25th Favorite: The Fine Art of Surfacing, by The Boomtown Rats

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The Fine Art of Surfacing. The Boomtown Rats.
1979, Columbia. Producer: “Mutt” Lang and Phil Wainman.
Cassette, 1984.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Fine Art of Surfacing, the third album by Ireland’s The Boomtown Rats, is at times cool, skinny-tie new wave and at times theatrical, Broadway bombast. It’s all tied together by terrific guitar and organ work. Bob Geldolf’s warbling voice on clever, insightful lyrics is the constant throughout all the songs. He pulls no punches, whether his topic is violence, suicide or humans’ indifference to suffering, but it never feels heavy, and it always makes you want to dance.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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I’ve enthused and reminisced and admitted embarrassing facts about the early days of MTV several times in this little project of mine. I try not to overdo it, but the channel had an impact on me. The launch of MTV in late summer, 1981, coincided with my first semester of high school, and due to the combination of my love of music, my age and the marketing geniuses at the channel, it left a mark on me. I think music fans of all ages have a time in their life when they first realized the importance of music in their lives, and the events and experiences of that realization remain a part of them as a music fan, and as a person, for the rest of their lives.

My friend’s dad was a young man in New York City in the 1950s, and he went to all the little jazz joints and saw all the big jazz names – Miles, Bird, Monk, ‘Trane – in tiny clubs with a handful of other folks. He speaks of those days – of seeing Monk drive off to get ice cream with friends just before a brilliant set at The Five Spot – with intensity and reverence, in details as if they happened a few days ago. One can tell that all other musical experiences in his life are measured against those days. He may have heard things he’s liked better, maybe he hasn’t pulled out a jazz record in several years, but those days and nights in Manhattan jazz clubs set the bar.

I worked with a guy who saw The Beatles live in San Francisco twice and had an 8mm home movie of his family black-and-white TV showing their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. I know folks who got into The Grateful Dead in the early 70s, have seen dozens of their concerts and traveled along with them. I know a guy who was bored by rock music until he heard The Ramones in ’76; I know people from New York City who experienced the Hip Hop and Rap revolution in the early 80s right in their own neighborhoods. Music fans often have a time in their life, be it one night or an era, that sets the stage for everything else. For me, it was MTV in the early 80s.

Before MTV, my knowledge of music was directly related to whatever came out of my radio, and whatever my two sisters played. My eldest sister had some classic rock albums. My other sister was a huge Top 40 fan, bought a lot of cassettes, and was the No. 1 Fan1 of Central PA’s nearly-went-bigtime 80s band The Sharks. I listened to all of it with them, but I didn’t really have my own music.

Before MTV, music was really a mostly-aural experience. You figured there were humans behind those sounds you heard, and you guessed they were playing instruments and singing, but as for what they looked like, well, if you didn’t get music magazines (and nobody in our house did, really) all you had to go by were album covers. If you wanted to see them perform (and you didn’t have a concert venue close by), you had to wait for them to appear on TV, on a talk-show or variety show, or music shows like American Bandstand or Solid Gold.

MTV changed that, by letting you see the bands behind the music. For many folks, this was when music all went south, when “image” – which had always been a considerable component of the pop music biz – became, to many, more important than the songs. But as a 14 year old kid, I wasn’t so impressed by the image of the acts; I noticed them, and I’m sure image helped suck me in. But the coolest part of MTV (for me) was all the music by artists that I’d never heard of before, particularly UK artists.

MTV was the entry point into the US for many UK and Irish bands, sparking what became known as “The Second British Invasion,” the first having been during the early/mid-60s, when The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and a million lesser acts crossed the Atlantic to give the kids here a thrill. There were plenty of great US bands back around 19812, but the British bands were on the music video bandwagon early, and when a channel came on that needed 24 hours of programming per day, well, those UK videos were ready for the taking. By July 16, 1983, 20 of the top 40 singles in the U.S., including 7 of the top 10 singles, were by UK artists.

And it’s true, the acts did usually have an image. But I was already a fan of image, even before MTV. I loved Cheap Trick, and their zany guitarist Rick Neilsen. I was already a fan of the weird and catchy American band Devo. The Brits just seemed to have thousands more artists in that vein: bands who had a look that they incorporated into the music. Devo was nerdy, jittery, and futuristic in both style and sound. A Flock of Seagulls changed “nerdy” to “peculiar” but did the same thing. Adam and The Ants were pirates with a tribal beat. Madness were retro ragamuffins playing catchy ska songs with horns. JoBoxers and Dexy’s Midnight Runners did something similar without the horns and ska.

But I didn’t like the music because of the image, I liked it because the songs were catchy and fun. If it was all about image, I’d have never liked all the androgynous and cross-dressing British bands. After all, I was a 14 year old, rural 80s boy, unprepared for that level of tolerance and acceptance. But still I liked songs by The Human League and Eurythmics and even Culture Club, although I didn’t admit it to many. Other acts with an image I didn’t care for included Duran Duran, The Cure, Billy Idol … but still I liked some of their songs.

If so many of those acts seemed to be purely successful marketing achievements, well there were also plenty of British and Irish acts on MTV that were serious musicians, whose image just seemed to be about making music. XTC, U2, Peter Gabriel, Squeeze, The Fixx and The Jam. There were one-hit wonders, no-hit wonders, ska bands, more ska bands, and even a few acts I’d heard before MTV who were also part of this whole revolution.

As much as I loved many of these artists’ songs, I never really considered getting albums by them. I was buying albums by AC/DC and Rush and Yes. To me, as catchy and fun as the British Invasion songs could be, the bands didn’t seem foundationally sound enough to support an entire album’s worth of music. My sister, Liz, however, did have some cassettes by some of these bands. One of her best friends, a cool, funny girl named Leeanne, worked the best of all possible early-80s teen dream jobs: clerk at the Mall record store. She seemed to know everything about music, and if I saw her working at the mall I’d try to ask her about what was good. She seemed to know about bands before they even hit MTV.

I knew The Boomtown Rats, an established Irish band that, to me, seemed to be part of the Second British Invasion, solely from one song that played on MTV, and sometimes on AOR radio. That song, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” the lead single from The Fine Art of Surfacing, was a piano song, with an orchestral arrangement. It seemed cute at first, with its Garfield-esque sentiments. Actually, the song’s lyrics are about one of the first of, sadly, many gun massacres at schools in The United States, the only country where, apparently coincidentally (?) random public shooting massacres are routine and civilians can own battlefield weapons. It’s a terrific song, with great vocals and harmonies, and a showcase for the band’s keyboardist, Johnnie Fingers. But with its epic, earnest arrangement, it’s not something I’d want an album’s worth of. As much as I liked the song on MTV, I never thought about buying The Fine Art of Surfacing. But Leeanne told me the band was good, and then I saw the cassette in my sister’s collection. I listened to her copy a lot, then finally bought my own. The energetic songs and interesting arrangements had me hooked. The band seemed to be more than a marketing exercise, and there was more to The Fine Art of Surfacing than a sad, epic piano song.

The album’s first track, “Someone’s Looking At You,” had me hooked right away.

I like the simple acoustic guitar that opens the song and sets the stage, and the way this introduction builds through the addition of voices, organ, drums, until it kicks in at 0:30 with electric guitar and singer Bob Geldof’s warbling voice stating “On a night like this/ I deserve to get kissed/ at least once or twice.” There’s cool electric guitar cutting through the verses, and a desperation to the group vocals beginning at 1:15. The vocals’ urgency increases through the second verse, on lyrics about paranoia and anxiety, until the chorus bursts at 2:08, with a bouncing bass from Pete Briquette behind it. Bob Geldolf’s voice is unusual and shaky; during the breakdown at 3:00 he sounds almost like a cartoon character. But his voice delivers emotion and connects those emotions to the lyrics.

An example is the song “Sleep (Fingers’ Lullaby),” written by keyboardist Johnnie Fingers, who wore pajamas onstage, and so perhaps was inclined to write a song titled “Sleep.”

Geldolf’s voice sounds perfectly exhausted and distraught on lyrics about insomnia. The band was fond of including sounds and noises in the background of their songs, and “Sleep” features this, with moaning groans at 1:00 behind “sick and tired” lyrics, and a rhythmic “shushing” in the background at 1:20 while Geldolf’s voice spirals into dejection. It’s a very theatrical song that keeps enough of a foot in the rock door to keep me satisfied.

The song “Having My Picture Taken” includes sound effects and a photographer’s voice. Simon Crow’s drums propel a vaguely caribbean beat, and a rockabilly-ish guitar strums along. The chorus is sing-along great, and there’s a nifty guitar solo about 1:55. It’s a cool song about taking pictures with a sound that’s hard to define.

There’s much theatricality in the Boomtown Rats and Bob Geldolf. Geldolf did some acting, famously playing the lead character “Pink” in Alan Parker’s film adaptation Pink Floyd – The Wall. And his efforts mounting Live Aid certainly demonstrate a willingness to think on a grand scale. This theatricality is present on “Nothing Happened Today.”

With it’s workday whistle and call-and-response vocals, it sounds like it could be part of a Broadway show. As the title suggests, the song’s about nothing happening, apart from Harry Hooper buying a toupee. The song has some cool timbale drums and some (frankly, dated sounding) hooting synth sounds. But there’s nifty guitar guitar riffs in the background. It’s a short, peppy song – which is another type of song the band favors. “Nice N Neat” is three minutes of energy, guitar, drums and questioning religion. “Wind Chill Factor (Minus Zero)” is a bit longer, but retains the new wave keyboard sound.

My favorite of the New Wave, skinny-tie, keyboard songs is the frantic “Keep It Up.”

I think it’s about sex? “Snap me in your breach/ I wanna be your bullet.” Could be. It reminds me of an Elvis Costello & The Attractions composition, with words spit out fast, a whirly organ, and drums & bass propelling it all forward, forward. The backing harmonies are cool, and the chorus (0:47) is catchy as hell. Plus, it has a false ending (not shown on the video) which I almost always love.

The Fine Art of Surfacing is a great album, with great tracks, but my two favorites combine the new-wave energy with Big-Arena-Rock theatricality, and blend them with Bob Geldolf’s fine storyteller lyrics. I haven’t talked much about his lyrics, but he can turn a phrase and conjure an image with the best.

“Diamond Smiles” tells the story of a beautiful socialite’s suicide at a glamorous party, an act remembered by the society crowd as having been done with “grace and style.”

It starts with a subtle electric guitar and Geldolf’s pinched voice. The song has those Phil Spector-Girl Group drums that I love, which helps the build up of the song. Nice harmony vocals are added the second time through the verse, then the energy backs off for another round of verses. This builds to the chorus: “They said she did it with grace/They said she did it with style,” and Diamond eventually goes out “kicking at the perfumed air.” The lyrics say so much about a type of person, a type of social stratum, in such a clever, acerbic way. The song next goes into a long “la la” fade out. The song is singalong catchy and fun, yet dark and pointed.

Another song that comments on society, this time the office-job stiffs trying to stay sane until the end of the day, is the wonderful album-closer “When the Night Comes.”

This is one of my favorite songs of all time. I love the instrumentation, the acoustic guitar mixed with electric, even the swooping organ, and I love the spirit of the song, and Geldolf’s vocal performance. It’s bouncy, fun to sing, and I could listen to it every day. There’s an acoustic guitar solo at about 0:17 that sets the stage, then the bass takes over to support Geldolf’s barrage of words. They’re all about the drudgery of the working life, and the freedom most everyone is striving for. Meanwhile there are terrific oohs and ahhs, harmonies, whirling organ, piano … it’s a celebration in song! At 2:31, when Frankie decides to call the woman from work, there’s an ascending stop/start section that builds to a dual electric/acoustic guitar solo at 3:00, which slows at 3:28, then builds again, and it all just sounds like the ecstatic feelings you get when the one you asked on a date says yes! Of course, they wouldn’t be Geldolf lyrics if he didn’t remind you at the end of the song that you’re still chained to your desk …

I Want My MTV!” they said, and I understood. It was new and exciting, just like the best parts of being a teenager. And like being a teen, some of it was bullshit, some of it was uncomfortable, and some of it leaves you thinking nowadays, “what were we thinking?” But it left an impact on me, and without it I might not have discovered some favorite records – like The Fine Art of Surfacing.

Track Listing:
“Someone’s Looking At You”
“Diamond Smiles”
“Wind Chill Factor (Minus Zero)”
“Having My Picture Taken”
“Sleep (Fingers’ Lullaby)”
“I Don’t Like Monday”
“Nothing Happened Today”
“Keep It Up”
“Nice N Neat”
“When the Night Comes”

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