Bob Geldof: For my generation the Ireland of today is wonderful, miraculous
Bob Geldof slips back into 'Bobby Boomtown' mode tomorrow night for The Boomtown Rats' headline appearance at Harmony Live in Holywood. David Roy spoke to Geldof about what keeps them coming back five years on from a supposedly one-off reunification, their forthcoming new album and how Ireland has evolved from the 'oppressive' country which birthed them
BOB Geldof admits he has a split personality. On one hand, he's 'Sir Bob', Band Aid/Live Aid/Live 8 humanitarian. But once he gets on stage with The Boomtown Rats, he's 'Bobby Boomtown': snakeskin suit-clad renegade frontman of Ireland's first punk rock chart toppers.
"When I get on the stage and the band crank up, I'm all over the place," enthuses Geldof (66) of his recently revived Dun Laoghaire-bred upstarts.
"I genuinely don't think about it, I just go off: I'm messing around, I'm saying stuff and I'm goading people – and then I read the Daily Mail the next day and think, 'Oh, did I say that?!'"
Having split in 1986, Geldof and original Rats Garry Roberts (guitar), Pete Briquette (bass) and Simon Crowe (drums) reconvened in 2013 for a 'one-off' show at the Isle of Wight Festival and have continued to play regularly ever since.
Their latest outbreak of live activity kicks off tomorrow night at Harmony Live in Holywood, Co Down and takes in a Dublin date with fellow Live Aid stars Queen in Marlay Park on July 8.
Even today, Geldof maintains he's still most comfortable in Bobby Boomtown mode, leading the Rats through their greatest hits like Rat Trap (the aforementioned 1978 number one), I Don't Like Mondays (another number one, from 1979), She's So Modern, Lookin' After No 1, Someone's Looking At You and Like Clockwork.
"The only thing I truly enjoy doing is playing live," he says. "That's literally the only thing I actively enjoy doing – everything else I'm kind of going 'oh for f***'s sake'. In the middle of a gig, you'll sort of see me disappear.
"That's sort of 'peak Bob', if you like."
Indeed, the Rats' two-song slot at Live Aid on July 13 1985 helped deliver the singer into the eye of his own history-making, life-saving storm.
"I was s****ing myself," Geldof recalls of the fateful show in front of a 72,0000-strong crowd at Wembley Stadium, which was beamed into millions of homes around the world and raised £30 million to combat famine in Ethiopia.
"Just before we went on stage my back was f***ing killing me. Bowie was giving me a massage – there's one for the memory books. But when I walked on, I was the guy in the pop band.
"That was absolutely natural to me – all the rest was not."
Indeed, since co-penning the Band Aid charity single Do They Know It's Christmas? with Midge Ure the previous year and setting up their Band Aid Trust charity, Geldof was suddenly more than just a pop star: less than a year after co-organising Live Aid, the Irishman would be anointed by the Queen as an honorary Knight commander of the order of the British Empire (KBE) in recognition for his charity work.
"For months, I'd been on an organisational continuum," he recalls of the run-up to Live Aid. "I was full of fear: the great personal failure if it didn't work, that the bands wouldn't show up because we didn't have contracts, or that they would show up and be crap. But the primary fear was that we'd fail on behalf of those whom we were doing the whole thing for."
However, when the Rats finally took to the Live Aid stage, Geldof was famously moved to tell the crowd: "I've just realised today is the best day of my life."
"We'd done huge gigs and the Rats had been a big band, but the noise was f***ing unbelievable," he recalls. "We went into the songs, and then I thought: 'Where's my dad? Oh, he's up there with Charles and Diana. That's pretty f***in' weird'.
"Then I thought: 'Every single person I've ever met or said 'hello' to is watching this. That's the weirdest thing ever. Like, who else has that happened to?' And thirdly, I thought: 'Someone in f***ing Vladivostok is watching this!'
"The line in Mondays 'and today's lesson is how to die' pulled me up. I thought 'oh, I want to remember this', because it was so overwhelming. That's when I stopped and purposely looked all the way around the stadium, taking it in and thinking about the number of people watching.
"But I wasn't freaked out. I was more at home on the stage than I was behind the stage."
Anyone interested in delving into the historic 'organisational continuum' that made Band Aid, Live Aid, Live 8 and related events possible will soon be able to do so: the Band Aid Archive has just arrived at the National Library of Ireland for processing and eventual public display.
"This sounds grand, but it's a broad sweep of 25 years from the 20th century into the 21st," says Geldof. "The culture, the musicians, the politicians, the fleet of 650 trucks in the desert and the fleet of ships – all of that story. I think Netflix are going to do a long-form series on it, which would be great."
Tomorrow, the Rats are back in action in Holywood with a set likely to feature a couple of brand new songs from their recently recorded new album and a renewed focus on second LP A Tonic For The Troops, which turns 40 this month.
In the wake of last week's historic vote on abortion, it's worth asking Geldof what the angry young Bobby Boomtown would have made of the increasingly progressive present day version of the "septic isle" immortalised in the Rats' 1980 number three hit, Banana Republic – famously inspired by a failed attempt to ban his 'subversive' group from performing in Ireland.
"I texted a friend of mine and just said 'we won'," says the Rats leader of the 'Yes' campaign, which he visibly supported.
"The country that we were arguing for and demanding as young people, making a fuss about with Banana Republic, Rat Trap and Lookin' After Number 1 and all that, we had no idea what it would be specifically – but it certainly could not be that which we were raised in and which offered us no future whatsoever.
"I could barely breathe in the Ireland I grew up in, and I literally mean that: it used to manifest itself in me in breathlessness. It was an oppressive, culturally claustrophobic place which had a horror of the modern and any sort of free thought.
"Clearly, even as a bunch of Herberts from Dun Laoghaire, the game was to attack that. Everything that the Rats did was predicated towards disrupting it."
He adds: "For people of my generation, the Ireland that's happening now – with proper arguments and people's differing views respected – it's wonderful and miraculous."
As for the new Rats album, Geldof is confident that they've made a record they can stand over – even though he's not sure what happens next.
"I knew we could make a good record, but who the **** cares?" he grumbles. "The people who come to see us want to hear the songs they've grown up with. I think there's three or four singles there, but where will they get played?
"There isn't any danger in music anymore. I watched The Biggest Weekend on the telly with Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith and Taylor Swift and all those – it's all so friendly and fun and charming, y'know?
"It's like, 'F*** charm!'"
Sounds like a good Rats album title to me.
:: The Boomtown Rats headline the Harmony Live Festival in Holywood tonight. Tickets and full line-up info via Harmony-live.co.uk