” being the two highest profile examples). I highly doubt he had much care left for his old late-70s rock band that wasn’t even selling anymore. This album certainly does nothing to change my mind about THAT assumption. Avoid it!