Rock G.P.A.: Simple Minds [part 39]

simple minds - NeapolisUKCDASimple Minds | Néapolis – 3

[continued from last post]

The level of  innovation on “Glitterball” didn’t do it any favors on the almighty UK charts. Usually pre-release singles from an upcoming album spiked much higher in the UK top ten, but after 17 years, perhaps the magic was beginning to fade since “Glitterball” only crept up to the number 18 position where the follow up singles normally peaked. The next single fared much worse!

simple minds - warbabiesEUROCDA“War Babies” had an intriguing genesis. The track was based on the Tim Simenon remix of an earlier single, “Hypnotised [Malfunction Mix],” but this would not be the first time that this gambit would be employed by the band. The group obviously liked the grinding, industrial rhythm bed Simenon constructed because a close relative of it became the basis for “War Babies.” The heavy, synth bass rhythms received a contrasting counterpoint with the rich string arrangements that accompanied the lilting ballad. The end result was something of a modern Simple Minds classic, featuring new sounds married to a sturdy melody that could have been from any time in the last decade, but it too fell on deaf ears. The second, final, and most commercial single to be taken from “Néapolis”  failed to make the UK top 40; peaking at a lowly number 43.  That was the lowest chart showing by the band on a single since 1981’s “Sweat in Bullet” charted at number 52.

What would have been the third single, “Tears Of A Guy” was a dazzling melánge of hip-hop beats, grinding Hammond organ samples and a touch of distorted guitar that was miles away from the conservative sounds that guitarist Charlie Burchill had been favoring prior to this album. Kerr kept out his stadium box as well and his vocals, which had been agreeable since “Street Fighting Years” to my ears, were now set loose in a new and inventive sonic playground. It made all the difference in the world. To me, at least. Sample the unreleased David Bascombe single mix below.

While the last track touched on the fringes of hip-hop, “Superman V Supersoul” strode deeper outside out of the band’s comfort zones into uncharted territory. This song featured a lilting, almost folkie melody with hip hop samples and faux scratching. Again, a major coloring of this album was the squelchy, virtual Hammond organ sounds; reeking of 1971, dropped into an utterly fin de siècle vibe where it ended up sounding like neighbors to a band like Urban Dance Squad. I never would have imagined Simple Minds sounding so far off their well-trod path, but having heard it, it worked for me.

The psychedelic, blissed out vibe of these songs got a needed injection of energy with the propulsive, galloping “Lightning.” The rhythm bed had a breathless, chaotic quality that harkened back to “I Travel” while the song was laced with what sounded like blues harmonica samples used rhythmically to accent the train-like rhythms that never let up for a second. Kerr’s lyrics were as intriguingly opaque and fragmentary as they had not been since “Sons + Fascination.” Best of all, the tune sported an honest-to-goodness Derek Forbes bass line one could ride to kingdom come and back! This was an exciting band once again.

“Riot time right noise.
Violent times speak.
Bottled up – like a fake damnation.
Lightning speed.
Crackdown backdoors.
Meltdown shoes.
Bare back riders – a rank outsider.
An automatic cruise.” – Lightning

After such a storming track, the volte-face of pacing that was “If I Had Wings” was something of a let down. While the overall relaxed vibe of the album contrasted with the repetitive, motorik rhythms much of it sported, on this track the band gave into the listless vibe inherent in the music and without that crucial divergence and contrast, the end result tumbled off its pedestal and crossed the line into torpid. Much better was the Valerie Solanis inspired “Killing Andy Warhol.” Undoubtedly, Kerr had seen “I Shot Andy Warhol” in 1996 and it got the wheels turning. The song is a great complement to the film with an intro constructed from mandolin or bouzouki loops being yet another left field excursion into virgin territory.

With all of the new ground covered on the album, there was a single concession to tradition to be found here. The album ended with a trance-derived instrumental called “Androgyny,” that played out like the sequel to “Theme For Great Cities” as the band dove deep into the Neu!/La Düsseldorf Krautrock playbook for one last, definitive time. It differed from the “Sons/Sister” sound by having Derek Forbes on rubbery bass synth instead of a guitar, but it slots in well to that space in any case.

Listening to this album repeatedly over the last few weeks has been a real pleasure, and my initial embrace of this album was more than confirmed. True, the return of Derek Forbes was largely a non-event here. The writing credits conspicuously state Kerr/Burchill. There was certainly a dearth of world straddling Forbes bass lines to be found here. He seemed to be just another pickup bassist at this stage. Long gone were the days of Forbes and the drummer laying vibrant foundation for MacNeil and Burchill to interject their strategic melodic DNA, but that ship had sailed.

What it did offer was a band who had been around the block several times rising to new technology and new challenges without being cowed or afraid to take chances. Not all of them worked, but I’ll take the rough with the smooth at that stage of the band’s career. It was so much more gratifying than the stadium era to these relieved ears. But that’s just my opinion. Whole swaths of the former Simple Minds audience were less than convinced and the album died the death commercially; ending the band’s long ride at the top of the charts that had begun 17 years earlier.

Between Britpop, grunge, and prefabricated pop unexpectedly making a comeback in the charts, it seemed as if Simple Minds had made a return to synthetic art rock at the worst possible time in the market. That was a large pity, since it caused a crisis of confidence in the band which was undeniably crippling, as we will see in the next post, as they made a 180° turn into a completely different direction that no one could have predicted.

Next: …Guest Starring Simple Minds

About postpunkmonk

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8 Responses to Rock G.P.A.: Simple Minds [part 39]

  1. Echorich says:

    Néapolis, the next world where time and space was just chaotic and unexpected as the music Simple Minds created as its soundtrack. Burchill and Kerr went to great lengths to create outside the box they had happily climbed into more than a decade earlier…in fact they got out of the box, turned it on its side, sprayed it with a psychedelic, motorik grafitti and stood on it for all to hear what they created…it’s a shame no one came to listen.
    Glitterball, War Babies and Tears Of A Guy are exciting, urgent and filled with purpose. Tears Of A Guy somehow manages to meld the 90’s shuffle beat with a motorik strictness that is kind of hard to imagine until you hear it.
    If a track like Superman V Supersoul is so completely in the Peter Walsh/SM wheelhouse it’s beautiful in its uniqueness. Filled with almost ambient hip hop loops and wonderful art rock organ samples it’s the definition of melange.
    Lightning starts twenty thousand leagues under the sea and quickly rises to the shore like a bullet train. Simple Minds are at their best when they grab the listener and take them on a journey and Forbes’ bassline is the motor for this speeding train.
    I agree Monk, that Killing Andy Warhol had to come out of the I Shot Andy Warhol film, but it’s really a great indictment of the state of art and culture at the end of The Century. Simple Minds still had something to say 20 years on.
    Ending Néapolis with an atmospheric, countrapuntal instrumental was a shot at final clarity for the band. Whether it had be come a device or a signature, it just felt right. There’s some of that classic jam session feel to the track as well. The final fade out feels like the band just went on playing “as the tape ran out.” Simple Minds, once again, in the zone.

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    • Echorich says:

      Once again post before cleaning up my comment. Apologies for any head scratching errors.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Poetry, sir! Astute to point out the [dreaded] 90’s shuffle beat in “Tears Of A Guy.” It’s easy for me to overlook it due to the dynamism of the track. Dynamism is not normally a word I associate with the shuffle beat! And so true, re: the fade out on “Androgyny!” How this track failed to take its place next to “Theme For Great Cities” probably comes down to how almost no one heard it!

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  2. zoo says:

    This album isn’t that far off from what they’ve done on Big Music…a similar sound. This is a solid album, but a shame that Forbes didn’t stand out more, which could have made it really special.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      zoo – You’re right. “Big Music” also relies heavily on virtual instruments and computers. In that respect, it shared some DNA with the new album. The technology has moved forward in nearly 20 years, but the song remains the same. I could make a similar remark about how it would have been good to hear more of Gaynor and Grimes on the new album.

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      • Echorich says:

        Agreed Monk, there is a lot of shared DNA between the two. I think, though, that SM has more cred working with technology than a number of their contemporaries who are now relying solely on “soft-synth sounds.” There isn’t as heavy a reliance on them as say OMD’s. In the right hands, and with the right tempering, computers can make some beautiful music.

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  3. Steve says:

    I’m going to have to dig out “Neapolis” and check it out again. “Big Music” is growing on me with every listen…

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Steve – I can’t believe that there is still 15 years of Simple Minds to still review, but there was a lot of waiting in that time, so we should finish this thread in February. “Big Music” grows like a fungus, but “Néapolis” still has plenty to offer.

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