Well, here we go then. The last big musical movement of the 1970s claims its first number one single. Time to ride a new wave…
Rat Trap, by The Boomtown Rats (their 1st of two #1s)
2 weeks, from 12th – 26th November 1978
New Wave is a genre I’d struggle to describe. I know what it is, when it was, who its stars were… But it’s such a mish-mash of sounds that it might not actually be a genre at all. Is it punk? Ska? Synth-pop? A little smidgen of all those? For such an eclectic movement, this next record might be the perfect introduction.
‘Rat Trap’ is a mini rock-opera, telling the story of Billy, a dissatisfied youth: Billy don’t like it living here in this town, He says the traps have been sprung long before he was born… He’s bored and wants a fight, for want of something better to do. Musically there’s a lot going on here, as we swing from glam throwback to funky disco synths, and at times that busyness hides a very articulate piece of songwriting.
I like the line about ‘pus and grime oozing from scab-crusted sores’… And the momentum behind You’re young and good-looking and you’re acting kinda tough… Then there’s a trippy mid-section where Billy seems to be taking life advice from some traffic lights: Walk, Don’t walk, Talk, Don’t talk… as a tight, funky riff takes us downtown.
I think the main thing that defines New Wave is a playfulness, a willingness to not follow the rules of ‘rock’ that were laid down twenty-odd years before. ‘Rat Trap’ is certainly that. It’s a busy song – it reminds me of Wizzard in a way – but one that doesn’t get tired quickly. It’s high-grade pop: instantly catchy, but still layered and intelligent. It may not sound very punk – though the guitars are very spiky and sparse – but it is definitely ‘punk’ in attitude and subject matter.
Towards the end, Judy is introduced: a girl whose parents are arguing while Top of the Pops is on. She leaves, 50p in her pocket, and finds a drunk Billy in the Italian café. And if you expected a happy ending, two lovebirds running off to the bright lights of the big city… well, nope. It’s a rat trap, Judy… Billy announces… And we’ve been… CAUGHT! Cue a rocking outro. Rat trap, You’ve been caught in a…
I’m not sure how I know this song, but it’s one I’ve had in rotation for years. When people nowadays think of the Boomtown Rats, and lead-singer Bob Geldof in particular, they think of their second number one single, or Band Aid, and him generally being quite outspoken (“Give us yer fuckin’ money!”) But ‘Rat Trap’ deserves better than to be overshadowed. Coming after a long run of easy-listening numbers, soundtrack hits and Boney M, it sounds very fresh and daring. On Top of the Pops (is this the 1st chart-topper to knowingly reference the show in its lyrics?) Geldof ripped a picture of John Travolta in two as the band were announced as the nation’s new number one single. Plus, if nothing else, the Boomtown Rats were the first Irish band to score a UK #1 single. They won’t be the last…
12 thoughts on “428. ‘Rat Trap’, by The Boomtown Rats”
A better way to think of new wave is rock music that strutted a middle ground in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s where it wasn’t loud and noisy as punk but wasn’t slick and anonymous sounding as corporate rock. Speaking of corporate rock, I reviewed a big selling piece of it in my Best Sellers column for 1981 https://dorazihitparade.com/2021/07/08/1981-reo-speedwagons-hi-infidelity/
When I think of New Wave, I always think of The Buggles and their video launching MTV. Then, A Flock of Seagulls comes to mind. I was a teen during all that and I had some folks in my high school dressing in trash bags…no joke. Then, Devo… The Boomtown Rats never really sounded New Wave…to me, anyway.
That being said, I did like I Don’t Like Mondays.
Rat Trap is fab, a classic single, it marked the gradual move of The Boomtown Rats from stroppy punk to Pop New Wave. New Wave was really punk-inspired poprock and it was commercially huge where punk was niche. Think Blondie, The Jam, The Police, The Stranglers, Elvis Costello who all had punk-ish roots and sounds but morphed into a more long-term, more varied New Wave success. At which point others jumped on the inspirational bandwagon, and as the New Romantic/synth and two-Tone ska sounds took off the USA started applying the term more generally. In the UK they were distinct music scenes, along with disco, reggae, soul, rockabilly, metal, pop, rap which were all bubbling with fresh creativity and and young enthusiasm. 1979 was the year all these genres collided into a perfect pop year. The great thing was radio embraced the whole lot, there was no fragmentation with people liking their own chosen brand. Rat Trap was the flag of change for what may well be the most-inspired and varied period in pop music history. I may be biased 🙂
Geldof was always gobby, and the Rats were sometimes looked on as less than authentic by some in the Punk community (music journalist-led I suspect, maybe a bit miffed that Bob knew a thing or two about journalism and promo). When I first saw him on Top Of The Pops singing Looking After Number One he reminded me a bit of Mick Jagger, but I grew to like his opinionated bulldozer stance – it’s what got Band Aid and Live Aid up and running. I also liked the variety in their singles, sprawling ambitious rockpunk operas, social commentary, reggae. I saw them after the heyday had waned, but before Live Aid, and they were still rocking it. They had an unnoticed comeback last year, still not bad, and they made at least one download sale out of it (me). 🙂
Yes, I was watching the TOTP performance of this one, and thinking that Geldof looked very Jagger-esque…
So far everyone who has tried to explain/describe New Wave has only made it more complicated! Safe to say it’s a blanket term for different sounding bands who sprung up around the same time, spurred on by the same cultural moment (a la the ‘British Invasion’, or Britpop)?
I wouldnt worry too much about music trend labels, they evolve, change and get renamed and rebranded all the time 🙂 The music industry loves a trendy new label to attach to old genres, and sub-genres and sub-sub-genres. What is now called “Indie” is what we used to call “New Wave” or “The Beatles”. And rock used to be The Beatles, now it’s what we used to call Heavy Metal. Indie music used to mean guitar-based music on small independent record labels. My fave term remains “Pop” which is short for “popular”, so that’s my go-to Umbrella term if anyone asks me what sort of music I like. Cos I like anything with a tune, basically 🙂
So this was Mr Live Aid before he was Mr Live Aid. I always wondered if this band was huge over there because Geldof was apparently so well known. I like the music I’ve heard from them…its funny…when I think of new wave I think Flock of Seagulls…or mostly synths…but I guess Blondie and others were grouped into that.
To me, Blondie are the first band I think of when I hear New Wave… Even though they were still mostly a straight up rock group
That is what I mean…it’s hard to label a few of them…The Cars were considered new wave also by some…they were pure power pop to me.
It’s a bit like Britpop… A label rather than a genre, bands that came through at the same time, with a varied sound
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