- 04 Apr 22
Once Upon A Time...
If all you know about Simple Minds are the massive hit records like ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ - imagine there was a time when I was young enough to think The Breakfast Club was "deep" - or, Lord bless us and save us, the hard-to-excuse ‘Belfast Child’, then Graeme Thompson would like a word. While it’s an understandable, especially at this remove, take to have on The ‘Minds, the five – or six – albums before the big music “contain some really special music,” as Jim Kerr says himself.
Thomson, known for similarly exemplary biographies of John Martyn, Kate Bush and Philo, tells “a heroic story” centred around Charlie Burchill and Kerr, two autodidacts who grew up in a rough part of Glasgow and later hitchhiked across Europe together. “Charlie and I still refer to that trip,” says Kerr now. “We say we’re still on it.”
They were exceptional lucky with the fellow passengers they picked up. They wouldn’t have been half the band they became without the contributions of Mick MacNeil on keyboards or the brilliant bass playing of rockstar – there’s always one - Derek Forbes. Thomson’s right to claim the first album, 1979’s Life In A Day isn’t really representative – ‘Chelsea Girl’ is still great - but when a new approach to song writing is arrived at, things start to happen. Kerr, a self-declared non-musician, works as a sort of musical foreman, recording the band’s jams and ideas on a ghetto blaster and then directs concentration on what he reckons works.
Thomson manages to sum up the whole approach of post-punk in a couple of sentences when describing the nascent 'Minds ethos. "Kerr and Burchill recognised relatively early that the real bounty of punk would emerge only after its brittle simplicity had fractured. They picked up on its kernel of energy, experimentation and permissiveness, and discarded the grey husk of shouty sloganeering and three-chord tricks." If Thomson didn't treat himself to a week in the sun after writing that, then he bloody well should have.
Their ears were open, and you can hear the influence of Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder – even before there was a Simple Minds, Kerr heard the 12-inch version of 'I Feel Love' before a Johnny & The Self Abusers gig and had a lightbulb "we have to get a synthesiser" moment" – on giant steps forward like ‘I Travel’ on 1980’s Empire And Dance, an album that reflected the Europe that the band had started to explore in the van. Kerr calls the record "A travelogue with spiky dance music. We were young men travelling through classical Europe, reading Camus, and it was all feeding the machine." Just in case the Camus reference scares off the curious, Thomson adds that they were doing so while listening to Chic, Kraftwerk, Michael Rother, and Grace Jones as well as the aforementioned Summer.
That's all well and good but, as manager Bruce Findlay points out, "The record company couldn't get us arrested." Even now it is still beyond me how ‘The American’ and ‘Love Song’ - #61 and #47 placings in the charts are never going to get you that Sicilian hotel - weren’t massive hits, and their parent album, or double album, or one album with another one stuck to the back of it for nothing, Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call is still worth a few bob of anyone's money.
They were already creating art worth hearing and the commercial breakthrough finally came with the record that most if not all admirers would point at as their masterpiece, 1982's New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84). Thomson again hits on a few mots justes when he calls it "Artful trance-rock buoyed by warm, hummable hooks, the results are mirage-like, suspiring [Nice!], lit from within by some incandescent organic element." If you don’t think this undeniably great record was a huge influence on U2’s post War rethink then you probably haven’t heard it. For Thomson, The Unforgettable Fire is "profoundly in thrall to its fuzzy ambience"
Confident, they were now able to write the massive ‘Waterfront’ in about as much time as it takes to play it - Bono pops up again, asking "What's that?" when he hears a half-formed version of this juggernaut at a soundcheck - but Thomson looses interest slightly once their game-of-two-halves Sparkle In The Rain is released in 1984, although he does give credit where it's due when they choose not to follow the world-conquering Once Upon A Time with more of the same. The album they did release, Street Fighting Years is patchy, although that title track is still a sublime sound, from the opening acoustic bass to Burchill's soaring slide guitar.
I must confess, in a moment of oysters and snails honesty, that I like the big ‘Minds records as much as I like the arty ones, and they're still a band very much worth the price of a ticket, but I accept Thomson’s overall thesis: for about five years, Scotland’s biggest ever band made some absolutely exceptional music, and there’s no better man to tell you all about it.