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Aug 08

THE BOOMTOWN RATS – “Rat Trap”

FT + Popular/196 comments • 9,019 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. 1
    Billy Smart on 13 Aug 2008 #

    This is one of those records that I find it quite hard to believe that anyone ever took seriously. It’s a comic strip or a photo story narrative, and taken in that spirit, it’s straining for effect I find surprisingly effective.

    Something that i do like about it is that, for an excessive narrative, the instrumentation is quite sparse. The story is carried along by a propulsive cod-menacing shuddering bassline, then a stabbing motif of piano, then a brief rattle of drums, then a blaring bit of sax, etc. You rarely get all of them at once, generally what I find wearing about the E-Street Band. This fits in with the somewhat low-rent feel of the story of Billy and Judy, who are not characters who take on an imaginative life of their own once the song has finished.

  2. 2
    Martin Skidmore on 13 Aug 2008 #

    As a punk at the time, I recall not taking the Boomtown Rats terribly seriously, and not seeing this as punk – ‘new wave’ was the term generally used for a kind of post-pub-rock that came to the fore along with punk (Stiff being the main home for this) and that turned out to be the main route towards indie. I thought this was an okay record, but was surprised at its success. I guess its rather dated, rather trad, rock sounds were more palatable or graspable to the audience beyond converted punk fans than even great pop tunes from acts like the Buzzcocks or Undertones, for instance.

  3. 3
    Erithian on 13 Aug 2008 #

    In Bob Geldof’s autobiography “Is That It?”, he relates an episode from the recording session for – let’s say a certain 80s record, but it’ll be pretty obvious which – where Ken Kragen, his American counterpart, said “Bruce Springsteen has just parked his car on the other side of the road and walked across – by himself – to the studio. Can you believe it?”
    I could believe it, Geldof recalled.
    ‘No, I mean he drove himself, no chauffeur, no limo. Then The Boss walked across himself, no bodyguards, no security.’ ”
    Geldof added that Springsteen heard the last bit and winked at him in an acknowledgment of how ludicrous the LA people were, compared to these down-to-earth New Jersey and Dublin boys.

    I imagine that that was one of Geldof’s finest moments in the whole process – getting conspiratorial recognition from Brucie. Because “Rat Trap”, like a number of other Rats songs, seeks to do for Dublin what Bruce’s early songs did for the characters he rolled with on the Jersey shore. For Wendy, Spanish Johnny, Crazy Janey and the rest of them, read Billy and Judy and the Five Lamps boys. And for me at least it does the job admirably – it might not be the purist’s idea of punk, but nothing with this kind of tone, attitude and drama had been heard at number one for a long time if ever. One of my favourites of the decade.

    I certainly wouldn’t call it overlong – the best thing about it is that at circa 3½ minutes, when many another record is fading out or settling for another chorus, the piano introduces Judy setting off down the road and the song still has the momentum for another act in the playlet. On the other hand the “Billy take a walk” bit is the weakest section of the track for me. You pays your money…

    The Rats had made the front page of the Manchester Evening News a year before in strange circumstances. The night they played their first gig in Manchester, a fan was hit by a car outside the venue, and the band used their tour transport (can’t remember if it was a van or they’d graduated to a bus by then) to get him to hospital, effectively saving his life. His mother said: “You can say what you like about punks, but I’ll always be grateful to them.” This was 1977 and new wave bands didn’t tend to get that good a press. That Geldof bloke might turn out to be a good guy after all.

  4. 4
    Mark G on 13 Aug 2008 #

    I always thought when it ‘turns’ into the “her mind’s made up, she walks down the road”, it kind of got more interesting, and from there could have gone on for another 20 mins or so.

  5. 5
    Billy Smart on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Have any credible band ever reached such a position of subsequent critical neglect as The Boomtown Rats? Bob Geldof may still be valued as a campaigner and for his cultural commentary, but I’ve never come across any word of praise for his songs. Yet at the time, they had huge-selling singles and albums, rode high in NME readers’ polls, etc.

    You’ll never see the Rats on the cover of Mojo or Uncut, I confidently predict, unlike The Clash, Jam, etc – or even The Police, who held an equivalent position of huge popularity without much cachet at the same time.

  6. 6
    Mark G on 13 Aug 2008 #

    But yeah, it didn’t ‘feel’ like the first punk number one.

    So, I guess for bunny reasons, this line of discussion has to end there. Which is a shame.

  7. 7
    Billy Smart on 13 Aug 2008 #

    I like the way that the Five Lamps boys announce their fearsome presence by clicking their fingers, in the best West Side Story tradition.

  8. 8
    Erithian on 13 Aug 2008 #

    I liked the line from their first album that went:
    “Look at the brick wall gravestone where some kid has sprayed
    Saying nobody could be bothered to rule here OK”.

    I fancied painting those words on a wall in Moss Side myself.

  9. 9
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 13 Aug 2008 #

    i too had 1xPUNKUS MAXIMUS SNOBBISMUS on re the rats, but my little sister — punkier than me bcz 15 rather than 18 — liked em, so i was loyally torn also, and am now actually quite fond of the first LP, kinda useless as it basically is: “she’s so, uh, TWENTIETH CENTURY squeak squeak!”

    their bandname is very nearly the worst of all time

  10. 10
    Erithian on 13 Aug 2008 #

    “She’s So Modern”, reputedly inspired by the Polygram press office girls including one Mariella Frostrup.

  11. 11
    lonepilgrim on 13 Aug 2008 #

    pantomime punk – I had just started at art college when this hit the top and I remember its lyrics being quoted to me by a violet elizabeth bott type fashion student as if it were the most perceptive piece of political insight, used to justify a fatalistic attitude to the notion of changing anything. No wonder Thatcher was only a few months away.
    Far more exciting were x-ray spex with ‘germ free adolescence’ and the first PiL single

  12. 12
    DJ Punctum on 13 Aug 2008 #

    And so we come to the first “official” new wave number one – Guinness say punk but I say new wave – a moment of such clenched significance that Bob Geldof heralded it by ripping up a photo of Travolta on TOTP, before miming the song’s sax riff, albeit fingering a chandelier rather than a saxophone. He must have felt, if only in his mind, like Guy Debord winning the Nobel Peace Prize. In fact “Rat Trap” has much more in common with “Summer Nights” than Geldof would have liked to admit; the structure is theatrical and vaguely ‘50s, with its fingersnaps, its very un-punk opening line of “There was a lot of rocking going on that night,” and its staccato “climax” of “Billy take a walk.”

    It has considerably more in common with Bruce Springsteen; despite Geldof’s purported distaste for his work at the time, “Rat Trap” comes on as an attempted Barrytown “Jungleland,” an Epic in Capital Letters to nail the degeneracy and decay of urban Dublin once and for all, complete with ersatz Clarence Clemons R&B sax rasps. Despite lines like “And pus and grime ooze from its scab-crusted sores” – is “Rat Trap” the first grime number one? – and the fact that the chorus, as such, doesn’t appear until the very end, the record’s roughness is rehearsed and choreographed; and the Top Of The Pops reference in the fourth verse ensured A-list status for the single on Radio 1 (cf. the Rezillos’ considerably sparkier Top 20 hit “Top Of The Pops” shortly beforehand). As with so much of Geldof’s work, musical and otherwise, “Rat Trap” is, however sincere and bloodily heartfelt, unhelpfully hammy.

    In truth, “Rat Trap” and the Rats had much more in common with the post-Mott/Harley world of half-cynical rock circa 1975 than anything to do with punk or new wave; by 1978, as every schoolboy knows, post-punk had begun to emerge, and in fairly stark contrast to this year’s list of number ones my head, as a listener, was being turned around and spun on a weekly basis by records and groups which proposed entirely new ways of looking at this thing called rock – Pere Ubu’s mind-erasing triptych of The Modern Dance, Dub Housing and the Datapanik In The Year Zero E.P., the first Suicide album, which also qualified as the first album I thought I could as well have made myself (the highest of compliments, incidentally), Siouxsie’s The Scream, PiL’s First Issue, Wire’s Chairs Missing, Magazine’s Real Life, the double-whambar of the Buzzcocks’ Another Music In A Different Kitchen and Love Bites, Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings And Food, the general WHAT-THE-FUCKness of Devo, and above all Alternative TV’s ground-smashing The Image Has Cracked; was it an album, or an indictment of its listeners, or a tract? Next to this, Geldof sounding like the missing link between Supercharge and Supertramp and mumbling about Billy and Judy in the Italian café seemed…recherché.

    The situation was also not helped by the re-emergence of Springsteen himself in 1978, after three years of legal battles, with Darkness On The Edge Of Town, one of the most bitterly sober records ever to pass through the Customs gates of “rock,” where he turned his back on hopeless bravado and reflected on those born to crawl rather than run, who never escape; the beyond-bleak drone of the closing “Racing In The Streets” pinpoints the desperate, resigned emptiness of a deceased, decanted urban settlement far more quietly and profoundly than Geldof barking “We’ve been caught in a rat trap” – and the scenario is made to seem even more decadent in retrospect when considering Geldof’s subsequent life.

  13. 13
    mike on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Well… that rather too self-conscious ceremonial ripping of John & Olivia’s photo on TOTP did still feel like a little Moment, of sorts. A changing of the guard, if you will. Of course, the irony is that if “Rat Trap” did (albeit unwittingly) usher in a new era for chart pop, its singer/songwriter would later be responsible (albeit unwittingly) for killing that era off. But more of that in due course.

    I’m not altogether sure how “Rat Trap” elevated the Rats beyond their comfortably established hit-making status (“She’s So Modern”, “Like Clockwork” etc), but I suppose that the scale and the sweep of the song carried many along with it, in a way that almost harks back to “Bo Rhap” and the brief era of the “episodic” hit single. There’s no single vocal hook, the first phrase that comes to mind generally being that rasping sax riff. The token “punky” bit comes with the fuzzed guitar thrash that follows “you’ve been conned” – but other than that, yes, we’re picknicking in Springsteenland.

    Bits of it work pretty well – little phrases here and there, and the “Judy” verse in particular – but other sections feel laboured: the humble Pelican crossing as instrument of Fascist Thought Control, for instance?

    I sort-of quite liked it then, whilst rolling my eyes at the realisation that this so-called “first punk Number One” should be so far removed from the glorious Spirit of 76. Weird indeed to recall the near-universal fondness (if not exactly love) for the Rats, who enjoyed a remarkably easy ride from the assorted snootypants on the weekly inkies. There’s little residual period charm, and maybe that’s because Rat Trap’s ambitions rather outstripped its imitative reality? Hmm, tough one…

  14. 14
    vinylscot on 13 Aug 2008 #

    I think we all knew this wasn’t the first “Punk” #1, even at the time, but we were that keen for there to BE a punk #1, that this was probably close enough.

    The Rats never took themselves seriously (back then), and they were probably really a pub-rock type of band, but the inclusion of their “Looking Out For #1” on one of the first UK-released “punk” compilations, “The New Wave Album”, in 1977 rather pigeon-holed them as “punk”, whether they liked it or not.

    By the time this hit #1, Geldof was 27; it was the Rats’ fifth top 20 hit, and the singles had grown progressively less “punk” as each new one emerged. This trend would continue with their later singles.

    This is only “punk” in the sense that Springsteen was a New Jersey punk – the story fits the American definition of the word, far more than the musical genre definition, but that doesn’t make it a “punk” record.

    It also doesn’t make it a bad record. As Billy Smart said at post #5, this band have been relentlessly pilloried retrospectively. They were never the future of rock and roll, but they never claimed to be; but they were also a damn fine pop group, with a number of excellent singles to their name, both before and after this one.

    SB prevents too much discussion of their future, but it appeared to all go pear-shaped after the rather lukewarm reviews of their next album; I believe, and I’m sure some posters here can expand, that Bob could be rather “difficult” to deal with, and, while good value, he was never really much of a favourite of the media, at least until his later saintly deeds came about.

    The album in question isn’t half as bad as the reviews would have you believe, although not their best. However, one of the pitfalls of not taking yourself seriously is that nobody takes much notice when you try to be taken seriously. Despite a few later attempts, and, more decent singles, they never really made it onto the “critically acclaimed” list.

    I agree with Billy; it’s high time we had a critical reappraisal/appreciation of their work.

  15. 15
    DJ Punctum on 13 Aug 2008 #

    No, I just thought ripping up the photo was Geldof being a Grade A applaud-me-for-breathing prat.

    Second ex-music journalist to get to number one, though (ahem).

  16. 16
    DJ Punctum on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Oh he took the Rats VERY seriously; in interviews he always goes on about how the Rats were one of the nine key punk bands and how bad the other eight were in comparison, no but really.

  17. 17
    mike on 13 Aug 2008 #

    But not the first ex-journalist. That would be – aha, another connection! – Steve Harley (and yes, I do agree that strains of Harley can be heard in Geldof).

  18. 18
    Billy Smart on 13 Aug 2008 #

    I think that we can say that the next two ex-music journalists to get to number one raise the bar set by Bob Geldof.

  19. 19
    vinylscot on 13 Aug 2008 #

    DJP – I did qualify by stating they didn’t take themselves seriously back then. When you start off taking the p***, it is rather difficult to be taken seriously later, no matter how much you want to be.

    I have to admit, I found it difficult to take them seriously too, what with their candelabra saxophones, pianists in pyjamas, and writing songs as Hitler!

  20. 20
    DJ Punctum on 13 Aug 2008 #

    The trouble with Geldof is that in the end he believed in his own piss.

  21. 21
    Billy Smart on 13 Aug 2008 #

    I’d welcome a reappraisal, but I’m not sure that it would necessarily result in a championing of Geldof as some kind of Nick Drake/ Gram Parsons overlooked visionary hero figure.

    I would certainly, however, *much* rather read a 15-page article about The Boomtown Rats than The Clash or The Sex Pistols yet again. There’s certainly an interesting story to be told here, I think.

    Marcello is obviously right about the more vital post-punk things going on, but the one thing to be said in Geldof’s favour is that – to my six-year old self – he was the epitome of rock ‘n’ roll cool, whereas I think that Pere Ubu and Suicide would have probably made me cry!

  22. 22
    koganbot on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Hah! This is the first I’ve ever heard of this song.

  23. 23
    Mark G on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Lyric watch.

    its very un-punk opening line of “There was a lot of rocking going on that night,”

    See, I’d always heard this as “There was a lot of rotten goin’ on that night”

    Which is a bit punk, Im sure you’d agree.,

  24. 24
    Billy Smart on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Number 2 watch: Still, they wouldn’t go away – 2 weeks of Olivia Newton John’s ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’.

  25. 25
    vinylscot on 13 Aug 2008 #

    I wouldn’t expect the Rats’ work to be lauded to any great extent, but an end to the sneering dismissals, and a move towards rehabilitation at least would be good!

  26. 26
    Tom on 13 Aug 2008 #

    My only at-the-time memory of the Boomtown Rats wasn’t this or their other really famous single but “Banana Republic”, and that mostly because I had to ask what on earth one was.

    I think a big factor in their non-reappraisal is that they were fairly short on memorable tunes.

  27. 27
    DJ Punctum on 13 Aug 2008 #

    At the time, though, I can attest that at school level they were equivalent to the Stranglers in that they were the “punk” band that people in my class liked because they were “melodic.”

  28. 28
    koganbot on 13 Aug 2008 #

    their bandname is very nearly the worst of all time

    Really? I’d say it’s pretty darn good, and that every day my inbox is full of promo text for indie bands with much worse names: e.g., just yesterday’s haul includes these examples of self-involved witlessness:

    Shitdisco, Yuppie Pricks, Made In China, Mock Orange, Eagles Of Death Metal, The Mint Chicks, The Silent Years, The Graduate, Plushgun!, The Break And Repair Method, Tittsworth!, Five Finger Death Punch

  29. 29
    rosie on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Ok, just come back from bowls practice (don’t laugh, there are plenty of teenagers playing in the league and they’re depressingly good too.) So I’m commenting before reading other comments and hope that others will bear with me.

    I, too, have heard this described as the first ‘punk’ number one and I’ve never been able to work out why. Certainly it’s informed by ‘punk’, whatever that might be, and the Rats certainly had previous bandwagon-jumping experience if ‘punk’ means belting out the words like a bunch of lads ejected from the pub at closing time. But just as Tom notes, there’s a lot of Springsteen about it. Not classic Springsteen for sure, and it’s Springsteen with an accent dredged out of the Liffey, but it’s clearly there.

    If I can’t see it as punk, and I had no interest in its being punk, then there’s no reason for me to be outraged at some kind of betrayal. That leaves me clear to treat it as a good old-fashioned pop song, one that grabbed the ear at the time. The first Rats track that I liked, and I’ll go as far as to say that it’s a rather classy piece of pop that began to break new ground in the tradition of 1978. A seven from me.

  30. 30
    Mark G on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Oh yeah, and regarding the tearing up of JTrav’s pic was purely about how Rat Trap had been at number two for some weeks, along with the band performances on TOTP along with the general feeling that this was not going to happen for them.

    Then, it did.

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