TORONTO — Bob Geldof is known for spearheading charity projects like Live Aid and Live 8, but he says the protest song is dead — and he’s not the man to bring it back.
But Geldof, who recently released his first album in a decade, How To Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell, hopes there’s a young musician out there, filled with angst and seething frustration, who’s right now putting together some chords with angry lyrics about how the world’s gone wrong.
“When you’re a young man your songs had better be about ‘things.’ You’re confronting a life in the world and your future and you’re not that conscious of it except that things are hard, things are tough, what’s going to happen? There’s a certain amount of panic, so you talk about your moment,” Geldof said during an interview in Toronto.
“It’s Johnny Rotten saying, ‘I am the Antichrist, I’m your worst nightmare;’ Joe Strummer singing, ‘White riot, I want a riot of my own;’ when the Beatles did Revolution it sounded angry, like John Lennon is discussing something with you: ‘I don’t want to be involved in that;’ when Jagger wrote Street Fighting Man he was trying to say, ‘What you want from me?’
“Dignifying your audience by having a conversation with them and answering critics made pop music vital, literally, it was like part of the everyday conversation.”
Geldof’s new album is a dramatic change of pace from 2001’s Sex, Age & Death, a collection of songs written after his wife Paula Yates left him for INXS singer Michael Hutchence. In 2000, Yates was found dead of an apparent heroin overdose, which was deemed accidental.
“It was bleak, despairing, because of what happened in my life — my missus left me, I loved her, I was destroyed —by making the record I made that pain understandable and external and I could move beyond it,” Geldof said.
“I meet another woman, who insists on loving this most unlovable of characters, and piece by piece stitches back a soul and reconstructs something resembling a human being. And that’s How To Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell.
“Certainly the album is about what most teenagers and 20-year-olds understand very early in their life but it took me until I was 59 to get it. Perhaps John in all his naiveté is right, perhaps all you do need is love, that the human condition is essentially meaningless without empathy or the necessity of love. So in a nutshell that’s what (the album) is.”
The last track Geldof wrote for the album, How I Roll, is the only song that approaches politics, alongside others with titles like She’s a Lover, Silly Pretty Little Thing and Dazzled By You.
With a melody nicked from Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer In The City, How I Roll is a slow, dirgeful ode to the cold, impersonal big city, with Geldof singing:
“It’s hard times/Trying to make a living/You wake up every morning in the unforgiving.”
“I’m talking about the economic moment, it’s just looking at hard times living in the city,” said Geldof, noting most of his political songwriting came in his 20s, with the Boomtown Rats.
“In our case, 1976, you go back to that period of pre-Thatcher, pre-Reagan when the British economy was going straight into a wall and you left school and there was nothing. So the first thing you heard me say was, ‘The world owes me a living.’ I don’t want to be like you, I don’t want to talk like you, I don’t want to look like you, I don’t want to think like you, I’m going to be like me,” he said.
“Is that necessary now? Does it occur? No, it doesn’t occur. Should it occur? For me, yes, but I’m of a generation that only understands societal movement through the prism of rock ’n’ roll, I expect (music) to discuss with me what’s happening. … But if it’s true that (politics) is discussed in other ways (now) then essentially it’s the end of rock music as we know it.
“That’s a pity, because if art doesn’t reflect the culture, what’s the point?”