Monday, 3 March 2014

Great Minds

My early to mid teens were very much ‘wilderness years’ in terms of my music taste development. I floated and frittered between artists and genres without fully committing to anything in particular. I may have bought a lot of records by the same artists – Frankie, Billy Joel, Queen, Madonna – but I never really had a ‘favourite band’, one that I could truly immerse myself in. Not until Francis Bell introduced me to Simple Minds in 1985, anyway.

‘Belly’ (as he was imaginatively known) was my snooker doubles partner. He also introduced me to a lot of music. Depeche Mode was one of his favourite bands; Soft Cell was another, and so were Simple Minds. I was 14 when Alive & Kicking came out and there was something about it that just grabbed me. I knew little about the band’s past and just dived headlong into this stadium rock masterpiece and its parent album
Once Upon A Time. Of course, I soon began to investigate the band’s back catalogue – and this is where the real fun started.

It took Simple Minds a number of years to reach their pinnacle of commercial success, and a dramatic change of musical style too. I noticed this when I bought ‘Celebration’, a mid-priced compilation LP of songs from their first three albums. Nothing on that record sounded even remotely like Alive & Kicking – but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It contained one particular song that blew everything on
Once Upon A Time out of the water.

I Travel was the opening track on Simple Minds’ third album
Empires And Dance’ from 1980. It also opened side two of Celebration. On first listen, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Essentially, I Travel was hugely influenced by the burgeoning European dance music scene, its frenzied electronic backing accentuated by Charie Burchill’s effects-laden post-punk guitars and a yelping vocal from Jim Kerr (before his bombastic, fist-pumping, stadium-rock days). It’s hard to imagine now, but this song failed to chart on three separate occasions. Today it would be an instant classic. In fact, 33 years on, it’s clear I Travel remains hugely influential, as indeed does the whole Empires And Dance album. You only have to listen to the likes of Alt-J, Hot Chip, Metronomy, CHVRCHES and numerous other current hipster favourites to see how lasting that amazing record is (if only those bands sounded nearly half as good). Yet incredibly the band had to persuade their reluctant record company to release it, and even when they did, it was only in small quantities.

For perhaps the first time I became aware of how credible artists evolve. Simple Minds formed from the ashes of punk band Johnny and the Self Abusers. Their first album,
Life In A Day (1979), was to all intents and purposes, a skewed New Wave record, taking the likes of Public Image Limited and Wire as reference points. Its follow-up was the highly experimental electronic odyssey Real To Reel Cacophony (also 1979), a strange, disjointed effort for sure, but it certainly paved the way for the genius that was to come (the track Premonition is also one of my top 3 Simple Minds tracks). Empires And Dance was, and still is, a brilliant, brilliant record. As a whole it displays qualities that placed it way ahead of many of their contemporaries even if it wasn’t appreciated at the time. Its minimalist approach, for instance, is heard in so many records released today. Aside from I Travel, there are other individual moments of astonishing quality. Thirty Frames A Second is begging for a hundred remixers to get their grubby mitts on it and turn it into a dancefloor filler, though it is its spiky minimalism that gives it a unique appeal; and This Fear Of Gods just bubbles and pops with fitful excitement throughout its seven glorious minutes. 

Other than the record company’s stance, one of the reasons why
Empires And Dance may not have achieved the commercial recognition it undoubtedly deserved is the perceived lack of ‘proper songs’ that radio could play (though quite why I Travel wasn’t absolutely massive remains a mystery). The next Simple Minds records saw a gradual shift towards a more commercially accessible sound. The double offering of Sons And Fascination and Sister Feelings Call from 1981 contained some great songs, most notably the single Love Song and the awesome oft-sampled instrumental Theme For Great Cities (that continues to inspire all sorts of artists years afterwards[1]). Then the synth-laden New Gold Dream’ (1982) album revealed an overtly pop side to the band and produced their first bonafide smash hit Promised You A Miracle. Clearly a band has to evolve, not to only remain relevant, but also to increase its chances of success. Going back through Simple Minds’ back catalogue made me realise this.

Sadly, the direction they took next left many fans cold.
Sparkle In The Rain cranked up the volume somewhat and the intriguing electronics of Empires And Dance had given way completely to a new, big rock sound that gave the band a firm foothold in the States. Once Upon A Time was a highly-polished work of stadium-filling pomposity, and Street Fighting Years confirmed Simple Minds had banished once and for all any ambition of creating lasting, original music. Instead, they just wanted to sound like U2 and Big Country, play Live Aid and save the world. I discovered them through Alive & Kicking and continued to follow them for a couple more years, but it is that early period of the band that I, and many fans, turn to nowadays.

Simple Minds have revisited that early electronic style on recent albums and admit themselves that they took their eyes off the ball. They became hugely successful around the world during the mid-80s but lost much of the critical acclaim and respect they had garnered over the preceding years. The fact that today’s young upstarts frequently turn to the likes of
Empires And Dance and Real To Reel Cacophony for inspiration is a sign that success and fame do not always equal reverence.
Within a couple of years, I would become an ‘indie kid’ who would sneer at those who dared to admit to liking such commercial sell-outs as Simple Minds.  Unless, of course, it was the early stuff that nobody knew about, in which case it was great!


[1] Check out Radiohead’s Where I End And You Begin from Hail To The Thief as a comparison.


  1. Great summation of SM early career, and MAJOR bonus points for mentioning Radiohead’s Where I End And You Begin from ‘Hail To The Thief’ as a comparison to Theme For Great Cities.

  2. Are you sure you aren't me!!! I could have written this word for word. Simple Minds were one of the bands I took great interest in. As you mentioned, the great thing about them was by the time we got to them they had a large back catalogue. To boot, they were all really cheap which was a no brainer as a teenager! I loved Real To Real Cacophony. I learnt a new word when I bought that album, 'Cacophony' Never heard it before then!! Other songs that I loved on this album were Changeling & Citizen. I've seen them several times and they never disappoint. However, never got to see them on their current tour. They seem to be doing the big areas again. The last time I saw was in a small place so I couldn't make the jump! I bought the last 2 record store 12"s. Neither disappoint either. Oh... and don't forget The American. Great song! I posted all 3 versions of I travel recently. Went down well with the viewers. I was never really into the 12" as a teenager. The first I ever bought was Ghostdancing / Jungleland. I learnt a lesson that day of the importance of the extended version or 12" version! Is it still not cool to admit you are a Simple Minds fan?

  3. Oh it is so comforting to know that there are SM fans who were first exposed to SM at the beginning of their "ooh I wish they hadn't done that" period and worked their way backwards to the band's perfection years. SM are one of my foundation bands. I Travel, The American, Theme For Great Cities, Somewhere, New Gold Dream are dear to my heart. I enjoy Sparkle In The Rain because it was the natural progression of the band's sound. If you listen closely to it, deep in the bombast of Steve Lillywhite's in your face production are some very sublte, nuanced moments - C Moon Cry Like A Baby, and one of the great late era Punk tracks in Kick Inside Of Me. It puts anything by U2 on War in the rubbish heap in my mind - I always have felt U2 were (and still are) chasing Simple Minds rather than the other way around.
    If I set all their output out to review and reflect on, Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call is the bands' zenith for me. They took all the influences and discoveries of their output to that point and created something engaging, complex and complete.
    Oh and @Iano 1, it is VERY COOL to admit you are a Simple Minds fan these days. If you hear any of their more recent output you will find a band which should be past it's sell by date putting out some very strong material. Check out Blood Diamonds and Broken Glass Park - the John Foxx and the Maths remix of the former is unbelieveable!

  4. Thank God Echorich!! I feel so much better for that now. As I mentioned earlier I bought the last 2 Record Store Day 12". One was of either Blood Diamond or Broken Glass. Can't remember which. Both are excellent. Especially the mentioned remix. I have posted them both on my blog
    I hear what you are saying about SM Vs U2. I found War first. As I mentioned in an earlier post it was the first album I ever bought, so it will remain dear to me!! Being Irish, I grew up with them. Went to my first concert in Croke Park in '87 to see them.That day also changed my life in regards to live music too. Have every Promo under the sun. Simple Minds were up there in high esteem for quite some time too.

  5. Oh and forgot to mention.....SM was my second gig !!!

  6. I can only echo Echorich! This was eerily similar to my experience, with the exception that my point of entry was the single "Sweat in Bullet." But like Echorich, it warms the cockles of my hear to hear that [presumably younger] SM fans were capable of encountering the band in 1985 and then work backward to value what had come before. You actually got a much better deal out of it, since I spent the next 9 years lamenting their stadium period. But they have recorded much in the last 20 years that I can actually enjoy to various degrees, and they seem to be getting really close to the target of late. Jim Kerr's Lostboy A.K.A. solo album was also definitely drawing from Post-Punk and not stadiums. I can't wait to hear their next album. Allegedly due in the Fall, but we all know how that sometimes works out.