Rock G.P.A.: Simple Minds [part 29]

simple minds - streetfightingyearsUSCDASimple Minds | Street Fighting Years – 0

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




About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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10 Responses to Rock G.P.A.: Simple Minds [part 29]

  1. johnnydark says:

    Good review, and while I didn’t feel the same anger you did, I think you hit all the points spot on.
    For me, it just felt irrelevant, as I didn’t connect with the forced grandeur nor any of the politics since they were so specifically UK. The album that got in my craw like this did yours was Spandau Ballet’s Through the Barricades. Now, Spandau was pretty much a guilty pleasure for me from True on, so I was surprised at how much I felt like they had sold out.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      johnnydark – Great call! Yes, “Through The Barricades” is a hellish precursor to this album. Hugely MOR but equally ponderous and grim in its own fashion. Funny, that one was produced by ex-ZTT maven Gary [Art Of Noise] Langan. What’s up there??


      • Echorich says:

        Monk, I think it’s more than just a funny coincidence that Langan worked on Through The Barricades, it reflects the loss of relevance of much of what ZTT once stood for and had since become. As you mentioned before, Horn and his acolytes as well, could still create the odd masterful turn when brought in by an artist or band that knew what they were looking for, but a lot of what they did into the 90’s lacked the glare of brilliance they once could affect in the 80’s.


  2. zoo says:

    I hadn’t listened to this one in a while, so when I spun it yesterday at work, it was with relatively fresh ears. I have to admit, that other than “Biko,” I don’t dislike this album. I’d probably give it a 2 on the GPA scale. Having said this, I don’t like it as a SM album. But if it dropped into my lap without knowing anything about SM prior to SFY, I wouldn’t think it was terrible (which I can’t say about OUAT). In the context of the SM canon, though, it stinks compared to what came before.

    I like what you said about what Kerr would think if you could go back in time and play it for him in ’79. Better yet, what would Forbes think knowing that was what the band would become (he at least could be relieved that he had no part of it).


    • postpunkmonk says:

      zoo – Forbes wasn’t doing much better in the cringe-worthy Propaganda mark II the same year! Interesting that you have more issues with OUAT. As much as I dislike OUAT, I have bigger problems with this. On every level from musical to philosophical.


  3. Echorich says:

    I’m not going to get into it with Street Fighting Years, except to state it took years, had no street or fight to it whatsoever. That they found some way to associate the title track with Victor Jara is almost laughable…sort of a “let’s throw darts at a board filled with activists” (sort of the way The Bay CIty Rollers came up with their name) idea to associate tracks that seemed to need some association to elevate them.
    Thank you Monk for name checking Washington Bullets, one of The Clash’s Sandinista’s most insidious and thus successful tracks. I’m now listening to that album as a protest.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – That album is large and sprawling but inviting. Even at over twice the length! “Sandinista!” is still my favorite Clash album, though I have yet to hear albums numbers 1, 2, and 6 in all fairness.


      • Echorich says:

        I’ll have to give favorite Clash album to London Calling. It was everything The Clash was working towards on The Clash and Give Em Enough Rope. It stands among my Top 5 albums of all time.
        Sandinista is the album that only a band that had made London Calling could have hoped to have achieved. I agree with you that it is sprawling yet very approachable. It deals with global and personal issues. It’s filled with commentary, calls to action and reflection on the events of its time. Sandinista includes some of The Clash’s most intimate songs, one’s which I hold really dear – Charlie Don’t Surf, Street Parade, Corner Soul and Something About England. As intimate as they sound, they deal with issues of War and it’s after effects, Poverty and the long term effects of Colonial Imperialism.


  4. Drive-by comments: Clearly this record is SM’s Through the Barricades — mein gott in himmel, how I loathe that album!

    The Clash — I am particularly partial to the first album, since it’s such a great debut and gets in and out quickly, but establishes their entire career in 30 minutes (and I got in on the ground floor with that one — bought it as an import the week it came out!). Not arguing that London Calling and Sandinista! aren’t great records though. PPM, I am shocked that you haven’t treated yourself to albums 1 and 2, this needs to be rectified! One last comment on Sandinista!: I have always approached it as a Whitman’s Sampler, rarely listening all the way through, and it has kept it fresh and delightful for me that way.

    ZTT/Horn/Act — only this bunch could start a discussion about SFY and its suckitude and turn it into a moveable feast on these acts! Horn’s ability to rescue mediocre material was and is astonishing, but I’m glad to see someone call out the not-great stuff from this legendary period.


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