Friday, June 14, 2013

Simple Minds: New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84), Once Upon A Time & Street Fighting Years

"Summer's gone winter's in your eyes, I can feel the thunder storms inside. I wake every morning and the cold winds cover me.  All I've got's a ghost of what could be." -See The Lights (Real Life)-
Don't you (forget about me)! Perish the thought Jim. Never.  While on the subject of super men this week we take a look back at one of the 80s absolute best also marked with a capital S in Simple Minds.

Stepping away from my love for certain bands happens.  It leaves the door open to the joy of rediscovering them with an reinvigorated passion.  So, yes, Jim, sometimes I've gone, but I've never forgotten the best of the 80s for very long.  And when I go on a tear listening to a band, like Simple Minds fronted by the immense, robust voice of Jim Kerr, I simply flood the 6-CD changer in my car (I know I'm so old school) with six discs and dozens of tracks from my favorite artists.  At approximately 20 tracks a disc I'm good for about 120 songs.  There aren't many quality acts from the 1980s that can boast that kind of legacy and depth.  Simple Minds is certainly one that can.  Simple Minds is the Scottish-based band led by kick-it-in vocalist Jim Kerr and guitarist/ synthesist Charlie Burchill.  These two Scots forge and anchor the center of Simple Minds, a band hailing from the great city of Glasgow, Scotland.


Unfairly, die-hard fans or perhaps once upon a time fans, have sometimes written off Simple Minds best years with the departure of bassist Derek Forbes (1977-1985; 1997-1998).  Forbes was certainly a huge part of some of the very best years of their successful sound.  As a fan myself I've always enjoyed the ebb and flow of the lengthy musical spans and Simple Minds is certainly one group to appreciate.  The act has weathered the storm with the best of them.  Duran Duran and Depeche Mode are other bands that come to mind.  I wish I could say the same for The The, Talk Talk, Tears For Fears and Thompson Twins all defunct or seemingly so.

Drummer Brian McGee (1977-1981) was also considered one of the bands most important integral components to their most successful years.  Others key musicians have come and gone as well offering various contributions to the overall sound that is Simple Minds, part alternative rock, part future sounds, part rock and soul, but all brilliant things.  But without question Kerr and Burchill have crafted the heartbeat to a band that formed in 1977 and have been making some of the best damn alt rock music for nearly forty years.  That's just incredible really.

Today, Simple Minds is comprised of Kerr, Burchill, longtime Minds associate drummer Mel Gaynor (1982-1991; 1997-1998; 2002-present), keyboardist Andy Gillespie (2002-2005; 2007-present) and finally bass player Ged Grimes.  Now Grimes is a hell of a talent by the way.  I could write an entry on Grimes all its own.  He was one of the founding members of the sorely underrated, under appreciated, dismissed and all but forgotten band Danny Wilson out of Dundee Scotland fronted by equally fantastic vocalist Gary Clark (be sure to purchase Danny Wilson's The Best Of Danny Wilson, Meet Danny Wilson and/or BeBop MopTop as well as Clark's amazing and lost solo effort Ten Short Songs About Love -positively goofy ridiculous just how stunning these efforts are).  Further, Grimes has worked producing and writing for a host of talents and has played with fabulous Scottish band Deacon Blue settling into work with Kerr and company as part of Simple Minds.  The point here being, Kerr and Burchill no talent and they don't just hire anyone.  If you think Simple Minds are old news because Derek Forbes is no longer with the band than sod off because you just don't get their music.  Artists change.  It's inevitable and the infusion of talent has made Simple Minds' music resonate through the years despite a lack of commercial success.

A recent three disc release dubbed Celebrate: The Greatest Hits spanning the nearly four decades of Simple Minds just blew me away.  I suppose I realized I was getting just as old as the minds.  But, by God, how Kerr does it I'll never know.  He and Burchill still look amazing with a spring in their steps and the two of them were both born in 1959. They're no spring chickens.  It must be all that Scotch.

The recent greatest compilation follows two solid efforts in Black And White 050505 (2005) and Graffiti Soul (2009).  Hearing those two recordings continues to restore my faith in bands that just keep on keeping on with real talent.  Their never perfect, but they are solid outings filled with great tunes and some that are truly epic like Home, Moscow Underground and Rockets.  It's all far superior to the bubble gum-inflated pop of today's radio barring the exceptions.

But the latest, massive best of, Celebrate: The Greatest Hits, a title that pays self-tribute to one of their earliest moments, comes complete with two superb new songs in Blood Diamonds and Broken Glass Park.  They are simply outstanding, big and bold in the mighty Simple Minds manner.  Kerr seems never to lose his touch behind the microphone. Like a baseball player, it's not easy elevating your game this long especially an artist working with vocals.  Ask Paul Young about preserving those pipes.

So I must tell you how hard it was to focus on just one recording by Simple Minds from a career spanning the decades and scattered with momentous productions.  It would truly be an injustice to suggest just one recording by Simple Minds.  A case can truly be made for a host of them as great efforts and wonderfully listenable outings from start to finish.  Simple Minds have sixteen (16) studio recordings, three (3) live albums, seven (7) compilations and fifty-two (52) singles.  That's nothing to sneeze at.  Yes, they did more than Don't You (Forget About Me).

The obvious choice to true fans is Simple Minds fifth recording New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) (1982).  This production gem is a beast - a truly classic monster of epic proportions.  Anyone who is any fan of music from the 1980s must own this recording.  It is immense and utterly flawless in its studio craft work. It's like these guys stepped off a spaceship or out of the heavens and said let there be music.  It's stunning how good it is. The title track, Promised You A Miracle (check out Kerr's remake of the song with Martha Wainwright for Oxfam - mind-blowing!), Someone Somewhere In Summertime, Glittering Prize, Colours Fly And Catherine Wheel, Big Sleep, and three more leave you simply devastated and weak in the knees.  I remember being in London, England around the early 1990s when a remixed club version of New Gold Dream positively lit up the dance floor. It was absolutely potent and intoxicating - and that song needs no remixing.  It's perfect as is.  Glittering Prize, too, just shines with crooning inspiration the kind that would lift See The Lights into a similar stratosphere from Real Life long after Simple Minds were considered relevant by those struck by the fleeting commercialism of the shiny penny acts.  So, I don't think I can offer much more to the sterling, shimmering electronic and rock beauty that was New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) other than go out and discover that collection for yourself.  The songs have aged well. It exists and is waiting for you. To give credit where credit is due the aforementioned classic was the work of Kerr, Burchill, Forbes, keyboardist Mike MacNeill and drummers Michael Ogletree and Mel Gaynor.  It is also, perhaps, producer Peter Walsh's greatest moment in music.  To further illustrate my point, the voting placed New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) at number 8 in the Top 100 of 1983 over at Slicing Up Eyeballs.

But looking back even further, apart from the occasional track, some of Simple Minds earlier work has not aged well if I'm to be honest.  There are selections from Empires And Dance like I Travel that impress.  Sons And Fascination/ Sister Feelings Call (1981) sees the Minds finally delivering the goods.  Slicing Up Eyeballs recently had it listed in their Top 20 for the best 100 recordings of 1981.    But that placement is fair and the recording has some notable standouts.  Love Song, The American and Sweat In Bullet are some true highlights and establish the epic sound of Simple Minds - the kind of sound that U2 established with greater success.

So it would make sense Producer Steve Lillywhite (U2) would throw down with Kerr and the band for their 6th studio affair. Following the classic that was their 1982 template for the masses, New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84), Simple Minds followed up with a complex, not entirely accessible, but some would argue equally brilliant Sparkle In The Rain.  A much more raucous affair, there's hardly a bad track in the bunch for this outing too.  The unbelievable power of Waterfront is supported by a host of strong selections from Street Hassle and Book Of Brilliant Things to C Moon Cry Like A Baby and Up On The CatwalkSparkle In The Rain will register big on classic lists for 1984.  It clocked in at number 21 on Slicing Up Eyeballs' Top 100 for 1984.  It's a magnificent affair and one that proved that Simple Minds was growing artistically while also gaining in popularity.

And speaking of popularity, it all changed for the Minds when director John Hughes contracted with Simple Minds to perform the theme song to the legendary brat pack film The Breakfast Club (1985).  Simple Minds reached their commercial pinnancle and blew the hats off of Americans with their Billboard #1 Don't You (Forget About Me). It was a well known fact the song was originally intended for Billy Idol.  Idol would later record that song for his own best of many years later.  While his is a good version, it's pretty clear the right artist was selected to create the emotion for that unforgettable single.  Simple Minds was the right choice.  The Scots Are Right as Kerr once sung on a song for Alan Stivell.

Simple Minds shared space on the soundtrack for the aforementioned film with Wang Chung, one of a number of 80s artists still recording respectably good pop songs today, who recorded Fire In The Twilight.  You can check out their release Tazer Up! (2012).  For those interested, actress Molly Ringwald of John Hughes film acclaim in pictures like Pretty In Pink (1986), Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club (1985) recorded a jazz version of that number one hit this year for her Except Sometimes (2013) cocktail jazz effort.

So paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, when you reach the top you know what's coming next.  It was a gradual decline and slide into commercial obscurity for Simple Minds, but they were able to capitalize on the success of their number one smash single by releasing their seventh studio recording Once Upon A Time (1986).  The much maligned effort is my choice for must own 80s recording by the Minds, New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) not withstanding.  At this point, Simple Minds were selling out stadiums and fans in general were celebrating to a degree but the backlash was coming. You know it.  You can feel it.  You can taste it. You can see it coming a mile away and there's nothing you can do to stop it.

Unlike many who saw the band's success as selling out, Once Upon A Time boldly captures the rock genre and bends it and folds it into Simple Minds fashion.  Many listens recently of that recording have revealed a powerhouse of a record produced by Jimmy Iovine and Bob Clearmountain that still holds up swirling and rocking the atmosphere in all its sweating beastly glory.  I can even picture an unkempt, long-haired, large-nostrilled Kerr positively soaked and snarling away on stage.  Simple Minds were kicking it in and letting it all hang out there.  They gave it their all and Once Upon A Time holds up as a well-produced and slickly crafted effort without stepping into over production often associated with today's pop stars.

Kerr, Burchill, Gaynor and MacNeil were largely responsible for the outing along with bassist John Giblin.  Alive And Kicking clearly established itself as the latest from the band who brought you Don't You (Forget About Me) and while the group was largely successful in capturing that sound it also moved their music forward.  In fact, Alive And Kicking certainly isn't the pop song that was the theme to The Breakfast Club, but suddenly Kerr and company needed to satisfy a thirsty fan base while producing music like the aforementioned hit, which wasn't entirely like their earlier records.  Still, Once Upon A Time got the sound right for their day in the sun and as a unified whole captured the spirit of a work.  Once Upon A Time effortlessly feels like a well-honed and streamlined pop record with eight strong, splendid songs.  It does for stadium rock what New Gold Dream did thematically for Euro-styled electronica.  Still, the songs are complex and layered as pop songs go.

The songs all hit their mark from the title track, to the follow-up just mentioned, All The Things She Said, Sanctify Yourself, Oh Jungleland, I Wish You Were Here, Ghost Dancing, and Come A Long Way.  It's pure energy.  The Simple Minds even preview to an extent where their sound might be going and their politics through Ghost Dancing.  It certainly echoed and previewed the even bigger but more conceptual album to come in Street Fighting Years (1989).

And finally, an argument can certainly be made for Street Fighting Years (1989) as a must own effort.  It went largely overlooked stateside and was essentially discarded, but was well-received across other parts of the globe.  In fact, Kerr and the group took big risks drawing up massive, sprawling, epic, political songs in developing yet another big bold statement of an album in the spirit of Tears For Fears' magnificent Sowing The Seeds Of Love (1989) also that year.  Clearmountain also worked with singer/writer Roland Orzabal on that project.

Street Fighting Years never disappoints.  Each song is an aching, emotional or thoughtprovoking aural experience.  And they Let It All Come Down. The driving, but simple riff of Mandela Day, an equally stirring remake of Peter Gabriel's Biko, the beautiful understated title track, the eco-friendly This Is Your Land with Lou Reed and the heartbreaking UK number one Belfast Child all round out a strikingly powerful effort.  Street Fighting Years was simply a brilliant, bold, ambitious work complete with organ and pagpipes and it was recognized as such in the UK and Europe.  It was just too amazing for its own good and hardly lent itself to the short attention spans of pop radio.  Groups like this rarely find a place on radio today.  Thankfully, the paradigm for commercial sales has certainly shifted and the ability to find great music has gotten much easier.

Real Life (1991) followed with another wall-to-wall solid collection of fine songs. Good News From The Next World (1995) shines from a handful of tracks and is highlighted by the stellar Hypnotized.  Ultimately, their recordings all offer something truly special on them.  But Once Upon A Time, and once upon a time, Simple Minds were making their mark, influencing the music world, kicking ass, taking names and today, they are still doing what they do best and that's make great records.  A new recording is scheduled for this year.

Many would differ with me on Once Upon A Time as a classic, but I felt a reevaluation of the project was in order.  Producers Jimmy Iovine and Bob Clearmountain are not producers that I would readily admit to enjoying despite massive discographies with some tremendous talent, but they really worked well with Simple Minds on this outing and they have certainly had their hands on some classics.  Bob Clearmountain with INXS on Kick (1987).  Jimmy Iovine with Stevie Nicks on The Wild Heart (1983). They have had their moments.

On a more contemporary note, for those of you willing to roll the dice and try something a little different Jim Kerr stepped into a side project worth your time.  By comparison, Depeche Mode has recently released Delta Machine (2013), a recording that feels a little lacking to be honest.  I was disappointed. It feels a little too stripped, if you will.  In a similar fashion to Kerr's extracurricular activities, vocalist Dave Gahan stepped away from his bandmates for an acoustic and guitar-based construction called The Light The Dead Sea (2012) by Soulsavers.  Gahan is the primary vocalist on the entire project and it is far superior in almost every way to Delta Machine.  It pains me to say that about my beloved Depeche Mode, but their latest feels a little, well, boring.  The Light The Dead Sea by contrast is a wonderfully tuneful and melodic affair that is passionate and anything but underwhelming.

Meanwhile, Jim Kerr stepped away from his baby to join The Dark Flowers for a recording titled Radioland (2013) and an accompanying Ep.  It is a production that suits Kerr's voice nicely stepping away from his stylistic comfort zone and stripping things down.  He joins several other vocalists but remains a key contributor on the wonderful collection of songs.  He offers five stellar tracks in all.  Radioland is available through the UK, while, oddly, the Ep, When Stars Fall (2012), is available stateside on iTunes (unless things have changed as of this writing).  These Kerr and Gahan efforts are worth an investigation by not only any 80s fan, but also any self-respecting fan of great music.

In the meantime, if you're eager for a fix of Simple Minds begin with the massive celebration that is Celebrate: The Greatest Hits.  It's simply a book of brilliant pop things.  I stand by most of their catalog as I would Scottish band Deacon Blue, Danny Wilson, Aztec Camera, or Aberdeen singer Annie Lennox with or without the Eurythmics and others, proving, as SNL noted years ago - let's face it, if it's not Scottish it's crap!

Simple Minds Discography: Life In A Day (1979)/ Real To Real Cacophony (1979)/ Empires And Dance (1980)/ Sons And Fascination/ Sister Feelings Call (1981)/ New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) (1982)* / Sparkle In The Rain (1984)/ Once Upon A Time (1985)* / Street Fighting Years (1989)* / Real Life (1991)/ Good News From The Next World (1995)/ Neapolis (1998)/ Our Secrets Are The Same (2000)/ Neon Lights (2001)/ Cry (2002)/ Black And White 050505 (2005)/ Graffiti Soul (2009).

Compilations And Live: Themes For Great Cities 79/81 (1981)/ Celebration (1982)/ Alive And Kicking (84-85-86) (1986)/ Live In The City Of Light (1987)/ Themes Volume 1-5 (1990)/ Glittering Prize 81/92 (1992)/ The Promised (1997)/ The Early Years (1977-1978) (1998)/ Real Live 91 (1998)/ The Best Of Simple Minds (2001)/ Early Gold (2003)/ Silver Box (2004)/ The Platinum Collection (2006)/ Sunday Express Live (2007)/ Themes Volume 1-5 (reissued + 5; 2008)/ Live 2011 (2011)/  X5 (2012)/ 5X5 (2012)/ Celebrate: The Greatest Hits (2013)*. 

* essential


le0pard13 said...

Another of your wonderful music post, SFF! You've such a way with them, my friend. Keep 'em comin'!

SFF said...

Cheers pal. I popped in some of the minds about a months ago after a fairly lengthy break.

I will tell you that it was a major rediscovery of just how inspired their music really is. Listening to it again blew me away and thus this post was born. It was a pleasure to write it.