I was in high school when I discovered the Boomtown Rats. Now, this is “discovered” as in Columbus “discovering” the New World. Since he encountered people already living in this New World, they presumably knew of its existence. So other people knew about the Boomtown Rats, but when I “discovered” them, it opened up a whole new world for me, just as Columbus did to the delight of Europe and the dismay (and beyond) of the “New World’s” old denizens.
I first saw the Boomtown Rats on the wholesome Mike Douglas Show. This was a show like Stephen Colbert’s or Jimmy Fallon’s or Jimmy Kimmel’s, except it was on in the middle of the afternoon. Maybe it was like Ellen, although I’m not sure she has new musical guests on to perform. (I only watch her Youtube clips). At any rate, it was a talk show that often featured up and coming music, although in a wholesome, family way.
Here I was, in little Gunnison, Colorado, where the one radio station was exactly what you would expect a small-town radio station to be (my friend Bob worked for a period of time as a DJ, and to report the weather, he would step outside and squint at the sky). The new radio station, which promised, “You’re mother’s gonna hate it,” only knew about one band, and that was the Beatles. My mother did not hate it, but I kind of did. At night I could pull in Top 40 from KOMA radio out of Oklahoma.
Into this stifled, white bread world came the Rats, and I was immediately smitten. I rushed out to buy their album, The Fine Art of Surfacing, and read the lyrics as they sang them, shocked at how angry they were.
We should understand that I was hopelessly white bread too, and even a few years later when I reviewed their lyrics I couldn’t figure out why they shocked me so much. I mean, it’s there: in one song a woman hangs herself at a cocktail party, and none of the other attendees care. “I guess we should have noticed ’cause her dress was cut so low,” is the best response one of them can manage in the aftermath.
While I bought all the albums I could come across for the band, I wasn’t so smitten that I felt compelled to know everything about them. Maybe once upon a time I knew all the band members, but all I can tell you now is that this Irish punk-rock group was fronted by Bob Geldof. I was charmed by the notion that he had been a Dublin journalist before finding his literal voice as a singer.
While you may or may not be familiar with the Boomtown Rats, which came and went pretty much as any other band (except the Beatles, who got a whole radio station to themselves), Mr. Geldof has made quite a name for himself as a crusader. Once upon a time, and still, his goal was to feed all of Africa.
In the mid-’80s Ethiopia was in the midst of a horrible famine, and while many people like me read about it and were sad, Mr. Geldof felt called to action. So in 1984 he wrote a song called “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and gathered many big names of the United Kingdom’s music scene to sing it with him.
It raised big money, and started a Big Movement: the next year, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson gathered a similarly large cast of U.S. musicians to deliver “We are the World.”
[Which comes with a funny story about my sister Terri. Terri was in college, and the radio station she listened to was having a contest. They would play a snippet of “We Are the World,” and listeners called in with their guess as to who was singing in an attempt to win a prize. The snippet came on; Terri dashed for her phone. The phone was answered and Terri shouted excitedly, “It’s Bruce Springsteen!” To which the bewildered woman at the other end of the wrong number said, “Excuse me?” Terri did not win a prize.]
Then came the big all-day concert events, fund-raisers for famine relief agencies. This prompted Willie Nelson to start Farm Aid, to help U.S. farmers. So a lot of good came out of one man’s desire to help the world. It’s also earned him, according to Wikipedia, an appointment by Queen Elizabeth as Honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire. Too, he has been named a Man of Peace, which is a title everyone ought to strive for. (Presumably there’s a Woman of Peace option as well.)
But I hadn’t really given any of this a thought until yesterday. Here at Pat’s, where Kara controls the music for half the shop, it’s all Christmas all the time from Thanksgiving on. (She tries to make this sooner, but the outcry from the masses means she has to sneak it in when and where she can.) Yesterday one of the songs that came on while I was sitting at her desk was “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
And because the internet works in the mysterious way it does, it somehow knew this, that yesterday at work on Kara’s computer I listened to this song. So this morning while I was on Youtube on my computer at home looking at something completely (and I mean completely) different, not even music, the next video that came up was a 30-year remastering of Mr. Geldof’s Christmas song, followed by “We Are the World” (with Bruce Springsteen!).
This is what I have to say about it, another five years beyond 30: there was a lot of hair in the 1980s. Mullets is as mullets does, but that’s one hair craze that ought to just be put behind us for all time.
Beyond that, it’s an interesting way to have your life flash before your eyes. All these musicians who once meant so much to you — by “you” I mean me and my cohort — who when I watched the video this morning kept saying, “I’d completely forgotten about him.”
I don’t even listen to my Boomtown Rats much anymore, even though I of course still have all their albums. But I do still feel a little point of pride that the musician I gravitated to while in my music infancy, the musician who was angry about injustice in the world, has turned that anger into a productive existence and made the world a better place to be.