There's a song on the John Wesley Harding album It Happened One Night called “July 13th 1985.” A blow-by-blow recap of that day's Live Aid extravaganza, it culminates with the punch line of Harding feeling so guilty after listening to Bob Geldof's impassioned appeal for donations that he sends him the 10-pound note he's just employed to snort coke.
Geldof, the very model of the Musician Who Cared — an archetype that somehow became a staple within the mid-'80s muddle of commercially driven stadium bands — had become, in post-Live Aid years, the butt of a backlash amongst the more influential ranks of Musicians Who Didn't Give a Shit. Consequently, Great Songs of Indifference: The Best of Bob Geldof & the Boomtown Rats, a new reissue that collects 11 hits by Geldof's former band alongside a handful of his solo efforts, seems all the more desperate due to the fact that Geldof really did care. With its obvious attempt to situate Geldof's oeuvre in some sort of singer/songwriter pantheon, the album fairly pleads, “Recognize me for the groundbreaking bard I was! Trace my evolution from raw, screeching punk loudmouth to sensitive purveyor of global issues! Love me!” The outcome of this endeavor, unfortunately, serves only to point out that the Boomtown Rats are one of the least memorable bands of the post-punk era.
There are probably very few people lying awake at night wondering why the Boomtown Rats never made it big. Those who do care might notice that Great Songs of Indifference was released just as U2 were launching their latest multimedia assault. A cruel coincidence, since there was a time, long ago, when these two bands had something in common. Like U2, the Boomtown Rats composed caustic reflections on political unrest; like U2, they had a charismatic, ego-driven frontman; and, like U2, they fetishized American culture. Bono and company cast their lots with the better-to-burn-out-than-fade-away iconography of Elvis, Billie Holiday, and Las Vegas, while the Rats opted for the dilapidated trio of Bruce Springsteen, Woody Guthrie, and Howard Hughes. But ultimately, the Boomtown Rats had less of the ambition that turned their fellow Irishmen's stark political fervor into overblown, self-important commercialism. Both parties have placed on packaging and pretension — U2 with their Pop Mart concept tour, the Rats with reissued material that yearns to be definitive, yet all but trumpets its unimportance.
That's not to say the music is bad. Not all of it, anyway — Geldof's solo outings are embarrassingly precious, but the earlier stuff is fine, really; songs like the braying Springsteen tribute “Rat Trap” and the articulately paranoid “Someone's Looking at You” stand as evocative examples of the post-Sex Pistols energy that was at the time molding itself into new wave. But the best thing one can say about Great Songs of Indifference is that it should have been two separate albums, since the rawness of the Boomtown Rats' work set against the folksy pretension of Geldof solo just doesn't work. And since there's already at least one Greatest-Hits-of-the-Boomtown-Rats compilation out there, perhaps this shouldn't have been an album at all. It's not as if the reissue offers any B-sides or outtakes, and as for Geldof's solo work, the fans — and there must be some — own these tunes already.
Great Songs of Indifference's attempt to secure a little slice of immortality for itself is foiled by two glaring blunders that are apparent long before the music even begins. First of all, the CD case and insert feature a newspaper-clipping collage, with snippets of text and a slew of band photos interspersed with pictures of Geldof-the-solo-artist treating us to a series of concerned expressions. Implicit in this design is a defensive posture — no one's going to remember this band, and furthermore, no one's going to think that they mattered; therefore, headlines from old Melody Maker articles are meant to remind us. Secondly, there's the lack of a liner-note essay. Since bands that were way more inconsequential than the Boomtown Rats have somehow merited anthology-type reissues — Bachman-Turner Overdrive, anyone? — one has to assume the absence of documentation here is a tip-off to a more serious deficiency. Where's the earnest little essay detailing the impact of Geldof's songwriting? The fan testimonials? The blurbs that explain the inside jokes, lyrical references, and studio snafus accompanying each song? That the man could pen a best-selling autobiography that contained about 300 more pages than necessary, and less than 10 years later be unable to generate even the gentlest of logrolling for an anthology of his own work, seems like more than just an oversight.
The truth underscored by this collection is that ultimately, the most lasting impression left by the Boomtown Rats has almost nothing to do with their music. When people think of Geldof, they're most likely to think of the icon he had a hand in creating, the Musician Who Cared. And while Geldof may rescind his Live Aid-era self-righteousness on “The Great Song of Indifference,” singing, “I don't care if a nation starves,” with a kind of forced, faux-drunken glee, when it comes to the music itself, it's not his own indifference he's admitting to. It's ours.
By Andi Zeisler