Strange to think that Bob Geldof was once a semi-famous new wave singer. Live Aid and telling the public to “give us your fucking money” have rendered him more visible and better-known than he ever could have been from plays on oldies stations and appearances on The Best New Wave Compilation / Playlist Ever. In the UK and Ireland, at least, he is only a few tiers less famous than his friend and fellow Live Aider, Bono. Yet from a musical perspective, it might be argued that the Boomtown Rats have perhaps unwarranted stature based on merit alone. “I Don’t Like Mondays” is fine, and “Rat Trap” is okay, and “She’s So Modern” is probably better than either, but stuff like the cod reggae of “Banana Republic” just don’t get there. Let’s face it, better bands than this have been forgotten. But Geldof the celebrity, and how one is unable to view this record aside from that, is a bigger issue.
I could talk about how Live Aid was a vanity project that helped the careers of those involved as much as it did African children, or how what looked pro bono was as much pro-Bono. I could discuss how sticking plaster fundraisers merely mask the glaring structural issues that actually cause such suffering and only serve to assuage our guilt at our complicity in these travesties. Then there’s how Boomtown Rats skirted self-awareness when they called the group who recorded “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” Band Aid, or how a sizeable chunk of the world’s hungry don’t give a damn that it’s Christmas and would prefer their food without a side order of Christian propaganda, but what would be the use of that?
It’s been said that bands that came out of punk each had at least one single in them, and credit where credit’s due, the Rats had more than one. But that was 40 years ago. What do you do if you’re Bob Geldof and your significance peaked when you went on TV and demanded money from us? Chase semi-relevance in a musical landscape radically different from the one into which your band last released an album (1984’s In the Long Grass). That must be a common problem for bands known primarily as one-hit wonders.
Peter Perrett of the Only Ones apparently didn’t leave the house for a few decades for, let’s say, personal reasons, but then his one single was “Another Girl Another Planet”, a punk record as unimpeachably great as “Night Time” by the Strangeloves. Make a piece of art that good, and you can waste the rest of your life as you wish. Should you choose to pop your head above the parapet, then we should listen. But if you release a few pretty good singles and a bunch of albums with diminishing returns, then if you’re not a celebrity like Bob Geldof, nobody is going to care.
Geldof’s celebrity is not just due to his involvement in charity events, though. He spent a good portion of the 1990s as fodder for the UK tabloids, largely through his relationship with Paula Yates, who was, unfortunately, a victim of the tabloids’ tendency to elevate people to destroy them. So, I think it’s fair to say that Bob Geldof has been for some time more known as a celebrity than as a musician. This celebrity is, shall we say, both in the way of this record, and most of the reason that it’s of any interest.
Is the record any good, though? No, no, it isn’t. The thing is, it’s competent, and in a way, that’s worse than if it were not. Bands who have limited ability and try to sound like other bands often come up with something new, something their own. An example would be Public Image wanting to sound like krautrock and dub but ending up sounding like only themselves. But here you get the impression that this is exactly what the Boomtown Rats want to sound like.
The opener, “Trash Glam Baby”, sounds like a song Suede would have rejected. It’s like “Please Mister Postman” soaked in some sort of indie/glam dishwater. The second track, “Sweet Thing”, also carries a peculiarly Britpop-ish feel. It’s an ugly listen, a crummy Graham Coxon-ish riff to begin, then some piano that sounds like they had the idea that the piano in “I Wanna Be Your Dog” was good but without actually considering why that might be. “Monster Monkeys”, seems like them sitting in the studio with a pair of bongos and then deciding that they might as well try a “Sympathy for the Devil” type deal, but then stealing a verse from the Happy Mondays. Another example: “Rock n Roll Ye Ye” is “Ziggy Stardust” with some “I Love Rock n Roll” sprinkled in. Then there’s a breakdown where he sounds like Bob Dylan singing “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”. And so it goes on. And on.
I want to say that the worst thing about this is that it’s boring, which it is, but the actual worst thing is how it assumes the listener will be satisfied with such laziness. Ripping off very obvious rock songs is asking to be deemed irrelevant, and their attempts to sound contemporary are poor at best. If you must acquire this, then you might have fun with your friends picking out which songs they ripped off, or pay homage to or whatever.
And so back to the politics. The head of this “revolutionary council”, as Bono calls them, claims to have always viewed rock ‘n’ roll as a form of musical activism. That appears to be Geldof’s primary excuse for this record’s existence: “Once again the financial systems destroyed the world and the lives of the countries within it … Who will sing those blues. The blues of the NOW!” (sic). These are odd claims to make about what is a really quite generic rock record. Generic rock isn’t inherently bad (AC/DC are a testament to this), but neither is it Gang of Four. After listening to Citizens of Boomtown, you can’t help but wonder if another vanity project is the kind of activism we need to combat the injustices of the world. If you feel the need for activism, then there are far better ways to go about it than by giving these guys your “fucking” money.