Yorkshire Times Exclusive Interview with Sir Bob Geldof
Chris Baker, Entertainment Correspondent
How Dickens and Radio Luxembourg changed my world... the life and times of an Irish pub-rocker
Bob Geldof is undertaking a UK tour to promote his latest album 'How to compose songs that will sell' - his first in 10 years. He plays Harrogate Royal Hall on the 25th May.
In between a hectic round of visits between Budapest and Africa, Yorkshire Times' Entertainments Correspondent Chris Baker caught up on the phone with the one-time pub rocker and pea canner and now global humanitarian and Knight of the British Empire, to talk about music, politics, literature, Yorkshire, his early years - oh and low-budget films, which is where the interview started.
It was in researching for this interview that I remembered that Sir Bob and I had shared a common experience. As a somewhat gawky and spotty adolescent living in Barnstaple, I spent a week in 1979 being an extra for a film called 'The Wall', a cinematic version of Pink Floyd's last double album directed by Alan Parker, and starring Bob Hoskins and one Bob Geldof in the lead role.
The film involved a re-enactment of the allied invasion of Italy in WW2, for which the local beach at Saunton Sands stood as a rather cold and windswept substitute. I got soaked, jumping endlessly out of one or two landing craft and flinging myself into wet sand dunes whilst being 'shot at' by a model German warplane. Saving Private Ryan it wasn't. But I did see quite a lot of the younger Bob Geldof striding round the set.
Sir Bob on film
So I started by asking him if he had enjoyed the acting experience and would he do it again? "Yeah I loved it", then a pregnant pause, "But really I know I am crap at acting. Having said that I am doing one in France later this year and Hollywood in November." He cackles loudly over the line before warming to his thespian past. "I appeared in another film called Number 1, about a snooker player - I was shite - not quite shite enough not to be an actor, but pretty shite - you can either do it or you can't."
The conversation then flows into an extended reminisce about The Wall, which Sir Bob observes, still maintains an almost mythic quality in post-Society countries as a metaphor for political freedom . He continually gets asked how he feels about The Wall whenever he visits Eastern Europe, a question he mimics in a heavy east European/Slavonic accent.
He proudly recalls how the Boomtown Rats (always simply the Rats) played Eastern Europe when it was still behind the Iron Curtain. "For that generation, our playing there was a real big deal and The Wall was always something more than the origins of the song - namely Waters' breakdown" (referring to Roger Waters, co-writer of the album and bass guitarist with Pink Floyd).
I ask him if there is any other film that has stayed with him and influenced his music or politics. "No" is the short reply. "Sure, bits of films reflect your preference, but it's books where I derive my inspiration" - a theme to which we will return.
Sir Bob on Yorkshire
We move on to his forthcoming Harrogate gig, and I ask him if he has any connections with Yorkshire. "No!" comes another rather brusque reply. I am thinking, "this doesn't sound particularly promising".
But one thing you quickly learn about Sir Bob is that no silences last very long. "Paula (his ex-wife) used to do The Tube in Newcastle - is that Yorkshire?" I wince inwardly, wondering who is likely to be most offended by this remark - Yorkshire folk or Geordies. Try again Bob!
But then he is suddenly off on a rich recollection of the early days of the Rats, and how they had to break England by coming in from t'North. "We played our first gig in Blackburn - oh shite, that's Lancashire isn't it, not Yorkshire.
"Anyway, remember we were six Paddies who had come over in 1976. Punk was completely a London thing - no punks ever came from Derbyshire. There was a certain exclusivity around at the time - we couldn't compete with the London bands - you know The Clash, The Jam - so we retired to the shires as it were.
"We more or less did what we did in Ireland, playing for a year in pubs and clubs - we learned to play reasonably well. We also featured on a New Wave compilation with other great bands of that time - you know the Ramones, Talking Heads, but it was our single that was getting the airplay - we were generating quite a lot of steam so when we eventually hit London and turned up at the Marquee, the place was rammed."
He concludes, "So we owe everything to those venues in the North of England and Scotland". Finally we get to Yorkshire (rather than the generic North). "I know Harrogate pretty well - spoken at conferences there - I also feel more comfortable when I am out in public in places like Leeds because I am Irish - the people are more welcoming - they have a view of the world that is something I can relate to."
"So when I say the word Yorkshire what comes into your mind?", I venture by way of a follow-up Yorkshire-type question. A slight pause on the line, and then a very emphatic, "Alan Bennett - oh man - that voice - the way he puts his voice into his speakers' heads is just fantastic.'
Sir Bob on his early days
We change tack and I read back to him the extraordinary account of his early life as it appears in his Wikepedia entry. "It says here you have a Belgian grandfather, a Jewish English grandmother, you went to a Catholic school which you hated because of bullying over your inability to play rugby and the fact your middle name is Zenon. You criticised the Catholic and Irish establishment so that the Boomtown Rats never played Ireland again. You worked as a slaughter man, a road navvy and a pea canner - can all these things true?"
"Yep pretty much", comes back the Irish drawl, with its hint of wry humour. "My grandfather bailed out of Ypres just before the First Word War - came to London - married this English Jewish girl - her father had left Berlin after Bismarck. She had two sisters in the poor house. Anyway my dad enters a cooking competition in Dublin and here I am (Geldof was born in Dun Laoghaire outside Dublin in 1951).
"So I have a heritage that is Belgium Catholic, English Jewish, German Protestant and Irish nothing". Sir Bob expands in the mock-heroic tones on his early childhood. "My father wanted to call me Zeus, but in the end he reverted to calling me Zenon - after an inert gas". He cackles again, clearly enjoying his recounting of his past life.
"And for the record, I wasn't bullied - I just refused to play rugby - I was into not co-operating.' He emphasises this word with particular relish. 'Remember this was the early 60s - it was the done thing to be anti any authority figure - I left school with nothing- I never did any study. Anyway my mum had died when I was 7 and my dad was away a lot."
He continues, working through his list of Wikepedia attributes. "I did write Rat Trap (a Number 1 hit in 1978) in the abattoir, I did drive a lot of heavy machinery - making that bit where the M23 meets the M25 - Geldof corner they call it - it's where all the accidents happen - and the pea canning - yeah did that for three years on the night time shift."
The early political activism that will mark out Bob's later career becomes evident at this stage of his life. "I led a strike at 16 years old and won!" During this time he was also, quote, "teaching English in Spain, selling drugs and then f....ed off to Canada - illegally" where he edited a music journal before being deported back to Ireland. "After all", he concludes,"'this was the 70s and unemployment was rife in both Ireland and London."
Sir Bob on Africa
My reason for asking him about his unusual upbringing was to see if it was any of that experience that had flicked on the massive humanitarian switch when he saw what was going on in East Africa in the early 1980s.
Again, the blunt "No", but followed (again), by elaborate elucidation. "For me it was my reading - we didn't have any money, no phone, no fridge - all I had was my books and radio Luxembourg - these were the two things that informed me from a very early age - on the radio I listened endlessly to Jagger, Townsend, Dylan - and all the talk was about change - the rhetoric of change, the desirability of change".
The impact of these events lives on the urgency and excitement of Sir Bob's tone. "It electrified me." He then draws parallels between "rock and roll as the medium of change", to the books and lyrics he was reading; "Dickens, Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Dylan, James Baldwin - the romance of poverty - except of course, there is no romance."
This heady blend of music and literature inspired him to take a prominent role in the cultural boycott of the all-white South African Springboks rugby tour of Ireland in 1970 as a nineteen year old. For him this sort of direct action was vital if the spirit of change embodied in the music and literature he was reading was going to have an impact. "It's a pragmatic thing for me - always has been - you have to be practical, not just going around singing protest songs".
Sir Bob on his new album 'How to compose songs that will sell'
Which leads us nicely onto the aforementioned album. I'd read some pretty mixed reviews (but these seemed to revolve around the extent to which the reviewer liked Bob as a person). I had listened to a number of tracks in advance and was pleasantly surprised - upbeat, melodic, lyrically positive, and some nice variations in production.
I asked Bob to give a preview of what people could expect from it when they come to the show in Harrogate. "Well I recorded 30 songs and 10 or 11 just fitted - I don't why. It is the bookend to my previous record called Sex, Age and Death", (written in the aftermath of the death of his first wife Paula Yeats), which as you might imagine is a bleak, cold landscape.
"To sum it up - I had to get to old age to understand what 19 year olds feel intuitively - that life without love is mayhem. Had it not been the love of a good woman, family and friends...".
His thoughts trail off, and then pick up momentum again. "I wrote a song for the second Rats album called 'I never loved Eva Braun'. The most appalling thing about Hitler was that he was probably incapable of love due to his complete lack of empathy with humans - yes he was mawkish towards animals, but then all dictators are."
So much for the emotional direction of the album Bob - how about the musical elements? "Everything I like is in there, and I will use whatever style the song suggests to me. So for example, everyone says that 'Here's to you' sounds like George Harrison - well that's because the song suggested that treatment - it's a great George Harrison slide sound - if that riff was done on a trumpet it would have sounded totally different. Fine - I do it like I feel - it's a great comparison by the way."
And Sir Bob sounds a little defensive at this point - have too many people accused him of plagiarism - or writing a sub Beatles style song? I don't know, but I think it's a neat marriage of words, music and sentiment. You, reader, can decide for yourself.
Sir Bob on politics
There is more I would have liked to have discussed about the musical directions of the album, but the time is moving quickly towards the end of my allotted slot, and so there is just a few minutes to ask him about the politics that has shaped his life, since as he says many times, "The politics and the music are intertwined - they are inseparable."
I ask him, with the 30th anniversary of Live Aid only a couple of years away, what were the main legacies of that global event, and in hindsight, would there be things he might have done differently? "I regret nothing because it worked" is the immediate retort - before being followed up with some supporting empirical evidence.
"Seven of out of the ten fastest growing global economies are African. Africans spent more on consumer goods than people living in Brazil or Russia, and had more disposable income. It has the largest and youngest population in the world. Things we groped towards in 1984 are now more and more a reality.
"Back then famine was a symptom of failure and it was a priority that needed to be addressed through politics and economics. Famine can be dealt with because it is empirical, and therefore growth is the answer."
Does he feel the same way about Live 8 I wondered? "Live 8 was essentially a political argument about debt cancellation - now everyone is agreeing on it. Unpayable debt is a moral hazard. So what debt cancellation does is returns the money back to the national economy - back to the place which produced it in the first place. It stabilises the community and local government."
He continues to elaborate, erudite and staccato. "In 2005 however there was still a gap in the economy. So we still needed some aid to keep things going, but now we have Chinese investment and the final element is mobile telephony which connects everyone and allows the flow of ideas, knowledge and investment."
I ask finally, if he would ever put an event like Live 8 on again, or did he think that global celebrity events have had their day as vehicles for change. His response is quick and cryptic. "Well I hope very much it won't be needed again - at least for Africa. I'm not sure rock and roll has the same impact it once did. But it was necessary at the time: 1.8 billion audience for Live Aid; 3.6 billion for Live 8 - if you diffuse the message you get a dilution of the message - these events were about critical amass - they forced change."
And with that typically forceful message, he is gone.
Sir Bob the man
In defence of his main detractors, and there are many, my impression was of a very genuine and authentic person, who wears his own and life's contradictions on his sleeve, and is blessed with a lightning-quick intellect.
His Wikipedia page carries all sorts of unattractive assertions and critiques. Morrissey (never shy himself of courting controversy) at the time called the Band Aid song 'Do they know it's Christmas' which Geldof co-wrote, as 'diabolical' and 'the most self-righteous platform ever in the platform of popular music.'
Around the same time, a cartoon in Private Eye showed two emaciated Ethiopians, with one of them saying, 'We're having a famine, in aid of fading rock stars.' Live 8 was criticised for featuring very few African musicians, because Sir Bob only wanted stars who had global recognition.
Other detractors criticise Geldof's undoubtedly large personal wealth, secured from several successful media and property enterprises. Is it possible to be an outspoken humanitarian as well as a business tycoon with companies registered in the British Virgin Islands? I suspect he would say yes.
What I was left with however, was a sense of man, now in his 60s, whose passion for music and pride in 'making it' as a small band from Ireland was as real and heartfelt as ever. And I think that says a lot about Sir Bob's honesty and integrity, and how dreams of change, fired by Dickens and a battered radio, can become a reality if one has the sheer bloody-minded confidence and vision to do it.
Bob Geldof plays Harrogate Royal Hall on the 25th May.
For tickets visit: www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk or call the box office 01423 502116
Yorkshire Times Exclusive Interview with Sir Bob Geldof, 10th May 2012, 13:38 PM