RE-VISITING THE BOOMTOWN RATS' "THE FINE ART OF SURFACING"
The Fine Art of Surfacing, the third record by Ireland’s Boomtown Rats, has been in my record collection for over 30 years – mostly gathering dust. A graph of my listening history would show a huge spike in the early 1980s, a precipitous fall circa 1983, and a literal flat line since.
But I had a powerful urge to hear it again a few weeks ago brought on, I suspect, by the impending departure of my son for sleepaway camp. It was at sleepaway camp in upstate New York in the early 1980s that I was first exposed to the album by my counselors, all of whom, for reasons never clear to me, seemed to be British. In their spare time they played soccer and listened, exclusively, to The Fine Art of Surfacing. They pushed that record on me and my bunkmates like a drug dealer peddling smack. And I fell hard for it; the record became the soundtrack of my summer at a very formative age.
I was a touch nervous about listening to the record again after so many years. Would it sound dated? Would I be embarrassed by it? Would it make me want to do archery?
Well, I’m not ready to call The Fine Art of Surfacing timeless, but my recent re-visiting of the record suggests it has yet to reach its half-life.
The Fine Art of Surfacing surfaced in 1979, sometime after the British press dubbed the Boomtown Rats, unfairly, the second coming of the Rolling Stones, but before lead man Bob Geldof went off to save the world under the auspices of Live Aid. It's best known for the track, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” which reached Number 1 on the UK charts, but as is often the case, the album’s best songs are not its most played.
The album starts strong with the opening acoustic guitar strums of “Someone’s Looking at You” giving way to a layering of organ, then keyboards, before the drums and electric guitars kick in on the way to the vocal urgency expressed at the end of the first verse. The track’s lyrics, which recount a fear of being watched by the government, more than stand the test of time given today’s ubiquitous NSA surveillance programs and corporate web profiling:
There’s a spy in the sky There’s a noise on the wire There’s a tap on the line For every paranoid’s desire There’s always someone looking at you
The video for the song, like all videos of the era, is outrageously dated, but it nonetheless conveys a certain eeriness with Geldof (who looks a lot like a young Mick Jagger) donning a creepy alter ego that reads as an audition for his role as Pink in Pink Floyd’s 1982’s film, The Wall.
Truly timeless is “When the Night Comes,” a lament of the everyman working stiff who is just trying to make it through the day so he can go get drunk. It's a depressing (if not completely inaccurate) take on corporate life with “the offices emptying their pale-faced wards into the street” at closing time. As a corporate ward, you “get hooked so quick to anything, even your chains/You’re crouching in your corner ’til they open up your cage.” If that metaphor is too abstract, the dilemma is made even more plain in the last verse: “They’ve nailed you to that table and chained you to your desk.” The only relief is alcohol: “When the night comes, it’ll help you disappear” and let you “forget about the day that brought you here.” Fortunately, when you get home “you’ll be too far gone to notice when the neighbors start complaining” — about how drunk you are. But it doesn’t really matter since the neighbors are “used to it by now, because every day’s the same.” I'm quite certain the song’s theme would resonate with today’s pale-faced wards of The Man. In fact, I recommend listening to this track on your next commute, ideally when the crush of humanity forces your face into the armpit of someone clinging for dear life to a subway strap.
“I Don’t Like Mondays” has clearly retained its relevance—in fact it's even more relevant today than it was 35 years ago. The song recounts the true story of a 16-year-old girl who opened fire at a San Diego elementary school in 1979, killing two adults and injuring eight children and a police officer. When asked why she did it, the girl explained, “I don’t like Mondays.” This sad story seems to repeat itself every few months with just the setting, number of fatalities, and type of firearm used changing.
On a decidedly lighter note, one track that does come across as dated is “Keep it Up” since the central question posed by the song (“Can you keep it up, can you keep it up – upright / Does it let you down – I heard it let you down – sometimes”) seems quaint in the age of Viagra.
But enough about the lyrics, the music is really the thing of it. And the music still sounds great. The album is full of catchy pop songs with just enough guitar to give them a veneer of edginess. I particularly like the guitar solo on “When the Night Comes” which starts with an electric guitar, fades into an acoustic guitar, and then concludes once more with electric guitar. I’m not sure what the point is of the switching back and forth; maybe the electric guitar represents night and the acoustic day, with the night enveloping the day? Not clear. In any case, it's a compellingly unique take on the guitar solo.
“Nice N Neat” has a Grease-like, barbershop quintet feel to the outro (with some “na-na-na-na, bop shoo wop shoo wop’s thrown in) but is held together with sharp guitar stabs that harken to the Rats’ earlier punk sound. “Diamond Smiles” is a tightly-wound track that builds in tension until the eventual release at the outro. It's a great pop song.
All told, I was genuinely surprised by how well The Fine Art of Surfacing held up, lyrically and musically. In fact, Side Two could very well be a perfect album side. The record is definitely worth dusting off for another listen.