It’s been 36 years since the world last heard a new Boomtown Rats album. In that time, frontman Bob Geldof basically invented the all-star charity single with “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”; willed Live Aid into existence, raising millions of dollars for the victims of the Ethiopian famine in the process; and then spearheaded Live 8 20 years later. He also recorded seven solo albums, dealt with endless tabloid drama and tragedies in his personal life, and gigged on his own all over the globe.
Throughout all that time, he never gave much thought to a Boomtown Rats reunion until drummer Simon Crowe and guitarist Garry Roberts came to him in 2013 with an offer to perform at the Isle of Wight festival in England. The Irish band is largely remembered in America for their 1979 smash “I Don’t Like Mondays,” but in Europe they charted over and over with generational anthems like “Rat Trap,” “Banana Republic,” and “Lookin’ After No. 1.” Their legend grew with every passing year after the split, and the festival dangled a huge offer in front of them to get them back onto the stage.
“It came down to curiosity, vanity, and cash,” says Geldof. “The curiosity was, ‘Were we a good band?’ I always said we were, but you don’t know when you’re actually in it. The vanity was, ‘Yeah! Playing in front of 100,000 people! I’m going to be Bobby Boomtown again!’ And the cash is always handy. In retrospect, though, I just wanted to hear a fuck-off, big, glorious noise, which is how Bono described the Rats.”
Geldof has more experience with the delicate matter of re-forming long-dormant bands than just about any man in history. For Live Aid, he managed to talk the Who, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and CSNY into putting aside years’ worth of bad blood and reuniting. For Live 8, he one-upped himself by getting Roger Waters and David Gilmour to make peace long enough to play four Pink Floyd songs, which is an absolute miracle considering their history.
The situation in his own band, however, was far less complicated. The main issue, as Geldof tells it, is that Crowe had sold some less-than-flattering stories about him to the British tabloids a few years back. “When I answered the door to Simon at the first rehearsal, he said to me, ‘Dude, I’m sorry I hurt you,’” Geldof recalls. “‘I was broke. I needed the money.’ I said to him, ‘You could have just called me and said you needed money. It would have been fine.’”
The next issue popped up when Geldof told Roberts he wanted to play guitar as opposed to merely singing like in the old days. “He went apeshit,” says Geldof. “He said to me, ‘You can fuck off!’ It was like we were back in the summer of 1975. He said to me, ‘You look like a cunt with a fucking guitar.’ I was like, ‘For fuck’s sake!’ and I didn’t play guitar.”
The latest incarnation of the Rats also features founding bassist Pete Briquette, who has played with Geldof in his solo band for decades. Original keyboardist Johnnie Fingers lives in Japan and declined to participate; rhythm guitarist Gerry Cott left the band in 1981 and didn’t come back for this go-round, though he did guest at a gig on the eventual reunion tour.
Once everything was smoothed over at rehearsal, the band kicked into their 1977 debut single, “Lookin’ After No. 1.” It’s one of their signature tunes, but until this very moment Geldof didn’t love it. “We rattle it off with big, vulgar chords, and I realize it’s a fucking great song,” he says. “I was in it. I desperately needed to be in that space that that noise puts me in. It sounds stupidly romantic, but did I thrill to it? Yeah, I did. Then we went to another one and I felt, ‘That’s not bad.’”
After a few warmup gigs, the band found themselves backstage at the Isle of Wight on June 16th, 2013. Geldof and Briquette were used to big crowds, but Roberts and Crowe hadn’t seen anything like this in years, even though they continued gigging together after the Rats under the moniker the Velcro Flies.
“Gary and Simon were shitting themselves,” says Geldof. “But the experience was entirely liberating and exhilarating and exhausting in the best way possible. I was utterly free and emotionally replete, psychologically complete and fulfilled, physically exhausted. And I was happy. No equivocation. No doubt. I was happy. And that’s not normal. And that’s the drug.”
The vast majority of the set was songs from several decades past, but Geldof never once felt the pangs of nostalgia while delivering them. “When I sing ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ I’m not in in 1979,” he says. “I’m in last night’s school massacre, which nobody anticipated at the time. When I’m doing ‘Rat Trap,’ it’s not for the hopelessness of the people in that abattoir I wrote it in, but hopelessness now. When I do ‘Banana Republic’ it’s not for the Irish Republic, which eventually grew up and matured. It’s for the American republic as it descends ever further into political infantilism.”
“When I do ‘Lookin’ After No. 1′ it’s not about the conditions of life in 1979,” he continues. “It’s about Google and Facebook and [Mark] Zuckerberg always on, always monitoring, collating every thought you have, every friend, every choice, packaging and selling it to a third party who in turn exploits you and your preferences. It’s utterly now. That rage, that animus propels the Boomtown Rats.”
The show ended with a brand-new song that Geldof wrote just for the occasion. Appropriately enough, it’s called “The Boomtown Rats.” The throbbing, surprisingly danceable song is, as the title suggests, about the band itself, with lyrics like “I’m going to Boomtown/I’m going back … What’s happened here in Boomtown?/It’s those rats/Those rats/Those dirty, dirty rats!”
Seven years later, Geldof still vibrates with excitement when reliving the moment. “I was Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston going, ‘What’s my name? What’s my name?’” he says. “I had 100,000 people chanting ‘The Boomtown Rats!’”
The triumphant moment planted the seed for the band’s upcoming album, Citizens of Boomtown, which arrives on March 13th. The 10-track LP has the classic Rats sound, though with many modern twists. Briquette produced it, and the band started to record it at his house in the London neighborhood of Acton. “We essentially sat in a child’s bedroom,” says Geldof. “I feel much freer in a room like that than if there’s a fucking 24-track and engineers.”
Some songs were sketched out before work began, while others are created largely on the spot. For example, “Monster Monkeys” began when the words “Hey, Mr. Mojo with your moptop hair … monster monsoon monkeys are sucking out my brain” came out of Geldof’s mouth while the group was playing around with a “Sympathy for the Devil”–like groove. “When your subconscious is in a panic, it vomits phrases and images that don’t seem to work,” says Geldof. “Your fore-conscious grabs them because your mouth has to say something and the next minute your tongue and lips move and blurts it out.”
The sessions eventually moved to a studio near Gatwick Airport. They worked on more songs than they could fit in a single album, but Geldof was determined to limit them to just 10. “The art of the album is gone, but I’m old school,” he says. “I think an album is 10 songs. It’s like an art exhibition. They are the ones that best suit where I’m at today even though the painter will have made 50. It’s a single idea, and in our case it’s a single sound.”
The group is going to promote the album with a European tour shortly after the release. “We made this album for 2020,” says Geldof. “But I have doubt if anyone who loves Billie Eilish is going to want to come see us. What do we have of interest to see to those people? I would like to play festivals because I’d take on anyone and it’s a huge crowd. Maybe people will walk away and go, ‘Fuck, did you check out this band?’ That’s what I want.”
There are no plans, at least at the moment, to bring the group to America. They’ve never had a big following here, and all the big offers are from Europe, though an upcoming documentary might finally widen their appeal. Once the shows wind down, though, Geldof has no clue what’s happening next. “We’re all 965 years old,” he says. “We probably only have 18 months fucking left! The finishing lane is very clear at this point. But I do really want to play these songs live because that’s when songs are truly completed. That’s the final closing of the loop.”