Singer, songwriter, activist
Previous to the desiccation of Ethiopia, as witnessed by the Western world in 1984, Bob Geldof was almost better known in British and Irish rock circles for his brash and sometimes abrasive personality than for his incisive songwriting and passionate singing. Life magazine described him this way: “When you meet this man you wonder, ‘Why?’ Did God knock at the wrong door by mistake and when it was opened by this scruffy Irishman, think, ‘Oh, what the hell—he’ll do.’” Simply put, he was an unlikely candidate for the nickname “Saint Bob,” and nothing in his childhood would have led one to guess that he’d earn rights to the name anyway.
The grandson of Belgian immigrants, Geldof was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1954. His mother died when he was in elementary school, and he grew up rebellious, often in conflict with his father, his older sisters, and the priests at the prestigious private school he attended. Just your average kid next door, Geldof wrote in his autobiography Is That It?, “My main claim to fame was the fact that I knew the lyrics of every song Cliff Richard ever recorded.” Richard was soon replaced by the Rolling Stones, who “looked and sounded like they were saying ‘f--- you’ to everything. They were my boys.” Geldof recalled, “That racket was the first thing I’d ever heard that felt like someone knew what it felt like.” By the time he was 14, the Kinks, the Who, and the Small Faces had appended his list of role models.
Though he did poorly in school, Geldof was a voracious reader, especially of philosophy, history, and politics. He also dabbled in political activism, joining antiapartheid demonstrations and forming a local chapter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, though he admitted in his book, “We were too lazy to actively campaign....The things I was interested in were passive—reading, listening to music, talking politics—and yet I wanted to be active. I wanted to play music not listen to it, to be involved in politics not talk about it.” The Simon Community, a group that aided the homeless and hungry in Dublin, served as an outlet for his frustrated activism; he paid less attention than ever to his studies.
Such a quixotic background left Geldof in limbo, as he disclosed in Is That It?, revealing, “When I left school, I ran out of the front gates, and didn’t look back once.... I had no hopes when I left, no ambitions, no clue as to what I should do.” His father had hoped he would get a university education, but he failed his exams for the Leaving Certificate, the Irish equivalent of a high school diploma. Running out of options, Geldof went to England and worked on a road construction crew for a while, then drifted to London, where he lived with a group of squatters in an abandoned building and worked
Born October 5, 1954, in Dublin, Ireland; son of Robert Albert Zenon Geldof (a salesman); married Paula Yates (a writer), 1986; children: Fifi Trixibelle.
Singer, songwriter, and activist. Worked as a laborer and photographer in England, an English teacher in Murcia, Spain, and in a slaughterhouse in Dublin, 1969-74; music reporter and editor, Georgia Strait, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, 1974-75; formed group the Boom-town Rats, 1975; recorded and toured with group, 1975-86; group disbanded, 1986; famine relief worker, 1985-86; solo recording artist, 1987—.
Addresses: Booking agent —Premier Talent Agency, 3 East 54th St., New York, NY 10022.
occasionally at odd jobs, including photographing rock concerts and playing guitar in subway stations.
Exhaustion and a bout of drug-induced paranoia finally moved Geldof to escape from his dead-end London life. He found a teaching position in Spain where his lack of credentials would not be a liability. “The sole qualification for being able to teach [English] in the school was that you knew no Spanish,” he recounted. Looking for a change of scenery after his short stint in education, Geldof decided to try Canada. There he achieved the first real success of his life, becoming a reporter, then music editor for Vancouver’s underground newspaper Georgia Strait. He became a minor local celebrity and was sure he wanted to spend his life in Canada. However, he was also an illegal immigrant; to get a proper visa he would have to return to Ireland.
Back in Dublin, Geldof attempted to engage his newly found enterprising spirit in starting his own alternative paper, to be modeled on a Vancouver classified-ad weekly. But, he discovered, “What was a successful and prosperous idea in North America was...impossible in the unenterprising atmosphere of Ireland.” While Geldof tried to negotiate the bureaucratic and financial roadblocks, he was also spending time with several old friends who were talking about creating a band, but having trouble getting organized. To take his mind off the woes of beginning a paper, he offered to help them launch and manage the band; jack-of-all-trades, he was soon drafted as lead singer. A few months later the band got its first gig, under the name “Nightlife Thugs.” Between sets, Geldof thought of the name of a children’s gang in American folksinger Woody Guthrie’s autobiography Bound for Glory, which he had been reading the night before. On the spot, the Nightlife Thugs became the Boomtown Rats.
The Rats scuttled along, due in large part to Geldof’s flair for promotion and his philosophy that “you need to act like stars from the word go.” Though other local bands considered the Rats musically inept, their performances were always exciting and they soon had a following, not only in Dublin but throughout Ireland. Unfortunately, however, no real music industry existed in Ireland. The Rats opted to go to England, where they were signed to Ensign Records in 1976.
The Boomtown Rats hit England at the height of the punk movement and were immediately associated with it, though Geldof noted in his autobiography, “We did not feel ourselves to be primarily part of any new grouping.... All we had in common [with the punks] was the conviction that something new needed to happen in music.” While the Rats considered themselves raw and their musicianship less than adequate, their 18 months of performing experience was nearly 18 months more than many English punk bands had had when they moved into the spotlight. The Rats sound, rooted in rhythm and blues, reggae, and pop, was less harsh than that of the Sex Pistols or the Damned, and unlike some of the very political punk bands, they made no bones about the fact that they wanted to sell records. Punk ideologues labelled them sellouts for appearing on the British TV show Top of the Pops, but they began to have hits almost immediately and finally had a Number One single with “Rat Trap” in late 1978.
For the next two years the Boomtown Rats stayed at the top of the British pop scene. They toured Asia and the United States, but never really broke through in America. This was in part because Geldof’s outspokenness alienated U.S. recording executives and radio station program directors. It didn’t help that their most successful single on the U.S. charts, 1979’s “I Don’t Like Mondays,” was withdrawn by Columbia Records under the threat of lawsuits. The song was inspired by an incident in San Diego, in which a girl named Brenda Spencer shot several people from her bedroom window. The title came from the answer she gave a journalist who asked her why she did it. When Geldof explained in an interview what the song was about, Spencer’s parents threatened to sue. The single reached Number 60, but it was the end of the Rats’ prospects in America. The Boomtown Rats also suffered commercial decline in Britain. By 1984 they were broke and fighting an uphill battle against indifference from both their record company and the public. They toured the university circuit to raise money for recording their sixth album, In the Long Grass, but the first three singles from that release stiffed in spite of a successful tour. A catalyst was needed.
The first flash of “Saint Bob” occurred in November of 1984. Geldof related in Is That It?: “All day I had been on the phone trying desperately to get something happening with the single. It was coming to the end of 1984 and I could see no prospect for the release of In the Long Grass, which we’d sweated over and were proud of. I went home in a state of blank resignation and switched on the television. I saw something that placed my worries in a ghastly new perspective. The news report was of famine in Ethiopia.... This was horror on a monumental scale.”
Geldof conceived the idea of making a record to raise money for famine relief, but he realized that a Boom-town Rats record wouldn’t sell very well. Instead he asked friends who played in other bands to collaborate. They responded enthusiastically, and by the recording date of November 25, Band Aid’s roster was a Who’s Who of British rock. Geldof also persuaded Phonogram Records, the distributors, the retailers, and everyone else involved in the production to forego any profit on the record. He had expected to raise about 72, 000 pounds, but by Christmas Eve of 1984, “Do They Know It’s Christmas” had rung up sales of over five million pounds.
Geldof told Rolling Stone in 1990: “I did a thing that I thought would last three weeks. It didn’t, and I’m glad it didn’t.” Band Aid spawned an American imitation, USA for Africa, and climaxed with the transatlantic benefit concert Live Aid, which raised over $120 million. Geldof spent most of the next two years overseeing the distribution of the enormous sums of money. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, received by heads of state, and lionized by the press. Ironically though, the effect on his own life, he told Rolling Stone, was “disastrous ... financially, professionally, personally.” Of his moniker he said, “I don’t want to be ’Saint Bob, ’ because halos are heavy and they rust very easily, and I know I have feet of clay because my socks stink.”
Geldof went out of his way to avoid any appearance that he was using the publicity generated by Band Aid to boost his own career. Consequently whatever attention the Boomtown Rats’ last album might have received was swept aside and In The Long Grass sank without a trace. The Rats played at Live Aid, but broke up in 1986, just as they were on the verge of signing a new recording contract. Geldof, who took no salary for his administrative work on Band Aid, wrote his autobiography to raise money to pay his own bills. Is That It ?, which Rolling Stone called “a witty, open recounting of his first thirty-three years,” was a best-seller in Britain and relieved his immediate financial problems, but it was not until late 1986 that he was able to return to music.
His first solo album, Deep in the Heart of Nowhere, was released in 1987 to mixed reviews and tepid sales. As Geldof later observed in Rolling Stone, “When I got back to pop ... nobody wanted to accept it.” 1990’s The Vegetarians of Love met with a better critical reception. Rolling Stone described it as “loose and often lovely.... The songs themselves are the strongest Geldof has come up with since the Rats’ third album.” J. D. Considine of Musician praised the songs’ “tuneful charm and garrulous wit.”
Geldof still get requests to aid in fund-raising for various causes, all of which he declines. “The big concert is seriously devalued currency,” he remarked to Rolling Stone.” John Lennon was quite right when he said ’You can be benefited to death.’”Rolling Stone interviewer Rob Tannenbaum asked him: “Was there ever a point… when you thought, Tm really good at this … maybe I should do this full time?” Geldof replied, “No, I didn’t, because I didn’t enjoy it. The same logic applies to pop music: ’Gee, I know a lot about this, I’m as good as anybody else’—[smiles] that’s my opinion of it—’maybe I should do it full time.’ And I do like that.”
Deep in the Heart of Nowhere, Atlantic, 1986.
The Vegetarians of Love, Atlantic, 1990.
With the Boomtown Rats
The Boomtown Rats, Mercury, 1977.
A Tonic for the Troops, Columbia, 1979.
The Fine Art of Surfacing, Columbia, 1979.
Mondo Bongo, Columbia, 1981.
Five Deep, Columbia, 1982.
In the Long Grass, Columbia, 1985.
The Best of the Boomtown Rats (1977-1982), Columbia, 1987.
Geldof, Bob, Is That It, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1986.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, ABC-CLIO, 1991.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Down Beat, October 1986.
Life, January 6, 1986.
High Fidelity, May 1987.
Musician, November 1990.
New York Times Book Review, March 22, 1987.
People, October 22, 1990.
Playboy, August 1987.
Rolling Stone, December 5, 1985; December 4, 1986; February 12, 1987; November 15, 1990; September 6, 1990.
Time, January 6, 1986.
Variety, August 27, 1986
Geldof, Bob, songwriter, lead vocalist, and performing focal point for the Boomtown Rats; b. Dun Langhaire, Ireland, Oct. 5, 1954. Spearheading interest in young Irish rock and subsumed under the label punk, the Boomtown Rats won substantial success in Britain and Europe in the late 1970s, but they were virtually ignored in the United States. Bob Geldof later endeavored to raise money for African famine relief, first with the Band Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (purportedly the best- selling single ever in England), and later with the massive Live Aid concert staged in London and Philadelphia. Geldof’s efforts reawakened the music scene to social concerns and served as an inspiration for other musical benefits such as Farm Aid. Bob Geldof launched a solo career in the late 1980s that fared little better than that of the Boomtown Rats.
Bob Geldof formed the Nightlife Thugs in 1975 after a stint as music reporter and editor with the Georgia Straight in Vancouver, British Columbia. The group soon evolved into the Boomtown Rats, with Geldof, Gerry Cott, Garry Roberts, Johnnie Fingers, Pete Briquette, and Simon Crowe. Establishing themselves in Ireland, the Boomtown Rats moved to London in 1976 and signed with Ensign Records. Conducting their first full-scale tour of England in 1977, the band recorded their debut album in Germany. “Looking After No. 1” became the first of a series of major British hits that included “She’s So Modern” and “Rat Trap,” from their second album, and the controversial “I Don’t Like Mondays,” their first and only (minor) American hit. With Geldof as songwriter and lead vocalist, the group garnered a reputation in Britain and Europe for their brash and cynical songs and arrogant stage presence. However, the group’s albums after A Tonic for the Troops were less well received, and their American record company, Columbia, dropped the band in late 1985, leading to their dissolution in 1986.
After viewing a BBC television documentary on the famine in Ethiopia in 1984, Bob Geldof contacted Midge Ure of Ultravox and began booking an array of British rock stars to record a single to raise money to remedy the situation. Recruiting Sting, Boy George, Phil Collins, and members of U2, Ultravox, and Duran Duran, among others, the assemblage recorded “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” written by Geldof and Ure, in November 1984. Released under the name Band Aid, the song became a major American hit and top British hit, selling more than seven million copies worldwide. The project inspired the adhoc group USA (United Support of Artists) for Africa in the United States, with superstars such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Prince, Lionel Richie, and Tina Turner recording the top hit “We Are the World,” written by Jackson and Richie.
In 1985 Bob Geldof visited Africa and soon began organizing a huge simultaneous benefit concert linking London and Philadelphia. Staged on July 13, 1985, Live Aid was broadcast worldwide to an audience estimated to approach one billion viewers. Performers included Bob Dylan, Madonna, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, U2, The Who, Elvis Costello, and David Bowie. The concert ultimately raised more than $100 million for famine relief, a project overseen by Geldof for the next two years. He became an international celebrity, met with leaders of many nations, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1986 and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and 1987.
Never exploiting his fame for personal gain, Bob Geldof wrote his autobiography, Is That All?, published in 1986, and returned to music with his solo debut album, Deep in the Heart of Nowhere, and its minor American hit “This Is the World Calling.” He recorded a follow-up album two years later and then lay low for a while, returning to tour America for the first time in 12 years in support of 1993’s The Happy Club.
BOB GELDOF: Deep in the Heart of Nowhere (1986); The Happy Club (1993). THE BOOMTOW N RATS: The Boomtown Rats (1977); A Tonic for the Troops (1979); The Fine Art of Surfacing (1979); Mondo Bongo (1981); V Deep (1982); In the Long Grass (1984); Best (1977–1982) (1987).