Bob Geldof: the light and dark sides of life in the spotlight

Mark Ellen / 21 October 2014

Band Aid propelled Bob Geldof to the heights of fame and – for good and ill – he’s rarely been out of the headlines since. 2014, however, was an annus horribilis beyond compare. When your darkest days are lived in the glare of the world’s press, how do you find the strength to carry on?



Rarely do we meet a 63-year-old in a snakeskin suit, but today we greet one, larger than life, near his home in South London. He speaks in breathless torrents, fascinating, perfectly chiselled monologues that would leave donkeys fearing for the safety of their hind legs. 

I’ve just asked Bob Geldof if there was a formative moment in his chaotic childhood that might have helped mould the person he is today. And there was. 

‘The poster in my bedroom,’ he says. ‘My mum died when I was eight and my dad sold towels around the countryside of rural Ireland. He’d pack his blue cardboard suitcase with two pairs of underpants – one with the elastic gone – and he’d set off in his Hillman Minx on Monday mornings and wouldn’t come back until Friday nights, escaping his guilt that he was leaving me to fend for myself but, at the same time, feeling even guiltier he was escaping it. 

An unusual childhood 

‘My eldest sister didn’t want to be a surrogate mother and married the local speed cop, and my middle sister got back home late in the evenings, so from the age of eight I went to school, came home to this freezing house, filled the plastic bucket with coal and cooked the only dish that I could make – chopped-up bacon and rice boiled with an Oxo cube, occasionally with a fried egg on top. And I found a CND poster that said “Nuclear Power: NO!” and hung it on my bedroom wall. So that was a formative thing: every morning I’d wake up and see the word “NO”!’

So it helped you to reject the situation you were in? ‘Exactly! I wanted it to change. I’m not moaning, I’m not playing the fiddle, there’s no self-pity here. It taught me a lot of self-reliance but life was just... grim. We had no money. We didn’t have a telly – or even a fridge – but if you didn’t have a telly you read books and listened to the radio and suddenly, like all of my generation, these thin, fizzing, crackling, golden threads came down from that most improbable of micro-states, Radio Luxembourg, and I heard The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Bob Dylan speaking of other universes. 

Rock and roll saved me 

‘I realised then that things are not immutable and change was not only desirable but necessary. And these golden people dangling their golden threads of possibility suggested the platform for that change was rock and roll. And it saved my life.’

Another formative moment was just around the bend: the Geldof sisters took him to see his favourite acts at Dublin’s Adelphi Theatre. The three of them wangled their way into The Beatles’ hotel suite and found them dutifully answering their fan mail. ‘The concert scared me,’ Bob admits, aged 12 at the time, ‘all that screaming, all that abandoned femininity.’ He got into the Stones’ dressing-room too, enthralled by their ‘louche, ineffable glamour’, and nicked Mick Jagger’s coffee cup as a souvenir. 

Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones 


‘All of it was totally formative. I was 14 when I saw Dylan and he was just going electric so he didn’t want to play his old hits any more. And the folkies in the crowd were shouting [broad Irish accent], “Cahm ahn, Baaab! Do Mister Tambourine Maahn!” And Dylan would go, “This is a song I wrote called Mister Tambourine Man,” and then play something else. He did this four times in a row and then played another song and it drove them crazy. I loved Dylan and his politics and, through him, I started reading Woody Guthrie and I formed The Boomtown Rats [named after the gang of boys in Guthrie’s Bound For Glory] and became aware of the situation in South Africa. And when their rugby players came to Ireland I started anti-apartheid demonstrations. ’Cos that’s what interested me, that general “NO!”.’ 

The Rats devised a brand of theatrical pop music – the raw rhythm and blues of the Stones and Dr Feelgood at the manic pace of punk rock – and their concerts were designed to shock and amaze, advertised around Dublin by posters of a pair of long, thin legs in rubber stockings and high heels – ‘and when girls started writing “SEXIST” on them in purple marker pens I revealed they were actually my legs. Then, to really annoy people, I started wearing a T-shirt on stage that said “GELDOF IS GOD”. A fan wearing it would be cool but I wore it and it drove them nuts! It was disruption rather than controversy that interested me – throw a grenade in the room, retire and see what happens.’

Top of the music charts

When the big time beckoned in 1977, his band achieved levels of success that now seem incredible in the low-selling days of the 21st century. Having a number-one single in those days often required 600,000 people to travel to a record shop and part with their hard-earned cash. And the Rats had two of them – Rat Trap and I Don’t Like Mondays.

But a second event had also turned his life on its head. The mother of music-press writer Paula Yates had seen The Boomtown Rats on television and alerted her daughter to their charismatic singer. Yates barged into a party to meet Geldof and then turned up days later at a Rats’ concert in Paris. 

‘I remember her now,’ Bob says, ‘standing at the stage door, just 18, lit by the yellow lights of the car park. Snow was falling and she was wearing a bare-shouldered ballgown. She was just so beautiful,’ he shrugs. ‘I mean, what’s a boy to do?’

Celebrity gossip 

They started a love affair, she began fronting a TV music show called The Tube – in stilettos and meringue-like party frocks – and the irrepressible rock star and his photogenic paramour were never out of the gossip columns, ‘though we weren’t the first celebrity couple,’ he reminds me. ‘There was Mick and Bianca, there was Rod and Britt, there was Charles and Di and then there was Bob and Paula. We were a sort of alternative Rod and Britt. Unfortunately.’

Appalled by reports of the Ethiopian famine, and well connected in the music world through his and Paula’s contacts, Bob convinced 39 top-ranking musicians they should help record a fundraising single under the name of Band Aid, and the star-packed result, Do They Know It’s Christmas?, sold more than two million copies and raised $24 million. It was released on November 29, 1984. What does he remember most about it?

Band Aid 

‘I remember the news footage where I’m saying, “Don’t underestimate my shame, my anger and my rage that this situation in Africa has been allowed to happen”. I remember it selling so well that every pressing plant in the country was producing it, people working all weekend free. And everyone sold it. I went into Fortnum & Mason – turkey, pig, duck, goose, Band Aid record...’

When Bob decided to stage a global TV charity concert for Africa the following summer, it was a success on every conceivable level.

‘Thank God my father was at Live Aid!’ he says, touchingly. ‘Things had been very bad between us. He’d wanted me to be anything other than what I was, and I’d wanted to prove that I could be something different. He said, “I never understood you. How could I understand your world? How could I possibly understand that life could be like this?” He was a brave man,’ he says fondly, ‘an admirable man.’ 

Bob wrote a bestselling memoir and continued campaigning tirelessly to help release the worst-hit African countries from their crippling debts and to feed and clothe their destitute communities. This he achieved by working at the highest possible level, addressing the world’s news cameras alongside such masters of the universe as Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and George W Bush. 

Family tragedy

But his own fortunes were about to turn around, and in the most catastrophic and over-publicised manner imaginable. His by-then wife Paula Yates left him for the dissolute Australian INXS star Michael Hutchence, and took their three daughters with her (to add to the chaos she then discovered her father was not Jess Yates, the TV presenter of Stars on Sunday, but the gameshow host Hughie Green). Hutchence killed himself and Paula died of a drug overdose three years later, in 2000, at the age of 41. 

In April this year [2014] their middle daughter Peaches lost her life in the same tragic circumstance, aged 25, leaving two young children. And their eldest daughter Fifi has just gone public about her depression and battles with drink and drugs. It seems unbearable to even broach this subject, so I simply put it to Bob that he has lived through every husband’s and every father’s worst nightmare. 

‘I haven’t read what Fifi wrote,’ he says quietly. ‘I rather wish she hadn’t, but she’s a grown woman and if she feels the need to, then that’s her decision. In the end it’s their narrative and I’ve done everything I can to help. Peaches I don’t really want to talk about as it’s too new, too raw. But I will say that I blame that entire family court system for so much of their subsequent pain. 

A broken heart 

‘When Paula left me I was ruined. I was crying in my sleep. I thought heartbreak was a metaphor: it’s not, your heart breaks. If I’d walked out with the kids I would have been arrested for kidnap, but if a woman walks out with the kids, the father is allowed to see them only every other weekend. It’s state-sanctioned kidnapping! The legal world is so mad – it’s beyond Kafka. Which is why I endorse Fathers 4 Justice. 

‘All I wanted was to see my kids 50% of the time. They’re my children! I wouldn’t have had children if I didn’t want the privilege of bringing them up and I wanted to keep my kids away from this decadent world Paula had fallen into. The courts of course prevented that as much as possible and I got a weekend with them every two weeks, having been with them every day since they were born. It’s a disgrace. 

‘Then Paula dies. These poor little things... they were tiny! [Fifi was 17, Peaches 11, Pixie, nine, and Yates’s daughter by Hutchence, Tiger Lily, later adopted by Geldof, was four]. Sixty photographers outside the house. I was terrified for them. 


A soap opera 

‘It’s awful,’ he says. ‘Unfortunately we’ve been a minor part of a national soap opera that still continues and people feel they’ve grown up with the Geldofs and lived through lots of it, so the papers wrote pages and pages about it. All that chaos. All that decadence at home. Do you not think this might affect these children?’ 

What’s given him the strength to get through it? ‘You keep going. What other option is there? Really, what option?’

Is it hard to be on the road again with the band when you could be at home with the children?

‘Well, they’re grown up now and I don’t go away for long – two weeks maximum, so I’m in and out. But love is what restored me,’ he says, referring to his French girlfriend (now fiancée) Jeanne Marine, who’s been with him for the past 18 years. ‘There’s a song on the last album called To Live In Love: “Life without love – absurdity/ Life without love – futility”. Love is the yardstick by which we live and I survived because of Jeanne. Death is a denial of life, and love is the achievement of life, the way we mediate life; it’s what allows us to breathe. 

‘I’m an old man,’ he laughs, ‘and it took me a long time to get there and understand that. And I guess my ability now is to persuade people. Just like my dad in fact. He went round the countryside selling his towels and I’m selling my tunes.

‘Maybe that’s it,’ he adds. ‘I’ve become my dad!’

The Boomtown Rats’ CD is So Modern – The Collection.

Visit Bob Geldof's official site 

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