13
Aug 08

THE BOOMTOWN RATS – “Rat Trap”

FT + Popular/196 comments • 9,024 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. 31
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 13 Aug 2008 #

    all those are better

    ok worst of all time out of bands anyone has ever heard of (except you)

    bands named after someone else’s song, LP, film or book aRE very nearly invariably very bad bands (but the name can be quite good, it’s just that someone else thought of it first)

  2. 32
    Erithian on 13 Aug 2008 #

    As a band name “We Work At Tesco’s But We’re Well Gangsta Innit?” is either very good or very bad, can’t decide which.

    Quite like the tribute band “And You Will Find Us In The Bargain Bins”, assuming they exist.

    That Rock Family Trees episode about the second Merseybeat era showed the likes of Pete Wylie and Iain McCulloch forming bands with great names that never got beyond a rehearsal.

  3. 33
    Erithian on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Mark G #30 – its chart career was 22-9-7-3-2-1. Unusual in that it accelerated having gone up only two places – the theory was that the record shops were understocked.

  4. 34
    Tom on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Even limiting it to the heard-of, surely bad band names are more common than good ones?

  5. 35
    Mark G on 13 Aug 2008 #

    #33, that would kind of tie in with my memory, 3 and 2 certainly.

    I was trying to find the TOTP performances, but the database seems to have gone off the BBC site.

  6. 36
    LondonLee on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Even knowing that it was a ‘Jungleland’ rip-off (‘Born To Run’ was one of the first albums I bought with the wages from my WH Smith saturday job) I loved this then and I still do, the line “deep down in her pocket she finds 50p” gets me every time. But I’m a sucker for “kitchen sink epic”

    And it’s the first New Wave number one, there was a very clear distinction between that and Punk at the time – New Wave bands wore skinny ties.

  7. 37
    Billy Smart on 13 Aug 2008 #

    I think that ‘Does This Offend You Yeah?’ is extraordinarily rubbish.

    The most uninspired band name of all time is ‘The Mods’. No generic confusion there.

  8. 38
    Waldo on 13 Aug 2008 #

    I’m somewhat mystified at the criticism of this, especially from those contributors who seem to regard it with an element of amusement. I don’t agree with this interpretation at all.

    I personally thought “Rat Trap” was a monumental piece of work. A tale of bleakness and despair. Outlining far much more than regulation teenaged angst, this is a parable from the gutter and Geldof offers zero hope to neither Billy nor Judy as he growls, pleads and spits his way through the narration. I remember being amazed when this got to number one, as the landscape it depicted was so desperate and unlike “Seasons in the Sun”, for example, there was not a grain of irony or humour to be derived from it, in my opinion. I was also amazed it got to number one simply because it was the Rats, New Wave pioneers and thus not chart topping naturals. I would say that “Rat Trap” was very much a fish out of water and it’s not often that a record leaves you cold. Truly brilliant. And that SAX!

    vinylscot # 19 – “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!”

    I have to say that I find this observation curious, since surely the whole point of punk/new wave was to present a challenging look. And it didn’t begin with punk, of course. Just because the Rats did not perform RT dressed in sombre suits and all looking as if they wanted to jump in front of a train does not detract from the power of the message.

    Having now dealt with this particular track, I am happy to add my voice in bashing Geldof for other crimes. DJP’s “The trouble with Geldof is that in the end he believed his own piss” cannot be bested as a tribute or epitath. But then again, there are plenty of blokes to whom this could cosily apply, the obvious case being the icon I cannot mention lest Bunnykins guns sweet Waldo down outside the Dakota building

  9. 39
    Billy Smart on 13 Aug 2008 #

    There were two TOTP performances; October 5th 1978 and the 16th of November 1978 (so presumably as a new entry at 22 and the number one)

    Also in the studio for the first performance were; Mick Jackson, Elaine Paige, Marshal Hain and Sham 69, plus Legs & Co’s interpretation of ‘Now That We’ve Found Love’. The host was David Jensen.

    Also in the studio for the second performance were; The Buzzcocks, Elton John, Heatwave, Dean Friedman and Child. David Jensen was again the host

  10. 40
    vinylscot on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Waldo – are you suggesting that wearing pyjamas and playing candelabra saxophones represents a “challenging look”?

    Not in my book – it’s just silliness like Steve Priest’s German helmet, Alvin Stardust’s glove, or Ron Mael’s moustache. It’s what you’ll be remembered for, no matter the quality of your musical output.

  11. 41
    Mark G on 13 Aug 2008 #

    That’s a long gap between performances when you think about it, #39…

  12. 42
    Billy Smart on 13 Aug 2008 #

    They did repeat the first one several times before The Boomtown Rats returned to the studio again.

  13. 43
    SteveM on 13 Aug 2008 #

    I think this is the earliest of the three most recent #1 singles I cannot hear in my head at all. Damning indeed.

  14. 44
    Waldo on 13 Aug 2008 #

    vinylscot # 40 – The short answer to your question is yes. The Rats’ look was clearly challenging and indeed clearly challenged you or you would not have mentioned it and you and I would not now be debating it. Furthermore, I’m sure you’ll agree that what may appear “silly” in your own book may, indeed would, not appear in those of others.

    Will have to join you with regards Alvin’s glove, though. What the fuck was that all about?

  15. 45
    vinylscot on 13 Aug 2008 #

    OK, truce Waldo! Not sure I entirely agree with you, but don’t think it’s worth quarreling over minor semantics.

  16. 46
    Waldo on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Indeed. Peace, brother.

  17. 47
    DJ Punctum on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Oh, Waldo! You so nearly passed Level 1 of the Stuart Maconie Test with post #44…if only you’d remembered to add the words “Eh? Eh?” at the end!

  18. 48
    mike on 13 Aug 2008 #

    The Bachelors, Dana, and the Boomtown Rats: any other Irish Number Ones thus far?

  19. 49
    will on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Was it punk? Or new wave? Or Tesco Value Springsteen? Personally speaking, I didn’t give a toss then and still don’t give a toss now. What I do remember is that they were the first group to get to Number One in bloody ages that I could relate to, ie – they were a bit scruffy and looked like an older version of the sort of numpty I was aged 9.

    To these young ears, Geldof and co just sounded like nothing more than a good pop band. I’ve never understood the antipathy that’s been directed towards them either.

  20. 50
    katstevens on 13 Aug 2008 #

    I don’t have much to say about this song other than it’s the fourth best UK chart hit with the word ‘rat’ in the title.

  21. 51
    DJ Punctum on 13 Aug 2008 #

    #48: Ruby Murray and Gilbert O’Sullivan.

  22. 52
    wichita lineman on 13 Aug 2008 #

    The candelabra and pyjamas make me think this had more in common with See My Baby Jive (custard pies and gorilla suits, long, prominent sax, Spectorisms) than punk. But I’ll attest there was a long running, fierce argument in Smash Hits about whether this was the first punk no.1 or whether God Save The Queen was the moral winner. Punk and new wave may seem poles apart now but they were definitely seen as spiritual partners fighting the same war in 1978. At least in my school.

    As for the lack of a Boomtown Rats re-evaluation, I think it has everything to do with their singer’s later career. DJP’s succinct summary of Geldof’s inflated opinion of himself is spot on. I find his antics offensive (the Live 8 press conference, ignoring the suicide bombs in London that day, was very poor), as do many charities in Africa who don’t find it so easy to get on the news (this was well documented around the time of Live 8). It’s hard to listen to Rat Trap without prejudice.

    Besides, I had a feeling Mojo HAD covered the Boomtown Rats. Peter Paphides wrote it, I think.

    Re 40, 44: Alvin’s glove was a tamer Gene Vincent look, I guess – the echoed vocals on My Coo Ca Choo and Jealous Mind are Sweet Gene knock-offs after all. Designed to make him look intimidating and mysterious, it worked on 8-year old me. He pinched all his slow-motion snaky moves from Dave Berry (as my parents tutted at the time), who was considerably creepier.

  23. 53
    thevisitor on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Just playing it in my head. Melodically, it doesn’t repeat itself at all, does it, save for perhaps some of that sax break? Every bit happens only the once as far as I can recall, which is kind of extraordinary for a song that was deemed catchy enough to reach number one. One factor here may be how strongly the song ends. Ending their singles with a catchy refrain seemed to be a trick that The Boomtown Rats liked to rely upon: Someone’s Looking At You; Never In A Million Years; the na-na-nas on Diamond Smiles*.

    Re: the band name. At the age of nine, I thought The Boomtown Rats was a brilliant band name. It’s just the sort of thing you would probably want to call your own band if you were a rufty-tufty nine year-old boy. So while my brother (four years older) was scornful of what he perceived as the Rats’ version of punk, Geldof struck me as thoroughly credible.

    Good as I thought Rat Trap was, I do sometimes get the impression that Geldof thinks these songs were more important than they really were. Seizing the chance to do it at Live Aid was understandable and fine, but doing it again at Live 8, twenty years later, to thousands of people who had no clear idea that he used to be a pop star, seemed inappropriate.

    *featuring the demon lines, “The girl in the cake/Jumped out too soon by mistake”

  24. 54
    Waldo on 13 Aug 2008 #

    DJP # 47 – I am happy to take that as a compliment. Eh? Eh?

    Of course had I finished instead with “Hmmm? Hmmm?”, this would have put older posters in mind of William Hartnell, the inaugural Doctor Who.

    Now drink.

  25. 55
    wwolfe on 13 Aug 2008 #

    I don’t know this song at all. I do know that when I first heard the Rats’ version of “I Don’t Like Mondays,” I was surprised by how much the arrangement made it sound like a Broadway show tune – to the point where I couldn’t help but picture a kickline of dancers at one point. It was a *good* Broadway show tune, but not the fierce, punk (or at least punk-like) record I had been expecting.

  26. 56
    LondonLee on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Is there another version of ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’?

    I should have added above that, not being greaser from New Jersey, I found this easier to relate to than Springsteen’s overly romantic tale – and anyway The Magic Rat sounded like a character from Wind In The Willows to me. I can’t imagine Bruce ever finding much magic in a humble 50p piece either.

  27. 57
    Mark G on 13 Aug 2008 #

    “Deep down in her pocket, Rosalita finds 50p
    “Hey what is that doing there, who gave that to me?””

  28. 58
    pink champale on 13 Aug 2008 #

    the jive-talking conversational style of this reminds me of thin lizzy (okay, the one thin lizzy song i know) as much as bruce. it’s alright though i think, melodramatic and ludicrous but still quite affecting.

    anyway, someone’s clearly reappraised the boomtown rats, razorlight are virtually a tribute band (though i have a suspicion this isn’t quite what they’re aiming for).

  29. 59
    Matt on 14 Aug 2008 #

    Wichita, you are right about Mojo covering the Rats. There was a fairly substantial feature about them about a year ago, coinciding with the reissuing of their back catalogue I would imagine.

    On the topic of whether this was the first “punk” number, if it wasn’t I’ll be interested to see what (if any) future number ones might take that title (although obviously not wanting to inspire any bunny baiting comments now)

  30. 60
    DJ Punctum on 14 Aug 2008 #

    first punk number one

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