Rock G.P.A.: Simple Minds [part 1]

simple-minds-rock-GPA-header

I’ve been chomping at the bit to write a Simple Minds Rock G.P.A. ever since starting this blog over four years ago. It’s taken will power to resist the urge until now, but I was saving this series for whenever Simple Minds would release their next album following 2009’s excellent “Graffiti Soul.” <flash forward 5 years> I’ve been analyzing their triumphs… and gaffes incessantly [taps cranium] in my mind, for at least 15 years, now. It was exercises like that which perhaps inevitably, led to starting this blog to get the critical thoughts built up over a lifetime out of my head to make room for new ones.

simple-minds-bsogAllow me to set the stage for the harbinger of this series. Eleven years ago, I made my second attempt at a Simple Minds BSOG. The nine CD set also continued a 10th disc with an interactive CD-ROM of voluminous discographical/liner note information. It also included many of their videos as extras. Many hours of bootleg recordings were also included, and the liner notes as such, were nearly 10,000 words on the topic that has endlessly fascinated me for the last nearly 20 years. – this Scot band whose album run the gamut of absolutely crucial to completely useless. That word count will doubtlessly be eclipsed during the course of this series. Much has happened since November 2003 when I produced the Act One/Act Two boxes.

That set contained rarities from the band’s dawning as Johnny and the Self-Abusers in late 1977 through the singles associated with their disastrous label debut for Chrysalis Records in 1998 after being signed to Virgin for almost 20 successful years. I first started hearing references to the band in 1981 as a group related to the “Futurist” or “New Romantic” trend in England at the point where they first signed to Virgin Records. What this meant in a nutshell was that they basically used synthesizers predominantly, as far as I could tell… and that was all right with me! The first Simple Minds record I bought [previously unheard] was a great intro to the group. Back when import 7″ singles could be had for $3.00, the late 1981 double 7″ of “Sweat In Bullet” gave four songs for the same price as a single 7.” This seemed like the record to buy to get my ears wet and from then on I kept up with their output avidly.

Virgin | 2x7" | UK | 1981 | VS 451

“Sweat In Bullet” and its b-side, “20th Century Promised Land,” didn’t use synthesizers quite like other bands with whom they were compared [Ultravox, Japan, the usual suspects]. Compositionally, rhythm predominated with songs being built up in layers of melody over repetitive trance rhythms. Drums were rigid and stiff but Derek Forbes’ basslines were anything but. He handled fretted or fretless
with equal aplomb. He was never as flashy [or as Jaco Pastorius influenced] as Mick Karn, but he never failed to create basslines one could really sink one’s teeth into! They were definitely the foundation of all early Simple Minds
recordings.

Melodies were layered on with keyboards and guitars but most of the time it was
hard to tell them apart. Charlie Burchill specialized in playing textural guitar lines
that were so heavily treated that they vied with keyboards for the same sonic
space. From their second through fifth [and possibly sixth]  albums he remained steadfast in his avoidance of all guitar cliché. Mike McNeil’s keyboards initially sounded more inspired by 60s Farfisa playing rather than the smooth autobahn musik being created by their peers. Vocalist Jim Kerr recalled Bryan Ferry, but not the post 1978 Roxy reformation Bryan Ferry that formed the template for a generation of vocalists from Iva Davies to David Sylvian. Kerr favored the vaguely-Bela Lugosi-sounding crooner of the early Roxy Music albums. The low-register Ferry. His lyrics were oblique in the extreme and he always looked uncomfortable in live shots taken onstage. The less said about
his penchant for boots, the better.

The band were beguiling, and I was happy to have another great UK band to follow, but in all candor, at the time I held other bright, shiny things like  Ultravox, OMD, and John Foxx in higher regard. These were my obsessions from a year or so earlier and I was in deep with those bands. At the time, Simple Minds were the new kids on the block, and still had yet to fully prove themselves. That point would come with their next album, “New Gold Dream [81, 82, 83, 84],” as released the next year. That album would put the band in the “core collection” even before I had a phrase representing it, and it saw me working diligently to absorb all of their many albums up to that point.

I worked my way to their debut album next, followed by a day soon afterward when I picked up a German Virgin pressing of “Real To Real Cacophony” and the Arista/Zoom edition of “Empires + Dance” at Crunchy Armadillo Records on the same day! Imagine comprehending that artistic leap simultaneously! I next got a Canadian copy of “Sister Feelings Call” before finally getting a New Zealand edition of “Sons + Fascination” at the local Peaches Records + Tapes that came with “Sister Feelings Call” tucked into the wide sleeve. The band would have one more album that continued their meteoric artistic arc, 1984’s phenomenal “Sparkle In The Rain.” Clearly, it seemed that this band could do no wrong.

simple minds - don'tyouUS7AIt didn’t take too long to find out otherwise. Their world-conquering single for the “Breakfast Club” OST topped the US charts and made the band “overnight successes.” Shockingly, bassist of the gods Derek Forbes was ejected from the band, who proceeded to go pear-shaped with terminal velocity with the release of their dull “Once Upon A Time” album, that took them up to the top of the US charts.  I next had to contend with a decade of bloated, smug records that made me lose interest in the band almost as dramatically as I had two years earlier, when David Bowie had released “Let’s Dance.” I picked up the occasional single, but not obsessively. I could no longer be said to “collect” the band. I eventually bought the albums I never play [“Live In The City Of Light,” “Street Fighting Years,” and “Real Life”] after long periods, only to find that the band were still lost in their artistic wasteland. Simple Minds had turned into poster children for squandered talent.

<flash forward 4 years>

It wasn’t until 1995 that I happened to hear a new Simple Minds song on the radio [!] that I actually liked for me to really engage with the band again, after a decade of disdain. “She’s A River” was a commercial rock song and could in no way be confused with the band’s experimental, early period that saw them effortlessly synthesizing  Krautrock, Art Rock, and New Wave… but it was catchy enough to offer mainstream thrills [is that an oxymoron] without being condescending. And it sounded really good. With “Good News From The Next World” being a resounding for me, I hopped back on the Simple Minds train and have rode it ever since. The last 20 years have seen the band lose their huge 80s audience that they commanded from roughly 1981-1995 as their efforts to reconnect with their artistic mojo have borne a wide variety of fruit.

Some albums were desperate cries for help [“Neon Lights”] and others were rejected outright by their record company, [“Our Secrets Are The Same”] but overall, their trajectory has been on the positive upswing for the last dozen years as the band have embraced more and more further, the ineffable artistic qualities that held them in such good stead for the first six years of their career. Their new album, “Big Music,” was released on November 4th, and represents their latest chapter. We’ll get to that eventually, but we must first start at the beginning. Tomorrow.

Next: …A Day In [the] Life

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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13 Responses to Rock G.P.A.: Simple Minds [part 1]

  1. Brian says:

    Ooh, should be a great series,. Very happy to see you included Sparkle in the Rain as part of the fruitful period. That seems to be the album when some of the old fans began defecting. Again, because of my age, that was my introduction to the band, and it holds a special place. Like with Let’s Dance, I quickly worked backward. Unlike Bowie, I didn’t stick with them through the rest of the ’80s. Sweat in Bullet is certainly a nice way to start your love affair too.

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  2. Echorich says:

    Simple Minds are monumental. But like a monumental structure there is the rise to the top, the plateau and then an inevitable downward direction. Simple Minds have managed over the past 15 or 20 years to build a second monument with their music and maybe, just maybe, this peak will keep rising.
    This Rock G.P.A is going to be a monumental task in itself. So much music, spanning so much time, it will surely engender a great deal of conversation over the next couple of weeks. LOOKING FORWARD TO ALL OF IT!!!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – That the band never threw in the towel makes for a fascinating arc of development to examine. As you note, the band have managed to stick around long enough to reach the upswing on the inverse bell curve of quality vs. time! They indeed have been making much progress, and it is thrown into sharp relief by juxtaposing their current artistic merits next to the stadium years that filled their coffers, but at a terrible cost.

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  3. Simon H says:

    Very much looking forward to this!
    I was partly disappointed by Sparkle in the Rain at the time but now it stands up really well. Let’s be honest it was the follow up to one of the greatest albums ever made so had a tough time!
    The live experience back in 84 was however already moving into bombastic territory and was an indication of what was to come…

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Simon H – I dunno. I have heard bootlegs of those ’84 shows and I find that if they could be called bombastic, then sign me up for more bombast! I have never heard any live performance more thrilling than Irvington 1984 in New Jersey. Hearing that a dozen years ago was the impetus from liking and collecting Simple Minds to being absolutely nuts about them and re-appraising the band’s achievements dramatically. Are all the songs nearly ten minutes long? Yes! Do I think they could have been longer? Yes!! What they achieved with “King Is White And In The Crowd” staggers my mind. It bears scant resemblance to the more timid source material and Derek Forbes has surely harnessed the bass of god on that massive performance!

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  4. zoo says:

    This should be fun!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      zoo – As you can see I got half way through the debut album during today’s lunch hour. You do the math! This could take up a month of PPM! Hopefully it will not be too much for those sad beings not also obsessed with the band!

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  5. Simon H says:

    Maybe I”m applying some historical revisionism! Will have a listen. I think I came away at the time with the feeling the balance they’d achieved with NGD had been lost or maybe it was the strange mike stand/climbing frame structure JIm Kerr was using:)

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  6. Simon H says:

    Thought the same! Back in those days me and my friends were painfully conscious of people ‘selling out’…and probably saw that as pompous! Our attitudes seem quite quaint now…

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Simon H – For me the sellout occurred when they tamed that adventuring spirit [ca. 1979-1984] for wider consumption. Plus, I was actually listening to Prog Rock up to 1978 and please, there are galaxies of difference between “Tales Of Topographic Oceans” and “Sparkle In The Rain.” Mind you, I find “Street Fighting Years” to be unbearably pompous!

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  7. Simon H says:

    I know you’ll cover this, but I wonder how a band can fall so far from the sublime? For me NGD still sounds like some alternative future, the pinnacle of ‘new pop’? Don’t get me wrong though I do love Sparkle!

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