THE BOOMTOWN RATS: THE BOOMTOWN RATS (1977)
1) Lookin' After No. 1; 2) Mary Of The 4th Form; 3) Close As You'll Ever Be; 4) Neon Heart; 5) Joey's On The Streets Again; 6) I Can Make It If You Can; 7) Never Bite The Hand That Feeds; 8) (She's Gonna) Do You In; 9) Kicks; 10*) Doin' It Right; 11*) My Blues Away; 12*) A Second Time; 13*) Fanzine Hero; 14*) Barefootin'.
For a very long time now, most people have remembered Bob Geldof as the «Give Me As Much Of Your Money As I Can Stare Out Of You» («So That Some Bureaucrats And African Dictators Can Get Richer») person who also starred as Pink in The Wall and did at least some good by getting the authentic Pink Floyd back together for one last performance. (Okay, seriously enough, much of that money did go to good causes, but it's always healthy to temper free-flowing idealism with a sharp cynical pinch). Between all that, his original musical career together with a bunch of ragged Irish punks under the name of «The Boomtown Rats» has pretty much faded out of view, other than an occasional vague reminiscence of ʽI Don't Like Mondaysʼ on the airwaves. There are logical reasons for that, of course — for one thing, it makes much more sense to remember Bob Geldof as the driving force behind Live Aid than, say, George Harrison as «the guy who organised that Bangla Desh concert» — but still, this is not entirely just.
Although The Boomtown Rats are commonly lumped in together with the «punk» and «New Wave» movements, much of their musical career stood closer to the typical «rock and roll» sound of the early-to-mid-Seventies. On their debut album, notable influences include fellow Irishmen Thin Lizzy (same aura of «working class street toughness» and similar frontman sensitivity, although the Rats never had Thin Lizzy's playing chops); American «proto-punkers» and «glam-rockers» like the MC5 and the New York Dolls; Bruce Springsteen (ʽJoey's On The Streets Againʼ); and even Steppenwolf (ʽMary Of The 4th Formʼ directly lifts the gruff biker melody from the verse part of ʽBorn To Be Wildʼ).
As a result, The Boomtown Rats almost seems a bit sonically obsolete for the standards of 1977, and one has to keep in mind that Geldof had already written many of these songs a year or two earlier, when few had heard of The Ramones and nobody had yet heard of The Clash or The Sex Pistols. Not that this would have changed anything — Geldof may have been a «street punk» in the spirit, but not in form: classic rock'n'roll song structures and guitar tablatures suited him all right, and the band's guitarists Garry Roberts and Gerry Cott clearly saw themselves as Sylvain Sylvain and Johnny Thunders rather than chainsaw-buzzers. (In fact, the very fact that there were two of them means they didn't think that much of the typical punk-rock band format).
Nevertheless, despite this traditionalism, The Boomtown Rats is a pretty good rock'n'roll record, and compares very favourably with the New York Dolls or anyone like that. There is not a lot of originality in Geldof's songwriting — only just enough so that you cannot directly accuse him of stealing (only «borrowing» or «quoting», like that ʽBorn To Be Wildʼ riff) — but there is enough charisma, energy, inspiration, and general swagger to make the songs work. We need not pay much attention to the lyrics — right from the start, the lyrics all pursue the all-too-familiar «don't want to be like you» agenda of your typical punker, and Geldof's words, be they sung in a rock'n'roll song or addressed at millions of people from TV screens, have rarely ascended above self-understood banalities (not that millions of people aren't often in serious need of self-understood banalities). What matters more are the guitar tones, the drive, and the unsimulated passion in the young man's gruff, rather generic, but intelligent and sincere voice — it is with these ingredients that they sent ʽLookin' After No. 1ʼ, their first single, straight up the UK charts (never did reach No. 1, though, despite the «lucky title»).
ʽMary Of The 4th Formʼ was less typical, and showed a sleazier, more disturbing side of the band that would subsequently decrease — you probably couldn't imagine Bob Geldof singing a song about a teacher getting turned on by a sexy schoolgirl at Live Aid, could you? Unlike The Police, though, who would later dress that concept up in an innocently light New Wave-pop arrangement, the Rats make this one into a glammy bravoura performance, with thick guitar riffs sublimating sexual tension and an almost gleefully salivating chanting of the song title in the chorus. Well, whaddaya want, this is an album made for teenage audiences, and teenage audiences want to get laid as much as they want social justice and freedom from authority. (In case you wondered, that last phrase was an intentional idealistic understatement).
Although this is the only genuinely «titillating» song on the record, The Boomtown Rats is still, on the whole, a nasty-sounding piece of work. Geldof wears his heart on his sleeve on only one loud rock ballad in the middle of the album (the clearly Dylan-inspired ʽI Can Make It If You Canʼ), and gets heroically sentimental only on the preceding ʽJoey's On The Streets Againʼ, for which the grand jury of Phil Lynott and Bruce Springsteen should have awarded him top prize at the local Street Anthem competition. Both songs are significantly aided by the competent piano and organ player of Johnnie Fingers, and the grand sax solo by guest player Albie Donnelly mimicks Clarence Clemons so fine it ain't even funny.
Everything else is good old-fashioned rock'n'roll, personal favorites including ʽ(She's Gonna) Do You Inʼ which speeds up ʽMilkcow Calf Bluesʼ and makes it a little more blunt, direct, and punky; and ʽKicksʼ, more in the power-pop department but with an AC/DC-like tone in the rhythm guitar department nevertheless. Also, be sure to get the remastered CD version, which throws on a ton of early demos and live performances from 1975 that are even more rock'n'rollish (ʽFanzine Heroʼ is the fastest of 'em all, and the cover of Robert Parker's ʽBarefootin'ʼ is smouldering).
Of course, all these endless references make it seem as if The Boomtown Rats is merely a sum of all its influences, and in general, it probably is — and that is, in fact, the reason why the band was never able to establish itself as an «institution» (unlike Bob Geldof himself in his «Third World Mentat» emploi). But even as just a combination of all these influences, it feels real enough, and most importantly, it's got spirit — not necessarily «its own spirit», just spirit as such. At the very least, the guys showed a good understanding of what it was that made this kind of music great, instead of simply making us understand that they liked this kind of music. To me, that's reason enough for sincere enjoyment — and a solid thumbs up to go along with it.