Bob Geldof doesn’t do nostalgia. Now 68, the Irish musician and activist says that he has lived his life refusing to look back. “I have the point of view that there’s no rear view mirror in this car,” he says.
So it might seem surprising that he not only agreed to the BBC making a documentary, Citizens of Boomtown, about his first band, The Boomtown Rats, but has also spent the last year actively engaged in reliving his past through it.
Over the years our opinions of Geldof have shifted constantly. From mouthy young punk star with opinions to spare; to Saint Bob, the impassioned campaigner behind Live Aid, one of the biggest global fundraising initiatives of all time; to a tragic figure, who lost his first wife, the TV presenter Paula Yates, and their second daughter, Peaches, to drug overdoses.
The new documentary is an attempt not simply to remind us of those early days, but also to reposition the Rats as the ultimate in influential outsider bands, a group that came out of the grey repression of Holy Catholic Ireland in the 1970s with the belief that it could – and should – change the world.
“We needed to change our lives and the only way to do that was to get the fuck out Ireland,” Geldof says, adding that it always infuriated him that the group were seen as “some kind of Johnny-come-latelies … when really we were Johnny-come-earlies”.
“There was an assumption that we’d jumped on a bandwagon because there was no understanding that our songs were written against the background of the Ireland we came from, a culture that was enshrined in aspic where the authorities were desperately trying to hold on to power and there was no hope.”
A new album, also called Citizens of Boomtown, the band’s first in 36 years, has been released, and had it not been for the coronavirus pandemicthe next few months would have been spent promoting it. “Although obviously that’s all up in the air now. We’ve rescheduled for October but I don’t know if it will happen.”
The documentary, which is packed with tributes from famous fans from Bono to Sinead O’Connor, also includes scenes of Geldof and Yates, young, charismatic and obviously in love, which almost burn through the screen. They must surely have been hard to rewatch?
“No, not at all,” he says. “I liked it because it was accurate as opposed to the tabloid view of us having had this sort of rancour-filled thing. We loved each other. We were together for 20 years. It was proper stuff, you know? So it was lovely to see her again and to remind people that she was very funny, very smart, very beautiful.” There’s a pause and then he adds softly: “She was just great.”
The death of his daughter Peaches at the age of 25 in 2014 is harder to think about. “It’s impossible really,” he says. “When the deaths tumble on top of each other, my dad, my sister, that was tough anyway but when it’s one of your children that dies … the standard thing is that it’s as though nature has gone into reverse but, more than that, you know this is a part of you in a literal sense.”
There’s a long pause. “I mean you don’t need me to emote on this, but if something that tough happens to you it’s impossible … it’s impossible to define the fug of grief you descend into or to try and articulate that grief. In Peaches’ case she … she made a noise and she made herself felt.” His voice breaks slightly. “She was far too funny, too wild really and maybe, maybe a little bit too clever for her own good.”
It’s a description that could equally apply to her father, a man who was raised “without authority”, his mother dead and his father absent through work.
“When that happens you learn independence and organisation very quickly, but the downside is there’s this dogmatism. There’s no one to temper your rapidly forming beliefs and no one to show you the boundaries of what’s permissible. You have to parent yourself and learn all these things. You have to invent your own universe.”
He has no regrets about the way in which his subsequent fury drove him as a young man, even if becoming “Band Aid Bob” bought its own problems.
“It was overwhelming. When a phenomenon occurs that enters the bloodstream of society then you do have a certain otherness. Everything changes. The only way to deal was to leverage it up by knocking on doors. So that’s what I did, eventually getting to Live 8 and the G8 summit in 2005.”
That said he doesn’t think an event like Live Aid could work today. “It worked because of the position rock and roll had in society. It was a central part of the culture, but that’s not the case today. While there’s some great music and talent out there, music functions more as it did in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s as a background to the way you’re living your life … people can make their own Live Aids in their bedrooms every day and put them online.”
Yet for all the new technology, he’s unimpressed by the various online concerts intended to raise money and spirits during the pandemic. “They’re really hopeless. I don’t think they work at all. Plus I wish people would stop doing acoustic cover versions of rock and roll songs. Play them the way they were meant to be heard.”
His own lockdown has been quiet. “I have the most mowed lawn and most washed car in the area … I have sort of loved the enforced indolence.” He does worry about whether normality will return though. “We’ve been very strict about social distancing and wearing masks, but yeah I don’t personally think people will feel safe about people trapped in a closed space with other people for a long while.”
In the meantime he has one lockdown achievement he is proud of. “If I’m honest my biggest contribution in the last few months has been to grow a Kenny Rogers beard.”
Citizens of Boomtown is on BBC Two at 9.20pm on Saturday