006. The Fine Art of Surfacing: The Boomtown Rats with B.B. Gabor, London Gardens, London, Ontario, Canada, Wednesday March 19, 1980, $7 (and a meditation on the amorphous nature of memory).
I came up with the idea for My Life – In Concert! during the late winter of 2010 and then spent the early spring drafting my first few pieces to see if I liked the results. Once sufficiently satisfied, I typed away so as to create a backlog of material and, in doing so, decided that I wanted to define a scope for the series (can you tell I’ve been a project manager?). Among the decisions I made was that each show I was going to write about either had to have a strong review component, a story to tell or a situation or element that would allow me to riff on an idea or theme (the remaining shows I will cover off in a series of omnibus entries featuring brief overviews). I also decided to name each of the pieces using either a song or album title from the featured artist that in some way reflected what I wanted to say.
Since I know which shows I’ll be writing about next, I’ve found myself thinking ahead not only about details and memories but titles as well. For this one on The Boomtown Rats’ concert — my first live gig of the 1980s — I immediately knew what the title would be and why. The Fine Art of Surfacing is the name of their third LP, their first and only international blockbuster, and the album behind which they were touring when I took in this show on a chilly March evening, on the last calendar day of winter.
It also perfectly encapsulates what I wanted to write about. Namely, the title contains the word “surfacing” which for my purposes here refers to the notion of becoming visible via commercial success, something that was clearly a goal for the Irish sextet (featuring frontman and future God of Live Aid, Sir Bob Geldof) when it came time to write and record this album. They had broken big in the UK in 1978 with their second long player, A Tonic For the Troops. That LP contained three chart hits, the most notable being their first British No. 1, the Springsteen-ish “Rat Trap.” Surfacing in a larger commercial sense must have been on their minds when creating Tonic’s successor. And it worked, with TFAOS and its accompanying first 45, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” becoming a major hit in almost every key international market, save the U.S.
But the title also refers to the “fine art” of surfacing, which for me conjures up the eternal struggle of any artist who starts out as acclaimed and on the fringes but who ultimately wants a larger, mainstream audience: how and where to draw the line that will equitably balance artistic integrity vs tempering the rough edges enough to attract attention in the wider marketplace. It’s a battle that few rectify in a satisfactory fashion for either artist or audience.
“Mondays,” about Brenda Ann Spencer’s senseless January 29, 1979 schoolyard shooting spree in San Diego and her quote that she did it because “I don't like Mondays,” gave the Rats their second UK No. 1 before taking off worldwide, preceding Surfacing’s 1979 fall release. Both album and single became huge hits here in Canada but I, a fan since buying their debut single while in the UK in ‘77, wasn’t too impressed. Following what I perceived to be an excellent new wave pop album in the form of Troops found Surfacing overly glitzy and streamlined, bland, and nakedly aspirational in the quick-buck rather than artistic sense. In an era with an embarrassment of slipstream riches, I found it frustrating that this band I loved had hit the big time with such compromised music. I was actually pleased that they were reaching a large audience, but just wished that they had been able to do so with markedly better tunes.
“Someone’s Looking At You,”and “I Don’t Like Mondays” performed on ABC’s Fridays in April 1980, a month after I saw them live. I remember watching this performance at the time when it aired. Who/what the hell is introducing them? (Unfortunately this link doesn’t have an embed and you’ll have to click through to YouTube link via the image above).
I was going to write about how “Mondays” emanated from radios everywhere, irking me that this Elton John-ish piano ballad was being seen as representational of this band I’d adored (not to mention that John and Bernie Taupin had already created a good song mining somewhat similar territory with “Ticking” from 1974’s Caribou). As for the rest of Surfacing, I didn’t hate it and indeed loved the opening track and second single, “Someone’s Looking At You.” I just thought that, overall, it was a real come down after that superb second disc and their eponymous very good first one.
Regardless, when a London, Ontario stop appeared as a tour date, I was pretty excited to be seeing a group whose overall output I’d loved, even if their new album was somewhat wanting.
(Photo by VariousArtists)
I was going to write that everything I remember about this gig could be distilled down to:
- Bob Geldof trying hard to be the new wave Mick Jagger with his stage moves and presence;
- Keyboardist Johnny Fingers onstage in his trademark pyjamas;
- The Boomtown Rats bringing a large group of camera-bearing fans onstage during “Having My Picture Taken,” as the fans, er, took pictures of the band playing, with both band and deer-in-the-headlights teenagers looking equally awkward during the staged ritual, pissing off po-faced security in the process;
- The big crowd sing-a-long with “I Don’t Like Mondays,” which had recently dropped out of the Top 10 singles after a long run;
- “Someone’s Looking At You,” which I think they may have opened the show with. Whatever its place in the setlist, it jumps out in my mind along with the “Mondays” sing-along as a highlight;
- Going to see this gig with my sister and her new boyfriend who she would later go on to marry. As for my newly met music-obsessed pals, Lady Bump and Count Mara, I had recently broken up with the former and I believe we were going through a short period of souring on each other before settling in as friends for many years while the latter was not a fan of The Boomtown Rats or arena gigs;
- The large canvas at the back of the stage featuring The Fine Art of Surfacing cover artwork;
- A large grid-like structure on the stage that looked a bit like an abandoned Hollywood Squares set with lights blinking off and on, and my sister, the least punk purist of all of us, complaining that “this isn’t what it was supposed to be about — big sets and light shows”;
- Toronto’s ill-fated B.B. Gabor opening the concert, playing in a ludicrous get-up of gym shorts over tights. At the time he was emerging, with significant Canadian college radio play for his numbers “Nyet Nyet Soviet” and “Moscow Drug Club.” Unfortunately, his career never launched after his minor initial success and he killed himself in state of depression in 1990;
- A freezing London Gardens, the same place where I became disillusioned with Bob Seger and then-mainstream North American rock in general during a packed, sweltering night in May 1978. Owing to the Rats being on a recent ascent, the place was only about half full (approx 3000 people). I guess the Gardens simply didn’t bode well for me as a venue;
The former London Gardens, now the Forest City Velodrome, June 2010. Back in the day, it routinely hosted hockey games and big name concerts. The whole area is now considerably ramshackle and run-down. Depressing. (VA)
- A decided sea change in the age of the crowd. I wrote in my piece regarding the London, Ontario punk scene about how the audience for most of these new groups was predominantly composed of twentysomethings during the later 70s, and in my series on the Heatwave festival (which I attended later in 1980), about how mainstream Canadian radio seemed to suddenly shift in its openness to at least some of the more palatable new wave/punk artists. This Boomtown Rats gig clearly illustrated how a new era was beginning as the crowd for this unlicensed concert featured droves of young’uns who were my age — a first!;
- Saying a quick “Hi” to this one rather curious girl who briefly attended my high school. She looked like she was trying to be the New Wave Chesty Morgan, appeared to be able to party like Fassbinder, was as delicate as an anvil, and routinely offered up incisive pan-global political observations and commentary during my Current Affairs class. We ran in different circles, but with her unabashed love of sex, songs, substances, and socio-political analysis, I’ve often thought back and felt she was my kind of person. Unlike the alternately beige or redneck types who littered the halls of my much-hated secondary school, she always stood out as being as intelligent as she was un-prudish. We compared notes the day after the show. I’ve sometimes wondered what became of her.
But that’s not what I’m going to write about.
Instead, I’m going to write about this: The Fine Art of Resurfacing. As in memory.
Two things recently got me to thinking about the amorphous nature of memory while working on this series. The first is a case of kismet, namely that we purchased a turntable last fall after I had gone without a working platter for almost a decade and a half. I’ve still got a sizeable chunk of my old, large vinyl collection, containing all sorts of titles I either don’t have or have only in part in a digital form. It’s fun ploughing through albums and singles that I hadn’t heard in decades, in some cases the result being that I’ve made a whomp of recent replacement purchases for my iPod and CD player.
The turntable turned out to be a godsend as I started to work on My Life — In Concert!, as I was now able to re-listen to and re-asses all sort of LPs and 45s pertinent to past gigs I’ve been writing about and researching. Not only have most titles ended up sounding just as good as I’d remembered, some — such as Dave Edmunds’ Repeat When Necessary, The Jam’s Setting Sons, and Elvis Costello’s Trust — jumped out as sounding even better than recalled.
This paradigm came to an abrupt halt when revisiting The Boomtown Rats’ catalogue. That “brilliant” second album, A Tonic for the Troops? It now sounds like the weakest of the three to me: an often irksome, overly effervescent mishmash of competing styles and goals. It comes off like a punkish rock band wanting to be a successful, glossy-yet-wacky new wave pop group, with even some clumsy nods to Queen-style bombast thrown in — yet also not wanting it too. It seems conflicted and unresolved, like a resentful middle child. “Rat Trap” is still terrific as are a few others but, those aside, Troops comes off as mix of grating yet undistinguished. Never a good combo.
The Boomtown Rats badge that I sometimes wore on my leather jacket during the late '70s/early '80s.
The Fine Art of Surfacing now sounds markedly superior in my mind, with some of the aspects that initially bothered mev — its more streamlined nature, for instance — now acting as definite pluses. It seems like they chucked the moral dilemma regarding commerciality that ultimately marred its predecessor, resulting in an improved, more consistent pop album. And “Mondays,” now stripped of its renegade-band-sells-out context, sounds like a good pop song to me and one of the highpoints, rather than an overplayed embarrassment.
But, again, this is comparative. Surfacing may be an improvement but it’s thunderingly mediocre. Neither album elicits much in the way of a response from me. The notably rockier first album now sounds like the best of the three, but with a plodding side two and other “meh” factors, it’s just ok.
Their three-song first 45 featuring punky A-side “Looking After No. 1” and the B-side combo of “Born To Burn,” which sounds like the New York Dolls on 78 rpm, and a spirited live take on Robert Parker’s 1966 R&B chestnut “Barefootin’.” This effective trio of numbers display stylistic avenues that the band never fully explored.
The point of all this is that if I’d never gotten that new turntable and not had the opportunity to go back and hear those three albums, my memory would have forever processed them in my mind in a way that’s no longer applicable to me now. Who’s not to say that I if I could re-attend some of these early gigs that I went to, and am raving about in this series, that I’d find them lacking? It is something one can never really know but must be factored into the equation. I am writing about these long-ago experiences from my past with the recollections of a late-40s man, but working from the mental notes jotted down by a 17-year-old boy. And therein lies a breach that can never fully be accurately assessed. I mean, just how irritating would Geldof’s faux-Jaggerisms seem to me now?
Furthermore, re-hearing all this past music in the present creates a new memory and revised marker. I could very well re-listen to them in 10 years time and have a different take yet again, negating the value judgement drawn from this 2010 benchmark, and re-aligning with my earlier impressions.
In terms of the more review-centric pieces I am writing on contemporary shows, what am I leaving out now that I’d highlight later? What context and foreshadowing — invisible to me now — will become essential and evident as time passes?
This segues into my second, more significant touchstone, namely the recovery of my old journals. Between mid-1986 and mid-1995, I intermittently wrote several volumes of them, with the period from the fall of 1988 through the summer of 1992 as particularly rich, detailed, and consistent. I had almost forgotten about them and had a Eureka! memory moment when pulling together personal archival material for this series. After digging through the household, I eventually found and began pouring through them.
What an experience! That period was a tumultuous time in my life as is often the case with people who start to keep them. So much came rushing back: painful, awful things, with the words on the pages providing me with a direct IV back into why I was so unhappy at that time, and why I had damn good reason to be. But then there’s also so much good stuff too: great nights out at bars and shows; killer parties or nights spent sitting in with friends; people, events and minor occurrences from daily life that I had completely forgotten about.
In zooming in on key things that I have clear memories of and then comparing them to what I had written from the actual time, I was pleasantly surprised that I frequently, overall, got it right. But even then, it turns out I had often forgotten about all sorts of small details, side dramas, and involved persons (not to mention that the thoughts and words on the pages reflect a person that appears to me as an embryonic specimen of who I am now — was I really that naïve?). Even when I got it right, I got it a little bit wrong or at least incomplete. So, while it turns out that I have a pretty strong accuracy batting average regarding the basics from the past, the fine points had often vanished.
Rediscovering various intricacies via the journals has proved transformative, taking an experience somewhat akin to a mental black-and-white still photo and morphing it into a Technicolor movie. (As a side note, dear readers, when this series catches up with that time frame, I am going to be able to give you some real treats of recollection as I recorded some intricately detailed accounts of many key shows from the era, including gigs by The Smiths, Paul McCartney, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Sonic Youth, Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones, Laura Nyro, The Waterboys, several Lollapaloozas, and more).
Memories. They are tricky, sometimes selective, shifting and changing with our life and experiences, and how we view them is often coloured by present circumstances. What we choose to reveal when expounding about them, what we desire to bury, what is shaded, upgraded or eliminated by our changing feelings, alliances, tastes, priorities and perspectives — writing about the past often relies so much on how we feel in the present, the two becoming interdependent. Ostensibly I’m writing about “then,” but in some ways I’m also writing about “now.”
However, as unreliable and as patchwork as they sometimes are, memories house some of the keys to whatever we've become and how we see oursleves and our personal histories.
Flawed as the process is, and for what it’s worth, I shall continue trying to perfect the fine art of resurfacing.
© 2010 VariousArtists