- 28 Apr 20
Bob Geldof is back in his home town to promote a new Boomtown Rats album, Citizens Of Boomtown; a comprehensive documentary of the same name; and a book – Tales Of Boomtown Glory – that collects his complete lyrics and fleshes them out with a few stories. He’s got a few more up his sleeve too and – in an extended version of the interview that appears in the Stay Safe Emergency Issue of Hot Press – he talks about The Rolling Stones, Dr. Feelgood, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Blondie, U2 and lots more besides. Is it rolling, Bob?
Monday at 4pm, I get a call, can I interview Bob Geldof at 7? I'll take it. I meet Bob in the lobby of The Merrion Hotel and he suggests we do the interview in his room. As we're taking the lift, I explain how the change in schedule - we were originally set to meet the day after - means I haven’t had time to fully prepare. There just wouldn’t have been time otherwise, he counters, and he doesn’t mind talking to Hot Press, as “it’ll be all about music and not the other fucking shite.” He offers me a glass of wine and we kick off. It’s been thirty-six years since In The Long Grass. Who needs a new Rats album in 2020? (Bob Geldof snorts and we’re off). I need it! It’s what bands do. I’m not interested in nostalgia, so when we regrouped, we had to consider, what is it? Is the Rolling Stones doing ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ nostalgia or is it completely classic? It’s classic. You’ve said that if you went to see The Stones and Jagger went ‘Here’s three songs from the new album’, you’d be the first to go: ‘Here, hold on!’ That’s what I did last night! We were playing in the North of England. We started with two new ones and then I said ‘Hey! The new album’s coming out, but the rest of the show is going to be old ones’. And the audience all went ‘wayhey!’ (He’s rolling for sure). I’d bin a song if I couldn’t do it. If I do ‘Lookin’ After No. 1’ it’s for the same reason I wrote it on the dole queue in Dún Laoghaire. I’ve still got that dole card where I wrote “The world owes me a living.” If I sing ‘Rat Trap’, I’m not back in the abattoir in Ballsbridge, that slaughterhouse of dreams. When I do ‘Banana Republic’ it’s not about the Irish Republic which grew up, finally. It’s about the American Republic. And with ‘Someone’s Looking At You’ it’s not about what I was living through in 1975, it’s about Zuckerberg and and your device literally recording you. Keep going, good man... It is this surveillance capitalism – they’re packaging you and selling you on to a third party. Well, fuck off. There’s no way that’s acceptable. They’re monopolistic, and they should be broken up. I can go on and on with this. If I sing ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ it’s not about Brenda Spencer, but it can be about the massacre two weeks ago. The songs have survived in me, as an expression of a sentiment and an emotion. When I heard the opening cadences of ‘Mondays’ last night, nothing turned in me and went “Oh, for fuck’s sake, this fucking thing again!” Hasn’t that ever happened? No, what happens is sort of like a trigger point into a place. When you do transcendental meditation, you’re given your own private mantra, and the minute you hit that, it does lull you into that place you’re meant to be, so I hear the “bam-ba-bam” of ‘Rat Trap’ and I go into that groove. After seven solo albums, The Boomtown Rats for me are vital again. That noise – as Bono says “that glorious noise of The Boomtown Rats” – was what I wanted to hear. And is it working? You know that it works, because the crowd goes nuts at festivals even though they probably don’t know the tunes. Your mind is ticking and it begins to manufacture tunes that suit that noise but in a more contemporary sense. The songs are not about working in an abattoir but that attitude is to the fore, and the Bobby Boomtown part of me needs that attitude.
The Fine Art
The song on the new album, ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Yé Yé’ celebrates the music that got into you as a young lad. That’s the only medium I know where truthfully I resonate. I know that’ll look wanky. I can write essays, I can talk my way through things, but where it just makes perfect sense is this, and in the verses I explain why this minor art form does this. Minor art form? I view it the same way Noël Coward viewed it. Pop is minor, you know. Pete Townshend said it’s the most ridiculous thing in the world, and the most important thing in the world. Well, that’s right, and total respect to Pete. If I’m following someone, his intelligence shines through. Look, I say it in the book that there are lines in rock that are as incandescent as any of the great poets, and there’s an equality of expression in a different way. But it’s cheap music, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Cheap, but potent. That’s what Coward says in Private Lives, “Strange how potent cheap music can be”; it’s one of his deathless lines. Country music, Hank Williams, it’s corny as fuck but, as Leonard Cohen said, the peak of the tower of song. It is just soul. It’s ultimately reductionist.Mick and Keith told me that it wasn't them, to go and listen to these other people. Just the names excited me – Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf – WHAT THE FUCK? – let me check this out. John Lee Hooker is just him stamping on the floor and going dang, dang, dang. John Lee Hooker is the sound of the air in the room; it’s the sound of the soul of one man. The air in the room, that’s brilliant. Sam Phillips said about hearing Howlin’ Wolf “This is where the soul of man never dies.” Yeah, it’s kind of why I miss that. There’s great pop music – Billie Eilish’s album is fucking wonderful – but it’s more about craft, ability and talent, of which I have little so I just go with attitude and hence, Citizens Of Boomtown. Is this what’s missing from rock n’ roll bands now, that attitude? There's no need for them to have it. I think it's a general trope now that the rock n' roll era is gone. In my time, and in yours, it was the medium whereby most social ideas were transmitted – moral, economic, political, social ideas came through the the music. I read Woody Guthrie, Steinbeck, and Studs Terkel, ‘cause you'd see it in an interview, you'd see a book they were reading. You know the way you'd pore over it: Highway 61 Revisited, I thoroughly examined the cover to see what the records were and then went to Murray's Record Centre to ask for them. Bringing It All Back Home? Yeah: who's the girl, is that fucking Dylan's girlfriend? The Beatles, kaftans, what the fuck, going to India, you start listening. The cheekiness of these four geeks from Liverpool, just taking the piss out of authority, and not even knowing they were doing it, which was so charming. And then "She loves you. Yeah... yeah… Yeah." I mean, this is Molly Bloom at the end of Ulysses. This is yes! That’s a big jump, from The Beatles to Bloom. It's not, it's the optimism of it. Yes! Three times, by the way. It ends on the sixth: (sings) yeah, yeah, yeah, YEAH! It's just whoosh, you know! You then get the contemptuous insolence of The Rolling Stones in the Adelphi. Mick just stood there, utterly sexy, girls would just faint. Right, that's it, done. I want to be in that gang. Then Dylan articulating, saying this is the way. That's all I knew – and that's gone. Why did it have to go? It’s no longer necessary because the most powerful tool in the history of mankind is in your back pocket. The inevitable ‘Blah, blah, will you do another Live Aid?’ No, because it's meaningless. You can just compile it every day on YouTube. There are fucking festivals every year all over the world with bigger bills. Anything socially that will occur, will occur through this device – except this device is inimical to social activity. It is a vast tool of authoritarianism. Unfortunately, authority tends towards authoritarianism. There's this silo of the self that it puts you into. It takes you to music you already like; it takes you to books you know you'll already like; it takes you to opinions you know you'll already share – and it never allows you to leave that. There's no breadth on the web.
Lookin' After No. 1
The Saint Bob figure that emerged in the ‘80s to change the world with Band Aid and then Live Aid didn’t spring out of nowhere. Geldof had formed a branch of CND in his native Dún Laoghaire in his teens, as well as working with the Simon Community. He even campaigned for ‘Save The Whale’ at the height of punk, an incident immortalised in ‘Someone’s Looking At You’ when he’s spotted in the square “shooting my mouth off about saving some fish.” You were at odds with your contemporaries in the year zero of punk, who seemed determined to not give a shit? They did give a shit. Obviously Steve and Paul of the Pistols didn’t give a shit, they were just great. The Pistols the most friendly towards us because, I guess, John was Irish, in effect. His view was that it’s all shit, everything, so I guess the point was in the nihilism they created, there would be new roots, which is exactly what happened. They were the perfect avatar of the moment. Where could they go after that perfect first record? Can you make a better record than Never Mind The Bollocks? It’s one of the fucking pillars. On the other hand, The Clash were, to me, seriously old hat. Is that jealousy, a feeling that you were being somehow excluded? I was jealous of their cool, but as I said at the time, they were the Bay City Rollers of the new wave. Didn’t people call you the Showaddywaddy of punk? No, I called us that! I said people see us as that. But The Rats were the ones at the top of the charts. Yeah, but that was on purpose, that’s where the power of pop was. If you’re going to do this, you have to aim for that. Can we get on Top Of The Pops? What do we have to do? I’ll do it. Do you know the Trotskyist trope of entryism? You pretend you’re X, you infiltrate, you get your mates in, and then you take over. The Pistols always wanted to get on, but they couldn’t after the Bill Grundy show. In the documentary, there’s a fucking clip, where I said look, if the Daily Mirror says I’m throwing up in airports and I get the front page, I’ll agree. I don’t care. What was the aim? The thing is to get out of the conditions you live in, to stop being poor, to use fame as a platform, which I said in 1976, and, you know, if girls want to sleep with you because bizarrely you’re in a band now, and not slopping around fucking Walter’s in Dún Laoghaire, then get to number one. The Clash thing was Joe trying to get rid of his hippy past: he was a transitional figure, as were we. We transitioned from Dr Feelgood into the new thing. Lucky us, we did it in the obscurity of Ireland. We had been playing a year when we pitched up, so we were match fit. We could play, and we could play fast. And others couldn't? Our ambitions were musical so I didn’t go along with the punk gestalt that you couldn’t have choruses. We had choruses, we had saxes, we had all this shit, which is why we got mega reviews in America. Everyone bought into the fact that The Clash were cool – but I didn’t like them that much. I think the first album is lame. They became the band they were with London Calling, just like U2 became what Bono said they were with The Joshua Tree. And Sandinista! is a fantastic album. What about The Rats’ place in history then... Nowhere. We’re not seen in the same league and the big problem in ’76/’77 was that they thought we were Johnny-come-latelys. In 1975, New York is bankrupt. The Mayor of New York begs for help and Gerald Ford says, publicly, “Drop Dead, New York City.” Inflation in the UK is 27%. In Ireland, we have in effect a civil war on the island where 3,600 people are murdered. We have an utterly corrupt government and an entirely corrupt State religion. We have an entirely corrupt business class, and we have a zero economy that offers its young no hope. Which leads to what? Of course you get The Ramones, and Patti Smith, and the Talking Heads. Of course you get the Sex Pistols and The Clash. And of course you’re going to get a middle-class group of Herberts not being quiet about this, AT ALL. Fuck You. They all come together, unrecognised in New York and in London and there’s this big stew. New bands are forming in this sort of chrysalis, this petri dish of ferment, and The Clash are one. Strummer had been in this cockamamie, okay, sort of R&B lot, but so had The Rats. He forgets all that and runs from his past, cuts his hair when he sees the Pistols and fucking forms The Clash. Just like we saw The Feelgoods and went, “Thank you very much, North Star.” Mainly for me it was the lyrics – “Stand and watch the towers, burning at the break of day.” Fuck! You can make rhythm and blues like that? I’ll write about fucking Dún Laoghaire. That was beautiful to me. I never achieved “Watch the towers burning” – I mean, this is Wordsworth. You’re being unfair to yourself... So, we go out with The Ramones and the Talking Heads and, as you know, we played in schools. We were friendly with them because they just thought we were one of them, they couldn’t get arrested in New York. Bob Gruen, who was the house photographer, says people think that The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, and Patti were huge: they were nothing. They never played theatres, they still don’t. There’s a myth around this. The CBGBs myth, one of the worst holes I was ever in. Exactly, that’s all they could play so when they came to England they couldn’t fucking believe it, it was like the black guys with the blues. We said fuck this and went North because nobody was interested. Alan McGee says in the documentary that he went with Gillespie to see The Rats and they fucking blew him away. Geldof was completely opportunistic, saying “You, in row fuck, get the fuck out of my gig!” I didn’t, but that’s McGee. He said he heard ‘Lookin’ After No. 1’ and it just woke him up. Great, that’s my bid to history there. Rock n’ roll history.
How to Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell
The Best Of The Boomtown Rats is, for the most part, spectacular. But there are a lot of shifts in style. I think what’s happened is that the songwriting has come to the fore because the songs have lasted but the band hasn’t. We shifted all of the time. I would go with a song to the band, and they’d go “Ehh…”. It’s fucking awful, have you ever been in a band? I have. You know, then. You go with a song and they’re going, “What is it? A? I suppose it’s D after that?” For fuck’s sake. Nobody asks about the lyrics. One time I collapsed in the Marquee with the heat. I fainted, went back stage and Garry tried to keep going, but he only knew one line, so it was ‘fuck this’ and the band left the stage. Of course, backstage B.P. Fallon scratches my back to make it look like I’d been shagging when we were off-stage. "You know, man, it's rock n' roll, cool" You told a load of US music industry people exactly what you thought of them. Is that why The Rats didn’t break America. It didn’t help, but Bono’s wrong in the documentary. He said that if we had just waited a minute, an hour, we would have done it. That’s not true, there’s not anyone of my generation who did it, and the reason is MTV. It arrived too late? MTV came of age with Live Aid, we had national rock ’n’ roll television, but when were the Pistols, The Jam, Elvis Costello, the Rats, The Ramones, the Talking Heads, Television, or Patti Smith EVER on MTV? EV-ER? Believe me, if The Ramones and The Sex Pistols had been on MTV, BANG! They look so fucking great, people would want to be like that band, like when I saw Jagger. How do we know MTV was the break out? Because immediately MTV goes national, you get Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Prince, Michael Jackson, Boy George, The Eurythmics, U2, The Police. It was a different type of music. It was, but it was the look. MTV introduced style to America and The Ramones were nothing but style, totally curated. The Clash, totally curated: Jasper Conran made their shirts, Joe lived with Jasper in Regent’s fucking Park, the son of a diplomat, but they glided through because the music was of its moment, and they looked the bollocks. Ours seemed to be pastiche, yet I’d written ‘Lookin’ After No. 1’ on a dole queue. As you've said, the songs have endured. The damn bursting catharsis all about Ireland, which is album one, that’s gone, now where do you go? WHERE THE FUCK? We can’t be a better rock n’ roll band than The Pistols we just can’t. We can’t be cooler than The Clash, we’re not cool. What the fuck? I hear Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces: this is wonderful – I’ll never be able to write songs as great as this. Because of Mutt Lange, I’d already begun writing with structure and melody. That’s how Tonic For The Troops happened. You arrive in London, you see these girls who are mad and wild and rebel – and not 1975 Catholic Ireland. They’re opinionated, they don’t give a fuck either, and they’re in your face. The theatre of the self is exploding everywhere and you write ‘She’s So Modern’ and Mutt says, “that’s a pop song”. That’s what happened. When Live Aid took over your life, was there a sense that the Rats had more to do? It stopped at Self Aid.
But, if ‘Dave’ had been a hit single in 1984… Well, that’s my problem, which I think about. ‘Dave’ should have been on the radio. It’s not that I’m bitter about that, it’s just, there’s your time, and it’s gone. Because it wasn’t a hit, you were at home at 6pm to watch Michael Buerk’s report about famine in Ethiopia. People say “that’s it.” But everything had lead to that. I don’t mean it was predetermined, but I was sensitive to those things anyway – whether it was anti-apartheid at 16, me and Mick Foley organising a march to stop the rugby team playing in Ireland, and then working with the homeless every night for a couple of years with Simon in Smithfield, and shit like that. That’s why rock ‘n’ roll did it for me. You’re leading towards some point, and equally, you’re ending at some point. In The Long Grass is a fine album The band’s musicality is great, but no one’s interested. Wherever I was in my life, maybe The Rats were no longer the vehicle to express that, but I had no intention of breaking the band up, zero. With Live Aid happening, did you think: ‘I can’t go back to The Rats now’? No, I couldn’t wait to get off of this thing, but I can’t because it’s so big. The organisation of it was so immense. Could you not have delegated that? I did, John Kennedy, and the trustees who are still the six of us, did. But it was: we gave you the money, you swore every penny would go there and I’m trusting you, so do it. And I still do it, I’ll show you four phone calls about Africa that I have to deal with now. I still do it because it works. This is what you’re going to be remembered for. Would you prefer it was the music? Yeah, I don’t care. It’ll be ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ and Live Aid. Fine. Adrian Deevoy said to me last week: “A Tonic For The Troops, Sex, Age & Death and Citizens of Boomtown - not bad?” Yeah, actually. Not bad.
The Happy Club
How was it getting The Rats back together? Garry came around and my immediate instinct was to say ‘NO!’ Then it was ‘I’m not going to jump around, I play guitar with the solo band’ and Garry said “You can fuck off” – because I’m a shite guitar player! But jumping around like a cunt like I used to? Forget it. Of course, the minute they started, I jumped around like a cunt, because that’s what it does. Isn’t jumping around difficult now? No. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but it’s not. There’s this place you hit that I’m just desperate to get to at a gig. I’m not a scientologist, but I go clear. There’s no contingencies, no equivocation, no doubt. I’m just free there. It’s a terrible cliché, but I am. Was that on your mind when Garry called around? I can go clear every night. No, I go clear with the solo stuff too. It’s not as frantic, although it can be. Those songs go to other places that I’m not sure I want to visit to be honest with you, and sometimes it gets a bit much for me. I can play Rats songs with the solo band but it’s completely fucking different. It’s that half hour afterwards of exhaustion after a show: you’re emotionally replete, psychologically complete, and physically exhausted, and I’m just sitting there with a drink, and I’m happy. That’s the word I’m groping for that I reluctantly ever use: I know I’m happy. Why did The Rats split? When it comes to the end of the thing in ’85/’86, it’s nothing to do with Saint Bob emerging from his chrysalis. Of course Band Aid’s gonna hit me when I’m in a vulnerable state of confusion and anxiety, and it’s gonna suborn that into some other greater thing. I don’t expect it to end up with Live Aid, but it does. You cannot leave that standing. But I could also go on and write Deep In The Heart Of Nowhere. The Boomtown Rats could have done lots of that, but it became my first solo album, which I had to do. Why did you have to do one? That was the deal. They would not sign The Rats unless I did one. They would sign me because now I was Mr Fucking whatever. My thing to The Rats was: “We’ll have studio A and B. I’ll record during the day, you record during the day, I’ll come in at 6. I’ll play you all my songs. You get first dibs: the ones you don’t want, I’ll keep.” And they were, “Nah.” We were tired and fed up and there was no money left, but we would have gotten good money for this deal. But then Simon and Johnnie said, “We’ve got our own deal, we’ve been writing songs.” That was it, they went off and did their own thing. Was it a Rod and The Faces type arrangement you were after?
That's what I fucking was looking for - that's the deal, here's money, we're broke - and I was quite upfront, I'm gonna make a lot of money from my solo thing but here's loads of money anyway.I said If the Rats album shoots up the charts, I'm gonna come up behind, if the Geldof album goes up the charts, you're gonna come up behind. It was Rod and The Faces, but there was mutuality there. No. Was there a showdown? It was one bad meeting in the basement of my place and that was it. We got together for Self Aid cause we said we would, but I remember a fucking vicious row, just poisonous, although it doesn’t look like that on the film. The best thing about that gig, which I hadn’t understood, and that’s why this documentary is so interesting – people say “but you fucking lived it?” Yeah, but I had no perspective on it. I had no idea that in the middle of ‘Joey’s on The Street Again’, I suddenly go into Woody Guthrie’s ‘Greenback Dollar’: “I don’t want your Rolls Royce, mister/ I don’t want your pleasure yacht/ all I want is the right to live, mister/ give me back the job I lost.” People’s memories are selective. In half an hour we'd be unemployed. We were playing for the unemployed – and it pops into my head in one of the three classic Dublin songs. I call them classics, nobody else does – 'Joey's On The Streets Again’: a kid who used to come to the gigs and was killed by some dope gang; 'Rat Trap' about a little fucking thug in the abattoir; and Frankie in 'When The Night Comes', a mate who worked in an office and was too scared to leave the job because he got the fucking pension – and those are the three songs of fucking hopelessness. Anyway, we're in the middle of this, I'm ending The Rats – they say they didn’t know it, they think it’s like the Ziggy Stardust moment at the Hammersmith Odeon – but I'm certain everyone knew it. You said thanks for the ten years on the stage at Self Aid. I did and it’s complete. The Boomtown Rats take their name from the great musical activist, and now I know what we’re meant to do, this band has intent and purpose, and we end up from somewhere singing a classic Woody Guthrie song about unemployment at an unemployment gig and we’re unemployed and the circle is complete. So of course I say it’s been a great ten years, rest in peace, thanks very much.
• The Boomtown Rats album, Citizens Of Boomtown, is out now.
Bob Geldof wrote a special Letter from Home for our Covid-19 Emergency Issue, along with Jim Sheridan, Neil Jordan, Imelda May and more...