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”Â¦ 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”Â¦ 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 ”â 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”Â, 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!