Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Simple Minds

Simple Minds were a very odd entity....

Life In A Day (1979)
....they began here, as a derivative, Magazine and early Roxy Music-influenced introspective post-punk group. A few years later they were a massive, somewhat pretentious stadium-rock band. Their progression was a bit like U2's from a few years later, although their descent was as rapid as their ascent, something U2 didn't experience. Rather like Roxy Music, Fleetwood Mac and Santana, Simple Minds were a group whose eventual hordes of arm-waving fans who crowded out huge US stadiums had literally no idea about their early albums or their initial incarnation. As I said, a strange band, and one I never really "got", I have to be completely honest.

Anyway, on to this album. The opener, Someone, seems created with Roxy Music's Virginia Plain in mind, lots of frantic verses, madcap keyboard breaks and swirls. It is not a bad song, for its time, to be fair, although it has always sounded a bit tinny. Released in 1979, I remember at the time that nobody quite knew what to make of Simple Minds. Were they punk? No. Were they post punk in the Magazine-Public Image Ltd-Joy Division style? No. Were they "art rock"? Possibly, but a bit too late. Life In A Day was an Ultravox-ish sonically overwhelming mish-mash. It had some Pete Shelley from The Buzzcocks yelping vocals from singer Jim Kerr and some Roxy keyboards with a kind of New York Dolls glam crash. As mentioned earlier, there were plenty of influences from Magazine's Real Life from the year before, in the keyboard sound, although Kerr's vocal is far less hauntingly dominant than Howard Devoto's.

Sad Affair is an upbeat, catchy strange sort of rocker with some madcap guitar and another high-pitched, weak-ish vocal that gets overwhelmed by the backing. All For You is a thumping, mid-pace riffy number with some impressive bass in the middle. It seemed most groups had to put out one extended track on each album, even the punks. Here it is the Velvet Underground meets string orchestration pompous, overblown and pretty pointless Pleasantly DisturbedNo Cure and its frenetic keyboard sound and weird high pitched vocal suddenly make me realise what this whole album reminds me of - Sparks, their overall, unique sound and Russell Mael's vocal. Got it. I remember seeing the band perform the proto-anthemic Chelsea Girl on one of the music shows at the time and being a bit under-convince by it. It has its moments, it has to be said - a grandiose sound, some thumping drums and melodramatic guitar riffs. It is actually quite unusual, and pretty much impossible to categorise. It has a sublime bass and vocal bit a the end, credit where it's due.
Wasteland is a punky rock-ish number that has something to it, vague hints of early U2 but somehow not quite getting there. Destiny had that upbeat, tinny keyboard and mannered yelpy vocal that was so typical of The Boomtown Rats' first couple of albums. This album is supposedly remastered (2002), but some of the material is quite trebly-keyboard-y, I am not sure much more can be done. The best track is probably the last one, Murder Story, a mysterious, inventive, extended but always captivating song. It had enough potential to suggest there was something more to come from the group. Indeed some of "side two" had done so too, Chelsea Girl and WastelandThe fact I have included so many other artists' names in this review give an idea as to how derivative it is, struggling to find its own identity. Jim Kerr said of this album, however, that after recording it he got in the car and played a tape someone had given him. It was Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures. He said "we've totally blown it". Maybe he was right.

Reel To Real Cacophony (1979)

After the patchy, vaguely pretentious and derivative debut album, Life in Day from seven months earlier, Simple Minds produced a genuine post-punk album that was a world away from its predecessor. Yes, there are lots of influences on here, as there certainly were on the first album, but on this outing the group are beginning to forge some sort of identity of their own. 

Reel To Reel is a real deal post-punk track and Naked Eye is uncategoriably brilliant, sort of The Slits meet Brian EnoCitizen (Dance Of Youth) is unquestionably influenced by Joy Division, but no matter, it still sounds good. The sound on this album is a lot less tinny than on the first album, although its 2002 remaster could do with another overhaul. Carnival (Shelter In A Suitcase) is an industrial, scratchy guitar-driven upbeat number. The songs on here are up there with other great post-punk albums from 1979 from Joy Division, Gang Of Four, Siouxsie & The Banshees and Public Image Ltd. At this point, Simple Minds had made themselves really quite credible, and "cult". Factory continues the quality. This really is a much more fulfilling album than the first. Jim Kerr reckons he listened to Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures after recording the first album and was blown away. You can tell. There are influences all over this, but they are well-chanelled influences. The group still have their own sound. Their swirling, melodic keyboards, the occasionally dubby, reverbed guitars, and Kerr's now much deeper voice. The drum and bass interplay at the end of this is excellent. 

Cacophony is a forbidding, Joy Division-esque instrumental. Veldt has some thumping tribal rhythm and noises at the beginning and a simply huge bass line. The animal noises and Eno-esque sound effects continue through this odd instrumental. Premonition is a great track, with a good percussion-keyboard and bass intro and simply a great groove it. Almost a bit funky in a way. David Bowie had surely been listening to this before he did the Scary Monsters album. Yes, Bowie did get influenced by others. He got that guitar on Fashion from somewhere. This is one of Simple Minds' best early tracks. It is a shame that the group tarnished their credibility by becoming a bloated "stadium rock" band a few years later, because this was genuinely good stuff. Similarly, Changeling is up there with the best of their early years. Full of riffs and keyboard breaks and a general feeling of insistent urgency. Kerr's voice is just so much better on here than it was seven months earlier. He no longer sounds like a cross between Russell Mael of Sparks and early Bob Geldof.

Film Theme is a characterful, evocative instrumental that lives up to its title, sounding like it should be used for a French noir film. 
Calling Your Name is a pulsating, muscular and riffy number with some entrancing fairground-style keyboards that sound a little like the sort Orchestral Manouevres In The Dark would start to use to great effect a year later. Scar is a portentous-sounding number with a sort of bagpipe keyboard effect at the beginning before it kicks in to a far heavier sound than had been produced previously. It has echoes of early Roxy Music about it, but in a much more powerful way than on the first album. Overall, a vast improvement on the somewhat wayward debut.

Empires And Dance (1980)

This was Simple Minds' third album and, like its predecessors, did not do particularly well. Time has looked on it favourably, however, and it is now considered far more credible than their later, more commercial, well-known work. It is a vaguely unsettling, oddball of a record, merging post-punk bleakness with a dance sensibility. It was actually quite ahead of its time and ground-breaking in many ways. There were plenty of subsequent bands putting out similar material over the following few years, as darkly serious, angst-ridden, paranoid-sounding dance music became de rigeur.

It is easy to dismiss Simple Minds as they, like U2, became somewhat pretentious and also a "stadium band", suddenly finding lots of previously-hidden fans. If you dig deeper into their early music, like this album, you find some genuinely deep, dark, challenging stuff. It was really quite genre-changing.
I Travel is a sort of Giorgio Moroder-style disco groove in the I Feel Love fashion meeting Roxy Music from the For Your Pleasure album, all topped off with Jim Kerr's haughty, sonorous very new romantic vocal. It also finds time for a "Heroes" style guitar solo too. Today I Died Again has a deep, mysterious bass line rumbling through it and lots of futuristic sounds swirling all around. It is very bleak, post-punky in its sombre ambience. Celebrate lifts the mood back up again with a lively piece of pounding but staccato electro-pop. This Fear Of Gods has a big, booming but dense rhythm with hints of Talking Heads post-1980 work. Its beat is metronomic and incessant, thumping into your brain, with some cutting guitar interjections. It goes on for seven minutes, almost like one of the 12" mixes that became so prevalent at the time. Capital City has an uplifting but slow pace, stately drum, bass and keyboard backing. Kerr's vocals retain that monk-like chanting sonorosity. Is that a word? If not, it should be. There is some excellent guitar and keyboard interplay half way through. It is a weird, mysterious number, totally unlike much material of its day, apart from maybe Joy Division.

Constantinople Line is full of David Byrne-style jumpy quirkiness, with its semi-spoken vocal. It has influences of Lodger-era Bowie too. Once again, it is driven along by an enormous bass line and an industrial strength drum sound. Twist/Run/Repulsion is a bizarre mix of female spoken French vocals, madcap African Night Flight from Lodger vocal madness and a stuttering, jerky rhythm. It is a complete nonsense of a track, yet surprisingly infectious. This is a million years away from Belfast Child or Mandela Day
Thirty Flames A Second has an intoxicating, European-sounding dance vibe to it that chugs on sounding vaguely like Grace Jones until some searing guitars splits it apart. Again, Kerr sounds a lot like David Byrne in places. Kant-Kino is a quick couple of minutes of sound effects, while Room finishes this experimental, adventurous album off with some grandiose Kerr vocals over another addictive, slightly Japanese-sounding rhythm. Good stuff.

Sons And Fascination (1981)

This was already Simple Minds' fourth album. It was a shame that their legacy is very much one of being a "pomp rock" stadium band such as they became in the late eighties. Before that, they produced a whole string of highly credible, ground-breaking albums. This one is notable for its pounding rhythm section which dominates over the synthesisers, and in, for me, a very good way. I like this sound a lot, it is the group's "biggest" sound to date. There are influences of Joy Division, Public Image, Kraftwerk, Roxy Music and David Bowie all over the album but not to the detriment of the group's originality.

The album was released simultaneously with Sister Feelings Call, but in many respects they should be treated as separate albums, which is what I have done here. Isn't Sons And Fascination such a typical new romantic album title, by the way?
In Trance As Mission starts with a stately, very new romantic meets post punk drumbeat, followed by those haughty, sonorous vocals so redolent of the early eighties. Deep synthesisers abound too. It is a sombre, strong but haunting opener, nearly seven minutes in length. It is most atmospheric and signifies Simple Minds as an inventive, adventurous, decidedly uncommercial band at this point. At many points the song is very Joy Division-esque with hints of The DoorsThe End in places too. It is certainly no "greatest hits" material - no stadium rock or polished pop here at all.

Sweat In Bullet ups the rhythm slightly, with a syncopated groove backing another very new romantic, mannered vocal. There is a dance-ish beat to this that is a bit Talking Heads in style and Jim Kerr's vocal has a bit of David Byrne quirkiness to it. It also features one of those very eighties semi-funky synth-guitar breaks. There is also something a bit Roxy Music about it - although it has its own bright and unique style of art rock, it has that early Roxy futuristic feel in there. The perplexingly-titled 70 Cities As Love Brings The Fall reminds me, again, of some of the material on David Bowie's 1979 Lodger album, something about the lyrics, rhythm and those distinctive vocal rises and falls.

Boys From Brazil is another Joy Division-ish, chugging, overpowering number, the sharp European-sounding synthesisers interplaying wonderfully with the thumping, insistent drums. Love Song is the most instantly appealing cut on the album, but even despite its catchiness in places still retains a grandiose depth to it. This Earth That You Walk Upon has a deliciously infectious percussion running from the beginning all the way through it. It is sort of Ultravox meets Talking HeadsThe Overload. It has a big rumbling bass line too, powering its slow, futuristic funkiness along. Sons And Fascination is massively pulsating with its huge reverberating drum-bass repetitive beat. Once more, the krautrock synths are regally beautiful and that rubber band bass sound complements it well. The vocals are almost incidental, it is the rhythm and the keyboards that you hear. 
Seeing Out The Angel is a mysterious, ghostly closer to the album, which, yet again, reminds me of The OverloadI have to say that this album still stands the test of time and sounds impressive today. Simple Minds have been somewhat unfairly maligned at times over the years. These earlier albums do not deserve any such negativity, the exact opposite in fact.

Sister Feelings Call (1981)

This album was released simultaneously with Sons And Fascination and contains similar Kraftwerk meets Joy Division-style fare. As with its companion album, the drum sound is big and booming but successfully merged with some krautrock-inspired keyboards to give a sound that despite being very early eighties, was, at the time, quite innovative and futuristic. Having said that, the drums on the other album sound far clearer and are more pulsatingly addictive.

Overall, however, it is not as impressive as its sibling, giving the impression that it was a bonus collection of surplus material. Indeed, listening to it straight after the leading album of the two, I find it sort of detrimentally eats into the vibrancy of Sons And Fascination. While I feel the former was a truly great album of its time, this can only be treated as an interesting oddity in comparison. I know others may disagree.
Theme For Great Cities once more utilises that rhythmic drum sound over a haunting synthesiser melody. It is an instrumental and it paved the way for much subsequent eighties electronic music and even has a bit of a dance music feel to it, way before its time. Maybe Simple Minds should be remembered for this sort of prototype electronica as opposed to stadium rock singalongs.

The American sees Jim Kerr's slightly overbearing vocals introduced for the first time on a muscular and deep piece of new romantic-style introspective pop. I say "pop" for want of a better word, due to its vague catchiness, but it is essentially pretty dense stuff. I'm sure Kerr had listened to David Bowie's "Heroes" and Lodger in the late seventies as there are many clear influences. The lyrics to the chorus are very clumsy, however, as Kerr sings "Ameri-Ameri-Ameri-Ameri-Ameri-I-can...". It just doesn't seem to fit at all and irritates me, it always has, right back to 1981.

20th Century Promised Land sounds to me like Gary Numan's Tubeway Army getting together with Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and inviting Björn and Benny from ABBA along to do some of the classically-inspired keyboard runs. Kerr's vocal is hammy and a tad preposterous in places. The Wonderful In Young Life is an upbeat but slightly sonically muffled and impenetrable number that has the feel of "rejected from the original album" all over it. It has an indistinct, very new romantic vocal. League Of Nations is a drum-driven thumper of a track which sounds more like a backing track yet to receive vocals, but then, all of a sudden, vocals arrive in the form of some sonorous, monk-like semi-chanted offerings. It ends up as quite an intriguing track, and the drum sound is one that would be used in much dance music towards the end of the eighties and early nineties. The live version that is included as a bonus track on the latest edition is actually much better.

Careful In Career is a baleful, miserable-sounding number enlivened by some cutting guitar interjections. Sound In 70 Cities is an instrumental version of 70 Cities As Love Brings The Fall from the companion album. It is full of "Heroes"-style keyboard sounds. As I said at the outset, though, this collection of material doesn't match up to its "brother" and lacks a true album's cohesion, for me.

New Gold Dream (81 82 83 84) (1982)

Now, as you may know, I was never a huge fan of "synth pop" or electronica and, as the eighties progressed, I was left somewhat cold by a lot of the music that was all around. I quite liked the deep, dark density of post punk, and early Simple Minds were fine exponents of that genre. This album, however, was the one that saw them consolidate the transition between post punk dourness and synth pop's haughty grandeur. It was a musical journey which would end up with the group being seen as "stadium rockers". They were not there yet, though, and this offering is a fine example of catchy and invigorating cleverly-crafted synth pop, like Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark had delivered on Architecture And Morality. Both groups were emerging from post punk's darkness into a bright, sharp synth-powered new dawn.

I didn't go for this stuff much at the time, but I have come to appreciate it more over the subsequent years. I still prefer my blues rock or dub reggae though but I have given a chance to a sound that was everywhere in 1982. As 1982 albums went - and ones associated with the new romantic thing (whether correctly or not) - it was a really good one, one with something about it that stood out from the others.

Someone Somewhere (In Summertime) has singer Jim Kerr doing his best early eighties sonorous, haughty vocal over a crashing keyboard riffs and synth drum backing. There is a nice rumbling bass line in there too, but it is those keyboard breaks and synth drums that stick in the mind, making the track somewhat tinny. This was a "big" song, though, and showed that the band had a definite grandeur about them. Colours Fly And Catherine Wheel has a very Talking Heads-esque vibe about it and is bassier than the previous track, with a slow dignity to its beat. The album's big hit was the instantly catchy and very 1982 strains of Promised You A Miracle. Unsurprisingly synth-driven, it transports me back to 1982-83 in a moment of pure nostalgia, even if the music was not my favourite at the time. Check out that lovely rubbery bass that appears every now and again too and those oh-so-early eighties drum rolls near the end. The bass drum also takes a thumping battering throughout the whole album.

Another delicious serving of bassy beauty can be found on the darkly attractive Big Sleep. I love the vibe on this track but, as I always did, I find that haughty vocal very odd. They all did it back then, though. It was a perplexing trend. Somebody Up There Likes You is an appealing bit of spacey and bassy electronic ambient instrumental. It is a prime example of keyboards, synth drums and rubbery bass being the three kings back then. Despite the lack of electric guitars and "proper" drums, I like it. New Gold Dream (81 82 83 84) is an upbeat piece of anthemic pop as indeed is the album's other hit, the equally rousing Glittering Prize. I have to say that this is a great song, with another killer bass line and just something very grand and uplifting about it. It  displayed the first signs of hands waving in the air stadium fare in its "shine a light on me" refrain. Hunter And The Hunted follows the formula of the rest of the album. It has a great bass and keyboard break in the middle. The oddly titled King Is White And In The Crowd is a brooding, lengthy and once more Talking Heads-inspired number with a slight funky feel to it and some beguiling keyboard parts in the middle. 

By the end of the album, I have probably had my fill of Simple Minds for a while, but I can still happily say that I enjoyed it a lot, and it stands as easily one of the best of its genre. Yes, it was a long way from The Clash, The Jam, The Rolling Stones, roots reggae or Bruce Springsteen and much of the other stuff that I was listening to in 1982 but it has a unique, inventive appeal. For a while I can do without electric guitars - just.

Sparkle In The Rain (1984)

This was definitely the album where Simple Minds moved all the way from cultish one-time punks and post punks into chart-topping stadium rockers, bringing their grandiose brand of synth-pop to a huge, expanded audience. Post punkers were joined by new romantics but, more importantly disco girls, soul boys and chart pop fans now seemed to like Simple Minds. The album was hugely popular and, although it isn’t truly my thing, I can understand its popularity. It gets up off its ass and hits you between the ears. There is a “bigness” about it. Overblown? For sure. It is not as hugely commercial as you might imagine, however. Because of that, I struggle to understand its mainstream popularity. It is a bit of a sombre, serious album. Personally I prefer New Gold Dream, which is a bit odd because I wanted more lead guitar and now that I have it on here, I still prefer the album that didn’t have it.

Up On The Catwalk is riffier than the group’s usual fare, but it still suffers from an irritating tinniness, particularly on the crashing drum sound. The rousing Book Of Brilliant Things is warmer and bassier, thankfully, as is the pounding Speed Your Love To MeThe album’s big hit was Waterfront, and, while it is extremely catchy, I still wish it could be re-recorded with some decent production- its layers of synths and false-sounding drums are very grating, spoiling a good song, for me. That said, I don’t dismiss it completely and, as I have said about the group before, they have a certain something about them that requires you to listen. 

East At Easter exemplified the group’s U2 sound-alike tendencies, introducing an Edge-style guitar sound and some supposedly portentous Bono-influenced lyrics. On the previous album they had tended to avoid electric lead guitars, but they use it here, effectively. The “sha la la” vocal of Street Hassle is also straight out of the Bono songbook. I am sorry to keep going on about the U2 thing but White Hot Day sounds just like them - the whole dramatic delivery of it, both musically and vocally. The strangely-titled “C” Moon Cry Like A Baby is refreshingly warm and bassy, for once, and is almost funky in places. Some chunky riffage features on The Kick Inside Of Me which sounds very like Big Country in parts. The album ends with a keyboard-driven instrumental in Shake Off The Ghosts.

Once Upon A Time (1985)

The next album saw even more guitar introduced as the U2 stadium vibe continued apace with even more commercial success, bolstered by the wonderful stand-alone single, Don’t You Forget About Me. 

The title track, Once Upon A Time, merges sweeping synth riffs with a big, punchy stadium-shaking sound guaranteed to reach the upper rows of enormous arenas. Jim Kerr's voice has audibly deepened and matured and he is no longer a coy youth but a confident Bono-like leader of a band at the top of their game. The instrumental interplay near the end is great and the group, playing stuff like this, are starting to appeal to me a lot more. Great track. Some excellent guitar introduces All The Things She Said, which again has the group bulking out their sound and really giving it some oomph. 

Ghost Dancing continues the rocky quality with some fine, upbeat grooves. A slight funkiness is once again detectable and Kerr's voice positively soars again. Check out that great guitar bit near the end - I never thought I would say that about Simple Minds in 1982-83 yet in 1985 I was. The best-known track was the infectious, anthemic Alive And Kicking, with its Bono-modelled lead vocals and soulful backing ones. It is a monster of a track - beautifully grandiose and boastful. There is now a far more "proper" drum sound from drummer Mel Gaynor, something that pleased me. 

The frantic, upbeat Oh Jungleland is nothing to do with Bruce Springsteen's song but is about one of Glasgow's rougher neighbourhoods, known as "the jungle" (I think, or was that a part of the old Celtic Park football ground?). Either way, it's about Glasgow, Kerr's home city. It has hints of David Bowie and also the Velvet Underground in tiny places, for me. I Wish You Were Here is a moody, shuffling number but one that still packs a punch while Sanctify Yourself is another stadium singalong celebration - get those hands in the air. The final track, Come A Long Way, is fine serving of synth-pop-funk, with Charlie Burchill's guitar well used once more. Those thumping drums are great too. A really good album.

Street Fighting Years (1989)

This was a totally different beast of an album. It as the product of a mature band who had "made it". For that reason, it attracted criticism of being self-satisfied and smug. I'm not sure about that. It is a cohesive, solid piece of work. It is decidedly uncommercial, dark in ambience and political in its lyrical motivation. It suffers a little from CD bloat in being over an hour in length. Too long for someone like me brought up on sixties and seventies albums. 

Anyway, it begins with a smoother, bassier, almost jazzy and laid-back sound in Street Fighting Years. It is great to hear some bass dominating a Simple Minds track. Despite some orchestrated bolder parts, it is overall a most atmospheric, but low-key introduction to the album. A similar acoustic vibe is found on Soul Crying Out. As is often the case, Simple Minds seem to be mirroring U2 in the stages of their musical development. 

Wall Of Love is more robust and chunky, with more clearly U2-influenced guitar breaks. It has a great guitar solo near the end which is all of their own making, however. The song is more typical Simple Minds than the previous two had been. This Is Your Land is a slow-paced, meaningful and vaguely folky song, despite being dark and contemplative. The pulsating Take A Step Back is archetypal late eighties, guitar-driven synthy rock and Kick It In is vibrant and drum-powered in its attack. These are both punchy, powerful tracks. 

Let It All Come Down is a mournful but evocative number while the big hit Mandela Day, although well-meaning, comes over as a bit clichéd. I'll forgive them that, though, as their hearts were in right place. I love the rhythms on it as well. A huge number one hit was surprisingly gained in the sombre Celtic tones of Belfast Child. It is full of atmosphere and completely unlike anything Simple Minds had done before. The same applies to their cover of Peter Gabriel's anti-apartheid anthem, Biko. Their effort is fine, but I will always prefer the original. The album ends with a short bit of Belfast Child-style Celtic instrumentation. This was an adventurous album, and a brave one. Unfortunately, Kerr's proselytising on South Africa and Northern Ireland, however well-intentioned, had the effect of making those subjects somewhat boring, which was a great shame, as they needed bothering about. It was now that the band had most definitely become a music media bête noire and they would remain so for the rest of their career.


  1. New Gold Dream is so awesome. It's been one of my top 100 albums just about forever. But I didn't like anything they did afterwards because it just sounded like they wanted to be U2 or something. But I kind of loved the song they had that was from an 80s movie but I forget which movie. And you're right that Sons and fascination is pretty good album too.

  2. Yes, once they and U2 went 'stadium' they sort of lost me a bit.

  3. I told ya New Gold Dream is good. Two or three tracks kinda drag it down a little bit, but it's mostly great. I got to check out 5 × 5. I never even heard of it before.

  4. You should be able to stream 5 x 5. It's really good.

    I hadn't listened to New Gold Dream since back in the period it came out, even though I own it on CD, I'd never got round to playing it, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it, although I do miss a traditional rock guitar in the sound. I've never been a huge keyboards man.