THE things that stay with you. One evening in 1984 I was sitting in a student flat in Stirling listening to Janice Long on Radio 1. On her handover to John Peel she dedicated the last record she played to the DJ veteran. The track in question was Speed Your Love to Me by Simple Minds, I believe. Or maybe it was Up on the Catwalk.
What I remember more clearly, however, is John Peel’s response at the start of his own program. “Thank you, Janice, for that piece of pomp rock,” he said (or words to that effect; pomp rock was definitely the dismissal) before hitting play on something more to his liking. (I mean The Fall, but that part of memory has long since faded).
In my head, it was a marker of how things were going at the turn. Two years ago, the reputation of Simple Minds could not have been greater. The release of the New Gold Dream album propelled them both into the charts and into album of the year honors in the music press. It felt like the culmination of the band’s steady progression from punky wannabes to art rock giants, “a gradual, exhilarating climb up a massive mountain,” music critic Dave Simpson once suggested.
New Gold Dream was the top of the mountain. A hypnotic, thrilling, thrilling thing. One of the great Scottish albums.
But with its anthemic feel and thunderous drumming, the October 1983 release of Waterfront, the album’s first single Sparkle in the Rain, signaled the band’s beginning to abandon art and focus on rock. . As a result, they began to lose critical acclaim and cult status and became a worldwide hit. Swings and rides.
In the years that followed, the Minds racked up hit after hit and bad review after bad review. Ultimately, most bands would. quite naturally, prefer the first to the second.
However, the success fixed the group’s image in the public consciousness. Over the years – decades now – they are commonly remembered as the band that gave us Alive and Kicking and Belfast Child and recorded Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff’s Don’t You (Forget About Me) for the movie The Breakfast Club (despite their reservations about the song at the time). The shimmering electro of early singles like I Travel or The American, the songs I danced to at a student disco in Stirling, are often overlooked.
So one of the (many) delights of Graeme Thomson’s new book on the band, Themes for Great Cities, is its desire to be an act of reclamation.
Thomson wants to shake up the lazy clichés that have attached themselves to the band’s reputation, to complicate the story, in order, as he says in his introduction, to “remystify” his subject. To that end, it revisits the band’s early years and suggests why they matter.
It follows Toryglen bands to the charts, focusing on their early records, from 1979’s Life in a Day to 1981’s Brace, Sons and Fascination and Sister Feelings Call. Records touched by the influence of both krautrock and Giorgio Moroder, post-punk and prog. It was music, Manic Street preacher James Dean Bradfield once suggested, made by “crystalline gods”.
And music composed not just by vocalist Jim Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill, the faces of Simple Minds now for more than four decades, but by the entire original lineup of the band. The band’s early Democratic incarnation was fueled as much by Derek Forbes’ bass, Mick MacNeill’s keyboards and Brian McGee’s drums as by Burchill and Kerr. All five members contributed to the sound of Simple Minds.
“It was really a collective,” Thomson told me when we spoke in January. “I love this self-made side of working-class young people stretching and pushing themselves and absorbing all of these influences and how abstract a lot of this music is. It’s very difficult, I think it’s still very fresh. I think it’s worth a listen. I like that it’s not canonized.
Thomson, who has written acclaimed books on Kate Bush and John Martyn, is a longtime fan of Simple Minds. Now 48, he was 11 or 12 when he first discovered them around the release of Sparkle in the Rain, as the band neared its commercial peak. As a true fan, he then returned to explore their previous records.
One of the reasons for writing the book, he says, was simply to celebrate their budding accomplishments. “You want to write about the music you love, and these albums are some of the first and first records I’ve ever loved,” he points out.
“You are also looking for fresh ground. I don’t think these recordings have been written about, compared to a lot of the recordings in the canon. Even post-punk records that were quite marginal at the time, such as Unknown Pleasures, are now part of the musical establishment.
The story Thomson tells is of a young, fast-moving, ever-changing band looking out towards the continent (“In central Europe, men march…”), grow, find your bearings.
And that explains how they became increasingly central to pop history in the mid-eighties. They had found a map to take them from the outskirts to the center of town. Next stop, stadium tours.
“They’re accused of selling themselves out,” Thomson suggests, “and I guess I wanted people to see how they started making this bigger music in the mid-’80s and how organic it was in a way. It makes sense when you see how their story has evolved.
“I think when a band has made six or seven records before having a hit, it’s hard to accuse them of being cynical.”
The story of Simple Minds is the story of the 1980s, a story of experimentalism followed by a return to classicism. They are not the only ones to have followed a similar trajectory.
The Waterboys, fronted by Mike Scott, sang of their quest to capture “great music” on their 1984 album A Pagan Place and they weren’t alone in that desire. Big Country, U2 and even Echo and the Bunnymen were all pursuing the same goal at the same time.
It was a time when horizons widened and, Thomson suggests, ancient worlds were rediscovered. In the book, he portrays a group of young men from Glasgow, perhaps disappointed by their surroundings, who go to discover Paris and Berlin, then return home and begin to see that Glasgow is also European.
“And you start to reflect your own culture more,” Thomson suggests. “And I think you can hear that in Simple Minds when it starts to get a little more Celtic, a little more elemental.”
More than that, however, the band was also changing. Drummer Brian McGee left in 1981 and bassist Derek Forbes left in 1985. Line-ups are changing and the music is changing accordingly.
“You can tell Simple Minds has really been a lot of different bands,” suggests Thomson. “There are two central figures, but when you lose a drummer and you lose the bassist, then it becomes a different band, and you work in a different way. The music will inevitably change.
“Brian McGee the drummer was replaced by Mel Gaynor, who is this massive propellant rocket launcher of a drummer and I think that changed the sound.”
The thunderous Waterfront road was the first proof of this.
The Simple Minds band has continued to evolve over the years, have been, as Thomson says, many bands. And yet their image is frozen at the point of maximum visibility, in their mulled, chorus-sung commercial climax.
The comparison with their contemporaries U2 is interesting. In the early 1990s, U2 were able to reinvent themselves when they released Achtung Baby and Zooropa and moved away from the epic big-screen Americana of their 1980s heyday. They rediscovered their “Europeanness” if you will.
“It’s an upside-down image,” Thomson said. “Simple Minds started out complicated and became more accessible. U2 did the opposite. They wanted to get more experimental, and I think when you start from a point where you paint pretty raw pictures, like U2 was, it is easier to play with that.
“U2 borrowed a lot from Simple Minds. Simple Minds was ahead chronologically, and I think artistically, for a long time. New Gold Dream certainly had a huge impact on U2. You can hear it on The Unforgettable Fire.
“And also, like the Conservative Party, U2 have stuck together. They managed not to lose any members. Keeping the same staff in place throughout your career will allow you to do this.
“In the early 1990s, Simple Minds was just Jim and Charlie. And then you work with session musicians, and I think it becomes a lot harder in that scenario to find that place.
“The band that gets weird is always acclaimed. If you start pretty mainstream and then go weird, people see that as a very brave thing.
Thomson spoke to most of the original members of Simple Minds while writing his book. Does their reputation matter to them? Do they yearn for the excitement of those early years?
“Jim is very relaxed now. I think it feels very old to him and he can point to all the success the band has had since then.
“I think they understand why diehard fans love this stuff, but it’s not something they can replicate. That was a very long time ago.”
Themes for Great Cities by Graeme Thomson is published by Constable, £20