13
Aug 08

THE BOOMTOWN RATS – “Rat Trap”

FT + Popular/196 comments • 9,034 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. 61
    mike on 14 Aug 2008 #

    OK, OK. I played both TOTP appearances back-to-back last night, and am now prepared to concede that “Rat Trap” is better than I remembered it. By the standards of chart pop, it is clever, sparky, adept and original, and sneering at its would-be Springsteen-isms and its Not Being (Post-)Punk Enough is hardly fair, considering the easy ride that I was prepared to give to the stylistic bastardisations/dilutions of glam-rock (which were in turn sneered at by the hipsters of the day, just as my 16-year-old self rolled my eyes at the Rats). If I’d been eleven years old, then I might well have thought this was the Best Thing Ever.

  2. 62
    DJ Punctum on 14 Aug 2008 #

    No, you were right the first time. “Rat Trap” is a ploddy, life-denying, elephantine, rancid, self-applauding Trex chip fat grease remnant for me to slip and break my neck on because the idle bastards couldn’t be bothered to come out and clear it up wait until I report them to the bloody Council cock rock record.

    Also, life isn’t fair.

  3. 63
    Conrad on 14 Aug 2008 #

    61, As an 11 year old at an all-boys school, I can attest that this was very briefly the best thing ever (for the uncool first years anyway). JT and ONJ were sissy. Everyone cheered when Geldof ripped up the poster. It’s ‘pop moments’ like that, the fact the record was a hit in term-time, the contrast with the endless months of the Two Johns at Number 1 every bloody week and Geldof’s unruly, spiky appearance that helped made it happen.

    None of us had even heard of Springsteen at that point.

  4. 64
    DJ Punctum on 14 Aug 2008 #

    Well, that’s all-boys schools for you.

  5. 65
    Mark G on 14 Aug 2008 #

    #63 is how it seemed then (and does now, to be honest).

    As I say, it was more “hooray, SummerNights at number one finally over!” than “Hello, we’re the Boomtown Rats and Grease is now beaten and gone”

  6. 66
    Mark G on 14 Aug 2008 #

    It was also an indication of optimism, that, musically, things are going to get better.

    Which they did.

  7. 67
    Erithian on 14 Aug 2008 #

    As a 16-year-old, I organised a poll among our year in which “Rat Trap” pipped “Mr Blue Sky” as single of the year, with “Wuthering Heights” not too far behind. Wish I could remember the rest of the placings. I remember thinking they’d make an interesting school disco, although what our neighbouring girls’ school would make of some of the rockist selections I’m not sure.

    Re Springsteen – yes we knew “Born To Run”, although “Darkness on the Edge of Town” didn’t make that big an impact. Two years later when I went to London no student party was complete without a copy of “The River”. Capital Radio played the “River” singles on heavy rotation, which Piccadilly in Manchester certainly didn’t. Was Springsteen more a London thing in those days?

  8. 68
    DJ Punctum on 14 Aug 2008 #

    #66: Wrong. It was only a cause of optimism in terms of things can only get better, since they couldn’t get much worse than “Rat Trap.”

    Also I distrust the latent misogyny behind “hurrah no more Summer Nights at number one.”

  9. 69
    Dan R on 14 Aug 2008 #

    #37

    Of course, The Beatles is also a pretty stupid band name…

  10. 70
    DJ Punctum on 14 Aug 2008 #

    We’re going through a purple patch of them now…The Script, The View, The Kooks, The Zutons, The Fratellis, The Enemy…all worthy heirs of the Boomtown Rats’ aesthetic legacy.

    But in truth civilisation as measured in terms of band names can’t really sink any lower than Biffy Clyro.

  11. 71
    mike on 14 Aug 2008 #

    Latent misogyny? Nah, 16 weeks of anybody at Number One is hard to bear when you’re trapped in a monoculture. People were just bored.

    Well OK, not just bored. To a lot of pop kids (Gawd bless ’em!), the Grease phenomenon was an imposition by a distant “them”, whereas the Rats represented some sort of victory for a here-and-now “us”. It’s an identification with the artist thing, innit? Which I suppose makes the Rats a teensy-weensy little bit “punk” after all.

  12. 72
    DJ Punctum on 14 Aug 2008 #

    I disagree – from my contemporary viewpoint at the time it was very much a case of “yay, that girlie rubbish is off the top and here’s some proper boys’ music.”

  13. 73
    Mark G on 14 Aug 2008 #

    #68

    Whoa! I like Summer nights, but that clip had been played every week, and was getting boring. In fact, the original ‘performance’ of Rat Trap was also getting boring, and one week at number one was deserved, but no more or less what it was due.

    #70

    I didn’t say it was getting better for all time, just that the stuff I’d consider from ‘our’ contamporaries could actually make inroads into the charts. Which it did for a fair while.

    #71, well quite. ta.

    #72 well, you weren’t standing next to me at the time, so you can’t know how *my* reaction was. Bob’s, I cannot say, as I wasn’t standing next to him either.

  14. 74
    crag on 14 Aug 2008 #

    re; bad band names……
    http://www.avclub.com/content/feature/the_worst_band_names_of_07

  15. 75
    LondonLee on 14 Aug 2008 #

    Capital Radio managed to turn me off Springsteen with their incessant plugging of ‘The River’

    Being at an all-boys school too I don’t remember any glee at “girlie rubbish” being knocked off the top, we just wanted a new #1 and I don’t think we classified ‘Grease’ in that way anyway (Slik and The Bay City Rollers certainly). Travolta had been in ‘Saturday Night Fever’ which we liked and Olivia did look good in those leather strides.

  16. 76
    koganbot on 14 Aug 2008 #

    bands named after someone else’s song, LP, film or book aRE very nearly invariably very bad bands

    E.g. the Rolling Stones???

    So were the Boomtown Rats named after someone else’s song, LP, film, or book? I really know nothing about this, and even knowing your ideas rather well, I can’t intuit why you’d think “Boomtown Rats” is a bad bandname. Seems less posturing and obvious than The Damned or Teenage Jesus And The Jerks, for instance (both of whom probably made better music but as I’ve said I’ve yet to hear this or anything else Ratlike other than “Mondays”).

    First punk number one would be ? And The Mysterians’ “96 Tears” on October 29, 1966, though that was in the U.S. only, and anyhow one could argue that The Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” which reached number one three months earlier, takes precedence. (But then, what’s the logic of counting any of these including “God Save The Queen” and discounting “Paint It, Black,” which reached number one a month and a half before “Wild Thing”? Unless of course the band’s naming itself after a song disqualifies them out of hand.)(But really, what would be the argument that “Rat Trap” is more punk than “96 Tears” is?).

    Cute Is What We Aim For
    Scouting For Girls

    = two terribly named bands that people other than me have heard of

  17. 77
    koganbot on 14 Aug 2008 #

    The Velvet Underground

    = named after someone else’s book

  18. 78
    Waldo on 14 Aug 2008 #

    Re – bad band names.

    Whilst I may be skating on the thin ice of the Bun here, I must mention the house band in The Swan, a large drinker just ouside Stockwell Station. The Swan was as Irish a pub as you could get in London. I don’t want to get into this too much. Let’s just say that the local Brixton dealers knew better than to “do their stuff” in The Swan.

    Circ 1982, the house band were called “Paddy Goes To Holyhead”. They were not unlike The Rats, as it happens.

  19. 79
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 14 Aug 2008 #

    don’t think the boomtown rats are named after someone else’s anything, unless it’s a very early tony parsons novel

    i like all the names on the marquee in crag’s link! (though “happy mother’s day, i can’t read” is only good if it’s two bands not one)

  20. 80
    Billy Smart on 14 Aug 2008 #

    The Boomtown Rats were named after a gang in Woody Guthrie’s autobiography ‘Bound For Glory’. I think that it’s a good name, myself.

    I’ve also been enjoying ‘Rat Trap’ more and more every time that I’ve been listening to it over the last couple of days!

  21. 81
    wichita lineman on 14 Aug 2008 #

    The Boomtown Rats, at the time, claimed to be named after a gang in a film or a book. Cos prior to this I’d always assumed it was some odd play on the Bay City Rollers.

    Re 75: Snap. And I never made the Springsteen/Rats connection until I read Smash Hits’ 3 out of 10 review in for The Fine Art Of Surfacing, which explained it loud and clear.

    As for the monoculture of 16 weeks at number one… I know that a few people have dissented, but it’s 16 weeks plus 6 more of Three Times A Lady/Dreadlock Holiday in between which makes for 5 solid gloop-and-pastiche mono months. No wonder Rat Trap, with its undeniable (fourth-hand) ambition, sounded like some kind of future.

  22. 82
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 15 Aug 2008 #

    hah! if that’s where the name’s from that’s about 40 times WORSE than i was prepared to accuse them of — it’s bad borrowed poetry and authority of a kind they don’t know how to live up to, basically

    the stones and the velvets would be too, except they did live up to it — a bad name is a good gamble if yr prepared to be SO GOOD that the power yr tryin to siphon becomes unnecessary: the atmosphere you create shd be YOU

    the johnny fingers side of the rats — pretend rebels in pyjamas — was always the draw, i think: back in the day i strongly disapproved of this, but now i don’t; clowning trumps bad poitry

    the small good and the big bad of sir blobster of geldof is that he really does think he is the woody guthrie de nos jours

  23. 83
    Malice Cooper on 15 Aug 2008 #

    This must have been a big surprise when it hit the top as listening to it now, it sounds no more commercial than many records of the time that failed to hit the top 20. Not as good as “looking after number one” but still a good borderline between new wave and pop which Sir Bob managed to hit so often.

  24. 84
    rosie on 16 Aug 2008 #

    Other band names from book titles that I can think of off the top of my head:

    Sad Cafe (Carson McCullers)
    Soft Machine (William S Burroughs)
    Steppenwolf (Herman Hesse)

    Probably lots of others given time to think about it. Wasn’t there a Sons and Lovers, from Nottingham? I can’t remember anything they did so I don’t suppose they were any good. And a nagging voice says there was once a Vanity Fair, but I can’t remember anything they did either.

  25. 85
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 16 Aug 2008 #

    the doors <— proof of theory
    the fall <— disproof

    the infestation really takes off in the post-punk era — and in general bands named after films or songs are much worse than those named after books

  26. 86
    rosie on 16 Aug 2008 #

    Mark @ 85: What theory is this to be proved? That bands with literary names are crap? Would you like to enlarge on why you consider The Doors not to have been a good band? They are, after all, up there with my all time favourites.

    Or are you trying to be provocative?

  27. 87
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 16 Aug 2008 #

    that bands whose first key down-payment on their own creativity (ie how they announced themselves: their name) is funded by borrowing directly from the creativity of others before them are likely to come up wanting later also

    the “literary” element is kind of a red herring; it’s the upfront borrowing i am leery of, whatever it’s from (it’s like declarations of influence: announcement of unearned authority to bump you up into a league you can’t get to on your own)

    (at least steely dan had read past the cover of a burroughs book!)

    my favourite doors song/couplet is actually named for a chapter heading in frazier’s the golden bough: “not to touch the earth/not to see the sun” — i’m not a giant big fan of jim morrison but i like the other doors (the sound they make i mean); mainly i’m teasing koganbot when i list all these famous and beloved bands that prove/disprove my theory and claim

    BUT the basic idea — about the issue of borrowed authority — is something i’m interested in which bugs me

  28. 88
    LondonLee on 16 Aug 2008 #

    I hate to break it to you Rosie but a lot of people think The Doors weren’t that good.

  29. 89
    o sobek! on 17 Aug 2008 #

    wait wait wait rosie who was moaning about threatening leering macho young men in the context of PHILLY SOUL thinks THE FUCKING DOORS were GREAT????????? THE DOORS WHO SPEND AT LEAST HALF THEIR HITS TURNING ‘YOU’RE GONNA GET RAPED’ INTO NINE MINUTES OF BAD SOLOS AND WORSE POETRY? REALLY? mind you the doors were white so no inconsistency here but still WOW.

  30. 90
    Pete on 17 Aug 2008 #

    Whilst I agree with Mark’s general thesis about borrowed authenticity when bands quote other literature as band names, I think sometimes its just a pose to say “look we read a book”. Which often doesn’t translate too far too “Look, one of us (probably the singer cos he didn’t have to waste time learning how to play insturments) read the title of a book once and tricked the rest of us into thinking it was a good band name”.

    Bands which quote other song lyrics as song titles surely must be the nadir of this, setting their high water mark at the song they quote. Whilst I am sure there are a score of bands who have quote Smiths lyrics as names, the worst of this type of band must surely be 1994 group Passion Fruit And Holy Bread, a STONE ROSES quote fcs!

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