From an inauspiciously named punk starting point in Johnny and the Self Abusers, Simple Minds made steady progress after forming in Glasgow in 1978, developing from new wave Roxy Music/Velvet Underground aspirations (a debt renewed on the group’s 2001 covers album, which includes songs by both) to commanding anthemic power inside of three years. Between singer-writer Jim Kerr’s distinctive throaty vocals and guitarist/keyboardist Charlie Burchill’s insightful sense of music that can rock a human sea, Simple Minds had the vision, passion and tools to share the enlightened mass arena with U2.
Dismissed as arty and pretentious by some in their early days, Simple Minds were something of an acquired taste as they mixed serious and philosophical lyrics with danceable rhythms supporting oblique musical structures. Often dense, occasionally discordant and gloomy, Life in a Day strongly suggests Roxy Music but also touches lightly on pop, psychedelia and an adventurous tense/terse style explored on subsequent albums. “Sad Affair” is modish; “All for You” has disturbing overtones of the Doors and early Jefferson Airplane; “No Cure” sounds like the Buzzcocks-meet-the-Who; “Chelsea Girl” is delightful ’60s pop, complete with full orchestration.
Simple Minds lives up (or down) to the clever title of Real to Real Cacophony. Excepting a couple of standouts like “Carnival (Shelter in a Suitcase)” and the haunting instrumental “Film Theme” (Simple Minds are one of the few bands that can and do create worthwhile instrumentals with real skill), the album is much like the band in the title song; “Real to real cacophony / Echo, echo on endlessly.”
As soon as the needle sets down on Empires and Dance‘s “I Travel,” it’s obvious that Simple Minds have reorganized and changed direction; while not entirely successful, the album is extremely atmospheric and promising, with good dance tunes and a few more quasi-psychedelic ones (“Kant-Kino” and “Room”). Celebration is a compilation of tracks from those first three LPs.
Two discrete albums originally released as one packaged work, then reissued separately (the latter several times), Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call is Simple Minds’ first really good record. While still experimental, the group — produced here by Steve Hillage — sounds more comfortable in the semi-funky, semi-dancey, semi-electronic groove introduced on Empires and Dance. Revealing the grand themes and scope of Kerr’s global vision, Sister‘s “The American” and “20th Century Promised Land” as well as Sons‘ “Love Song” are all top-drawer examples of modern dance music. “Theme for Great Cities” (Sister) is another fine instrumental.
Picking up its title from that composition, Themes for Great Cities (subtitled “Definitive Collection 79 — 81”) takes the best material from albums not then released in America — Real to Real Cacophony, Empires and Dance and Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call — and presents the band much more strongly than the individual records originally did. (One notable omission: “20th Century Promised Land.”)
Opening the group’s commercially rewarding phase, New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) takes another great step forward. The songs are stronger and the sound shows a definite thawing, mellowing trend, yet retains its majestic power. “Promised You a Miracle” (a soulful and dramatic dance tune), “Glittering Prize” (a warm, pretty ballad) and the panoramic title track stand out. A memorable, mature record marked by compassion and sensitivity. Drummer Brian McGee (who had been a Self Abuser alongside Kerr and Burchill) had departed, and was replaced on the LP by three different players, one of whom — Mel Gaynor — wound up joining the band.
Working with producer Steve Lillywhite, Sparkle in the Rain is another fine, affecting record with textured, intricate rhythmic rock and Kerr’s personable, accented singing. Simple Minds sound firmly in control of their sound, equally capable of grand gestures and subtle nuance. The first side is great, featuring four of their best songs: “Speed Your Love to Me,” “Book of Brilliant Things,” “Up on the Catwalk” and “Waterfront.” The flipside is less exhilarating, but does include a cover of Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle.”
Kerr married Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders in 1984. The following year, the singularly self-directed band had its first chart-topping hit with, of all things, a song not of their own making. “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” co-written by Giorgio Moroder/Billy Idol associate Keith Forsey for the soundtrack of The Breakfast Club. Bassist Derek Forbes was replaced by John Giblin. (Forbes rejoined in 1996.) They appeared at Live Aid. Jim and Chrissie had a baby. And Simple Minds sold themselves out on their first post-stardom album.
Produced by Jimmy Iovine and Bob Clearmountain, Once Upon a Time is appalling, a perversion of the group’s sound specifically — and most unpleasantly — geared for American radio. Rattled to the rafters by phenomenal success attributable to a single number they didn’t write, Kerr allowed the group’s majesty to billow into bombast, its intelligence to encourage pomposity. While he still has enough self-respect to not parrot the band’s hit with a soundalike, tracks like “Sanctify Yourself,” “Alive and Kicking” and “Oh Jungleland” (roll over Bruce Springsteen…) are wretched, transparent stabs at the day’s album rock radio that bear only passing resemblance to Simple Minds’ prior work. In the passage from arty obscurity to arty success, Simple Minds lost their balance forever. But they didn’t cease to exist.
The sumptuous and sonically excellent live double-album was recorded in Paris in 1986, a triumphant celebration of the band’s enormous success. Augmented by a backing vocalist, percussionist, violinist and computer programmer, Simple Minds play the recent hits, reaching back before New Gold Dream only once — in a three-song medley that runs together “Love Song,” Little Steven’s anti-apartheid anthem “Sun City” and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music.”
That inkling of a political conscience becomes a river on Street Fighting Years as Kerr all but drowns himself in sanctimoniousness. His self-important songs about Third World struggles (the title track is in memory of Victor Jara) have much the same messianic bombast as U2, substituting Sting-like pretense for Bonoesque passion. Co-produced by Trevor Horn, the album — which goes so far as to include an utterly redundant seven-and-a-half-minute remake of Peter Gabriel’s majestic “Biko,” complete with bagpipes — sounds spectacular, a complex wash of rhythms (Manu Katché joins Mel Gaynor in the twin-drummer attack), guitars, keyboards and strings. It’s a technical achievement to be sure, but rock music on such an operatic scale isn’t exactly entertaining, and the record seems distant and unapproachable. Lou Reed guest-sings on “This Is Your Land”; African percussionists add social credibility. (The CD contains a bonus, “When Spirits Rise.”)
After those two debacles, the group wisely pulled in its horns, producing only one new album in the following half-decade. Although an enormous and enduring European following kept the band afloat through constant touring buoyed by flashy CD reissues of its 12-inch singles (each set of Themes — an ingenious package that folds out to reveal a cross of five CDs — compiles the band’s 12-inch singles from a different era) and a hugely popular British compilation, Glittering Prize, America continued its commercial yawn.
Another desperate lunge for artistic significance that relies on high-minded lyrical concerns and arty studio contrivances to embellish the band’s intrinsic qualities, Real Life overdoes it on every front and winds up the least memorable record of Simple Minds’ career. The lyrics address such grandiose topics as “Woman,” “African Skies” and “Real Life,” in which characters from Washington DC and Dublin cross paths in New York (where a gangland hit takes place on a dock and space shuttles fly above a desert as “16 men from a dying earth take their last dream.” Or something like that). Kerr huffs and puffs with the teeth-gnashing conviction of a televangelist, which only makes things worse. Although several tracks sound like there might be usable melodies in there someplace, the arrangements nonchalantly pile on electric instruments, an orchestra, soulful backing singers and far too many keyboards (including ethnic-sounding instrumental samples); producer Stephen Lipson lets it all become a fuzzy mess. If this is real life, maybe we should see what’s behind door number two.
After another lengthy timeout, Simple Minds — by this point officially reduced to Kerr and Burchill, joined in the studio and onstage by an assortment of hired hands — returned to earth with the surging guitar-powered and relatively streamlined Good News From the Next World, which they co-produced with their old benefactor Keith Forsey. Without reducing his intensity, Kerr focuses himself into accessible and tunefully forthright songs that depict the big issues through a personal sensibility. Two of the strongest tracks, “Hypnotised” and “She’s a River,” are poetic love songs; others (“Night Music,” “My Life”) contemplate the meaning of art. Betraying an irresistible optimism that breathes life into the music, “And the Band Played On” and “Great Leap Forward” reawaken the vitality of vintage Simple Minds songs like “Promised You a Miracle.” Bravo!