If you’re paying particularly close attention, you’re probably wondering where all the albums released in 1977 are. It’s a fair question; it’s not like there are no great albums from that year, but when I was putting this list together, the thing which became clear quite quickly was that 1977 in my life was dominated by singles.
1977 was in some ways something of a Year Zero for music. It felt like everything changed at once; the music we loved fell out of fashion almost overnight; instead of being restricted to the music press, we were suddenly seeing the more notorious members of the more notorious bands on the front pages of the national press. And there was a sudden and almost impossible to manage deluge of new, different music – some of which didn’t even sound like music at all – appearing mainly on singles. A lot of those singles came and went in a week or two, you might hear it once or twice on the radio and never be entirely sure what the name of the band was; some of them stuck around and hung around long enough to poke around the edges of public awareness; and a few of them turned out to be classics of their type.
And hardly any of them led, at the time, to me buying the album they came from.
If you look now at the best-selling artists of 1977, you would be hard pressed to see anything had changed at all. I was turning 15, and it felt like there was a revolution going on, but the charts were being dominated by Brotherhood of Man and David Soul; Baccara and the Manhattan Transfer.
Julie Covington gets a pass because of Rock Follies.
And here’s the thing – among the Sex Pistols, Clash and Damned singles; alongside Ian Dury and Tom Robinson, I was still buying music by Yes and ELP; still listening to Frampton Comes Alive!, I was just doing that in secret, because Something Had Changed.
Elvis died, Star Wars came out, and everything I knew about music was turned on its head. When I talk about it now, I think I tend to give the impression that I was in the vanguard of all that was new and sweary, with everything I knew and loved being left behind, but that’s not true at all. What I know most surely about 1977 and 1978 was that I still loved everything – it’s around this time that I discover Prokofiev and Bartok, for example – and I’m not making up the fact that it did matter which musical choices you confessed to, and which you kept quiet, but the truth is that I just loved music, and there was so much of it.
We’re going to be in 1978 for most of the rest of the year, but looking at it now, it’s a surprisingly eclectic list of albums. I’ve also discovered that two of my original 1978 albums were actually released in 1979, but I’ve already warned you about my imprecise memory, so that should come as no surprise.
The first two 1978 albums, however, kind of sum up what had actually happened – something I can only really appreciate with the benefit of hindsight, and that is that I had finally fallen in love with pop music.
Sure, it wasn’t quite as all-encompassing a love as my other musical loves, but for all the talk of revolution and uproar in music, an awful lot of what was happening was that really clever songwriters had found a way to get their smart, catchy pop songs be seen as cool and vaguely iconoclastic. Suddenly, the really great songs had ditched the euphemism and mystery, and were talking about sex, drugs and sausage rolls.
I may have misremembered a bit, there.
You could get your music banned and still be successful – and ‘banned’ was a relative term, of course; you might not hear the Sex Pistols much on daytime radio, but you certainly could later on in the day, alongside weird, apparently tuneless dirges by bands you’d never hear of again, and Teenage Kicks by the Undertones.
All sorts of bands got swept up in what the media called ‘punk rock’; there were dozens of tribal distinctions to be made, and endless arguments about whether this or that band was punk or not; ‘New Wave’ very quickly came to represent everything which came after the immediate throwing over of the traces; music which wouldn’t have been heard a couple of years before was now popping up on a seemingly endless raft of independent labels, or on cassettes which looked only a little more professional than my own mixtapes. This wild, energetic music was everywhere, and it was truly impossible to keep track of it all, never mind which bits of it you were ‘supposed’ to like, and which were by impostors and (one of the favourite terms of disparagement, alongside ‘rockist’ and ‘boring old farts’) ‘poseurs’.
Which, I think, is where we have to introduce the Boomtown Rats.
I don’t know, now, if I was supposed to like the Rats or not. I don’t remember if owning a copy of Tonic for the Troops was cool, or if people were sniggering at me behind their hands. Now, of course, I don’t care. Back then, I suspect it kept me awake at night. I hadn’t rushed out and bought Never Mind the Bollocks (although I’d certainly heard it all, and had a taped copy and a giant Holidays in the Sun poster); I hadn’t bought the first Clash album despite being blown away by White Riot, and later White Man in Hammersmith Palais. Someone I knew had the Damned album, and the first Jam album, but my first foray into this new music was the second album by this bunch of Irish musicians I knew next to nothing about, save that every one of their singles had caused me to grin maniacally.
The big unanswered question I have about owning this album is whether I bought it before or after hearing Rat Trap. I like to think it was before, in a sort of ‘I liked them before they became ludicrously popular’ way, but I can’t be sure. What I find, to my surprise, now, is that looking at the album, the front and back covers are very familiar to me, and I could probably still hum most of the songs (I’ll find out shortly), but I don’t recognise the inner sleeve or the label. To be fair, I have owned hundreds of albums, and am unlikely to remember all of them in detail, but so far, every album I’ve looked at has either brought back memories of holding it in my hand and poring over it, or has caused me to reel back as the Canadian version I now own is so different from the one I remember. This, however, causes me to draw a blank. Could it be that I actually didn’t play it all that often after I bought it?
More likely, was 1978 so full of albums that I just didn’t spend as much time with it as I thought? I don’t know, but I suspect that is nearer the truth – there was just so much going on at this point, as we’ll see, that perhaps it’s not too surprising that I don’t clearly remember the green Ensign label and the inner sleeve with photographs from what I think is the Olympic stadium in Munich.
Anyway, never mind all that, what does it sound like now?
Like Clockwork was one of those singles which had so engaged me, and it comes flooding back – the bassline, the cowbell, the ‘tick tock’ introduction and the middle eight are all present and correct. It’s impossible to hear Bob Geldof’s voice now without all the later associations; impossible to remember that he was pretty much unknown at this point. What is clear is that this, like everything here, is a song in the modern idiom – which is to say, the original pop idiom – three minutes or thereabouts, wrap it up and move on to the next one.
Blind Date banishes my doubts; I know this – I remember singing along to it, and I remember that I didn’t know the lyrics at all. Is my lack of familiarity with the inner sleeve down to the fact that my copy didn’t have one? Someone with more inside knowledge of the workings of the record industry can perhaps fill me in on whether inner sleeves being replaced with generic paper ones was a thing back then – I know that there was at least one other album in my early collection which lacked the inner sleeve it should have sported, but was this a common occurrence?
Oh, “Are you really going out with Adolf?” really brings me back. The American pronunciation of Adolf is, of course, intentionally calling back to the sixties call-and-response girl group records, but this is properly dark subject matter, however light-heartedly presented. This is probably part of the reason the Boomtown Rats were (and probably still are) treated with some ambivalence – we know he doesn’t mean it; it’s designed to shock, to be edgy – singing a song from the perspective of Hitler is either genuinely shocking, or it’s just being done for effect, because that’s the kind of thing bands were supposed to be doing now. I’m still not sure what Geldof had in mind here; punks wandering about with swastika armbands were part of the intention to shock; perhaps this was as well, I’m not entirely sure it’s stood up to the passage of time.
Similarly, Living in an Island is an equally jaunty song about suicide. Nearly 60-year-old me is a bit cynical about this stuff, however well played, but I suspect 15-year-old me was listening open-mouthed to how daring this all was. It’s slightly reggae-inflected, like so many songs of the time were, but I’m not sure how much of the sound is driven by being what you were supposed to sound like.
Side one ends with Don’t Believe What You Read, which is bouncy, punk-inflected (albeit with a slightly more traditional guitar solo) and in exactly the same was as the last two, a little knowingly cynical about everything. It sounds like it was intended to be vitriolic about the press, but quickly becomes a generic ‘don’t believe anything which is written down’ rant, which is just a tad nihilistic…
I should say, despite my misgivings about the lyrical content, I’m having a great time reliving these songs; they’re really well-crafted pop music.
Talking of which, here comes She’s So Modern.
I like to think (see above) that this was the single which prompted me to buy the album, although sitting here in 2021 listening to how ‘modern’ the 1970s are is a little… well, nostalgic, I suppose. I don’t think the 1970s felt particularly modern in the 1970s, to be honest. Although I did have a digital watch around this time, so there’s that.
Nice modulation at the end, guys. Not sure about the lyrics, but I’ll let this one slide, too.
There was a general obsession with Howard Hughes after he died; the autobiography scam and the revelations about his eccentricity – Me and Howard Hughes seems like an inevitable reaction; it’s not about Hughes, but is a reaction to all the stories about him. It’s also a cracking little tune, which I only remembered upon hearing it again. So far, I’m enjoying side two a lot more.
Can’t Stop, however, need not detain us long. It’s pop-punk by numbers; catchy refrain, jagged instrumental interludes, and it’s one of those amphetamine-fuelled songs which was clearly more fun to record than it is to listen to.
I didn’t recognise (Watch out for) The Normal People until it reached the chorus, when it popped back into focus – I remember wondering what a ‘genuine fridge’ was, and whether the repeated use of ‘lucky bugger’ was proper swearing or not. Ah, more innocent times.
Before we deal with the final track, I’m just going to say that I like this album. It’s a little mannered, I think; a little forced – trying to be something it’s not; this is clearly a band of competent musicians dumbing down a little for the fame and fortune, but it’s still a lot of fun, and I’m glad to have revisited it. Not sure how often I’ll come back, but it was nice to be reminded of what it felt like to be in the middle of all this wild pop music for a time.
And then there’s Rat Trap. Now, I’m not going to pretend otherwise; I absolutely loved this song from the first time I heard it. In that typically overblown teenage way, I imagined it was somehow speaking to me, even though it really had nothing to do with my life. It’s also the only track on the album which doesn’t do the dumbing down thing; it’s carefully and cleverly constructed – the bassline alone is worth the price of admission – and of course, it’s a little calculating, designed for chart success.
It’s also very clearly nodding to what Bruce Springsteen was doing. Springsteen was about as not-punk as you could get in 1978, although he mined the same seams. Geldof seems to have recognised this, and Rat Trap is a deliberate attempt to frame the ‘downtrodden teenager’ trope with some of the Springsteen sound without making it sounds like it was all happening in some imagined suburb of Pittsburgh. For me, it works, and although I Don’t Like Mondays is better known, and the whole ‘Bob Geldof saves the world’ thing probably overshadows all that came before Band Aid and all that followed, I don’t think he or his band ever sounded better than they did on Rat Trap; it was a part of my teenagerhood which I’d never want to change, and I think that’s true about this whole album – it’s not perfect by any means, but it was perfect for me at that time and in that place.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
I never bought another one; the whole thing left me behind as quickly as it arrived – I have heard both The Fine Art of Surfacing and Mondo Bongo but I can’t honestly recommend them to the casual listener, as I haven’t heard enough of them. Mondays is on the former, though, if you’d like to explore what else they were doing at that point.
Compilations to consider?
Boomtown Rats’ Greatest Hits perhaps underlines the fact that they had fewer hits than you’d think. Loudmouth includes some of Geldof’s solo work, and is definitely better value.
I was about to say ‘not as far as I know’, but there appear to be a few post-reunion live albums of varying degrees of ‘official’ all recorded in the 2010s. nothing, as far as I can see, from 1978, but there must be something out there somewhere…
Bob Geldof’s post-Live Aid autobiography Is That It? is definitely worth a read – I have no idea what happened to my copy, but I remember it quite clearly, including the parts where he appeared to have single-handedly built the M25.