SHARD: FIRST LOVE
In late 1977 I fell in love for the first time. Not with a girl. Good god, no. I was eleven years old and attended a single-sex school, so the uniquely sharp misery of that experience was going to have to wait another few years. To wait, in fact, until the autumn of 1982, when a compact, spiky-headed, tartan-skirted, hockey-playing feistball with no top front teeth and questionable taste in music gave me a crash course in the art of impotent suffering by firstly treating me to a couple of months of urgent, artless, Stuyvesant-flavoured snogs in various bushes and behind various walls, and secondly running off with a boy so thick you could have stood a spoon up in him. But that’s another shard. My first love, as is fitting considering all that’s happened since, was not a girl but a pop group. Not just any pop group. Not for me. My first love was a pop group so ridiculously naff, so naffly ridiculous and so justly maligned by history that even now, comfortable as a bedbug in my own skin and secure in the certain knowledge that in aesthetics there are no right or wrong answers, it pains me faintly to have to utter their name. Gentle reader, there is no easy way to break this to you, the fact that you already know me to be a cheese-whore aside. My first love was popular stripey-trousered Dublin showband the Boomtown Rats.
To be sure, the Rats’ vaguely punked-up R’n’B-inflected pop-rock was by no means the first music to have made an impression on me. At the age of six, when I wasn’t busy abducting small boys, I was entranced by the glam-lite stomp of the usual T-Rex and Sweet singles, as well as anything on the RAK label (I liked the picture of a boat). Subsequently, one sister’s Abba records and the Black Sabbath cassettes of the other would receive more than their fair share of hammer, and I also developed a soft spot for the clean, pre-classical lines of the work of Purcell and J.S. Bach – music from a time before the more-is-more tyranny of the symphony orchestra caused 150 years of “serious” composition to resemble the soundtrack of bloody Fantasia, although I wouldn’t have put it that way then. More damning yet, at the time of falling I was not only aware of, but a vocal advocate of, those few punk rock songs which had penetrated the mainstream as far as the weekly top twenty countdown on Radio One, No More Heroes and Holidays In The Sun being particular favourites despite the fact that the latter would always be faded out before it got to the really good bit. So I’m offering no excuses. By any objective standard – the kind I’ve claimed in the previous paragraph doesn’t exist – I’d been exposed to plenty of music that made the Boomtown Rats look like the gurning clowns they were. But love, as you know, is blind. And, er, deaf. And just a little bit simple.
The song that ensnared me like the smouldering glance across a crowded room was the single version of unutterably wack pub rock paedo fantasy number Mary Of The Fourth Form. Not, let it be noted, the faster and rawer album cut, which actually manages to capture a little of the band’s alleged live prowess of the time. No. This was producer Mutt Lange’s first attempt at creating the widescreen, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sound that would define albums two and three, and it epic-failed wretchedly as it plopped midway between stools. It’s a rubbish song, in truth, a dog of a thing, whichever version you favour. But it did have this big, fat guitar sound that fell in with the bass and went “da da da DA DA” every so often and for some now hard to fathom reason that was the One. I fell. I was void. For many, most, people who fall in love with pop music it’s a similar thing, I think: that guitar or synth riff where the sound and the tune work perfectly together to deliver the decisive blow to the cranium and nothing is ever the same again. Mary Of The Fourth Form. Cheers, God.
I’m not really complaining. A few short weeks after my Mary-shaped epiphany it was 1978, and my new appreciation of the visceral was satiated and saturated by a deluge (cut to John Lydon bowing acidly in maître D getup: “Après moi!”) of cheeky, smart, rocking, even subversive pop singles with loud guitars. I have Mary to thank for everything, in retrospect, although of course if it hadn’t been her it would have been somebody else. So, even though my other two most-played LPs of 1978 – Another Music In A Different Kitchen and Give ‘Em Enough Rope – not only upped the ante but flew her to Damascus via Cologne, Brixton and Detroit , I stuck with the Rats, and my very most played LP of 1978 became their sophomore offering A Tonic For The Troops.
I do like an act that looks as if it’s making an effort, as opposed to trying hard, and whatever else you could say about the Boomtown Rats they – for which I suspect you’d want to read Geldof – certainly took the bull of opportunity by both its dirty horns. The first album is awful, really: aside from the passable Springsteen micro-opera homage Joey’s On The Street Again you’re looking at a right fistful of clunkers. I didn’t think that at the time, of course. I even liked the boorish, harmonica-riddled (She’s Gonna) Do You In and the More Than A Feeling bit in Neon Heart. Cut me some slack, dude, I was eleven. And, God help me, something of the record must have stayed with me down the years: I’ve just noticed this, twenty years after writing the song (which event was until tonight still more recent than my most recent listen to the first Boomtown Rats album), but the riff on AC Temple’s Stymied is suspiciously similar to that on Close As You’ll Ever Be. Anyway, A Tonic For The Troops was a massive step forwards, an ambitious attempt to alchemise the band’s base elements of pub rock and hammy cabaret into shiny international pop-rock paydirt on a par with the far superior Cheap Trick – a feat Lange would eventually pull off with the Call Centre City’s own Def Leppard, who, like the Trick but unlike Geldof, had no wish at all to be “taken seriously”, whatever that is. When it works, as on the almost Sparksy Like Clockwork, or the sub-Spector set-piece I Never Loved Eva Braun, or even their surprise number one Rat Trap (Joey’s on the street yet again, but this time he’s called Billy), it still sounds surprisingly good to me, although much of the album suffers from a residual R’n’B influence – by which I do not mean that it has a touch of the Timbaland about it, just in case anyone was wondering – and despite considerably improved songwriting and exponentially better arrangement and production it’s by no means an unqualified success. But, as I say, at least they’re making an effort to up their game.
They’d lost me by the fourth album Mondo Bongo, a record I was obliged to hear on many occasions in the early 1980s because at the time it seemed to be nestling up to Elvis Costello, the Police and Dire Straits in the collection of every earnest student who really doesn’t even like music, but whose appeal remained opaque to me throughout, except for one plaintive and atypical little sliver called Fall Down. If I live to be a hundred I reckon it’s safe to say I’ll never hear albums five and six. So that leaves number three, 1979’s The Fine Art Of Surfacing. I’d begun to lose interest by the time it came out – the likes of Magazine, Wire and Talking Heads had entered my world and it was no longer possible to pretend I hadn’t noticed that what the Rats did was a little bit Bruce Forsyth. But I’m a loyal dog, for all my foolish indiscretions, and I was incensed by the slating the record received from all three weekly music papers upon its release. The one that slagged it for the band’s still-growing vaudevillian tendency – “too many affected voices” is the phrase I remember – smarted principally because I knew the reviewer to be absolutely correct. But another brought home to my twelve year-old self the valuable lesson that clever people will happily be dishonest and/or stupid when it suits them. There’s a song on the album, not one of the better ones, called Nice’n’Neat, which purports to address an old mate of Geldof’s who joined the Catholic church while His Bobness slid the other way. It’s not entirely clear what point Geldof is making with the song, but we don’t need to detain ourselves with that. At one juncture the old mate, who is called Ray, addresses his God in reported speech: “You said ‘Hey Big G, there’s my problem, I’m not so sure about what’s true / He said ‘I’ll let you in on my big secret, Ray: the final truth is there is no truth.” As pop lyrics or popular philosophy the lines could do with some work, granted. But the reviewer, whose tack throughout his piece has – perhaps understandably – been character assassination, sees fit to fulminate of Geldof “at one point he unironically refers to himself as ‘Big G’”. Dishonest? Stupid? You can take your pick, but it has to be from those two. (I’m not having lazy. Lazy lets the cunt off the hook too easily.)
If we are being neither dishonest nor stupid, album number three is no more likely to keep Kimono My House or Scary Monsters or Secondhand Daylight up nights than its predecessors. But it represents another quantum leap: they’ve fully taken on board the “new wave” aesthetic that’s being forged around them in the aftermath of punk, and the pub rock has more or less been ditched. By their conservative standards, much of this stuff is as experimental as zero-gravity fuck, and while it’s beyond dispute that there are, in fact, too many affected voices – way, way too many: I don’t think a single track entirely escapes – there are also a few Great Lost Moments. Oh, and of course there’s I Don’t Like Mondays, an opinion-divider of a moment if ever there was one but certainly not yet legitimately describable as “lost”. I’d say that to get from Mary Of The Fourth Form to here inside three years was deserving of a tip of the hat whether you like Mondays or not. But album number three – its title is piffle of the first order and its sleeve “artwork” looks like something the Arctic Monkeys did for a bet – has concealed its other treasures well these last thirty years. The non-hit Diamond Smiles, another unashamed nod to Spector, builds perfectly and remorselessly from the second it starts, at least until it flops into its parpy, banal coda (but that’s sort of the point given that its non-fictional protagonist hangs herself at her own party as said coda begins) and the piano-led spooky nursery drug ballad Sleep is almost as good. Taken as a whole, filler and all, the record is a decent chunk of work of its kind and time. Lange – who is really hitting his stride by now – gives it a glossy, hard, machine-like production that finally expunges all trace of the warm, supposedly naturalistic, 1970s recording ethos that is still all over Tonic and marks it, release date notwithstanding, as one of the first fully-realised mainstream albums of the 1980s. Perhaps the first. For what that’s worth.
To Geldof’s PRS account, not a great deal, not now. But, as you know, Big G proved more than capable of finding alternative sources of income, though he’s always seemed to exude a slight sense of regret that he couldn’t just have been a pop star, in marked contrast to his pal Bono, who appears to regard bellowing in a pop group as a tedious but necessary adjunct to the real business of being a pontificating, grandstanding hypocrite. Although the spectacle of Live Aid was aesthetically and ideologically bankrupt, the moral outrage of Geldof’s that begat the project was genuine enough – witness his progressively frazzled “just send us yer fockin’ money”-type links, which remain powerful television. Without doubt, the event changed the face of popular culture for ever. To its detriment. Thanks, Big G, for Ferry Aid, Children In Need, Hasbeens for Dunblane, etc. But, to be fair, for a change if for no other reason, it wasn’t Geldof’s fault that the Live Aid phenomenon became a business model for resuscitating ailing careers off the back of human suffering, and he’s demonstrated all along by his use of his position to try to address the structural causes of poverty in “developing nations” that his motivation was never as simple as self-publicity. And, in juxtaposing that shitty Cars “Who’s gonna drive you home?” song with pictures of dying children and getting the result shown on prime time television, he finally made a piece of popular art with real emotional and political punch, implausible as that may seem from the ingredients employed. Good job for me that he did. Nobody wants to have backed a loser.