[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.
I 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