Rock G.P.A.: Simple Minds [part 19]

simple-minds---sparkleintherainUSCDASimple Minds | Sparkle In The Rain – 4

[continued from previous post]

Side two of “Sparkle In the Rain” began with an anomaly in Simple Minds career up to that point. A cover version! At least they picked a song that no one had dared to attempt; Lou Reed’s brilliant “Street Hassle.” The listener was dropped right into a song that sounded like it had already just begun. Mike MacNeil’s melancholic synths stood in for the string quartet on the original but they were still milking the haunting theme of the song for all it was worth. Meanwhile, Charlie Burchill was adding mournful abstract chords that hit the song just right. Then the primary addition to this arrangement of the song appeared when Mel Gaynor started to play snare tattoos in marching time, giving a martial undercurrent to the “Waltzing Matilda” narrative, which was stripped of its more moist aspects by the decorous singer Jim Kerr.

The stately waltz continued apace until two minutes into the song, all hell broke loose as the song positively erupted as Burchill began soloing while Gaynor added powerful drum fills and Kerr, as was his wont, began to seriously emote. After a peak of energy was reached, then the band began playing the “Slipway” movement of the song as the intensity once again faded to reflect the beginnings of the song. “Street Hassle,” the heart wrenching middle third of Reed’s opus had been excised entirely! Kerr also changed lyrics from “I took the ring from my finger” to “She took the ring from my finger, and there’s nothing left to say,” subverting fully the intent of the song. No one dies in this version of “Street Hassle.” There’s no commensurate sense of loss or grief.

lou reed - streethassleUSCDAI have to admit that in 1984 I had never previously heard “Street Hassle,” and it took until last year before I finally had a copy of Reed’s 1978 album to hear it. In 2013, the original eleven minute track cuts to the bone with its raw and grief filled narrative, the pain that Reed is interested in exploring is completely swept under the carpet by Kerr and co. I can only wonder what Reed thought when he was touring together with Simple Minds in the mid-80s on the Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope tour, but I’ve not heard any insights as to his thoughts on the cover. When Simple Minds asked Reed to perform a cameo vocal on 1989’s “Street Fighting Years” he was game for it.

All of this sounds like I dislike “Street Hassle.” Nothing could be further from the truth. This song, even ripped of its meaning and context, is still compelling music. It fits right into the overstated vibe of this album like it belonged there. Once I hear the synths and Gaynor’s drums, a loop of this song will unfurl in my mind for hours at a time. The difference is that I now know the damage that they’ve done to the themes of the song, which on the Reed version, work in concert with the elegiac arrangements. Simple Minds have done little different from Linda Ronstadt covering Warren Zevon or Elvis Costello; with the exception that this still sounds tremendous. For anyone with knowledge of the original, the cognitive dissonance is certainly there.

“White Hot Day” is the closest song that harkens back to “New Gold Dream” with its suave arrangement and soaring Forbes bassline. Gaynor’s complex drum pattern syncopated brilliantly with Forbes’ rolling bass. The vibe here almost completely avoids the broad gestures that are this album’s part and parcel, making this track something of an oasis of relative restraint in the stormy seas of this album. Kerr’s lyrics are poetically understated here, which makes them stand out against the bluster that surrounds them all the more. His phrasing on the line “while away below, the whirlwinds will blow, a pretty nation sleeps in time” may challenge parsing but manages to sound completely musical.

“Time calls, time cries, sounds like a friend of mine.
Time will run to meet, the slick and shiny beat,
That creeps to me through time.
While away below, the whirlwinds will blow,
A pretty nation sleeps in time.
The beauty of it is,
We’ll wake up to, shake the hand of time.” – “White Hot Day”

Derek Forbes fretless bass heralds “C Moon Cry Like A Baby” as another song of relative subtlety on this tumultuous album. The organ riffs that Mike MacNeil contributed here are another manifestation of the rehabilitation of Rick Wakeman that seemed to be happening that in 1984. I associate the Hammond organ riffs here with similar ones having an even greater Prog-quotient that were present on Siouxsie + The Banshees’ excellent “Hyæna” album on “Take Me Back.” It was probably the first time in a decade that keyboards that sounded like that were on a record… and certainly the first to follow punk. Gaynor’s drums were recorded with uncharacteristic restraint here, with no gating. Charlie Burchill’s ascending A4-B4-E5 guitar hook certainly reached the heights of his guitar neck and provided the intensity on the song for a change.

The next song on side two was what had become my favorite track on the album after a year of heavy listening. It’s still holds that position after 29 years. “The Kick Inside of Me” arrived on another four count from Gaynor but the difference between this song and “Up On The Catwalk” could not have been more profoundly different. “Catwalk” was certainly a dazzling construction, but this was something different from Simple Minds. For a start the blistering track sounded like they had all been recorded live in the studio, save for the reverberant effects given to Kerr’s thrilling “I…I…I…I…” vocals on the song’s intro and bridge.

It was a spine tingling moment from Simple Minds with every member playing with an “in the red” intensity that still takes my breath away. Forbes’ bass here sounded as thuggish as J.J. Burner’s playing in The Stranglers, but Burnel never came close to approaching the reckless savagery of this track. Afterward, Forbes’ reported his fingers were bleeding. Kerr; no shrinking violet on this album, bites into the track right from the intro with a passionate cry of “kick!” at full volume. He begins singing in his baritone, but he can’t keep the lid on himself for long, as he began rising in pitch and intensity by the first chorus. He’s never pushed himself so hard at the mic either in the studio or live ever since. Having this track follow the two most placid tracks on the album thus far was a brilliant move of sequencing. It ends an album of bracing, direct delivery at delirious level of commitment that seemed almost inhuman in its ferocity.

By the time of the bridge he’d been rendered inarticulate only to return his composure long enough to reach the song’s climax where the frenetic pace quickened as the song began to blissfuly explode fragment into its component parts to skid to a thrilling halt that never fails to give me a spine chilling rush. Kerr’s vocals were by then fully distorted as his phrasing halted on the last lyric “as far as I can, shake off the…” leaving the final lyric “ghosts” undelivered as the last reverberant peals of Burchill’s overdriven guitar then delivered the final word on this amazing song.

The final track was a chilled out instrumental. “Shake Off The Ghosts” provided a healing coda following the unrestrained fury of “The Kick Inside Of Me.” The gentle bassline of Forbes acts like a soothing balm when coupled with the lilting keyboards of MacNeil. The only thing that gives this near lullaby any edge is the almost spectral, reversed drum loop that Gaynor plays on top of. After an album of overstatement that at its climax, ramped up to actual frenzy, this is the only way for “Sparkle In The Rain” to have concluded. The last week has seen this, the final track on the album to do so,  lodge itself in my cranium on endless repeat.

It makes sense. In the first year that I played this album incessantly, every track on it gained “favored  song” status with ultimately, “The Kick Inside Of Me” growing to supernova-like status in my esteem. Only the final instrumental had not crossed the line from admiration into obsession, but after a week of heavy play, even “Shake Off The Ghosts” has become a song I can hardly turn off on the mental tape deck.

“Sparkle In The Rain” was certainly unlike any other Simple Minds album that had come along the pike until then. In its unmitigated overstatement, it’s hardly a subtle album. When a band spends years traveling across the emotional tundra like they did, it’s to be expected that eventually their pose will thaw. It certainly did on the previous album, “New Gold Dream [81, 82, 83, 84]” but even that record was a model of restraint in its poised languor. The last thing for Simple Minds to do was to let their guard down and explore the headlong rush of intensity for its own sake. As they did this, punk’s eternal nemesis, bombast, was getting ever closer to their artistic boundaries. At this time, it was kept at bay by the band’s ability to give in to the emotional release of what they were recording without becoming grandiloquent about it.

The only member of this band who was showing off was drummer Gaynor, and if that was showing off, give me more some! He’s never made such ornate and compulsive rhythms before or since. Normally all I hear after 30+ years when listening to the first six Simple Minds albums is the brilliant bass work of Derek Forbes, but after the period of heavy listening I’ve just undertaken for “Sparkle In The Rain,” Mel Gaynor has pulled into the pole position for these ears. Gated or not, there’s no denying that this album contains some white hot drumming and like any smart musician, he knows how to deliver a nuanced performance that pulls back from “stun” over the arc of the album for contrast and emphasis to make the work cohere strongly.

With the style map of Simple Minds effectively widened to encompass mainstream rock for the first time, it was hard to guess where they might next let their muse take them. Kerr had just married Chrissie Hynde and perhaps that accounted for the vast difference in vibe. If this had been their seventh album of a matched set, we would not even be having this discussion, but the fact remained, that the artistic movement that this band had achieved after debuting with a fair album of wannabe New Wave was pretty astounding in its scope and achievement. Yes, this was an album that flirted with bombast; maybe even got to second base with it. But I maintain that it did so with panache, a boatload of amazing drum patterns, and a heart on its sleeve that burst into dazzling incandescence as the album peaked with “The Kick Inside Of Me.”

That track has remained one of two Simple minds tracks that never fail to abjectly thrill me; the other being “I Travel.” The two could not be more dissimilar, and therein lies the pull and breadth of Simple Minds for these ears. I have heard the band perform excellent versions of “I Travel” live. I have a bootleg that actually has my favorite performance of it. It sounds like it it barely staying on the rails as it flirts with chaos and was all the more exciting for it. “The Kick Inside Of Me” achieves all of that and more for me. In fact, the performance of is here was so blistering, that I simply can’t imagine it ever coming off live, because the intensity of the album recording is such that it is impossible to imagine the full bore commitment necessary to perform the song as it must be performed. To do any less would invoke disaster.

Next: …Disaster arrives anyway

 

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15 Responses to Rock G.P.A.: Simple Minds [part 19]

  1. Echorich says:

    With all of Sparkle In The Rain’s grandious intent, an intent that the band completely satisfied in my mind, Side Two is where the experiments and thought pieces reside.
    SM’s reading of Street Hassle is clearly a thought piece. I have always been a huge fan of Reed’s Opus, in fact the fact that Reed’s Street Hassle has been dubbed a failure is counter to everything I think about it. It’s conceptual at a time when that was basically verboten and hangs every sad emotion possible out to dry. It’s difficult in the way a Rothko painting is difficult and somehow ecstatically sad and compelling – irresistible. What SM do is concentrate on the elegiac and lessen the personal pain. Both work for me, even if SM created a motif compared to Reed’s masterwork with the track.
    White Hot Day definitely harkens back to the complex, subtlety of New Gold Dream but with more raw power pushing at it’s boundaries. Kerr’s emotive vocals are the only thing that escape those musical boundaries but are pulled back in and kept in check. There’s that brilliant jam aspect on White Hot Day that’s not present anywhere else on the album.
    ‘C’ Moon Cry Like A Baby is the album’s real poetic moment. Burchill soars and swoops through the song on a dynamic high. I like the MacNeil Hammond keys and have NEVER and WILL NEVER equate them with Rick “Bloody” Wakeman, no matter how obvious it might be – Prog is like a musical ipecac. This is Post Punk, though – and all that came before is fair game for influence and interpretation. Here Kerr tries his hand at almost a crooner’s vocal, but the lyrics and song lend themselves to it. The Rhythm section creates a subtle counterpoint to Burchill’s and MacNeil’s almost freeform treatments. The chorus is one of those that once I hear it, will keep me singing it to myself for hours on end.
    While I’ve said Up On The Catwalk is my favorite track on the album, it’s just by a hair over Kick Inside Of Me. If Simple Minds ever really attempted to create a song based on Punk’s abandon, this is it AND MAN DOES IT WORK! It’s like the band went into the studio and said “right, let’s cut loose and see what we can achieve.” As complex as the song is, it as the feel of a great 3 chord classic. Its wild, unwieldiness is like a speeding train just about to go off the rails. This is a band so confident that they can move away from the manners and bluster and just let it all hang out. RESULT.
    Shake Off The Ghosts is like a sunset closing a day filled with achievement and satisfaction. It’s a last chance to reflect and in someways, although I doubt it was Simple Minds intention, it’s a closing salvo salutation on an album which itself would be the salvo to Simple Mind’s “Imperial Period.”
    What would come next was like the letdown of waking from an amazing dream…

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    • Echorich says:

      Ugh, let’s try that last couple sentences again…
      It’s a last chance to reflect in some ways, although I doubt it was Simple Minds’ intention, a closing salutation on an album which itself would be the salvo to Simple Minds’ “Imperial Period.”
      What would come next was like the letdown of waking from an amazing dream…

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  2. zoo says:

    I could do without “Street Hassle.” I simply just don’t like the song (because a songwriter I don’t particularly like wrote it), but I must admit that Burchill and Gaynor really shine. I like “Kick Inside of Me” less than the other two…”C Moon” is probably my favorite on side 2. All in all, this album simply doesn’t hold up as well for me as the absolute pinnacle of SM albums–and post-punk as a genre–namely, NGD. Instead of seeing it as any kind of logical continuation of NGD, it was a step in the wrong direction…not completely, but at least partially. I wonder what Walsh would have done with the same set of songs. Anyway, the worst was definitely yet to come.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      zoo – I can see someone not liking Lou Reed personally. I get that. He was a difficult man at the best of times, but Lou Reed’s art was ground zero for everything I like to listen to! It took a while for his work to influence large masses of musicians, but in the earliest days it had what I can only assume was a profound effect on Bowie and Ferry, who galvanized an entire realm of rock. By the 80s, the chickens came home to roost on Lou Reed as an influence as profound as that of the Beatles in their heyday.

      I would not call SITD the pinnacle of SM albums, even though I get a lot from it. Personally, I get a lot more from “Empires + Dance” but I agree that it was a step in the wrong direction; to be followed by leaps and flat out sprints, as we shall see later.

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      • Echorich says:

        I don’t see SITR as a step wrong, but a step wide. Logical or not, this was a band who’s musical walls were falling. Call them boundaries, lines in the sand, what you will, but I think the band needed to explore the confidence and expansion the prior three albums had engendered in them. On Sparkle, they never fully threw aside the restraint, but they pushed out at it to see how much it might take to make it break. It didn’t break and still proved elastic. What would break it would be influences from the outside and decisions made based on those influences. Don’t you, forget about that…if you get what I mean.

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  3. stellaVista says:

    For me personally, SITR was the moment when I fell out of love with Simple Minds. Nothing on it grabbed me emotionally the way their former material did.

    I still remember how my heart sank, when I heard “Waterfront” for the first time and everybody was marvelling that it was SO LOUD.
    1984 produced another single that brought record-mastering to its limits (and with it a pivotal shift in the bands evolution): Depeche Mode´s “Master & Servant”.

    Before Simple Minds used to glide, groove and soar, but now they stomped and kicked.
    New Gold Dream was glittering, Sparkle in the rain, despite it´s name, felt blinding.

    But the same year unearthed another sparkling treasure, and it came from Scotland too (AND they took their name from Jim Kerr´s mind): Cocteau Twins!

    (sorry for being THAT person)

    Happy Holidays!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      stellaVista – Most of my favorite bands hailed from Scotland, and Cocteau Twins were high on that list. I first heard a bit of “Pearly Dewdrops Drops” and immediately dove into their back catalogue, starting with “Head Over Heels” and buying “Treasure” on its release. They were an incredible band that I had the pleasure of seeing a few times. I had to wait a long time as I lived in the Southeast where great bands always ventured last.

      I’m curious. Did you like “Master + Servant?” It is one of my favorite Depeche Mode singles and I hold a candle for “Some Great Reward” as one of my favorite albums of theirs. I thought the single was their “Cabaret Voltaire” moment.

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      • stellaVista says:

        Sorry for the late reply:
        Well, Depeche Mode in 1984…or 1984 in particular was a watershed year for most bands I used to love.
        In Germany, “People are People” marked the moment when Depeche Mode topped the charts and became Superstars. It was really strange: They had the girls AND the boys, the kids AND the parents, the goths, the squares and the whatever at their feet. No other band had such broad appeal. Teenyboppers who were taken seriously.
        Subsequently “People…” became so overplayed that even the band refuses to play it anymore. The b-side “In your memory” is absolutely amazing! It´s like they passed the torch from D.A.F. (brilliant) to Nitzer Ebb (copycats).

        “Master & Servant” almost suffered an equal fate, but it was never such an obvious hit in the first place.
        I remember that many people were quite irritated (and angry) when they bought that totally bonkers Adrian Sherwood Remix 12″ that was sold next to the original. I guess this was really the start of multi formatting and Mute turned out to be quite inventive in that respect.
        The original 12″ mix is SO LOUD that you really have to give them credit and “Set me free” on the b-side is interesting as it starts their flirting with blues and rock ´n roll.

        “Some Great Reward” was the last DM album I would buy until “Violator” came along. (The only song I still love from it is the utterly sublime “Lie to me”). And “Sparkle in the rain” would be the last Simple Minds item I would buy ever.

        As far as Mute goes: I was a BIG fan of Fad Gadget at the time. “Gag” is such a fantastic and underrated album.

        Another watershed for 1984: The Cure! After the ultra-dark “Pornography” they mocked about with synth-pop only to return with “The Top” that year. It was seen as pretty weak back then and the band seemed to have lost their track.
        So they also put out “Concert” the same year and would become the kiddie-goth band everybody began to mock.

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    • Echorich says:

      It’s true that Sparkle In The Rain was the band gliding on the razor’s edge. I had friends who didn’t get it, but I had other friends for whom it was the entry point and they explored backwards from there. I get how it might not be every fan’s cup of tea, but it’s timing was spot on for this fan.
      For me the beauty of Simple Minds up to and into 1984 is their willingness not to repeat themselves and keep on exploring and experimenting. Does anything surpass the instant classic Post Punk of Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call or New Gold Dream. No not quite, but those three releases are a progression, a movement forth that could not be stopped. Sparkle In The Rain is loud, intense, rhythmic. It skirts bombast but never falls into the abyss of RAWK. Sparkle In The Rain is the sound of confidence and joy with the themes of love, politics, life and death, as always.

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      • postpunkmonk says:

        Echorich – You nailed it for me as well, sir. I understand other’s reticence completely. After all, this album did lead directly to a path for the band that I failed to connect with for a long time. But for this single album, they managed to pull magic from an excursion that would soon become tedious and perfunctory. How did they do this? I can only guess that it represented real passion at the time. Passion that quickly calcified when presented with the sort of money stakes that they soon trafficked in. This album, however, is rife with passion. Passion that may merely be youthful zeal crowding in on overstatement, and as such, represents a singular time in the lives of the band that will never be repeated.

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  4. JT says:

    When traveling between Beijing and Shanghai by bullet train, Simple Minds provided me with a perfect soundtrack. Not I Travel, not The American, not Themes for Great Cities… it was Shake off the Ghosts that I deemed just right for watching the rice paddies and mountains fly by at 160 mph.

    But now I am thinking of some nebulous relationship between this track and something Japan might have been thinking about a few years earlier. Is there a little bit of DNA from Ghosts (hmmm), Life Without Buildings, or Taking Islands in Africa lurking around in Shake off the Ghosts?

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      JT – You are crazy… as a fox, sir! On December 18, Jim Kerr posted a clip of Japan performing “Nightporter” to the SM Facebook page and said, “Not a Christmas song of course, but for me it has a real Winter melody. I do miss Japan.” So you are probably right as rain with your assumption. What band worth their salt didn’t rate Japan?

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    • Echorich says:

      Well spotted. SM occupied a space which also saw bands of the likes of Japan and Talking Heads as well. These bands managed to create mood and vision with their music like few others. All three bands share a period of musical experimentation and progression which is very distinct and evolving and added to their mystique and confidence.

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