Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

No Matter What People Say, I Never Loved Eva Braun -- The Boomtown Rats

While I was not old enough to be thoroughly aware for the entirety of the 80s (indeed, I wasn't even alive for about half of them), I have a pretty distinct affection for bands from the 80s, and a predilection for many of those scorned and discarded as one-hit wonders, known only for one hit (if that) or otherwise "lame" and catchy, thus becoming "pop" which is now often a bad word.¹ This isn't to say that it's a consistent opinion, nor that I do this with all bands thought of as such. I mean, it isn't as if I've got even Reach for the Beach, let alone the entire Fixx discography, for all that I indeed love "One Thing Leads to Another"--though I did recall the album, artist and song title without a pause, so there's still something there.

In any case, my love for INXS, Oingo Boingo, XTC and Robert Palmer are uncomfortably well-known amongst people who like me, though it often becomes known rapidly that these artists have a lot more to them--true of most bands or performers given a large enough oeuvre, though. Still, it gets more complicated with the band I want to talk about right now: The Boomtown Rats. That name isn't one people hear too terribly often, and if they do, it's likely in the context of "I Don't Like Mondays," and is immediately followed by a reference to loud-mouthed frontman Bob Geldof and, more specifically, his involvement in Band-Aid and Live-Aid.

Me? I had no idea there was a connection, except somewhere in the back of my mind. Like many artists I started listening to in high school and college, an interesting song or three led me to obsessively tracking down everything I could find. As it happens, "I Don't Like Mondays" is both indicative and not representative of the band, though it comes three albums in in 1979, on The Fine Art of Surfacing. But alongside it are similarly acerbic descriptions of morbid topics like "Diamond Smiles."

Geldof actually wrote the great majority of their songs over the years, and never was one to pull punches, in music or in reality. Their first single was "Lookin' After No. 1," which they performed on Top of the Pops, of course. As the title implies, it was a wildly different perspective from that of the man who would later yell, "Give us your fucking money!" at the Live Aid crowd, intent on gaining as much money as possible to attempt to relieve the starvation in Africa. This is as good a point as any to note that there are periodically suggestions that a lot of that money was routed to local warlords--the actual claims to this end have been explicitly refuted and retracted, and Geldof himself was aware of and worked to get around that issue in 1985, and discussed it in his autobiography in 1986 (Is That It?--yes, I own a copy). Still, it's an interesting performance of an interesting song that lends a lot of weight to the idea that the Rats were originally a full-fledged punk band.

While The Boomtown Rats was a thoroughly "punk" album in most ways coming in 1977 and beating Nevermind the Bollocks to the shelves by a month, and even beating the Police to the punch with the uncomfortable student/teacher situation--"Don't Stand So Close to Me" was released in late 1980, while "Mary of the Fourth Form" was recorded for both the self-titled Rats debut and its single release, both in 1977, though, interestingly in almost the same months as the Police single and the album Zenyattà Mondatta--1978's A Tonic for the Troops is possibly their best work, turning toward more external concerns.

"(I Never Loved) Eva Braun" was Geldof's caustic Hitler-narrated tune, with lines like, "I never heard all the screams/I never saw the blood and dirt and gore/That wasn't part of the dream/Of maps and generals and uniforms." "Me and Howard Hughes" is about someone hitting Hughes-levels of germphobia and disordered, complex-induced isolation. "Don't Believe What You Read" made plain Geldof's cynicism about most of the world via newspapers, though it tied it offhandedly into a romantic relationship, and a general distrust of the written word and its ability to deceive.

This isn't to say they were a consistently or overtly political band, though their Irish origins showed not only in their flexi-disc² song "Dun Laoghaire" (named for their mutual hometown in County Dublin), but in Geldof's biting commentary on what he called the "septic isle" in the later song "Banana Republic," from 1981's Mondo Bongo, and the song was decidedly quite political, and rather angry, at that. This was neither the first nor the last, but it conveys the sneering attitude of Geldof, which occasionally relates his own mistrust of the world, or his distaste for the callousness of the rest of the world--which was best exemplified in his solo song, "Great Song of Indifference," which is basically exactly what it sounds like and was recorded in one take.

"Banana Republic" is interesting for reasons beyond its subject matter, though, as it helps to mark Mondo Bongo as a departure from the progression from punk to clever pop that was formed most perfectly on their third album, the aforementioned The Fine Art of Surfacing, which, not coincidentally, had that biggest hit single, "I Don't Like Mondays," which was written around a school shooting in the United States, where the shooter was pressed for an explanation, and after repeated refusals to give one gave the chillingly offhand response the song was titled with. Mondo Bongo, though, was the most peculiar and experimental album they released, with an infusion of reggae and odd, percussive songs like "Go Man Go!" or "Hurt Hurts."

After Mondo Bongo, the band seemed to lose a lot of its colour and seem generally sort of tired, releasing two more albums, neither of which had quite the spark of their predecessors though they maintained their share of quality songs. V Deep came out in 1982, and especially In the Long Grass in 1985. Of course, this isn't much of a surprise--Geldof was beginning his charity work in those years, and his first solo album came out only a year after In the Long Grass. That album did, however, contain the peculiar story of "Dave," which was about their regular saxophonist, David McHale, whose girlfriend was found dead in probable connection to heroin addiction. American distributors Columbia Records allegedly feared the song would be construed as a gay love song, and so, instead, it became "Rain."

Geldof's solo work has been interesting, and I don't mean that in a polite way--I have an anthology of all of it, as well as my collection of remastered and expanded Rats albums (all six, of course!).

I stumbled into a list of "Great Irish Bands," recently and unexpectedly found The Pogues, Thin Lizzy and, of course, the Rats. It's funny, knowing their songs, music and frontman's public attitudes as well as I do, that anyone might think of them as a "pop band," or with any sort of perception of "light" or "friendly," as they were often cheery, upbeat and engaging--indeed, danceable--but Geldof's biting tongue and openness about how he saw the world pervaded everything they did and made for some seriously great music.

I'd like to say I'm clever but busy and meant for all of this to go with St. Patrick's Day, in that over-simplification of "So do 'Irish Stuff'!" sort of way, but the truth is I just finally got my copy of Someone's Looking at You, the DVD collection of the Rats' promotional videos and Top of the Pops performances, including the videos of "Rat Trap" that have Bob playing saxophone on a cobbled together mouthpiece-cum-candelabra contraption to avoid incurring the wrath of the Musicians' Union. The band is always welcome to my ears, but seeing a lot of videos I'd never gotten to see encouraged me to spread the gospel of "Saint Bob," but for reasons other than those usually given.

Oh, and, on a side note: Bob is also often called "Sir Bob," but, as a citizen of the non-commonwealth Ireland, he cannot truly be knighted in a fashion that gives him that title, though he is indeed a "Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire," and can be referred to as "Bob Geldof, KBE."

¹Oh, the word, "pop." All I can think of is the fantastic XTC single: "What do you call that noise/You put on?" with the cleverly punctuated title, "This Is Pop?"--at least, if you look at the 7" single. The question mark appears and disappears regularly on other releases, including the album from which it was drawn, White Music. Once upon a time it was a general descriptor for popular music, then at some point it was a dismissive insult, then it got that sort of weird, halfway-confused hipster associaton, where liking "pop-y" bands was good, or "power pop," but it was always seemingly as an exception. I tend to use it most as a reference to the idea of "catchy and melodic," more than "insult" or "literally popular."

²Flexi-disc, or "soundsheets," were printed sheets with grooves that played like any vinyl record, though with some flaws from their cheap nature. The format was often used for release in magazines and books, as a bonus like CDs have been used in more contemporary times.

1 comment:

  1. Random trivia: as I was watching the aforementioned DVD, I only just got to the live recordings, where I found the performance of "Looking After No. 1" I posted.

    It is from the brief Marc Bolan show: Marc himself selected and endorsed the band--


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...