South By Southwest Report:

Bob Geldof calls for a musical revolution in keynote address

SXSW - Austin, TX - March 11-20

Date March 17, 2011 at 10:00 PM

Categories Community Entertainment & Nightlife


Bob Geldof, the former Boomtown Rats frontman, Live Aid organizer and political activist, has a message for today's aspiring musicians: If you don't have something to say, don't bother making music.

In his keynote address to the South By Soutwest music convention and festival on St. Patrick's Day, the 50-something Irishman lamented what he called the "complacency" of the contemporary music scene and delivered an impassioned -- and at times humorous -- manifesto urging today's aspiring musicians to rise up and make "noise with intent." Popular music's greatest moments -- the primal blues of Howlin' Wolf, Dylan's electrified folk, the Beatles' revolutionary pop-rock and the Sex Pistols' middle-finger punk among them -- were all fueled by a reaction against injustice, a need to speak out in song. But while great travesties continue to play out on the world stage, musicians -- especially here in the U.S. -- have lost that sense of urgency and moral outrage, he said.

"Rock and roll could only have come from this country," Geldof told a packed crowd at the Austin Convention Center. "It's your great cultural gift to the world. But it may be over. You see, rock and roll must be against something."

Growing up poor in postwar Ireland in the 50s and 60s, Geldof found solace and salvation in the broadcasts of Radio Luxembourg. "Boys and girls with guitars were articulating other universes and other possibilities," he recalled. "Rock & roll was the rhetoric and instrument of that change."

Bands continue to create great songs, but they're not part of something bigger, something "relevant," said Geldof, who brought the world Live Aid in 1985 and the subsequent Live 8 shows.

"I think the music of revolution is the lingua franca of the world," Geldof said, mentioning the songs sung by protestors in the recent wave of revolutions in the Middle East. "Rock and roll does not exist in a cultural vacuum. It ceases to be if it does."

Geldof recalled hearing Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning" for the first time. "It was breathtaking," he said. "Can it happen again?"

He seems to think it could, and that it's a perfect time for a new musical revolution.

There's certainly plenty to be angry about in our modern-day culture, he said. We give huge subsidies to agriculture, which undercuts farmers in the southern hemisphere. At the same time, one-fifth of Americans live on food stamps, he said. Meanwhile, financial giants like Goldman-Sachs "bankrupt" the country, but their executives never serve jail time. "Are you not ashamed?" he asked the hundreds of musicians and music industry representatives who comprised the crowd. "What's music got to say about it?"

At Geldof's South By Southwest show that evening on the Austin City Limits stage, it was clear the white-haired rocker-provocateur still has a lot to say himself. But these days, he's saying it with a grin. Ripping through a series of buoyant, inspired songs, most from his new album, "How to Compose Popular Songs that Will Sell," Geldof displayed the vim and vigor of a man half his age -- and a newfound happiness. Even performing his dark 32-year-old hit with the Boomtown Rats, "I Don't Like Mondays," the notoriously cranky Geldof, who recently found love again after a long period of despair following the death of ex-wife Paula Yates, flashed a luck-o-the-Irish grin.

To hear a track from Goldof's new album, released this week, click here.

The SXSW® Music and Media Conference celebrates its 25th Anniversary in 2011. Reaching a quarter of a century of being the biggest and most anticipated convergence of all things music, SXSW is ready to keep the reputation alive by programming the best event yet.

By day, thousands of conference registrants network in the halls of the Austin Convention Center on their way to do business at the SXSW Trade Show: The Exhibition for Creative Industries, sit in on informative panel discussions featuring some of the industry's key players, gain insight from legendary keynote speakers or plan out their abundant party schedules. At night, SXSW showcases hundreds upon hundreds of musical acts from around the globe on over eighty stages in downtown Austin. All this and so much more, combine to make SXSW one of the most revered music events, year after year.