Simple Minds | Once Upon A Time – 1.5
[continued from previous post]
Side two began on a down note with “Oh Jungleland.” When a song this blatantly evokes The Boss, where can the album go but down? I’m shocked that Iovine allowed this. At least it wasn’t ten minutes long! Kerr’s Gorbals derived street life/council flat lyrical images here are stone cold Springsteen-gone-Celtic rips, delivered dead-on-arrival. Shameful! Ironically, the playing of bassist John Giblin is less than perfunctory for the only time on the album on this song, of all the ones he had to choose from to come alive for.
When “I Wish You Were Here” began with a subtle reggae skank beat from the sticks of Mel Gaynor. A shocking sidestep into island sounds that only manifested on this album. The track is one of the more subtle, and therefore, appealing numbers here. The backing vocals are particularly good with Gaynor in fine voice along with rest of the men’s chorus. Only Jim Kerr disappoints with his ragged falsetto that had by now worn out its welcome.
The second single released from the album was the troubling “Sanctify Yourself” and it was a bit more exciting musically than the soporific “Alive + Kicking,” but the lyrics were as messianic as anything dreamed up by Mr. Hewson of U2. Gaynor’s drums were set on “basic stomp,” so he must have been nodding off here; it’s a far cry from the gripping patterns delivered on “Sparkle In The Rain.” The vibe of the song was that of a repellent gospel tune with lyrics not far behind. This was the one track on the album where the backing vocals actually made a bad track worse to these ears. The only solace that this track provided was that it could be argued that it was another time when U2 took a look at what Simple Minds had done and thought that they would get them some of that! Of course, U2 in comparison, sold many millions of copies of “Rattle + Hum” but even they began to feel a critical backlash at that time.
The album dipped one more time into the reggae pool for “Come A Long Way,” with the results sounding not too far off from The Police. Again, Gaynor offered a reggae skank with a light touch, but this time Charlie Burchill’s guitars had more than a little of the open chording that Andy Summers had favored in The Police to them. Derivative? Yes, but the results, like those on “I Wish You Were Here” resulted in tracks that were approaching subtlety in an album of big shapes and banal lyrical concepts.
It wasn’t just the lyrics that held this album back. As the band moved further rightward into conventional songwriting rather than jamming to develop material, Mike MacNeil became more and more conventional in his playing choices. After all, it pays to remember that they found him in a wedding band! He had been pushed out of his comfort zone by these weirdos and their Krautrock records. This forced him to grow in new directions that made him a better synth player. It’s notable that the album credits for this album list his credit as “piano and keyboards” as if a piano wasn’t a keyboard! This in turn led to MacNeil acting as a multiplier of conformity in the band’s music. Once they crossed a line in the sand in terms of their songwriting towards the commonplace; writing “proper” songs instead of jamming, the innate conservatism of MacNeil was awakened like a sleeper cell of banality waiting for the right moment to strike.
The songwriting now revealed a wholly new modus operandi. Prior to this point, they obviously built their songs around rhythms and riffs constructed by jamming in rehearsal with all cylinders [and band members] firing. Now they were composing conventional songs and worse, Derek Forbes was not there to ground the band rhythmically. Any grooves that appeared on this album were tepid echoes of what had once been plentiful and dramatic. All of this bad news pales in comparison to the instantaneous headswell Kerr obviously got on the Live Aid stage.
Kerr had now succumbed to the dreaded BS Syndrome [Bono/Sting] wherein the artiste is firmly convinced that the fate of the world now hangs on his every utterance and that we, the grateful masses, would be lost in the wilderness without the light they lead us by, amen. Where once the band’s lyrics were part of an impenetrable wall of sound; abstract and mentally intriguing, they now trafficked in world-saving homilies and shopworn cliché. No sonic or lyrical mush was too flaccid deter the band’s way to the nearest stadium.
I have been listening to this album heavily for almost three weeks now and it’s hard listening because it’s practically a frictionless surface, save for the numerous vocal gaffes that Kerr indulges in like a punch drunk boxer too addled to avoid the fist flying repeatedly into his face. There are few details that invite me to dwell on it. I have found that the backing vocal bridge to “I Wish You Were Here” actually gained traction in my mental tape deck. It’s quite nice, as are most of the backing vocals on this album. Anything from this album sticking with me is a new phenomenon as I have been listening to it more in the last few weeks than any time the last 30 years. It’s a safe, professional product that took no chances.
One major observation that occurred to me now in listening to this album and Burchill’s playing was, that for decades, I assumed that it was his move from more left-field textural playing into rock cliché that brought the show down. I was wrong. His playing on this album was still largely textural once I bothered [and it was hard] to listen to those songs carefully. This has been a revelation for me. For years I had maintained that the band moving from composing in jam sessions to writing “proper songs” was the group’s death knell, and I mistakenly attributed that to Burchill’s actions, which I now see didn’t really occur to the extent that I had mistakenly thought that they had. At least by the time of “Once Upon A Time.”
Next: …Dead From The Neck Up In The City of Light