The Boomtown Rats

CITIZENS OF BOOMTOWN: THE RATS v IRELAND’S SHOWBANDS

Billy McGrath’s excellent film about The Boomtown Rats, ‘Citizens Of Boomtown’, premiered recently at the Dublin International Film Festival and was broadcast subsequently on RTÉ Television in two parts. Its dedicated to the memory of Nigel Grainge, the London-born A and R man with the golden touch who, in 1977, signed the South Dublin outfit to Ensign Records, the label he founded and ran with his long-time side-kick, Chris Hill. Grainge, who died in 2017, is a recurring footnote in the history of modern Irish music: he also signed Sineád O’Connor and the Churchtown four-piece, Into Paradise, to Ensign and, during a previous posting at Phonogram Records, Thin Lizzy. In the directory of great music industry executives, he can be found in the section about good ears.  

When Nigel Grainge signed The Boomtown Rats in 1977, he wasn’t signing a punk rock band. The group was certainly pulled into a broader punk rock maelstrom once they’d left Dublin for London, but the notion that The Boomtown Rats were a punk band, or were rooted in any sort of punk rock sensibility, is wide of the mark. They were, rather, a filthy r and b outfit who took their cues from the backroom, pub-rock tropes of Doctor Feelgood, among others. The closest they came to punk rock was singer Bob Geldof’s potty mouth and his bad aim: he routinely plugged himself in the foot while shooting from the hip.

The Boomtown Rats recorded six albums, among them a couple of fine, uncompromising and intelligent pop records, 1978’s ‘A Tonic for The Troops’ and ‘The Fine Art of Surfacing’, released the following year, both of them produced by Mutt Lange. In Bob Geldof, the band boasted a smart, handsome and irascible frontman and, in Britain at least, audiences gave his coarseness a free pass. The Rats were quickly into their stride, scoring a string of Top Ten hit records.

Their transition from pub rock to pop music can be traced easily across their first three albums: they were restless, ambitious and evolved ahead of schedule. David Fricke, the long-time Rolling Stone writer and former Melody Maker correspondent – and a man who, like Geldof, obviously has a mirror in the attic – saw them play live for the first time in the summer of 1978. ‘They were not a punk band. They were a rock and roll band’, he tells ‘Citizens of Boomtown’. As such, they had far more in common with Elvis Costello and The Attractions, Blondie and XTC than The Plasmatics. And of course they could all play their instruments and saw the value in tuning up: keyboard player, Johnny ‘Fingers’ Moylett, guitarists Gerry Cott and Gary Roberts, bass player Pete Briquette and especially the band’s drummer, Simon Crowe, were all serious operators. 

Music documentary for television is a platform where contributors are expected to routinely talk through their holes. I know this only too well, having made music television programmes for way too long. In this regard, ‘Citizens of Boomtown’ doesn’t disappoint, and some of the claims made on camera about The Boomtown Rats and the country that begot them are far-fetched beyond words. Far too many of the film’s contributors just mail in theory that collapses under the weight of the facts.

The idea that The Boomtown Rats – or any Irish group of the period, for that matter – were responsible for substantive change in Ireland is as mis-placed as the Rats’ representation as a punk outfit. ‘A unit for change’, says the U2 singer, Bono of the group. ‘A revolutionary council’. Exactly what that change or revolution is, or what it entailed, he doesn’t say.

Neil McCormick, an author, journalist, musician and a former school-friend of Bono, goes further and boldly claims that ‘the Rats changed this country’. In the same breath, he takes a sneery dig at Big Tom McBride, an Irish country singer who first came to national prominence on the showband circuit towards the end of the 1950s, a scene that was anathema to Geldof and many of his peers. As The Boomtown Rats were issuing their first singles, Big Tom was one of the biggest draws in the country, much to Neil McCormick’s amusement: ‘It’s a Weary, Weary World’ was clearly lost on the cooler set at both Mount Temple Comprehensive and Blackrock College. 

The Irish showband circuit – on which Big Tom and the Travellers were one of the most prolific outputters – was at its commercial and social apex towards the late 1960s, after which it’s bottom slowly came apart. In his book, ‘The Transformation of Ireland’, the historian, Diarmaid Ferriter, claims that, at its peak, the showband scene ‘became an industry employing 10,000 people, including 4,000 singers and musicians’. The circuit was eventually over-taken by the passage of time: the growth in the number of nightclubs and late licences around Ireland, in which disc jockeys instead of unwieldly groups of live musicians played the hits of the day, saw many of the showbands off. 

The glib dismissal of the showbands has long been a standard line of Irish critical patter. Geldof himself was one of the most virulent of the showband critics and, in his excellent 1986 biography, ‘Is That It ?’, describes them as ‘one of the most anodyne creations in the history of pop’. He goes on to claim that ‘the showband system has wasted an enormous number of talented musicians who are fed into the machine for a pittance of a wage’ and, in the same passage, talks about his desire to establish an alternative performance circuit around Ireland. To do this, he enlisted the help of the then Entertainment Officer at University College Dublin: Billy McGrath himself.

In response to the breadth of the showband influence – the circuit had its own television and radio programmes and a couple of high-profile magazines, for instance – Niall Stokes and a number of other young graduates founded Hot Press magazine in Dublin in 1977. ‘Keeping Ireland safe for rock and roll’, Stokes has been the editor of the magazine ever since and is another of the usual suspects who turn up on ‘Citizens of Boomtown’ to sing the praise. 

In an interview with Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone for their book, ‘Rock and Popular Music in Ireland: Before and After U2’ [2012], Stokes claims that some of the showbands ‘operated business practices that were reprehensible’, that ‘corruption was endemic’ and that ‘business practices were sloppy at best, dishonest at worst’. Is there an implication from him – long-regarded as an imposing businessman and shrewd operator – that the entertainment industry has cleaned up its nest in the years since the showbands ? Or that the showband circuit was an outlier in this regard ?

Most of the showbands performed faithful cover versions of the hits of the day, traditional Irish ballads and come-all-ye dirges: it was woejus stuff for the most part that bears no comparison with anything that followed it. But in terms of social and cultural impact, the showbands left far more of an impression on the country than The Boomtown Rats. By bringing live music to all corners of Ireland, seven nights a week, every week, with the exception of Lent – and by bringing with them the trappings that follow this kind of carry-on – they were far greater agents of change than any Irish band ever. Maybe even a revolutionary council.

The claim that, with Fachtna Ó Ceallaigh’s shrewd management, The Boomtown Rats created a circuit for subsequent acts to launch from may well indeed be the case. But twenty years previously, the likes of Albert and Jim Reynolds, Murt Lucey, Con Hynes, Oliver Barry and others also created a robust domestic entertainment industry from scratch, and then exploited it, much to Niall Stokes’s chagrin, for decades thereafter. They planted ballrooms all over rural Ireland, routinely filled them and booked widely. Albert Reynolds, for instance, put Roy Orbison into one of his own venues in the midlands to almost two thousand punters on a Tuesday night during the early 1960s. The showbands, and the industry that sprung up around them, facilitated congregation on a wide-scale and were central to the development of youth culture in Ireland during the 1960s.

The more interesting aspects of the showband story have long been obscured in a hail of convenient clichés and white-washing: for years, and with good reason, what went on on the road tended to stay on the road. While many of the bands were shagging and boozing for Ireland, managers, bookers and promoters kept the tills ringing out, often cynically and with scant regard for musicians and punters. But it’s not as if this was ever spoken about outside of the inner circle. What was presented as ‘the showband story’ was delivered with gusto from behind the pulpit by the likes of Jimmy Magee, Larry Gogan and Father Brian D’Arcy, a Passionist priest from County Fermanagh who, after contributing regular pieces to Spotlight magazine, became an unofficial Chaplin to the national entertainment industry and one of Ireland’s best-known celebrity clerics. 

To be fair, Vincent Power’s fine book, ‘Send ‘Em Home Sweatin’’, published in 1990, at least touches on some of the darker aspects of life for many showband musicians, some of whom were signed to scandalous personal contracts, many more of whom succumbed to alcoholism and other addictions. In a profile on the 2009 RTÉ series, ‘A Little Bit Showband’, Derek Dean, the lead singer with The Freshmen, a Beach Boys-inspired outfit from Ballymena, claimed that ‘the way the showbands are portrayed now, it’s as if Father Brian attended every gig and said a decade of the rosary’. Dean, who recounts his own long battle with chronic alcoholism in his 2007 book, ‘The Freshmen Unzipped’, tellingly remembers his band-mate, Billy Brown, as someone who, having earned a considerable amount of money as a jobbing musician, was eventually dragged down to a ‘determinedly dissolute life dominated by swift cars and fast women’. 

Another insightful read from the maverick corps of the circuit, the late Gerry Anderson’s ‘Heads’ [2006], paints a similar picture that’s clearly more faithful to the showband story than the raw nostalgia that has traditionally distorted its history. Given how two of Ireland’s most eminent historians, Diarmaid Ferriter and Roy Foster, both feature among the large cast of contributors to ‘Citizens of Boomtown’, it’s a pity that the film chose not to chase down some of the lazier social analysis just thrown up there and left hanging. 

The Boomtown Rats endured, more or less, for the ten years between 1975 and 1985, during which they enjoyed considerable commercial success in Britain and Europe. The country they left behind had joined the European Economic Union [the E.E.C.] in 1973 and, as the group was holding its first rehearsals, Fine Gael, a right-leaning political party was in power under its then leader, Liam Cosgrave. Under Garret FitzGerald, Fine Gael were in power when the band called it a day a decade later. The unemployment rate here doubled while the band was active, while thousands followed Geldof and his band and fled Ireland: emigration out of the country increased significantly during the 1980s.

It can be realistically argued that Ireland was as socially conservative in 1985 as it was in 1975 and, perhaps, even more so. In September, 1983, for instance, the country voted two to one in favour of The Eighth Amendment, to constitutionally prohibit abortion. In effect it gave equal rights to pregnant mothers and their unborn children. Remind me again of how The Boomtown Rats changed the country ?

What the Rats may have actually done, with the support of key actors like Ó Ceallaigh and Billy Magrath, was to establish a runway for those Irish rock bands who came after them, U2 in particular. The Rats were the first Irish group to enjoy a Number One single in Britain – 1978’s ‘Rat Trap’ – and the scale of this achievement, given the extent of the competition at the time, cannot be under-estimated. As the musicologists Gerry Smyth and Seán Campbell argue in ‘Beautiful Day: Forty Years of Irish Rock’, The Boomtown Rats ‘are amongst the most important names in Irish rock history, not only for the quality of the music they produced but also because they expanded the boundaries of what Irish popular music could be about’. 

To its credit, ‘Citizens of Boomtown’ routinely reminds us of this, and of just how magnificent The Rats were at the peak of their powers. It reminds us too of Geldof’s absolute ridiness. Of Paula and Bob. The quiet magic of the band itself, the players. But beyond all of that, it reminds us that there is no one history of Irish popular music and that all history is contestable anyway.

U2 AND THE ARC

U2 - UCC Downtown Kampus Cork 1979 copyright Pat Galvin

U2 – UCC Downtown Kampus Cork 1979 © Pat Galvin

In December, 1992, the Cork-born showband singer, Tony Stevens, sustained multiple injuries when the van in which he was travelling back home after a show in the West of Ireland was involved in a serious road collision. He spent the best part of a year recovering in hospital, endured many subsequent years when he was physically unable to perform and saw his career locked in the sidings and his considerable national profile all but lost. Five years later, the full details of the accident and the extent of it’s impact emerged during a High Court case in Cork, in which he settled an action for damages.

Stevens, whose real name is Tony Murphy, was a welder from Cork who, during the mid-1970s, went full-time onto Ireland’s lucrative cabaret circuit and quickly developed a decent domestic standing. Clean-cut and affable, he pitched himself as a young, middle-of-the-road crooner among an established cohort of old-school performers. Backed by his band, Western Union, he gigged early and often, playing inoffensive covers and making regular appearances on RTÉ’s light entertainment shows, plugging his numerous releases, of which a cover of ‘To All The Girls I Loved Before’ is easily his best known. As such, he’s an unlikely starting point for a story about U2 and that group’s long association with Cork city and it’s people.

During the summer of 1977, the main canteen on the U.C.D. campus at Belfield hosted what was billed as ‘Ireland’s first punk rock festival’. The line-up featured some of the country’s most exciting and freshest punk-pop and new-wave outfits, headed-up by The Radiators From Space, who’d released a debut single, ‘Television Screen’, months earlier. Among those on the undercard were an emerging Derry outfit, The Undertones and The Vipers, a local mod-fused power-pop band among whose number was Brian Foley. He later fetched up alongside Paul Cleary as a member of The Blades.

The UCD event was marred by the death of eighteen year old Patrick Coultry, from Cabra, who was stabbed after a row broke out in the crowd during the concert.  John Fisher, who promoted the show and who went on to manage the career of the comedian, Dermot Morgan, recalls, in a piece for the excellent Hidden History of UCD blog how, at the time, ‘gigs in Ireland were pretty simple affairs’. ‘They were run by enthusiastic amateurs, with very little security. After Belfield it became more regulated, more professional and safe’.

Elvera Butler, from Thurles, County Tipperary was, by her own admission, one of those enthusiastic amateurs who, from humble beginnings and possibly more by default than design, went on to become – like John Fisher and a slew of others from that period – a key player in the domestic entertainment industry.

She was the recently-installed Entertainment Officer on the Student’s Union at University College, Cork, during that period when, in Britain, The Sex Pistols released ‘God Save The Queen’ and The Clash unleashed their vital, self-titled debut album. By so doing, they fundamentally democratised many of the long-established tenets that still under-pinned the entertainment industry. Punk rock was, in many respects, just doing it for itself and urging everyone else to do likewise.

As part of her brief, Butler staged regular live music shows – mostly low-key, often solo acoustic affairs – on the U.C.C. campus, primarily in The College Bar. But from time to time, she’d book bigger and more established acts like Sleepy Hollow and Stagalee to perform in The Kampus Kitchen, a large, low-ceilinged restaurant buried deep in what was then the college’s Science block. When, towards the end of 1977, an opportunity to move those shows into a bigger venue off-site presented itself, the College travelled the three mile distance downtown, to what was then known as The New Arcadia Ballroom on The Lower Road, opposite Kent Station.

The first ever live show advertised in the local press as a Downtown Kampus event, took place in it’s new home on Thursday, November 24th, 1977, when The Memories played live at that year’s ‘Cowpuncher’s Ball’: admission was one pound. The following night, down in the belly of the building, Tweed, a Kilkenny-based, pub-rock seven-piece headlined the night that formally christened The Downtown Kampus. ‘UCC Kampus Kitchen moves downtown to New Arcadia MacCurtain St’ [sic], ran the text that accompanied the small box advert in The Evening Echo.

On Saturday, November 26th, the Cobh-born Freddie White [and his band, Fake], and Dublin hard rocker, Jimi Slevin, played a two-handed headliner that book-ended the venue’s opening weekend. The Arc was up and running.

The Downtown Kampus rightly enjoys a mythical standing in the history of contemporary music in Cork, as much for the quality and spirit of the music it hosted as for what it represented in wider socio-cultural terms. Over the course of it’s three-and-a-half year life-span, it staged a series of often chaotic, widely diverse and fondly recalled live shows at a time when, in the after-glow of punk rock, Cork was a city light on glamour. During the late 1970s, Ireland’s second city, over-dependent on a cluster of long-standing, traditional industries, could indeed be a grim and dank place. Albeit one with serious notions and a long-standing creative under-belly.

During the summer of 1977, Fianna Fáil was returned to power following a landslide victory in that year’s general election and the party’s leader, Jack Lynch, in whose constituency in Cork North Central The Arcadia Ballroom was located, was elected Taoiseach with a huge majority. In early September, Martin O’Doherty of Glen Rovers, the fabled northside club of Christy Ring, Josie Hartnett, John Lyons and Jack Lynch himself, captained the Cork senior hurling team to their second All-Ireland hurling title in a row: they’d memorably complete a famous three-in-a-row the following year.

It isn’t unreasonable to suggest that those live shows at The Arcadia gave a young and clued-in sub-section of Cork society a real glimpse of something more arresting and moderately glamorous. A cracked window, perhaps, beyond which was another time and another place, far from the more traditional influences of establishment politics and Gaelic Games.

This is reflected in the full list of acts that performed there – local, national and international – that’s as varied as it’s long and that runs the line fully from the likes of John Otway to The Beat, The Specials to Nun Attax, XTC to Sleepy Hollow and that also includes The Only Ones, The Blades, UB40, The Undertones, The Cure, The Damned, Doctor Feelgood, The Virgin Prunes and hundreds of others. Practically all of them were enticed to perform at The Arcadia by Elvera Butler, who promoted most of those shows and, betimes, by Denis Desmond, then a fledgling agent working in the U.K., now one of the biggest and most powerful players on the international music circuit.

Bono of U2 performing at the Arcadia Ballroom, Cork, Ireland on March 1 1980

Bono of U2 performing at the Arcadia Ballroom, Cork, Ireland on March 1 1980 © David Corio

The U.C.C. Downtown Kampus at The Arcadia Ballroom is still best known, however, because of the many live shows played there between 1978 and 1980 by U2, the young Dublin band who, during this period, were in search of a beginning. Like every teenage band with ambition, they were still trying to locate a distinguishing voice in a crowded field while also building up flying-hours, putting money in the bank. In Paul McGuinness, they had a connected manager who was sussed in the dark arts of public relations and marketing and, unusually enough, they appeared to have a strategy. Part of which was to play as many shows as they could as often as they could and wherever they could while, in parallel, developing their song-writing.

Contrary to popular belief, U2’s first Cork show wasn’t in The Arcadia at all but, rather, in The Stardust, now The Grand Parade Hotel, on July 7th, 1978. On that night, they were supported by a young local outfit, Asylum, featuring Sam O’Sullivan on drums. He has long been part of U2’s core road crew working, to this day, as the band’s drum technician.

The band’s first appearance in The Arc took place later that same year when, on September 30th, they supported the Swindon new wave band, XTC, and were paid £80 for their troubles. Its not entirely clear how many shows U2 played at The Arcadia – its either nine or ten – but what is certain is that, by the time they took the stage there for the last time, in December, 1980, when they were supported by a young local band, Microdisney, they’d built up a decent and loyal following around Cork. As has long been documented, U2 also assembled the bulk of a road crew plucked from the scene there, many of whom would serve them for decades thereafter. Most prominent of whom is Joe O’Herlihy, who did their front-of-house sound in The Arc and who remains an integral component of U2’s operation, listed these days as the band’s ‘audio director’.

On Saturday, March 1st, 1980, U2’s set at The Arcadia was witnessed by the young British music writer, Paul Morley, who was assigned to write the band’s first major feature piece for the influential London-based music weekly, New Musical Express. On the morning after that show, he sat down with Bono in ‘the cheaply luxurious lounge of The Country Club hotel’ to gauge the extent of the band’s ambition just weeks before U2 signed a major recording deal with Island Records. According to the piece, which appeared in print on March 22nd, 1980, the band was then ‘at the rare-in-Eire point where they’re recognised in the streets, hounded for autographs at Gaelic Football matches’.

U2 on the roof of the Cork Country Club Hotel, Cork, Ireland March 2 1980

U2 on the roof of the Cork Country Club Hotel, Cork, Ireland March 2 1980 © David Corio

Thirty-seven years on, that two-pager, off-set by a series of terrific snaps by David Corio, then a young free-lancer who has since gone on to photograph some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, makes for terrific, if sometimes bizarre reading. In part it’s a considered policy paper from Bono who, in outlining U2’s plans to take their shtick beyond Ireland, takes aim at a number of his peers.  Its also an over-excited, fanzine-style sermon by Morley about the vagaries of the music business and the state of the Irish nation that concludes with the following quote from the singer :

We’ve been given Lego, and we’re learning to put things together in new ways. This is a stage that we’ve got to that I’m not ashamed of, but I believe we will get much stronger’.

Later that afternoon, a fleet of cars carrying the band, its small crew and Paul Morley, left Cork to play yet another live show, this time at The Garden Of Eden, a dance-hall in Tullamore, County Offaly, then a four-hour drive away. U2 were scheduled to play a ninety-minute set, supporting the night’s head-liner, Tony Stevens and his band.

Tullamore is referred to throughout Paul Morley’s NME piece as Tullermeny [Bono’s real-name is also mistakenly noted as ‘Paul Houston’], possibly because the writer is scathing of the town and it’s youth: ‘they rarely smile and there is a far away look in their eyes’, he writes. But he reserves his most savage lines for the showband culture and for Tony Stevens in particular, whom he frames, not unreasonably, as a cultural counter-point to post-punk and the very antithesis of what U2, at the time, were attempting to do. ‘Showbands are slick, soulless, plastic’, he writes. ‘The showbands are failed rock musicians, their faces shine with aftershave … their technique is improbably over-competent’. Even if, whenever the definitive, unfiltered history of Ireland’s showbands is eventually captured, the darker realities of that scene will be far removed from such casual stereotyping.

By Bono’s own reckoning, U2 died miserably on-stage at The Garden Of Eden. Taking the carpeted floor shortly after 11PM, they were greeted by a half-hearted audience response. ‘Sat along the front of the stage’, Morley wrote in his NME piece, ‘bored looking girls can’t even be bothered to turn around and see what all the commotion is about’. The venue manager was just as bemused :- ‘Very good’, he quipped. ‘Much different from Horslips’.

I felt ashamed because we didn’t work’, Bono told Morley. ‘I actually saw it as a great challenge. It became like slow motion. We blew the challenge, and that’s bad’. But Tony Stevens and his band fared far better in Tullamore and, shortly after they opened their two-hour set, comprised in the main of contemporary chart hits, the dance floor began to fill.

The story of Tony Stevens’s fleeting dalliance with U2 one Sunday night in 1980, deep inside Ireland’s midlands, was one of a number that didn’t make the final cut of ‘U2 Agus An Arc’, Tony McCarthy’s film about that period that airs on RTÉ One television on July 20th next. In several respects, the commercial half-hour just isn’t enough to do justice to a story that, although rooted in music and the culture of youth, also extends way beyond that.

The last ever Downtown Kampus show at The Arcadia took place on May 30th, 1981 when four Cork bands: a nascent Belson [sic], a noisy, multi-part Microdisney, Sabre – who included a young John Spillane among their number – and Prague Over Here, featuring the future RTÉ radio reporter Fergal Keane on bass – brought the curtain down on what, in hindsight, is a wholly distinctive local history.

Months earlier, forty-eight people lost their lives when a fire broke out during the early hours of Valentine’s Day at a disco at The Stardust nightclub in Artane, on Dublin’s northside. That disaster, and the scale of the loss of life and the age profile of those who died, had a profound impact – politically, socially and legally – on the Irish state. Particularly so on those, like Elvera Butler, who were promoting big, live social events to the same age cohort in similarly-sized venues across the country. In an interview with the Irish Mail on Sunday in March, 2012, Butler told Danny McElhinney that ‘after the Stardust disaster, insurance premiums for gigs rocketed and we knew we couldn’t go on for long. Then the hunger strikes happened not long after that and a lot of bands were avoiding Ireland altogether’.

Not long afterwards, she decamped to London with her partner, Andy Foster, from where she initially ran a small independent imprint, Reekus Records, that issued quality wax by a series of excellent Irish bands, The Blades and the epic Big Self among them. The label continues to release new material, albeit on a more ad hoc basis and, now living back in Ireland, Elvera retains a direct involvement in the development of young, emerging Irish talent.

After many years off of the track, Tony Stevens made his way back very slowly onto the cabaret circuit and eventually resumed a career of sorts, albeit to nowhere like the same extent. He still performs live, at home and abroad, with his current band, The Rusty Roosters.

And U2 ? Within ten years of their last show in The Acradia, U2 were among the biggest and most influential rock bands on the planet and, for many years thereafter, the most compelling and distinctive live draw anywhere. And yet there are those around Cork who remember those magical nights on The Lower Road when many a noisy local rival or an international peer blitzed them off-stage, handed them their arses and sent them packing back out on the road to Dublin.

And they may well be right and they may well be wrong.

Ghostown: The Dublin Music Scene 1976 – 1980

FÓGRA :- ‘U2 Agus An Arc’, directed by Tony McCarthy, airs on RTÉ One television on Thursday, July 20th, at 7PM.

FÓGRA EILE :- Cork librarian, Gerry Desmond, has compiled a definitive list of all of the Downtown Kampus shows and this typically thorough undertaking was of huge benefit to us in compiling this piece. And is, of course, a fine public service. Go raibh maith agat.