The Boomtown Rats play the racecourse – at long last
They were the shows that never happened. Now, nearly 40 years after Bob Geldof’s band were meant to play at Leopardstown, the group are finally taking to its stage
Rat pack: Bob Geldof and the band in the late 1970s. Photograph: Ian Dickson/Redferns
Bob Geldof and the band at last year’s Electric Picnic festival. Photograph: Debbie Hickey/Getty
When Bob Geldof flies into Dublin for the Boomtown Rats’ show at Leopardstown today he will have strong memories of the last time he arrived in the city for a Boomtown Rats concert at the racecourse.
It was February 20th, 1980, when, as RTÉ reported, “hundreds of fans mobbed the band” as they walked from the tarmac to the airport terminal. Such was the clamour around “King Rat” that Geldof became “isolated for a while from his chauffeur- driven Mercedes”.
At the time the Rats were a very big deal indeed. They had become the first Irish band to have a UK No 1. Rat Trap was also the first UK “new wave music” No 1. The subsequent single I Don’t Like Mondays had become a global hit, and for their glorious homecoming the Rats had sold all 7,500 tickets for two shows at Leopardstown, to take place on February 22nd and 23rd.
Whereas these days Geldof happily describes himself as a “private-equity whore”, back in 1980 – when he was 29 and could still fit into his snakeskin stage suits – he was the gobby punk rocker who had disgraced himself and his family in front of the nation when he appeared on The Late Late Show denouncing Ireland as clergy-ridden and politically corrupt.
And he announced that he had helped form The Boomtown Rats only in order to get rich, get famous and get laid.
As he had done more than his share of annoying, criticising and provoking the great and good of the land, it perhaps came as no surprise that the District Court refused to grant a licence for the Rats’ homecoming shows. There were loudly voiced concerns that bishops and Fianna Fáil ministers were behind it all.
Geldof readily accepted his martyrdom, later writing that official Ireland was punishing the Rats for his scabrous pronouncements from the Late Late pulpit. As he faced the press at Dublin Airport two days before the now-cancelled gigs, an unlikely ally leaped to his defence: the RUC.
The Rats had just played two sold-out shows at the Ulster Hall, and so impeccably behaved were band and audience that the RUC, according to Geldof, “rang up Dublin . . . and said the two Rats shows were the best ever conducted in Belfast”.
At the same airport press conference he added that, because of Leopardstown being cancelled, “It’s now quite clear that we are not welcome in Dublin. We are not welcome in the city where we were born, where we lived and where we started as a band. We have been rejected on a grand scale. We will now sadly have to regard our gigs in Belfast as our true homecoming. We don’t need to prove ourselves to anybody; we have proved ourselves to the world. We can play in Bangkok, we can play in London, play in Paris, but we can’t play in Dublin.”
The band retired to Blooms Hotel, in Temple Bar, to try to figure out an alternative venue for a big homecoming show. This was the country’s rehearsal for Saipan. While the “young people” just wanted to enjoy themselves at a music concert, others regarded the filth and fury of these self-styled new-wave musicians as inappropriate in a country still coming down from the religious high of Pope John Paul II’s visit, five tremulous months earlier.
But far from being degenerate punks, the six-piece Rats were all nice middle-class boys from Glenageary, in south Co Dublin, and it was at Blackrock College, not CBGB, that some of them were educated.
But when news emerged, to consternation, that the marquee in which the Rats had planned to perform at Leopardstown was the same tent that the pope had used as his disrobing marquee in the Phoenix Park, the will-they-won’t-they saga took a twist. People wondered whether the pope’s tent had been deconsecrated.
While Geldof held court in Blooms Hotel, telling journalists that he had been “vilified” and “banned” from playing in his own “shoddy” and “second-rate” country, it became clear that the siege of Anglesea Street wouldn’t be lifted until the Rats were allowed to play.
If the RUC were an unlikely ally, the man who stepped in to keep Ireland safe for rock’n’roll was an equally strange bedfellow. Desmond Guinness, owner of Leixlip Castle, would allow his substantial back garden to be overrun by punk ruffians – for a fee. Guinness said that although this wasn’t quite his type of music, he wanted to see people enjoying themselves.
On March 2nd, 1980, Geldof strode on to a hastily erected stage at the castle and waited for the screams of 10,000 fans to abate. He grabbed the mic and said just two words: “Who won?”
That morning at Blooms Geldof had been woken by the sound of traffic on the Liffey quays. He went to the window and looked down approvingly as throngs of people clambered aboard a fleet of buses that CIÉ had laid on to transport the thousands to Leixlip.
An up-and-coming local music journalist called Niall Stokes reviewed the Leixlip show for New Musical Express. “After weeks of legal wrangling and public confusion, the Boomtown Rats finally found a home for their return . . . The band had taken on the combined forces of ignorance and prejudice, finally coming out on top . . . Throughout the sorry mess the band had been cast in the role of flag-bearers for a culture so obviously seen as a threat by the local establishment . . . The Boomtown Rats are a potentially powerful vehicle for influencing teenage sons and daughters.”
Johnnie Fingers – aka John Moylett – the band’s keyboardist, remembers the media outcry the most. “We were holed up in Blooms Hotel, waiting for the gig to be rearranged, and because we were very much in the public eye at the time, a big thing was made of the Dublin heroes coming home. The headlines had it that the Rats were banned from playing in their own hometown – and I remember Reuters picked up on the story and it became big international news . . . The story really got out of control, and we were front-page news every day.”
Contrary to what is still believed, Moylett says the band were extraordinarily relieved when the Leopardstown show was cancelled. “The ticket sales weren’t doing great at all; it would have been a complete disaster. I distinctly recall us feeling very lucky that the council did refuse us a licence. By the time Leixlip happened we had been front-page news for 10 days, so we had a 10,000-strong sell-out.”
The Boomtown Rats’ then manager, Fachtna O’Ceallaigh, remembers the “cabin fever” of 10 days in Blooms Hotel with the international press waiting outside. “I went out with Geldof, and the media posse, to Leopardstown racecourse, and I remember him standing on a wall and stating that The Boomtown Rats would not leave Dublin until they had played their homecoming show.”
O’Ceallaigh recalls the suggestion at the time that “people would go crazy and lose their heads” if the Rats were allowed to play. As for the eventual Leixlip show, he found Guinness “to be very accommodating”, but the performance itself was marred by poor security arrangements and an audience being pumped up by “bad cider and cheap speed”.
“It was the only show we ever did where it was a case of the band leaving the stage and getting straight into a waiting van and going direct to the airport,” O’Ceallaigh says. “There was no sense of triumph at all, just a sense of relief. The expression I heard most in the van out of Leixlip was, ‘Jesus Christ. Thank God it’s over.’ ”
Moylett, who now lives in Tokyo, where he runs the Fuji Rock Festival – Asia’s Glastonbury – agrees.
“It was a mad show: the crowd was completely wild and out of control. During our first song I jumped up, in wild pogo style, and when I came down I went halfway through the stage. I had to get pulled back up by the road crew. The hole got covered up with a sheet of chipboard, and we continued.”
The Boomtown Rats (minus Johnnie Fingers) play at Leopardstown racecourse at 8.45pm today; gates open at 4pm