The Boomtown Rats were never really a thing in America.
As a new documentary about the band makes clear, although they were one of the best and brightest of the New Wave bands to emerge from the British music scene in the late 1970s, once here in America, the sheer size and scope, not to mention a sneering attitude and plain old bad luck, conspired time and again to derail their collective ambitions.
But Bob Geldof, the man who brought you Band Aid, Live Aid, Live8, and who lived through a messy celebrity divorce and the death of a child in the tabloid press, for better or worse, is about as well-known as they come.
Never one to resort to auto-pilot promotion of his latest projects, over coffee at his SoHo hotel last month—ostensibly to talk about Welcome to Boomtown, the documentary; the Rats’ new album, Citizens of Boomtown, their first in 36 years, and full of the swagger and biting social commentary the Rats were always known for; as well as a book of lyrics, Tales of Boomtown—he sounds off about mass surveillance, the fall of the British Empire, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, and the days when the music business set the cultural agenda.
In going back through your catalog, a lot of what you were singing about—40 years ago, mind you—feels as relevant and pressing today. Maybe we’ve actually taken steps backwards, but in reuniting with the band, and singing those songs, have you reconnected with those words and can you deliver them with the same intensity and passion?
And besides, why should anyone, authority in particular, want to know who you are? Like in England, you don’t have to carry ID. If a cop stops you and asks who you are, you’re under no obligation to tell them. But it doesn’t matter anymore. That’s the key. Because they came up with that old saw, “What are you afraid of anyway? Only the guilty would be afraid.” And suddenly we’re in Orwell. The truth is, only the innocent need be afraid. When there’s everything watching you all the time, you could be accused and it be made to look as if you’ve done whatever you’re accused of. So that’s what bothers me: the creep of surveillance capitalism. The creep of the uber-state, which is happening here faster than anyone could imagine. And so I’m back to the sort of adolescent passions of being 15 and 16.
That has to be frustrating, to have seen it not just come around in the time you’ve been doing this, but get worse—especially with the rise of authoritarianism.
Authority tends to authoritarianism. In the past, we could object and stop it. It’s unstoppable now. Your iPhone there [points to my iPhone] is the greatest system of control. It’s Brave New World and Orwell, again. It’s the most important invention ever. But it’s always on. And always on you. You’ve got something there tracking your every move. Not that they give a fuck about you, but should they need to, they can find you. People say, “Yeah, but look, murderers, they can follow them out on the street via CCTV.” But I’m not prepared to allow for that. And there should always be an in-built rebuttal of authority, anyway. But only the guilty need be afraid? I want to puke, and it scares me to death, that sort of thinking.
Well, you’ve lived a lot in the 40 years since you wrote a lot of your songs. Can you still relate to them as that kid who wrote them, and do you see in the audience younger people who are railing against that?
They don’t rail against it. You don’t see many bands who’ve got political opinions. It’s pretty lame. But we were never specific. You wouldn’t know that “I Don’t Like Mondays” was about a mass murder. You would think it was about going to school on Monday or going to work after going, back into the drudgery. And most people did. You talk about the lack of hope, and you warp it in a beautiful petticoat of musicality and choral stuff and sing-along and make it upbeat, and it gets to number one. And six months later, when you’re singing, “Rat trap, you’ve been caught,” or you’re singing, “I don’t like Mondays, and I want to shoot the whole day down,” the realization arrives. I never cared if people understood what our songs were about; I just wanted to have hits. But the hits had to be about something. In the film, Clem Burke of Blondie says, “We need songs like that now.” But they’d just end up on your phone, and that would be the end of it, because then it’s just cyber-venting. They would disappear into the digital void.
Authority knows very well that six million on the street, with potential violent consequences, is something, but six billion people venting online is meaningless, because it’ll be gone in a second. As I keep saying, politics is numbers, but not digital numbers. They don’t exist. People feel that they’re deeply politically committed about Trump, for example, if they decide to have a cyber-wank about him. “Yeah, that fucking idiot.” Bang. “Yeah, it’s got a bunch of likes. I’m cool.” It’s meaningless. And Trump, of course, being an instinctive populist, and not being particularly verbally skilled, is perfect for Twitter. He can reduce anything to fucking four syllables. So I’m not that interested in political activism, but the iPhone developers should have anticipated this new politics.
In 1468, when Gutenberg wanted to print 20 pamphlets instead of one, and some dude came along and said, “I’ve got this thing, the Bible, can you print it in German instead of Latin?” Well, suddenly the world explodes. Within 20 years, the elite had fallen, the economy changed, and a weird idea like the Enlightenment and individual rights had come to the fore, because you had a democratization of knowledge. And the iPhone is Gutenberg times six billion. The ultimate consequence of that, we’re not sure of at all. But the first thing it did do was alter the economy to move faster than we could understand it. And by definition, as Adam Smith predicted, it crashed because of greed. It bankrupted the world and usurped the world that everyone had lived in up till then. Everything changed then. So we reverted back, in our confusion, to a politics of certainty. To nativism and patriotism. We withdrew behind our known borders and put up walls to ensure them. The problem with that is that isolationism and protectionism have never not led to war. So that’s where we’re at. So the iPhone, it’s the devil and it’s God, and it’s up to you to decide which is which.
And the media became about money.
But the iPhone is killing the media. It’s a race to the bottom. The tabloids are over. Nobody gives a fuck what The Sun says or thinks anymore. Print media is over, we know that. Television is over. The BBC grapples to find its audience and tries to be hip, to no avail. Movies are over. The iPhone has usurped everything. So, coming back to your essential point: all generations fail, and some fail more spectacularly than others. And we are that generation. We are an immense failure. We were given an incredible period of time of well-being and growth and education. And we ended up with nuclear proliferation. We’re all just waiting for the day some guy gets on the tube with a briefcase and opens it up. We’ve got out of control viruses because we’re so successful as a species and because of the global supply chain. Although anyone who thinks that globalization is over is a fool. It will not and cannot ever be stopped. And the iPhone thing presupposes globalization. So we need a new politics. In our confusion as to what that is, we have ended up with simpletons and simplicities, because only simpletons can impose simplicities.
Is Boris Johnson a simpleton?
He’s a fucking liar.
Well, yes. But is he a simpleton?
Yes. To rule by lies is to use the methods of a simpleton. And his intellectual arrogance is overwhelming. The way he talks is just a language that the English have a knee-jerk reaction to, that accent of authority. If you have the accent, dude, you’ve already got 45 percent of the vote.
You’ve mentioned how, when the G8 met and canceled the debt of the developing nations, at that very moment came the rise of ISIS. That was less than 15 years ago, but it feels like a lifetime.
ISIS only is a symbol of the new age. ISIS are a function of the web as much as anything else. It’s the franchising of terror. It’s the McDonald’s of terror. But in the same way that Darwin, Freud and Marx wrote the 20th century very early on, someone’s already written the 21st. We just haven’t worked out which ones they are, because it moves at such a speed.
But your point was that those leaders who got together in 2005, that couldn’t happen today.
The nature of the web presupposes cooperation. But we don’t even know what this type of society means. It definitely means a difference—that we are in the middle of that great difference. But we are moving faster than we can comprehend right now. So I don’t expect rock music anymore to be able to put a frame of reference around that, which it did so brilliantly in our time, when we could express those moments and those differences and own whole new concepts of ideas through this minor art form that’s now gone.
Because there’s not a universality to the culture, and to the young people, that there was then?
Yes, because we’ve reverted musically, because of technology, to the way things were in the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Because music is not how big ideas are transmitted. It’s McLuhan. Literally, the medium is the message. The problem with that is that the distribution of the medium has meant the dilution of the message. And that’s a problem. A machine will watch your choices, your preferences, your conversations, your friends, and look at what you like in music, and then give you the music that it says you like. So you’re inside your own cyber-ghetto, and you can never break outside it.
And that’s happening with all art, all culture, all politics.
Exactly. In a mono media, everyone saw the African famine. Every artist said, “I saw it. You don’t have to explain it to me. I’m in.” In a mono media, everybody saw David Bowie say, “I had to phone someone so I picked on you.” Everyone saw these four kids from Liverpool completely taking the piss and not giving a fuck about anything, not to mention the contemptuous insolence of the Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan explaining it, saying, “It’s over, dude, it’s changing.” And our world was comprehensible through that.
And relatively small.
I’m not saying that’s better. I’m just saying that’s the world that we participated in and added our bit to, and that’s why I don’t expect or even want music to do it. But for me, looking for the noise of the now, who’ll sing the blues of today? Our record is attitude, because I wanted a noise like the New York Dolls and early Roxy music meets Mott the Hoople. But of course somebody who likes Ed Sheeran will hate that. Someone who likes Billie Eilish will hate that. Billie Eilish is superb, and Ed Sheeran is a master craftsman. But the world of craft, ability and talent has never done it for me, mainly because I’m not a craftsman, I’ve got little ability, and hardly any talent. I genuinely can’t sing. But in my time, it didn’t matter. What mattered was the utterance and the appearance of the attitude.
But you’re contradicting yourself.
In America, you’re best known for “I Don’t Like Mondays.” Mass shootings in America happen practically every day.
In our film, Paul Rappaport, from our U.S. label, cries when that hits him. And then Clem Burke says, “We need songs about this now.” But that’s where I think maybe he’s wrong. If songs about mass shootings occur to songwriters, great. But will they have traction? Will anyone give a shit? No. They gave a shit enough to ban “I Don’t Like Mondays” here, but that was before I got away with it in the other 32 countries. So when they twigged what this was, and our label was threatened with a lawsuit in litigious America, of course they folded.
So what is your relationship with those lyrics when you perform the song now?
I promise you, I don’t care at this point. When I’m there, it’s The Manchurian Candidate. Ding-a-ling-a-ling. And I lock into that song. I don’t think, “Fuck, I’ve got to do that song again.” Really, I don’t. I’m in the gig; I’m lost in my thing. I’m not thinking about the girl who killed all those people. I’m not thinking about specifics. I’m not thinking about the words. The words have become just part of the experience of doing that song. But I’m in an emotional zone. This sounds very Gwyneth Paltrow.
Good reference. [Laughs]
I’m in a place that’s sad, that’s embittered. I don’t know why. And—even though it’s showbiz shtick, it’s part of the performance—I always stop at, “The lesson today is how to die.” And I just stare at the crowd, and they get uncomfortable, because it’s been an hour and 15 minutes of music, but it’s stopped. And I just look at them, and the band just stop and look. And then one or two people in the audience start doing this [snapping]. I just have my hands behind my back and I just look at them. “The lesson today is how to die?” And I just think, yeah. Like literally, that’s what I’m thinking. And then I move on with the song and I’m into the next song.
So this is an election year here in America. You just had Brexit, you just had Johnson win a majority in England. Do you have a sense of what’s going on here from the outside, given your experience at home?
It wasn’t actually the majority. [Johnson’s Conservative party won 43.6 percent of the vote.] ... So this thing was imposed upon us against our will. Now they expect everyone to think it’s fine and to move on, but that’s not democracy. You’ve won the battle, but the argument still pertains. Above and beyond anything else, what the European Union gave us was 70 years of peace after 600 years of fighting. What did Britain do with that? This tiny island built the fifth largest economy on the planet. We created a free health service for everyone, and gave the children of the country free education to make them fit for the purposes of a coming economy, not to mention a peace in which they could live. So we’d become complacent. But the British people did decide and I have to go along with it. We all know there were lies and deceptions. We all know that some of the campaigns were foul. A specter of racism was raised. Yadda yadda yadda. Boring. So will we make a go of it? Yeah, probably. Will Britain be the loose thread on the E.U. cardigan that, once pulled, the whole thing will unravel?
I’ll tell you one thing: The adventure was not Brexit. The adventure was doing what England has always done historically. It’s stood off from the continent by definition of its being an island, in isolation. And when hegemony built up on the continent, that threatened the island, they always went in to resolve the issue. The European Union needs to be reformed from top to bottom. It is of another age. It needs to be restructured. That was the adventure for the English. Because the animus of the E.U. is—and I’ll tell it to you in a nutshell—the French are terrified of the Germans, and the Germans are terrified of themselves. So in the middle of this was this other country who fought these ancient wars endlessly, who could have led that reform. That was what Britain should have done. That was its historic destiny, and it blew it.
And you think Trump will be re-elected?
Yep. Because we’re in the midst of a great failure of the absolutely pathetic Democratic Party. They’re a complete mess. There isn’t a single candidate there who can win. They need to stop this fucking health care for all, and climate reduction. That’s not going to happen, so stop saying it. I know young people want that, and they’re correct to want it, and America deserves it, but it’s not going to happen in the term of a presidency, and it’s not even aspirational—not when the other side operates the way they do. The message should be, “Steady as she goes, let’s go back to being a country that looks outside ourselves; we’re Jeffersonian, we’re idealistic. That’s what we gave the world.” That will appeal to Americans, because that’s what they believe themselves to be. They’re not, but they believe themselves to be that.
Otherwise Trump will reduce the American republic to a state of infantilism and a plutocracy run by the very few, very wealthy, to its own ends. We’re looking at something exactly like the fall of the Roman Empire. This is just pre-the end. Trump has got fine populist instincts, and therefore, speaks to the moment. But he is a vulgar fool, and a very dangerous one. The lies about the economy he tells, at a cost of $1.9 trillion in debt, are just him behaving exactly as he’s always done: He borrows, the business is shit, it goes bankrupt, and he calls Chapter 11 and screws everyone who gave him money. America can’t call Chapter 11. What will get screwed are the people of America.