The Boomtown Rats (Hamish Macdonald)

"The original rage was intact": Bob Geldof on The Boomtown Rats' comeback, even during the pandemic

"It's the only thing that makes sense for us is to play through the confusion and chaos," Geldof told Salon



Annie Zaleski
June 26, 2020 9:00PM (UTC)

In early 2020, The Boomtown Rats' year was shaping up to be a blockbuster. The Irish band —  led by frontman and activist Bob Geldof, who later became known as the co-organizer of Live Aid and co-founder of the U.K. charity superstar group Band Aid — was releasing a new album, "Citizens of Boomtown," their first album since 1984's "In the Long Grass." 

A documentary on the band, "Citizens of Boomtown: The Story of the Boomtown Rats," featuring testimonials from figures such as U2's Bono and Sinéad O'Connor, made film festival rounds and aired on the BBC. A Geldof book, "Tales of Boomtown Glory: Complete Lyrics and Selected Chronicles for the Songs of Bob Geldof," was also due.

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Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The album came out on Friday, March the 13th. Friday the f**king 13th," Geldof tells Salon. "That's when the album comes out. We worked up to this: There's a new book. There's a new movie. There's a single. There's a great video. Here's the album. Two hours later, lockdown. Dead on arrival. Friday the 13th. Tour canceled; promo canceled; everything canceled. Pretty typical for our luck, really."

However, Geldof and the Boomtown Rats are no strangers to raging through adversity and coming out the other side on top. As the frontman recalls, the band emerged in the 1970s during a time of global economic turmoil; closer to home, they also witnessed violent conflict in Northern Ireland, as well as religious and political corruption.

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"That was the world we entered," Geldof said. "Of course you get the Sex Pistols in London. Of course you get the Ramones and Patti Smith, et cetera, in New York. Of course you get the Boomtown Rats in Dublin. 

"We didn't know, obviously, each other, but it was a generational entrance into a zero economic that offered you no future. We railed against this noisily and very speedily. And in so doing, we had to change our own lives."

Unsurprisingly, the album "Citizens of Boomtown" — which found Geldof working with original Rats: guitarist Garry Roberts, bassist Pete Briquette and drummer Simon Crowe — boasts no shortage of punk and glam swagger, highlighted by the '70s glitter homage "Trash Glam Baby" and the electro-tinged rabble-rousing anthem "The Boomtown Rats."

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As Geldof surveys the last decade of history and namechecks events such as the global economic crash, the pandemic, and Brexit, he sees exactly how the band's studio return fits into the picture.

"Of course the f**king Boomtown Rats have to come back," he says. "It's the only thing that makes sense for us is to play through the confusion and chaos, to contribute to the noise of that. I really do think that's what gives this regrouping a contemporary resonance and a validity. Other than that, in times of relative calm, it just doesn't make sense to me."

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What was different — and the same — with working with Pete, Garry, and Simon again on this new album, as opposed to back in the day? 

There's both a sense of excitement and rediscovery, really. I've made six or seven solo albums with Pete, so that part of it is effortless. We've been doing music for so long that there's no trepidation. 

There's no anxiety, especially as we're not really in contention with your Billie Eilishes or your Ed Sheerans or Beyoncés. Back in the day, there was intense rivalry between all the contenders, of which we were a senior member. That's the first thing: [This album] was for the sheer hell of it, which I think you can hear, really. 

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But, more to the point was, personally speaking, the revelatory aspects of it, in as much as that I hadn't anticipated the sheer pleasure of playing in this band again. When you start and you're going through it, there's whole levels of anxiety and work. 

You're constantly, constantly working. You've got no perspective on whether things are good or bad or indifferent. The next record has to be bigger or better than your last one, or indeed, your contemporaries. It's nonstop. You never get to really put a frame of reference around what you're experiencing. 

That wasn't true this time. My one condition on agreeing to do this again was that if it felt or sounded like nostalgia, then I wasn't going to do it. If one of the songs just felt old-hat and irrelevant, I simply wasn't going to do it. If the band says, "There's nothing going on here, this is just an exercise in nostalgia," I'm out. 

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I've really got no time for . . . There's no rearview mirror in this car. That's basically it. Nostalgia is a lie. It's a revisionist's rose-tinted view of a past that did not exist. I didn't really want to be involved in that.

The first time when we sort of got back together…. This band, including me, started up [and] I was shocked about how thrilled I was. I just thought, "This is f**king great." I either never knew, or I'd forgotten, how powerful this band is. It was one or the other. 

It's bizarre that a group of individuals make a certain sound. You could join the Rats tomorrow. It would still be the Rats, but the sound would've altered simply because you'd be in there playing. With this group of individuals, it made a very distinctive sound, which I hadn't been aware of up to that point. But more importantly, a very powerful and angry sound is what I thought. 

When I came to singing those old songs, had there been doubt in my mind, I would've refused to sing them. But the reality is the opposite.

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When it came to sing "Rat Trap," for example — the first Rats No. 1, the first Irish No. 1, the first new wave No. 1, I'd written that in an abattoir, because it was the only job I could get. 

Long before the band, I had no ambition to be in a band. It just never entered my head. I had no ambition to be a singer. I never sang. I was just making notes about the people around me, and who seemed completely trapped in [the] pompousness of the time and the zero economy, and that they were going to be there in this stinking abattoir for the rest of their lives. 

I was young. I knew I was going to get out. There was something out there waiting. I didn't know what it was. But what struck me was the obvious metaphor now, is this wasn't just an abattoir of animals — this was a sort of slaughterhouse of human dreams. Years later, that becomes a song, which becomes a massive hit everywhere. When I was singing it again, it was for the lost and hopeless of today. 

When I sang "I Don't Like Mondays," it wasn't about a school shooting in 1978. It was about the massacre last week, or the week before. When I sang "Banana Republic," it wasn't about the hopelessness of the Irish Republic of my youth, which has, thank God, grown up, matured, and become a fully paid-up member of the 21st century. Now it was about the American republic and the political infantilism that that country is sinking into under that vulgar fool in the White House. 

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These all had a real relevance. When I sang "Someone's Looking at You," it was a big hit, but it wasn't about the conditions of 1979. Now it was about your always-on, supposedly-smart television or device or computer or Alexa tracking you, tracing you, listening to you, conforming your choice to something it believes you want, and packaging you and pushing you alongside others which it then sells to a third party, who can, in turn, exploit you. There's always someone looking at you, so it became about that.

It meant that the songs that survived, that the original rage was intact. Sadly, conditions had changed, but the end result was the same. When I sang them, here was this noise behind me, this vast propellant that allowed me to find that rage and anger again, and make them completely contemporary to the now. 

[The discussion turns to a gig Boomtown Rats did in Minehead in March—just before the pandemic lockdown halted all shows—and then the group's first show after deciding to reunite, at the Isle of Wight Festival in 2013.]

As soon as we hit the stage and that noise starts, Bobby Boomtown was in the house. I hadn't expected that: This completely different idea of myself suddenly was present again. But I hadn't understood that that's the guy who was doing the Boomtown Rats in the past — the pain in the ass, the loudmouth, didn't give a f**k about what he said or did, and didn't care about the consequences of either. 

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The minute we were on the stage and that noise was behind me, bang, there he was, back again as if the years hadn't existed. You're living it large, as the English say. The place was nuts. It was weird seeing 14- and 15-year-old kids who, obviously, their parents had forced them to listen to our albums. And there they were mouthing these words [now], when their parents [had been] 14 and bought the records [then]. It was very odd, but very cool. 

It's not enough to just repeat those songs, no matter how much resonance they may have for you still. But, at the same time, it's a drag for an audience, because if you go to see the Rolling Stones, and Mick says, "Here's four tracks from our new album," you kind of go, "Oh, for f**k's sake, where's 'Gimme Shelter'? Where's 'Honky-Tonk Women'? That's what I want to hear." Well, we're not the Rolling Stones, so we felt more liberty, more freedom in that area. 

But if a song can glide into the catalog, into the live set, without it seeming like there's much of a change, then you get away with it. That was the experience of Minehead. 

We only had one new song when we regrouped for the Isle of Wight. That song was "The Boomtown Rats," the last song on the album. That was because I felt like I wanted to write new music, but what was it? How did we get back to this guy who wrote Boomtown Rats songs, Bobby Boomtown?

I wrote myself back to him. The words are, "I'm going to Boomtown. I'm going back to Boomtown, because that's where I'm at." I wrote myself back into this guy. Once I was there, then it came to me quick, and then when we did it in Minehead . . . It's a very partisan crowd, because it was alternative rock, and so they just accepted all those new songs as if they were part of the whole thing. I mean, they were open to it. 

We did "Trash Glam Baby," which I really like. Trying to describe the noise in my head to the others, the sound that seemed to accompany the now, I said, "It's sort of like the New York Dolls meets early Roxy Music, meets Mott the Hoople." That's what I said, and I think that's distinctly so in "Trash Glam Baby, but also in "Sweet Thing" and things like that. 

I noticed that as well. I mean, I love the little lyrical winks to New York Dolls and Ziggy Stardust too. I love how, at Minehead, the band performed "Trash Glam Baby" right into "Looking After Number One." That's that testament to the fact everything's seamless. 

You [also] need to put it beside "She's So Modern," because "She's So Modern" was the third hit, and the record company said, "If you don't get in The top 10, it's over." This was the sort of pressure you were under back then. I thought, "F**k." But the thing is, we'd arrived out of Dublin in the middle of what we now understand was the massive contra-revolution where the Pistols uniquely swept away the sort of irrelevant noodlings of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer [or] Yes and all these bands without a definite article. 

Seems to me the definite article is a very important element in rock 'n' roll. The minute it's gone, bands seem to be shit. That's why it's The Boomtown Rats. There was Queen. There was Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. There was Genesis. There was Yes. F**k off. It meant nothing to our lives. 

We arrived in London, and all this has been swept aside. It was really exciting to be part of this, to be a lead participant in it. What was really wild for me, coming out of Ireland in the mid-'70s, was here was these mad girls in London, just as rebels as the boys, just as witty and acerbic and smart and funny and clever and wild and robust in what they were determined to achieve. There's no question of that. It was so exhilarating to be around that. 

In ["She's So Modern"] I wrote, "She's so modern. She's so 20th century. She's so 1970s." And that was the chorus. That was weird, watching 14-year-olds singing that a couple of years ago in Isle of Wight. [Laughs.] 

[Geldof then recalls seeing a modern customer of a local shop that reminded him of these characters he'd used to see at King's Road in London, which was a notorious place for rockers to buy clothing.]

She was dressed amazingly. It's the theater of the self, like that. She was talking to her friend who was working at the counter at the charity shop, and she was moaning, "Oh, it was another s**t Saturday," and she had no money anyway, and boys were all rubbish. What was happening that night, and did they have the feather boas that they had in last week? 

She was a song. She demanded to be in a song. Now she is. Literally, she's so 21st century. That's what I thought — I went home and made her up immediately. She reminded me, I suppose, of the [New York] Dolls, who befriended us when we arrived in New York back in the day. It's a tribute to all of them. 

There is just something when you meet characters like that, whether it's 1979 or 2018, those people just stick in your head. You have to get that down, because those people are so singular. 

There's something going on that just strikes you as being emblematic of a moment. 

Right!

You're not thinking that; you're just listening to this person. You're overhearing them, and it's the forever teenager. Thank God it never goes, because out of that stew of discontent comes ideas. Ideas are the raw material of change. 

For me, that's always been the point of rock 'n' roll. It no longer exists, unfortunately, but in my time, rock 'n' roll was the actual spine of the culture. Rock 'n' roll was the medium whereby all ideas where transmuted, transmitted, and mediated. Whether it was social, political, economic, cultural, it all came to rock 'n' roll from 1956 up until say 2000. That's the rock 'n' roll era, and then it ends. 

Sitting at home, you're age 10, and there's no one there, and it's fucking freezing. It's Ireland, and it's a miserable, dank, damp February, and you're in this pretty dark house with just lighting the fire to keep yourself warm. 

The only heat, or the only golden light, is coming out of that radio station. What I absorbed from the boys and girls with guitars and pianos of the time, was this offer of an alternative universe, other possibilities they were saying. That change was necessary and was inevitable, and was desirable. The rhetoric of change was rock 'n' roll itself, and the platform of change was rock 'n' roll itself. 

It was like this golden thread had been lowered down to me out of the purple rock 'n' roll ether, and I grabbed hold of that ferociously as sort of the one offer of hope in an otherwise gloomy life. I've held onto that tenaciously and ferociously all my life. 

It's still how I mediate what happens to me and the universe through that prism. That's what the Rats did — and I think we inaugurated change, certainly in our own country, and I know other bands acknowledge that. 

 


Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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