Listen to this track by Irish new wave chart-botherers The Boomtown Rats. It’s the 1979 smash-hit song “I Don’t Like Mondays” as taken from the album The Fine Art of Surfacing. After a series of singles that made an impact on the UK and Irish charts, this is the song that gave them international attention.
The inspiration for this song was international as well. The news story arrived by way of a Telex machine (that machine making an appearance in this song, of course) while head writer Bob Geldof sat in the offices of an Atlanta college radio station waiting to be interviewed. This was basically the source for news before text messages, smart phones, and the Internet, for you young’uns! The story concerned a sixteen year old girl who shot up a school ground in a middle-class neighbourhood, killing two people, wounding eight children, and one police officer. Her excuse upon her capture? “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”
The song was written in short order, and was on the set list within a month of the incident. But, I think this song covers thematic ground that certainly goes past what originally inspired it.
One of the most notable things about this song was the critical praise it garnered, as well as its performance on the charts. It was a UK number one, got lots of play here in Canada on a variety of formatted radio stations, both AM and FM. And somewhere in there, it won an Ivor Novello award. Not a bad result, even if play in America was limited due to its controversial subject matter.
A good part of this success is down to the way the song itself is constructed, well beyond the emotionally charged subject matter it sheds light on. That piano part (played by one Johnny Fingers), coupled with the now-famous hand-claps, hits on a gospel vibe. This is helped along by the call-and-response “tell me why!” backing vocals, balanced by Geldof’s impassioned lead. And also with that piano line, you get those big chunky chords and delicate, and poignant countermelodies all intertwined to help set the scene for the lyrics. It’s a singular, complex pop song that still manages to be pop. And importantly, there was absolutely nothing like it on the radio at the time, nor has there been since.
A counterbalance to all of the critical and commercial praise this song created was the suggestion that Geldof had used a tragic event for personal gain, hitting on an issue that affected the American social landscape long before the era of Columbine and various school shootings since. But, to me this song isn’t just about the news item spit out of a Telex machine (kept so clean). It’s about the human capacity for senselessness, and perhaps about how silicon chips switching to overload inside the heads of the unbalanced can have tragic impact if not dealt with.
It also sheds light on the idea of the fragility of childhood, and how innocence is easily lost. In the age of instant updates on smart phones, we all have our personal Telex machines. In some ways, this makes life more empowering, connected as we are to more information as it happens. But, in some ways, the senselessness of life can get to us more so and much earlier in our lives than perhaps it could have in 1979. Innocence all around is that much harder to protect as a result, as our own fears about what might happen when someone’s silicone chip switches to overload filters down to our children.
Bob Geldof would see to the senselessness of the world in very real terms when he teamed with Ultravox’s Midge Ure in 1984 to create the Band-Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, written and produced for the benefit of charitable efforts to Ethiopia. Later in the summer of 1985, he organized Live Aid for that same effort.
The Boomtown Rats split by the next year. But, this song would be celebrated by a number of cover versions and references in popular culture up until the present day. And this year, The Boomtown Rats reformed with Geldof out front once again.