Rock G.P.A.: Simple Minds [part 23]

simle minds - onceuponatimeUSCDA

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.

“ooooh-woooah-woah”

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.

simple minds - allthethignsshesaidUS12AThe 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.

simple minds - ghostdancingUK12AIf “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.

simpel minds - aliveandkickingUK12AThe 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

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24 Responses to Rock G.P.A.: Simple Minds [part 23]

  1. tim says:

    I never knew the lineage of Right Said Fred………….

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  2. johnnydark says:

    Great take on Simple Minds so far. I fell in love with them with the release of Promised You a Miracle/New Gold Dream, and then worked backward and loved Sister Feelings Call/Sons and Fascination. It took me a bit, but I really did like Sparkle in the Rain, even if it wasn’t as good as prior work. This album? I just never bought it because I lost interest in the band as their radio airplay was fine but generic. I enjoyed hearing it more than other radio pablum of the mid-80’s, but absolutely felt no need to go out and buy this album.

    When Street Fighting Years came out, I really tried to like it. Put it on the table many times and it just never clicked for me. Sold it back to the record store at some point.

    BUT, I really like Graffiti Soul and have to say I’ve been enjoying the new one except that your reviews made me go back and listen to Once Upon a Time, and now I hear more of the bombast in their new albums, too! Sigh.

    Once again, THANK YOU for this blog. It’s great to catch back up on so many bands that have meant so much to me, and since we have really similar tastes, it’s good to know I’m not alone. Thanks.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      johnnydark – Arrgh! No! You should not have gone back to listen to “Once Upon A Time!” Was my sacrifice for nothing? I’m listening [a lot, if truth be told] so that you don’t have to! The latest two are still miles better than this! As for SFY, that album holds a special place in my heart, in a manner of speaking. More eventually as we trudge through the Valley Of Simple Minds Death for the next dozen posts. I may have to pick up the pace so that I don’t completely lose the will to live!

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      • johnnydark says:

        After my comment, I will need to listen to Street Fighting Years again, especially given that it’s Trevor Horn produced…

        SFY was one more nail in the coffin of the new wave that I loved. The late 80’s were tough, musically. I hated hair metal, Bowie was doing his Tin Machine stuff, all the synth poppers that I loved had discovered guitars and wanted to be Arena gods… I listened to a lot of David Sylvian, Carmel, Style Council, REM, China Crisis, New Order, Simply Red, Swing Out Sister, Windham Hill, and most importantly I discovered Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon and the Blue Note samplers after having been exposed to so much good jazz-influenced pop via the NWOBJP, as you have anointed it.

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          johnnydark – I hear you. Everything came to pretty much a crash and burn by 1985, with Bowie, as ever, in front of the pack by becoming worthless two years earlier! Also, every band I loved made awful albums when I started buying their latest on CD, except flore Icehouse, who delivered my favorite in 1986. And please, please don’t listen to SFY again! Why do you mock my sacrifices. Just wait for my post on it for some of the most colorful language I’ll probably ever employ on PPM. Also, what about Chet Baker?

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          • johnnydark says:

            Amen, brother! I’ve often wondered whether the move to CD exacerbated the decline of the bands I liked, since the sound was often (but not always) flatter.

            I love Chet Baker, but didn’t start listening to him until much later. I also collect the Blue Note and Concord Jazz catalogs on vinyl (as well as Windham Hill and Erased Tapes).

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            • tim says:

              I gave up on the new wave by about 86, the death rattle was ABC’s Alphabet City.
              The Eurythmics did carry on, I have to say Savage and We Two Are One for me are better than anything they did after their second album. I had an almost identical trajectory to Johnnydark, I learned a lot about jazz, classical (that wasn’t entirely new as I had played violin for years), ambient and folk. There’s been the occasional rebound by an 80’s act however I haven’t looked back much. A lot of the acts that were canon for me like Depeche Mode or Duran Duran I almost never listen to any more while contemporary acts that I discovered after the wave crashed I listen to a lot (paging the Lilac Time to the lobby courtesy phone).

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              • postpunkmonk says:

                tim – Oh yeah on “Savage” …possibly the strongest artistic comeback album from artists who had really disappointed me. I can’t tell you how much I loathed “Be Yourself Tonight.”

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            • postpunkmonk says:

              johnnydark – Echorich and I have discussed this thing in the comments over the years. The middle 80s were the time the time to put up or shut up. The market was not tolerant of that which did not turn the largest possible profit, and most bands we liked suffered for this ethos. The list is long and shameful. Only a few names escaped the tarnish of the Reagan/Thatcher era.

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          • Echorich says:

            I think many of us who hold 78-83 in such high regard, by 85, were in search of greener musical pastures. Luckily the willingness to search out more and different kept us from settling for the blanding of Post Punk and The New Wave. David Sylvian almost single handedly saved me musically. As Monk mentioned, Iva Davies delivered in spades as well as Icehouse was still on a wholly upward trajectory. Johnnydark hits a number of sweet spots with Style Council, China Crisis, Carmel, New Order…I’d add Everything But The Girl and Prefab Sprout to that list as bands that created a comfortable retreat from the bland and unoriginal.

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            • tim says:

              I thought of suggesting ETBG and the Sprouts as well. For me they were like my introduction to the Lilac Time, not at all on my radar in the late 80’s and found them in the early 90’s, which in a lot of ways was as big, if not a bigger musical wasteland than 86-90 were. Once grunge was done things picked up a bit but…..I don’t think that there has been anything that may be construed as naive or innocent (or even much charm) in a lot of music since the end of the 70’s music and the second new wave passed.

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              • johnnydark says:

                Glad to see EBTG noted, can’t believe I forgot to mention them as I own everything they’ve done as a group (not all the Thorn and Watt solo later stuff), and have seen them live three times and read Ben Watt’s book. I also loved the Lilac Time and Stephen Duffy. Great calls, all.

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                • tim says:

                  I saw EBTG live right before the dance mix of “Missing” catapulted them to D&B realms. They were totally charming. Ben talked a bit about his health issues, they told some amusing stories and took quite a lot of requests.

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                  • postpunkmonk says:

                    tim – Same for me! I saw them in late ’94 after liking them for years. Good timing, too! I’ve not really bothered with their albums following “Baby The Stars Shine Bright” but I had lots of singles as was my wont [singles are harder to get going forward than albums].

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  3. Echorich says:

    Ok, a few things upfront. I love Robin Clark and if not for her OUAT would have been a total loss for me. OUAT is so obviously a stab at “U2dom”™ and it unfortunately reaches that goal. In fact I have to think Kerr listened over and over to the band’s Under A Blood Red Sky to get that strained emotion that Bono managed live and brought it with him to the studio…head shaking really, head shaking. Finally to get thing going here, I hate that Bob Clearmountain and Jimmy Iovine were chosen – whether willingly by the band or under duress – to produce Once Upon A Time. For this reason alone the album loses it’s link with the New/Proto European of Simple Minds’ past separating the band from it forever really. I wonder if A&M wanted a US producer, why they didn’t consider Todd Rundgren. Sure he may have been New Wave’s Phil Spector in some way (especially if you listen to XTC’s Andy Partridge) but he understand a band’s vision all the same.

    As if to remind fans of how Simple Minds starts an album, the opening title track tries for a bit of that Sparkle In The Rain magic, but here it’s not unexpected and it’s got no shock value. MacNeil’s keyboards are like left overs from – and you hit it right on the head Monk – a Cars recording session. Here the repetitive progression of the melody seems like an M.C. Escher staircase to nowhere (an image which would be used in the All The Things She Said video if memory serves) and just lay’s flat.
    One thing I find with most of the tracks is that the instrumental passages and codas which lay between Kerr’s vocal bleating do at times give some hint of a real Simple Minds song/sound. But they are fleeting moment.
    If I had been and A&R Man for A&M in 1985 and had the tapes in hand gearing up for SM’s post Don’t You release. I would have saved All The Things She Said, released it worldwide as a single – maybe an EP in US (which was still a viable way to sell a band not quite ready for their next album) and stirred a bit more momentum. For me it’s the strongest song on the album, even if it’s one of the greatest departures from the band’s sonic history. The track has a confidence and power and could have produced a great buzz. This would have given the band more time to really work out what they wanted from OUAT and maybe even find their voice again. Sure the die was cast and changes were made that had to be dealt with, but just a bit more time might have meant the band had a bigger voice in what OUAT turned out to be.
    As side one closes we come to it’s greatest disappointment. Alive And Kicking is Don’t You rewritten and reimagined – and too little, too late. For me it stinks of American Rock Anthem. It’s music for arena’s not bedsits.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Yes, Robin Clark is the only part of this experiment that I could get behind. More later.

      I have to think Kerr listened over and over to the band’s Under A Blood Red Sky to get that strained emotion that Bono managed live…

      Ouch! So true! You can strain your emotions or you can strain your bowels, and the net result is the same; your face turns red and beads of perspiration appear on your forehead. I would hardly applaud in any case. “Alive + Kicking” was “Don’t You” not just re-written, but photocopied down five generations to the point that nothing you might have once almost liked was still there; leaving only the flaws coarse and emboldened.

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  4. zoo says:

    Side one stinks out loud except for “Ghost Dancing.” If you can get past the fact that it is a U2 rip-off of the highest order, the song rocks. The less said about “Alive and Kicking,” the better. I for one could do without the female backing vox, regardless of Clark’s “Bowie cred.” There’s no place for it in a SM song, IMO. Can you image her singing back up on “This Fear of Gods”? Me either. Just shows are far SM had slid by this point.

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    • Echorich says:

      Monk will remember this better than I, but at the 2013 DC concert we attended, I think current female vocalist Sarah Brown was off stage. I’m not as opposed to a female voice in the mix, but Kerr should have left the emotional vocals to Clark rather than try to tackle them himself – unsuccessfully.

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      • postpunkmonk says:

        Echorich – Do you know, I really can’t remember if Sarah Brown was onstage during “Alive + Kicking” or not – though she should have been! I tend to go far away to the safe place [taps cranium] …in my mind …when that song is playing! I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, though! I’ll tell you what. I’ll check the “Live @ Glasgow Hydro” DVD at home tonight and report back my findings. That show was recorded just a few weeks after the show we caught. It should be very similar.

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  5. Never bought this album as it seemed to me to be played (to death) on the radio, like picking up a copy Pink Floyd’s The Wall! Why bother when its being given away every hour of every damn day on the radio? Heh, remember when we all still listened to (some, or mostly) commercial radio?

    I was still finding a lot of gems to keep me busy in the late 80s, but I also echo JohnnyDark’s path when a lot of the bands that peaked in the early 80s ran dry. On reflection this was a good thing, giving us time to explore other genres, expand our tastes and venture outside rock and “alternative” (ha!), but it sure as heck wasn’t welcome at the time and wasn’t intentional! Looking back, though, it’s as if someone in LA and London emptied a flask of creativity-killing potion into the water supply, so many bands fell off the radar so quickly!

    “Alive and Kicking” struck me immediately as “oh they’re trying to write another stadium song” and that was probably that for my relationship with the band for a long time to come. “All the Things She Said” was, as far as I could tell from the radio, the best that album had to offer, and while it was more interesting than their other megahit singles it didn’t stick with me. I didn’t have any U2 hate at the time (that would come later), but SM ain’t U2 and Jimmy Iovine — as remarkable a life as he has managed — is certainly no Brian Eno (and of course how weird is that the guy who took U2 to the pinnacle was Brian Eno?!).

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      chasinvictoria – Re: Eno/U2, I recall a Simple Minds interview with Charlie Burchill in the pages of trouser Press ca. 1982 and the writer posits the notion of Eno producing Simple Minds and Charlie was really warm to the idea. It would have made so much more sense than what eventually happened. In retrospect, maybe it would still turned out the same? After Talking Heads, Eno seemed to be looking for a band at the next level. I would imagine, that he fancied the notion of seeing how far he could penetrate into the charts with his esoteric theories. I’ve only ever liked two Iovine productions, since I inextricably link him to the dreaded Springsteen. One is “Tenement Steps”* and the other was “The Lover Speaks.” The former houses the best track never produced by Trevor Horn and the latter was like a mashup of Scott Walker with Liz Fraser on backing vocals, but it worked for me.

      * And even half of that album is unlistenable!

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  6. JT says:

    “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. ”

    …and Roxy Music.
    Not to mention Sparks, the Dead Boys, Icehouse, Laurie Anderson, and The Church.
    Let us not be too harsh on the man.
    Remember, he’s the engineer, not the producer.

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    • johnnydark says:

      Fair enough. You can’t blame Rudy Van Gelder for a weaker Blue Note or Prestige session. I’ll also say that I liked Let’s Dance plenty, but I always had a soft spot for Chic, and really only started listening to Bowie seriously with the Scary Monsters album, so I didn’t carry the baggage of how far it was from his earlier brilliant stuff.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      JT – You called me on a low blow, it’s true. Clearmountain does fantastic work on every project. He’s a legend for a reason. If only for producing and engineering “Can’t Stand The Rezillos!” he’d be a mensch in my world; not to mention the other 79 records with his name on them in my Record Cell. I stand chastened. Hell, this album sounds great; it’s just that it is saying nothing that I want to hear.

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