The Rats played the
Rock & Blues Festival in January 2009 and I caught up with Simon
Crowe and Garry Roberts during the afternoon before their
Alan: What are your musical memories of growing up in Ireland?
Simon: Garry and I started musical life at
school. This was way back in the mid-60s so we’ve been together a long
time. We had a school band which had been formed before I came on the
scene – I was the last to join. We had too many guitarists and we
needed a drummer so I was handed the short straw.
Garry: The reason Simon got invited to join us was
because he had a nice-looking guitar so we thought maybe he knew
something about music. We had too many potential guitarists, so you
became the drummer.
Simon: And Garry thought he’d get to play my
Garry: Yes, he had a Hofner semi-acoustic which
looked like the real thing.
Simon: Our musical tastes at that time and the
stuff we played was The Small Faces, Rolling Stones, The Kinks,
Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers, Elmore James – mainstream cum blues,
especially a lot of the bluesier stuff. We used to play the school
dances and after school we played in a couple of other bands. Then we
stopped playing for a while. After a couple of years, one day Garry came
to see me and asked me if I wanted to join this band he had started -
which eventually turned into the Boomtown Rats.
Alan: Did you always want to become a musician?
Was it your original career choice?
Garry: Not really. I wanted to be a
gynaecologist. I went to the same (co-ed) boarding school as Simon and
at school there was a dance every term which was called the Supper
Dance. If there was a school band they would play at the Supper Dance
and there was a dance committee which would hire amps for them. The
first dance I went to there were these 6th Formers up there
with electric guitars and I thought “God, that’s amazing”, and it was
that that got me into playing. I loved the look of the electric guitar
– it was a great gadget. I had music lessons in childhood – piano,
clarinet and stuff like that, so I did seem to have an interest in music
but I was always a bit more left field and I liked the edgy, bluesy,
harder stuff than most of the people at school. And I liked standing
there with a loud electric guitar and making a lot of ferocious racket.
Simon: No change there! In terms of professional
music, that whole world was a long way away. We grew up in Ireland,
which was a real backwater. We had no live music scene within Ireland at
that time so it was probably the furthest thing from my mind to ever
make a career in music. Even when I was at college, doing architecture.
Garry: I had a hell of a job persuading him to
join the band.
Simon: Yes, he did. I had actually given up music
and I’d given my drums away to a friend who’d taught me. I’d said,
“Look, I can’t find anybody good to play with, so just take them away.”
Then Garry came round and persuaded me to join his band. But I don’t
think that in terms of career any of us could see beyond getting
together and having a bit of fun, which is, of course, the ideal way
that a career is made
Garry: Although, when the Rats started up, we did
have a unity of purpose in that we wanted to take everything with the
band as far as we possibly could and I impressed this on Simon at the
Simon: Yes, it did all change. Once we realised,
even after the first gig, that we were actually far more than the
individual parts and we had something that could be commercial
and we could actually do something and make records and then we
started to see beyond the immediate boundaries of playing in Ireland. So
we strove to come over to the UK and get a record deal, and that was at
least partly inspired by seeing what other bands were doing and
comparing ourselves and building a bit of confidence.
Alan: Who were your favourite artists at that
Simon: Beatles, Stones, Small Faces, Kinks. I
remember going to see Fleetwood Mac in Dublin – the band with Peter
Green, Danny Cohen, Jeremy Spencer. We even went to see Led Zeppelin.
We’d also go and see bands like Pentangle, so really across the board,
but the music I wanted to play was more mainstream and blues.
Garry: I liked people like the Yardbirds, Jeff
Beck, Frank Zappa, the Butterfield Blues Band and I even went to see
Champion Jack Dupree at the Liberty Hall in Dublin. But I did love the
blues music and nowadays when people are asked about their influences
they might say “Anthrax” but I used to listen to stuff like Blind Lemon
Jefferson. It all comes from the blues really.
Alan: So who’s influenced you the most in your
musical writing and playing?
Simon: That’s a tough one. For me, it’s always
been more individual tracks or songs rather than a particular player. I
could reel off numerous drummers which would mean very little but it’s
more a style of playing and individual songs. So there’s the material
I’ve talked about but I was also completely blown away by John Bonham of
Led Zeppelin as I was by Mick Fleetwood - a fairly eclectic mix really.
Alan: What was the best album you ever bought?
Simon: It’s got to be the Beatles, probably
Revolver, just because it was so innovative at the time. Just
completely different and new and fresh, and it still sounds like that to
Garry: I would say it was the Stones first album
- The Rolling Stones. Oh Carol, and all that stuff, and Brian
Jones is one of my guitar heroes. I read Bill Wyman’s book - A Stone
Alone, and I thought it was great that the book ended when Brian Jones
died. I’ve even been to visit his grave in Cheltenham.
Simon: You were always more Stones and I was
always more Beatles.
Garry: People think it was all Mick and Keith but
that isn’t the way it was. Brian Jones was the creative energy behind
the Rolling Stones and a brilliant musician. However, he was fucked up
and, for whatever reason, he didn’t have much real self-confidence. He
was a bit of an arsehole but I think it was because he was so lacking in
self-esteem. But he was brilliant and I think it’s such a shame that he
wasn’t more of a settled person and able to go on to achieve more.
Simon: So would Brian Jones be your ultimate
Garry: Probably, yes. Pete Townsend would be as
well, and even Billy Gibbons. People think of ZZ Top as the band who
made Eliminator and Afterburner, but ZZ Top were originally a Texas
blues band and they go back some way. Jimi Hendrix said that Billy
Gibbons was one of his favourite guitar players. I like people that
play less rather than more, who are sparse and leave space. Space
talks, and Billy Gibbons is somebody who just chooses a note and then
just sticks it somewhere you hardly expect it to be. It’s not all flash
playing - it’s really selecting notes and making them mean something. I
would love to be able to play like that but I just tend to thrash away!
Alan: This is probably a silly question – but
what is your favourite instrument?
Gary: This– it’s a Gretch Silver Jet [holding up
a guitar he was re-stringing]. And that, over there, is my home-made
Simon: Is the answer “guitar”? He’ll go on for
Alan: Okay, I’ve got the message! Are there any
particular songs that you play that have a special meaning to you?
Simon: In the set that we’re doing at the moment,
they all do in some way. Probably Rat Trap because of the way it
came together and the way it turned into the massive hit that it was.
It wasn’t ever intended to be a hit, or even a single. It came together
in the studio at the end of the second Boomtown Rats album, Tonic for
the Troops, and we had this idea and it grew very quickly and it had a
real sound and style of its own. Rhythmically, from my point of view,
it’s a much more interesting sound than the more thrashy stuff that we
started off with. The way it came to fruition and became a hit was also
special because we had been fairly popular and each song that we’d
released had gone higher than the previous one. With Rat Trap, we got
on the Kenny Everett Video Show and we did a special video specifically
for that show and that got shown and a lot of our fans at the time were
phoning in and asking if this was the new Rats Single. The record
company hadn’t even really looked at the song but then they thought,
“This is the one” and we put it out and it became number 1 for two
weeks. So that’s kind of special because it sort of grew out of
nothing. Sometimes you can try really hard to achieve something and you
don’t quite hit the mark but sometimes the things that you don’t try so
hard at actually go way higher than your expectations.
Alan: What are your memories of playing at Live
Simon: Terror! An incredible occasion, just
awe-inspiring. It was that moment of going out there and being in front
of 70,000 people at 10 o’clock in the morning and realising that was
just the tip of the iceberg and there were probably a billion people
watching it around the world. Just to be around all these other bands,
massive egos, amazing musicians….just the whole occasion and being swept
up with the musical part of it. And obviously it was for the cause that
we all know which was far more important than all that really.
Garry: It was the feeling that everybody was
there for one reason and we were all pulling together. That’s one thing
I’d give credit to Geldof for, he managed to badger everybody into
getting it together. Bob didn’t put the whole thing together by himself
- Harvey Goldsmith assembled it all, but Geldof was there giving it all
that to make sure it happened, so fair play.
Simon: To have the vision and to be able to pull
it off and to make it the offer that nobody would want to refuse to be a
part of it. Their own personal reasons were of no real significance and
Bob was able to see through all of that and say, “It doesn’t matter –
this is what matters”. It was pretty awe-inspiring.
Garry: Harvey Goldsmith deserves a medal.
Alan: When Bob Geldof left The Boomtown Rats,
were you surprised?
Simon: There’s always an element of shock when
something dies. And it was the end of The Boomtown Rats at that time
and we didn’t know how long that might be. I suppose that there were
signs that The Boomtown Rats were not really going to go much further,
partly because of the Live Aid thing. For some reason, our career
dwindled after Live Aid whereas several other bands that played at Live
Aid took off. Maybe people couldn’t see us as a musical entity with the
force of charity that was behind it. Effectively, The Boomtown Rats
were pushed to the rear and Geldof became the main event and therefore,
commercially, Bob was in demand and he managed to secure a lucrative
solo deal so the reasons and the writing were on the wall. It was a
Alan: Do you still play with the Jiggerypipery
Simon: Yes, and I really enjoy it. It’s a
complete contrast to this as an instrumental band and it’s Scottish
based. It’s all based around an old geezer blowing up a bag of wind
called bagpipes and he’s a real stalwart at what he does. He knows
nothing about the rest of the world of music and he’s in his own little
bubble. He’s sort of heard of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and
Elvis, but that’s about it. There is a great sense of rhythm in the way
he approaches his music and that’s what I try to pick up on. We have
bagpipes, fiddle, cittern, bass and drums so it’s quite a traditional
sound without the bass and drums but with them it’s quite a rocky, dancy
thing and I try to bring some force and power to it. It’s great fun.
Alan: Were you surprised by the success of the
Boomtown Rats back catalogue release?
Garry & Simon: (with great emphasis!)
Alan: According to your website, the essence of
your present band is a back-to-basics approach. Could you expand on
Simon: When we got together we thought, obviously,
that we’d do Boomtown Rats material, but particularly the Boomtown Rats
material that people would want to hear and that we would want to play.
So we started at the beginning, listened to the first album and thought,
“Yes, that really is the essence of what the Boomtown Rats is about”.
The reasons for the band’s popularity were pretty much laid down in that
first album - along with all the hit singles obviously. We’re actually
not doing all the hits – we don't play anything more recent than
Someone’s Looking at You. We’re thinking of adding in a song called
Diamond Smiles. The idea was to get back to what Garry and I
focused on as kids at school, we’re working at this R&B thing, getting
the rhythm happening and that’s pretty much what we brought into the
Boomtown Rats. The other guys in the BTRs hadn’t played in other bands
but Garry and I had so there was a sort of chemistry that existed
between us. When you listen back to it, you can hear that was what
cemented the whole thing together.
Garry: To put it simply, the songs are what matter
and we don't want to clutter them up with too much stuff going on. The
two guitars approach forces a kind of discipline on us and we have to
understand the essence and basis of each song in order to put it
Alan: Were you a little rusty remembering the
Simon: Completely. The first time we got up and
played Mary of the Fourth Form, we hadn’t done that for possibly
30 years so we really had to work at it and now I think it’s sounding
better than it ever did. We did a gig down in South Devon in the
summer, our first public appearance, and it was all quite emotional.
Garry: My girlfriend was there and she’d never
even seen me play the guitar. To see me in my Gig Shirt was quite an
eye-opener for her.
Simon: My wife was there and she’d never seen me
playing Boomtown Rats stuff. So, for personal, as well as professional,
reasons, it was quite a big thing for us and it was just fantastic to
find that there were so many people who wanted to come and see us, and
to realise that we could do it. There are many reasons why we are
trying to keep it "back to basics", partly because of the way the band
is simply structured with two guitars, bass and drums. The Boomtown
Rats originally had six members, with keyboards as well as the guitars,
so we have tailored the arrangements to work with the new stripped-down
line-up. The songs now sound the way we want them to.
Garry: The only reason we had keyboards in the
first place was because Johnny wasn’t a guitar player. Otherwise it
would have been Johnny and me on guitars and Pete would possibly have
done the bass because he was Johnny’s cousin, but maybe not. I invited
Geldof to an early rehearsal with a view to him taking on the management
of the group and he produced a harmonica and played along to a Dr
Feelgood song we had learned. I’d been put up as lead singer at that
time but thought it better to concentrate on playing the guitar so we
got Geldof in to do the lead singing.
Alan: You mentioned Johnny Fingers. Did he play
with you recently?
Simon: Unfortunately, he couldn’t make it. He
lives in Japan and works for the country's No.1 music promoter. He only
comes over once or twice a year so we carried on without him. It would
have been the icing on the cake to have him with us but the cake is
together, solid and sound and we’ve put a lot of work into getting this
band sounding the way it does now.
Alan: So there aren’t any plans for him to join
Simon: At any time, he is always more than
welcome, but it just didn’t work out this time. He is keen to play with
us and there will be other opportunities, perhaps in Japan.
Alan: And Gerry Cott – I believe he recently
played with you at the London Club?
Simon: He didn’t play but he came along to check
us out. Gerry would have been welcome but just to get up would have
been difficult - you really do need to rehearse. He left the band after
the first five years and he’s not involved in the music business any
more, so to pick up the pieces would take him a bit longer; but,
metaphorically, he’s standing just offstage, watching and very
interested, and we keep in touch with him and with Johnny.
Alan: Will 2009 see the release of a new album?
Simon: We have a few ideas about what we would
like to record, so yes, we will be recording with some new songs, and
possibly some rearranged material, with a view to putting an album out.
Alan: What are your other future plans?
Simon: At the moment we are just at the stage
where we are building up confidence and strength within the unit of the
band and seeing where we can take it. As far as we’re concerned, we’ll
be taking it wherever we can.
Alan: Does that include the USA?
Simon: Possibly. To play in the USA again would be
brilliant. Canada was very strong for us back in the old days and we
might have a more ready-made audience in America. Generally speaking,
our main territories would be the UK, Ireland, some European countries
like Scandinavia, Germany, Holland, Belgium. We were popular in Japan
and we would also like to explore the possibility of playing in India
and other countries in Asia. Initially, we’d probably try to go back to
the areas where we were popular and where we’d be more of a brand name
and try to build on that.
Alan: Simon and Garry, thanks very much for your
time. It’s been a great pleasure.
Garry: The pleasure is all yours.
Simon: Great, fantastic.
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