For a group that was one of the UKs top band for a year or so, and that had such huge media exposure (not the least of which came from Bob Geldof's Live Aid shows), it's amazing to me that the Boomtown Rats' catalog is dramatically, and unfairly, ignored or unknown.
Every Boomtown Rats fan has his or her own favorite, of course. In my view, their first three albums are their best. ("The Boomtown Rats," "A Tonic for the Troops" and "The Fine Art of Surfacing"). After these discs, the guitar sensibility and a lot of the fun and pith give away to piano and percussion-based ballads and observations. The last 3 aren't bad; far from it. But they're for different tastes.
As for my favorite, "The Fine Art of Surfacing," it takes a couple different places of importance in the catalog. First, based on my preferences, it's the last of the "great 3" to be released. Second, it possesses the one song that most people recognize by the Rats ("I Don't Like Mondays").
This was the first Boomtown Rats album I'd heard. I was leaving a winter camping event, and a friend of mine popped in a cassette copy he had of the album into his car's tape deck. From the first guitar notes of "Someone's Looking at You" to the social commentary (and "Down on the Boondocks" riffing) of "Diamond Smiles," to the jarring and unsettling lullabye of "Sleep" to the epic "I Don't Like Mondays," this album seemed to have everything going for it. Energy, catchy hooks, singalong choruses, humor, passion, earnestness.
There were little lyrical hooks that I prized. The song "Having My Picture Taken" has a verse that goes:
Another instant in an instamatic / another reflex set on automatic
another moment of the life dramatic / you really should have been there - it was so fantastic."
That friend copied the album to tape for me, and I spent several months listening to it. The lyrical substance of "Someone's Looking at You" really gripped me:
And I wish you'd stop whispering / don't flatter yourself, nobody's listening
Still it makes me nervous - those things you say / You might as well
Shout it from the roof / scream it from your lungs / and spit it from your mouth
That series of lyrics ends with the sly "There's a spy in the sky / there's a noise on the wire / there's a tap on the line / and for every paranoid's desire ..."
It isn't your standard pop/rock fare, that's for sure. It's like the Clash, with a bit more production. I decided I needed more, so I went to eBay and got a Bob Geldof/Boomtown Rats "best of" collection to expand my horizons. But even after a couple years, I kept going back to the "Fine Art of Surfacing" stuff.
My high school best friend loved the piano introduction to "I Don't Like Mondays," and used it to test speakers for quality. My brother and I loved the "tell me why!" hooks on the chorus. And the subject matter, well, its as dark as it is real (based on the comment made by Brenda Ann Spencer after she shot at children at a school playground in San Diego in 1979, killing two people and injuring nine others). It's dark humor, but splendidly constructed and may be the Boomtown Rats' most famous and well-known song. Heck, the piano intro was even featured in an episode of "House" (the episode had special guest Dave Matthews in it).
The album also features the tongue-in-cheek song "Keep It Up." The song starts off with describing a dance, but the more you listen you realize the song is really about more horizontal activities:
Does it feel nice, does it feel right, does it feel alright
Does it feel good - quite nice
Can you keep it up, can you keep it up - upright
Does it let you down, I heard it let you down - sometimes
Snap me in your breach, I want to be your bullet
I want a little kiss that's gonna take my breath away
And every lover tries to do things in a different way
If that's not serious enough or arty enough for you, dig into "Sleep." There's frustration, there's genuine exhaustion, there's even some fear and desperation ... and thoughts go even darker:
If I take enough of these (red things, red things)
Get some permanent sleep (blue things, blue things)
What lullabys would you sing (white things, white things)
With all this great material and interesting sound, I figured it was time to get a better copy. So I set about getting the album on CD. For a long time, "The Fine Art of Surfacing" was out of print. It wasn't so huge in the U.S., and there wasn't a ton of demand for it. So I paid a pretty penny to get ahold of the album. It was worth it.
Now, the remastered versions that have been released in the 2000s make the music so much more available to people and the music sounds better than ever.
The album has plenty of guitar, plenty of synthesizer, some great drum work and the intelligence and sense of humor necessary to make an album that has transcended the punk/New Wave genres into an album that sounds just as good today as it did in late 1979.
Some of the bonus songs are relatively inessential, and "How Do You Do?" had been available on the 90s version of the "A Tonic for the Troops" album. But you can't argue with the flow, and it was nice to get "Episode #3" separated. I had two different versions of the album (one on cassette), and one version had it segued at the end of "Sleep" before you would flip the tape. Jarring, to say the least, but humorous.
This group isn't U2, it isn't the Beatles, it isn't Bob Dylan, it isn't the Sex Pistols or the Clash. But this band takes some of the best qualities of those musical forces, tosses in a little humor and creates some music that really boogies.
If you're looking for a great album that has punk influence, New Wave eccentricity and the tendency to rock ... give this one a chance. Then dig into the rest of the catalog, you won't be sorry.