Despite having numerous hits, including two UK number one singles, The Boomtown Rats have never seemed to get the due they so honestly deserve. Ask anyone born after 1985 about the band and they’ll mention Bob Geldof and/or ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’, if you’re lucky. Yet there are other bands from the punk and new wave era that have firmly crossed generations: Ramones t-shirts are plentiful (even worn by those who’ve never heard a note), Sex Pistols are well-documented and The Clash are revered. The Boomtown Rats are a fantastic bunch of musicians whom, as far as most are concerned, are part of an all-too-quickly forgotten musical past. ‘Diamond Smiles’ and ‘Banana Republic’ were huge hits in 1979/80, but when was the last time you heard them on the radio or played anywhere in public? For most people born after 1985, Bob Geldof is just the scruffy man who does tireless work for charity – he’s hardly ever given proper credit for being one of the best songwriters of the era.
With that in mind, it always seemed somewhat unlikely we’d ever hear from The Rats again and yet, in 2013, they reappeared after an invite to play at the Isle of Wight Festival, with a full UK tour scheduled afterward. Among the run of dates, a show at London’s legendary Roundhouse. A venue with a punk history, home to gigs by The Jam, The Clash and The Damned and the place where the Ramones’ ‘It’s Alive’ film was recorded, there was not a more fitting venue for The Boomtown Rats to stage their first London gig in over two and a half decades.
In the words of BBC broadcaster Robert Robinson, “from them, more hereafter”. Before the appearance of Boomtown Bob and co, the Roundhouse’s audience endured what could only be described as a musical travesty. Supporting artist Patrik Fitgerald was absolutely awful. Reading pieces about him on the internet, he sounds fascinating: talk of protest songs, political sentiments etc, supposedly a proper punk poet. In reality, he was nothing of the sort, his bona fide car crash of a “performance” so bad that if he were a busker, you wouldn’t even spare him your copper coins out of pity. The first half of the set included pre-programmed analogue keyboard sounds over which Fitgerald recited his lyrics. His voice flat throughout, his choice of meter hopelessly misjudged as if he didn’t actually know the pieces he was reciting at all…and yet, none of these performances had enough energy to be considered free-form (if, indeed, that had been his intention). His second half traded in the keyboard sounds for an acoustic guitar that he could barely even play. When not actually out of tune, he struggled with basic chord changes – resulting in clanging sounds not far removed from Father Ted’s ‘My Lovely Horse’. As for social commentary and political statement were concerned, neither Billy Bragg or Frank Turner will lose any sleep. Aside from being banal in the extreme, ‘Bingo Crowd’ no longer has any relevance [“Bingo crowd, bingo crowd, I’d rather wear a shroud”], while his big political number of the evening was simplistic bilge, sung in a fey voice, that sounded as if it dated from a Sociology O-Level paper: “I can’t stop the man pulling that trigger / I can’t stop the man from planting that bomb” [repeat]. The audience were clearly were not with him (understandably), but often remained polite with a smattering of applause here and there (audiences have turned nasty on far more talented people, so this audience’s casual indifference was surprising…). Other than being of Irish decent, how did Fitzgerald land himself this gig? Had nobody actually seen him perform since about 1981? He may have had some relevance back then with his snotty barely broken voice, but those days are long gone. In short, should you happen to be at a gig where Patrik Fitzgerald is supporting, do yourselves a favour by not entering the venue until you’re absolutely certain he has left the stage.
Less than a minute after Bob Geldof and band appeared, the sour unpleasantness of half an hour with Patrik Fitzgerald quickly faded, with The Rats opening with the classic ‘I Never Loved Eva Braun’. Dressed in what he referred to as a “pretend snakeskin suit”, Goldof lurched up and down the stage in a confident and carefree manner, swinging his arms, while the band never missed a beat – playing the song so professionally that, aside from physical appearances, you’d hardly guess they’d been away for so long. The intensity rose with a near faultless and energetic take on the crowd-pleasing hit ‘Like Clockwork’, before tackling rougher, more rock ‘n’ roll aspects of their sound with raucous renditions of ‘Neon Heart’ and ‘She’s Gonna Do You In’ being very well received. Both tunes that would be enjoyed most by the die-hard fan, such sentiments are almost redundant on this occasion, as the audience is almost entirely made up of over 50s, ie: those who were there first time around and would never have missed this for the world.
From this point it is abundantly clear that the whole band were having almost as good a time as those in the crowd. Geldof, jovial and outspoken, Crowe occasionally offering a funny dance from behind his minimalist drum set up. Shifting briefly to popper sounds ‘Someone’s Looking At You’ rarely sounded better than it did on this outing, audience participation enthusiastic throughout, before the only real sag in the set. ‘Joey’s On The Street Again’ did not always keep up its intended energy, while the harmonies required to make ‘Banana Republic’ really work appeared ramshackle at their very best. Still, at least with the latter there’s always Briquette’s fantastic bassline to lend a hand.
The second half of the main set was absolutely stellar. The punky ‘She’s So Modern’ got parts of the crowd moving, before a hugely emotional ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ bought everyone crashing back to reality. The song’s subject matter remains disturbingly relevant some three decades after it was written, so it was hard not to be shaken up by this very touching moment. Following the brilliant- but lesser known – ‘Close As You’ll Ever Be’ and ‘When The Night Comes’, the set climaxed with the introduction of original guitarist Gerry Cott joing the band on stage for the final two songs. Early single ‘Mary of the 4th Form’ – complete with parts of The Beatles’ ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ and The Doors’ ‘Roadhouse Blues – was fun, allowing the band to stretch out, but paled into near insignificance once’s ‘Rat Trap’s distinctive intro kicked in. A natural set closer, ‘Rat Trap’ almost took the roof off with its Springsteen-esque story telling and that sax riff, as distinctive as it ever was – once heard, loved forever.
After ‘Rat Trap’, the encore seemed an obvious step back. Maybe a way of winding the crowd down before a journey home, but even so, ‘Having My Picture Taken’ had a good sprit and ‘Diamond Smiles’ reminded us all – as if we needed reminding – of one of new wave’s rarely heard classics. A final encore ended the night in a different mood, as the band bid everyone farewell with their new track ‘Boomtown Rats’, a quasi-dance tune that sounded more dated than any of the Rats’ thirty year old material in its vague attempts at being more contemporary. Throwaway fun, though nothing more.
A rare case of a reunion that appears truly vital, its unlikely anyone had their great memories of past shows tarnished by The Boomtown Rats going back on the road. Based on this show, The Rats are as great as they ever were…and possibly have more to give. While any future always remains uncertain, this was – as Geldof himself puts it – “time to hear a great band again…if only for a short while…”