Robert Frederick Zenon Geldof was born in 1951 near Dublin in Ireland. Educated at Blackrock College, a fee-paying Catholic secondary school for boys founded by the Holy Ghost Order to train personnel for missionary service in the Third World, Geldof is said to have hated the place.
Having dabbled as a slaughterman, road navvy and pea canner, he briefly entered music journalism in Canada before becoming lead singer of Irish ‘new wave’ band, the Boomtown Rats, in 1975. The group shot to international fame in 1979 with the number-one single ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’. But it was Geldof who always stood out, acquiring the nickname ‘Bob the Gob’ for his outspoken views, including the declaration that all he wanted out of pop music was ‘to get rich, get famous and get laid’.
When the Ethiopian famine hit Western television sets in 1984, Geldof co-wrote the charity song ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ and cajoled the cream of the British music industry to record it as the one-off group, Band Aid. The song became the biggest-selling single in British chart history. It led to Live Aid, the charity concerts held in London and Philadelphia on 13 July 1985.
These events, along with Geldof’s uncensored live exhortations (‘There’s people dying now, so just send us the fockin’ money’), eventually raised over $144 million. They also turned Geldof from a has-been pop star into a global charity superstar. Whilst making a fortune for charity in the years since then, he has also shown an uncanny knack of making bucket-loads of cash for himself.
In 1986, as the enormity of his fame after Live Aid hit home, Geldof left the other Boomtown Rats to launch a solo career and release his autobiography, _Is That It?_ In 1992 he co-founded Planet 24, the television production company famed for giving Britain shows like ‘The Big Breakfast’, ‘The Word’ and ‘Survivor’.
In 1999 Geldof sold Planet 24 to Carlton TV, netting an estimated $7 million, while retaining the lucrative rights to the hit show ‘Survivor’. He launched two new ventures: an online travel business, which he sold in 2001 for an estimated overall package of $17 million; and Ten Alps Communications, Britain’s fastest growing media, entertainment and marketing company, in which he retains an eight per cent share and where he doubles up as an occasional presenter on its African documentaries.
One of the company’s subsidiaries – Ten Alps Events – specializes in creating ‘branded environments’ and has worked for some of the world’s most powerful corporations, including BP, Glaxo Smithkline and Microsoft, not to mention the British Foreign Office. These environments help to ‘change our emotions’, giving a ‘higher collective value’ than normal advertising and building ‘stronger relationships, value loyalty and of course ultimately sales’.
The ultimate branded environment was Live 8 itself. Geldof spun the rehash of Live Aid as a political concert for justice in Africa. However, corporations like Nestlé, BAE Systems and Rio Tinto sponsored some of the concerts, and Geldof himself introduced Microsoft’s Bill Gates to the watching millions as ‘the greatest philanthropist of our age’.
Geldof’s phenomenal success as a venture capitalist has led him to see Africa’s salvation in his own image. Although part of the Make Poverty History (MPH) campaign, his political closeness to world leaders saw him front Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa in the run-up to the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles, with its emphasis on public-private partnerships, free trade and foreign direct investment.
Live 8 then hijacked the MPH campaign by planning its concerts for the same day as the giant MPH march in Edinburgh, totally overshadowing the biggest demonstration for social justice in Scottish history. African artists were excluded on the grounds that only musicians with more than four million record sales could play, otherwise people in China would ‘switch off’.
Not content with this insult, Geldof then defied the damning verdict of almost every aid agency, charity, campaigning and African grassroots group by calling the G8 summit ‘the most important summit there has ever been for Africa’ and labelling critics ‘a disgrace’.
Meanwhile, Geldof has re-released the entire back catalogue of the Boomtown Rats, issued the complete anthology of his own solo career, fronted a six-part BBC documentary series, ‘Geldof in Africa’, produced by his own Ten Alps company, launched a book and DVD with the same title, re-released his 1986 autobiography and attempted to resurrect his musical career with a British tour.
Some leading African campaigners have now asked Geldof to stand down from the global anti-poverty movement. It would be long overdue if he did.