Bob Geldof: The Man Who Wouldn't Take No For An Answer

He had to rant and rave and badger and cajole, but in the end he managed to put together the biggest rock benefit ever

Bob Geldorf and the Boomtown Rats performing live at the Live Aid Concert, Wembley Stadium, London on July 13th,1985 Credit: Steve Rapport/Photoshot/Getty

Bob Geldof looks like hell. The bottom half of his long, rubbery face is practically black with five o'clock shadow. His greasy brown hair is shoved up in an unruly arc. He wears a rumpled denim jacket and floppy lime-green sneakers without any laces. And his fly is down. It's hard to tell whether Geldof has just rolled out of bed or hasn't slept in a week, but smart money would probably he on the latter.

Geldof is the last to arrive at the CBS Records office in London's Soho Square for tonight's Band Aid Trust meeting. He's come straight from a grueling afternoon rehearsal with his band, the Boomtown Rats. Before that, he was frantically working the phones over at Phonogram, haranguing musicians, television producers and stuffy government officials about various details of the imminent Live Aid concerts. Earlier in the week, he defied jet lag with a whirlwind two-day trip to Philadelphia to oversee progress of the U.S. half of the show.

Now Geldof calls the Band Aid meeting to order. "There are problems," he growls as he launches into a vivid, hour-long account of his powwow in Philadelphia with American promoter Bill Graham and his Live Aid staff. The budget for the show at John F. Kennedy Stadium is six times that of the London production at Wembley Stadium. Organization is slow. One prominent British band complained to Geldof that no one in Philadelphia was returning its calls regarding stage requirements. Describing the technicians and businessmen he met in Philadelphia, Geldof spares no praise for those people working eagerly to make his impossible dream–a global rock concert and telethon to aid starving Africans–come true. Anyone who gets in his way is "a fucking wanker."

Eventually, Mick Worwood, a Band Aid volunteer in charge of corporate sponsorship for the concert, gets a word in edgewise. He says an executive at a major tobacco company is hesitant about placing an ad in the Live Aid concert program, claiming Geldof once told the press that "advertising cigarettes is like advertising death." Geldof, who doesn't smoke, looks unrepentant. "Sounds like me," he says with a shrug.

The meeting continues for another two hours, dominated by Geldof. He rails against the trucking companies in Port Sudan that are holding up distribution of Band Aid foodstuffs. He curses out British ticket agencies scalping Live Aid tickets at nearly double the price. He says he wants to initiate legal action against companies holding money made from the sale of Band Aid merchandise. It's apparent from this meeting that a good idea about getting a few pop-star friends together to cut a record to help the battle against starvation in Africa has, for Bob Geldof, turned into a long-drawn-out siege. While his own band struggles for survival, Geldof is committing all his energy to outwitting and outmaneuvering the middlemen and corporate robots clogging up the Band Aid pipeline that eventually ends with the hungry skeletons in Ethiopian refugee camps.

Finally, Geldof loses his temper completely. The last straw is a shortsighted Yank who was needlessly complicating preparations for the prime-time ABC-TV broadcast of Live Aid in the States. "Think of it!" he shrieks. "A family in deepest Siberia will be watching the same show as a family in Boise, Idaho, experiencing the same emotions, giving to the same cause." He runs a hand through that greasy hair. "Can't these people see the romance in this?"

There was nothing romantic about what Bob Geldof saw on his TV one night last fall. BBC-TV newsman Michael Buerk had returned home from Ethiopia with graphic footage of the horrific consequences of Africa's long drought. That night, Geldof and his girlfriend, Paula Yates, a host on the British TV pop show The Tube, watched, mute, as black stick figures paraded across the screen in shredded rags. It was one of the few times that the 32-year-old Geldof, notorious in British pop circles for his argumentative nature and gift for inflammatory gab, was at a complete loss for words.

"The thing I remember most," he says now, curled up on a sofa with Paula and their sleeping 2-year-old daughter, Fifi Trixibelle, in the couple's Chelsea town house, "was the picture of the wall. There were about 10,000 people there, starving people, and there was this woman - who I subsequently met - who had to pick 300 people that she could feed. The 300 were led behind a stone wall, and each was given a can of butter oil, because that's all there was to eat. And the ones who hadn't been picked stood up behind the waist-high wall and looked at them, without any rancor or envy, but with intense dignity. That waist-high wall was the difference between life and death. And I remember seeing one child just put her head against the wall, the flies buzzing around her eyes. That's what made me do it. That one image is what made me do the whole thing."

"The whole thing" started out as a fragment of a song called "It's My World," which Geldof had rehearsed a few times with the Boomtown Rats. He finished the lyrics in 20 minutes during a taxi ride, adding the "feed the world" chorus at the end "because I knew it had to be anthemic."

Rounding up the artists to record the song–which had been retitled "Do They Know It's Christmas?"–was easy. Midge Ure of Ultravox, who cowrote the music to the tune, and Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon are frequent dinner guests of Geldof and Yates. Police singer Sting has been an acquaintance of Geldof's since 1977, when their respective bands were both making peanuts on the English punk-club circuit. And by applying equal amounts of friendly persuasion and what U2 vocalist Bono jokingly calls "moral blackmail," Geldof subsequently enlisted the help of nearly 40 musicians, among them the cream of current British pop stars, including Phil Collins, Paul Young and members of U2, Wham! and Culture Club.

Keeping his word–that 100 percent of the proceeds from the single would go to famine relief, that Band Aid would not be subject to the political whims of any government or the cumbersome administration of existing relief agencies–was not so easy. Geldof had set up Band Aid on high moral ground, presenting himself both to his peers and to his public as, he says, "the instrument of help. It was incumbent on me to see this thing through."

The first order of business was a trip to Ethiopia and the Sudan. Geldof did not go to marvel at the suffering firsthand, but to assess how Band Aid might best apply the $10 million the single had raised. After meeting with local government officials and representatives of relief agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Oxfam, Geldof returned to London convinced that Band Aid could be most effective directly converting its money into food, supplies and transportation, and eliminating as many middlemen as possible. To oversee allocation of the money and organization of subsequent Band Aid fundraising activities such as Live Aid, he established the Band Aid Trust, staffed with prominent watchdogs from the English record industry.

Despite having his own handpicked A-Team on the case, Geldof has stayed intimately involved with all aspects of Band Aid and Live Aid, demonstrating a rare ability see to the forest through the trees when everyone around him is bogged down in detail. During his trip to the Sudan, for example, Geldof was forced to endure an excruciatingly boring speech from one minor government official about the messy logistics of distributing aid to the refugees. Irritated by the man's bureaucratic droning, Geldof finally told him to cut the crap. "Spare me your politics," he snapped angrily, "and tell me what you need and how you're going to get it to these people."

When asked if there has been a time in the past eight months when he regretted starting the Band Aid project, he replies wearily, "Yeah, all the time." The demands of Band Aid and Live Aid have allowed him to pay only scant attention to his family and to the floundering career of the Boomtown Rats, which he has managed for the last two years.

Nevertheless, Geldof attacks his work with perverse relish and delights in watching those around him scramble to keep up. "The whole point about anything I've done is that I do it to the point of intolerable exhaustion," Geldof says. "That's what I always thought they meant by living on the edge."

But with exhaustion comes a dangerously short temper, fueled by his belligerent insistence that he is always right until conclusively proven otherwise. Thanks to his unique talent for saying the right thing in the wrong way at the most awkward time, Geldof managed to intensify the controversy over the lack of black acts on the Live Aid bill. "If you had a choice between seeing Chaka Khan and seeing the Who re-form for one time only," he asked a black reporter in Philadelphia, "who would you choose?"

"I don't delight in nailing people to the wall," he insists with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. But then he adds, "One of the things I always liked about being in a band was that you could always get up and provoke an argument. I like arguments for argument's sake. My idea of a night out is to be with friends at my house or theirs and argue."

Bob Geldof's penchant for arguing dates back to his childhood, which was spent in a middle-class neighborhood of Dublin called Dún Laoghaire. The youngest of three children, he used to have loud, passionate bull sessions with his father and his two sisters over just about everything. His father, a traveling carpet and linen salesman, specialized in belittlement. "He'd wind you up, play devil's advocate," says Geldof. "The other three of us would shout back. We still do."

But for the most part, the young Geldof was more talk than action. Left to fend for himself at an early age–his mother died of a brain hemorrhage when he was six–he became "an awkward bugger" with no interest in school apart from English. He dabbled in music, playing harmonica with the Irish Blues Appreciation Society, and flirted with social protest, enlisting in the local Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Between odd jobs in a Dublin slaughterhouse and on a highway construction crew, Geldof amused himself with stints as a photographer, a street musician and an English teacher."I'm pathologically unsuited to boredom," he groans. "I can't stand it. It's my main motivation for doing anything, to stop myself from being bored."

Journalism held his attention for about a year. During a brief residence in Canada, he was music editor of a Vancouver underground newspaper, The Georgia Straight. Back in Dublin, he worked as a stringer for the British rock weekly, New Musical Express.

The Boomtown Rats, formed in 1975, finally permitted Geldof to indulge his love of argument and flair for organization to the limit. A motley crew of Dún Laoghaire chums, the Rats started off, in Geldof's words, "with the conclusion that all pop music at the time was crap, with the exception of Lou Reed, David Bowie and Roxy Music." Taking further cues from reggae's gritty jolt and the Sixties mod thrash of the Who and the Small Faces, they quickly became the hardest, tightest, fastest band in Dublin, playing what was essentially punk rock in all but name.

As the band's initial manager, singer and songwriter, Geldof pressed friends and foes into his service with the same rugged charm and verbal bullying that would come to distinguish his Band Aid and Live Aid efforts. It paid off. When "Rat Trap" was released in 1978, it became the first punk single to hit Number One in England. The next year, Geldof's painfully ironic ballad "I Don't Like Mondays" leaped effortlessly to Number One in the U.K. and stayed there for several weeks. (The song was inspired by the San Diego teenager who shot 11 people, killing two, and said as explanation, "I don't like Mondays.")

By the end of '79, Bob Geldof had what he'd wanted all along–the undivided attention of the British public. He was a welcome face at all the right parties, and the press printed his every utterance, regardless of context. He then turned his attention to America. Arriving in 1979 on the giant wings of CBS hype, Geldof spent a lot of time extricating his foot from deep within his mouth. While addressing the label's national convention, he called the gathered executives "a bunch of bastards." At the band's first New York concert, he introduced "Rat Trap"–a song that some critics and programmers had compared favorably to Bruce Springsteen's work–by saying, "Bruce Springsteen couldn't write a song as good as this, even if he tried." The crack got the Rats' A Tonic for the Troops album yanked off radio playlists across the country.

In America, the Rats never recovered from Geldof's mouth and CBS' hype, and by the time the band resumed active duty in Britain after a 1981 world tour, its records were stiffing and Boy George had become Mr. Quotable. With nothing else left to lose, Geldof dismissed Fachtna O'Kelly, who'd been hired as the Rats' manager in 1976, and reassumed band command. To keep expenses at a minimum, he persuaded Phonogram, the group's British label, to let him use its phones gratis. He also covered the other band members' living expenses with a substantial portion of his own songwriting royalties.

These days, the Boomtown Rats survive on gig money, which on their most recent British tour meant fifty pounds a night per man. Geldof also picks up spare change from his periodic movie roles. Since making his film debut in Alan Parker's screen adaptation of Pink Floyd's The Wall (in which Mighty Mouth, ironically, didn't have a word of dialogue), he has starred in a new British film called Number One, in which he plays a seedy pool shark, and he's written his own screenplay, which he hopes to start shooting by next year.

"You have to pull scams together," he says of the Rats' hairy finances. "Like changing dollars into pounds but waiting for the dollar rate to fall, so that we'd make extra money on the changeover, maybe 400 bucks. It's down to that level."

Geldof brings the same kind of creative scamming to Band Aid. "What a way not to make a living," he says, laughing, one afternoon after a particularly draining Live Aid budget meeting. But down deep, Geldof seems to enjoy the badgering and the cajoling. And those people nickel-and-diming Band Aid with their cheating and niggardly accounting–the ticket scalpers, the merchandisers waiting for the interest to mount up on their Band Aid receipts–are just asking for trouble.

"The end picture," Geldof says, "is this: If we're clever enough, which we are, we'll nickel-and-dime the shit out of them. And that's what I intend to do, nickel-and-dime the shit out of the world in order to keep one part of the world alive. Because nickels and dimes are the price of a life this year, folks. And that is the shameful thing, not the shenanigans and jockeying for position. The end result is, we will get millions, in spite of all the grief and bollocks." Geldof pauses, almost sorrowfully. "Life might be a little more boring after it. But I could do with that for a while."