[…continued from previous post]
While past members were not the way forward for the band, the past music held the key to the way forward. Early Simple Minds were starting to get name checked, coupled with the fact that the last time the band troubled the charts was as the sampled basis for “The Real Life” by Raven Maize in 2001. That track was a mashup of “Theme For Great Cities” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” [so ghastly a notion that I have never bothered to buy/hear it] but it got to #12 in the UK charts, and I’m sure the royalties didn’t hurt the band. The liner notes to the deluxe edition of “Graffiti Soul” pointed the way with Jim Kerr’s liner notes to the “Searching For The Lost Boys bonus cover album. In them he talked about re-connecting with the young man who had started Simple Minds a lifetime ago. The selection of covers were heavy with New Wave selections.
When Jim Kerr forged ahead with a solo project just months after “Graffiti Soul” was released, the Lostboy name was used for the branding, and the whole album amounted to Kerr producing music in the vein of ’78-’85 with a host of co-writers other than Charlie Burchill, who was the odd man out [along with bassist Eddie Duffy] as the rest of Simple Minds at the time all contributed to the album. The Lostboy project, more than anything, seemed to have been the blueprint for Simple Minds going forward.
Then in 2012, the band’s management sagely suggested the 5×5 Live project of 2012 that saw not only the band’s first five [or six] albums packaged in a boxed set with [finally] a strong complement of long-missing bonus tracks, but a special tour of only vintage material to accompany it. This more than anything contributed hugely to the group’s critical reassessment among a generation of journalists to whom Simple Minds were the punchline to a joke that started “let me see your hands…” This culminated in the group getting the 2014 Q Magazine Inspiration Award that had them rubbing shoulders with a select few of their peers including other Post-Punk heavy hitters like John Lydon, Joe Strummer, Echo + The Bunnymen, and The Cure.
The activity of playing all of that exciting, early material for weeks at a time could not have gone unnoticed by the band, who were steeping in it night after night. When their new album, “Big Music” appeared after a long period of gestation, the methodologies used on Lostboy were fully intact. And the inspiration of the vibe of the 5X5 material certainly colored the new album as it consciously tried for the same ’82-’84 vibe that Kerr has successfully mined previously on the Lostboy album. With a return to gated drums on many of the tracks, they were aiming for some grey area that might have existed in the no-man’s land between “New Gold Dream [81, 82, 83 84]” and “Once Upon A Time.” I think they hit that target.
The style of production that gave a strong patina of continuity to material written and recorded over a long period of time, but was also very contemporary. Heavy on the virtual instruments and light on the actual guitars and drums, save for that used to flavor the results. In this respect, yes, “Big Music” did reference the group’s past while remaining something of its time and not being a pure pastiche. Was it the best the group had released in a long time? Unequivocally so! I’d rank it as definitely my favorite album of theirs following “Sparkle in The Rain.” However, the distinctions between much of the music they have made in the last 30 years can lead to margins which are razor thin.
Making this Rock G.P.A.® was most difficult in the rankings given to the albums. With a 0-4 point scale with half-point increments actually yields a very useful 9 point scale, it didn’t make my choices any easier. Certain of their albums were clearly 4 point albums; best of breed recordings. The newer material which is so encouraging, was ranked below that level, but in reality, if “Empires + Dance” was a “perfect” album, then doesn’t the 3.5 rank of “Big Music indicate that it’s near perfect? I furrowed my brows long and hard pondering this question. The glib answer is “no.” The cold-eyed response would be to rank “Big Music” a 2.5-3 if “Empires + Dance” is a 4, but I have to take into account the long, tumultuous journey that the group has made in reaching the point where they find themselves at today.
The fact is, that for me the band ceased to be a cohesive unit decades ago. The two core members have been adrift in a sea of chaos and any forward movement has been incremental and doled out like pennies from a miser’s fist over the last 20 years, and even then, there were missteps. That there has been gradual movement in the last dozen years towards a place where I think the band is hitting their sweet spot, coupled with a lack of really bad decisions has seemed like a miracle to me. Even so, the group have been known to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
For example, their newest tour has been the subject of much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Simple Minds fan community. The band have been playing their typically long 135-150 minute shows [with break] with a generous serving of their new album, but they have added an extra musician to the band, one Catherine AD, whom Kerr first worked with on the Dark Flowers project of Paul Statham. I like the idea of two women onstage in the band live, but the integration has been stagey and awkward, with Sarah Brown and Catherine AD taking lead vocals on a few songs and medleys.
I have a bigger problem with medleys, myself. Acts playing medleys are betraying their eye on pleasing the masses at any cost. It reeks of calculation and complacency. I ask myself what’s worse: not hearing a favorite track, or hearing a favorite track mauled and left for dead in a medley? I have heard the latter in 1986 with the dreaded “Love Song/Sun City/Dance To the Music” atrocity. Trust me. It would have been far kinder to have never heard those few bars of “Love Song” to begin with!
The real shudder-maker was the news that the band have started playing the dreaded acoustic numbers in their set, after resisting the deadly lure of Unplugged® sessions strongly enough for nearly 20 years! This was first tried when plugging “Big Music” on radio stations where the idea of acoustic sessions were finally tried. Notably, this featured Jim Kerr’s younger brother, Mark Kerr [who has been at least partially responsible for every bad step the band had taken from 1998 through 2002, in my opinion] along with Jim and Charlie. As cringeworthy as “Happy Is The Man” and “Face In The Sun” were, they pale next to the horror of “The American” performed as an acoustic medley with the far more pedestrian “Home” from “Black + White 050505!” This, more than anything the band has done in the last dozen years, gives me pause. And that it was occurring on the heels of a strong an album as they’ve delivered in ages is troubling.
Next: …Where do they go from here?
Monk, there has to be a push within and from behind the band to run with their current brass ring Big Music. That they are trying things that apply better to dinosaur rockers – unplugging and – UGH – medleys, makes me think the accountants are whispering in ears again. Hopefully the artistic sensibilities of Kerr and Burchill will win out in the end – even if they still trip occasionally running UP the stairs…
I have to commend you efforts at attempting comparison scoring Simple Minds’ output – it is no easy feat for sure and I think you accomplished everything you set out to with this Rock G.P.A. and then some. One thing I have enjoyed doing – as inspired by this series – is going to the later output of Simple Minds’ contemporaries – the output of the past 25 yrs or so – and seeing which bands have had successful runs, patchy efforts or stumbled right out of the blocks. It’s not easy listening and it really has made me appreciate, even more, the Imperial Period of Post Punk output.
Echorich – I don’t know if accountants whisper in Kerr and Burchill’s ears or not. It might not be necessary… after all, they are Scotsmen! I do know that their management does, and that, by golly they seem to listen. I thank them for 5×5.