Rock Radio Promotion: From Dead Rats to Live Aid

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How a highly original promotional stunt helped introduce Sir Bob Geldof to America
A rat-free Bone & Sir Bob years later in London/Photo courtesy of Mike Bone

A rat-free Bone & Sir Bob years later in London (Photo via Mike Bone’s archives)

In the late 1970s I was the head of rock radio promotion at Mercury Records, based in Chicago. Mercury was home to classic rockers like Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Thin Lizzy, Rush, 10cc, Graham Parker and Max Webster – not on the cutting edge of A&R, but firmly in the rock pocket. I had a good rock roster to work.

I was introduced to the Boomtown Rats by their A&R person, Nigel Grainge, the senior A&R executive at Phonogram Records, our sister company in U.K. Nigel had signed Thin Lizzy, 10cc and Graham Parker, and was hot as pepper pudding at the time. Mercury had picked up the self-titled debut album by the Rats, an Irish punk band Nigel had also signed. He came to the Mercury Records headquarters and brought along with him the band’s lead singer, Bob Geldof, and their manager Fachtna O’Kelly.

Related: Nigel Grainge dies in June 2017

Geldof was a very interesting guy. He had with him a rubber stamp that said “Boomtown Rats.” After the Mercury executives had left for the day, Geldof went into everyone’s private office and the conference room and stamped “Boomtown Rats” on all their papers and gold and platinum award discs. Needless to say this created a bit of interest in the company in the band – some good and some not so good.

The punk rock movement had yet to gain traction in the U.S. Radio consultants were coming into power and controlling what album rock stations were programming. The consultants avoided anything associated with punk like it carried the Ebola virus. The Rats were lumped in with the Sex Pistols. Neither got the airplay they deserved in America.

I came up with the idea of sending out dead rats with promotional copies of the album to radio stations. I thought this was in keeping with the band”s “fuck it” attitude. I contacted a biological supply house in Wisconsin. As it turns out, you can get dead rats, cats, dogs, worms, monkeys, even human cadavers. I ordered 50 dead rats sent to my office. The rats were double bagged in formaldehyde but they still had sort of a laboratory smell about them. The senior officials at the company were appalled that I would attempt something so crass. My feeling was that I was in the record business – crass by definition. Nigel, Fachtna and Geldof all thought that it was a great idea.

Mike Bone & rat

The promo man eats rat rather than crow or humble pie when his Boomtown rodents go radio & street viral/Photo courtesy of Mike Bone

The general manager of the company came into my office and gave me strict instructions not to send these rats to radio stations. So I sent a number of the rats to a record store in Chicago on Clark Street. The record store created a window display using the dead rats and Boomtown Rats album covers and posters. The display was such a major success that Roy Leonard, the morning jock on the old-line Chicago MOR radio station WGN, did a segment about how disgusting the window display was.

WGN was on the #1 rated radio station in the market, a 100,000-watt clear channel signal heard in eight surrounding states. The story created traffic jams in front of the record store to the extent they had to hire off-duty policemen to handle the gridlock. People were driving into Chicago from Indiana to see this disgusting window display.

The press got wind of the dead rat promotion and it developed a life of its own. People were calling me and begging for a rat. Playboy magazine referred to me as a “promotional genius” for coming up with this stunt (I think that might have been tongue in cheek, but who knows…). Later, Geldof wrote about the dead rat promotion in his 1986 biography, Is That It? saying that it killed his career in America. Hindsight is dirt cheap. At the time when I was doing the promotion Geldof thought it was “fantastic!” Age makes people more conservative.

Sir Bob Geldof went on to do great things. Nigel is one of my best mates and lives five blocks from me in Santa Monica. Fachtna O’Kelly went on to manage Sinead O’Connor, who shaved my head once… but that is a different promotional story.

The dead rats did not boost the first single Boomtown (human) Rats U.S. single to hit status; it did reach #2 in Ireland & No. 11 in the U.K.

And this story isn’t complete without the Boomtown Rats performing “Rat Trap.”

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