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.
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.
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.
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”.