Boomtown Rats’ lead guitarist Garry Roberts tells Shelley Marsden about getting back with the Rats, Bob’s comfort in music and their new, young fans
“It’s like riding a motorbike”, says Garry Roberts about being back with his old band, The Boomtown Rats.
“If I get on my bike now in my leathers and my helmet, I can’t see my face. I can’t see somebody who’s 60-odd years old. I’m the same person I was at 25. You’re not looking in a mirror, you can’t see yourself. You’re looking out and feeling the emotions.”
The lead guitarist, who like bandmate Bob Geldof has lived in England since 1976, says it’s simply good to be working alongside his old mates. There were fall-outs, such as guitarist Gerry Cotts’ walk-out in the early-80s over what he called the band’s new‘cod Reggae’ sound, but after a long period of not talking, Garry says original friendships have made their way back to the surface. “We can tell now why we liked each other in the first place.”
Bob Geldof has been in the spotlight recently following his daughter Peaches’ tragic death in April. But the frontman has since spoken of how playing with his band has helped him get through the dark moments.
Garry says he can’t speak for Bob, but thinks in the band they’re all the sort of people who want to ‘get on with things’: “I can’t even comprehend how horrific Peaches’ death is for Bob, and I know it affects him deeply sometimes. But he’s not the sort of man who’ll go and sit in a corner with his head in his hands and think God, it’s not worth doing anything anymore.”
He adds: “Bob has said that he finds playing with the band cathartic, and I can completely understand that. Music does that, and that’s good. He knows, I hope, that we’re all with him and behind him. You just have to keep on going.”
The Boomtown Rats, so named after a gang of children Bob had read about in Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, Bound for Glory, exploded out of Ireland in 1976 with their brand of angry, loud, attitude-driven music, which saw them tacked on, rightly or wrongly, to the burgeoning punk scene.
Its singer’s motormouth arrogance and flagrant disrespect for authority endeared him and his band to the youth of the day, sick of the heavy-handedness of church and state. In the UK, they first toured with the Ramones and Talking Heads, going on to became one of the biggest bands of the late 70s/80s.
They had a string of top ten hits and platinum albums. Making history as the first Irish band to have a UK no 1 with Rat Trap, they went on to top the charts in 32 Countries with I Don’t Like Mondays and racked up six albums.
The Rats split in ’86, and that is to all intents and purposes, the last we heard of them – until last year’s storming set at the Isle of Wight Festival, which proved to Garry and co. that people might no just go ‘Oh no, not them again’ at hints of a reunion.
“To walk out on stage after such a long gap and get such an incredible reception from the audience was all we could have asked for”, says the Dubliner. “I was a little apprehensive but I like the music we play and hopefully others will, that’s all I can hope. And they did.
“It was the acid test, and I was taken aback by how enthusiastically that festival crowd responded to us. When we did our first tour last year (a couple of gigs in Ireland, then the UK), I didn’t know whether there’d be three people standing at the back, or what. To see every venue full was great.”
He admits that if people came to see the band on the strength of what they were like just before splitting in the mid-80s, they got a pleasant surprise. The reason they called it a day, he says, is because they had lost direction and were chasing fashion.
He recalls, laughing: “There were photos were taken of us at the time in Japan and we looked like a bunch of New Romantic auditionees. It all got a bit silly, really. Our roots are in blues music, and we grew up listening to rhythm and blues, The Stones, The Small Faces.
“We’re back to that kind of thing now, with the two guitars. When Gerry left we were down to one guitar and I think our music changed. I personally like a two-guitar line-up, it’s much more powerful. I’;m naturally a rhythm guitar so I sort of pump it along, basically. It’s good to have another guitar adding colour.”
The premise, says Garry, was never to have a ‘reunion’ – just play together again for as long as they enjoyed it, and offers the analogy of seeing an old friend again for the first time in years. “It’s just like it was the last time you saw them. If there’s ‘something’ there, it remains.”
Within the crowds that come out to see them play are a surprising amount of teenagers, says Garry, whose friend overheard one young kid lean over to his dad mid-gig recently and say ‘God they’re old – but they’re so cool.’ It could be the universal appeal of a good rage against the machine that applies to many of the Rats’ back catalogue, a sentiment that applies no matter what age you are.
Banana Republic, the ska reggae hit from their Mondo Bongo album was a famously scathing attack on Ireland, written in response to the band being banned from performing there, reputedly because of Geldof’s “denunciation of nationalism, medieval-minded clerics and corrupt politicians” in a controversial 1977 interview on The Late Late Show with Gay Byrne.
“We still feel that passion, we’re certainly not going through the motions like some reformed bands do”, says Garry. “You can see some groups on tour just counting off the pound signs. It’s not like that for us. It’s very nice indeed to get paid, but you don’t think about that when you’re playing.”
For the full interview, see Irish World newspaper (19 July 2014).
The Ratlife UK Tour begins in October. For more, see www.boomtownrats.co.uk.