THE BOOMTOWN RATS: MONDO BONGO (1981)
1) Mood Mambo; 2) Straight Up; 3) This Is My Room; 4) Another Piece Of Red; 5) Go Man Go; 6) Under Their Thumb... Is Under My Thumb; 7) Please Don't Go; 8) The Elephants Graveyard; 9) Banana Republic; 10) Don't Talk To Me; 11) Hurt Hurts; 12) Up All Night; 13) Cheerio.
Somewhere along the line, the Boomtown Rats just... lost it. The seams were showing already on The Fine Art Of Surfacing, but the big hit singles somehow wobbled the perspective and made the seams seem fuzzy enough to allow us to think that these were just temporary direction problems. Not so with Mondo Bongo, which shares all the problems of its predecessor, but this time, without much compensation in the way of big hits: ʽBanana Republicʼ did chart high enough, yet it is obviously no ʽI Don't Like Mondaysʼ and definitely no ʽRat Trapʼ. In fact, it is a song that might as well have been done by UB40 — or a couple dozen more New Wave acts — and nobody would feel the difference.
Perhaps Geldof's sensitivity towards the world at large finally prevailed over his musical instinct, but Mondo Bongo feels like a ferociously intentional attempt to completely distance oneself from the «rock'n'roll mentality» that fueled the Rats' first couple of albums. Tribal African rhythms and cod-reggae almost totally replace guitar-based rock melodicity — and in those few spots where the band does not try to be «ethnic», this melodicity is replaced with trendy synth-pop. Most of it is done in good taste and with plenty of energy, yet somehow, most of it simply does not click. As a matter of fact, this album is just plain boring, I'm afraid.
Something like ʽMood Mamboʼ may seem sympathetic if any white kid attempt to sound like a bunch of nature-happy Africans seems sympathetic by definition — but it is difficult for me to grasp any other motivation behind the song, which just sounds like a bunch of congas and whoopees thrown together, and it doesn't help, either, that in the context of 1981 comparisons with Remain In Light are inescapable and clearly not in favor of Geldof and his boys, who have no understanding of how a proper synthesis of «world beats» and old-fashioned rock music should work. The results are neither too exciting, nor too funny, nor emotionally relevant in any way. They don't even sound «bongo crazy», those guys — just following a trend.
Songs like ʽStraight Upʼ are generally more successful, but putting the guitar out of the picture is not a good decision — the song is not catchy enough to be so completely governed by pianos and synthesizers, and neither is ʽGo Man Goʼ or anything else. There is a logical reason why history has been so much more benevolent to The Cars when they were doing it than The Boomtown Rats, and that reason is simple enough — The Cars paid more attention to the hooks and less attention to the seriousness of the message, whereas Geldof always try to inject «Meaning», with a capital M, into whatever he is doing. Fine and dandy, but these are goddamn pop songs, so where's the pop? (For the record — I happen to have the same problem with David Bowie quite often, but nowhere near this extent, for sure).
Case in point: Bob takes the Stones' classic ʽUnder My Thumbʼ, rearranges it as a modernistic electro-ska number, and replaces the song's original «misogynistic» lyrics with «social message», as the song becomes ʽUnder Their Thumbʼ and the «they» in question are... well, you know who they are. "Under their thumb / Kicked and beaten like an angry rabid dog". The reinvention is kinda fun, but also kinda self-contradictory and confusing: too happy-sounding to justify the message, too message-driven to justify the happy sound. By refusing to concentrate on one aspect over the other, Mondo Bongo becomes unsatisfactory either way.
The sole exception is the accidentally quite catchy ʽElephants Graveyardʼ, which shares the stylistic makeup of all its brethren (a fast-paced keyboard-based song, almost bordering on ABBA-like Euro-pop — actually, more like Elvis Costello on the ABBA-influenced ʽOliver's Armyʼ) but redeems itself with an emotionally tugging chorus: the "you're guilty 'til proven guilty" line is surprisingly efficient, where, for once, I feel like we're riding on the same wave. Perhaps it is because of the plaintive-pleading intonation. Perhaps, come to think of it, one of Mondo's biggest flaws is not having any of those big-open songs where Geldof sings his heart out — everything is drowned in irony, but he does not know how to be properly ironic. On the other hand, I also prefer Bob Geldof in any of his aggressive moods rather than romantic ones — but on the third hand, Mondo Bongo could hardly be called an aggressive album, either, due to the already mentioned lack of a properly attuned guitar sound.
In the end, the sacred heart of Mondo Bongo probably lies in the short piano piece ʽAnother Piece Of Redʼ, Geldof's passionate reflections on the disintegration of the British Empire, triggered by the news of the retirement of Rhodesia's Ian Smith. More of a leftist declaration than a «song» as such, it shows clearly that striving for good over evil was far more important for Bob than spending a lot of time in the world of notes, chords, and harmonies. Strictly formally, Mondo Bongo is a musical departure from — some might even say, an advance on — the Rats' previous sound; substantially, though, nobody really gave a damn. Which explains why the album could and should work, but does not.