Monthly Archives: March 2016

CHANGE FOR THE BETTER

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Writing about music can never be as powerful as making it and I readily admit that the words I throw down here – basically for my own amusement – can change very little except, hopefully, your Spotify lists and your Amazon purchases. But one of the great truths of music is its ability to broaden your world view, bring attention to subsumed issues and create an emotional bond with its listeners for causes in a way that a cogently argued pamphlet, article or speech often cannot.

One of the truths of my teenage years is that there seemed a wealth of issues about which our popstars could become aerated. We wanted to “Free Nelson Mandela”; we shouted “Stand Down Margaret”; there was “Shipbuilding”, an anti-Falklands War piece, anything by Billy Bragg and even “Two Tribes” was a full-blooded if bombastic assault for the ears about the backdrop of the Cold War. Even those former Street Fighting Men, the Rolling Stones drew attention to the plight of Pinochet’s  ‘Missing’ in “Undercover Of The Night”.

However, whilst some of these causes I took up with more enthusiasm than others, the album that perhaps more than any other had the ability to kick-start a change  in the prevailing mood around an issue with the greatest lasting consequences is “Age Of Consent” by Bronski Beat.

Now I accept that this is, to some of you, an unusual choice but I doubt any piece of music did so much to make Gay Rights such an acceptable subject amongst its target audience. Perhaps its age creeping up, but I do not look back on some of my views and opinions from around this time with any pride – indeed, I do not mind saying that some the cheap throwaway remarks of my younger days still overcome with me guilt and a degree of shame.

And rightly they should still haunt me.

I was (and hopefully still am) a relatively educated and intelligent human being who could develop strong well-thought out opinions on a variety of subjects and yet some of my utterances, whilst not deliberately barbaric, would certainly come across as cheap, ill-conceived and doubtless, harmful to any listening gay ears.

Some of our views become entrenched with time and some become more tolerant and I would certainly like to think that mine changed around the time of my last year at school as music opened my eyes and ears to worlds that previously had not seemed important. But this was the value of music then because if it was being featured on Top Of The Pops or The Tube or Whistle Test then it was going to be important to me.

And with “Age Of Consent” I doubt you could have created a more direct protest supporting Gay Rights than this. For goodness sake, the first line of the first verse of the first song “Why?” is “contempt in your eyes as I turn to kiss his lips” – there’s little covering up the subject matter of this piece and would be no place to be if you were uncomfortable with gay culture.

And yet this is one of the most exciting records of the time and has an extended version (available on the remastered new version) that may be up there with the very best remixes of the whole decade. It has a high energy pace but uses its synthesisers to create a tough industrial sound that sounds like a near cousin of Depeche Mode. It is fiery, thunderous and never lets up once.

Interestingly, the band recorded full length versions of their songs and then edited them down rather than mixed them up, as was normally the case which may account for such exciting remixed versions although apparently some of their excesses inevitably need curbing as they played with their new sequencers and synthesisers – the rather needless central percussion breakdown with sequenced vocals doesn’t necessarily stand the test of time as well as the rest of the record.

Really it is this incredibly different and rugged synthesiser sound that is the piece in the jigsaw of making this such an arresting record and producer Mike Thorne had been deliberately chosen after his work with Soft Cell on the darker “The Art Of Falling Apart” and enjoyed the more serious undercurrents of the band’s work that could be incorporated into his developing sound book.

However, the real highlight of the recording is of course Jimmy Somerville’s extraordinary voice. A falsetto like no other you had ever heard and incidentally entirely untrained.

If you were going to central casting for an angry-looking, ginger, political Scotsman you would have been hard-pressed to come up with a more stereotypical looking character than Somerville and yet, as all of this piece is about the breakdown of prejudice and preconception, I think we should dwell simply on a style of vocal delivery that was able to move from the high intensity of “Why?” to the clear jazz inflections of “Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Heatwave” and of course, the subtle sadness of the classic “Smalltown Boy”.

And if you really want to hear just how distinctive and original a voice it is then check out this  great clip from the streets of Berlin.

Despite the relentless dance drive and pop sensibilities of the album, the band’s politics were 100% genuine and Somerville had developed an activist background during his sojourn in London. “No More War” and “Junk” were equally angry diatribes against the state of the nation and “Screaming” is a terrifying representation of abuse. This was a band that pulled no punches.

Perhaps the undiscovered highlight of the album is the low-key and slightly sinister “Love And Money” which combines all their jazz and electro influences but underpins it with a stunning piece of sax work and back rhythm that Sade would be proud of. It deserves not to be over-looked not eat because of its prophetic nature and I’m sure looking back all of Bronski Beat will be pleased with that.

Finally, we should talk about the “I Feel Love” Medley which also included another Donna Summer classic “Love To Love You Baby” and the chorus refrain from John Leyton’s number one single “Johnny Remember Me”. On the original album, it is a version performed just by the band but in the remaster you get the hit single which was turned famously into a disco duet with Marc Almond.

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So while Jimmy Somerville became disillusioned with Bronski Beat and subsequently left to form the Communards straight after this single, it set an interesting blueprint because whilst he was always a champion for Disco (and still remains so), he seems to have preferred setting his voice against a deeper counter – “Don’t Leave Me This Way” obviously comes to mind with Sarah-Jane Morris but also on “Comment Te Dire Adieu” with Jules Miles-Kingston and, lest we forget, his backing on “Suspicious Minds” with the Fine Young Cannibals.

I think it is a fascinating use of a haunting and unique voice. It is in some way other-worldly and slightly ghostly.

This makes the cover of the death disc  “Johnny Remember Me” all the more the appropriate. However,as an aside,  this was produced originally  by Joe Meek, the idiosyncratic record producer of the early 60s (“Telstar”); so obviously, they knew their history as he had led a tortured life in the closet before his untimely suicide but I think he would have appreciated the recording for its wonderful link of pop and experimentation of which he was one of the great pioneers.

At the time of “Age Of Consent”, more pop music was sold in the UK than any time since the 60s and its coverage in the media would never be so high. Accordingly, the issues that music was able to make a positive contribution to – be it Live Aid or Apartheid or the Nuclear Threat – were numerous and heartfelt. We really could change the world with music, as Paddy McAloon would urge us to do in later times.

But this is an album that did start a fundamental change in how we considered our prejudice to gay issues (certainly it made me question mine, I’m delighted to say) and opened up a dialogue that whilst still not complete has certainly moved on.

As rugby clubs the length and breadth of the country began happily dancing to their version of “I Feel Love”, I feel certain that even to this day the band think this one of their most important achievements. Bravo Bronskis!

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ANTIQUE TREASURES

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A man walks into a bar in Thailand…

I bet you think you know where this story is going but don’t worry it’s not even PG rated unless you count the consumption of San Miguel Light as an unsavoury act.

Many open air bars in Thailand have huge screens – mainly for the never-ending broadcast of English Premier League football (and there’s nothing wrong with that) – but some use it to broadcast music videos or concerts to provide a little background atmosphere for your frosty beer. And on just such a night several years ago, did I receive one of my most treasured musical epiphanies – not necessarily about the content itself, with which in its original version I was fairly familiar already, but around understanding the power that music and its history played in my life and doubtless those of others.

It encapsulated everything about why I felt music was so important to me. Indeed, it marked the first time since I had carefully annotated in my notebook of chart predictions that I felt compelled to write something about my love of music.

I no longer have what I wrote then, but listening to “Black And White Night” by Roy Orbison can easily transport me back to that first night I watched it on the big screen in Thailand and then paid the barman 500 Baht to play it again. Indeed, he played it every night for the rest of the week when I returned to the bar.

I say listen but this is also about watching because there is the most beautifully filmed footage of this concert from the Coconut Grove Nightclub in The Ambassadors Hotel, Los Angeles. There is a wonderful  cinematic quality to the monochrome concert footage combined with the grainy documentary style of the audience and candid band shots. And gloriously… it’s all done in one take.

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Roy Orbison had been one of the giants of rock n roll and had been a contemporary of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis and like them recorded at Sun Records initially. However, his unique vocal style (‘operatic rockabilly’) and tremendous songwriting had allowed him success past the early days of Rock N Roll and was still scoring major hits at the height of Beatlemania. He toured with both the Beatles and The Stones and, in his musical and visual presentation, influenced the pair. But don’t be fooled by the black clothes and sunglasses, Roy Orbison was known by all as a real gentleman.

Personal tragedies and a declining audience had seen him fall out of the public view from the late 60s onwards. He could still fill a small concert hall but not shift a piece of vinyl. But as they say, class will out.

In the mid 80s, Orbison fans popped up everywhere – David Lynch used “In Dreams” to astonishingly terrifying effect in “Blue Velvet”  whilst a  duet of “Crying” with k.d. lang had led to a Grammy victory. Inductions came into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame and of course, the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame and in 1987, he had begun work with longtime fan, Jeff Lynne on a new album.

This would of course lead to his hooking up with George Harrison and forming the Traveling Wilburys, who achieved surprising and almost accidental global success towards the end of 1988. However, before that particular superstar collaboration got under way, this specially filmed concert was put together by Jackson Browne  which brought together an all-star backing band, drilled by T-Bone Burnette, for the Big O.

The band itself or the main core of it at least needed little supervision as it was composed of Elvis Presley’s TCB (Taking Care Of Business) backing band of Ronnie Tutt, Glen Hardin, Jerry Scheff and the astounding James Burton who seemed to make the complex songs of Orbison effortless. The backing vocals were put together under the guidance of J D Souther – one of the great unknown characters of the LA music scene having written for the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt amongst many others – and so created another fabulous and crucial texture to the recording.

Hardly surprising when you can call in Jackson Browne to join him and the harmonies of k.d. lang, Jennifer Warnes and Bonnie Raitt.  Already  it’s like a living and breathing version of Q magazine.

These were essential because Orbison’s songwriting, whilst sometimes using the simpler verse/chorus structure on songs like “Claudette” or “Ooby Dooby”, could often take on far more layered structures to complement his soaring and operatic voice. “Running Scared” is almost written for the final note itself. Likewise, “Crying” or “In Dreams” barely repeat themselves at all, but create an increasing sense of melodrama and tension in his inevitably tragic storytelling.

And his voice, despite the years, can cope with all of this new-found attention.

As mentioned earlier, Roy had started recording his new album, which would become “Mystery Girl” in 1989 and in the course of the concert, two of them are aired – T-Bone Burnett’s “Dream You”, which works well in the set and Elvis Costello’s “The Comedians”, which is less successful. Costello’s lyrics carry the requisite drama so prevalent in Orbison’s work (carried by Ronnie Tutt’s excellent drumming and the work of the sunglass-wearing strings) but they carry a barb and snarl that fits Costello well but less so perennial loser, Good Guy Roy.

There had actually been a theme of these kind of celebrations which had started with Taylor Hackford’s film “Hail Hail Rock N Roll”,  a celebration of the legendarily ill-tempered Chuck Berry as headmaster Keith Richards tries hilariously to pull together his 60th birthday concerts – Orbison appeared in this incidentally. Carl Perkins also held a reunion special which was heartfelt and charming featuring Ringo and George as well as Eric Clapton. The difference here is the strength and variety of Orbison’s work and the genuine starstruck nature of his illustrious backing band (the unfazed TCB excluded) and the legacy of a truly absorbing visual and musical evening.

Let’s look at the evidence. This is a band that has more than its fair share of moody musical curmudgeons in it but look at Tom Waits laugh off fluffing his keyboard solo on “Ooby Dooby” or Elvis Costello’s harmonica duel on “Candyman”; this is one of the happiest musical nights you could ever witness.

And this  brings us full circle why this film/record is so important to me because in it, lies the very essence of the variety of excitements that music can release. Few singers have the emotional range of Roy Orbison and every sad tale he tells wrings to your very core, and of course, this is a man who means every note.

And yet it also bursts with pleasure.

How can you not enjoy the body of work put up in front of that audience (which includes amongst others Billy Idol and Kris Kristofferson for the eagle-eyed) and their genuine enjoyment of being in the presence of this incredible gathering.

But it’s not just to view or to listen but also to play with fellow musicians and create an exquisite delight. I play… not well… but I play and the utter joy of making music with other people is truly hard to beat.

And it is all there on Bruce Springsteen’s face.

He is having the time of his life. He is singing with one of his proclaimed heroes (I give you “Thunder Road”) and playing with Elvis’s band, including a guitar head to head with James Burton. He remains reverential, as they all do, throughout because for them there is only one star on stage.

If you cannot enjoy “Oh Pretty Woman” then I think you need to retrace your steps and see where you dropped your soul. I was on the verge of tears when I first saw this clip.

Yes, you know, the song but not like this…

I have watched this film so many times that I feel like I was there in the audience and yet the fact that, sadly, I was not, makes no difference to the sweeping happiness I feel when I see it again. I feel like crying and I feel like laughing but I’m inevitably tapping my feet. They say music can move mountains and on this occasion I suspect the Rockies moved back a couple of yards. I hope you will feel sufficiently moved too.

Even then the music was nearly 30 years old – and now is nearing 60 – and yet the link with our musical past makes our enjoyment of what is here and now even more pleasurable. Not necessarily by being an anorak but simply understanding influences and exploring further. You can find the full gamut of human musical expression if you look hard enough.

Less than 18 months after this film, Roy Orbison died and this makes the recording even more poignant. His new found success had given him an even more punishing schedule and it simply became too much for him. However, to pass on , knowing the meaning you have given to people’s lives and the respect with which you have been held is a summit all of us can only hope to attain.

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COMPARE AND CONTRAST

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Much will be written (and certainly more worthy than this) about Sir George Martin, the ‘Fifth Beatle’ and legendary producer of the Fab Four. There is no doubting that his contribution to their musical legacy is just as significant and his death will bring this once again (justifiably) to the fore.

We all have our favourite Beatles moments – for me, the subtlety of Paul’s “Things We Said Today” and the parallel universe of “I Am The Walrus” will always be unassailable highlights in a career with so many. But so much of this has been chronicled and analysed over the years that it seem pretty pointless for me to even begin to add something interesting.

The body of work the Beatles left behind never ceases to amaze and the incredible flourishing and development of that talent in the recording studio in what was barely seven and a half years has much to do with the talent of George Martin.

He had released an interesting biography called “All You Need Is Ears” which told stories of his time in the record industry  and how he shaped the Beatles sound. Most importantly, it gives you an insight into the role of the record producer – the value of ‘ears’.

This set me thinking about a theme I have often considered and therefore bored unfortunate audiences with on various occasions and has led me to champion the abilities of George Martin as a producer but without using his Beatles work as exhibit A.

I didn’t use his work on Merseybeat classics or the earlier comedy records with the Goons either.

Instead, my argument stems from the unlikely source of “Say Say Say” from Paul McCartney’s 1983 solo album “Pipes Of Peace”.

So here is my defence…

The early 80s saw a series of collaborations between Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson which had started when Jackson had included a cover of “Girlfriend” on his exceptional “Off The Wall” album (recently reissued incidentally). Whilst, it had originally appeared on Wings “London Town”, McCartney had written it with Michael Jackson in mind and then completely unaware of this fact, the equally legendary Quincy Jones had suggested Jackson cover it – and to great effect. It’s lush, effortless and soulful and nothing like the soon to be wound-up Wings version, which ironically sounds like a pastiche.

They of course, first recorded together on “The Girl Is Mine”, which lest we forget, was the lead single from the world’s best selling album, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. We can all recall the fantastic shuffle of “Billie Jean”, the iconic fusing of dance and rock on “Beat It”, the groove line of “Wanna Be Starting Something” and of course the epic Grand Guignol of the title track.

And it is absolutely, the runt of the litter on this otherwise classic collection.

How it became such a worldwide phenomenon bears testament to the quality of the rest of the album (and some classic promos) because it should have gone straight to the bargain bins on the strength (or lack of) of its first release.

In the hands of Quincy Jones, universally acknowledged to be one of the world’s great producers, this record has single-handedly managed to derive the least amount of value from two of the most creative people in pop music history. It has a syrupy production, a dreadful vocal trade-off and complete lack of authenticity.

How could two such talents in the hands of another be so wasted?

And doing an updated version for the 25th anniversary with Will I. Am only serves to compound the crime.

Now, many of you will now draw attention to the release earlier in the year of McCartney’s equally derided “Ebony And Ivory” duet with Stevie Wonder. This strangely at least feels more authentic as it plays to the sometimes twee nature both artists had a knack for exhibiting in their career and it is the fact that it is presented as a duet that probably most rankles. Black/White, Ebony/Ivory, Paul/Stevie, world peace etc etc. The imagery is just too obvious even for the sometimes hard-of-thinking frothy pop purchaser.

However, when you hear a solo version of the song – and there is one of Paul’s on the remastered edition of his “Tug Of War” album – it manages to come across as a bit less saccharine and less mawkish.

Interestingly, the “Tug Of War” album from 1982 was seen as very much a return to form for McCartney with tighter songs and more imaginative texture – not least because of the return to his partnership with George Martin. There had been some classic performances not least the title track – a much better theme for peace than “Ebony And Ivory” – the charming “Wanderlust” and a truly heartfelt tribute to his recently assassinated former partner “Here Today”. There was also a duet with Carl Perkins and the typically surreal  and child-like but enjoyable “Ballroom Dancing”.

Wings were dead and a more focused Paul emerged again.

It is certainly amongst his most consistent post-Beatles recordings and I think the returning influence of George Martin obviously had a good deal to do with that. Interestingly, “Flowers In The Dirt” the 1989  joint effort with Elvis Costello and “Chaos And Creation In The Backyard” which was produced fractiously with Nigel Godrich both benefitted from a stronger voice to stand up to the often domineering ex-Beatle. Of course, if I had written “The Fool On The Hill” or “Maybe I’m Amazed”, I imagine I too would feel I was constantly on sturdy musical ground.

Which brings me (eventually you will doubtless say) to “Say Say Say” which was recorded after the release of “The Girl Is Mine” and doubtless had half an ear to improving the output from both parties. I am ignoring the equally dismal duet called “The Man” by the way. So it is a surprise for many that this pounding groove geared for the dance floor should have come not from the desk of the ultra-cool Q but the far more professorial George Martin.

Why does it work?

It is a far tighter recording that plays to the vocal strengths of both and delivers a solid groove with soulful horns that are reminiscent of Motown together with a truly fantastic piece of harmonica work that is redolent of both Merseybeat and the Sound of Motor City. It is simple, textured but uncluttered and it does not try to make a big deal of two of the biggest stars in pop music ever being in the same room.

Basically, it’s about discipline and having a sonic understanding of the material in front of you. This is demonstrated really effectively – and this is why I love deluxe editions – in a 2015 remix of the track where the two vocal parts are reversed. The difference is not huge but enough to know that the original order was undoubtedly the right way round – the sheer scale of Jackson’s celebrity at the time might have pushed one to insisting on opening up with his vocal but it needs a more level and less flighty opening voice such as Paul’s. I don’t think it’s just familiarity.

Interestingly, this version, although good, has some needless vocoder and vocal sequencing effects that I cannot believe George Martin would really have allowed and would instead have held back some of Macca’s down-with-the-kids inclinations.

This after all is a man who knew what sounded good and what most certainly did not. Investigate the original recording of “Love Me Do” and you will understand why he advised Brian Epstein to ditch Pete Best. This man understood rhythm – and Pete Best’s grasp was limited – and this is why I selected “Say Say Say” to be a tribute to his work. It is not his greatest or most important work but it shows in a ‘competitive’ context that he understood the music would always be the legacy.

He managed to stop two major creative forces (and egos) from getting carried away – which had daunted one of his equally talented contemporaries – and his intelligence understood the sonic pop landscape that would suit them best, despite the dancefloor not really being his usual oeuvre.

The value of ears, it would seem – but not just any old ears.

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VOYAGE TO THE TOP OF THE WORLD

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There’s often talk of band rivalries – Blur versus Oasis being the most notable and probably the only one that seemed quite bitter (at least from the Mancunian camp) but more often than not, rockstars seem to enjoy the company of other rockstars. The Beatles versus the Stones was far more about their fans than the bands themselves. The Stones second hit was a Beatles cover given to them by the band themselves and over the 60s they periodically pop up in each other’s chronologies.

Undoubtedly, though one band’s success can spur on another; Brian Wilson became so obsessed with “Rubber Soul” that he felt the need to emulate it and so became the intricate birth of “Pet Sounds”.

However, in the 80s there were all sorts of supposed rivalries but perhaps the most interesting is the one between U2 and Simple Minds and, lest we forget (indeed that’s the purpose of your writer’s pursuit) the Scottish half of this contest were for a time the victors – in truth they became one of the very biggest bands on Earth before their Dublin cousins.

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The bands were, it should be said, on seemingly friendly terms, with Bono guesting at Simple Minds gigs and compliments paid between the two parties – there is a clip of both Bono and Jim interviewed on Belgian TV where they announce they are marrying each other –  but there is no doubt that the two bands were paying more than a little attention to one another.

It’s time to show my appreciation for Simple Minds at their zenith.

The interesting thing is that for many fans of the band, they assert that their apotheosis comes at very different points in their career so this may be a longer discourse than usual as I make my case for the defence, and so will look at some of their earlier work to back up my positive convictions about “Once Upon A Time”; this sometimes unfairly derided album from 1985 has just been released in a wonderful Super Deluxe Edition Boxset – and we all know how I cannot say no to one of those – and this event has certainly made me take this album on with renewed vigour.

First things first, it is not my favourite Simple Minds album as that will always be “New Gold Dream” – from 1982, two albums earlier – that will always be in my Top 10 albums ever. It is dream-like, layered and mysterious. It has moments of immense obscurity shrouded  as juxtaposition to memorable hooks and rhythms and so has rightly justified its place in the hearts of its fans, who will support it with all their heart 35 years later.

When it does come out with its own Super Deluxe Edition – and Lord knows it deserves it – firstly, you’ll know what I want for Christmas, if I can save myself from the click button on Amazon, and secondly, I promise to look in more detail at it.

However, it is an important part of our journey because the Minds were not an overnight success and are sometimes, with this album, lumped in as part of the New Romantic movement. Admittedly, Jim Kerr had taken to eyeliner and the groove of “Promised You A Miracle” had a similar dance floor appeal but there was still the experimentation and depth on tracks such as “Big Sleep” and “The King Is White And In The Crowd” that would make their beats much loved on the Balearic circuit.

Listen to a track like the ethereal instrumental “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and you’ll understand the art-school background that the band come from. They are part of what was briefly termed by the music press “Futurism” – a more serious cousin of New Romantics and a groovier younger brother of new wave – but probably rightly including at the more accessible end, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and Japan.  However, even albums like the debut from Duran Duran have elements of crossover here.

So “New Gold Dream 81-82-83-84” is the greatest album of the Futurist movement.

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But for some die-hard Minds’ fans, this was the moment they sold out. Commercial success undid the underground nature of all their early work – classic singles like “I Travel” “The American” or “Love Song” even the often indigestible but rightly termed “Real To Real Cacophony” were seen as highlights of a band that were working hard to find new ways of making music in the ever-changing post-punk world with sequencers and synthesisers.

Seriously, these fans will only discuss early-Simple Minds whilst for others the highpoint is “New Gold Dream 81-82-83-84”. Undoubtedly, every part of it is still brilliant but it is only the start of our journey.

By now, the band were playing larger venues and their music which was so wonderful on dancefloors or, personal experience here, on over-sized headphones, was perhaps a little too intricate for it too carry so well and so the band looked to move their sound on.

Enter Steve Lillywhite – grand British producer of Rock and New Wave, who had wanted to work with the band for quite a while.

Lillywhite had an inherent understanding of the post-punk/new wave sound having produced already for Siouxsie And The Banshees and The Psychedelic Furs, but also how that sound was developing into a bigger Rock-like setting. He had also created the breakthrough album “War” for U2 but perhaps most impressively (and I believe of more interest to the Minds) the unique and impressive Big Country debut “The Crossing”. After all, Stuart Admason had formed them out of a similar vintage of Scottish New Wave act, the Skids and taken them to worldwide success, even in the USA, which is still a surprising break-through for such an idiosyncratic sound.

So at the end of 1983, the first output from this new collaboration was released and it was very clear that Simple Minds were undergoing a dramatic change. “Waterfront” begins with Derek Forbes’s astonishing one-note bass pulse that beds down the entire track and then the thunderous cranked-up crash of Mel Gaynor’s drums and cymbals (a much-loved Steve Lillywhite trick) and you immediately realise that all the subtlety and nuance of “New Gold Dream 81-82-83-84” was no longer the desired effect.

This was a tremendous and entirely surprising new release that we just had not seen coming.

Instead of just rehashing their hard-earned success, Simple Minds had moved the game on again with a very different kind of recording. The album, “Sparkle In The Rain” which came out in early-1984 has also had the Super Deluxe treatment and this enhances even more what a different powerful sound the band were aiming for with the rhythm more rocky, the guitars more chiming and the vocal delivery even more pronounced. Try the opener and album highlight, “Up On The Catwalk” and its fusillade of drums opening up like cannons.

The fact is though that “Sparkle In The Rain” demonstrates all the characteristics of being ‘the album in the middle’. The transition point. Half works brilliantly, the other half, in retrospect is less successful as the band grow into their new skin.

And looking back the change is obvious.

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Some of the subtle obscurity of their early work is still there in tracks like “C’ Moon Cry Like A Baby” and “The Kick Inside Of Me” but is absolutely railroaded by the new arrangements and production. “East At Easter” and the excellent “Book Of Brilliant Things” are more fitted to this new Simple Minds way and create much wider music vistas as a result. Naturally enough, they would present themselves brilliantly in a live context when the stadiums came calling.

And then comes the big big moment – another “sell-out” moment for some fans, a true pinnacle for others – the really really famous single.

“Don’t You (Forget About Me)”.

Don’t you forget the brackets either.

A song the band didn’t write and most certainly didn’t really want to record. Indeed, its promo film filmed on Boxing Day caused such tension with bassist, Derek Forbes, over Jim Kerr’s screen time that ultimately, the tension he had felt being in the band would come to a head and he would leave before “Once Upon A Time”.

Of course, it would give them their first number one in the States, two years ahead of U2 it should be noted, and what can deservedly be called a ‘smash’ all over the world.

It had been written by Steve Schiff and Keith Forsey (who had been working largely with Billy Idol), were huge fans of the band and through whose enthusiasm, the band were eventually persuaded to make a recording for inclusion on the soundtrack of “The Breakfast Club”.

The band came up with a stunning vocal and guitar intro while Jim Kerr added the la-la-la-la-la chant at the end and largely thought little more of it. It would only be grudgingly acknowledged by the band initially and wouldn’t be included on “Once Upon A Time” which they were recording at the time.

Of course, it’s understandable that you work and work, develop your own sound and then someone comes from outside (admittedly in good faith) and the whole world changes. Sometimes people obviously know you better than you know yourself, and that’s not always something you want to find out.

Of course, it’s now hugely familiar with its understated verses and jaw-dropping chorus all wrapped in a series of drilling riffs, hooks and chants, but it would have a profound effect on the final part (and hero) of our story, “Once Upon A Time”.

For me, if an album could sound like my version of Scotland then it’s this one. Not Runrig or even The Proclaimers. It is tough, it is rugged and it is sweeping. There’s no filler on this album – every song has an epic quality but with catchy ear-friendly sensibilities.

The drums of Mel Gaynor are toned back a notch from “Sparkle In The Rain” but they still drive the narrative of each movement – my favourite being the closing powerful coda of the final song “Come A Long Way”, which is further complimented by a carefully crafted bassline from new member, John Giblin.

One of the most noticeable aspects of the album is undoubtedly that it had replaced the mysterious and subtle elements of “New Gold Dream 81-82-83-84” and which had rather confused the composition of “Sparkle In The Rain” with simpler lyrical constructs on songs like “I Wish You Were Here” that could more immediately find a route to the ears and hearts of their ever-growing global audience. A lesson from “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” one would imagine.

This came very much at the instigation of veteran producer, Jimmy Iovine, who constantly pushed the band to move themselves into new areas. “Sanctify Yourself” came famously from one last push at the mixing stage when it was felt that the album (rightly) needed one more song. It’s another great song that actually shows a more soulful side to their work and this is perhaps heightened by the introduction of backing vocalist, the awe-inspiring Robin Clark.

She would have an incredible impact on much of the work across the album providing a panoramic counterpoint to the already soaring vocals of Jim Kerr, adding more to the narrative impact of “All The Things She Said”. There’s also added excitement injected into the chanting building chorus of title track “Once Upon A Time” which once more elevates the entire production.

For those of you who have seen the excellent documentary “20 Feet From Stardom”, the importance of the backing vocalist has been given a much deserved place in the spotlight (ironically). Where would “Gimme Shelter” be without Merry Clayton? Probably the greatest backing vocal of all time, I would guess. However, Robin Clark on “Alive And Kicking” is definitely top 5; her work helps to take the song up into the stratosphere adding another texture some heavyweight drumming, an incessant chorus, throbbing bass and some excellent dropped-out moments putting Michael McNeil’s piano work front and centre.

About four years earlier, another Celtic band (and undoubtedly one of the most important) the Waterboys – of whom I promise plenty more on another occasion – introduced the concept of the Big Music. All the bands mentioned thus far had subscribed to this sound and it certainly had an unusually Celtic feel but “Alive And Kicking” is the greatest living example of “The Big Music”. It might be the soundtrack of all manner of compilations of triumph and victory but I don’t care – it’s bloody enormous and I feel brilliant listening to it.

All the musicianship on this album is of the very highest quality – Gaynor’s unstoppable rhythms and McNeil’s swirling keyboard work have already been mentioned but it is worth noting the excellent and passionate guitar work of Charlie Burchill that came much more to the fore in this recording. And this is the joy of Super Deluxe Editions as it allows us to get access to sometime forgotten mixes that can actually highlight the dexterity of the band and the extended remixes of “Oh Jungleland” and “Ghostdancing” capture their complexity and completeness at this time perfectly.

The mid-80s were a political time and there was plenty to rail against and Jim Kerr’s lyrics often did. Previously, “Waterfront” was a show of support to the workers of his hometown Glasgow and “Oh Jungleland” was another paean to the city and its sad neglect.   “All the Things She Said” was written about Lech Walesa and the Solidarnosc movement while “Ghostdancing” donated all it’s proceeds to Amnesty International.

Simple Minds were a band with a conscience and one that they backed up with action. They were the first to sign up for the American leg of Live Aid. They were very much the drivers of the Mandela birthday celebrations and regularly publicised social injustices as they saw them. However, like Midge Ure and Ultravox with Band Aid and Travis with Live 8, their contribution to the generation of awareness these events brought is often overlooked in favour of their more vocally aggressive partners from Dublin.

In “Once Upon A Time”, they brought some of these front and centre but never let them get in the way of a great record. It is after this when their stance became more blatantly obvious in “Street Fighting Years” and the hideous “Belfast Child” that I and a few others dropped away. Never has a band I loved fallen from grace with me as sharply as this.

I do not believe that it wasn’t heartfelt for one second – Simple Minds were never phoney – but Jim Kerr wanted to be a singer in a great band not the Team Captain of The Rest Of The World, like Bono.

Their “Unforgettable Fire” was undoubtedly an answer to “New Gold Dream 81-82-83-84” with a more subtle approach with Eno’s hand on the tiller. The “Joshua Tree” and its associated imagery was a response to the Minds success in the US and Bono’s political stances were more vocal and better stage managed.

I leave you with a thought which is that at Live Aid in the summer of 1985, would historyhave been different if U2 and Simple Minds had swapped venues. The UK was a more highly charged and emotional event (being there I would say that) but U2 seized their moment well whereas The Minds-  all billowing shirts and more unfamiliar anthems were a little lost out there in a world of REO Speedwagon and Kenny Loggins.

They were at the point in their careers when they would have smashed it at Wembley.

I do not think Simple Minds ever sold out. They would come back in later years with interesting work such as “Neapolis” and they always knew that their fans cared passionately about them and would forever look for new ways to keep them engaged both with new work and sensitive reappraisals of their past. Put simply, they had eight years of brilliant experimental and changing output that was always building to a perfect storm when their work and the world’s listening taste would combine. You can see the growth and the change and their deserved success story all comes together and, for me,  finishes (ironically) in “Once Upon A Time”.

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