Bob Geldof: “rock and roll is no longer the spine of the culture”

Given a moment to speak, Bob Geldof will spin you the world. With his usual candour, he spoke at length about the surreal hand 2020 has dealt us all.

A million coronavirus horror stories have plagued the music industry since lockdowns began in March, but Bob Geldof and the Boomtown Rats may take the cake for the worst timing of the lot. As Geldof describes: “On the day that we brought out our new album and on the day that we announced a new tour… two hours later, the government announced the lockdown. So we were fucked really.”

Citizens of Boomtown was meant to be a glorious return, the group’s first new record since 1984. Despite the false start it was received well; a freewheeling collection of styles, brazen lyricism, and a hefty dose of the Rats’ doing-it-for-ourselves flair.

The new album also afforded the opportunity for us to sit down with Geldof – online of course. Over an hour we talked briefly about the Boomtown Rats and extensively about the world at large; including but not limited to the Black Lives Matter movement, COVID-19, rock and roll’s former status as the “spine of the culture”, and Geldof’s not-so-successful mission to become the first Irishman in space.

This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 15. Grab your copy here

bob geldof interview happy mag coronavirus black lives matter the boomtown rats Mark Cowne
Photo: Mark Cowne

“In fact, the truth is I’ve quite enjoyed it because it’s sort of enforced indolence. You know, there’s nothing you can do about it, it’s like guilt-free inactivity.”

Our chat opened with the same pleasantries we’re all getting very used to. Are you stuck inside? What does ‘isolation’ mean in your hometown? Are you teetering on the edge of madness? Trapped inside a large house with his family and a garden to tend, Geldof’s coronavirus experience has been largely pleasant – though he didn’t fail to acknowledge that “for 98 percent of the population, [I’m aware] it hasn’t been so much fun.” 

Brought on by a total lack of touring, a flurry of free time has afforded Geldof and the Rats a few more media opportunities than the usual album campaign (long calls to Australia included). The band decided to stagger the release across time zones; during a flurry of hometown coverage, including the release of Geldof’s book and a feature-length Boomtown Rats documentary, the album wasn’t even formally released in many parts of the world.

Geldof is pleased with the album’s reception, all things considered. Speaking about the documentary in particular, he mentioned that “given that there was very little new programming, we got a primetime slot [on BBC] and it was massively received as a film. Even the people who didn’t care one way or another about the band just thought it was a great film.”

A famously busy man, it seems Geldof’s isolation with his family has even proved relaxing. “Every day is Sunday.” Another unexpected bonus was the opportunity to continue collaborating with his band members post-recording. Against all odds, The Boomtown Rats released a brand new single and music video in the height of UK’s coronavirus lockdown.

“With my job you know, if I’m writing a song or something, it doesn’t matter where I am. And with technology, I can post that to the other guys and they can do their thing. We edited a new single while in the lockdown and made a video.”

Yet Geldof had many thoughts about what can really be accomplished without face-to-face interaction and old school hustling. Our conversation turned to online performances and their ubiquitousness during COVID-19. A few events attempted to reach a Live Aid scale in terms of the artists booked to appear – the most talked about was One World: Together at Home, organised by Lady Gaga and featuring performances from Billie Eilish, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder and many more.

Though massive, it paled in comparison to the world-stage events Geldof is known for. So what was the problem? He wasn’t afraid to spell them out – first and foremost were his grievances with the internet itself.

“The internet is not the medium… it’s ubiquitous, the internet, it’s like the air you breathe, that’s the point about it. It’s everywhere all the time. And now, it’s no big deal having a bunch of people saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to address the planets with this one.'”

The magic of Live Aid in Geldof’s eyes – both in 1985 and 2005 – was that it capitalised on groundbreaking technology in delivering previously unheard of experiences. In 1985 Geldof was “using military satellites, spy satellites, which I was getting permission to use from various countries and authorities” and the advent of AOL in 2005 allowed “nine concerts simultaneously.” 

Whereas now, “the planet is addressed every single moment of the day.” Geldof’s belief is that the “pseudo intimacy” of the internet has removed the wow factor of mass communication.

“If you and I were looking at each other, you know, it’s closer, it’s like a one-on-one in a room together. And in the lockdown, you’ve seen all these artists do stuff from their homes. Part of me, because I come from a different period of rock and roll, think that’s a mistake. You should never really let life into the mystery, or the magic, if you will.”

“You know, blokeish music is where it’s at, Ed Sheeran, Capaldi, they’re blokes you know, they look very normal. One’s a chubby kind of geezer you see down at the pub, the other is a red haired geezer. And they’re great artists, it doesn’t diminish their artistry, it doesn’t diminish their ability to write tunes or to have great voices. But it’s not the same as seeing the Beatles, for example, or getting a sense of contemptuous insolence from The Rolling Stones say. Our understanding that a kid like Bob Dylan at 21 was directing you in a social manner and translating and transmitting ideas of change that you could interpret without going online and seeing Bob at home saying “here’s this song I wrote, it’s called The Times They Are A-Changin’, hope you like it, guys.” Fuck off!”

“And when Gaga, who is a great artist, God bless her, said ‘I’m going to do this thing for the moment…’  I mean, I know that none of us here watched it, none.”

But the technology and the celebrity are besides the point. One World: Together at Home was but one large-scale performance amongst many, equally doomed to fail. Geldof, with an exclamation of “I’ve talked about this for years!” to drive the point, believes these moments are indicative of a larger shift in the musical world, a slow decline of its power to unite and overcome.

“What it comes down to is that rock and roll is no longer the spine of the culture that it was in my time. Up to the year 2000, it was the social media of our time. And then social media became the social media of our time. And by that I mean that it was through rock and roll that all the ideas of that age were mediated and transmitted.”

Whether or not global opinion and cultural capital were really dictated by rock and rollers is one thing, Geldof certainly shared these thoughts with a passion. The web has irreversibly changed the world and on that path, music. With charts and labels alike still grappling with the digital value of streams, views, and online fan communities, it’s difficult to decisively say whether or not music carries less weight than it did in the ’70s or ’80s.

But some things are truths.

“What the web does is ghettoise opinion, is isolate you into a sort of silo of personal preference, and then relate to you to other people have that singular preference. So if you take a record or a book, it’ll say, ‘Oh, well, if you like this, you like that.’ Well, fuck off. Let me choose what I like.”

Geldof then jumped from COVID-19 to Black Lives Matter, the other world-shifting event 2020 has handed us. At this point his words stand a few weeks old and protests have continued to play a part in the daily lives of people the world over, but Geldof was somewhat unconvinced at the movement’s potential to institute any real political change.

“There will be something where you can conjure up the entire world to make a point… and you can take those numbers and force them into political action, because politics is nothing but numbers. And so that’ll happen again, but all these online petitions where you get billions of people… who cares? Politicians don’t care. It’s of a moment, you know, the Black Lives Matter thing where people just post a black image, you know, that’s just too easy. It’s nice, but it’s not going to affect change. It’s an empty gesture.”

“Even if people collate those figures and show them to Trump or to anyone, or Scott Morrison. Do you think they care? No, they just move on. So it’s sort of like cyber wanking.”

“…there will be a different way of doing this that involves everyone. It will happen, except politicians have learned now, through hacking and manipulation of the media, how to offset a lot of those things. How you get effective political change is you get on the street, and you knock on door to door, and you dress nicely, and you ask people do they agree with you or not? And you sign them up, you organise, you get the numbers, and you take pointed political action.”

When I pointed out that’s exactly what protesters in the US and elsewhere were doing, Geldof sympathetically continued on his path.

“It is [working], but that’s just an explosion of anger. And what the politicians will do will let this play out. It won’t last long unless somebody can gather that rage and distill it into a focused, achievable political argument and aim.”

“For the Black Lives Matter people this is an outpouring of utter rage, correctly. Black lives have never mattered. I wrote a song with the Rats called The Elephant’s Graveyard in 1981 when we were in Miami and four policemen killed a black insurance salesman and they were on trial all but the jury found these four cops innocent… So, you know, this has been going on.”

“The original sin of the United States is slavery. It is also the elephant in the room. And it’s been ever thus.”

“There’s been change. There’s been you know… the Civil Rights Bill was a seismic moment, but brought about by the pressure of Martin Luther King, you know, discipline, discipline. Where you can summon a million people to the Capitol. Unlike today, of course, the National Guard weren’t turned out, there was no threat of the army shooting its own people, as there was yesterday by, you know, that cunt in the Oval Office. There was none of that. It was pure discipline, non-violence.”

Before moving on, I wanted to know if Geldof thought it was part of a musician’s duty to take a stand against such matters.

“No, the job of the artist is to create good art. They fail only if they create bad art. That’s it. It’s like, you know, the job for plumbers is to fix your fucking toilets. It’s no good him crapping all about, you know, cops killing a black guy in Minneapolis. That’s no good at all. Fix the fucking toilet.”

“I would argue that, where are the break billionaires that came out of the ghettos? Where are the kids who were in N.W.A and Public Enemy? You know, Jay-Z and Dre and Kanye and all those people really do have an obligation, in my view, to do more than just say, ‘Hey, let’s all get together.’ I mean, really, they’re seriously smart enough and wealthy enough to organise things. So in that case, they should step outside the structures of their normal life. They may not want to that might not be their thing, which is completely fair enough.”

Pandemics, protests, and mass political change aside, we closed our chat by clarifying Sir Bob’s short-lived career as an astronaut. Back in 2014 Geldof made headlines by signing on with commercial spaceflight company Space XC, with whom he was set to become the first Irishman in space.

Unfortunately it was a mission which was doomed to eventually fail.

“It didn’t [happen], the company went bankrupt!”

“I did all the training, I think I pulled five or six Gs in an F-16 just dive bombing straight down, I did the gyroscope’s spinning around thing. I did all the cockpit training, and the virtual take-off and landing, I went up into space and did that all virtually. I did all that which was fantastic.”

Though he did admit to looking up at the stars from his garden every once in a while, Geldof seems gratified enough with his many other achievements.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen now, but is it something I regret? No! It would have been cool, but there’s lots of things that will be cool.”

Not to mention, he didn’t walk away empty handed.

“I got a cool suit, which I still have. When I wear it I look like a sort of taller version of Tom Cruise without the good looks. And seriously, the effect on girls is instant, it’s mad. I’ve got an Irish tricolour on my sleeve and I’ve got ‘Geldof’ written across my chest and got all these Star Trek-like badges that you get for various stages of your training.”

“So I bring it out every now and then and do the gardening in it.”


This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 15. Grab your copy here