13
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.

6

Comments

1 4 5 6 7 All
  1. 151
    DJ Punctum on 3 Sep 2008 #

    No hypocrisy at work there. It’s a question of innate ability as a writer as well as understanding of the milieu in which one chooses to write and unfortunately Reynolds has spent so much time and effort on his “crusades” and “jump on a nascent scene so I can name it and establish myself as a branding agent” clothes horses that he seems to have overlooked the necessity to engage, move, touch or even simply inform his readers.

  2. 152
    Mark G on 3 Sep 2008 #

    I absolutely agree with you about S.Reynolds, however could we kill off this judging a writer by their degree, please?

  3. 153
    DJ Punctum on 3 Sep 2008 #

    Morley got an HND at UMIST. Can’t remember what in though.

  4. 154
    wichita lineman on 3 Sep 2008 #

    I did Town Planning at PCL for a year before I dropped out to try and earn a living as a writer. Just thought I’d put my cards on the table.

  5. 155
    thevisitor on 3 Sep 2008 #

    I don’t agree with a lot of what Simon Reynolds has to say. I was at Melody Maker at the same time as him and gradually, through realising that my outlook** was (and is) pretty much the opposite to his*, I found my own way. But that didn’t stop me enjoying the way he wrote and also feeling grateful for the level of discourse his writing promoted. He risks ridicule (see his inadvertently hilarious My Bloody Valentine piece in The Sex Revolts [riff = phallus; noise = vagina, apparently]) but I envy the lengths he goes to in order to inhabit areas of music that I may never get to crack.

    If you don’t mind, can I also add that, in my opinion, the best way to get into The Teardrop Explodes is through their ceaselessly brilliant b-sides. I can’t think of a band at that time whose b-sides so consistently outperformed their a-sides. Christ VS Warhol, Strange House In The Snow, East Of The Equator, Use Me, the list goes on. Fans of foreboding, experimental, atmospheric pop can’t fail here. Even Reynolds (who was, incidentally, one of the nicest and humble characters on the paper at that time) would have surely found something of value there?!

    While we’re confessing, I scraped a 2:2 in philosophy at Lampeter, making me possibly the thickest employee of the paper where I now work.

    *his, as I understood it: decide on your aesthetic and work out what music fits into it
    **mine (I think): decide what music you like and then try and discern a aesthetic that unites it all.

  6. 156
    Billy Smart on 3 Sep 2008 #

    Such was the effect of Melody Maker on me as a 16-year old, that I’m now desperately trying to work out who thevisitor is. (I’m guessing Dave Simpson, but I could certainly name quite a few thicker Guardian journalists)

    I always found it odd how David Stubbs never seemed to attract either the acclaim or dismissal that Reynolds did, as they very much shared the same aesthetic. Perhaps it was because Stubbs often wrote about Arsenal and TV comedy as well, that he struck readers as less effete than Reynolds. A collection of his interviews, etc, from that time would be as rich and valid a book as ‘Bring The Noise’, though.

    Even as late as 1988, the solo Julian Cope was still putting his best songs on B-sides – see ‘Crazy Farm Animal’

    Hm – I only got a 2:2 in Drama, but now I’m doing a PhD. I really don’t know to what extent – if at all – this qualifies (or disqualifies) me to comment on music intelligently!

  7. 157
    byebyepride on 4 Sep 2008 #

    re: Teardrop Explodes B-sides, ‘Ouch Monkeys’ is another cracker.

  8. 158
    DJ Punctum on 4 Sep 2008 #

    Ah yes, David Stubbs, the guy who wrote in MM in 1987 that there should be a five-year ban on black music. I don’t think there’s any pressing need to revisit his particular brand of “wisdom.”

  9. 159
    thevisitor on 4 Sep 2008 #

    #156: I rather felt that David Stubbs’ passion for discovering new music seemed to subside in the early nineties, as he carved out a niche for himself doing the funny pages. Also I remember him and Reynolds being very different personalities. Reynolds bucked MM protocol by being friendly and interested in what the bottom-feeder freelancers were up to. By contrast, David was more wary of new faces, and didn’t exactly go out of his way to set people at ease. I got to know him as time went on, but in that respect he had more in common with Andrew Mueller and Steve Sutherland – writers who made you feel you somehow had to earn their attention (hope Andrew doesn’t mind me saying that as I’m pretty friendly with him now). Anyway, I digress. I think the point I’m making is that there’s a correlation between Simon’s open-ended approach to people and the way he approaches new music. That’s just what he’s like – and it was (and is) to his benefit as a person as well as a writer.

    That said, I felt that Reynolds’ philosophy accidentally set a negative, counterintuitive climate at Melody Maker, which had many at the paper (I’d left by this point) seriously claiming that Trans-Global Underground were worthier Britpop emissaries than Blur. I can’t tell you the suspicion with which the latter were greeted when they put out Modern Life Is Rubbish. By comparison, you put on a Trans-Global Underground album on and it felt like homework. Same, I felt, with the likes of Young Gods and Skinny Puppy. That said, even though I was more populist in my outlook, I was never discouraged by anyone there. Everett True and Jim Arundel (now Irvin), in particular (both of whom also kept to their own agendas) couldn’t have been more encouraging.

  10. 160
    DJ Punctum on 4 Sep 2008 #

    As a punter, the either/or thing never really bothered me; I thought Modern Life Is Rubbish and Dream Of 100 Nations were (and still are!) equally great and both records still have considerable personal resonance for me. Same with the Young Gods and Skinny Puppy; all great soundtracks to coming over the Westway (if you’ll pardon the expression) of a sunny weekday morning.

    As a writer fifteen years later I very much regret that the either/or crutch is still handicapping music writing in general, both online and off; I’ve always tried to see the whole picture, even if it’s a picture I’ve had to paint myself (so your music -> aesthetic process works here). If I think something’s rubbish, of course, I say so and say it strong but give my reasons for doing so. But that’s different from the corners into which both Dissensus and Poptimists (for example) have painted themselves in which there is One Absolute Declaration of Principles which will not be strayed from ever for fear of excommunication. If nothing else, you miss all the exciting stuff that’s going on everywhere else.

  11. 161
    DJ Punctum on 4 Sep 2008 #

    I’m being knowingly disingenuous of course about that five years piece because (a) it was co-written by SR and DS (it’s collected in Blissed Out) and (b) I know why they wrote it, i.e. as a reaction against Beige Proper Soul We Are Not Worthy Masquerading As Pop which as we all know has recently made an unwelcome comeback. But the way it was worded was perhaps less than helpful at the time.

  12. 162
    Tim on 4 Sep 2008 #

    Poptimists and Dissensus are places rather than individuals, DJP, and it seems quite likely that people go to those places to talk about one sort of thing with a specialist crowd, and get their other kicks elsewhere. I’m not sure either holds any of its participants to any absolute declaration of values, not that I look at either much, if ever.

  13. 163
    DJ Punctum on 4 Sep 2008 #

    Totally OTM about the Teardrops’ B-sides; my personal favourite is “Window Shopping For A New Crown Of Thorns,” the demented flip to 1981’s #54 flop “Colours Fly Away.”

    (supplementary question: why isn’t “Christ Vs Warhol” a bonus track on the CD of Wilder when every other B-side from the period is? Did someone forget to add it or did JC put his foot down?)

  14. 164
    byebyepride on 4 Sep 2008 #

    DJP – you don’t seem to practice what you preach about music in relation to other people who like to talk about it. Your portray yourself as the only free thinker amongst blinkered conformists to popular taste or slavish followers of avant garde manifestos. But your word for the former (gliberal) comes directly from the latter (k-punk, one assumes).

  15. 165
    thevisitor on 4 Sep 2008 #

    #163: It ended up on a hits comp which appeared around the same time as the reissues, so perhaps JC thought it warranted special status?

    #156: Oh yes, loads of ace JC solo b-sides: Hey High Class Butcher from the flipside of Sunshine Playroom; Desi from the back of China Doll; Disaster from the back of Trampolene; and Christmas Mourning from the back of Charlotte Ann. Phew!

  16. 166
    DJ Punctum on 4 Sep 2008 #

    If you take “gliberal” in accordance with its dictionary definition – “superficially, shallowly, or falsely liberal” – then I don’t see how you connect that to assumed “blinkered conformists to popular taste” since I have certainly never used the word in that sense.

  17. 167
    Mark G on 4 Sep 2008 #

    CvsW is on the Jap version of “Everybody wants to Shag”

  18. 168
    DJ Punctum on 4 Sep 2008 #

    “It was a little unusual, but we all loved it”

  19. 169
    Tom on 4 Sep 2008 #

    Right, I’m back from holiday. I see you’ve all been keeping yourselves occupied.

    Cope B-Sides – when I worked at MVE a colleague once solemnly informed me that Mik Mak Mok was the only good song Julian Cope had ever written.

    DJP if you’d like to point me to Poptimists’ One Absolute Declaration of Principles I’d be fascinated to read it!

    Ah, no, here we go – “This is a community for people who believe that pop music is a good thing. The definition of ‘pop music’ is left up to you, but it probably includes at least some stuff that gets in the charts.”

    Hardline stuff I think you’ll agree. My position as the Mullah Omar of pop is secure.

    Byebyepride – I am not sure the word gliberal comes from K-P at all! I looked it up when DJP first started using it and it seems to have been coined by the vigorous US right (and picked up by the likes of our neighbour-from-hell Melanie Phillips) to lambast liberals in general – glib and liberal here are conjoined by definition. It’s a rough equivalent to something like “do-gooders”.

  20. 170
    DJ Punctum on 4 Sep 2008 #

    Like Nas, I’m claiming the word back.

  21. 171
    DJ Punctum on 4 Sep 2008 #

    Wonder what Mad Mel thought of God On Trial on BBC2 last night. One of the best dramas I’ve seen on TV for years, if not decades.

  22. 172
    Tom on 4 Sep 2008 #

    Like Bono and “Helter Skelter” you mean :)

  23. 173
    Lena on 4 Sep 2008 #

    Twenty years ago, I first travelled to London for a near-month-long stay. The only person I knew was a music journalist; he worked in radio, and did a weekly live broadcast on my favorite station. At one point I expressed to him my admiration for both the NME and MM and how I wanted to work for one of them, as a writer. His response was quick and soul-crushing: those papers, he said, were largely (if not entirely) populated by Oxbridge grads and there would be no way I could fit in. I wasn’t male, British or a university graduate, and that was that. Better I write about something else. It was like a door slamming on me. He named no names, so I had no idea who he was talking about, nor did I ask. It seemed pointless. (It seems needless to say, but this man was not an Oxbridge grad; his statement wasn’t one of hatred or envy of them, just a plain understood fact. I had no opinion of them myself, as I figured you went there if you wanted to, just as I went to Ryerson because I could. That was probably a wrong assumption, Ryerson being a polytechnical institute at the time.)

    One of the reasons this was such bad news for me was I had been reading MM and the NME and Creem and Star Hits (the US version of Smash Hits) and I loved aspects of them all, from super-serious pieces (the derogatory term for them being ‘muso’ which I still don’t understand – I guess it means the author ‘muses’ on things) to the silly, funny, weird, passionate, hyperbolic, etc. I wanted in on the action, but nope, no way. (I would have happily labored in the listings section, or been a proofreader, anything!) Only later did it occur to me that maybe the all-male/token-female environment would not have been that comfortable, nor would they have been too welcoming to an American girl who didn’t understand the hip-hop wars…

  24. 174
    wichita lineman on 5 Sep 2008 #

    At my school we once had an open evening where ex-pupils came back and told us about the wonderful world ahead of us. Each was sat at a table with his chosen career displayed before him. I headed straight for the architect who smilingly told me that there was no way I could follow his path without A-level maths. I was very upset as I’d be lucky to scrape O-level (I did, just). Twenty years later I found out this was BS but how was I to know?

    Lena, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but Melody Maker in the late 80s/early 90s featured not one but two American female writers: Caren Myers (who hated British indie) and Caroline Sullivan who loved Bananarama, so hardly fitted into the MM boys club either, and has made a pretty good fist of a career in music journalism since.

    As for NME, Helen Mead and James Brown, the reviews and live editors 20 years ago, definitely weren’t Oxbridge grads. Both were very welcoming to young ‘outsiders’ (see Stuart Maconie’s Cider With Roadies).

    I hope you’ve found health, wealth and happiness outside the UK music press. As with any profession, there might have been leering, sniping and back-stabbing, but it certainly wasn’t a closed shop. I’m intrigued to know who gave you this duff information.

  25. 175
    DJ Punctum on 5 Sep 2008 #

    Well, Burchill, Parsons, Penman, Morley, Baker etc. etc. never went to Oxbridge (and apart from Morley none of them went on to further education, full stop). Set against that the Monitor intake on MM were all Oxford and Chris Roberts went to Cambridge, same college and same year as N*ck H*rnby. So it wasn’t an iron rule though in some cases public school backgrounds probably helped. Absolutely asinine advice, though, and I wish I’d known Lena at the time and given her some infinitely better advice.

    Has Lena found health, wealth and happiness outside the UK music press? Well, she married me last November and I’m doing my best to give her all three! :-)

  26. 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.

  27. 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!

  28. 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.

  29. 179
    DJ Punctum on 5 Sep 2008 #

    No swearing on FT please.

  30. 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.

1 4 5 6 7 All

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)

Required

Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page