A short time ago, after going through yet another phase of early 1980s music appreciation (I more often than not find myself tuning in to Internet radio stations for the 80s music that was on the periphery, not necessarily the mainstream), I found myself feeling a stab of guilt that one of the bands I liked at the time, Simple Minds, hadn’t really taken their place higher in my fandom. I wanted to explore why that was.
As a teen I was obsessed with U2 (Bono) and when that obsession began to wane, I took up Bowie fandom, thanks mostly to be eldest brother needing a place to keep his Bowie album collection. I raided those Bowie albums with relish, I tell you!
Between the waning of my U2 fanaticism and the taking up of Bowie, I bought Once Upon A Time. So, yes, for a brief period, I was very strongly a Simple Minds fan.
As the years passed I would dabble in the Minds’ world. Play the hits and enjoy my time with them on the periphery of all the music I had liked in my adolescence. But as one matures and nostalgia takes hold of one ever stronger, one begins to think of what might have been missed.
For me, that happened with Simple Minds. I made a decision to explore the whole back catalogue of their music, hoping to find gems that I was ignorant to and perhaps take on a level of fandom that I thought I lacked and thought they deserved.
The scary thing to me is how closely in time my interest in exploring this world has correlated with the band’s and Jim Kerr’s own exploration of the past, but resulting in my slightly missing the boat. But that is the beauty of producing music for others. Once it’s out there, if people missed it, they can catch up.
And catch up with it all I have been doing so with relish.
A stark admission to begin with, the renewed fandom has developed into a somewhat late crush on Mr. Kerr. My now soon-to-be 44 year old self is agog that my 12 year-old self (and yes, I had SEVERE crushes on much older men at that age already) did not see the beauty in the 22/23 year old Jim Kerr.
That aside, let’s concentrate (with perhaps a small smattering of “OMG, wasn’t he GORGEOUS?! Well, still is.” thrown in now and again, for good measure) on the music.
Several members of the band, including the Minds’ nucleus of Kerr and guitarist, Charlie Burchill, started out in the late seventies in a punk group called Johnny and the Self-Abusers. Kerr under the alias of Pripton Weird (which actually sounds as punk as a Carpenter’s song, IMO, *grins* – but as aliases go, it’s a brilliant name!), and Burchill as Charlie Argue (much more punk!). It was a flash-in-the-pan. The split up the day their one and only single was released. SSooo Punk! Lol. It was fun to explore the very limited number of songs they produced in their brief life. But, let’s face it, EVERYONE was in a punk band for 5 minutes, right?
But, ultimately, it was a catalyst to what transpired into Simple Minds (deriving their name from the lines in David Bowie’s The Jean Genie). Charlie and Jim, bringing along fellow Self-Abusers Brian McGee and Tony Donald. Shortly after Donald leaves, and is replaced with Derek Forbes on bass and while Kerr concentrates on vocals (he was keyboardist for Johnny and the Self-Abusers whilst also being vocalist), keyboardist Mick MacNeil is brought in, making the quintet of the first recorded Minds line-up.
And so, life begins for Simple Minds with the album release in 1979 of Life In A Day.
Life In A Day:
I love being able to listen to things with retrospection and mature ears. Only being 9 years-old at time of the original release, there would have been little chance of me being able to judge the album’s merits, but the passage of time allows it now.
I must admit – I tried this experiment… ooh… what must have been around 8 years ago now. I dismissed the early things quite quickly. I just wasn’t ready to give them time, and again, I missed out because I didn’t give it that time. I dismissed it out-of-hand. And I knew I’d had. Hence, I was here again. Exploring their back catalogue. But this time, with more time to breathe. With a better appreciation that not everything goes to plan at the beginning.
I was initially dismissive ONCE AGAIN of Life In A Day. It sounds immature. The Album, that is. It’s lacking something but I could now hear small pockets of brilliance. The title track began to grow on me and and so had the single from the album, Chelsea Girl. And the first track, Someone, is poppy and sweet (I’m sure the young Jim would have killed me for saying that! Very much not the image he was after then, I’m sure.). It kinda reminds me of a U2 track. It could have been on Boy in all honesty.
What changed in my pursuit of getting into Simple Minds again though has been watching live performances from the time. And those performances can be spell-binding. It is very clear to me that Jim Kerr’s stage presence lends the band an extra depth that doesn’t get captured in the studio. The band is tight, they play exceptionally well live, but the spontaneity and excitement goes missing in the studio. The studio brings a sterility into their sound. Jim says he receives a copy of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures upon eve of release of Life In A Day and says “We’ve fucked it! We sound like The Boomtown Rats!” I can hear what he hears. At times. Especially on my least favourite tracks on the album, Sad Affair and No Cure – they are the tracks I can imagine mostly spurred Jim’s “Boomtown Rats” comparison. I can understand his disappointment because Life In A Day as an album doesn’t sell them for what they were as a live band.
Simple Minds – Chelsea Girl
(Let’s just bypass Jim’s hair at this time, shall we? He ends up with some great hair during the early 80s. Once we get to about 1985 though, we can forget it again…)
Real To Real Cacophony:
Now, this is where things start to get VERY interesting! Here is where the evidence comes in as to how wonderful they are live. There is a performance from New York of them in 1979 with tracks from this album, I find mesmerising. Sadly, Jim’s hair hasn’t quite grown out yet, but if you can overlook it and take on his performance as a whole, it is sublime. Their rendition of Premonition in this New York set is superior (in my eyes) to what goes on the album. There is an improvement in production but something still a little stilted to their work in the studio. Rather than in making it seem you need to be as dismissive of this album as you do with Life In A Day because the live performances overshadow the studio versions, there is less to dismiss. Kerr’s vocals are changing slightly in recording lending more depth, both literally and metaphorically. I love the way he writes during this period. It’s all very abstract. I’m not sure if he even consciously meant it that way or not. The words have matured yet retain a frisson of innocence.
Simple Minds – Premonition
This is, by far, the best live performance of Premonition I’ve ever seen (of the many I’ve seen so far). Jim is ssooo “in the zone” in this performance. Absolutely love it!
Empires and Dance:
Wow! Upon a few listens now, I must admit to beginning to agree with the Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield saying “nothing touches” this album. The production is sparse and industrial, Kerr’s vocals are phenomenal and his lyrics ssoooo atmospheric! It’s like a celebration of the dystopia of early 80s Europe, all dark and brooding with sex (perhaps that’s just me projecting my feelings for Jim and his performing style at this time). It’s industrial and dystopian, yet there are little snippets of perhaps flippancy in things like Constantinople Line “these stations are useful/these stations we love them”. And there is still hope in some – Celebrate, for example “we can live/I can live/celebrate”
I find Jim Kerr at this point in time possibly the sexiest man alive. Just a year before he had an Edmund Blackadder haircut and pocked skin. Now his hair was growing out on top, he’d gotten slimmer and his stage presence was growing. He commanded being watched. He was lithe, exuberant, dripping with nervous energy, yet reserved and palpably sensual. (Just me then on that last point? That’s OK. All the more for me!)
Simple Minds – Celebrate
Anyway *towels self down* – back to the album.
What an entity! JDB also says something akin to it being a stand-alone. That the album appears to come from nowhere. Nothing precedes it, nothing follows. Certainly Empires is quite a way removed from Real To Real, but I CANNOT dismiss what is to come. At least not Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call.
UPDATE (Oct 4th, 2014): JDB has recently had a change of heart, it appears. He’s now not so dismissive of Sons And Fascination, you can read here.
If you consider yourself a Simple Minds fan but have never listened to the whole Empires and Dance album, I implore you to do so. Keep listening to/watching live stuff from the time as well. It really does enhance the experience. Live, the boys at this time are unstoppable.
I’ve never been a big fan of live music – mostly because most of my live music listening has not been from gigs. I’ve only been to a handful of gigs in my life. Fortunately, I grew up in a country where being a great live band was a pre-requisite to having a music career, rather than a bonus, which gave me the opportunity to see some of the best live bands.
Early (and now recent) Simple Minds can be added to the list that, for me, sees them better live than produced in a studio. There is only one other band (possibly a second) that I have ever felt that way with, and that’s Australian group You Am I. They are the band I have seen play live the most. Now, with the Internet, YouTube, and the ability to time-travel (via footage from the past), I’ve seen just as many Simple Minds concerts. I just wish there was more from the earlier times.
I trawl YouTube daily, looking for as much early footage as I can. There’s quite a bit. A full concert from 1982, a fair whack of another from the same year, and a set on The Tube (Channel 4 music programme). But there is scant stuff before that.
I’m also fascinated in watching the progression of Jim Kerr as a performer. Watching the visibly nervous young man of 20 trying to command the stage (and sometimes succeeding) in 1979, to being a force of nature by 1981 but still so painfully shy off stage. I watched an interview with him on Swedish TV in 1983 in which he says he feels far more confident on stage than in intimate situations. He’d rather be performing in front of 3000 people than buying trousers in a shop. Buying trousers was a far more nerve-wracking experience for him. It’s astonishing!
I watch him in interviews now, and you’d never know. He’s genial, funny, accommodating, comfortable in his own skin…
Sometime by about 1984/5 the ego kicks in. It can’t not, I suppose. The band are at their zenith. That shy boy gets lost. That boy focused on the music…intense, brooding, reserved. That boy I’m in love with. He slowly disappears as Simple Minds gain fame. The music changes. It becomes less cold, fragmented, and more about love and romance. Still political, but a different kind of politics. Mainstream.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Again.
On now to what was initially my VERY favourite early album…
Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call:
The production is gorgeous on this album. And we start to get, what are for me, hits coming to the fore. Due to “greatest hits” albums I’ve dabbled in in the past, I’m familiar with Love Song (has always been one of my very favourite SM tracks) and The American, and they are both stellar. I also add Sweat In Bullet and Boys From Brazil to that mix now. And of course, you can’t dismiss the imagery-rich sounds of Theme For Great Cities.
Simple Minds – Boys From Brazil
Killer drums on this track. Always a sucker for a great drum track.
It’s a step on again. Not quite as cold as EAD, but still a little darker than those that follow. There is more light and shade. The brightest of songs is Wonderful In Young Life. The imagery is beautiful. Jim sells us the youthful dream, in voice with falsetto (something he rarely used til this point). It’s a wonderful dream-scape and a sign of what’s coming when we get to New Gold Dream.
And so, it is at this point I must stop. I am up to this point in my rekindling of my Simple Minds fandom. I am finding it hard to move on, for at the moment, I see New Gold Dream (81, 82, 83, 84) as almost the beginning of the end.
I find it telling that all those years ago the first Simple Minds album I bought was Once Upon A Time and I am now avoiding it like the plague. At the moment I just cannot explore NGD, Sparkle In The Rain, or OUAT without believing I’ll cringe. I have listened to NGD already in my renewed fandom but only once or twice, whereas the previous albums are on constant rotation. As well as lots of live material.
I think I’ll probably jump straight to more recent things. Lostboy! AKA Jim Kerr has me very intrigued! As well as more recent Minds’ works from 2005 onwards. I’ve had tiny dabbles but it’s all still new and I’m excited about what I might find. I’m looking forward to finding that Lostboy!