I still stand in awe of what Simple Minds achieved on this, their third album. Album one was a misfire by inexperienced boys led astray by the sum of their manipulative label and their callow enthusiasm. The second album had been a sharp turn left into completely different atmospheres and methodologies that left the mainstream much less conventional song structure far behind. This is an album that consolidates their recent experience and travels forward to build a coherent, if frightening world. There are few albums during my time listening to music that I can say that about. And they seem to all be made by Scotsmen, for what it’s worth. It manages the neat trick of having influences and synthesizing something unique and startling from them; even if you can see the occasional thread pointing its way back to a recognizable seed of germination.
The first thing noticeable about the album is its distinctive cover that literally shows the sun setting on the signifier of an empire. The stolid RAF pilot had seen better days. His attempt at dignity was undermined by the large chips missing from his head and hat. His very British upper lip was still stiff [being stone, how could it be otherwise?], but he’d be lying if he didn’t know that his days were somehow numbered. The typography was clean an modern; Gill Sans Regular, but with the letters “N” and “R” reversed, lending the design more than a hint of a Cyrillic, Soviet underpinning.
The band had just hit The Continent for their “Real To Real Cacophony” tour in 1979 that saw them playing in Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, France, The Netherlands, as well as their traditional UK venues. They even played a few sets in America, as captured on the live “Premonition” B-sides to “Changeling” recorded at Hurrah in New York City. Their perspectives were immeasurably widened by these experiences. Seeing Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall while en route to gigs at the club Kant-Kino left impressions of a larger, stranger world.
“I was twenty, and I looked around me. We had the talent always to be in the place where the neo-Nazis exploded another bomb. Bologna, a synagogue in Paris, a railway station in Munich. Don’t tell me anything like that could leave you unmoved.” – Jim Kerr
Elsewhere, the seed of their future were sown when Ross Stapleton of Virgin Records was in a German club and heard “Premonition” slinking out of its sound system. Three weeks later, he saw them live at the Lyceum in February of 1980 and became determined to sign this band to his label. The band weren’t meeting with much success with Arista at this time. Their label were so over Simple Minds that they would only press up their third album in small batches of 15,000 copies at a time, leading to shortages in the shops. It was a self-fulfilling prophesy of doom, even after Arista returned to the till another two times after the first and second pressings had sold out. Clearly, some people were hearing Simple Minds… and liking what they’d heard.
While they were not troubling the charts much, that’s not to say that clubs were unresponsive to their wares. As the 70s rolled into the 80s, British club culture saw the Cult With No Name responding to angular, synth-heavy dance music. New Romantic movers and shakers like drummer/DJ Rusty Egan had added Simple Minds tracks to his playlist at the clubs of the moment like Blitz, which took 1979 by storm. The third Simple Minds album would arrive during a perfect storm moment that would see exactly the brand of music that Simple Minds were now making become far more popular than Arista, in their limited perspective of chart pop could ever see happening.
The third Simple Minds album would be issued in 1980 and at that point, the band ceased to be derivative followers of Roxy Music, David Bowie, and Doctors Of Madness. At this time they took steps across the threshold of creating a new dynamism fusing funk, oppressive atmospheres, Krautrock trance rhythms, and a wildly inventive subversion of traditional melody and song structure into a fusion that was starkly new. The stage has been set. Tomorrow we begin to discuss the actual music on “Empires + Dance.”
Next: …Runaway train