Rock G.P.A.: Simple Minds [part 24]

simle minds - onceuponatimeUSCDA

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.

simple minds - sanctify yourselfUK12A

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

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

  1. Echorich says:

    Side Two leaves nothing to the fan’s imagination. It’s more proof that this is an album that feels more like it was written in a conference room, under directive rather than one which came together organically from artistic notions.
    Jungleland is jaw droppingly bad. I just can’t say anything else about it.
    The open spaces of I Wish You Were Here are a bit more comforting and a reminder of where Simple Minds can go with a song. I have to take issue with MacNeil’s bell/chime-like keys on the song, but Burchill holds up his end impressively, proving that Simple Minds’ DNA wasn’t completely corrupted. If only Kerr could have dialed it down a bit. There is something to be said for less is more school of thought and maybe if he had channelled some of the Ferry influence of the past, the song might have come together that much more.
    Sanctify Yourself is more Anthem Rock that find’s it’s DNA in U2’s Two Hearts and New Year’s Day. I Think you are clearly on to something with your reference to U2 following suit on Rattle & Ho-Hum and even Joshua Tree a few years later. Much of OUAT is a flawed blueprint for that sound which Daniel Lanois would have so much success in bringing to U2. I don’t include The Unforgettable Fire in this comparison because that album is an obvious Eno led melange and interpretation of New Gold Dream and Sons And Fascination Simple Minds.
    Finally, Come A Long Way comes a very short way from side one’s All The Things She Said. It’s part Southern Gospel song (Swing Low Sweet Chariot anyone?) and part self parody of many of the band’s signatures. The synths are dialed down and Burchill acquits himself well with his guitar work, but Kerr and the backing chorus pull away from anything subtle that is at the heart of the track. I wonder if this shouldn’t have been an instrumental in true SM tradition.
    So this is where capturing the brass ring with Don’t You led Simple Minds. It would be a one way path for the next decade or more and one strewn with potholes, sharp curves and speed bumps.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Of late, Kerr has admitted that they were definitely trying to see how much sales they could get under their belts at any cost. This interview is a wonder of 20-20 hindsight. The one thing that way too many plays of this album has netted me was newfound respect for Burchill’s work even here. I was wrong to blame him for this record for 30 years. Mel Gaynor was a far sight from the dazzling performance he gave on the previous record, but at least the production showed his work in a kinder light. I wouldn’t find fault with his drumming here, it’s just more workmanlike.

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  2. zoo says:

    If “I Wish You Were Here” is the best song on an album (and I believe it is on OUAT), then that isn’t saying too much for that album (hence, the 1.5 grade, which I can’t argue with). I don’t know if SFY is necessarily a better album, but I find it more interesting.

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  3. Brian says:

    I no longer have the album, but my love for the 12″ kept me from parting with the singles… somehow. From the entire OUAT era, the only moment I like is the flip side to the Alive & Kicking 12″. It’s a live version of Up on the Catwalk from the Jan. ’85 Barrowland show. As you mentioned in an earlier installment, it’s Derek Forbes’ finale with the band, and for that it’s worth keeping.

    Now go have a pint. You deserve it after three weeks of listening to that album.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Brian – I only recently got the gold mirror sleeved “Alive + Kicking” with the live “Catwalk” in 2011, after 26 years of never seeing it. Of course, I bought the US 7″ for the same track back in the day. By 1990 I had the “Themes” volumes and that’s what I’ll listen to now! Listening to OUAT heavily for almost a month has hopefully hardened me for what lies ahead! LITCOL! The blood chilling SFY!!

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  4. Simon H says:

    I always chuckle when I recall how irritated a friend of mine at college was when I gave up on the band at this point! Your comment re the ‘frictionless surface’ articulates how I struggled to find anything that grabbed me here…and that was after I only had my own copy after getting it as a freebie on subscribing to the long gone UK mag, Jamming! (I also received the second Lloyd Cole album which was preferable). The friend in question repeatedly questioned my disdain and basically thought I was one big musical snob worried about my indie cred, as if:) He attended their Wembley gig the following year (ironically with Shriekback as support) I was very glad I didn’t.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Simon H – Your tale of your friend reminds me that I always find it disingenuous when artists moan about their “old fans” who wanted the band to remain an exclusive cult entity as opposed to a group with mass popularity! That’s malarkey! I want great music to have mass popularity! The system occasionally works, and it’s beautiful when it does What I hate is when groups water down or eliminate their artistic point of view for the sake of sales! I hate it when groups I find worthy pander and whore, and when they do, I will call them on it in no uncertain terms. Music is a business. I get it. Artists can walk a fine line and meet the mass market on their terms… or they can capitulate to their perceived notion of what the market wants. When they abandon their belief in themselves, for reasons of money, ego stroking, or worse, then it’s always disastrous. I would have loved to have seen Shriekback, but not at Wembley! No one is worth seeing in a stadium.

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  5. Simon H says:

    Agree on all counts, I think at the time I was just mystified at the complete absence of anything interesting about the album, so much so that I’m intrigued to read about what happened next as I pretty much blanked them from then on until relatively recently…
    Oh, he did come back from the gig raving about Nemisis though:)

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Simon H – Your friend turned out to have some taste after all! If ever there was a Shriekback song that was “stadium ready” I guess that was as close as they ever came to it! It’s hard to imagine drunken stadium louts braying the word “parthenogenesis,” in any case!

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