Rock G.P.A.: Simple Minds [part 70]

simple-minds-ROCK-GPAThe last Rock G.P.A. series that I ran on Japan was impressive in that it features a horizontal line of four segments at the top [from ’80-’84] of the scale. Simple Minds rated a five segment line to at top, keeping in mind that I consider “Sister Feelings Call” as a discrete album. After all, from 1981 to 2002, the only way to hear all of it was to buy the vinyl LP of it, which was kept in print for a long time. This was undeniably impressive and a feat that few bands/artists could match, but due to the inherent drama and catastrophe inflections in the band’s 35 year career, the actual Rock G.P.A. was not all that impressive; a modest 2.69 for a C+ average.

A 2.69 Rock G.P.A., and yet, I’ve devoted 70 posts and probably over 100,000 words to the subject! Clearly, there was something about this band that got its hooks into me, but good. Again, I’d have to point to that five segment horizontal line at the top of the graph. When coupled with the first two entries, it describes a consecutive artistic arc that was one of the finest that I could name for one who would dare to call himself the Post-Punk Monk. The music on those albums began modestly, before dramatically turning against the tide of their debut album to encompass a potent cocktail of artistic influences that put them right where they could beguile me for a straight five year period. That I missed the first two years of their career and had to play catch up only meant that my experience of the band during this time was distilled down more potently into a shorter period of time than someone who saw “Life In A Day” in 1979 and gave it a try.

Simple Minds – The Band

The period from 1979 to 1985 was what hooked this fish. This was the era when Simple Minds were a band and as such, greater than the sum of their parts. Five individuals came together to form a group that, when honed on an incessant touring schedule that took them far afield from their Glaswegian roots, shaped them into a formidable band capable of synthesizing disparate influences into a dynamic new hybrid. The trance inducing rhythms of Krautrock were one touchstone. My favorite of their albums, “Empires + Dance” was indisputably informed by groups like Neu! and La Düsseldorf, albeit infused with an underlying dread and paranoia that was far from the more blissed out vistas that those two bands proffered. Simple Minds learned the value of pace, drive, and repetition well enough to create four albums informed by this sound.

Another piece of their formative DNA was disco and funk. There was incremental change between “Empires + Dance” and “Sons + Fascination/Sister Feelings Call” and the greatest difference was the new emphasis on disco and funk’s influence on the vibe on those records. The ice had been broken on “Empires + Dance” with the Moroder influence on “I Travel,” but their 1981 albums were rooted in the powerful rhythm section of Derek Forbes and Brian McGee that started with one foot in Krautrock and another in the disco.  These muscular tunes had powerful bass lines that formed the backbone of the song. These songs were notably, all credited to Simple Minds, suggesting that they arose out of jamming as a means of composing. The band were on fire creatively and issuing more than an album per year was very possible, even with recording squeezed into their touring schedule that saw them zip from Canada, to Australia, then back to Europe and the UK.

The rhythm section anchored this material, and in a unique fashion, the melodic instruments achieved a give-and-take balance with the rhythmic components of the group. Melodies via keyboards or guitar were interjected often as counterpoints to the more dominant rhythm. It was as if an art rock band were trying to make jazz records with an eye on the disco floor. In other words, it was exceptionally stimulating. It’s worth reminding ourselves that while David Bowie cast a huge shadow on the band as they grew up, he was trying on his Krautrock suits a few years prior to the time that Simple Minds did the same, and the end results in each case, showed how far apart two bands could sound while exploring the same territory. It bears mentioning that a 1981 UK Music paper interview with Bowie revealed that he had bought a recent Simple Minds record and thought highly of it.

Next: …Conclusion continues

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8 Responses to Rock G.P.A.: Simple Minds [part 70]

  1. zoo says:

    Monk, two things I’ll mention in the wrap up:

    1. Try re-calculating the GPA with only the studio albums of original material (remove the two live albums, the covers album, and Lostboy).

    2. Based on a 2.69 (or whatever the recalculated one might be), can we consider SM a “great” band? I had this discussion once with someone else about another group. Is a band only “great” if they are able to sustain excellence over the duration of their careers (Roxy Music, King Crimson), or does a 3-4 album run of top notch material whether they never match it again (Comsat Angels, Devo, Human League) or simply break up (Japan, Magazine) enough? I vote for the latter, which would make SM a great band, IMO.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      zoo – Almost every band stumbles. It’s virtually inevitable. King Crimson? I simply can’t bear “Islands.” Roxy Music? Skip “Siren.” Buy the US single instead and you’ll have the two great songs it offers. Bowie…? Got a few days for that topic? All greatness needs is to manifest, no matter how fleetingly. In SM’s case, five years is nothing to sneeze at.

      I will take you up on the “weighted GPA” notion, but since the two live albums are on either end of the grading scale, there probably won’t be much of a difference, statistically, in the end numbers.

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      • zoo says:

        Monk, by sustained excellence, I don’t mean there’s never a slip up…I mean there aren’t 10 year gaps!

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          zoo – Aaah. Productivity on a schedule, regardless of quality. Well, these days Simple Minds are half way there with stately five year gaps between albums. When sales are low, this is inevitable. So many faves [ABC, Heaven 17] struggle to get that next album out. Then again, there’s The Rezillos. 36 years span the distance between “Mission Accomplished… But The Beat Goes On” and this year’s “Zero!”

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          • zoo says:

            What I mean is, no 10-year or longer periods of multiple sub-par albums (e.g,, SM ’85-’95, Bowie ’82-’95). Long gaps are OK if there is quality at the end of each wait (e.g., Blue Nile’s first two albums).

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      • Echorich says:

        I think I have to agree with zoo here. Live albums and GH collections are rarely, if ever, artistic pinnacle moments for any band.
        As for the ultimate success or greatness of a band, their Imperial period is what will always stand out for them. In the world of reassessment and critical revisionism, stumbles and miscalculations can always be explained away by factors that inhibit a band’s forward trajectory. The “Breaking Big in America” factor has been the biggest stumbling block for successful British (and US) Post Punk Bands. The Bunnymen fell into that rabbit hole after flirting with success thanks to that Mephistopheles John Hughes and it brought them to their knees. Conversely, it could be said that success took Talking Heads from cutting edge to Chart blandness.
        A real example of greatness is a band, like Simple Minds, that works its way back to ignite that flame again. Zoo mentioned Comsat Angels, one of my favorite bands and one that I stuck with through the thin for the most part and who after a hiatus came back with an unexpected strength after that failure. Magazine’s 2011 return, No Thyself, was a completely unexpected return to form which harkened back to former glories while it still felt fresh and current. It proves that you can pick back up where you left off when the ingredients are still potent.

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  2. The larger question of “what makes a great band” got me pondering some sort of definition, and I think it is neither of the criteria zoo postulated (though those criteria often cause people to become fans of a band). I think what makes a great band comprised of a sense of challenging themselves, a reach for an artistic peak, and then a willingness to reinvent once that has been accomplished before it gets old (presuming they last long enough for that to happen). SM qualifies as a great band, to me, because even though it took waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too long, they achieved (by the Monk’s figures) at least two “challenge to achievement” moments, and the middle section and final section constitute two “willingness to reinvent” periods following their initial “challenge to peak” early period.

    This isn’t the only way to become a great band, obviously, but its the way most of the artists and bands I pay the closest attention to have done it. There are exceptions, such as Weird Al Yankovic — he hit on a formula, but instead of changing anything about himself or his act, the changing nature of his source material does the work for him. But he’s extremely canny in working that action, for which he is justifiably beloved and rewarded.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      chasinvictoria – If you would have suggested to me that in 1979, when we were listening to his homemade tapes airing on Dr. Demento, that Weird Al Yankovic would be selling out arenas [my 24 year old co-worker was delighted to get tickets to his upcoming show in Columbia, SC at the Peace Center on the day of issue in January] 36 years later, I would have said that you were cracked in the head!!

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