Saturday, July 08, 1978

A Tonic for the Troops

...a Tonic for the Troops!
  • UK Highest Chart Position: 8
  • Total number of weeks on chart : 44 (Top 10: 5, Top 20: 18 Top 40: 30)
  • Entry (ENVY3/ENCAS3): 8th July 1978
  • Run: 21-8-10-8-12-16-17-24-24-30-34-38-42-0-40-43-24-16-13-14-12-9-10-12-13-13-11-17-13-22-21-33-44-37-41-59-68-0-71 (37 weeks)
  • Re-entry (ENVY3/ENCAS3): 18th August 1979
  • Run: 70-57-47-54-56-70-0-70 (7 weeks)

Side 1
Like Clockwork
Blind Date
(I Never Loved) Eva Braun
Living In An Island
Don't Believe What You Read

Side 2

She's So Modern
Me And Howard Hughes
Can't Stop
(Watch Out For) The Normal People
Rat Trap

Bonus Tracks (2005 Re-master)

Neon Heart (John Peel Radio Session)
Do The Rat (B-Side)
D.U.N. L.O.A.G.H.A.I.R.E (B-Side In Ireland)
Rat Trap (Live In Stoke)

Recorded at Relight Studios, Holland and Dieter Dierks Studios, Stommeln, Köln, Germany.

Other Releases

Audio CD (1 July 1993)
Label: Mercury
ASIN: B000006THC

1. Like Clockwork 3:46
2. Blind Date 3:21
3. (I Never Loved) Eva Braun 4:33
4. She's So Modern 2:59
5. Don't Believe What You Read 3:07
6. Living In An Island 4:07
7. Me And Howard Hughes 3:11
8. Can't Stop 2:19
9. (Watch Out For) The Normal People 2:52
10. Rat Trap 4:57
11. Lying Again 3:08
12. How Do You Do ? 2:40
13. So Strange 3:03

Columbia PC 35750(LP)/CK 35750 (CD)

Side 1

A1 Rat Trap 5:12 (Geldof)
A2 Me And Howard Hughes 3:12 (Geldof)
A3 (I Never Loved) Eva Braun 4:39 (Geldof)
A4 Living In An Island 4:11 (Geldof)
A5 Like Clockwork 3:44 (Geldof/Briquette/Crowe)

Side 2

B1 Blind Date 3:22 (Geldof)
B2 Mary Of The 4th Form 3:34 (Geldof)
B3 Don't Believe What You Read 3:08 (Geldof)
B4 She's So Modern 3:00 (Geldof/Fingers)
B5 Joey's On The Street Again 5:53 (Geldof)

On the evening of Friday 22nd September 1978, I watched Rock Goes To College on BBC2. The basic format of the show was that a band played a live 40 minute set at a UK college. Among the bands that featured were an embryonic AC/DC. But the first broadcast was of an up and coming Irish new wave band called The Boomtown Rats. I had heard them on the radio thanks to a couple of singles they had released prior to the album, and seen them on Revolver on ITV a couple of months previous, but this was different. This was a band playing a live set where every song was fucking brilliant!
I had made a very dodgy recording on tape and listened to it again and again in the following week. And on Monday, everyone at school was talking about Geldof saying "shitty" on the TV.  Over the next couple of weeks, I duly saved up my pocket money and bought A Tonic for the Troops on the way home from school at the HMV on the Holloway Road.

I had not watched Top of the Pops from the mid-seventies, not because I felt I had to boycott it in the manner of The Clash, but simply because I was never at home on a Thursday evening when it was broadcast.  My awareness of the burgeoning punk/new wave scene was down to a couple of well informed friends who had Never Mind the Bollocks on tape and a few bits of coloured vinyl which was popular at the time. 

The first single from A Tonic for the Troops was She's So Modern. I was familiar with the song, it was a minor hit, and they had played it on Revolver.  Punk by numbers, it could almost have been lifted from Never Mind the Bollocks; Geldof sneering "the right clothes to wear" before the end climax is a straight lift from Johnny Rotten. She's So Modern was a far more radio friendly proposition than Pretty Vacant or Holidays in the Sun, with its trademark Rats chorus in full swing. The verses echo Walk on the Wild Side, naming each girl, with quick snippets on how "modern" they are, but with far more urgency. Magenta de Vine perhaps the most infamous modern girl.

The follow up single was Like Clockwork. This was the real breakthrough single for the Rats. A top ten hit, it even brought along a robotic dance from punk followers. Well it did on Revolver! It is one of the few songs that featured writers other than Geldof, with Pete Briquette and Simon Crowe making a contribution. The song starts with a tick-tock refrain, wailing guitar and almost primal drums. When Geldof comes in with the vocal, you half expect Siouxsie Sioux! A staccato disjointed rhythm pervades throughout. This song was a real leap forward in sound with Finger's piano coming to the fore in the instrumental break. The climax of the song is far better experienced live, when Geldof's ape like limbs act as clock hands as he booms tick-tock. The alarm clock is the only way to end it all.

There was another single, but I'll leave that to the end, as the alarm clock's final ring is superseded by the sharp drum beat that opens Blind Date. A couple of well placed guitar chords join the introduction before a mix of drums and bass lead into the song. Geldof jumps in with the vocal, this time evoking Mick Jagger. Running through the dating game with no particular focus, this is a great sounding song, a wonderful guitar solo, and a Rotten-like so long at the end.

Many people familiar with the big hit singles from the Rats would have missed the gems that reside on this album like (I Never Loved) Eva Braun. It starts with a Shirelle-like female vocal, and Geldof takes on the guise of Adolf Hitler as the Leader of the Pack. The ooh-yeahs are from Bowie's Young American period. The military drumming takes the song down in the middle so it can rise to a crescendo and returns at the end for the final pay off with "Gee". Live this song was a real highlight, and showed how musically accomplished the Rats were.

Me and Howard Hughes encapsulates everything that was great about the Boomtown Rats in a single song. Simon Crowe shares vocals with Geldof and the contrast between the two voices gives the song another dimension. The guitar playing by Gerry Cott is superlative. The handclaps over the penultimate chorus refrain, and harmonies make this one of the best songs the Rats ever made.

Don't Believe What You Read is another great track which keeps things simple and has a general attack on the press in the lyrics. Considering this was a pre-tabloid Geldof, it’s certain that if the lyrics were written a year or so later they would be far more biting. The track opens fairly sedately before exploding into a crash of guitar and drums followed by a mini guitar solo prior to Geldof spitting out the song.

Living In An Island starts off with a nice bright and breezy reggae drum and turn into fifty ways to leave your planet! You half expect to hear hop under a bus Gus in the middle. The chorus contains the familiar sing back harmonies, and the end fades out to a calypso rhythm showing the Rats fondness for Caribbean music which had only previously been hinted at on the frivolous DUN LAOGHAIRE.

Can't Stop is one of the more distinctive tracks on the album. There is a sense of paranoia that is more marked in later albums and lyrically the song hints that all was not well in the mind of Bob Geldof with regards to impending fame.

Echoing Never Bite the Hand that Feeds from their debut album, (Watch Out for) the Normal People dissects suburban life. The song burst quickly into life and is a comment on the darker side of respectability. The guitar solo is a real highlight with the vocal who-hoos. Lucky buggers indeed!

And finally Rat Trap! Though I Don't Like Mondays is probably a more well known song, Rat Trap was their first number one. Very similar to Joey from the debut album, Rat Trap is a well crafted mini-epic taking Billy through a drunken night in Dublin to his meeting with Judy in the Italian Cafe. Springsteen-esque, with a wonderful sax solo in the middle of the song and in the fade-out. The first punk/new wave number one (well, the first official one), the song was gratefully received by a nation suffering from Grease overload. Not only did it supplant the infernal Summer Nights at number one, it also held off the individual efforts by Travolta and Newton-John. Well at least until Rod Stewart told us how sexy he was!

A Tonic for the Troops was a marked development from the first album with highly original songs and a departure from their Dublin roots, except Normal People and Rat Trap. It had a very definite sound which is a criticism that could be levelled at the albums that followed. The backing vocals were harmonious, Gerry Cott's guitar solos to the forefront, and Geldof's lyrics had not started veer into the mawkish sentimentality that he could be guilty of. The singer/backing singer call/call-back was well used throughout the album, and the variety of rhythms and changes of pace made it feel like there were far more than ten songs. Johnnie Fingers piano were possibly under utilised, but the sound did not suffer for it.

The album showed The Boomtown Rats to be a more accomplished band than almost all of their peers in terms of song writing and musicianship. A Tonic for the Troops stands as The Boomtown Rats finest moment for the inventiveness and excitement in the songs. Most importantly this album captured the zeitgeist, being around at the right time and effectively defining the sound of 1978 as much as Parallel Lines, Give ‘em Enough Rope and Never Mind the Bollocks all of which it shared the record racks for the whole year.

There are very few albums where every track can be considered excellent, but this is one. The Boomtown Rats went on to make many good songs but arguably never made another great album which not only fitted the times but was timeless.

Personally, I think it is certainly the greatest album of the 1970s and possibly the greatest album of all time!

CD Review

A Tonic for the Troops has had three major re-releases/revisions.

In January 1979, the album was re-released in the US replacing Can't Stop and (Watch Out for) the Normal People with Joey's on the Street Again and Mary of the Fourth Form. The running order of the album was also changed. Rat Trap became the opening track. The album inset also differs, with a black and white photo similar to the picture on the reverse of the Rat Trap single used rather than the collage used on the UK version. This version was subsequently released on CD in 1989. I eagerly snapped it up at the Virgin Megastore on the Champs Eyleese and was glad to hear it again, especially as my turntable was gathering dust back in London.  However. there are better versions.

The two UK re-releases in July 1993 and February 2005 are both superior and each has its merits.  In the main, they have gathered together all the UK and Irish B-sides from Mary of the Fourth Form through to Rat Trap along with a couple of curiosities.

The 1993 re-release simply has the b-sides of the singles from the album.

Lying Again is a good song, almost descending into old time rock 'n' roll. It is fair to say it isn't a glaring omission from Tonic for the Troops itself, as it meanders on with little to say.

How Do You Do? appears to have started as a tirade on the record industry, but ultimately descends into Bon Jovi territory saying as long as the band play well on a Saturday night it'll all be OK! Musically the song is good with a great guitar solo, and a crescendo of an ending. Maybe with better developed lyrics this would have been a great song, instead of been merely good to listen to.

So Strange suggests a darker side to the Rats like Can't Stop. Geldof's vocals and lyrics are biting ("I was bleeding, before I saw the blood") evoking Neon Heart and I Can Make It If You Can from the debut album. Strange that this song was only a B-side as it would have graced any of the first three albums. It also hinted at things to come (Like Wind Chill Factor).
The 2005 re-masters took a slightly differnt tack, with more obscure material.

D.U.N. L.O.A.G.H.A.I.R.E. and Do The Rat are B-side masterpieces. Genius. The Boomtown Rats were a very humorous bunch and in letting their hair down on these B-sides came up with two exceptionally tounge-in-cheek tracks. D.U.N. L.O.A.G.H.A.I.R.E was based on a song called Cocaine In My Brain Geldof took the "A knife, a fork, a bottle and a cork. That's the way we spell New York" refrain and applied it to his home town to hillarious effect. Garry Robberts attempts at spelling Dun Loaghaire are dismissed, and corrects him with "Drab and dreary, Tired and Weary, That's the way you spell Dun Loaghaire". Reminiscent of Derek & Clive, (or possibly Zig & Zag at points, eventually the world gets to spell and sing Dun Loaghaire. All done to a wonderful calypso beat. It was released as a cover flexi in the UK, but also as a b-side to Clockwork on Mulligan records (The Rats Irish label).

Aping The Twist, and other dance craze songs, the Rats create their own, The Rat! With yellowed teeth and greyer hair, I'm less up for doing the Rat to the break of day these days, and it's pretty fair to say The Rat didn't really supplant seventies disco! The song itself is a very basic three chord (if that!) romp, but the lyrics are very sassy and the R’n’B guitar break sounds like it comes from Tiger Feet by Mud! On the CD it ends with a Beatlesque cheer a la All You Need is Love.

Ultimately, two of the greatest flip sides ever, though check out Sham 69's Sunday Morning Nightmare and The Divine Comedy's Lovely Horse as other great examples of the genre!

Neon Heart (John Peel Radio Session) is a stripped down less polished version that the one on the debut album.  However it does complete the session that was previously released on the Geldof Crazy single, so from a completist viewpoint is absolutely indispensible.

Rat Trap (Live In Stoke) has a higher pitched intro than usual and sounds like Into The Valley by the Skids at the start.   There are no dates associated with this was recording but it sounds like it came from the Rats post-Bongos over Britain as the horns are more complete than I have heard elsewhere and the guitars a little less to the fore.

This album stands as the Boomtown Rats finest hour, and with the B-sides and the track from the Peel Session, the CD editions improves on the original vinyl edition.

CD WARNING: Don’t ditch that vinyl yet!
The versions of Like Clockwork and Rat Trap on the albums aren't the same as the single versions. With Like Clockwork a couple of lines are removed from the bridge on the single (the album version is better, so don’t worry), and with Rat Trap, "Pus and Grime ooze through the scab crusted sores" is replaced "Death and tears pass down the drains and the sewers". Only a Dubliner could have the vocal dexterity to achieve that, and is well worth a listen.

The biggest omission on the CD is Do The Rat’s original introduction. On vinyl, the track opens with the chimes of Big Ben, and varied stereotypes double entendre their way through the introduction, including Pinky's pal! Possibly a victim of the politically correct days, it is not offensive and should have remained. Also the final pay-off is lost.

What's all that got to do with Punk Rock, eh? Mmm, nothing! Oh!