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Aug 08

THE BOOMTOWN RATS – “Rat Trap”

FT + Popular/ • 5,803 views

#428, 18th November 1978

“Rat Trap” is billed – in the Guinness Book Of British Hit Singles, no less – as the first punk No.1. I couldn’t recall it – my memories of the Rats themselves were vague; Geldof I knew for later good works. So I approached “Rat Trap” cold but with a frisson of definite expectation. Geldof tore up a picture of John’n'Liv on Top Of The Pops, didn’t he? So “Rat Trap” – great title, Sir B – was surely something tight and angry, a sliver of nimble menace in the shadows of 1978′s poptopian monsterhits.

Five minutes later my expectation had turned to shock and laughter. Whatever I’d anticipated it wasn’t this: five woeful minutes of scraggy street-rock pastiche, Born To Run with the melted-down Crystals records replaced by stolen chip fat. Far from the first punk No.1, this risible track sounded like an early warning of one of indie’s less palatable side-effects: a deadly combination of overreach and the feeling of virtuous entitlement that being (relatively) outside the mainstream would lend to mediocre bands.

But once I’d lived with “Rat Trap” a bit, my initial scorn softened – starting with that scouring horn riff, the truest bit of E Street channeling here. After all, I really like “Born To Run” and prime Boss, so why should I care about someone biting it? And honestly, there’s more going on than I thought: Springsteen’s possibilities of escape closed off – the rat trap doesn’t open up again, even when Billy meets Judy. And come to think of it Judy’s dreams aren’t of getting out of town, they revolve around independence via work in the local factory. Yes, “Rat Trap” is laying it on thick, when even the crossing signals are holding The Kids down, but ridicule is a reasonable trade-off for one of the song’s most exciting peaks, the “BILLY TAKE A WALK!” chant.

I still think “Rat Trap” is a mess, overlong and a victim of its own ambition, Geldof trying to cram in every pop trick he’s ever heard of. 4 in 5 times when it comes on I get frustrated with it before I’ve hit halfway: the fifth it catches me in the right mood, and I love its preposterous kitchen sink epic feel – “Hand in her pocket! SHE FINDS FIFTY PEE!!”. It’s still a mile away from my idea of punk, but it’s hard not to feel charitable towards such an eager record.

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Comments

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  1. 176
    wichita lineman on 5 Sep 2008 #

    Sweet!!

    I honestly don’t think education had anything to do with the weeklies’ recruitment policy 20 years ago. Fanzines were the way to prove your worth, a stint at Eton or Balliol less so. The broadsheets, then as now, were probably another matter.

  2. 177
    Tom on 5 Sep 2008 #

    A major reason I never tried to write for the NME (aside from laziness etc.) is that I assumed my public school and Oxbridge background disqualified me!

  3. 178
    Pete on 5 Sep 2008 #

    Mine was the mid-ground that there was already someone in my Oxbridge college who was writing for them and I believed that even the NME would think this would flag up a real lack of diversity. Though John Harris had left by the time Tom got there so his reason still holds.

  4. 179
    DJ Punctum on 5 Sep 2008 #

    No swearing on FT please.

  5. 180
    intothefireuk on 6 Sep 2008 #

    No I can’t go along with it really being the first ‘punk’ no1 but Bob can still proudly claim to be the first ‘punk’ single bought my me (‘Looking after No1′). I enjoyed most of their earlier singles and saw them live in 1978. They were suprisingly good and Bob was a great frontman. Pity then that Rat Trap was a considerable disappointment. It’s not as if punk’s flame was entirely extinguished in 1979 – if we were going to have a late punk no1 then why not The Ruts mighty ‘Babylon’s Burning’? RT instead opts for Springsteenisms and a story based lyric. Ughh! Yes Bob you did rip John & Olivia from the top spot but only by sujagating your punk credentials. It’s a Rat Trap indeed.

  6. 181
    Lena on 9 Sep 2008 #

    #174: I’ve been debating myself as to how much I should say, so I will stick to the basics. The show was called “Live From London” and it was on CFNY, hosted by Lee Carter. While I was in London he got word that the station had new management and would be changing gradually to include more ‘commercial’ music (this meant George Michael, for example) and would play less obscure stuff. He kept doing his show for another year or so, but I think his advice to me (to read John Pilger & not the music papers) was more his own projecting of his own impatience to do ‘harder’ journalism. But I was too distraught at the time to realize that…once in a while I hear him on the CBC here, so he is still in radio, doing more production work than on air stuff, I think.

  7. 182
    wichita lineman on 9 Sep 2008 #

    Well, I’m glad it wasn’t a bosom buddy. That adds up. Everyone goes through that John Pilger moment at some point, your timing was just unfortunate.

  8. 183
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 9 Sep 2008 #

    if lena’s “20 years” is exact — ie taking us back to 1988 — then nme’s satanic rule of posh kids (such as it ever was)* was entirely over; dep ed was danny kelly; asst ed was james brown… both proudly working class and state school

    *by my count: barney h and mat snow were senior staff, x.moore and me were lowly freelancers — and we had all left by 88: very likely there were other freelancers keeping their backgrounds quiet, but this really is quite a strange claim re the nme: by contrast, mm did have a klatch of oxbridgers, but plenty of non…

    HOWEVER: you totally dodged a bullet working there at that time, lena, during the hiphop wars of dire memory, cz it wz grim and stressful :(

    i was v.lucky cz i wz spotted by r.d.cook (also not posh) and went on to wire

  9. 184
    DJ Punctum on 10 Sep 2008 #

    Furthermore, all the Oxford Monitor lot, i.e. Simon, David and Paul Oldfield, tried the NME first and were knocked back before being signed up to MM so an Oxbridge pedigree certainly didn’t guarantee you a job, though in places like Q Magazine it might have been a different story.

  10. 185
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 10 Sep 2008 #

    i think it is largely the case that between the mid-80s and the mid-90s, there was a creeping professionalisation of what had been a VERY ad hoc, off-the-map career choice: one of the less high-profile struggles under ian pye was to get the various wayward addicts, wastrels and night owls to deliver copy on time, to length, in an acceptable form (stylewise but also just nicely typed etc)

    years ago i remember neil spencer saying of julie burchill that one of the hidden clues to her success — with editors increasingly distant from her politics — was that her copy was no burden at all: it was beautifully delivered, to length and on time, and in that sense she always was a pleasure to work with

  11. 186
    Lena on 10 Sep 2008 #

    Yes, it was the summer of ’88 – early August to be exact – when I was told this rather old and inaccurate news, and obv. not knowing any better I believed it. I am very sorry to hear the NME at the time was grim and stressful, esp. since I subscribed to it for six months in ’89 (mainly because they were Wedding Present-crazy and so was I). I read John Pilger (Heroes) and admired him but knew that there was no way I could emulate that, the actual foreign correspondent work, as far as I can tell they are born, not made.

    At Ryerson we were trained to be on time (date-stamping our stories) and accurate (you failed outright if you spelled someone’s name wrong!) – working hard to please editors, at least in those ways, was there from our first assignment…

    By the by, does anyone know how Neil Tennant got to edit Smash Hits? Did anyone at MM or NME ever work there? Is there a rock/pop divide in journalists as well?

  12. 187
    DJ Punctum on 10 Sep 2008 #

    Well, interestingly Neil seems to have come up the old-fashioned journalistic way and bypassed the whole fanzine thing altogether; here’s what it says in Wikipedia:

    In 1975, having completed a degree in history at North London Polytechnic (now London Metropolitan University), Neil Tennant worked for two years as London Editor for Marvel UK, the UK branch of Marvel Comics. He was responsible for anglicising the dialogue of Marvel’s catalogue to suit British readers, and for indicating where women needed to be redrawn more decently for the British editions. He also wrote occasional features for the comics, including interviews with pop stars Marc Bolan and Alex Harvey. In 1977, he moved to Macdonald Educational Publishing where he edited “The Dairy Book Of Home Management” and various illustrated books about cookery, playing the guitar and other home interests. Then he moved to ITV Books where he edited TV tie-in books. After having commissioned Steve Bush, then the designer of Smash Hits and The Face, to design a book about the group Madness, he was offered a job at Smash Hits as news editor of the British teen pop magazine in 1982. The following year he became Assistant Editor. He also edited the 1982, 1983 and 1984 editions of The Smash Hits Yearbook.

  13. 188
    mike on 10 Sep 2008 #

    Somewhere in a box in the attic, I’ve still got a copy of the Dairy Book of Home Management (ed: N.Tennant), having accidentally inherited it from the previous occupant of a flat I once rented. I think it came free with the milk, if you saved up vouchers or something. Anyway, it’s, er, of its time. I particularly remember a chapter on the correct wording for letters of condolence…

  14. 189
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 10 Sep 2008 #

    until the early 70s, nme had been a pop trade paper really — staffed by old-school entertainment journalists — and had suffered salewise as a result, given how much rock had energised and transformed pop, in chart fact and (harder to pin down) in cultural potential

    around 1974, the then-editor (i think called andy gray?) had made the decision to bring on-board writers from the underground press: charles shaar murray from oz, nick kent from frenz, mick farren from IT… i forget now who else

    by its nature, the underground press had fostered the self-taught, the self-indulgent (in a good and a bad way), and an entire bestiary of square wheels, neer-do-wells and otherwise unemployables… this strategy revitalised the paper and set the tone for its market dominance, but at a complex cost, as the essence of the move was bolshy counterculture maverickness, which is (not surprisingly) very hard to routinise on a weekly basis

    i had no journalistic or editorial training that wasn’t on the job — i think this degree of improvisational chancing was becoming less and less usual as the 80s advanced, simply because the sector was increasingly crowded, and under assault at both ends (ie the smash hits end, and — after about 1984? — the tabloid end also: the broadsheet arrival as a player in pop/rock culture was belated and remains more reactive than not…)

  15. 190
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 10 Sep 2008 #

    of course a genuinely dedicated collector would still have the MILK IT CAME WITH, mike

  16. 191
    Billy Smart on 10 Sep 2008 #

    Re 189: IIRC, the pioneering NME editor was called Alan Smith.

  17. 192
    Jonathan Caren on 9 May 2011 #

    can’t find on itunes

  18. 193
    Brendan on 25 Sep 2012 #

    Both this and Bon Jovi’s ‘Living On a Prayer’ have been shown to have influences of Bruce Springsteen. This would make Springsteen a rather unlikely punk/metal crossover artist to rank alongside the likes of Motorhead! Of course, the truth is that this is not punk, and Bon Jovi are not metal, both are ‘merely’ pop, and here it’s a rather ordinary kind of pop at that with plenty thrown into the mix but nothing that you couldn’t hear done better somewhere else. Again I’m in agreement with Tom, 6 seems right.

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