Bob Geldof: Q&A

The Boomtown Rat reveals his ambivalence about Live Aid

Bob Geldof, Canada, October 29th, 1990. Credit: Jeff Goode/Toronto Star via Getty

Bob Geldof hadn't planned on disrupting his personal and professional life when he began to organize a benefit record in the fall of 1984. His group, the Boomtown Rats, had released its sixth album, In the Long Grass, with little success. Despondent about the group's future, he happened to see a television documentary about the famine that was ravaging Ethiopia. "I felt disgusted, enraged and outraged, but more than all those, I felt deep shame," he later wrote. "What could I do?"

He thought it would take only a few weeks to enlist England's biggest pop stars and record a single, Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" Nearly everyone he contacted —– including Bono, Phil Collins, Sting and George Michael — –was willing to participate, and the record spurred a number of similar projects, including USA for Africa's We Are the World. "Maybe things had been shabby and cynical and selfish for too long," Geldof wrote in his autobiography, Is That It? "Maybe people in bands wanted to do something, become more involved and active again." After he visited Africa and realized that the money raised by these records "was nowhere near enough," he grew increasingly obsessed. With little expertise but limitless determination, he organized Live Aid. "I thought we'd get $10 million," he says. The final tally was more than $120 million in cash and an equal amount in goods and services.

After Geldof was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and knighted by the British government, he gladly returned to pop music. These days, Geldof seems ambivalent about Live Aid, not only because it changed his life in ways that make him uneasy but also because it changed the relationship between pop music and politics in ways he views as unproductive. His mind works fast, almost as fast as his mouth. Proud one minute, self-deprecating the next, Geldof views Live Aid with a series of contradictory emotions, as only a skeptical optimist could.

If, in the course of a day, you see Live Aid mentioned in a magazine, is there one particular memory that comes immediately to mind?
If I read it in a magazine, I just skip by. But for the specific event, the main memory I have is walking onto the stage at Live Aid with the Rats, and the noise of the crowd. The noise was just huge, huge like nothing I've ever heard. It put me in context. Before that, I'd just been working, making sure it was happening. Until then, the emotional content of the day had escaped me completely.

And secondly, I remember the point in "I Don't Like Mondays" where I stopped the song. That moment was singular, in that my life —– which had seemed this random series of events, which didn't make any sense to me at all, and where I just tired of internal arguments with myself – all of it absolutely made sense at that moment. For ten seconds I felt calm. That was a very luxurious moment. It lasted, as I said, seconds, and it went.

Why would you skip over the article?
Live Aid is all things to all people. The Tories could use it as "a shining example of individual action and individual responsibility." The Communists would say, "It's the proletarian rage against the excesses of the First World." The acme of my media career was getting the cover of the [conservative] Spectator magazine and the cover of Marxism Today on the same week. And both thought Live Aid was a good thing. So when you read a paper, it depends on what the guy wants to make of it. Who the fuck cares? It worked.

To some extent, was Live Aid one person's attempt to be able to feel good about himself?
No, it wasn't. If you look at the Rats' songs, Live Aid is not out of context. The concert was music made manifest through organization, which was possible for me to do given that I had organized my own life, from the age of seven. As for feeling good about myself, I didn't. Why would I?

Because you helped save lives.
I may have been instrumental in doing it, but I did not do it. [Pauses] It was just too huge. It was so constant that any time I sat down and reflected, I was afraid. I was afraid that I couldn't do it. I would meet kings and presidents and prime ministers and have to not make a fool of myself. It's frightening going on the floor of the United Nations. You'd go on and rely on your native wit and your sense of outrage and anger to carry you through. There was never a time I thought, "Aren't you doing a great thing." I'm glad I did it, but this American thing of "Feel good about yourself," it's not possible in my case. When Townshend, McCartney and Bowie raised me on their shoulders at the end of Live Aid, I remember vividly being overcome by embarrassment.

What's the situation in Africa now?
In most of the countries, grim. It's a mess. It isn't any better. There are people alive who wouldn't have been, but we didn't set out to end world hunger. We couldn't. We called it "Band Aid." You don't put a band-aid on a gaping wound. It still, of course, continues.

Do people say, "Bob, there are still hungry people in Africa. You should do another concert"?
Sure. But it wouldn't work. It would get some money, but the net effect would be less. It's the law of diminishing returns.

 You were accused of using 'moral blackmail' to get people to play Live Aid.
I could give a fuck if they did Live Aid or not. It was a pragmatic thing; if they were out, I had to get somebody else. I didn't lie or blackmail very much. I had to announce the gig —– it was six weeks before the show, and I had to fucking do it. I realized that talking on the phone to musicians was one thing, but unless it was in the papers, they weren't going to commit. If you look at the original list that was announced, and at who actually appeared, you'll see what was going on. Bryan Ferry rang me up and said, "Listen, I haven't agreed to this." And I said, "Well, it's cool, Bryan, if you want to pull out, that's fine. I just have to go out and announce it." [Laughs] Of course, really, he couldn't.

What effect did the year of Band Aid and Live Aid have on your family life and career? Disastrous is the word. Disastrous. It was a net negative —– financially, professionally and personally. With my wife, when I was there, I wasn't there. My mind was a million miles away, and the phone never stopped. One night, I left it off the hook, and at 3:00 a.m. a car came. Whoever wanted to get me called the BBC and had them send a car to wake me. It was pretty awful. And then, obviously, I wasn't working for gain. We all know what happened when I got back to pop: Nobody wanted to accept it.

Was there any postpartum depression when it was over? Did you miss the constant activity?
Not at all. See, I was stuck. I had to pay my bills. So I had to start writing the book immediately. And I had to get back into music.

Was there ever a point during Live Aid when you thought, "I'm really good at this – I know as much as anyone around about world hunger – maybe I should do this full time"?
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.

In your book, you also wrote, "I often wonder what would have happened had I not been in" the night the BBC aired the documentary on the famine. Have you answered the question?
The answer is, I don't think it would have happened. So many conditions needed to exist for this to have worked. I had to be in. I had to be depressed, so that my responses were wide open. The Rats had to not be doing well, or I would have been recording or on tour. If I had been doing well, I probably would have made a Rats [benefit] record. But I knew that if I wrote a song, it wouldn't sell. So I needed to get people I knew to sing it. And the people I knew were all major pop stars. Bono was just in a local band when the Rats were making our first record. Duran Duran — –I remember Simon Le Bon asking me what it was like to be a pop star. Fuck me, all the people who get together to make these poxy benefit records, all these group records are terrible. This was a logical thing; it was instinctive, and it was organic. There was no grand plan.

I'm not a great believer in the karmic ragtag and bobtail. But there are things that happened to me, chains of events, that are bizarre. The answer to the question "What if I hadn't been in?" is that none of this would have happened to me —– which might not have been a bad thing.

Live Aid really marked a turning point in pop music. Since then, it's almost required for every musician to have a cause. And so many of them have turned pious and earnest, doing things like going back to playing acoustic instruments. You're responsible for a lot of this.
I was brought up understanding that music was articulating my time, the Sixties, which was synonymous with radical change. Music was the driving force behind that change. And the most earnest and acoustic of them all was Bob Dylan. Unfortunately for me, I did a thing that I thought would last three weeks. It didn't, and I'm glad it didn't. And because it became this phenomenon, I rode the tiger to its conclusion. The net result being that there are millions of people alive because of it. It changed the way thousands of people thought in the West, even if only for five seconds. And it did take an issue that was nowhere on the agenda to the very top of the political agenda. Now, I can't regret that. 

If, on the other hand, people then thought, "This is a great vehicle for social change," and continued doing things they thought were like Live Aid, I don't think I can be held responsible for that. But at the same time, the big concert is seriously devalued currency. And I must advise people to stop doing it. John Lennon was quite right when he said, "You can be benefited to death." You must understand, I was not interested in concerts and I was not interested in entertaining people; I was asking for a political response. And I was asking for the pragmatic effect of that political response: money. Subsequently, there doesn't seem to be a platform posited prior to these big events. Nobody really knows what the hell they're going for. I couldn't understand why there was a Mandela concert. Because you have a pop concert in England doesn't mean Nelson Mandela is going to be freed. Pragmatic politics, the fact that it was not wise to have a moral giant die in your prison — these things are what freed Mandela. Nothing was asked of people other than to be there. That wasn't enough. You have to posit a question and a problem, and then deliver the answer.

Maybe the difference is that you dedicated more than a year to one cause, while benefits now are organized by people who aren't as immersed in the projects as you were.
I'm not sure about that. I do think that organizations who have benefits...I think the only innocents are the bands. The TV stations now all say, "Fantastic, free programming for the day." I had to sell Live Aid to each programmer. "Fifteen hours? Fuck off." Everyone gets paid now –— with the exception of the bands. You have producers implementing these events, so they get a cut. And finally you have the audience. Let's say it's for Greenpeace. If the audience is so concerned about the environment, why don't they just send their thirty dollars to Greenpeace? Why do they want a return on their money? The only innocents are the bands —– who get all the shit. "They're only doing it to sell records." Does Phil Collins need to sell another record? Please.

But I'm not suggesting that that is the function of pop music. Pop music changes nothing. Pop songs change nothing. They can focus attention on a problem. You can still use pop to draw attention to something. But I think the "big concert" should only occur once a generation.

The Eighties were characterized by greed. But you must understand, I missed that. For me, the Eighties were characterized by overwhelming generosity and kindness. The period you maybe should be looking at is 1975 to 1985. Maybe that should be "the decade." What Tom Wolfe called the Me Decade in 1977 and what the Boomtown Rats wrote "Looking After No. 1" about in 1976 – that selfishness, that greed. Band Aid perhaps signaled the end of that. In '85, for whatever reason, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" —– not a particularly good song, just a song —– tapped into this ground swell of compassion. I'd rather it didn't come from my mouth, but subsequent to Band Aid, you had this enormous rise in the awareness of the environment, which characterizes this period. It'll probably end around '95, when people get really sick of it.