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A Tonic For The Troops Album Review Print E-mail

Review submitted, written by, and © Brian Block.

This review is based upon the US version of The Boomtown Rats album A Tonic For The Troops.

The Boomtown Rats, an Irish ensemble formed from poverty and random chance, were associated with punk, with New Wave, or (in the meaner moments of a hostile British music press) with the memory of the wealthily short-lived Bay City Rollers, but they didn't fit.

Their self-titled debut, in 1977, was too traditional and pub-rock for that: if you enjoy the music of Graham Parker or Nick Lowe or the first Motors album, you'll definitely want it. From then on, they failed to fit by being too professional, too superbly produced. For two years running, 1978-9, they beat out ABBA to be the best-selling band in the U.K.

The British edition of TONIC was a bit of a hold-over from the debut, and sold despite a ridiculously ill-paced track arrangement. But in one very good result of the Rats' American obscurity, the record company deleted the eminently deletable "Can't Stop" and "Watch Out For The Normal People", salvaged the best track ("Joey's On The Street Again") from a debut that had failed with an American public uninterested in Graham Parker stylings, and had the debut's "Mary Of The 4th Form" remade in a vastly less tossed-off arrangement.

And for one year, until the Rats cut album #3, this version of TONIC stood, in my opinion, as the finest album in the known universe: smart, detailed, mainstream, unabashedly catchy, and fabulously tuneful.

"Rat Trap", a #1 UK hit, and "Joey's..." bookend the album, which makes sense: they don't fit the other eight songs, they fit each other.

They are punk (and in "Rat Trap"'s spoken/ rapped sections even hip-hop) in the single sense of being grim reflections on urban life as singer/ songwriter Bob Geldof knew it (with some melodrama tossed in). But in any other sense, they're original crystallizations of Bruce Springsteen's BORN TO RUN: the detailed characterizations and complex structure and elegant piano figures of "Jungleland" fused with the melodicism and E-Street Band brass energy of the great but vapid car-songs "Born To Run" and "Thunder Road".

With a more urgent and proletarian delivery: I'm not sure how well "Just down past the gasworks by the meat factory door, the five lamp boys were coming on strong" reads, but I don't read them. Geldof communicates the scene, just as his conviction empowers the bossy street lights that switch from "Walk/ Don't Walk" to "Talk/ Don't Talk".

There's a moral center, too: if "they're screaming and crying in the high rise flats/ it's a rat trap, and you've been caught", it may still be possible, and is worth trying, to "find a way out, kick down that door". "Look at that brick wall gravestone where some kid has sprayed, saying 'Nobody could be bothered to rule here, okay?'"--- it's not a mere indictment, it's a call for corrective action. Which is one reason why punks were less than pleased with the Rats' success, crying "sell-outs!" in a way they never dared when the Clash played for Top Of The Pops.

The rest fits between punk and New Wave much more easily. The rousingly major-key "Me And Howard Hughes" and "I Never Loved Eva Braun" pick cheerfully at celebrities. The former's line "there's flies everywhere, buzzin' in the air, filling my body with filth and disease" is sung as one of the happiest declarations in the universe. The latter puts its serious considerations of Hitler inside (thankfully) a shiny package that begins with a teenage girl cooing "Is she really going out with Adolf?", and a bashed-out riff over which the band sings "Oooooh, oooooh, yeah (oh yeah)!"; the song, proper, has Hitler getting tired of Eva's exercise routines and confessing to being "a little too ambitious, maybe".

"Living In An Island", picking up after "...Braun" turned into a mournful piano elegy (the girl ends whispering "Gee...."), juices things up even perkier to sing about hara-kiri: "I gave my advice and the boy said 'Nice, but suicide leaves such a bad aftertaste...'".

The agitated "Like Clockwork", with reflections on time that are far from new but equally far from irrelevant, arranges its staccato bassline, equally staccato singing, piano solos and percussion by the title, and ends side one (remeber the concept of "side one"?) with an alarm. Simple, cool.

"Blind Date" is like the first (and only real) Sex Pistols album on a country-rock jaunt and an introspective fit about if it's worth the effort to revive their love lives.

"Mary..." fantasizes a raunchy night life for a 10th-grade girl Bob had had a school crush on.

"Don't Believe What You Read", like a more raucous early Elvis Costello, points out that magazine articles can lie. "She's So Modern", written explicitly (and successfully) to be a hit, is harmlessly smirking bubblegum a la the Knack: "and Jean confided to me, she's Mona Lisa's biggest fan. She drew a mustache on her face, she's always seen her as a man".

These songs, in most hands, would be the album's weak stretch: fun, catchy, dumb, of temporary charm. But with some combination of the band's talents and producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange's, the arrangements are layered and surprising, the playing is tight, the dynamics are well-maintained, and the songs are still dumb, but infinitely durable in their basic wonderfulness.

The same virtues penetrate the six intelligent songs. "Mutt" Lange would go on to be the producer for Bryan Adams, Def Leppard, and Shania Twain, and I don't know what that means. Luckily, I don't have to care.

By Brian Block

 
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