Mark Crowne*

Home Music Music Features

Bob Geldof: Going Back to Boomtown

2020 was set to be a huge year for Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats with their first album in 36 years, a new book, and a documentary. However, with a year put on hold, it'll be a while before he can properly go back to Boomtown.

In January of 2020, Irish rockers The Boomtown Rats returned with their first new single since 1985. The song was called “Trash Glam Baby”, and it marked the first taste of new material from the group since their somewhat unexpected reunion seven years earlier. But the news didn’t stop there, in fact, while the group’s iconic frontman Bob Geldof had hinted at a new record in the preceding years, the new song brought with it the news that the influential outfit would also be releasing a new album – their first in 36 years.

The stage was set for a big year for the group. Their new album – titled Citizens of Boomtown – would be released on March 13th, Geldof’s Tales of Boomtown Glory – a book featuring his complete lyrics, stories, and scans of his notebook – would arrive the same day, and a new documentary film named for their latest album would arrive a few months down the line. Things were looking good for the band, and 2020 was set to be one of the biggest celebrations of their career to date. Then, the annus horribilis began to truly show its teeth.

The record itself was released on what would become a dark day for Australians, with Friday, March 13th serving as the day in which Prime Minister Scott Morrison unveiled restrictions on gatherings of more than 500 people, effectively shuttering concert venues for the foreseeable future, and ensuring that the year would be one to remember for all the wrong reasons.

Despite everything going on – that is, a year put on hold due to a global pandemic – Geldof himself seems rather upbeat about the situation at large. Speaking from his home in Kent, the silver-haired musician admits he’s been getting through the perils of 2020 relatively unscathed.

“You sort of feel guilty that you’ve enjoyed all this,” he begins. “Beside from shouting at the murderous incompetence of the British government […] it’s been the most beautiful spring and now summer.”

Though he confesses there’s a little bit of panic and guilt at play due to his inability to do something worthwhile, or go out and earn a living, the year has seen him focus his efforts on things around the house, while focusing on writing new music when time permits.

“I can do my gig from here, really. If I write a tune, I can send the stuff up to the other guys,” he notes. “We shot two videos in lockdown, we’re shooting one today. So for what we kind of do, this isn’t difficult.”

Like any artist caught up in the mixture of mundanity and despondency of 2020, Geldof points out that what has affected him the most is the inability to get out and tour in promotion of the band’s new record. In fact, the United Kingdom was unfortunate enough to be placed into lockdown just a mere two hours after The Boomtown Rats not only launched their new album, but a run of tour dates.

“That really screwed us, [it was] very frustrating,” he recalls. “The tour was cancelled immediately – it had practically sold out, […] so that’s a pisser.

“Like many other businesses I don’t think there’s a regrouping of that because even if we rescheduled, we’re now not in the spring, we’re in the beginning of our winter. Will people be willing to come and stand and, you know, stand cheek by jowl; thousands of people together? I don’t think so.

“The people who have already bought tickets, well, can they come because [the concert] dates have changed now – can they come; would they come? If you hadn’t bought a ticket… Would you be prepared to take a risk, will the band be prepared to travel together, crew, same motel, at the soundcheck, physical labour, the gig, the after show? It’s iffy!”

In fact, while some folks take comfort in knowing they’re not alone in this situation, Geldof admits that The Boomtown Rats are some of the lucky ones. While their eight festival appearances they had scheduled for the middle of 2020 have now been pushed back one year, he concedes that a lot of bands in the “middle level” might in fact be decimated by the state of affairs.

“You can’t just sustain a [band] going for a year without income,” he states. “The individual guys in the band, the musicians, the mates, the crew or the office or something like that – how do you absorb those costs? Especially now when record sales – unless you’re in the top six best-selling artists – are shit. You know, so, it’s difficult.”

During this tumultuous time for the music industry, many artists have found themselves feeling somewhat pleased to have released an album during this time – if not only for the fact that their listeners have something to occupy their time spent at home. While a number of records were initially pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Boomtown Rats weren’t awarded such a luxury, with the impact of what was set to be a massive comeback for the group minimised somewhat.

“There was a film made about the band, which sort of summed up the [formative] period which went out on the BBC,” Geldof begins of the recent months experienced by he and the band. “I wrote a book. Faber [& Faber, publisher] had done a book on the lyrics of Radiohead and Kate Bush and the third person they asked was me which was very flattering. That’s basically why I did it, because I was flattered.

“I wrote essays for that book and that got great reviews, and the film got great reviews, and [then] the album comes out, and it got great reviews. But the totality of the sum, which would have made people very aware of the Boomtown Rats back in town, that was all lost. I mean that was really, frustrating is one thing, but disappointing is another.”

“It would have been – the film, the book, the album, the singles, the video, and the tour sold out – perfect, but no.”

The scale of both the film’s premiere and the group’s comeback was not lost on Geldof either. In fact, the former’s premiere took place at the Dublin Film Festival, attracting music greats such as U2, Sinéad O’Connor, The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan, and newcomers Fontaines D.C., while even Irish President Michael D. Higgins showed up to view the film.

From there, it was shown in major cities such as Berlin, Paris, New York, and Toronto, with Geldof admitting that while the band’s story was the forefront of everyone’s minds, it was time for them to start showcasing the new material.

“In theory, you know, we would be cracking on with doing new stuff,” he explains. “I’ve noodled around with one or two [songs]. Not out of boredom, but they just occur to you, really.

“I just want to focus on these tunes and these tracks. I want to go out and play live; they’re meant for that, the Rats are a great live band. I mean, it would have been – the film, the book, the album, the singles, the video, and the tour sold out – perfect, but no.”

Needless to say, while 2020 is itself an unexpected year, the fact that The Boomtown Rats are at the forefront of people’s minds might have been as unexpected. While the group first formed back in the mid Seventies, their short, yet prolific career came as a surprise to many. Releasing their self-titled debut in 1977, the group quickly shot into the mainstream thanks to the success of their first single, “Lookin’ After No. 1”. Reaching #2 on the Irish charts, this kicked off a run of successful tracks for the group, including 1979’s “I Don’t Like Mondays”, which remains their biggest international hit to date.

Following six studio albums, the band’s profile had waned somewhat by the middle of the Eighties, with Geldof’s charitable efforts taking precedence over his time in the group. By 1986, The Boomtown Rats had played their last show, and Geldof released his solo debut later that same year.

In early 2013, Geldof announced that it was time “to go back to Boomtown for a visit”, with The Boomtown Rats joining the lineup for the 2013 Isle of Wight Festival. As with most reunions of this nature, many fans of the band would’ve been forgiven for assuming this was to be a one-off appearance, with few able to predict a new record would emerge years down the line.

“The impetus came from an offer from the Isle of Wight but retrospectively, I think there was something else at play,” Geldof says of the band’s decision to reform. “I think what was in play was that The Boomtown Rats actually only make sense in periods of chaos and instability.

“We came out of that period and it was a ten-year dynamic arc of quite radical change in the political world and, you know, our time was up really. A new crowd had come along with different things to say, a new generation, and new bands to say it.”

“The Boomtown Rats actually only make sense in periods of chaos and instability.”

Coming together in 1975, The Boomtown Rats were borne from a period of instability in Ireland. Although Geldof decries the fact that the band were frequently lumped alongside English punk outfits such as The Clash and the Sex Pistols, he notes that the band were just as furious as their counterparts due to the national and political climate from which they emerged.

While thousands lay dead due to The Troubles in Northern Ireland, economic downturns saw countless out of work, and served up a doomed future for young people entering the workforce. For Geldof and his bandmates – all young men who came from fractured families – the result was to combine this righteous anger into something which would help them achieve their dream of escaping the situation they found themselves in.

“In [the Citizens of Boomtown documentary], you’ll see everyone say ‘I had to get the fuck out of Ireland’,” Geldof notes. “Garry [Roberts, guitar], when he’s asked, ‘Well what do you want to do?’, ‘Well, I want to play my guitar, drive my motorbike both loud and fast and get the fuck out of Ireland.’ But by ourselves, we couldn’t do it.

“So, when we got together, there was an animus in the band – which retrospectively was the propellant – and that animus was rage. But we didn’t seem to find a form until I found the name in Woody Guthrie’s book Bound for Glory. You know, the great poet of the dispossessed and the impoverished and the depressed; [Bob] Dylan’s master. He was in a gang of kids when he was 11 called the Boomtown Rats and I thought, ‘That’s fucking it!’

“What happened with The Rats was in order to change our own lives we had to start a band, and that band – in order to get out – needed to make a noise. The glorious racket of the Boomtown Rats, that noise had to change the country by just breaking the bubble of silence. I know that sounds grand, it wasn’t the intent, but it’s what happened.”

The group’s impact was immediate within Ireland, and songs such as “Lookin’ After No. 1” – which Geldof had written while in the dole queue – clearly resonated with fans enough to hit number two on the local charts. Though trips to the United States (which saw them play their first American shows alongside the Ramones and Talking Heads) didn’t result in the long-lasting wider fame they would have liked, the group’s legacy was assured.

By the middle of the Eighties, it felt clear to Geldof and his bandmates that “it was right” for The Boomtown Rats to wind things up, having achieved what they had set out to do. Almost 30 years later though, things felt as though they had come full circle, and that it was once again time for The Boomtown Rats to emerge in order to live out their destiny.

“The second that group of individual made that glorious racket, it was fucking electrifying. […] It sounded precisely like the noise I wanted to hear in 2013.”

“In 2013, when Garry and Simon [Crowe, drums] came around to say, ‘Will you do it?’, something made me receptive to the idea,” he recalled. “I didn’t need to, I could tour endlessly with the solo band. But something made me think, ‘Let me think about it.’

“I didn’t think about it long, and the initial spur was playing to 120,000 people again and, you know, vanishing. Fuck off playing in opera houses initially to 2,000 people, you know? It’s very nice, but you know, let’s go! So that was the first curiosity: Were The Rats as good as I would say they were?”

Initially, Geldof admits he was apprehensive about the idea of The Boomtown Rats falling into the category that many other reunited bands have fallen into, with their reformation either being seen as – or feeling like – a return to what once was rather than a new and exciting addition an already-established legacy.

“The second that group of individual made that glorious racket, it was fucking electrifying. I mean seriously exciting,” he recalls of their first rehearsal together. “And I think it was exciting because I really hadn’t expected it, I hadn’t remembered, and it sounded precisely like the noise I wanted to hear in 2013.”

As Geldof explains, it was the state of the world and the relevance of the band’s music that not only necessitated their comeback, but provided them with a reason to hang around. With the Global Financial Crisis still a fresh memory in 2013, terror attacks occurring like clockwork, and now in 2020, the presence of a global pandemic, the need for The Boomtown Rats was more relevant than ever.

It was this desire to not be viewed as simply a nostalgia act on stage that drove Geldof to ensure their relevance was kept front and centre, with songs such as “I Don’t Like Mondays”, “Banana Republic”, and “Lookin’ After No. 1” finding a new meaning thanks to topics such as gun control, Donald Trump’s America, and widespread unemployment.

“The minute I’m on the stage, the sober, temperate, Bob Geldof you’re talking to now disappears, and this other thing happens,” he explains. “I now call that thing Bobby Boomtown, because clearly he exists in me, and he erupts sometimes. You’ll see me on telly going nuts. But with this band, that’s who’s at the front.

“Bobby Boomtown doesn’t give a fuck, what he says, what he does on the stage or the consequences thereof and I just get lost into the atmosphere that that band compels, and it’s wonderful! It’s fantastic, that’s the drug – it’s the getting lost, the disappearing into this otherness. It sounds hippie, but that’s what’s going on.”

“Bobby Boomtown doesn’t give a fuck, what he says, what he does on the stage or the consequences thereof.”

While many fans would have felt surprised to see that The Boomtown Rats were once again taking to the live stage, they would have just unexpectedly learnt back in 2017 that the group were working towards a new record. Having recorded 26 tracks at the time, Geldof revealed at the time the plan was to release a series of EPs in the lead-up to one larger record that collects all the songs under the title of Mega.

Although this changed along the way, fans found themselves questioning two simple things. Firstly, the question of why The Boomtown Rats were recording a new record was simply answered by Geldof alongside the album’s announcement when he eloquently summed it up by stating, “That’s what bands do, they make records. Songwriters write songs.”

However, the second question – that of, how exactly do The Boomtown Rats make new music that continues their legacy – was one that Geldof found himself asking as well. However, he admits that he was initially somewhat apprehensive towards the idea of making new music at all.

“I played with Alice Cooper in Perth a couple years ago, and of course we did ‘School’s Out’ and that’s what the crowd wants to hear,” he recalls. “If I go and see The Rolling Stones and Mick says, ‘Here’s four new tracks from our new album’… Fuck off! Where’s ‘Gimme Shelter’, where’s ‘Honky Tonk Woman’, you know? The classics, they stand alone, nostalgia, they’re wonderful rock’n’roll songs, emblematic of one of the greatest bands ever, so that’s what I want to hear!

“The Rats aren’t The Rolling Stones, but those songs still work for me and I want to do ‘em, because they sound, to me, like now!

“Okay, so how do I write for The Boomtown Rats now? How do I lose the internality? How do I lose that for the solo stuff? And how do I find Bobby Boomtown? How do I access him when he’s not on stage? I wrote myself back to him.”

The way in which Geldof wrote himself back to the onstage persona of Bobby Boomtown was thanks to the song simply titled “The Boomtown Rats”. A staple of their live shows these days, and serving as the closing track on their latest record, the lyrics serve as something of a mission statement to their new era, with the opening line simply stating, “I’m going back to Boomtown” as a stadium-ready instrumental chugs along, while gang vocals state the band’s name like a football chant.

“The visual image that accompanies that mass advertisement is Muhammad Ali looming over the pruning body of Sonny Liston with his fist clenched, and he’s shouting at Liston, ‘What’s my name? What’s my name?’ because Liston refused to call him Muhammad Ali to provoke.

“So, he floors Liston and he screams ‘What’s my name?’ and his face starts going red and I just thought, ‘Yeah, what’s your name? What’s our name? Where’s back? What’s our name? The Boomtown Rats!”

No matter how one looks at it, both Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats have left an indelible mark on the face of music and pop culture in general. Whether it’s the way that music can hold up a mirror to society and speak out against global injustices, or how it can help to create much-needed change, it’s obvious that the world of music would not be what it was without the influence of Geldof.

However, while questions remain about whether music still has the power to change the world, Geldof points out that music was never something that brought about change, but rather a tool used for global understanding and unity.

“I don’t think it’s the music that’s changed, I believe it’s the hearth, the global hearth around which we can gather and understand,” he explains. “Beyond Mandarin or Spanish or English, pop music is the lingua franca of the planet.

“There’s no doubt that Live Aid and Live 8 gave a truth to that, and you know, it’s often said that a perfect rock’n’roll pop lyric is a [Little Richard’s] “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom” and I would agree with that, because you can be in Vladivostok in the depths of the coldest winter or you could be in the Sahara and you hear “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom” and you go ‘Fuck yeah!’

“I’ve said it before that rock’n’roll is an articulate form of inarticulacy. It doesn’t need to have intellectual sense. It needs to have an emotional sense for it to be understood, so it reduces language to an almost non-language, to a pithiness! It can be highly articulate – we know that, but it can also be seemingly nonsensical, but you are moving to an understanding, you’re moving to a beat and an understanding that is way above language.”

Though it remains to be seen whether or not The Boomtown Rats’ new record will indeed be able to change the world by the time they get a chance to finally take it on the road, it’s clear that after 36 years between albums, the Irish outfit haven’t lost sight of what inspired them to get together all those years ago.

The Boomtown Rats’ Citizens of Boomtown is available now, as is Geldof’s Tales of Boomtown Glory. The documentary of the group, also titled Citizens of Boomtown, will be available for Australians to view at some point in 2020.