Garry Roberts, guitarist who co-founded the Boomtown Rats – obituary
Garry Roberts, who has died aged 72, was a co-founder and the lead guitarist of the Boomtown Rats, the Irish band who rode the punk wave with hits such as Rat Trap and I Don’t Like Mondays and launched the stellar career of Bob Geldof.
Garrick Roberts was born in Dublin on June 16 1950 and brought up a few miles down the road in Dún Laoghaire. At boarding school, the Quaker Newtown School in Waterford, he started a band with the future Rats drummer Simon Crowe, inspired by the likes of the Small Faces, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds.
Roberts took music lessons in piano and clarinet – he also had early aspirations to become a doctor – but was seduced by the guitar.
“At school there was a dance every term which was called the Supper Dance,” he recalled. “The first dance I went to, there were these sixth formers up there with electric guitars and I thought: ‘God, that’s amazing,’ and it was that that got me into playing.”
Roberts was the original lead singer, while Geldof was seen by the band only as a potential manager, but when he turned up to a rehearsal and played harmonica on a Dr Feelgood track the band was practising, they saw a front man waiting to burst out and gave him the job.
The band – Roberts, Crowe, Geldof, Johnnie Fingers on keyboards, Pete Briquette on bass and Gerry Cott on rhythm guitar – was originally called the Nightlife Thugs, as whom they played one gig. But Roberts threatened to quit if it was not changed and Geldof came up with the new name, inspired by Woody Guthrie’s account of his childhood gang in his autobiography Bound for Glory.
They quickly established themselves as a cracking live act around Ireland, then in 1976 they moved to London in search of a record deal. They turned down £1 million to sign a 10-year contract with Richard Branson’s burgeoning Virgin Records when they realised that if they were as successful as they hoped it would turn out to be a bum deal, and signed for Ensign Records instead.
They played their first British gig in Ribchester, Lancashire, in May 1977, and went on to support Tom Petty, Talking Heads and the Ramones. In August that year they released their debut single, Looking After No 1, which they played on their TV debut, on The Marc Bolan Show, two weeks before the glam-rock god’s death in a car crash.
It was the first in a stream of hit records – all rocket-fuelled by Roberts’s razor-sharp guitar – that continued unabated for five years and included the UK No 1s, Rat Trap (which also topped the US charts) and I Don’t Like Mondays (which did not, probably because of its inspiration, a school shooting in San Diego).
But by 1983-84 the tidal wave of fame had abated – though there was a brief resurgence when they played Live Aid, famously organised by their lead singer – and in 1986 the Rats split when Geldof left to go solo.
Roberts wrote songs for Kirsty MacColl and worked as a live sound engineer for bands including Simply Red and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and played on some of Geldof’s solo records.
He eventually left the music scene, working as a financial adviser for 15 years and then as a central heating engineer, though he did hold guitar workshops for schools, in which he stressed the primacy of the blues in rock music.
He reconnected with his old friend and colleague Simon Crowe, in the Fab Four and the Velcro Files. In 2008 they formed the Rats, playing songs from the band’s first three albums, then in 2013 Roberts brought Crowe, Geldof and Briquette together in the reformed Boomtown Rats, who enjoyed a new lease of life, touring and recording.
Garry Roberts, born June 16 1950, died November 9 2022