35 years after Live Aid, Bob Geldof is still 'raging against the dying of the light'

Ahead of a new album and book, the musician talks music, fame and staying angry.

Ahead of a new album and book, the musician talks music, fame and staying angry

Bob Geldof in the q studio in Toronto. (Vivian Rashotte/CBC)

You might know Bob Geldof as an activist and one of the organizers of Live Aid, the massive 1985 benefit concert to raise funds for Ethiopia famine relief. But first and foremost, Geldof is a musician. 

He was the lead singer and songwriter with the Irish rock band the Boomtown Rats, which is largely remembered in North America for their 1979 hit I Don't Like Mondays. Later this month, the Boomtown Rats are releasing their first new album in 36 years, called Citizens of Boomtown.

Geldof sat down for a feature interview with q's Tom Power and talked candidly about music, fame, his memories of Live Aid, and his concerns about the world today.

Here is part of that conversation.

WATCH | Bob Geldof's full interview with q host Tom Power:

On the relevance of the Boomtown Rats' old songs today

As soon as we regrouped, the first thing I said was that I'm not going to do nostalgia. If this just sounds old and if I'm bored by these songs, if they have no resonance for the now, then I'm not going to do it. 

Our first number one, Rat Trap, I wrote it in an abattoir where I was working. I wrote it about the hopelessness of the people there — less the hopelessness and inevitable death of the animals, but the sort of abattoir of dreams that this place was. If I sing it now, I'm not in the abattoir, I'm talking about the hopelessness of being young now and the conditions of things here today.

Rock and roll was always about that for me. It was always about the possibility of change.- Bob Geldof

When I sing Someone's Looking at You, a big hit in Canada, I'm not talking about that time, I'm talking about Google and Facebook tracking you, following you, listening to you, always on, packaging you and your every nuance, or joke, or friends, or musical choice, or food selection. Packaging you up and selling you to a third party who will exploit you and your preferences. So Someone's Looking at You becomes a new rage, a new anger. The songs outlive their time and I'm glad of that.

On fame and its power

Stardom is uncomfortable, celebrity is a nothing. I was never interested in stardom, as you can see. I'm a crap star, if anyone considers me a star. I'm just not good at that stuff. I'm not good at red carpets, it's mortifying. I'm not good at the limousine thing. You know, people waving, banging and looking in the window — I feel a fraud. It's the fraud syndrome. But the fame thing I'd always wanted. I said it at the beginning in the first interview I did. I said I wanted it for the platform it will give me to talk about the things that bother me. Rock and roll was always about that for me. It was always about the possibility of change.

On Live Aid and why it wouldn't have the same influence today

To change economics, you must engage with the agents of change, which, like it or not, you've got to talk to the politicians. We had a huge lobby: 1.2 billion people, 95 per cent of the television sets on Earth watched that concert. Politics is just numbers. They can't ignore it.

It took 20 years of trawling around the chancelleries of the world, and as that Live Aid generation came to power — Clinton, Blair, Brown, Schröder, Cameron, Osborne — the doors opened and they caved. So things do change, but that instrument of change is no longer plausible. Rock and roll was the central spine of our culture for 50 years. The web has broken down the world into individualism and that's easy for authoritarians to use.

The logic of the World Wide Web, this synaptic membrane that wraps itself around the planet, presupposes a hive society. We thought that it would animate an economy. In fact, it sped it up beyond our understanding so the whole thing collapses with greed, puts millions out of work, puts thousands into suicide, wars erupt as a result, millions are on the move to find new work or to escape war, and we throw up our walls and our barriers.

We've reduced ourselves. The 21st century is reductionist and it's using the great tool of reductionism, the Internet, and we need to know how to use this thing, which is the most powerful tool ever invented. So you get these old men being angry again and they make a record that sounds like that.

David Bowie, front left, and Bob Geldof, right, at the end of the London part of the 1985 Live Aid famine relief concert at Wembley Stadium in London. (Joe Schaber/AP)

On getting a massage from David Bowie at Live Aid 

The greatest fear was failing those in whose name we were doing it, and who would never know we were doing it, and had never heard of any of these people. That would have been a crime more than a failure. So I was very afraid and that day my back was killing me because I guess I wasn't sleeping. I was lying down on a flight case and David Bowie walked over and said, "Turn over." And I turned over and here's the big secret: David Bowie could have been a great masseuse. He started massaging me — that's a great rock and roll moment — and the guys and the Rats came over and said, "C'mon, we're on." And I went on and suddenly it was okay, I was in my job.

On why he refuses to let his anger turn into cynicism

Something like Live Aid can't happen now, but that doesn't stop you raging against the dying of the light. That doesn't stop you acknowledging that all generations fail and some fail more spectacularly than others. It doesn't mean that you can't be Greta Thunberg and stand in front of your school silently and just say no. That's still there. The possibility to steer your world in the direction you need to live in, that's there, but it ain't this cyber wanking into the digital void.

Geldof is back with his first band, the Boomtown Rats. The group's first album together in 36 years, Citizens of Boomtown, is out on March 13. A documentary about the band, also titled Citizens of Boomtown, will be released soon. Coinciding with the album release is a new book of Geldof's lyrics and stories from the band, titled Tales of Boomtown Glory.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with Bob Geldof, download our podcast or click 'Listen' near the top of this page.

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Ben Edwards.