Fighting Fame

April 28, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Considering all that he's done over the years, you might think that Bob Geldof would be inordinately proud of his past.

This, after all, is the man who not only came up with the idea for the famine relief project Band Aid but also co-wrote "Do They Know It's Christmas," which was one of Europe's biggest singles ever. From there, he went on to organize the Live Aid concerts, oversee relief efforts in Africa and write a best-selling autobiography (1986's "Is That All?") -- all while maintaining a musical career that started with the Irish punk act the Boomtown Rats and extends through three solo albums, including his newly released "The Happy Club."

Along the way, he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, knighted by Queen Elizabeth and dubbed "Saint Bob" by the music press. Yet as he sits in the Manhattan offices of Polydor Records, working his way through yet another phone interview, the story he seems happiest to relate has less to do with fame than the lack thereof.

"Some young guy here at Polydor," he says merrily, "came up to me rather shiftily and said, 'Look, Bob, please don't take this wrong, but some of these college kids have never heard of you.'

"And I thought, 'Thank God! To be without a past!' "

It's meant to draw a laugh, but Geldof really isn't joking. Fame hasn't really worked to his advantage in the United States, and frankly he's beginning to wish people would forget what he did in '84 and '85 and start listening to what he's doing now.

"When I'm away from here, I don't give it a second thought, to be honest," he says. "When I'm here, then it sort of bugs me. I think, 'Why can't they just play [the album]? What's wrong with it?' It strikes me as being a fairly normal sounding record.

"But you're burdened with the past, you know? If my name comes up, they think of all those other things, and they don't listen to the record objectively. They say, 'Bob -- what a nice guy! We owe him one. Let's play it at 3 in the morning.' And then that's it, they've done their bit.

"Well, don't bother. I mean, it's not that I'm arrogant enough to resent it like that; it's not at all ego-damaging. It's just a sort of irritant."

Geldof's petulance is not entirely unwarranted. "The Happy Club" was released in Europe and Australia last fall and has so far chalked up two hit singles in those markets. "I'm on my third hit in Europe," he adds. "I did 60 gigs there before Christmas." He's also begun to tour this country and will be performing as part of the WHFS anniversary show tomorrow night at Hammerjacks.

But he knows better than to assume that success elsewhere will automatically translate into U.S. sales. "My expectation level for this country is remarkably small," he says. "They have managed consistently to ignore me for 17 years without any seeming loss to them. I was absolutely convinced, when I was in the Rats, that America, like all these other countries, would fall at our feet. Like, 'We are not worthy,' you know? And when that didn't happen, I was taken aback.

"For about five seconds."

Geldof, needless to say, is not one to give up easily. Nor is "The Happy Club" the kind of album that deserves to go unheard. As with its predecessor, 1990's "The Vegetarians of Love," Geldof is working in a milieu that draws from Cajun and Irish traditional styles without really leaving the realm of rock and roll. There are obvious folk elements to the music -- the reel-like instrumental line between verses of "A Sex Thing," for instance -- but that hardly keeps Geldof and his bandmates from rocking out on the likes of "Yeah Definitely" or "My Hippy Angel."

Amazingly, Geldof says most of the songs occurred "spontaneously" during the recording of the album. "I mean, I just start playing, the band plays with me, and I open my mouth and start singing," he says. "And that's the song."

How Geldof arrived at this approach dates back to 1986, when he returned to his solo career after two years spent on famine relief projects. "When I went back to making records, I wanted -- if this doesn't sound too pompous -- to find a musical language that was as natural to me as the Rat thing was intuitive,"he says. "And so I sort of messed around with Cajun, which I'd loved since I was a kid. I liked its passion and its relevance and its spirit and its wit and its spontaneity, and I thought if I married that to the native Irish thing and the intuitive rock thing, maybe I'd have something."

Being a rocker, Geldof realized that he'd never be able to match the spontaneity of actual Cajun or Irish folk music, so when he went to make "The Vegetarians of Love," he decided to "create" spontaneity in the studio. "I hadn't met any of the players," he explains. "So I met them on Monday morning. I played the songs for them once on guitar, then they did it once, and then we did three takes. If it didn't happen in three takes, you moved straight on to the next song.

"And I found that worked well."

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