Simple Minds. There, I've said it. Nowadays, something of a dirty word (two dirty words, strictly speaking) in musical circles, but at one time one of the hippest names to drop and (and bear in mind they're not usually the same thing) a fantastic group too. Where did it all go wrong?
Like their near-namesakes Simply Red (whom I felt compelled to defend in 2006), Simple Minds are today associated with bloat, excess, bombast and creative inertia. But 28 years ago, they were in the middle of a creative roll, having just released what's generally regarded as their high-water mark, New Gold Dream. You can see something of the band in their pomp on The Tube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7OuZrNbpsSI. I love this clip for so many reasons: Muriel Gray's unforced enthusiasm rather than her then-standard detached ennui; their raggedness for the first 30 seconds before it all falls into place; Mick McNeil's incredible keyboard-playing; Burchill and Forbes trading looks and licks; the sight of a slim, hungry-looking, Jim Kerr, before the pies were consumed. The latter had clearly learned his stagecraft from Howard Devoto, Simple Minds having supported Magazine two years previously.
That the early Minds looked to Europe, and European modernism in particular, was apparent in their song titles (In Trance As Mission; Kant-Kino; Constantinople Line), their lyrical references to Brian Eno and their sleeve artwork. Their choice of producers too hinted at their ambitions; in choosing Gong's Steve Hillage to helm the faders for Sons & Fascination (and its companion piece Sister Feelings Call), the band were clearly signalling their aesthetic intentions, namely incantatory, introspective, psychedelic. The sonic similarities with their later output can be discerned, but there's less abandon in the music, it's more tightly regulated and controlled, widescreen but not stadium-sized. Referenced to America are ambivalent and distanced rather than celebratory (cf The American). There's never a better sign of a band's lack of ego than an instrumental track (it's telling that instrumentals were a large part of the band's repertoire for their early albums but were largely abandoned in later years), and Theme For Great Cities is one of the great instrumental tracks (and a godsend for multiple Euro-trance acts) in recorded music. Check it below. It has one of the great bass parts too, as you can see in the second vid (there's at least three guys doing this on YouTube).
The icy Euro thing started to thaw slightly for the next album, and the sans-serif fonts and straight lines that characterised the album artwork for Empires & Dance and Sons & Fascination gave way to a more medieval, more romantic look for 1982's New Gold Dream. The psychedelic aspects were also more pronounced, despite the change of producer from Steve Hillage to Peter Walsh, but the dreamy synthscapes, meandering basslines and trippy lyrics are still recognisably European, restrained and undemonstrative, nowhere better exemplified than on Colours Fly and Catherine Wheel (below). The band hadn't gone all U2 on us at this point (actually, come to that, U2 hadn't gone all U2 yet, either).
So far, so uncontroversial. That Simple Minds were a fantastic band until 1983 or so seems to be a tacit understanding among fans of post-punk. Simon Reynolds wouldn't argue. Neither would James Nice (in fact, he called Sons and Fascination and New Gold Dream "stone classics"). The general consensus seems to be that the rot set in with the next album, 1984's Sparkle In The Rain. Yes, the dreaminess seemed to disappear, as did the ambiguity. The previously meandering basslines became, in the main, monolithic (compare the metronomic Waterfront, for example, with the earlier Glittering Prize), the drums were pushed way up in the mix, and the band already seemed to have one eye on America and the garantuan success they'd soon achieve with the Keith Forsey-penned Don't You Forget About Me (and the subsequent album Once Upon A Time). But here's the thing. I really still like Sparkle In The Rain, and I see this as the band's last creative gasp before they were fully subsumed into the mainstream.
How so? Well, they hadn't fully embraced the US yet (their reference points are still Natassia Kinski, Eumir Deodata and Michelangelo, Martin Luther rather than Martin Luther King), they hadn't abandoned instrumentals (e.g. Shake Off The Ghosts, the elegaic last track on the album, which later metamorphosed into A Brass Band in Africa Chimes, a dubby instrumental b-side), and in choosing Steve Lillywhite to produce the whole shebang (rather than the likes of Bob Clearmountain who would steer them through their subsequent album), Kerr and co. were still keeping their feet firmly rooted in the European tradition, even as they were looking towards the stadium-sized vistas that were opening up for them in the American heartlands. Hell, even the cover art for Sparkle In The Rain, another Malcolm Garrett-designed confection of hard-lined heraldry and Teutonic pageantry, was a clear signal that the band's aesthetic senses hadn't been completely dulled, even if the music was becoming slightly more upfront and more obvious.
For all the bombast heard on songs like Waterfront and Book of Brilliant Things, though, there's a quietness and a stillness at the heart of the album, heard best on songs like "C" Moon Cry Like A Baby, East at Easter, their cover of Lou Reed's Street Hassle and the aforementioned Shake Off The Ghosts. For me, at least, there's enough of the old Simple Minds on Sparkle In The Rain to make it a worthwhile listen, with some parts that are truly excellent. The single Up On The Catwalk is probably the song that best exemplifies the crossroads at which the band found themselves in 1984. The drums hint at the stadium rock that they fully embraced after this album, but the spiky guitar parts, the keyboards and, in particular, the elliptical lyrics, all speak of a band that was still in touch with the feelings and sensibilities that produced their best work in the years 1980 to 1983. Listen for yourself just below.
Download Simple Minds Up On The Catwalk (mp3) (deleted Jan 2011)