That’s right. Your eyes are not deceiving you. There are some albums so wanting, in my opinion, that they merit the once-in-a-lifetime zero rating in the Rock G.P.A. game. Trust me. A zero rating here will be even more rare of an event than a five star rating in Q Magazine. Not in the case of this album, since Q can hardly be said to see eye-to-eye with me for this release. They gave this LP one of their scant 5 star ratings upon its release, but for once, I’m much more in line with the reviewers in Rolling Stone, who called this one as a 2/5 sort of album. But I’m not so generous with an album that provokes incredulous anger like this one.
With a year since their double live album and three years on from their troubling “Once Upon A Time” disc, one could not help but notice that Simple Minds were taking enormous amounts of time to follow up their biggest hit album worldwide. The net effect of all of this wasted time is apparent on a band who, when they were nimble, had no problem issuing two albums a year [’79, 81] and at the very least issued one per year. As soon as the laser hit the polycarbonate it was vividly apparent that this was a brand new Simple Minds experience, albeit one which, had I bothered to listen than as carefully as I did recently, had been plainly telegraphed on their previous release. This would be music of gravity. Double bass right out of Pat Metheny’s “Last Train Home” began the title track subtly as the smooth jazz keyboards heralded Jim Kerr singing intimately, instead of the ragged bellowing that had been normalized during the beginnings of the band’s money spinning arena phase. That didn’t hurt, but the devil was in the details.
When Charlie Burchill’s guitar entered the cut at its halfway point, his tone was redolent of Queen’s Brian May; not like anything he had ever attempted before, and this being a Trevor Horn production, Horn’s predilection for orchestras got trotted out fairly early on when Kerr sang “here comes a hurricane” to the accompaniment of a full orchestra rising politely to the occasion, albeit one where former Theam member Anne Dudley was not writing the score. By this time, she and her Art of Noise cohorts had already split up with Horn and were eking out a novelty career at China Records.
The cut maundered on for almost seven minutes; bereft of tension, release, melody, and many other aspects of memorable music. It seemed gentle to the ear, but in fact it was tuneless with no aspect of an emotional arc to follow, only an unmemorable swirl of chord progressions more common to soundtrack work than with rock music. The track then ended as calmly as it had begun; occasionally working itself into a head of steam for a few measures then keening chaotically into the ether for several more bars at a time. The track was dedicated to the memory of Chilean educator and political activist Victor Jara, but that was a sentiment that I would have viewed as something of an insult.
Jara supported the Salvadore Allende [the first democratically elected Marxist leader in Latin America] presidency of Chile throughout his term and was arrested the very next day following the CIA-backed coup that removed Allende and placed dictator Augusto Pinochet in power in 1973. He was summarily executed and became a potent avatar for political injustice in the face of imperialist force going forward. I can imagine Victor Jara spinning at about 2000 r.p.m. in his grave over the indignity of being associated with such formless and grandiloquent posturing that sounds as if it has far more in common with the inevitability of monolithic establishment power and control than with political resistance. The Clash actually wrote a song that referenced Victor Jara. “Washington Bullets” was a world class example of witty and perceptive political protest within a rock music context. A busker could sing it on a street corner in any city and it would fit right in with its timeless and direct message and appeal. It was music made for people.
“Street Fighting Years” is not the people’s music. It stands like a 300 foot statue erected in the middle of a public square with no expense spared for its construction by a domineering leader indifferent to the sufferings of his citizens if not directly hostile to them. This was music as monumental force. It can be observed and judged, but the notion of it making a human connection is laughable. To think otherwise is to engage in fraud.
The other metaphor that it brought to mind when listening to this was the image of a fleet of vast airships, blocking out the sun. These could only be large, slow moving leviathans of the air, filled with gas. Prodigious, but insubstantial, with little actual substance to account for their bulk. With a single spark, they would go up in flames with no survivors. If I could take a recording of this album back in time to 1979 and play it for Jim Kerr, I’m certain that his hair would turn white overnight at the thought of this issuing from his band’s collective pen. If he thought that his band sounding like The Boomtown Rats on their debut album was a disaster, what then would he make of his group sounding like an unholy mixture of Dire Straits with Yes during their most indigestible “Tales Of Topographic Oceans” or “Relayer” albums!!
Next: …The bludgeoning continues