- 09 Feb 11
In the first part of a major interview conducted at last year’s Music Show in the RDS, BOB GELDOF talks candidly about life as an illegal immigrant in Canada, how the Boomtown Rats took on official Ireland and then went on to duke it out with the Pistols and The Clash, and what triggered his involvement in Live Aid. Plus, a look back at Bob and the Rats on the cover of Hot Press.
OK Bob, we’re not gonna pick right through your childhood here you’ll be glad to know – but after you left school you went to Canada and based yourself in Vancouver for a time. Why’d you do that?
Bob Geldof: I’d been working on the M23 in England driving heavy equipment, specifically a big green thing with an engine front and back and a scoop in the middle, that was my speciality and, it was great money and you could listen to music as you went along, I had this big, sort-of tape recorder that I used to listen to music with. I’d heard about jobs in the Arctic Circle, driving these things, digging gold, but they just had men up there and men just drank and fought so the requirement was you had to have a girl with you, and I’d just been dumped (laughs), and she went back to Dublin and so I came back and I got a job down in Ballsbridge in the abbatoir, and while I was there I tried to woo my errant lover with… offal. And you know, the kidneys, the livers, but I think it was the sausages that turned her. And she decided to come back to my loving arms, and we set off for Canada.
Were you writing songs at that stage?
While I’d been in the meat factory I’d written ‘Rat Trap’, about a couple of guys that worked there and a guy called Paul. Anyway, we set off for Canada, went across on the Greyhound, the usual, and I got to Vancouver and I was an illegal immigrant, so while I was getting my illegal papers together, which is quite easy, I mean, I’m sure everyone’s done it, you just send a self-addressed envelope to yourself and you go to the National Insurance and say ‘Look this is where I’m living’ and they give you a National Insurance Card, it takes about a month – and so that was my route up to, and beyond Whitehorse, up in the Yukon, and I was going up there. This was 1973, ‘74. And the deal was they paid you a lot of money, about the equivalent of three grand a week now, or four grand a week. They trained the girls to drive the same stuff on half pay and then after six months they were on full-pay. And you’d work three weeks and they gave you a ten-day break in Florida and flew you back, so… excellent… I was quite happy to be there for the rest of my life with the mosquitos.
Things didn’t exactly go according to plan.
While I was waiting for my legal stuff, I walked down to the hippy part of town and there was a newspaper there called the Georgia Straight and there was an ad in the hippy bookshop saying ‘Writers Wanted’ so I went upstairs and I said I was a visiting journalist, that I was on my holidays and that obviously I had no examples of my work, but – send me out and y’know, if you don’t like what I write you don’t have to publish it. So I did a couple of local gigs for local bands, and I went to interview this kid I’d heard about who was 14, and his name was Bryan Adams… and that fucked up his life (laughs). And that was it, I stayed there writing.
You said there you were an illegal immigrant. Does that make you sympathetic to illegal immigrants arriving in Ireland?
Yes. Because the only possible reason they could be coming here is ‘cause they think they’re going somewhere better, and to better their lives. So yeah, I do feel sort of, proper sympathy for them. And then there’s the cultural pull that we have to have, having asked the world to accept us in our tens of millions over the years, there’s that element, that we can’t reject that. But there’s also the hard economic facts of illegal immigration. I was at home in Kent two years ago and this fella came up the drive, he said, “You want the house painted?”. He offered me such a deal I couldn’t refuse. He did a great job. He was an Albanian guy. And six months later he came back and he had ten English guys working for him, and I just thought it was excellent – and that’s the way it turns. But when you’re in an economic crisis and they become vulnerable targets and at the same time, with an economic crisis, with new immigration, people of what they probably call the ‘Ryanair Generation’, can go home which is what’s happened, I don’t know about here, but in England.
Coming back to Ireland from Vancouver you had a rather unsatisfactory experience with the banks.
Well, yeah. I was thrown out actually, the Mounties got their man, but I really loved it there and I came back here and applied for legal papers to live in Vancouver. Ireland in the ‘70s was worse than now, in as much that everyone knows now what young people in Ireland can do. I’m not being patronising but everyone expects young people to go for it if they possibly can, leave if they possibly can. The problem is there’s no credit in the banks so the banks are sort of, the Reiss Machines of the economy and when they’re not working the economy grinds to a halt. And entreprenurial types just can’t do anything. So when I came back I tried to start a rock ‘n’ roll paper cos’ that’s what I’d been working on essentially in Canada, and I thought – the only way I can do that is if I make money with something else, so I tried to start a free paper called Buy‘n’Sell.
So you met the bank...
I went to Blackrock College… it’s sort of posh I suppose, but I looked a complete cunt, I looked like something out of Guantánamo Bay, I had that orange jumpsuit. And I had y’know a beard and the hair and I was about 20 and I knew if I said anything it wasn’t gonna go anywhere so I got Paul McCormack’s Dad – Paul McCormack lived in Bono’s house, well it’s Bono’s house now – so I got his Dad to represent me as a solicitor and I got an accountant, another father, and I just shut up and sat behind in my Guantánamo Bay outfit. I’d laid out this great plan, I mean the big thing was I had 24 editions free from the printer before I had to pay for one, I had a credit line of six months. And I went there and the man listened and it was a very compelling proposition and at the end of it he was sitting there and he had his face down (mock prays) this Jesuit conundrum and he says (affected culchie accent) “Tell me Mister Kilduff, what age are you at all?” And I said “20”. And he said, “Y’know what, come back when you’re 40”. Fucking twat.
So you formed The Boomtown Rats or rather what were The Nightlife Thugs at first. Why did you change from that wonderfully catchy moniker?
I was bored doing the Buy‘n’Sell thing, so the object was make money and do something like Hot Press – that was the essential idea. But I was really bored, it was really hard, and so, out of boredom – I never liked going to the pub, so one night I went to the pub Fitzpatrick’s in Glasthule and I saw Johnny Moylett and Garry Roberts, neighbours, and they were talking about a band. I was writing about local bands so they said, “You’ve got to do it differently, it’s not just about your lot just getting up and being like ‘Hi’ in check shirts and long hair and like ‘Oh give us a pint there’. It had to be about being a star.” And so they were saying “You’d be the manager”, so I said “Okay”. So Roberts went into Temple Bar the next day and bought this great pink Telecaster – and so that was the band really. And we didn’t have a name – we didn’t even want a name. I just thought it was fun. And Gerry Cott came back from Kevin Street where he was studying and he said “I got us a gig”, and I freaked out, I mean “What are you talking about?”. It was never meant to be anything except something to do and then you go have pints. And I said “How much?” y’know and he said “30 quid”. “Fuck off... 30 quid,” I said. He said “What?” I said “Listen pal, we don’t do anything for less than 60 quid at least”, so he came back the next day and he said “Yeah I got 60”. I was like… (silently mock-shouts ‘Fuck’) so we had to play and we didn’t have a name so there was the usual big discussion, and you must remember 1975, well it was dreadful. I mean the music was just awful. The only thing that interested me was Bowie and Roxy and Lou Reed – and the blues. Fachtna O Ceallaigh had played me Catch A Fire by Bob Marley and Dr. Feelgood’s Down By The Jetty and they just absolutely blew me away ‘cause everyone liked different things but it sounded a mess – so what we finally agreed is that what we all loved was early ‘60s rhythm and blues. So here was Dr. Feelgood making a contemporary record, writing about where they lived and all that and it was wonderful. And here was Bob Marley doing the same thing. And so I’d never heard these people, but we learnt off those records. And the next thing was, how do you make a band exciting? How does it possibly sound like what you are, what you want to be? And at the time there were really boring names like Nightbus, Supply Demand and Curve, Cheap Thrill and – what was your crowd called?
Yeah Eyeless… fucking gormless (laughs). And I wanted to bring back the definite article into rock ‘n’ roll and so it had to start with ‘The’ and I thought like The Rolling Stones, you’ve got to be able to shorten it, so Garry wanted to call it Traction, like there was something wrong with his back, but then again he liked The Doobie Brothers, and there were all these dreadful names, y’know, so I came up with The Nightlife Thugs ‘cause it was suggestive of things and then you could call it The Thugs, and we were playing very fast, for no reason I can think of other than… we wanted to play these songs fast, just ‘cause, y’know… The Nightlife Thugs sounded right but it actually sounded a bit pony and a bit embarrassing because clearly we weren’t thugs, y’know, these nice polite boys from Glasthule and Glenageary.
Hence the change!
Kevin Street, Halloween night 1975. 30 people in the class. I’m mortified, I’ve a cap, scarf and coat on and it’s not coming off and I’ve got my back to the audience. Cott starts off with ‘Down By The Jetty’ first thing and he fucks up the opening riff, it’s just (hums opening riff) but he does something else and we just stare at him. And he just looks at us and keeps on going, so we had to make up a song, and so that was the first song we did. After an hour or so we took a break, and I’d written The Nightlife Thugs on the blackboard and I was thinking, this is just such a shite name, and I’d been reading Woody Guthrie’s Bound For Glory and I was at a part where Woody was 11 or something and his Dad was an oil man and they had moved to Oklahoma, and wherever the oil men went that became a boomtown, and Woody tried to join the local kids in their gang and they wouldn’t let him in, so he started his own gang and he called them The Boomtown Rats, and I just underscored that on the page in my book and I just thought ‘That’s great’ And that was it. So I just rubbed it off and wrote ‘The Boomtown Rats’ and the others just looked at me and were like “Whatever!”
There was a bit of a bidding war to sign the Rats. And eventually you did a fantastic deal with Ensign Records.
That wasn’t what it was about. The main thing was there were no rock ’n’ roll posters, no rock ‘n’ roll radio, there was no rock ‘n’ roll television, there was shite names – and so we started making posters. Ciaran Fitzpatrick who was a graphic guy who was a hippy with me in Dun Laoghaire, we used to have love-ins on Dun Laoghaire pier at the bandstand with his record player, that was the love-in. And I clipped out comic book frames and I asked him to make that into a poster, one was a severed head with blood dripping out into a sewer. Everything had to have a reaction, and I was really interested in that. And I did a poster of these beautiful legs with rubber stockings and slight S&M heels and put a very stylish Boomtown Rats across it and feminism was just becoming a huge thing in Trinity and these women went out and scrawled across it in purple felt marker ‘SEXIST’. I then said they were my legs, which they were, but I just put on rubber stockings. So there was all that…
Tell us about doing the deal…
Remember ‘Clapton is God’ (graffiti that appeared around London painted by fans)? Well, I saw that so I painted a t-shirt with ‘Geldof is God’ and wore it myself which really drove everyone nuts, including you. And so this was fun. And then suddenly we do four tracks and Fachtna and I went to England and John Peel said he’d put them out as an EP on his label. Dave Robinson had started a record label called Stiff, he said he’d put it out and on the way down the stairs I met his new signing Declan McManus, and he said (adopts cheesy accent) “Uhh, we’re thinking about calling him Elvis”. Elvis McManus… great! And Richard Branson (Virgin Records) came over with Nick Draper and Robert Everett, and after Moran’s Hotel, the basement there, which was our regular gig we’d go up to Stephen’s Green to a pool hall there, just to chill out afterwards and Richard came up and said “Gosh, we really would like to sign you.” And this is absolutely true: this is the end of 1975, 1976, he slid across a cheque with a million quid on it, which is still a shitload of money, my god. And there were three of us in school, three of us not doing anything and I really had to think. I sat down with the lads and I wrote out, I still have it, wrote out, a million quid, 10 years, an album a year, all our publishing money, everything we had to pay for and I wrote out, and at the end of it we’d get 2,000 quid a year… between us. So we said no. Never believe those Virgin deals I tell ya!
The hits started to happen immediately and you hit No. 1 in the UK for the first time with ‘Rat Trap’. And when you hit No 1 you tore up a picture of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John on Top Of The Pops. What was that all about?
As we arrived in London, this whole surge of kids came forward, the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Jam and we were viewed with deep suspicion ‘cause we spent a year in Ireland learning our chops sort-of thing. And we were paddies, all living in one house, and sort-of there were no punks outside of London, I don’t know of any punks from Derbyshire if you can remember, but the Yanks liked us. So we played with The Ramones and Talking Heads from four in the afternoon in schools and gymnasiums and nobody could beat The Ramones – but the kids who had the flares and the mullets didn’t get Talking Heads, ‘cause it was The Talking Heads first, Rats second and The Ramones third.
And we started making records. We had the hits but really the charts were clogged up with stuff like y’know Olivia Newton-John, John Travolta, always at Numbers 1, 2 and 3. And they seemed to be have been there for years. People think now that The Clash, The Pistols, The Jam and us, we just had constant hits, it just isn’t true, it’s just like how you imagine the ‘60s with The Beatles and The Stones but when you look at the charts it’s awful. And so when we got to No. 1 we couldn’t believe it because we were getting killed by the critics because we had so many singles, so we said we’ll prove to them we’re not just a singles band. And we’ll bring out the most album-y track we have, ‘Rat Trap’. And it was the DJ Kenny Everett that suggested it – he had a TV show and we shot a video for the show, we were on tour, mid-city and next thing literally all the record shops were calling to say that people have been asking for that record but it’s not a single. So Nigel Grainge from Ensign said, “Put it out as a single”, so it crawled up the charts, went in at Number 6… 5… 4. I thought we’ll never get higher than 4, so I cut it out of Music Week and kept it. And then it went to 3, so I kept that, cut that out and I thought that’s it. And then we went 2, I mean it just doesn’t happen and I mean we never thought, because 2 is so exciting… and then No. 1. And I couldn’t believe it, could not believe it. It was the first Irish rock No. 1, and so if you look at that Top Of The Pops I’m wearing a little Irish flag badge, and I mean, I’m not nationalistic at all but it felt great. And it was the first of the new wave of No. 1’s and so I got this thing from My Guy magazine of John Travolta and I told Kid Jensen who was the DJ who introduces it to go in on the camera and to say “It’s No. 1” and everyone would say “Oh, it’s fucking John Travolta again”. And so (motions to tearing the picture) like this was the big reveal… and so I revealed the magnificent us.
(Plays ‘Rat Trap’)
Are there any other songs from that time that stand out for you?
One that I liked was ‘I Never Loved Eva Braun’. I’ve always written about music so I’ve got this tuning chord in my head and I remember the first time of seeing pictures of Hitler’s girlfriend doing handstands on the beach, this cute girl. This young girl on the lakeside beach at Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s country house. And she was laughing and doing these exercises, and I just thought “What the fuck?”. I thought what a drag having a girlfriend who does exercises all the time. And I was thinking of that and I was thinking, y’know she must have loved him, but he probably didn’t love her. Hitler, the most bizarre thing about him was that he was incapable of love, he had no empathy for humans. So I was imagining him coming back and saying “Look listen, I was mad for the uniforms and the blood and shit but I didn’t love her, y’know”. So I put in Ziggy Stardust who blew apart when he got to be the guy and I put in “Let’s spend the night together” from the Stones. I put in ‘Leader Of The Pack’ from the Shangri-La’s so…
(Plays ‘Eva Braun’)
How do you rate Tonic For The Troops overall?
I never liked ‘She’s So Modern’ on that record, I always thought that was shite because I’d set out to get us into the Top 10. I’d been in London and I’d been meeting all the girls on the scene then, so Paula (Yates) was one of them, Magenta Devine, Julie Burchill was one of the girls on the scene. And they were a bit of a pain. And so that’s why I wrote “She’s so 20th century, she’s so 1970’s/She knows the right thing to say/She’s got the right clothes to wear” – but the truth is I put every hook in there that was possible, to get us into the Top 10 ‘cause otherwise we were over. But I like that record. ‘Like Clockwork’ was good but then that was mainly Pete ripping off ‘Psycho Killer’ by Talking Heads.
No plagiarism then!
No. I mean Paul McCartney says it all: there are no new tunes, you’ll hear him consciously doing stuff, but I do it overtly. I mean, even lyrically, ‘Looking After Number 1’ which is much more of a moment than getting to Number 1 was, getting into No. 17 when people were saying we were shite and things like that. If you looked up the charts, there were The Rolling Stones. Fuck me. And that was a great moment. But in those lyrics and I don’t want to sound twattish but consciously, I had remembered from school, “No man is an island, entire of himself” – the John Donne thing, and I turned that around and put it together with John Lennon from ‘Help’ and so I was fucking around with it and I still like to do that, what people say are ‘musical quotes’.
You had another No. 1 with the first track from your next album, which was ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’, and you’ve said in some ways you feel that was your great pop moment. Do you still feel that?
I thought it was a B-side. I mean I was just talking to Ossie Kilkenny there about why I wrote it and I wrote it ‘cause Dave Robinson had just given me Elvis Costello’s new album Armed Forces and I thought, this is great, if we’re to survive we’ve got to move away from two-guitar classic rock and start really being serious songwriters. And my favourite track was ‘Oliver’s Army’. I had just bought a guitar in New York on a promotional trip and I was learning ‘Oliver’s Army’ – and I was just trying to work it out myself and the band called and made me just do any song at all on three chords, ‘Mozart’s 6th Symphony’, that was it…
(plays rough version of first verse of ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’)
…but then I thought that sounds too much like ‘Oliver’s Army’ so I made it reggae….
(plays same but in a cod-reggae version)
…and I thought it was a B-side cos I thought that sounded shite, and then the record guys heard it and they said; “That’s your next No. 1, but not in that crap reggae thing”. But I absolutely thought it was a B-side, really thought it was and then it just went straight in. And I was a bit frightened by that to be honest with you, it got out of control. It was just huge and I remember going onstage at the Liverpool Empire, which is about 5,000 people, just screaming. And I thought, “Here I am, where The Beatles were, literally on that stage with just screaming.” And I got fed up and about halfway through the song I said, “Shut the Fuck Up”. I mean, I looked like crap. So what are they screaming at anyway? Then I thought it was (Johnnie) Fingers but he looked like shite as well, Roberts is fat – so it couldn’t be anyone in the band. So it was just stupid. What was good was that a new thing had come around called video and I hadn’t been aware of it. We did a promo film for ‘Looking After Number 1’, we didn’t do one for ‘Mary Of The 4th Form’, which is my favourite early thing, which is just ‘Gloria’ by John Lee Hooker . And I just wanted to have a ‘Gloria’ or John Lee Hooker Boomtown thing.
You wouldn’t get away with ‘Mary Of The 4th Form’ now would ya?
Oh, the lyrics. Well it was about Mary Preece who became Bertie’s PA, and she wouldn’t shag me. And so it’s a proper rock ‘n’ roll song about not getting shagged. She was beautiful, legs for fucking days, and used to roll her Dominican Convent skirt up and come down to the coffee bar. And so that was it.
Was there a lot of pressure on you personally?
After ‘Rat Trap’, (people would say) “What’s your next song?”, and I didn’t have one. I thought I had one B-side. And it turned out to be ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’, but then – we were three years into it now and a very, very big band, aside from America. We had very big gigs all over Australia and Europe but I wasn’t enjoying it is the truth. Everybody complains about it but you’ve got to do the interviews. If you’re the singer, the problem is you’re the front guy so the press want to talk to you. If you’re the writer that’s all they wanna talk about because why would they ask the guitar players what they think, unless it’s a very famous guitar player. And so I was doing all that, plus the songs, the gigs. Understand that gigs aren’t fun because it’s ‘Did we outsell The Clash?’, ‘How fast did we sell the tickets?’, ‘How much were their tickets?’, ‘Were ours more?’. ‘We did two nights, how many did they do?’, ‘What’s their new record like?’, it’s all the time like that. I fell into this. I love the provocation and I continue liking that, but everything else got a bit much. And we were getting really dissed as well as being liked and I was getting down about that.
At the same time you said, at one stage you felt that the last Rats album was among the best, if not the best.
Well, I think so. That sounds perverse but I mean I didn’t like Mondo Bongo in retrospect. Mondo Bongo happened after The Fine Art Of Surfacing and it was like “Let’s go back to what we would have been in Dublin, but if we stayed that way four years on” – and it didn’t work. But ‘Banana Republic’ is a good song and there were a few others that work. Then it was more or less over, I think. Because new kids had come along, more representative of their moment, like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, and we never made the leap. I mean The Police were clever, they broke up and Sting made the leap and then U2 had come along, a couple of years after us and they snuck along underneath and really surfaced around ’83 and ’84.
After In The Long Grass, that was the year of the famous Michael Buerk report about the famine in Ethiopia, and that inspired the Band Aid single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’. It must have been very messy trying to put that record together, was it?
In The Long Grass was, I really think, a good record. We had no money, so we did it in Dennis Bovell’s studio in Southern Bridge and you can hear the trains and the subway. And we had one machine and we had to put a guitar note on it every night and we’d tune to that cos the machines kept slowing down. Maybe in adversity everybody rose, but we were really good players by then. Bob Clearmountain – he did some Springsteen and Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ – he’d hung around the Palladium in New York and had come to the gig, which was frightening ‘cause Lennon was there with Yoko, Mick Jagger was there, Bowie was in the wings, and Andy Warhol with these fucking perverts from Dun Laoghaire! And it was absolutely awful as a gig. But Clearmountain was a kid – so I rang him and he’d just done Born In The USA and I said “Will you mix this”, so he mixed it for free. And I really like that record. But we’d sold out a 42-date tour with that album and sort of between the record coming out and the tour starting in December, I saw the TV. I didn’t know who was interested in us anymore, clearly a big constituency – 42 dates one after the other is big – but then really where is this thing gonna go? And then I see Buerk’s thing, and maybe because I was afraid or whatever it was, but I had Fifi, she was 9 months old, I thought maybe the best years of my life were over. And then I saw this thing, which put all of that nonsense into perspective. Paula was crying. And I was really shocked by it. I thought this requires something of the self rather than a quid in the Oxfam box. But remember my lack of confidence at this point. I didn’t think that if we – the Rats, that is – had done the song that it would have been No. 1. So I thought I’ll try and get the mates I know in rock ‘n’ roll to do a song.
How To Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell is released by Mercury Records on February 4. Check hotpress.com for archive interviews.