What’s better than payola?
That was the question on the mind of music promoters after the monetary payoff scandal of the 1950s and 1960s. Stripped of the ability to simply leave a little cash for a disc jockey in exchange for more airplay, they came up with interesting ways to catch the attention of radio hosts.
In the 1970’s, Mike Bone of Mercury Records may have hit upon the most memorable attention-getting device of all time.
A little perspective is in order. Punk Rock, already popular in the UK, was making headway in the United States as well. Radio stations knew they had to play some of it, but many of the program directors were unfamiliar with the bands. Worse yet, some of the bands were mostly about the live performances and the stage attitudes; removed from the clothes, the hair, and the swagger, the music could be awful – not simply bad songs, but incompetent renditions of them on out-of-tune instruments.
Bands that could play their instruments well had a huge leg up in the radio market. People like The Clash or the (somewhat prepackaged) The Damned were making names for themselves, and others wanted to break in. The Boomtown Rats were one of those bands. And Mercury Records was their label in the United States.
Mike Bone decided to introduce disc jockeys not only to punk music, but also to punk attitude as well. Shortly before the debut American single of Bob Geldof’s group, he sent out a message to radio stations: The Rats Are Coming!
The promotional message was accompanied by a dead rat in a bag of formaldehyde.
It certainly made an impression.
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.Best Classic Bands
It’s also plausible that, at the time, Geldof – as the front man of a band desperately hoping to break the lucrative American market – was hesitant to critique the promotions manager of his record label. Or simply that Geldof was stoned out of his mind; in the same biography that Bone mentions, Geldof admitted to doing a long string of drugs until a nearly suicidal incident in the mid-1980s scared him off of them for the rest of his life.
One way or another, getting a dead rat in the mail was memorable. And the song did make it to the top forty.
Question of the night: have you ever encountered an animal where they weren’t expected to be?