428. ‘Rat Trap’, by The Boomtown Rats

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…