Rock G.P.A.: Simple Minds [part 46]

simple minds - neon lights USCDASimple Minds | Neon Lights – 2

[continued from previous post]

The album reached a fevered peak with the next track. I’d heard Neil Young’s “The Needle + The Damage Done” before. There’s a copy of “Decade” in my Record Cell. Duran Duran took a stab at this tune during the sessions for their dismal “Thank You” sessions where it turned up as a B-side. Neither of these seemed to reflect the intensity that a song about the price of heroin should ideally have. This one does.

The long intro is built on a muted mechanical rhythm loop touched with some dissonant Burchill guitar harmonics before the bass line begins sucking the listener down into the morass. Then the drums kick in before some distorted guitar rears its ugly head and then the crux of the song appeared. It’s a violent guitar loop of scorching intensity that was repeated for two bars before disappearing abruptly, before atmospheric but subdued minor key synths lead into the vocals.

If Jim Kerr had been guilty of emulating some of the singers he was covering on this album, here he was engaging in impersonating Neil Young; replicating Young’s [previously distinctive] nasal falsetto style to the fullest extent possible. I wish he hadn’t done this. It gives this version of the song, by far the best I’ve heard by anyone, a second rate air when for all intents and purposes, it’s anything but that.

The spectral string patches that barely intrude during the second verse are perfectly chilling in their deadly stillness. As all other elements of the song fade out at the bridge, leaving only the vocoded backing vocals it creates a moment of perfect stillness that makes it seem like the song itself is nodding off. After four seconds of silence the vicious loop returns for a disturbingly mechanical repetition for a further four bars with various harmonics under them for maximum impact, before the song’s cold ending. Perfect. A song about heroin should have a cold ending.

The end result is a case where Simple Minds manage to become the go-to purveyors for a Neil Young classic. Nicely done, and in spite of Kerr’s vocals, which cause me reservations, but that’s how good the arrangement here was. I really am curious about the sample that is the key to this song. Was it Burchill or Goudie playing? Was it from a Neil young bootleg of another song ironically repurposed here? Was it someone else entirely? There are some harmonics that also loop with the riff, so it’s definitely taken from somewhere.

After that scorching number, the mood lightens for an elegiac  take on the intense title cut to Roxy Music’s “For Your Pleasure.” The number here sounds like a Neil Young take on it; all acoustic guitars and Fender Rhodes electric piano patches for that Laurel Canyon sound. At least Kerr doesn’t sing like Young here… or Bryan Ferry, for that matter. Of course, he made a minor career of that in the early days. The shimmering synths coalesce with Burchill’s mournful banshee guitar in the song’s finale to offer a much spacier take on the traditionally brutal original vibe.

The take of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” shows again the band’s penchant for fuzztone bass and tambourine loops. The juxtaposition of string patches and cymbalom make it sound like an old world circus parade. Not a bad vibe to end this album on following the dark peak of “The Needle + The Damage Done.” This is absolutely the most-covered song in my Record Cell. After this album was released, I made a mix CD called “All Tomorrow’s Parties VS Being Boiled.” It was filled with every version I had of those two songs, since this album in the American edition that I bought contained two bonus tracks as taken from the “Dancing Barefoot” EP, and one of them was their version of the Human League [MKI] classic.

human league - holiday'80UK2x7AThe original Human League version of the song was recorded to mono 2-track in 1978, but the version that is burned into my brain was the re-recording that the band did in 1980 for the “Holiday ’80” EP and later inclusion on their “Travelogue” album. I was obsessed with this second version for large chunks of 1981 through 1982. Icehouse had previously done a respectable cover of this during their “Berlin Tapes” sessions. By the late 90s, Heaven 17 began including it in their set lists, bless ’em! Could Simple Minds measure up to the standard set by those other bands?

The pedestrian drum track was nothing on the intensity of the Human League’s version 2. The cheap, nasty claptrap used by the Human League was a slap in the face with white noise and added much to the original’s bracing quality. The squelchy synth bass used by Simple Minds approximated some of the dramatic riffs that they were covering but Kerr’s vocals killed the deal for me.

For the the first time, Simple Minds finally entered the 90s and used autotune for effect, but it only served to make Kerr’s vocals more remote in the mix. When Phil Oakey intones “Listen to the voice of Buddha” on the original, it’s electric, as the mix drops out around his commanding tones. Kerr, in comparison, is barely here on the track! I won’t mention the complete lack an analog of the compulsive synthetic horns on the original that proved to be the most compelling of hooks. The last third of the cover just plods along like a loop until it mercifully comes to an end. Nothing touches the “Travelogue” version of this song for my ears, and this version remains another also-ran. I’ll give the nod to Icehouse for acing Simple Minds yet again, but ever their hot version is second best to the Human League’s version on “Travelogue.”

Finally, the last track here was even worse! Not that I’m a Joy Division purist [far from it], but what they did to Ian Curtis’ final single was a travesty! The song had been reduced here to a hideously upbeat handbag house version of little variation, looped with almost no development for its 4:49. It’s not a song. It’s a placeholder for one! The vibe was redolent of George Monroe’s 90s house cover of “I’m Not In Love,” but nowhere near as good. The vocals were relegated to a sample of the phrase “and love” as bleated by Kerr with the vocoded rejoinder “love will tear us apart again” following it…and that was it. The worst sort of rave music. Faceless, pointless, and heartless. For a band that had been jolted out of their debut album stupor by the appearance of “Unknown Pleasures,” this seemed cavalier in the extreme.

As Simple Minds had found themselves at low creative and emotional ebb after having their career nosedive with the ultimate indignity of being kicked off of  their [major] label, I was surprised that just two years later, they were getting back on the horse after a nasty fall. Of course, with their songwriting resources at loose ends, making a cover album was the gentlest way to ease back into the idea of still being a band. Better yet, Kerr and Burchill knuckled down and went off in different directions creatively.

They seemed to have reconciled themselves quickly to a world in which ProTools had become the studio. “Néapolis” was their first album to have extensive samples and loops and they kept with that methodology going forward, even when the market slapped them in the face. “Neon Lights” in some ways, sounds like the result of the band jettisoning Kevin Hunter and staying on the virtual instrument path, only pushing things much further out of their comfort zone. That Kerr had been seduced back to recording via DJs in his new home of Taormina, Italy was a key that he eagerly grasped as a possible way forward. The inroads into the dance sound were valuable in that it took them further afield from the areas that I had been having such trouble with for so long… stadium rock, overweeningly pious hot air…audiences singing along.

They treated this album like a series of loosely related experiments that might offer them a way out of their creative morass. That they were open to the challenge was an indication perhaps, of how much their confidence had been shaken by the last several years. When “Neon Lights” was being readied for the world, the Simple Minds website was dusted off and given a new makeover, and as usual, Kerr was the cheerleader for the band with frequent postings about the work in progress. Not only was the new album getting released in the Fall of 2001, but a follow-up album was being readied to be released the next year. Well, we had heard these claims before.  “Our Secrets Are The Same” was supposed to be the quick follow-up to “Néapolis,” but reality had not followed the script, and the album had been tabled.

The songs on “Neon Lights” ran the gamut from inspired to appalling. The one most encouraging thing about the work was that it showed a group unafraid of change in the face of ever steepening odds. How they would emerge from Chapel Perilous following a baptism of fire? This album suggested that there would be new growth on the other side, but it remained to be seen exactly what shape that it would take.

Next: …Out of the lab and into the real world

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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5 Responses to Rock G.P.A.: Simple Minds [part 46]

  1. Echorich says:

    Simple Minds’ magnificently dark and harrowing reading of Needle And The Damage Done is the end all, be all, version of this track and may no one ever attempt it again for fear of this version stomping all over it like grinding a syringe into the cement! I have to disagree with your assessment of Kerr’s vocals. Where Young’s nasal, quiet take is narrative, Kerr comes off as the victim or certainly more personally involved – attempting more to escape than comment. I don’t think you can sing this song with a stronger vocal, it would change the delicate dance on the razor’s edge the song manages. The opening is somewhere between a hurricane (see what I did there?) and a trip down a dark ally leading to an even darker basement. The final coda of Birchill’s chaotic, swirling guitar ends as cold as death. Cold as death, cold as death.
    Following up Needle with For Your Pleasure is programming genius! There’s a heavenly, world weary beauty to this Roxy classic that the band captures better than any other band attempting has ever managed. The synth washes and Burchill’s plaintive guitar envelope the listener in a numbing, inescapable cocoon. But then to fade into the almost anthemic nature of All Tomorrow’s Parties just continues this programming genius. Kerr, Burchill and Goudie manage to create a soundtrack to an imaginary night at Warhol’s Factory at the end of the decade, glamorous and sweetly sad. The song is the anti-anthem of the Flower Power Generation, with it’s huge reverb wall of sound spreading like a dark cloud over the sunshine of that impossible time and Simple Minds manage to carry that through with aplomb.
    I consider Being Boiled and Love Will Tear Us Apart as b-sides that do absolutely nothing but let down the American version of the album. Leaving them off the UK version of the album was the right decision. In fact, no music fan should ever be exposed to the dance inspired take on Love Will Tear Us Apart – it is really that bad.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Yes, I did see what you did there! Good form, sir! Well, you managed to convince me on Kerr’s vocal. It was the only factor in the song that gave me reservation, but I still was in awe of what they achieved in any case. The programming, as you point out, of the last three songs was brilliant. I would suggest this last four, actually. And yes, the addition of the American tracks really kills the flow of the album. Do you have a UK copy? I’ve never seen one. Come to think of it, the only time I saw this album ever, was when I went to the local emporium and bought it.

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  2. Echorich says:

    My copy is the UK cd Monk. One of the last things I remember buying from the wonderful Rebel Rebel Records in NYC’s West Village. It was really the last great record store catering to import music that I and a very hardcore group of clients demanded. When David Sylvian’s gorgeous Weatherbox was announced, the owner actually made sure to let my friends and I know he had ordered and set aside ours, knowing we would be in for it when he got it. That’s customer service.
    As for Neon Lights as a release, I would have been really satisfied with two EP’s of the best tracks off of the album as the stop gap before Cry was released in 2001. But it’s an important album that renewed Kerr and Burchill’s confidence as well as gave direction to everything they have achieved since in coming back from the brink since. Néapolis was important. It helped the band move away from their bombastic aural abuses of the 90’s, but its lackluster reception only brought on self doubt in the band. Neon Lights was a spark waiting to be fanned into flames.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – The twin EP scenario would have worked for me too. Six of the strong tracks would work fine. The question being, would they have only released the same tracks I would have? I might have been disappointed, since you know they’re Doors fans through and through. The experimental nature of the project perhaps meant that the path that they took was for the best. We got the rough with the smooth but the band were smart enough to heighten their focus on new and exciting areas that refined the successful approaches present on “Neon Lights.”

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  3. Echorich says:

    The Guardian summed it up in one brilliant sentence – “He played one instrument: his aesthetic.”

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