The Boomtown Rats - Biography
The Boomtown Rats are often overshadowed by the reputation of their former lead singer Bob Geldof and his charitable work, which he began towards the end of his career with the band. In Ireland, however, the Boomtown Rats are still heralded as one of the first Irish bands to break through during the punk/post-punk period of the late 1970s and achieve international acclaim.
Bob Geldof, the rebellious son of a widowed father, was born in Dublin, Ireland and spent his school years studying British bands of the time such as The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and the Small Faces. Geldof was also a voracious reader, though his grades were always lacking. As he grew older, he developed a penchant for political activism, and participated in various marches and sit-ins protesting apartheid and nuclear energy. Geldof failed to pass his exams for his Leaving Certificate (the Irish equivalent of a high school diploma) and spent time afterwards traveling through England and Spain before finding himself in Vancouver, Canada. While in Vancouver, Geldof became a writer and editor for an underground music paper called The Georgia Straight. After returning to Dublin, he tried to start his own alternative music publication but ran into many financial and bureaucratic roadblocks. Around that same time, he became reacquainted with a few old friends who wanted to start a band. Geldof offered to help manage the band, but with his outgoing and verbose persona he was soon drafted as the band’s lead singer. The other members of the band — guitarists Gerry Cott and Garry Roberts, bassist Pete Briquette, drummer Simon Crowe, and keyboardist Johnnie Fingers — were also musical amateurs and the band’s early gigs in 1975 (under the name The Nightlife Thugs) gained them the reputation as snotty beginners with lots of attitude. After re-reading Woody Guthrie’s autobiography Bound for Glory, Geldof came across the name of a children’s gang, the Boomtown Rats, and soon convinced the rest of the band that they needed to change their name.
The Boomtown Rats, through sheer verve and showmanship, gathered a following in Dublin and soon expanded that following throughout the rest of Ireland. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a record industry in Ireland at the time and so the band decided to relocate to London in 1976. With their ragged, post-R&B sound and shaggy looks, they fit right in with the emerging punk scene. The band was signed to Ensign Records that year and started work on their debut album, The Boomtown Rats, which was released in 1977. The group’s debut single, “Lookin’ After No. 1,” has all the trademark slashing guitars and snottiness of their punk rock brethren, but the rest of the album features a Springsteen-esque street opera feel that shows the band as being capable of more than just slash-and-burn singles. The group followed with massive touring around the U.K. and appearances on such shows as Top of the Pops. Bob Geldof’s antics both on and off stage were becoming almost as famous as the band themselves, and he received the nickname “Bob the Gob” from British journalists for his motor-mouth tendencies both on stage and in interviews. The band released their second album, A Tonic for the Troops (Ensign), in 1978 and it became a huge success in the UK, reaching as high as number eight on the British album charts and spawning the number one hit single “Rat Trap.” Not only was “Rat Trap” the first new wave single to score a number one spot on the charts, but it was also the first single by an Irish band to ever chart that high.
The Boomtown Rats’ next album, 1979’s The Fine Art of Surfacing (Ensign), became the band’s most successful album and includes the worldwide hit “I Don’t Like Mondays,” which charted at number one in 32 countries. “I Don’t Like Mondays” finally broke the band through to the tough American market, though there was a lot of controversy about the song, which Geldof had based on Brenda Spencer — a California schoolgirl who shot her school principle and several of her classmates because she was having a bad day. The girl’s family tried to have the song banned in the US While some stations refused to play it, others saw it as a censorship issue and made the song a hit anyway. The group embarked on an extensive worldwide tour of the United States, Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. In 1980, The Boomtown Rats released another single, “Banana Republic,” which became a Top Ten hit in the UK, and followed up with Mondo Bongo (Ensign) in 1981. After release of the album, guitarist Cott left the band and the group carried on as a five-piece. Mondo Bongo isn’t as focused as the group’s other albums and shows the band trying to cover too much musical ground. The album wasn’t as successful as their previous output, but they still embarked on a world tour, visiting India and other parts of the Far East for the first time.
The group released V Deep (Ensign) in 1982, but the fickle winds of the music-buying public were shifting and where new bands like Duran Duran seemed fresh, it made the Boomtown Rats seem like old hat. V Deep didn’t do well in the UK and almost didn’t get released at all in the US because of flagging sales. Geldof took a break from the band when he was cast as the lead in the film Pink Floyd’s The Wall. He later returned to the group to tour in the UK, playing mostly smaller university halls. The group released three new singles in 1984 — “Tonight,” “Drag Me Down,” and “Dave,” — but none of them made much of an impression on the public. In late 1984, after seeing reports on television about the mounting famine in Ethiopia, Geldof’s activist spirit came to the forefront again and he organized and co-wrote (along with Ultravox’s Midge Ure) the all-star Band Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” which went on to become the biggest selling single in UK history.
In 1985, the Boomtown Rats sixth studio album, In the Long Grass (Ensign) was released. Even though the album received positive reviews, it failed to sell well and it seemed like Geldof already had his sights on much bigger projects such as the Live Aid concerts of 1985 — a Herculean undertaking involving two all-star concerts on two different continents. The Boomtown Rats played the London concert, but it was clear that their leader was going to be occupied for quite some time with his new organization and the $120 million dollars it had raised for famine relief. After playing their last gig together at the Irish Self-Aid concert in 1986, Geldof announced he would pursue a solo career and the Boomtown Rats called it a day.
The other members went on to form new bands and stayed in touch throughout the years. In 2008, Boomtown Rats members Garry Roberts and Simon Crowe recruited former Animals bassist Peter Barton and Electric Shepherds vocalist/guitarist Warren Beale to join them in performing old Boomtown Rats songs. However, after Geldof raised objections about using the name Boomtown Rats, the group shortened their name to just The Rats. Former Boomtown Rats members Johnnie Fingers and Gerry Cott have expressed interest in possibly joining The Rats in the future.