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Tell me why they don't like Geldof

The veteran campaigner and human rights activist sees himself first and foremost as a musician but the empty seats and cancelled concerts show that few would agree. Rock critic John Meagher reports

The occasion was the NME awards in London last February and Bob Geldof was being commemorated for his charity work. Host and rising comedian Russell Brand had been in waspish mood all night. Geldof thought he'd give the young whippersnapper a piece of his mind and, on collecting the gong, he called Brand a "c***". Cue guffaws in the auditorium.

But Brand would have the last laugh. After Geldof had returned to his seat, the comic chortled: "No wonder Bob Geldof is such an expert on famine - he's been dining out on I Don't Like Mondays for 30 years."

A stony-faced Geldof didn't see the funny side. Brand had pierced the singer's armour - he had suggested that Geldof the musician was nothing special. And that's something that has long troubled him.

Earlier this week, the 54-year-old Dubliner cancelled concerts in Italy after dismal ticket sales. In Milan, only 45 people turned up for a venue that seats 12,000 and he refused to perform. The fans who did turn up remonstrated with Geldof, saying they had come a long way to hear him. But he wouldn't change his mind.

Geldof has become so famous as a campaigner and human rights activist over the past two decades that his music - whether with the Boomtown Rats or his extensive solo material - has been relegated to the sidelines.

"I'm a musician first and foremost," he told me in the summer of 2004, on the eve of the release of the Boomtown Rats' Best Of. "That's what I want to be remembered for although I'm sure it will be the last thing on my obituary."

Always fond of self-aggrandisement, he spoke about the unexpected delights of listening to his own music in the car. "I cranked it up loud," he said, "and I was just grinning to myself that it was a f***ing great way to drive back from Heathrow to the middle of London on a gorgeous, hot evening. And I thought 'f***ing hell - that was really fun'. Wow - I didn't know we could play like that."

And he told me that another moment also happened when he was in the car - this time with his children - that made him think about his early music. They had been arguing over what radio programme to play and Geldof found himself changing stations to try to placate them. "On came some boy-band drivel, whimpering away in the background. Then, suddenly, out came this thunderous racket that seems three times the volume and a hundred times the urgency - a dynamic, pointed, focused, raw energy that was unstoppable - and it was us. And in triumph, I turned around, nearly crashing into the next car, and said 'now that's a f***ing boy band.'"

The Boomtown Rats burned brightly, briefly. Founded in 1975, they enjoyed a UK number one two years later with Rat Trap - the first New Wave chart-topper. I Don't Like Mondays - inspired by the topical news of an American teenager who went on a shooting spree at her local school - was a worldwide hit and, as the song that most people associate Geldof with, something of a millstone around his neck.

For three years, the band were massively popular in the UK, and were among the best-selling acts of the time. "We had huge success," Geldof told me. "People forget that. We got the Grammys and the Brits and the Ivor Novellos and it didn't seem to mean that much at the time because we were so driven. But what we actually produced was not an accident. All those laureates that fell at our feet were valid. This was a f***ing good band and they were able to put that on to a record and I wasn't able to hear it at the time."

One of the best remembered moments in the band's history is when Rat Trap displaced Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta's saccharine ballad Summer Nights from the top of the UK chart. On Top Of The Pops, Geldof tore up a poster of the Grease stars before launching into a frenetic version of Rat Trap. It would become one of the most famous moments on the long-running chart show.

The Rats split in 1986, the year after Geldof had made his name globally as Live Aid organiser. He had co-written Do They Know It's Christmas?, which remains one of the best-selling singles of all time, and had a lot of material in the bag that would find its way onto future solo albums.

Perhaps because of the success of that single, Geldof seems to have long been under the impression that his stature as a musician has been greater than than it is. He came under fire from friend and Live 8 organiser Midge Ure when he insisted playing while Princess Diana was attending, thus bumping Ure's band Ultravox out of the schedule. In the mid-Eighties, Ultravox were huge, while the Rats were a remnant from another time.

"I did feel dreadfully let down," Ure wrote in his biography, "as if I had been stabbed in the back by people around me. We were all supposed to be working for the same aim. It was being lied to that upset me. All of us had built this organisation to fight against huge, big conglomerates, to cut through the red tape. Now we were doing the exact same thing - becoming what we'd never vowed to be."

Geldof has released four solo albums in the past 20 years, but none has sold well. The first three albums - Deep in the Heart of Nowhere, The Vegetarians of Love and The Happy Club - had their moments but were hamstrung by Geldof's limited vocals, his over-earnest lyrics and a penchant for trying to ape some of the Rats' ballsier sound.

His most recent album, 2001's Sex Age & Death, took those who had written him off as a creative has-been by surprise. It's full of gritty, sometimes harrowing autobiographical songs - many of which dealt with the death of his former wife Paula Yates and its impact on him and his young family. It's the work of a veteran singer taking stock of his topsy-turvy life.

But Geldof's live performances aren't what they once were. When he played some of the Sex Age & Death songs at Dublin's Vicar Street shortly after its release, he struggled noticeably. And there was the unmistakable sense that the crowd were only interested in hearing the hits from the punk days.

Which is more than can be said for his dwindling support base in Italy.