Simple Minds | Once Upon A Time – 1.5
[continued from previous post]
“Once Upon A Time” was the first Simple Minds album that I bought on CD format and that meant that the shiny disc took a bit longer than the LP and cassette formats to filter into the stores. More significantly, this was also the first Simple Minds CD that I never saw as an import first. A+M Records was ready to follow up the band’s top selling single with an album that was was as near as pre-sold as they could have hoped for. When the laser hit polycarbonate, changes were immediately apparent. Percussion by Sue Hadjopoulos abetted the sturdy Mel Gaynor drums. Mike MacNeil’s synths proffered string patches and a heraldic hook in the song’s intro. Charlie Burchill, as ever, offered textural counterpoint to all of the goings on with strategically placed chords. The bass of Giblin was as unobtrusive and faceless as possible.
Kerr’s vocals point out what was going to be a huge problem for my ears going forward with this band. His emulation of Bono had resulted in a sloppy confidence that was not at all becoming to the music. His singing, never the reason that I cared for this band in any case, was now front and center with the warts and all proudly showing. Hell, he was now accentuating what I consider grievous faults in his performance! First and foremost he was now affecting a falsetto higher register that was alien to him but if it was good enough for Bono… I cringed as Kerr attempted to leap octaves outside of his range with less than the grace of a gazelle. He blustered through all of the mis-steps oblivious to his shortcomings; falling back on his newfound tendency to over emote by way of compensation.
If Kerr’s vocals were problematic, there was no shortage of backing vocals from the get go. Robin Clark was the album’s guest star since she came to Simple Minds with her Bowie Pedigree earning her a spotlight. She had sung on the Thin One’s “Young Americans” album a decade earlier. She had male support on this album by the capable Mel Gaynor [who sounds really good here] and her husband, Carlos Alomar, who also offered serious Bowie credentials as well. Showing the theme of this album more clearly than most identifiers, there were also The Simms Brothers who sang on “Let’s Dance” and the “Serious Moonlight” tour before shaving their heads and becoming Right Said Fred. How The Call’s Michael Been fit into this group cannot be determined since he has no connection to Bowie as far as I knew. The Bowie connections weren’t the end of it. They also got Bob Clearmountain, himself a veteran of “Let’s Dance,” to mix the album. Bob had also mixed some records by Bruce Springsteen. In a move that really showed where their aims were, they also secured the production talents of Jimmy Iovine, who had engineered or mixed many Bruce Springsteen albums.
The song had a good enough arrangement, sounding like a not-shocking link between “Sparkle In The Rain” and the hit single that followed it. At first blush, it all seemed to be what was expected by this time, but the song was padded out with vamping new to this band. The song has been injected with the musical equivalent of non-dairy creamer to make it go down smoothly with its flavor ultimately being diminished as a result. But in music, like cooking, it seems that the widest audience prefers the blandest flavor.
The third single from “Once Upon A Time” remained its best single choice. The song was constructed as a duet between Kerr and Robin Clark and the interplay between their voices distracted attention from Kerr, which was crucial, because with this track it became apparent that he was now affecting a ghastly vibrato that sounded as if Kerr were singing while pounding his chest like a gorilla. It was really that pronounced! At first, I thought that there was some effect applied to his vocals but I realized that he was singing that way on purpose! It results in lending his vocals a goat-like bleat that I swear makes him the male equivalent of a Stevie Nicks or Suzannah Hoffs!
To make my point explicit, these are deal-breaking vocals for my ears! That’s a shame, since this song, left over from the “Sparkle In The Rain” writing period, is one of the more enjoyable ones on this album, such as it is. It manages to be a rare respite from the furious bombast the band were trafficking in and manages to point back to their virtually abandoned, more sophisticated, lighter sound of the “New Gold Dream” period.
If “Ghost Dancing” had indeed been written just two days prior to Live Aid, then the band must have been smugly satisfied with their efforts, since it seemed completely unchanged by the time they committed it to tape. It offered a slight bit of interest from its quick tempo, the only such item in this program, but the track still fairly reeked of U2 in more than just the mannerisms of vocalist Kerr. Elsewhere, keyboardist MacNeil was using patches that were strongly suggestive of Greg Hawkes of The Cars! The difference being that “Let’s Go” was a much better pop song. That didn’t stop this from being the fourth single from the album, though.
The pre-release single for the album had been fired like a warning shot about a month before the album dropped. I heard it being previewed on the local “FM Rock” station at the time. The experience of first experiencing the new Simple Minds single while developing photos in the college darkroom on a boombox instead of the import bins at Murmur Records was a new one for me. For a guy who was busy talking up how much better songs actually written by his band were during the flare up of publicity that “Don’t You [Forget About Me]” provided, I was appalled at how bland and uninteresting this new single was. If anything, it made “Don’t You [Forget About Me]” seem like brilliance in comparison! The song began with interesting throbbing synths in the delicate intro, but soon the spell was broken by the appearance of pedestrian Fender Rhodes piano and intimately, Jim Kerr singing the most cliched lyric ever to pass from his lips. “You turn me on,” indeed.
As if this song were not crippled enough, the whole shebang is shot through with excessive vocal vamping. A plethora of “woah-woahs” and especially “ba-da-da-da-daps” were injected into the song for maximum audience sing-along potential. Worse still, after I bought the import 12″ single of this, the instrumental mix of the song on the B-side featured a scorching Charlie Burchill solo that happened right after the drumroll that Gaynor provided at the peak of the song’s bridge where the rest of the instruments were dropped out. On the album, this, the single exciting part of the song, was ignominiously faded out as if it had never been.
The end result was a new low in pandering to the lowest common denominator by this band. The end result feels awfully cynical to my ears. The benefit of the doubt that “Don’t You [Forget About Me]” got a pass on was all used up by the time that this confection left the candy shop. A sinking feeling filled me instead while listening to this album and had I been savvier, I would have passed on this album as I had on the similarly uninteresting “Let’s Dance” by Mr. Bowie.” So yes. Ultimately, the group’s attempt to hit the “Let’s Dance” target on this album was working just fine. Would side two provide any highlights?
Next: …Something borrowed and something Bruce