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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. 91
    byebyepride on 17 Aug 2008 #

    I only find ‘borrowed’ names irritating if I recognise them – my reaction is usually ‘FFS you think you’re being clever by alluding to X, but if I’ve heard of it, it can’t be big or clever’. There’s a really good example of this I saw on the shelves in Fopp recently, but it’s too early on a Sunday morning to remember the name. I guess this is a perverse (? or sound, maybe) version of the principle of not wanting to join any club that wants to have you.

  2. 92
    rosie on 17 Aug 2008 #

    LondonLee @ 88: That’s fine by me. It’s not compulsory to like the things I like and that’s not what I was suggesting. I don’t much care for the Buzzcocks and I assume that view will be similarly respected.

  3. 93
    rosie on 17 Aug 2008 #

    O Sobek! @ 89: I know I made a remark somewhere about leering young black men but I can’t recall the particular connection to Philly Soul (I think it more likely to have been in the context of hip-hop). Would you care to remind me? On the other hand the experience of being regularly leered at and mentally raped, and sometimes spat at, by groups of young men belonging to a particular minority subculture of young African-Caribbean people as I pass them on street corners, isn’t an enjoyable one and yet seeing such a group ahead of me means that I can predict their behaviour with some accuracy. I recall me and my friend Joanna being in full agreement, over a delicious meal of ackee and saltfish and fried plantains, of how this behaviour tends to bring her community into disrepute.

    Well, I really have no time for black music. One of these days I must get rid of about 80% of my collection.

    Live and let live I say.

  4. 94
    Billy Smart on 17 Aug 2008 #

    Re 89/93 – The contentious comments can be found in the commentary on ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But My Love’ by the Stylistics, part of an oddly schizoid discussion that alternates between talking about race and oppression and memories of defunct brands of crisps.

  5. 95
    Tom on 17 Aug 2008 #

    I don’t like the Doors much, to say the least, but Jim M never came across to me as particularly rapey. I haven’t ever paid close attention to the great man’s lyrics though.

    I like hip-hop AND saltfish and fried plantains, but I think only about 30% of my record collection is black. :(

  6. 96
    rosie on 17 Aug 2008 #

    Thank you, Billy. That was when I was defending Philly Soul, which I like. For some reason I was then branded a cosseted, privileged, racist gliberal with a soft spot for New York vigilantes, which came as somthing of a surprise.

    Tom @ 95: Maybe 80% is an exaggeration but my predilection for raw blues and jazz as well as the work of singers like Billie, Ella and The Divine Sarah does tend to bump up the percentage somewhat. That’s not to mention all the 60s Stax/Atlantic soul which some find so uncouth!

  7. 97
    wichita lineman on 17 Aug 2008 #

    Re 90: That’ll be The Stone Roses who named themselves after a 50s crime novel by Sarah Gainham. Let’s face it, most band names are crap and we soon learn to accept them if the music’s good enough: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, The Stone Roses, The La’s…

  8. 98

    not crap:
    i: “i love you but i chose THE DARKNESS”
    ii: kraftwerk
    iii: er that’s it

  9. 99
    CarsmileSteve on 17 Aug 2008 #

    the doors, of course, only clever enough to read half a book title, there…

    three colours red infamously said they’d never seen the film, they just liked the way the words sounded.

  10. 100
    rosie on 17 Aug 2008 #

    CarsmileSteve @ 99: Or even less clever if you put it that way, being only one eighth of the line from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

    “If the Doors of Perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite.

    I don’t know how much Aldous Huxley Jim read. I know he read a lot of Blake.

  11. 101
    wichita lineman on 17 Aug 2008 #

    Re 99: Steve, it was better/worse than that. They claimed they’d never heard of the girly arthouse film. It was just a coincidence.

    As the man said when he was told you can have a double negative, but there was no such thing as a double positive:

    Yeah, yeah.

  12. 102
    LondonLee on 17 Aug 2008 #

    Prefab Sprout is the worst band name ever. At least, the worst one for a band that were actually good.

  13. 103
    wichita lineman on 17 Aug 2008 #

    Lee, I think we have a winner. Prefab Sprout’s the only one I can think of that you can’t abbreviate (like the Stones, the Manics) because both words are so ugly – and sound even worse when they’re paired.

  14. 104
    Snif on 18 Aug 2008 #

    Great band name from a few years back – William Shatner’s Pants.

  15. 105
    Mark G on 18 Aug 2008 #

    Yeah, the Prefabs.

  16. 106
    wichita lineman on 18 Aug 2008 #

    Well, you could also them the Sprout but neither fell into common usage. And weren’t the Monkees the Prefabs?

  17. 107
    DJ Punctum on 18 Aug 2008 #

    The Prefab Four.

    I believe top Tory “Pop” DJ Mike Read briefly referred to them as “the Sprouties.”

  18. 108
    Stevie on 18 Aug 2008 #

    In its favour Prefab Sprout does show a strong Bloomian misreading of “hotter than a pepper sprout” from the Rodgers/Wheeler number “Jackson”.

  19. 109
    Mark G on 18 Aug 2008 #

    When Prefab Sprout the band first became known, I would have sworn I’d heard the name before.

  20. 110
    henry s on 18 Aug 2008 #

    I used to confuse Prefab Sprout with Aztec Camera…seemed like a lot of other bands were using that “two incongruent words” naming strategy back then…

  21. 111
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 18 Aug 2008 #

    i’ve never seen — but would like to — a proper study of band-naming fashions (with stats and trends and everything)

    my rough tab of the 50s and 60s is that the dominant mode mutated as follows

    the [—]s —> viz the orioles
    XY and his [xxx]s —> bill haley and his comets
    XY and the [xxx]s —> cliff richard and the shadows
    the [—]s —> the kinks
    the [—] —> the who
    [—] —> cream (who were i think “the cream” to start with)
    [—] [—] —> deep purple

    (^^applies to “rock” only) (yes the orioles are rock)

    but thereafter, w.retro AND punk both arriving to mess up the idea of a single central canon anyway, deliberately back-looking and deliberately futuristic names blur everything

  22. 112
    Mark G on 18 Aug 2008 #

    Which is why Don Van Vliet got annoyed about having “his” on his records early on, as in “Captain Beefheart and his magic band”

    which is ironic, as the band from Trout Mask Replica’ was most assuredly *his*, apart from “Unconditionally Guaranteed” and “Bluejeans and Moonbeams” which were more “and his, but leased out at the moment”

  23. 113
    DJ Punctum on 18 Aug 2008 #

    #111: not really that interesting unless accompanied by a full damnation of wrong-way-pretentious unnecessary abandoning of definite article viz. Buzzcocks, Guillemots, Editors and with the exception of the first named an invariable guarantee of aesthetic crapness.

  24. 114
    Mark G on 18 Aug 2008 #

    .. and how Verve were forced to add one.

  25. 115
    Tom on 18 Aug 2008 #

    Some Foals!

    I can never remember (or care) who does this and who doesn’t.

  26. 116
    Billy Smart on 18 Aug 2008 #

    Cocteau Twins? Happy Mondays? Sisters of Mercy? All great, though I suppose that everybody adds a ‘The’ in conversation anyway.

  27. 117
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 18 Aug 2008 #

    haha some sex pistols

    $wans <— not entirely awful

    what’s interesting (ok to me and me alone) is the sociology of shifts in assumptions about how naming works, and is meant to — esp.the shift from plurals to singular, where i think there was also a real shift in what rock was taken to be

  28. 118
    mike on 18 Aug 2008 #

    Sparks? (Also one of the few bands to have successfully dropped the definite article; nobody has ever called them “The Sparks”.)

    Cardiacs?

  29. 119
    Tim but logged out innit on 18 Aug 2008 #

    Fire Engines! I seem to recall Davey Henderson really, really caring about their non-“The” status.

    Status Quo are successful definite article abandoners.

    Madness took one on for that one record/reunion, didn’t they? And then lost it again.

  30. 120
    Tim but logged out innit on 18 Aug 2008 #

    Just by way of not really helping this along at all, here is me mapping these naming styles onto generic names for multiple-performer-units (I don’t know that I have this right actually but, eh):

    the [—]s —> viz the orioles = a combo
    XY and his [xxx]s —> bill haley and his comets = an act
    XY and the [xxx]s —> cliff richard and the shadows = a band
    the [—]s —> the kinks = a group
    the [—] —> the who = a band [with undertones of gang-ness]
    [—] —> cream = a project
    [—] [—] —> deep purple = er um also a project probably

    Each of these places itself at different points on insider-outsider and art-entertainment continuums, in my mind.

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