On Simple Minds

Image from Empires and DanceWhen I was in my early teens, I would take the bus home from school, do my homework, eat my supper and then, usually, either I would cycle up to my friend Darren Lodge’s house or he would come to me. (I think we slightly favoured his house as his dad would occasionally let us share a can of beer.) It’s been so long now that I can’t even imagine what we used to talk about – although the limitations of attending an all boys school would almost certainly have featured – but I do remember that we used to listen to David ‘Kid’ Jensen‘s radio show on Radio 1 from eight o’clock until ten.

Whilst we knew that John Peel was officially cooler than Kid Jensen, we preferred the latter’s show for two principle reasons. Firstly, we had to be home by ten-thirty and, secondly, we simply preferred the music. And, in fact, whilst I remain full of admiration for John Peel’s huge, pioneering and eclectic appetite for music and also aware of many of the bands he championed, thirty years later it is the music that Kid Jensen played that I still listen to.

My memory won’t be 100% reliable on this but I believe it was on Kid Jensen’s show that I first heard Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model‘, OMD’s perfect pop moment ‘Messages‘, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, The Human League, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Soft Cell, Cabaret Voltaire, Shriekback and many other bands who made the early eighties such a musically rich period. In fact, the quality of the singles chart in the early eighties was, I believe, a direct result of the abundance of good music that was being encouraged by the myriad independent labels of the time.

At some point during this period, I heard Simple Minds’ ‘I Travel‘ for the first time. It was, I must admit, not love at first hearing. In fact, they sounded a bit like one of the bands John Peel might favour; melodies not immediately apparent, a syncopated rhythm, something hard about it. I was still, at that point, drawn to more immediate pop (with the exception, arguably, of Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn‘).

But the subsequent singles that Kid Jensen played – particularly ‘The American‘ – swayed me ’round and I started to listen to Simple Minds in earnest. For my sixteenth birthday in 1982, my brother (I think) gave me my copy of ‘Empires And Dance‘ and every time I hear it, I can vividly remember being sat in a dining room chair, hunched forward (due to the short cable on my dad’s headphones), intoxicated by a music that was different from anything that I’d heard before.

Those first five releases by Simple Minds range from the derivative (but still high quality) pop music on ‘Life in a Day‘,  through the improvisations and experimentation of ‘Real to Real Cacophony‘, to the sudden mature accomplishment of ‘Empires and Dance’, followed by perhaps their finest release, the double album ‘Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call‘ to the transcendent pop of ‘New Gold Dream (81~82~83~84)‘.

I don’t think I’ve ever loved a band or artist more than I loved Simple Minds and although I had my misgivings about the rather rock and populist ‘Sparkle in the Rain‘, I was always very proud to describe myself as a Simple Minds fan. I didn’t go to my first gig until 1982 and I missed the New Gold Dream tour that year and then for reasons I can’t recall I couldn’t go to any of their – at the time record breaking – run of seven nights at Hammersmith Odeon on the Sparkle in the Rain tour. Those, of course, were the days when bands played extra nights to satisfy demand rather than simply moving into venues that were so big that they made the entire live experience redundant.

And then disaster struck. Like the most dramatic tragedies, the catastrophe was not immediately apparent. The iceberg took the form of a pleasant enough track that the band agreed to record for John Hughes‘ movie, ‘The Breakfast Club‘. ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)‘ was initially released in the US and only became available in the UK when Jim Kerr heard how much fans were paying for imported copies. This concern led to a huge hit for the band and I’m tempted to think this went to their collective head.

Certainly, the band that appeared at Live Aid in 1985 were nothing to do with the band I loved with such a passion. Their excellent drummer Brian McGee had left the band prior to the recording of New Gold Dream and now bassist Derek Forbes was gone, too. The rhythm section had played an unusually prominent part in the band’s sound for those early albums and suddenly their absence was very apparent. (Incidentally, they now perform as Ex-Simple Minds and they are far better live than one might expect.)

And then, immediately before I left for university, Simple Minds released ‘Once Upon A Time’, which, frankly, I’m not even going to provide a link to. It is, perhaps, the most disappointing album I’ve ever bought and God knows I have made some unwise purchases in my time. Thus, I arrived in Liverpool to find myself, for the first time, in the company of many Simple Minds fans. I wonder how many friendships were nipped in their first flower  as I bitterly railed against a friendly comment on my Simple Minds lapel badge followed by an innocent comment about the virtues of ‘Don’t You’ and ‘Alive and Kicking’.

With my characteristic optimism, I had bought a ticket for the album’s tour and despite the pleasant surprise of finding Shriekback in the support slot – their beauty lost in the vast, echoing space of the Birmingham NEC – the concert itself was a clanging, clattering disappointment.

For the subsequent twenty-six years, I battled on, telling anyone who would listen that these stadium rockers, now synonymous with pomp and vacuity, had once been the most exciting band in Britain, with their finely crafted albums and surprisingly powerful and passionate live performances. In fact, my friend John joked on Twitter today that “for many years I thought they were called “Simple Minds 78 to 82″ so determined was FP to clarify his fandom :)”.

Over recent years, however, the band started re-introducing older songs into their sets, with an unexpected respect for the original material. In a gig at Hampton Court last year, they played good versions of both ‘Sons and Fascination‘ and ‘This Earth That You Walk Upon‘. And then they announced both a boxed set of the first five releases and also a tour where they would play five tracks from each of those first five releases.

I was cautiously excited.

After all this time, it seemed my broken heart might be mended or, at least, there might be one final evening together for old times’ sake. And so, last Friday, in the splendid company of John and our friend Ash, I proceeded to The Roundhouse in London. Suffice to say we were by no means the only forty-somethings who had decided to go along that evening. I wish I could have had a lens that would have enabled me to see everyone as they were thirty years ago, to see the fans inside undisguised by the passing of time.

And so the band came on. Only Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill from the original line-up, although the drummer, Mel Gaynor, has been with them since playing on bits of New Gold Dream in 1982. They launched into ‘I Travel’ and I was immediately reassured. Whilst Jim Kerr would prove incapable of dropping the vocal stylings he had picked up over the many years of stadium performances, he was, I think, as restrained as he could manage. But the band were spot on, particularly the bass player who was gratifyingly playing without ego, doing his best to play as Derek Forbes did.

The next track was ‘Thirty Frames A Second‘ and at the end of it Jim Kerr said “This is the stuff’ and I couldn’t have agreed more. I’ll put a full tracklisting at the bottom of this post but as the gig progressed all my anxieties evaporated and I found myself transported back to the days of my first love, unsullied by the disappointments of the intervening years. Played live, the intricacy and beauty of the songs becomes even more apparent and suddenly the yearning I’d felt all through the years of listening in frustration to my collection of bootleg live recordings was sated.

What I liked particularly was the care that the band showed in curating this exhibition of their own material. For example, Charlie Burchill producing his flying V guitar and playing the violin on ‘Pleasantly Disturbed‘. And, as I’ve mentioned, the care taken over the bass playing and, particularly, the sound, especially on ‘Theme For Great Cities‘ and even exposing a part I’d not previously noticed on ‘70 Cities As Love Brings The Fall‘.

John wrote a very sweet piece after the gig which you can read here and he’s right, I did shed a tear or two. Although the songs weren’t adjacent, hearing ‘Hunter and the Hunted‘ in full flight, followed a little later by the complex powerhouse of ‘Love Song‘ just about tipped me over the edge.

I do a daily blog and I had assumed my photo for that day would be of my ticket for the gig or a poster or, quite possibly, a blurred snap of the band on stage. But in the end it was a picture taken facing the other way because, when it came to it, I didn’t need a special lens to look back in time when I could see the rapt faces of my fellow fans.

You know, I had thought that these gigs might have provided a kind of closure for me but if anything my love for Simple Minds (78 to 82) has grown. The gigs were a reminder of just how much Simple Minds meant to me, how very, very good they were and also, if you’ll grant me a moment of pride, made me think very fondly of my teenage self. Excellent taste, young man!

The set list:

I Travel
Thirty Frames A Second
Today I Died Again
Calling Your Name
Life In A Day
Hunter And The Hunted
Love Song
Pleasantly Disturbed
The American
In Trance As Mission
70 Cities As Love Brings The Fall
This Fear Of Gods
Promised You A Miracle
Someone, Somewhere (In Summertime)
Theme For Great Cities
Chelsea Girl
Glittering Prize
New Gold Dream (81~82~83~84)

The astute reader will notice that despite the tour being called 5×5, there were actually twenty-six tracks played. I’m a bit gratified the album that they couldn’t whittle down to five songs was ‘Empires and Dance’ (I swear I still have a crick in my neck!).

I’ve put the tracks onto a Spotify playlist here.

About fennerpearson

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3 Responses to On Simple Minds

  1. oh Mr P you have captured all my feelings about bands and gigs and teenage years and the disappointment (and nice surprises) of getting older.

    OK so you chose the wrong the band. I will forgive you that. what would I say would be the right band? well some you mentioned – human league and their compadres heaven 17 who I saw at the same reunion sheffield gig (with ABC) a few years ago. or Bronski beat/communards. or Eurythmics. Or UB40

    but there is never a wrong band.

    I am a bit annoyed about the maths if it was 5×5 they should have stuck with that, or been creative a la 7×25

    anyway. Viva la 80s fans

  2. Oh P.s. I totally agree about Kid Jensen.

    I didnt get into John Peel until he was a bit ‘passe’ and late night avant garde sidelined by R1 type graveyard shift.

    I found Kid’s americana a bit annoying but the music was always good.

  3. Ric Francis says:

    The 26th should have been a no-irony “Don’t You” – now *that* would have been funny 😛

    Anyway, delighted you had such a fab time. I would have really enjoyed hearing some of these live, especially PYAM if the bassist was doing his thang.

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