[20 February 2009]
I first heard Simple Minds the way most people probably did; in The Breakfast Club. John Hughes’ magnum opus of teen angst begins and ends with “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” a song written for the film by Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff. They offered the song to a number of artists, including Billy Idol and Bryan Ferry, but were turned down by everyone until Simple Minds, under pressure from their label, agreed to record it. The song has been both a blessing and a curse to the band. It was their first and only US number one hit and stayed on the UK charts for an incredible two years. The band, however, obviously had mixed feelings about the success of a song they did not write. This became evident when they decided not to include the track on their next album Once Upon A Time, much to the chagrin of their record label. The album was (and remains) their biggest selling record, but Simple Minds surely couldn’t help thinking that most people who bought it had probably never heard of them before The Breakfast Club. These people missed out on the band at the height of their powers. When they were a glorious mess of ideas and influences. When their sound was changing and developing so fast that they themselves could barely keep up. Unfortunately, the greatness of these early years made the disappointment of their later albums that much harder to take.
Few bands have made such an artistic leap in such a short amount of time. Within one year, Simple Minds released their debut album Life in a Day wearing their influences (Roxy Music, Bowie, Magazine) a little too plainly on their sleeve, to writing, recording, and releasing Reel to Real Cacophony, a record that could not have been the work of anyone else. Angular guitars fight with stabbing synths, creating a kaleidoscope of post-punk pop. Amongst other landmark releases of 1979 from Joy Division (Unknown Pleasures), PiL (Metal Box) and Gang of Four (Entertainment!), it’s easy to forget Reel to Real Cacophony but it’s important not to. It’s an album on par with anything released that year.
Taking their interest in electronic music further, Simple Minds changed gears again with the aptly-named Empires and Dance, released in 1980. Songs like “I Travel” and “Thirty Frames a Second” are cold slices of paranoid disco, dance music for Arctic oil rigs. It’s with this album that singer Jim Kerr began touching upon political issues in his lyrics. At this point they’re effective in their vague evocativeness, and still buried amongst other more abstract imagery, but it was the beginning of a trend that would become detrimental and just plain annoying by the time the ‘90s rolled around.
The band’s label, Artisa, were unimpressed with Empires and Dance and pressed only a minimal amount of copies, making the record difficult for fans to find. Simple Minds jumped ship and signed with Virgin, promptly releasing two albums simultaneously. Sons & Fascination and Sister Feelings Call sees the icy landscapes of their previous album begin to melt and reveal hints of the epic scope their music would soon take.
Everything came together in 1982. New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) is not only Simple Minds best album, but, in my opinion, one of the best albums of the ‘80s. The band had perfected their sound with the guitars and keyboards finally living harmoniously, creating a huge, warm, textured sound described by Kerr as “ambient dance music”. The synths now envelop the listener instead of assaulting them, the guitars sparkle, Kerr uses his voice as an instrument, content to take a backseat to the music. The lyrics are both nonsensical and perfect. Kerr admits he chose words for how they sounded and the imagery they conjured. What you get are abstract musical paintings, songs that seem to radiate light. The singer called the record “a coffee table album. They should have sold New Gold Dream in furniture stores, because it can brighten a room.” The album was their most successful yet, reaching number three on the UK charts, and garnering them the best reviews of their career.
Sparkle In The Rain continued in the vein of soaring, grandiose rock. The electronic elements are pared down in favor of more standard piano flourishes, the guitar now having won the battle of dominant instrument. Jim Kerr’s voice was now right up front too. “Speed Your Love To Me”, one of the best songs on the album, is a locomotive of exuberant energy and manages to make a line like “She would like to make a wish / Twenty-four cannot be this” sound both sad and triumphant. This was no longer ambient dance music.
It was while they were recording their next album Once Upon A Time that “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” exploded in America. Suddenly Simple Minds’ popularity was as big as their music. The first single from Once Upon A Time,“Alive and Kicking”, went to number three on the Billboard charts, they appeared at Live Aid and on Saturday Night Live, and embarked on an ambitious world tour that was documented on the live album Live in the City of Lights. Though veering dangerously close to over the top melodrama, the music was still strong, the songs sweeping and cinematic, luxurious epics that reached for the heavens and occasionally got there.
Their decline, in terms of popularity, was no doubt due to their failure to capitalize on their success. The band who twice released two albums in one year were now taking four years between studio albums and when Street Fighting Years was finally released in 1989, their commercial momentum was all but gone, at least in the US. It’s on this album that Simple Minds finally crossed the line into grandiloquent self-importance. Politically charged songs like “Mandela Day” and “Belfast Child” come off as heavy handed and preachy. Half of the songs are over six minutes long and only one is under four minutes. You can’t help but feel like they’re tying to be a sort of Scottish U2.
In Europe, however, Simple Minds were still a big name band, as evidenced in the 1989 video Live in Verona, a concert film from the Street Fighting Years tour. “Bombastic” is the word that best describes the performance in this video (although “obnoxious” is good too). Songs are stretched to absurd lengths with extended intros, outros, and interludes. Kerr insists on changing the phrasing of his vocals, over-exaggerating his voice until it borders on self-parody. Backing singers, a violinist, and percussionist are there seemingly just to fill the massive stage. The DVD release includes a concert from the 1982 New Gold Dream tour and watching both shows back to back is like watching two completely different bands. In ’82 Jim Kerr is a tip-toeing pixie, skipping around the stage in his ballet slippers and eyeliner, in ’89 he’s a twisted combination of Bono and Springteen, draping a flag around his much thicker footballer frame as he roams the giant stage in jeans and cowboy boots.
“The ‘90s sucked” said Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler and I’m sure Jim Kerr would agree with him. Grunge was a giant killer and Simple Minds were giants, if only in their own minds. Real Life was their first album without keyboardist Mick Macneil, who’s role in the band had dwindled with each release following New Gold Dream. It failed to chart in the US. Trip-hop beats were experimented with on Neapolis with little success. The album wasn’t even released in the US.
Sanctuary picked up the band in 2005 and released Black & White 050505 and the buzz at the time was that it was a return to the style of their early ‘80s records. I was pretty surprised when I finally heard the album. While it’s not on the level of their early work, it’s a definite step in the right direction. A new album entitled Grafitti Soul is scheduled for release on May 25th and I’d love for it to be great. But if it’s not I can still put on New Gold Dream or Empires and Dance and know that there will be no extended intros or jazz guitar solos or cowboy boots.