Sunday 18 November 2018

When pop and punk proved to be just the Tonic

The Boomtown Rats released their second album, A Tonic for the Troops, 40 years ago this month and it remained a fixture in the UK charts for almost an entire year, thanks to Geldof and Co's ability to marry a punk sneer with the power of great pop songs

Changing stripes: The sound of the Rats' second album was one of a band determined to crack the UK
Changing stripes: The sound of the Rats' second album was one of a band determined to crack the UK
John Meagher

John Meagher

It is hard to believe it now, but the prime plot of Dublin 4 real estate currently occupied by Google and its international workforce of thousands used to be home to a meat factory with an industrial-scale abattoir.

And it was in this plant next to the terminus of the Grand Canal that Bob Geldof worked for a time in the mid-1970s. The aspiring musician was hardly to know it when he first walked through its doors, but he would be inspired to write a song there that would top the UK singles chart and lead to a memorable appearance on Top of the Pops.

The song was 'Rat Trap' and the lyrics were infused with reference to the rough and sometimes tough industrial city he had been born in. "Just down past the gasworks," he sang, "by the meat factory door." They are words that paint a picture of Ringsend and the Grand Canal Dock area that's been changed beyond recognition.

And there's a reference to Top of the Pops, too, so the delicious pleasure of performing the song on what was then the most popular music programme was not lost on him.

'Rat Trap' was the closing song on the Boomtown Rats' second album, A Tonic for the Troops, and it was one of several tracks that demonstrated just how commercially minded the band's punk and new wave had become. The album was released 40 years ago this month and was something of a sensation. It stayed in the UK charts for the best part of a year and enjoyed the crossover appeal that eluded many of the era's most critically acclaimed bands.

It came hot on the heels of the Rats' self-titled debut album which was released just nine months earlier and boasted such cocksure punk anthems as 'Lookin' After No. 1'. But A Tonic for the Troops was the sound of a band determined to crack the UK market and leave Ireland well behind them. This country, after all, was one that Geldof would take aim for a few years later on 'Banana Republic': "Everywhere I go/ Everywhere I see/ Black and blue uniforms/ Police and priests."

Like its predecessor, Tonic was produced by comparative newcomer Robert 'Mutt' Lange, and the South African had an instinctive feel for the pop sensibilities found in even the most raucous rock.

Lange would go on to be one of the most in-demand producers of the 1980s and shortly after working on this album with Geldof et al he went on to helm AC/DC's Back in Black, one of the biggest sellers in music history.

But he displayed his worth on Tonic and Geldof's smart and catchy songs hungered for a wide audience. The Dubliner has rarely enjoyed such an impressive creative streak and some of his very finest songs appear on this album including 'She's So Modern', 'Like Clockwork' and '(I Never Loved) Eva Braun'.

The latter captures Geldof's pitch black humour as he imagines himself as Adolf Hitler: "Oh yeah, I conquered all those countries/ They were weak, I was strong/ A little too ambitious maybe/ But I never loved Eva Braun."

But it was 'Rat Trap' that demonstrated Geldof's ability to pen a song that could thrill pop audiences and say much about being young, penniless and a facing an uncertain future. Maybe, after all, it's not such a relic to today's twentysomethings on zero-hour contracts, spiralling rents and precious little security.

It was released as a single in August and took the best part of three months to ascend to the top of the chart. Late summer/early autumn 1978 was fixated on the hit film musical Grease and its stars John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.

The two had already enjoyed a number one earlier in the summer with the inescapable 'You're the One that I Want', and 'Summer Nights' would take up residence at the top of the tree for seven weeks.

On November 12, it was finally replaced - by 'Rat Trap'. In welcoming the Rats to play the song, Top of the Pops presenter David 'Kid' Jensen told Britain about the pleasure they would be feeling in Geldof's backyard - "Dún Laoghaire in Co Dublin". Then, in what was something of a subversive act at the time, Geldof held up a poster of Travolta, yawned pointedly and slowly ripped it in two before the band launched into a mimed performance of the hit. Years later, Sinéad O'Connor said it was this memory that encouraged her to rip up a photo of Pope John Paul II around the time she was set to break the US. Everybody faked it on Top of the Pops back then and while many pop acts went along with the charade, the more serious-minded bands took the mick. The Rats were no exception, not least when Geldof 'played' a saxophone that seemed to feature a candelabra with lit candles.

It stayed at the top for two weeks, before being displaced by Rod Stewart's 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?'. The following summer, the Rats would enjoy four weeks at the top of the UK singles chart with what remains their most emblematic song, 'I Don't Like Mondays'.

Geldof and friends may have had the de rigueur punk sneer, but they knew how to write pop songs. Between 1977 and 1980, they had nine consecutive top 15 singles - no mean feat in a time when you had to sell significant quantities just to break into the top 20.

Some years ago, the veteran Dublin-raised London-based music critic Neil McCormick captured what the band meant to a generation on both sides of the Irish Sea. "For a few years in the late 1970s," he wrote, "the Boomtown Rats were the most interesting pop group in Britain, scoring hit after hit with sharp-witted, punk-inflected, new wave tunes, chock full of bright ideas, crammed with sparky hooks, and delivered in attention-grabbing style."

Tony Clayton-Lea, in his book 101 Irish Records You Must Hear Before You Die, noted that the band's credibility immediately waned when they started having hits, but this album's artistic appeal lives on. "Was it the most intelligent new-wave pop album ever released by an Irish band? Absolutely."

And yet, strangely, Tonic rarely features in those great Irish albums lists. Perhaps if Geldof had faded away after the band's demise, their legacy would have been more assured. An ability to get up people's noses - a compliment, by the way - and post-Rats fame for Live Aid and his marriage to Paula Yates seems to have eclipsed the music he was making at the tail end of the 1970s.

Not that Geldof has needed to be reassured about the impact of the band's best work. "The Boomtown Rats were one of maybe 10 bands - [including] the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Ramones, the Jam, the Stranglers, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Blondie - who substantially changed what music was in the 70s... All of us existed for identical reason, and one basic premise: that whatever was happening in pop music was shite."

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