Bob Geldof: Lord of the Rats

Forget lifetime-achievement gongs and knighthoods - Bob Geldof's proudest of those Boomtown CDs, he tells James McNair
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The Independent Culture

Time is precious - particularly for Bob Geldof. The half-eaten Indian takeaway on the table; the way he gobbles down my questions; the letter in front of him that begins, "Dear Commissioner, before I leave on another extended trip to Africa..." - all of these betray his frantic schedule. I'd always assumed that Geldof's shamelessly grey hair spoke of his contempt for vanity. Today, watching him multitask between interviews at London's Soho House, I hit upon another theory: perhaps he simply can't find the time to apply Just For Men.

These are happy as well as busy days for Sir Bob. A recent BBC Radio 4 poll, regarding whom people would like to see admitted to the House of Lords, put Geldof on top. On 9 February, he will receive a lifetime-achievement gong at the Brit Awards. More importantly to the singer-come-humanitarian, it seems, is the fact that the six albums he made with the Boomtown Rats between 1977 and 1985 are about to be released on CD for the first time.

"I prefer the Rats over everything," he says, scratching at his blue pinstripe jacket. "I feel that it's my greatest achievement. There are maybe 10 bands in Britain, Ireland and America who managed to change the country a little bit, and we were one of them. In 1975, Ireland changed irrevocably. For the first time, 50 per cent of the population was under 25, so it was becoming a hugely young and over-educated country. The Rats helped to articulate that. We were six kids from Dun Laoghaire who helped to usher in modern Ireland."

While Geldof's claims for his former band might seem grandiose, the Rats are ripe for reappraisal. Recent times have seen The Strokes acknowledge them as an influence, while Geldof's pal Bono has said that the U2 newie "City of Blinding Lights" owes plenty to "Neon Heart", a track from the Rats' eponymous debut album. It was his grippingly frank, 2001 solo album, Sex, Age & Death, Geldof says, that first had critics thinking, "Jeez, maybe he wasn't a cunt after all". But it wasn't until a Boomtown Rats "best of", tentatively issued by Phonogram charted last year, that the re-release of the group's back catalogue was given a green light.

It was on Hallowe'en in 1975 that the Rats played their first gig. Geldof says that they predated Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones and U2 by two years, but in truth, The Undertones formed in 1975, too. What is clear is that, while the aforementioned bands were partly inspired by the English punk movement of 1976-1977, the Rats' early music owed more to gutsy R&B. Their first hit, "Looking After Number One", might have sounded punk in sentiment, but its B-side "Barefootin'" - a hit for the New Orleans soul artist Robert Parker back in the Sixties - told quite another story.

"It confused the British punks when we finally turned up here," says Geldof. "We kind of looked like they did, but were much more accomplished musically. Sting always said that the Rats and The Police flew the punk flag of convenience, but that's not true. The Rats had nothing to do with UK punk. The only punk band we got on with was the Pistols, because Johnny [Rotten/Lydon] was a Paddy."

If 1977's The Boomtown Rats was informed by Mother Ireland, 1978's A Tonic for the Troops reflected the group's relocation to London, and saw them make a calculated assault on the UK singles chart. Geldof says that "She's So Modern" and his Band Aid co-write, "Do They Know It's Christmas?", are the only two songs he wrote in a calculated attempt to dent the Top 10.

Ultimately, "She's So Modern" stalled at No 12, but the follow-up, "Rat Trap", about a guy whom Geldof had met while working in an abattoir in Ireland, reached No 1. "She's So Modern" was partly based on Geldof's then-girlfriend Paula Yates, but also alluded to the future TV presenter Magenta De Vine, then-NME journalist Julie Burchill, and an unnamed girl "who would lie on the floor with just her boots on and ask to be kicked hard. I couldn't do it, of course", says Geldof.

In his 1986 autobiography, Is That It?, Geldof talks of how Paula Yates would ask him to write an overtly romantic song for her. Much as he wanted to, he never felt able to, but he tells me that The Fine Art of Surfacing (a dark, 1979 Rats album dealing with the pressures of fame) was partly informed by Paula, and that "Fall Down", from 1981's Mondo Bongo, references her directly.

In 1986, far less 1981, Geldof could not have known that Yates would later leave him for the INXS singer Michael Hutchence, and that, by 2000, both she and Hutchence would be dead. Poignant, then, when Geldof says that, by 1980, Yates had become "an absolutely central" part of his life, and then quotes me a couplet from "Fall Down" that runs: "Not only cripples have a need for crutches/ And if they ever take me away from you I'd fall down."

But, ultimately, you didn't, I suggest. "I did fall down for a while when they took her away from me," Geldof replies, not missing a beat. Understandably, this is his shortest answer of the interview by far.

Difficult questions about Yates aside, you sense that chatting about the Rats is a welcome break for Geldof; time out, as it were, from his day job as politicians' nemesis. Asked if he ever heard what became of Mary Preece, the inspiration for "Mary of the 4th Form", he's ahead of me with a laugh: "Yeah, she became the PR to the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern. Us Dun Laoghaire kids go far! We played in Vicar Street in Dublin a couple of years ago, and there she was: still gorgeous and still wouldn't shag me. She's married, but I didn't feel that should be an impediment. I mean, I'm an international rock star, for fuck's sake!"

Besides increased fame, a knighthood, and the ball-and-chain of public expectation that he would do more of the same, Live Aid brought Geldof lifetime access to the great and the good. Even talking to him about a band he formed 30 years ago, however, one can't help but encounter more big names. When I ask if there's any truth in the story that "Rat Trap" was Geldof's "Bruce Springsteen tribute", his lengthy rebuttal riffs on the fact that the song owed more to "Van Morrison filtered through Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy. Now I know Bruce, of course, and I think he' a great guy and a genius," Geldof adds, "but back then I thought he was a twat with a ridiculous name doing romantic nonsense."

Elsewhere, a question about the Rats' appearance on Marc Bolan's self-titled, late-Seventies pop show triggers an earlier memory of Geldof interviewing Bolan while working as a journalist, and Geldof drops into a decent Bolan impression before painting a potent picture of the then-fading star: "I remember he had a pink feather boa that tragically and metaphorically kept shedding its feathers," he says.

The aforementioned Rats album, The Fine Art of Surfacing, also contained a brilliant pop-rock epic that spent a month at No 1 in summer 1979. "I Don't Like Mondays", partly about Brenda Spencer's casual shooting of her schoolmates in San Diego, brought Geldof to the attention of the US moral majority two decades before they tried to implicate Marilyn Manson in the Columbine massacre. "But my situation was the opposite," Geldof says. "No one was blaming me for what happened. Spencer later wrote to me saying that she was glad she did it because my song made her famous. Except it didn't. I didn't mention her. I wasn't interested in her - she's an idiot whose father had been buying her guns for her birthday. What I was interested in was the event and what it meant.

"The song is about amorality. You don't have to have a reason to live, and you, therefore, don't have to have one to die - I don't like Mondays, I don't like the taste of this mineral water - and... bang!

"When I go through US customs, people still go, 'Hey, Bob Geldorf [sic]! Tell me why you don't like Mondays!'. They assume it was a hit there, but it wasn't."

Our time together ebbing away, Geldof and I tie up a few loose ends. Yes, the "Lord Geldof" idea does appeal, but only because it would enable him to make powerful alliances with people of different political persuasions. "Actually, I think most of the people who voted in that poll were out to stop me making records," he says. "It's like, give him something else to do - just keep him away from the studio!" Has he kept in touch with his former band-mates since the Rats' split in 1985? "Pete [Briquette, bassist] I'm actually seeing in two hours. He produced Sex, Age & Death, and he's my mate. Fingers [Johnny Fingers, keyboards] wrote to me just before Christmas; and I saw Garry [Roberts, guitarist] about four months ago."

At that, Geldof's PR calls time, and I close by asking him whether rumours that he'll duet with Bono at the Brits are true. "Duet on what, exactly?" he laughs. "He'd sing me out of the fucking hall."

The Boomtown Rats back-catalogue is out on Universal on 7 February

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