Bob Geldof and the Boomtown Rats were, Thin Lizzy-excepted, Ireland's original all-conquering rockers. Back when U2 were just a twinkle in the eye of Paul Hewson, David Evans and friends, the Rats were taking a chainsaw to Irish social orthodoxy and doing a reasonably efficient job burning up the charts in the process.
Those heady days are grippingly recaptured in part one of Citizens of Boomtown (RTÉ One, 10,15pm), Billy McGrath’s new documentary about the band.
All the great and good line up to pay homage (as does Sting). Bono describes Geldof getting up on stage and shrieking his lungs out as a "before and after" moment in Irish culture. Sinéad O'Connor reveals that when she ripped up the Pope's image on Saturday Night Live she had been inspired by the Rats. They had done likewise with photos of Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta after Rat Trap knocked Summer Nights from the Grease soundtrack off UK number one.
As mandatory under Irish broadcasting law, Geldof's cultural significance is parsed by Diarmaid Ferriter and Roy Foster – the only two historians legally permitted on Irish television – and by Joseph O'Connor. The writer recalls his joy and disbelief when the Rats topped the UK charts. It felt like a victory for all of Ireland.
It’s a sobering and quite depressing reminder just how embedded the national inferiority complex was in 1970s Ireland. And of the degree to which cultural cringe was part of the collective psyche.
But McGrath steers away from too much navel-gazing. He instead focuses on what is a great rock’ n’roll yarn. Especially revealing, and also hilarious, is the account of the Rats setting out to conquer America.
Geldof, for whom keeping his mouth shut did not come naturally, went out of his way to alienate US audiences by deriding the sainted Bruce Springsteen. His American record label boss, Paul Rappaport, remembers that, though Geldof was punctual and focused, he never stopped yapping.
“He was professional, he would show up on time, he knew what we had to do,” says Paul Rappaport. “But he drove me out of my f***ing mind. ‘Why this? Why that…’ On and on on…”
One slightly forced flourish are scenes of man in a mask slouching down a filthy alleyway. Is this a metaphor for Geldof and the gang’s attempt to slough off their debilitating Irishness? It’s unclear and distracting. If there’s one thing the Boomtown Rats’ story doesn’t require it’s troweled-on melodrama. But it’s the only misstep in a rockumentary that, as per the punk manifesto that inspired the Rats, rattles along furiously and with a dangerous gleam in its eyes.
Part two of Citizens Of Boomtown will be on RTÉ One, Thursday, March 12th, at 10.15 pm