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The number one commenter on this blog, Echorich, avoids live albums on principle. I envy him for never having heard what I can only call the “hoedown version” of “Someone Somewhere [In Summertime]” complete with ghastly fiddling by Lisa Germano added to the song like a third limb some deranged surgeon had decided was an “improvement.” The violin fights Mike McNeil for space in the resulting track and stands as the worst thing that I’ve ever heard Simple Minds do to one of their own songs. It should be added, that concertgoers never heard this live since the band did not tour with Germano until their next album. This abomination was done strictly after the fact.
“Oh Jungleland” seemed a wholly studio concoction as the audience was largely airbrushed out of the event. In its favor, I have to say that Mel Gaynor was on fire for this track with the best drumming on evidence in the whole program appearing here. Sadly, the song was still “Oh Jungleland” at the end of the day; complete with Jim Kerr’s mawkishly contrived “kid called hope” lyric imagery. By the time this song ended, one could be excused for forgetting they were listening to a “live” album at all.
In a move that would look increasingly familiar by the time one is done listening to this album, the energy level of the song was dropped precipitously for an extended coda featuring exaggerated contrast of tempo being employed as a shtick by this point. What would have been a 30 second fadeout was ballooned into a two minute, slow-motion endurance test as Kerr strained and pulled the excruciating fade out into an obviously in-studio segue into the next track. Given that the next song that came in concert was “All The Things She Said,” major surgery was obviously needed to transition into “Alive And Kicking.”
In an eerie move, “Alive And Kicking” was segued from “Oh Jungleland” in utter, sterile silence. You, me, and the lamppost know that when the band launched into the twee intro of their huge hit single “Alive & Kicking” there would have been a thunderous response from the portion of the audience with no taste. Yet again, the end of this song teases another in an endless series of slow, stately codas® that assure the listener that one is listening to music of gravity. As the audience was faded out, Mike McNeil’s synths continued on in the studio for another 25 seconds of ambience. I should be thankful it was not another two minute special.
Then, side three began with the already unavoidable “Don’t You [Forget About Me].” Surprisingly, it’s only 6:38 long, but it must be remembered that it was still relatively new in the band’s set list. Gratefully, Kerr hews fairly close to his phrasing and performance style as on the original track. He remains gratefully low key and intimate on the bulk of the song, just as on the single. There is an extended vocal bridge from Kerr before the closing singalong that was a rare moment of restraint given where he was headed by this time. It goes without saying that the shorter it is, the better it plays for a live version of this sing, so this recording sits on my good side, though it sounds like the audience singalong was faded out after a relatively brief 20-30 seconds.
As on the album, “Once Upon A Time” plays like the halfway interesting number it was. The bass sounds far better than the studio version here, and Robin Clark adds her coloration prominently to this number. Ms. Clark was the one aspect of the band at this time that I felt positively about. Adding female vocals to the band worked fine for me, even if I was not thrilled with many other aspects of the band. It didn’t hurt that she was a total pro who took her best shot at what was given to her. Seeing her remains the one positive memory of that 1986 show I attended.
When I first heard this album, I was actually excited by the radical re-arrangement of “Book Of Brilliant Things.” The track was completely re-jigged as a slow, stately ballad® complete with a keyboard-led new arrangement heavy on the string samples and electric piano. Unlike most of this album, the track began quietly and gradually built up a head of steam until it ended in a lather, and not before Kerr had added quotes from The Door’s “Five To One” in the song’s new bridge. Minus several hundreds points for a Door quote. When I listen to it now, I find that it telegraphed exactly where the band was headed next, and it now fills me with dread. On the upside, a track of under six minutes on this album is a blessing.
In a bit of wretched pacing, the track that followed was yet another slow, stately ballad®… this time “East At Easter” had been given the treatment, and while again, it differed from the album arrangement, it wins no novelty points from me. Who thought that it was a good idea to place two versions of tracks from “Sparkle In The Rain” with all of the life drained from them in a row? Next came “Sanctify Yourself” and while it was a slight improvement over the vibe of the album cut, as with “Oh Jungleland,” the fundamental flaws of the song were tied to the writing stage; undercutting the relative vibrance of the performance.
Next came the coup de grace; the killing blow. It might have been noticed that whole, vast segments of the Simple Minds canon were simply airbrushed out of their history at this stage of the game like some fiendish Ministry Of Truth gambit of revisionist history. No song earlier than ones on “New Gold Dream [81, 82, 83, 84]” were part of the setlist, and for very good reason. The band who had written and performed them no longer existed. Never was that made more plainly clear than with what the band did to “Love Song,” the sole track from “Sons + Fascination” played live here.
They actually managed to eviscerate it more thoroughly than anything that Linda Rondstadt ever did to the Elvis Costello songbook, for my money. The performed a scant, nearly unrecognizable two minutes of it as part of a medley with Little Steven’s “Sun City” and most disturbingly, Sly And The Family Stone’s “Dance To The Music!” Hearing this once nimble band of art rockers retreating into 60s soul music and playing self parodic classic licks in the solo section of the Sly Stone classic was truly disturbing. Having witnessed this affront live, it pains me to know that they thought it was worth immortalizing on this album!
Then, the crime committed, the encore appeared. One of my favorite Simple Minds songs, “New Gold Dream” appeared with every drop of its very Krautrock essence stripped from its bones, leaving a plodding rock tune with no paradox or sparkle. It’s very raison d’être; an experiment to see how far one could take motorik repetition into the territory of classic songcraft while maintaining fealty to the likes of Neu! or La Dusseldorf, made invalid by this capitulation to the obvious. As the once dazzling song shambles to a close after a brief 5:25, one becomes glad that this thing is indeed over.
What then, is the point of this record? It’s neither fish not fowl. John Foxx records albums that are “live in rehearsal” so one can hear the new arrangements he’s invested in his older material in the best possible quality. He also releases live albums where the performance vibe is emphasized, complete with audience. He’s smart enough to not try to do both at the same time. In any case, Kerr’s sloppy, ragged emoting through large swaths of this album is ceaselessly repugnant to these ears. He was never the reason I listened to this band in the first place. His dominance over the band at this point in their history is reflective of a sea change in the band that was now repelling me away from them. I was shocking for me to hear these these worst possible recordings of some songs that I loved just a year prior, as well as their playing a brace of uninteresting new material that I couldn’t bring myself to care for under the best of conditions.
Jim Kerr was a huge problem on this album. When he gave into passion on “Sparkle In The Rain,” it worked for me. He started to push himself and open up, but this was paired with some of the most direct and powerful music the band had ever recorded. Everything about “The Kick Inside of Me” was in the red and that was why it thrills me to this day. In many cases, as on the previous album, the band were playing at a more subdued level of “professional” intensity than on “Sparkle In The Rain.” Not Kerr.
He was pushing himself out into the realm of self-parody with his ragged emoting that was clearly unrelated to the rest of the band’s performance. He was going over the top at this new game of the dreaded “throwing large shapes” onstage and in the studio. It’s how one relates to ever larger audiences. If an artist is willing to go down this path, it results in the draining of all artistic subtlety from a performance. To these ears it sounds even more fraudulent than a live album heavily reconstructed in the studio, as this one was. When I listen to music, I don’t demand authenticity, but I do want honesty.
Most troubling, was the bold fashion that this album telegraphed the next, most horrifying step in Simple Minds history. Many of the songs here reflect the ham-fisted, overinflated majesty that was going to come home to roost with a vengeance on their next album. Simple Minds were clearly interested in seeing how much vitality they could drain out of their once angular and intriguing art rock in pursuit of the largest possible audience.
Next: …48 tracks? Child’s play! Let’s try 96!