Banana Republic: memories of a suburban Irish childhood

Bob Geldof is one of several real-life musicians to appear as characters in The Thrill of it All. In this extract from a memoir-in-progress, Joseph O’Connor remembers growing up with the Rats

In the summer of 1977 I was 13 years old and pretty miserable with my life. My parents’ marriage – unhappy for a long time – had finally disintegrated.

We lived in Glenageary, a middle-class housing estate in southside Dublin. There was a large stain caused by damp on the gable wall of our house, and if you glanced at it in a certain light, it looked exactly like the map of Ireland. I always thought this meant something important, but I could never figure out what. In the summer of 1977, with only myself and my mother living there now, the house seemed unutterably empty.

We didn’t see eye to eye, my mother and myself. Sometimes, when we argued, she would throw me out of the house; other times I would simply walk out to get away from her. So I spent a good deal of the very hot summer of 1977 just wandering the streets of Dublin, by myself.

And an odd thing was happening in Dublin in the summer of 1977. At first, in my hometown, punk rock was nothing much more than a feeling. I mean, nobody knew very much about it. Punk had been initially perceived as just another English invention, I suppose; another weird Limey oddity, in the same culturally wacko league as eel pie and pantomime dames. It’s important to say that this was a time when Dublin did not really figure on the world rock and roll map. We had Thin Lizzy and occasional gigs by the great Rory Gallagher, and a handful of younger Irish bands. There was a quartet of northside born-again Christians who played Peter Frampton songs, and who, it was said by some, would never amount to much. (That summer, they were changing their name from The Hype to U2.) And that was about it. The city had no pop culture. But in the summer of 1977, when I was 13 years old, into this vacuum stepped a monstrous and slavering spirit.

I got a job that July, on a local building site. One of the labourers was a cadaverous, scrawny young fella, and it turned out that he would play a significant role in my musical education. Hubert was about 19, from a nearby suburb which he sometimes referred to as “Sallyfuckinnoggin”. His language was flamboyantly atrocious, and so was his skin. There were two things that made Hubert’s life complete. The first was pornography. The second was punk rock. He loved it. He absolutely adored punk rock, and he would talk to me about it for hours at a time. He told me about an establishment in town called Moran’s Hotel, in the basement of which there were punk rock concerts almost every night. It was all about being “against society”, he said; it was about “smashing the system”. Hubert himself was “against society”, he assured me fervently. There were legions of people in the basement of Moran’s Hotel every night of the week who were also “against society”, and they had stuck safety pins through their ears, cheeks and noses to prove it.

The bands who played in Moran's Hotel were against society too, all of them. But the worst of the lot, Hubert confided, the mankiest shower of louse-ridden, no-good, low-down bowsies ever to plug in a Marshall, ram up the volume and hammer out a three-chord trick, was a year-old band called The Boomtown Rats. They were "fuckin' scum", Hubert would say, and he would smile in a fondly contented way when he said this, as though attaining the state of fuckin' scumhood was a development in which a person would take considerable pride. "They don't even fuckin' wash themselves," he would beam diabolically, although how he was in a position to know such a thing remained unrevealed (perhaps mercifully). I would have loved to go to Moran's Hotel, of course, but being under-age, I couldn't. Yet I was frantically curious about this crowd of licentious and festering reprobates, The Boomtown Rats.

I wondered what they would be like. The only real-life pop star I had ever actually seen was Gary Glitter, miming I Love You Love in a television studio at RTÉ. I wondered if these Boomtown Rats could possibly be as entertaining as Gary. Well, one day Hubert told me that I would soon have a chance to find out. The Boomtown Rats had been booked to play a big outdoor show in Dalymount Park soccer ground. Hubert had bought me a ticket as a present.

That August afternoon, having lied to my mother about my destination – I think I said I was going to a boy scouts’ day out – I went to the concert with Hubert and his beloved, Mona. Mona was a healthy-looking girl, with the arms of a docker and a bewildering vocabulary of blasphemies. All her visible garments were made of leather, a fact I found arresting in the extreme, mainly because, apart from my shoes, the only leather garment I myself possessed at the time was a scapular.

It was a very hot day and the stadium was packed. Thin Lizzy and Fairport Convention were headlining the concert, but I did not care about that, mainly because Hubert had discreetly advised that these bands were not sufficiently “against society”. So, like my mentor and Mona, I only cared about The Boomtown Rats. When their arrival was announced over the PA system, I thought Hubert was going to ascend body and soul into heaven, Virgin Mary-wise, so screechingly enthusiastic did he become.

I had never experienced anything quite like the phenomenal excitement as the band sloped onto the stage, picked up their instruments and began to play. I felt as though a lightning storm was flickering through my nerve endings. It's something you never really forget, the first time you hear the scream of an electric guitar, the thud of a bass, or the clash of a real hi-hat cymbal. The lead singer, Bob Geldof, looked like an emaciated and drooling Beelzebub, as he leapt and tottered around the boards, spitting these extraordinary lyrics into his microphone. The keyboard player, Johnny "Fingers" Moylett, wore pyjamas on stage, an act of the most unspeakable and unprecedented sartorial anarchy. The bassist, Pete Briquette, lurched up and down, leering dementedly, as though suffering from a particularly unpleasant strain of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. And if guitarists Gerry Cott and Gary Roberts, and drummer Simon Crowe, looked relatively normal, you still would have had not inconsiderable reservations about the prospect of any one of them babysitting your sister.

They played their music frantic and fast, incredibly LOUD, with a curious mixture of passion, commitment and utter disdain for the audience. I loved them. I had never heard a noise like this in my life. I was nailed to the ground by it. When they thrashed into their first single Looking After Number One, I swear to you, every single hair on my body stood up.

Don’t give me love thy neighbour!

Don’t give me charity!

Don’t give me peace and love from your good lord above!

You’re always gettin’ in my way with your stupid ideas!

I don’t want to be like you.

I don’t want to be like you.

I don’t want to be like you.

I’m gonna be like ME!

Now, this was what I called music. I staggered home that night with my head pounding and my heart reeling. My mother spent several centuries yelling at me, which made my headache even worse. But I felt empowered by the music, I really did. It sounds so naive now, I know, but that’s the way it was. I felt I had witnessed a kind of revelation. Suddenly it seemed that life was actually pretty straightforward. All you had to do, if someone was getting on your case, was tell them to feck away off, that you didn’t want to be like them, that you wanted to he like YOU! It was the summer of 1977, you see. It all seemed very simple.

Back in school in September, I told my friends all about The Boomtown Rats. These pals and myself felt we had something in common, in some odd way. I think we felt we had experienced more interesting pain than other people had, although, of course, being teenage boys, we didn’t talk much about such things. It turned out that my mate Conor had heard about The Boomtown Rats himself. He had read an article about them in Hot Press magazine, in which it was revealed that Bob Geldof had been to our school.

If I had been interested in the Rats before, my enthusiasm rocketed through the roof now. These leprous anti-establishment scumbags had actually attended my school! Blackrock College, this priest-run joint long famous for churning out obedient wage slaves had somehow produced The Boomtown Rats! How had this happened? There was hope for us all.

One evening that autumn, Bob Geldof and the Rats were booked to appear on The Late Late Show. The atmosphere in my friend’s living room was electric, as we uncapped the shandy bottles, passed around the solitary spit-soaked cigarette, and waited for the messiah to descend. Bob shambled onto the screen like an evil, bedraggled wino and sneered his way through the interview in a furtive, southside drawl. He detested many things about Ireland, he said. He loathed the Catholic Church; he hated the priests who had taught him in Blackrock College, he disliked his father. He had only gotten into rock and roll in order to get drunk and get laid. Almost everything he said was greeted with horrified gasps and massed tongue-clickings from the audience, and wild cheers from my friends and myself. When the interview was over, the rest of the band slouched on, looking very much as though they had just woken up in a skip, and thundered into Mary of the Fourth Form, a feverish song about the seduction of a schoolteacher by a female student. The Late Late Show had witnessed many exciting events throughout its long and colourful history, but never a youth playing the piano in his pyjamas. As the number climaxed in a clamour of drums and wailing feedback, the studio audience was stunned.

“Well done, Bob,” smiled Gay Byrne. Geldof turned around, scowling, wiping the saliva from his lips with the back of his hand. “Well, if you liked it so much,” he snapped, “go and buy the record.” Fuck! The guy was giving cheek to Gaybo! Well, this was something new and dangerous. This was practically revolution. In Ireland, in the late 1970s, this was absolutely astounding talk. This was the decade when one million people – almost a third of the entire population of the State – had attended a Mass said by the Pope in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. This was many years before Mary Robinson, or the divorce debate, or the legalisation of gay rights in Ireland.

You could not legally buy a condom in Ireland in the 1970s, never mind go on the television and talk so blithely about getting drunk and getting laid and hating priests and disliking your father. And although I liked my own father a lot, Geldof’s pungent cocktail of motormouth arrogance, unwise trousers and disrespect for authority really did appeal to me. In time, I couldn’t get enough of it.

Soon after The Late Late Show, my friend Conor got a copy of The Boomtown Rats’ first record and he taped it for me. It wasn’t really punk at all, in fact; it was souped-up rhythm and blues played with a lot of aggression. But there were some fantastic songs on it. Never Bite the Hand That Feeds and Neon Heart, for instance. The music was raw, brimming with verve and a crisp visceral energy. But there were other things I admired about it. The songs were full of characters, and I liked that. It made the songs seem like they were about real people. And there was a surprising facility for language; a gutsy, pared-down approach to storytelling.

Sooner or later, the dawn came breaking,

The joint was jumping and the walls were shaking,

When Joey sneaked in the back door way,

Pretending he was with the band, he never used to pay;

He was never a great draw for pulling the chicks,

He’d just lie against the wall like he was holding up the bricks.

But on The Boomtown Rats’ first record there was also a slow, piano-based ballad called I Can Make It If You Can. It was a tender song of vulnerability and longing. I kept the tape beside my bed, and I would put on I Can Make It If You Can every morning as soon as I woke up. I felt that this was the voice of a survivor, a guy who knew about pain. I felt he was singing to me, and to people like me, and that there was some kind of integrity to what he was doing. I played the tape until it wore out and couldn’t be played any more. And there were many mornings around that time – I don’t mind saying it – when that song helped me get out of bed.

I would listen to him singing I Can Make It If You Can, and I would believe it. I simply felt that I could make it if Bob Geldof could. I know I was utterly naive to think that, but I’m grateful now for the naivety of youth. I associated myself with Bob Geldof. He became a paradigm of survival, toughness and courage. He would never ever get ground down by anything, I felt, and thus, if I remembered that, neither would I. As time went on, I began to think more about Bob Geldof and his band. I derived an active personal pleasure from anything the Rats got up to. I bought everything they released – She’s So Modern, Like Clockwork, then the magnificent album A Tonic for the Troops. I really did think their success had something to do with me. I felt I was involved in it, inextricably linked to it, bound up with it in ways that nobody else could understand. I felt they were singing to me and to the people I knew. I thought of them as my friends, even though I had never met them.

In November 1978, anyway, The Boomtown Rats became the first Irish group of the era to get to the top of the British charts. On Top of the Pops that week, as he jabbered the brilliant lyric of Rat Trap into his mike, Geldof ripped up a poster of Olivia Newton John and John Travolta, whose twee single Summer Nights the Rats had just ousted from the number one slot. In school, my friends and I were speechless with pride. Conor cut a photograph of Geldof out of Hot Press and we stuck it up in the Hall of Fame, where the framed images of all the famous past pupils of the school had been hung. We stuck Bob up there, among the bishops and diplomats and politicians who had founded the state in which we lived. His gawky, grubby face fitted exactly over a photograph of former president Eamon de Valera, and this fact had the kind of exotically cheap symbolism that appeals very greatly to 14-year-olds. It felt like a victory of sorts at the time, and if I am honest, it still does.

I listened to The Boomtown Rats all the time. I would listen to them for hours on end, and let them send me into a kind of comforting trance. I Don’t Like Mondays, Diamond Smiles, I knew the words of their songs off by heart. I would recite them, over and over again in my head, over and over. There were many nights when I went to sleep with the words of I Don’t Like Mondays rattling around in my mind, and many mornings when I woke up still silently reciting them, like a prayer.

In December 1979, The Boomtown Rats came back to Ireland. They were supposed to play a big concert, but had been denied permission by the authorities at the last minute. The Boomtown Rats were seen as dangerous in Ireland, such was the murderous innocence of the times. The band took the authorities to court, and lost. Early in the new year the Rats released – unleashed would be a better word – the single Banana Republic, which deftly summed up their feelings about Ireland. By now, they were feelings that coincided greatly with my own.

Banana Republic, septic isle,

Suffer in the screaming sea,

It sounds like dying, dying, dying

Everywhere I go now

And everywhere I see

The black and blue uniforms

Police and priests

It was a devastating attack on a society whose achievements in posturing cant and hypocrisy had so far outstripped its achievements in morality. It was delivered with lacerating power, at a time when it needed to be so delivered. Nobody but Geldof would have had the guts to do it. I don’t know how anyone else felt about it at the time, and I don’t care. I admired Geldof for calling it the way he saw it. I still do admire him for that.

But it was to be the last big single for The Boomtown Rats. Not long after Banana Republic, things started to wane for them. There were rumours of drug-taking in and around the band, I don’t really know if they were true or not. One way or the other, I think the Rats simply began to lose their way as the tastes of the record-buying public started to change. But I still chart where I was in those days, and what I was doing, by remembering their singles. Elephant’s Graveyard was January 1981, the month after my parents’ last court case. House on Fire was August 1981, the month my mother had to go into hospital.

There were a brief couple of days when we stayed in the house by ourselves. We had the Rats on loud, almost all the time. That’s what I remember now, the intoxicating light-headedness of fear and freedom, the thud of the bass coming up through the floorboards, and the nasal roar of Geldof’s voice. When you’re in trouble, it is odd where you find consolation.

Never in a Million Years was released in November 1981, just after I started college and moved out of home. House of Fire was released in February 1982, when I was going out with a girl called Grace Porter. Charmed Lives was June the same year, just after we broke up. Nothing Happened Today came out in August 1982, just after I finished my first-year exams. Almost everything that happened to me in those days, I am able to mark with a song by The Boomtown Rats.

The single Drag Me Down came out in May 1984. I remember this, because I bought it one cold afternoon in Dún Laoghaire before catching the bus up to visit my mother. We had an argument and parted on bad terms. It was the last time I would ever see her. She died nine months later in a car crash. I ran away to Nicaragua to be by myself. I took a tape of the Rats’ last album, In the Long Grass that included the beautiful single of that year, Dave.

Flirt with Death

But never kiss Her

I see you bleed

I know you feel the squeeze

But please, believe

The view from on your knees


Keep going

And I took a tape of their last ever single, A Hold of Me. In some ways I wanted to forget about home, and in other ways I wanted to remember every last thing.

I often thought about the old days, and sometimes when I did, The Boomtown Rats would come into my mind. Live Aid had happened earlier that summer and Geldof was probably the most famous person in the world by now. But the band hadn’t made a record in a long time, and they seemed to have no plans to do so.

And then, in May 1986, amid rumours that the band was about to call it a day for good, they came back to Dublin to play at a charity event, featuring Van Morrison, U2, Scullion, The Pogues, all the great and the good of the Irish rock world. The Rats played a stormer. They blew everyone away and received a tumultuous reception from the audience. After the main set, Geldof strolled up to the microphone for an encore. He seemed taken aback by the warmth of the crowd’s affection. At first – unusually – he didn’t seem to know what to say. He appeared a little lost as his eyes ranged over the crowd. “Well, it’s been a great 10 years,” he muttered, then. “So, rest in peace.”

The thundering drum roll began. The opening riff pounded out. The familiar chords, D, A, G, E. The last song The Boomtown Rats ever played in public was their first song, Geldof’s hymn to snot-nosed anarchy and adolescent attitude, Looking After Number One.

Don’t give me love thy neighbour,

Don’t give me charity,

Don’t give me peace and love from your good lord above


It was at once a powerful homecoming, a stylishly ironic act of self-deprecation and a poignant farewell. And in some odd but profound sense, it seemed like a farewell to me too, a final goodbye to a time in my life that was over now. As I watched the show on television that day, I knew that I would leave Ireland again soon, that I wouldn’t come back for a long time,that I would try to move on.

Gradually I lost touch with my old schoolfriends. I moved flat five or six times in London, and somewhere along the way I left behind all my old Boomtown Rats records. But I remember their force and power still, the healing power of their righteous indignation. And I suppose that sometimes the words don’t seem quite as electrifying now as they did in Dalymount Park on a summer day when I was 13 years old and breathless with discovery. But that doesn’t bother me. Because great pop music sometimes heals us in ways that we don’t understand, or in ways that seem unbelievably trite or trivial when we look back. Great pop music is about the people who listen to it, and the circumstances in which they do so, and not really in the end about the people who make it. Maybe that’s what’s so great about it. I don’t know.

A few years ago, I was on a television programme in Ireland to talk about a novel of mine, and Bob Geldof was one of the guests. He was absolutely great. He had the air of a survivor. He seemed like a man who had come through.

In the green room after the show we chatted for a while about nothing at all, his eyes flitting restlessly around the room as he talked, his fingers running through his straggly hair. When the time came to go, we shook hands and he got his stuff together and sloped from the room, a battered guitar case under his arm. It was like watching a part of your past walk out the door.

I never got the chance to tell him what was on my mind that night. There were too many people around, and, anyway, I suppose I hadn’t really found the words I was looking for. But when I think about it now, what I wanted to say was actually very simple. It was this: when I was a scared kid, who felt that there was little enough point to life, his music and his example were second only to the support of my loved ones in keeping me going. It helped me survive. It helped me sit out the dark days, and wait for the better times to come. They did come. They often do. But before they did, Bob was there. His music embodied a worldview with which I felt I had some connection. It warned me, in the title of one Bob’s songs, to always Watch Out For the Normal People. It opened my eyes to things that had never occurred to me before. Like the greatest pop music, it was fun, unpredictable, alive, iconoclastic, intelligent, witty, danceable, tender when it wanted to be, tough as nails when it had to be. It just made me feel better. It healed. And it made me think I could make it, if he could. A foolish and adolescent belief, if ever there was one. But in a world where I had to grow up too fast, Bob Geldof and his band allowed me to be foolish and adolescent just once in a while. I’m grateful indeed, for that little, or that much. I’m very grateful for that.

The Thrill of it All is published by Vintage, £8.99

Next: On Wednesday, we publish Making a ‘Singable Song’: The Fiction of Joseph O’Connor, by UCD lecturer PJ Mathews .

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