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Geldof and his Rats: across the Irish Sea to the world.

By Michael Mary Murphy.

In the 1970s a new band arrived on the Dublin rock scene. They were called the Boomtown Rats. They sounded like kinetic English rhythm and blues spliced with 1970s Bowie and Roxy Music. They appeared like The Who fronted by Brendan Behan in a borstal breakout, on amphetamines. Geldof claimed the purpose of joining a band was to get “rich, to get famous and to get laid” and it was not long before the Rats delivered for him.

Bob Geldof’s subsequent success and global reach have to be contextualised within the social conditions he emerged from. His ascent to a position commanding the attention of world leaders places him in the political realm. Born almost six months after Enda Kenny and twenty three days after Bertie Ahern, it is tempting to imagine which of the three would be recognised as Ireland’s elder statesman. Would the mobile phones of premiers and politicos respond with: “how can I help?”, “what now?” and “delete and block!” respectively?

While recognised primarily as a campaigner for the underdeveloped world, he has also amassed an intriguing media empire. His principal business vehicle, Ten Alps, posted revenue close to €100 million in 2008. His television companies produce documentaries which benefit from access to luminaries like Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Vladimir Putin, Slobodan Milosevic and Ariel Sharon. One contract the firm secured, for educational services to the British government, was worth £10 million.

All of this was unexpected when Geldof and his band, the Boomtown Rats, appeared in the barren world of Irish rock in the mid to late 1970s. He has eclipsed the traditional power mongers in Irish life. And on his way up the ladder he didn’t refrain from articulating a desire for their demise. While they quietly, and at times powerfully, attempted to stifle his voice, he railed louder at them. It is safe to assume he enjoys the view from his perch now. And while Ireland has produced another rock star with international political clout, Geldof is the one who speaks more plainly.

“Our only crime is that we are successful without connections”, declaimed Bob Geldof in 1980.  At that time  Irish youth were expected to be compliant. Traditional strategies towards the acquisition of power in Ireland involved actually avoiding attention. A safe job or career was your only man. Literally. Combining a spotless profile with membership of one of the two major political parties doubled your chances. How then did Geldof climb the heights while rejecting these paths?

In one Hot Press interview Geldof described how he “got his revenge on everybody who’d ever fucked me, which was the entire country in my opinion! My harshest words were reserved for the aforementioned Charles J  Haughey who is, without doubt, the biggest shitehawk Ireland has ever produced”.

The Boomtown Rats and the Irish authorities enjoyed a number of skirmishes. A “Late Late Show” appearance where Geldof decried the Irish State and the Catholic Church was a threshold event in modern Irish history. Even in the punk era of 1977-1980 this was practically unheard of. Even now Geldof presents a quixotic character in the world of high finance and world affairs. Yet, with hindsight, his claim that: “our only crime is that we are successful without connections”, can be read as proving that alternative strategies to power are possible.

The governance of Ireland in the decade of Geldof’s birth led to a human outflow of over 437,000 people. The future political leaders of the country stayed and gradually made their way to power. Geldof had neither the patience nor the tolerance for this approach. He left the country, yet never abandoned it. His revulsion at the Dublin street racism he witnessed on a recent visit indicates his desire for a pluralist, inclusive society. It was in Britain that he met the conditions necessary for the first stage in his career. The band took the voyage across the Irish Sea, like so many other emigrants, in the hope of better opportunities.

The social, economic and cultural realities of life in the Republic of Ireland resulted in a huge loss of domestic talent. The brain drain was accompanied by a talent imbalance. Abroad, this creativity faced three eventualities: it could be silenced (often leading to bitterness and resentment); it could be placed in the service of the emigrant populace; and it could enrich the cultural life of the host nation. The popular music of Britain has been immeasurably enhanced by Irish emigrants and their offspring. Is it possible to imagine popular music minus the Beatles, Oasis, The Smiths and the Sex Pistols?

These questions are key to Sean Campbell’s recently published ‘Irish Blood: English Heart’. It is the best book written about Irish music. Significantly it covers second-generation Irish musicians in Britain and is written by a second-generation Irish author. Often the lives of these emigrants were (mis)shaped by the compromises demanded for getting by in the new country. Campbell’s work is suffused with the consequences of these ‘accommodations’.

A cultural war necessitates cultural power. Being desirable to the Anglo-American cultural entrepreneurs has historically been the primary determinant of success or failure.. Late-seventies Ireland was not a destination of choice for the major-label talent-scouts. It was not expected to develop or maintain talent. As successful as they were, the twin gods of Irish rock, Rory Gallagher and Phil Lynott, were not seen as representative of the gene pool.

There is a simplistic view of the cultural relationship between Ireland and Britain. It credits U2 with single-handedly transforming the image of the Irish in Britain. This ignores the under-documented yet essential gains of Irish cultural entrepreneurs in the era. The case of Geldof and the Boomtown Rats was a key episode in this cultural exchange. It reveals how consumers become producers. And that is the ultimate strategy to power..

For a nation to be taken seriously its cultural products must command respect. And it was in London that many of the difficult steps towards credibility were taken. Ted Carroll (Chiswick Records) and Dave Robinson (Stiff Records) proved that the Irish didn’t just do music; they also did the business of music. Carroll was propelled into a life of rock and roll by repeated viewings of ‘Rock Around the Clock’ in the cinemas of Dublin city and its suburbs. To rock in the 1950s you had to leave the country. It is tempting to imagine how Ireland’s music industry would have been shaped had it offered opportunities to talents like Carroll. His label Chiswick incubated the great Dublin new-wave act, the Radiators. He also offered the newly arrived hometown-less Boomtown Rats a record deal. A confidence boost for the emigrants certainly, yet they felt they could command a higher price. With shrewd moves and a hyper-quotable mouth their singer became a media darling. This was a major advance for the perception of the Irish in the Anglo-centric music industry. With Geldof the Irishman became good for a quote not a joke.

“You must realize that, certainly in England, we’re in a tremendous position of power. Anybody with a 5,000-watt P.A. and a microphone is. And if you’re not careful, it’s very easy to become a demagogue”.

If the quote from Geldof in 1979 shows that he was outstanding in his own mind, he was smart enough to surround himself with the right team to fight in his corner. To escape Ireland, to achieve the success he was so impatient for, Geldof needed allies. Musically he chose well. Recent performances by two of the band sans Geldof indicate a still strong muscle and sinew. The guitar of Garry Roberts and Simon Crowe’s drumming propel the r and b rhythm of early Rats’ songs. Equally they provide power for the later commercially-competitive material. Johnny Fingers’ deft digits gave the band a sonic landscape with scope and musicality. Geldof’s selection of band manager also proved savvy. Former journalist Fachtna O’Ceallaigh guided both the Rats and Sinead O’Connor to their career pinnacles.

Typically more revolutionary than his clients, O’Ceallaigh challenged the standard Irish stereotype. He didn’t doff his cap and neither amplified nor silenced his Irish-ness. He didn’t stay in Ireland waiting for something to happen, for Irish bands to be viewed as important. In the parlance of the time he took the battle to the mainland.  His fervent republican values were clearly on display in the London corridors of music industry power. The media reported his March 1987 conviction under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for wearing a badge on his lapel. It was interpreted by the court as indicating support for the IRA.

In one sense O’Ceallaigh was Ireland’s most important music manager of the era. He succeeded in taking two unknown Irish artists to international success. He was also involved with Clannad as they began to explore their commercial potential.  Additionally he stewarded British (and partly second-generation-Irish) pop group Bananarama to major 1980s stardom. One of his other acts. Leslie Winer, also possessed remarkable quality. Her output conjured the poetic empowerment of the best pre-rap black poets with potent confrontational sexual politics.

Frequently O’Ceallagh was celebrated for his musical input. Geldof publicly credited him for introducing the sounds of Bob Marley and Dr Feelgood to the singer. The latter provided the template for the early Rats’ sound. He also selected O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares To You’ recording. It was her commercial peak. Business and music were well served.

In the punk alphabet the letter A scrawled on a wall was enclosed in a circle and signified Anarchy. Geldof and the crew adapted that A for their particular battle cry: Ambition. Many of the signifiers of punk were perceived differently across the Irish Sea. Expressed ambition was alienating to the punk inner-circle in London. Thus the Rats quickly found themselves outside another circle. Yet in Ireland young people screaming ambition was an incendiary act of rebellion. Tom Garvin has cogently demonstrated how enterprise in Ireland was stunted by forceful social conventions. Geldof and the Irish businessmen who smoothed his ascent should be remembered for shattering some of Ireland’s taboos. And for forcing debate on questions once left silent and dark.