Steel Cage Match: Heaven 17 Vs Simple Minds

This is a Steel Cage Match that I thought about writing a few years ago but then the massive Simple Minds thread, nay… book happened and I didn’t think it was prudent to invoke the Scots any time too soon after all, in 2014-2015 there has been 92 posts in a row on the topic of Simple Minds! I think that I can get away with posting this one now. It’s weird to think that when I first thought about posting this, Prince was still alive and no one knew otherwise about the state of his health. Of course, that’s no longer the case.

Virgin | UK | CD-5 | 1990 | THEME 19

Simple Minds: The Amsterdam EP UK CD-5 [1990]

  1. Sign ☮ The Times
  2. Let It All Come Down
  3. Sign ☮ The Times [C.J. Mackintosh Mix]
  4. Jerusalem

Back in 1989 I was still buying Simple Minds singles by habit. I was surprised to see that they had something called the “Amsterdam EP” so I ordered it on CD-3 and was shocked to take delivery via mail order of an EP with a version of the Prince song, “Sign ☮ The Times.” That was a massive head scratcher since Simple Minds at that time were the furthest thing  possible from Prince, musically and culturally. The band were at the apex of their overweening stadium rock phase, and Prince was still his usual bad self. Moreover, the tune was only about 18-24 months old. To cover it seemed premature. I have to admit, that at the time, I had never heard the hit song since there was not a video, and unless a song had a video I could see on MTV in some way, shape, or form, chances were that I never heard it. I had avoided commercial radio for almost a decade by that point. So the Simple Minds cover was judged on its own merits at the time.

First of all, since it was a Prince tune, it was absolutely superior to anything on their current “Street Fighting Years” album. That goes without saying, but it still offered cognitive dissonance to this listener in any case. The best thing about the song was the intro. Mike MacNeil built up foreboding synth patches subtly with anxiety-provoking minor keys while low level news radio soundbites added to the eerie menace of it all. Then after about 20 seconds the familiar minimal beat started and the cover began to develop into something less interesting.

Jim Kerr’s vocals was a particular sticking point as he vacillated between his typical of the time Bonorific rawk yowl and what seemed to be an attempt to ape the Purple One’s vocal on this cut. I can definitely state that it was not happy-making. Nor was the stuffy Charlie Burchill guitar solo that happened halfway through the song. Burchill’s head was in a bad place during this period where his licks were as pedestrian as possible; clean, crowd-pleasing slide licks that had nothing to do with my mental model of the band. Nor Prince, for that matter!

The song even managed to deliver a late-in-the-game foul ball when for reasons best known to Kerr himself in the song’s coda, he re-stated the earlier “high on crack – toting a machine gun” lyric, that time with heavy-handed sound FX. Could they be more glaringly obvious? I guess not, since that was what the band did during this period. The cover version was turgid, but the track was fine art next to the C.J. Mackintosh Mix, included on the 1990 re-issue of the single in the “Themes” CD-5 boxes that tidied up Simple Minds’ singles cuts. If one ever wanted to hear Simple Minds transformed into New Jack Swing, then look no further. A more inappropriate thing you cannot imagine.

Cleopatra ‎| US | CD | 1999 | CLP 0687-2

Various: A Tribute To Prince Party O’The Times

  1. Missing Persons [Dale Bozzio]: I Would Die 4 U [Keoki Remix]
  2. Rebecca Romijn Stamos: Darling Nikki
  3. Ice-T: Head
  4. Heaven 17: Sign O’ The Times
  5. Mellow Man Ace Featuring Geo: Irresistible B*tch
  6. Dead Or Alive: Pop Life
  7. Gary Numan: U Got The Look
  8. Sigue Sigue Sputnik: I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man
  9. Buddy Miles: Baby I’m A Star
  10. Adeva: 1999
  11. Information Society: Controversy
  12. Meeks: Little Red Corvette

Ten years ago I was compiling my first Heaven 17 BSOG. While researching I saw that while the band had been signed to Cleopatra Records in the US for their “Bigger Than America” album, the label got the band to produce a few cover versions for the ‘tribute albums’ the label liked to make at that time. Having purchased the Madonna tribute album on Cleopatra for the band’s ultimately worthless version of “Holiday,” I opted to purchase the band’s cover version of “Sign ☮ The Times” as a download that time. The intro to this version was more sketchy and abstract, but the song resolved itself into another facsimile of the distinctive minimal drum pattern of the original version. But the minimal funk beat was adorned here with all manner of soft synth/sampled cruft riffs that made the end result busier; not better. 

Where Simple Minds had the decency to have waited until the coda to plaster some literal machine gun sound FX when repeating the line that referenced machine guns, Heaven 17 had no such restraint. When delivering the line in context, up front in the song, the emphasis was made with the heaviest of hands. An even louder, longer, burst of machine gun fire FX underscored the lyric. My eyes could not help rolling back in their sockets.

The one area where this cover version shone was in the vocal choices made by Glenn Gregory. He at least had the courage to sing the song like his own man, echoing neither Prince nor Paul Hewson. But Gregory’s vocal alone, was not enough to float the tune on its own. At the end of the day, this was an equally poor cover version. In ways having largely to do with its arrangement.

If you can believe it, I only ever heard the Prince original of this in 2015 when I bought the peerless “Ultimate Prince” compilation, which had the 7″ edit of the tune on it. No one better than Prince himself was qualified to interpret a typically distinctive tune like “Sign ☮ The Times.” While this compilation held the succinct 7″ edit, One day I assure you I will buy the full album from whence this came.  In the interim, I can only look back in disbelief that two bands whom I collect each thought that it was a smart move covering one of Prince’s most idiosyncratic songs. In a rare instance, there are no winners in this Steel Cage Match… only losers. The bands. The listeners, and Prince himself.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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2 Responses to Steel Cage Match: Heaven 17 Vs Simple Minds

  1. Echorich says:

    Heaven 17 by a final 3 count for me. The SM version is absolutely unlistenable for me. Thankfully they got their act together a decade later when they decided to delve into cover versions again.
    You hit just about everything I can come up with that’s wrong with Kerr + Co. touching Sign O’ The Times, so I won’t go any further in rubbishing it.
    Now as for the H17 version… I have much, much more time for this one. The opening reminds me of what stray atoms might sound like in space coalescing into a new structure. Handling the minimalist funk beat is much better realized in the hands of H17. There’s a bit of Cupid, Duke and Psycho in the sound actually. The synth washes are wonderfully retro. But it’s Gregory that get all the real attention here. His decision to stray from a pattern for pattern reading of the vocals is inspired and he comes off sounding very sincere and engaged. Glenn Gregory has always been the emotional component of H17 and he always will be. I can easily forgive the synth Tommy gun and the snippets of other sampled voices and sounds removes any need to focus on that decision.
    So again this one has to go to Heaven 17.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Well, you make a cogent point in Glenn’s case. He was the only person involved with both bands (maybe Mike MacNeil as well) who turned in a reasonably inspired performance here. Glenn was fighting Martyn and Ian every step of the way though.


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