Simple Minds re-evaluated

Whisper it, but once upon a time (pun intended) Simple Minds were a hell of a band.

Proving this statement is not an easy task, I admit. How to even start defending Simple Minds”¦ I mean, if you consider the popular mental image that most people would have of Simple Minds it’s an open and shut case, m’Lud, is it not? Ponderous but well meaning, those lumpen power chords dovetailing in an ungainly waltz with those lowing vocals, (and those bloody spandex tights Jim Kerr had circa 1987), stadia full of stone washed denim; (I notice that thus far no one has tried, even ironically, to revive the stonewashed jeans jacket). I concede that I am “batting on a sticky/facing an uphill struggle/going into the lion’s den” blah; blah fucking blah…I mean how can I start this? Maybe it is time for a bit of personal history.

Back in the dark days of 1986/7 all the football lads, the “Neds” the “Scallies”, the “Larry Heads” (or indeed Lads in Lumpen General), would all fairly cheerfully admit that Simple Minds were, if not their favourite band, at least someone they liked well enough. Like U2. All the precocious arty types at the time like yours truly, (who pretended to read Wilde AND Jung whilst reading neither), and hung around looking glum, would not be seen dead with a ‘Minds record. I mean, did anyone see them on Live Aid? Sweet Jesus… terrible fist thumping anthems, with Herr Kerr dancing in that awful cod-Jagger way, legs apart”¦ wiggling his arse as if he was trying to dislodge a hen’s nest.

Anyway around this time there was this kid at our college who would brazenly walk around with this early Simple Minds album; I mean quite brazenly. And he was no “lad” in the normal currency of the word; far from it, he was a fully paid up member of the 6th form art squad. Being timid, I dimly perceived that this act ”“ if viewed correctly, scored shed loads of points, and could be worth aping in front of girls. I mean, this was what Stephen Pastel, or Jim Reid was big on; Being Ironic, wasn’t it? So I asked him; wow, carrying the devils spawn around; that was a cool thing to do. “Post-modern” was something that had yet to be explained to me in full, (despite me using the word ad nauseum at the time) maybe this could be interpreted as a post-modern act. (Actually, on reflection, maybe it wasn’t. I certainly (and thankfully) didn’t accuse him of being post-modern).

Anyway, I digress; his answer and manner shocked me. He angrily told me to fuck off and stop taking the piss out of one of the best records made. As proof of his anger, (and I bet he got this kind of thing quite a lot from the art squad), he offered to lend it me there and then. So I timidly took it from him, hid it under my coat, and furtively smuggled it out on the bus back to Accrington.
The album that sparked the row was Empires and Dance and had been made in 1980. I shoved my records aside and put it on. Bloody heck. How do I describe that moment looking back? Let me tell you now – as I suppose I muddily realised then – that I consider Empires and Dance to be a cornerstone record. It’s a stone classic. Despite its nods to Eno, and to the Kraut giants such as Kraftwerk, Can and Neu!, it’s a formidable beast in its own right. Set as a futuristic, nihilistic soundtrack around Europe, the band create a hugely effective paranoid setting for Kerr to dramatize what he sees in a brittle, caustic way. Better than that, the sound of it, grandiose (with an old pre 1914 feel), thumping, DANCEY; (there I was, I still remember thinking, Simple Minds, groovy!??). To this day I still back this album. I just never tell anyone who it is when I put it on at a party. No one ever believes me.

Anyway, after that night, I began to cautiously check out other releases, keeping strictly to a date that was pre- the Simple Minds I knew and loathed (which is Waterfront from 1983. Waterfront was the marsh light signalling that awful bombast). And I have to say that I was rarely disappointed. Top marks went to Reel to Reel Cacophony, the fabulously sparky 1979 art collage/Eno/Low rip off and Sons and Fascination the 1981 follow up to Empires and Dance; a richer more sprawling sound. Whilst not being as perfect in concept as Empires and Dance, Sons was (and is) pretty damned great, especially when you consider tracks like the rich undulating In Trance as Mission or the cutting choppy groove of Theme for Great Cities. As for New Gold Dream, (their “breakthrough/crossover” album), I was fascinated that a band could degenerate from this sublime, ethereal, gentle dance pop to thumping out slabs of condemned meat like Ghostdancing. Get this as well, during this period Simple Minds wore fucking mascara and lippy! Jim Kerr, the saviour of the planet, in lippy? I mean.

Anyway, I suppose this homily leads us as to why they slipped down the Steve Lilywhite breast beating path from 1983’s Sparkle in the Rain onwards. And our answer (apparently) leads to the door of Bono. For it was whilst Simple Minds were having trouble with the follow-up to New Gold Dream, (how do you out-perfect the perfect?), U2 came a calling, The bands got on very well, (as far as I know, anyway), bonding in earnest on the continental concert circuit through the summer of 1983. In fact, they got on so well that Jim Kerr & Charlie Burchill had a “revelation”. This was 1983; maybe experimentation and impressionistic, Motorik-led soundtracks were dated; after all, four years of cussed artistic experiment had resulted in no money and only modest general acclaim. Look at U2; they kept it simple and direct, and they were on the cusp of becoming really big… Hmm.

So, out went the lippy, out went the balance and rhythm, and out went the dark undercurrents. Welcome big sounds, happy/positive/meaningless/dribble lyrics and JK balancing up a pole (literally). Sparkle in the Rain is just a messy disappointment. I suppose it fitted the times beautifully. As for 1985’s Once Upon a Time, released just after the Live Aid appearance, well, that was just massive; people loved it, its glossy banal confidence confirmed everything about the shitty ol’ mid 1980s. However much the band would have disclaimed it, this was the soundtrack to the “young entrepreneur”, meat and two veg, aspiring-mullet crowd. (Dare I, do I need to, mention the T word?)… Despite 1989’s “attempt” to return to New Gold Dream territory, With Street Fighting Years, the album revealed itself to be just wind and water wank. I gave up there and then: trying to get people to go to Stone Roses and Pixies gigs was where my head was “at”, aged 19.

And to be honest I couldn’t name another album of theirs, (outside of the okay Neapolis, which was recommended to me because it had original bassist Derek Forbes on), but I can safely assume they are all pretty average. Get Empires and Dance instead. You’ll be amazed.

This article is also to be read – in far inferior version – HERE!


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18 comments on “Simple Minds re-evaluated”

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  1. Couldn’t agree more with all this. I WAS into ver Minds in 1986 but that’s because I was 13 and a U2 fan, and I later realised that all their best and most interesting stuff had gone before.

    I’ve been buying it all up on CD recently after plaudits by James Dean Bradfield but the big question for me is, which Minds is playing Delamere Forest in July? Will there be any value in going? I’m still happy to hear stuff from Sparkle in the Rain and even Once Upon a Time, but I’m not sure I can risk Belfast Child…

  2. Some good points, Simple Minds went for the pop sound in the mid 80s similar to Genesis they wanted to transform the band to be a signature of the times. They could have gone the way of the Fall churning out avant garde artistic post punk but as Thatcher emphasised loads of money the music art form was sacrificed for a more commercial sound. It did create a new fan base for them which could not be all bad.

  3. Empires and Dance was an outstanding album. Spent many an hour (day?weekend?) in my first year at Uni sat in my room in the dark – brimming to the neck with cheap red wine – playing ‘This Fear of Gods’ over and over and over.

    Proper glacial European dance music. I left them after New Gold Dream (which, c’mon, has a couple of decent tracks). Don’t begrudge them their stadia tours and cash in the bank but I did stop admitting I was a fan in public.
    I still think Charlie Burchill was one the most innovative guitarists to come out of punk – just listen to the threat he creates with three chords on ‘Cacophony’ off Real to Real..

  4. Reel to Reel Cacophony and Empires were fine but you should have seen them before they made a record. Now that was something.

  5. Up to ‘Sparkle in the Rain’ the Minds were always a great band to listen to. Thanks to Forbes (voted ‘best bassplayer to come out of Scotland) interesting and gritty bass lines and MacNeil’s atmospherics keys they produced some fantastic songs, which I still listen to today.

    Then they went all American!! Big stadia, big sounds, big shoulder-pads! Terrible music. Their best stuff is on Real to Real Cacophony, Empires and Dance, Sons and Fascination and New Gold Dream. Go listen to these albums – you will not be disappointed.

  6. For a period of time Simple Minds where also a great live band. Charile Burchill era which ended after New Gold Dream days. They did go for a a very big drum sound live and that mixed with keyboards gave them a great live feel. Their art student era Chelsea Girl, Life In Day, Thrity Frames a Second and the dance floor filler I travel not forgetting The American was for me their 30 mins of fame for me. Where did it all go wrong for the minds? I watched live aid with my Mum and she turned to me wilst they played their set and said to me “who is this band?” I asked why? and she said because I quite like them. It was then I had to let them go the Minds and my Mum! The Glitering Prize had faded but every once in a while I get out Reel to Reel Cacophony and Empires and “Celebrate” the Minds

  7. All this time I thought it was just me. I saw simple minds on the new gold dream tour in Newcastle, the show that was filmed. Awesome. I saw them once more and then couldn’t bear to see the stadium version they became. I did see them a couple of years ago mind and you did feel that maybe they’d realised that they needed to recapture the spark they had, and to be fair they do seem to try.

    I really want to see them do Life in a Day though. I’d love that.

  8. It’s true they morphed into a stadium beast, bombastic and lacking the subtle power they held. Still they did that pretty well, even if their commercial peak didn’t match their creative peak. If they hadn’t had that success, we might not even remember them now.

    Your point about the U2/Minds meet is an important one. Kerr losing his arty presence to shimmy up that unstable pole, yet the influence Simple Minds had on U2 is rarely, if ever, noted. U2 went from a post-punk Clash wannabe to putting out The Unforgettable Fire – full of textured layers, keyboards, atmospherics their music previously did not contain. They got the better side of the deal and, somewhat ironically, it meant Eno-influenced Simple Minds influenced the Eno produced U2.

    The other compliment I’d pay Simple Minds is that in any incarnation they are superb live, and post 5×5 tour they, unlike many elder statesmen of rock/pop, have trimmed back the fat and got their groove back. Contrast that to the pomp and lumpen concerts the likes of the Stones, Springsteen & McCartney put on.

    • I watched a documentary on Simple Minds.Their sound developed as they toured,and ended up being totally different to what they had started out with.This was a great basis for me for theorising about how bands ‘synthesize’ their music/sound.U2 were around at the time and had a very similar sound to Simple Minds.I saw how Simple Minds had ‘wrought’ their sound.My conclusion was that Simple Minds were exemplars and U2 their imitators,rightly or wrongly.To be honest,I’ve never liked U2.I’gave’ them enough rope and they hung themselves in my lil ole world.

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  13. Each of us has a unique perspective on this. As for me, I’ve loved this band from the first bars of “The American” I heard completely by accident a few weeks before “Sparkle in the Rain” was released. A friend and I saw them with China Crisis in San Francisco when we were very young and I was knocked out by the massive sound and great songs I was witnessing. From that point, SM was the soundtrack to my life. I didnae take to the Breakfast Club song much although I thought it was done very well. I understood why Once Upon a Time was the way it was and it grew on me to the point where I enjoy it as a contemporary rock record made to show their new fans their ability to make such a record. It sounded great and has a superb mix on it.
    The live record captured that tour very well although they had changed dramatically from that “sweat on the ceiling” band I saw a few years back with Mel stomping around the stage whacking a cowbell during “King is White and In the Crowd”. Street Fighting Years sounds great and I understand why Q gave it that rare 5 stars but I don’t find myself listening to it very much. They lost Michael and those unreal keyboards yet I loved Real Life because it has a unique feel to it. I met my wife in queue for that show, coincidentally the same venue I first saw them. I had lived in Europe for a few years and taken part in a big war and a smaller combat action between Sparkle in the Rain and Real Life and it felt like an eternity and I felt like such a different person. It made sense that SM had changed so much as well.
    I stayed a loyal fan from 83 on, eagerly buying each new album and finding much to like about each. I think it is fantastic that people are discovering those first records now but I don’t think the band should try and embrace them because those early fans disowned them in the mid 80’s. They have put out some great songs since then and should be proud of their entire discography. I can admit that the creativity of the early 80’s hit a snag in the 90’s but they lost two very influential members and it makes sense.
    I’m happy this band is still playing to audiences and don’t care if many of those in the crowd may go blank during the opening bars of “Room”. SM have given me almost 30 years of great times and memories, countless hours in the car just listening to their songs, same goes for sitting in my office just listening to them. I consider myself lucky to have that time and to have witnessed all that great music of the 80’s.

    • Jason, How cool is it that you are a life-long fan. I feel the same way about U2; I’ve pretty much found something to like about each album. Some people want to always look back to the “better days”, but if you keep an open mind you can usually glean something from an artist’s entire catalog. Although I’m more of a U2 fan, I often turn to Simple Minds for a quieter, more restful sound. Wish they would come to America–soon!

  14. I enjoyed their firt four albums, each on their own merit. They were breaking ground each time. Derek’s basslines were the basis for great melodies. Michael’s keyboards were so well positioned in every track, he is musical science and art as one and Charles guitar was so well chosen. No-one overdid it, it was perfectly orchestrated with Jim’s vocals riding over the top, accompanying not drowning and rhythms were always good never dominating and it was all so original and it was them. After Waterfront they took a turn down the road that altered their indi appeal. Twice they played in Canberra to 300 and 1000 and they peaked. Swapped a shirt with Jim one of those nights. Great guys. I’ll play them to the day i die.

  15. Here we go again – “band has hits = band goes shit”. Typical middle-class music journalese. The songs on Sparkle In The Rain and Once Upon A Time shit all over the early stuff. By 1984, ’85, Simple Minds had learned how to write better songs that would appeal to more people and they rode it all the way to the bank. Good luck to them. These were lads from Glasgow council estates. Stop over-intellectualising what is, at the end of the day, simply pop music.

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