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In Defense of Simple Minds

16 March 2010 Stories and Appreciations 4,088 views One CommentPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

I hope you’ll forgive me for putting on my old-man typeface for a minute. I have tried time and again to get into all the alt.indie.college bands that Pitchfork seems to think important nowadays — Death Cab, Decemberists, that bloody Vampire Weekend — but I get so bored. They’re good bands, but at age forty-cough I have lived long enough to have heard a lot of these allegedly new and exciting sounds two and three times. Far be it from me to agree with Billy Joel, but here we are.

One of the more jaded of my musician friends once said, “There’s only so much you can do with bass, drums, guitar, vocals and a 4/4. That’s just the mathematics talking.” I don’t think we’ve yet exhausted rock music’s full range of expression — every now and again there’s a TV On The Radio, MGMT or Tokyo Police Club to put things another way — but there’s no denying that it’s getting awfully crowded in there, at least to my ears. Now I know how those Rolling Stone critics felt when they dismissed my onetime-favorite bands as Roxy Music or Velvet Underground rip-offs. One of those bands, Simple Minds, took a real beating from critics even before “Don’t You Forget About Me” made their name.

They were compared unfavorably to the Velvets, to the Doors, to Peter Gabriel — and in the wake of “Don’t You’s” success, ever after to U2. But time has silenced those haters (or, like me, it has driven them to a steady diet of ambient, alternative hip-hop, reissues and Neko Case) and today, it seems safe to issue a defense of pre-“Breakfast Club” Simple Minds. Besides, you’ve already heard so much of what made early the Simple Minds great … in the music of TV On The Radio, Arcade Fire and Radiohead.

Before you tell me I’m full of it, I want you to watch this clip:

That’s what Simple Minds sounded like from 1979 through 1983, and that’s the Simple Minds you’ll hear on their must-have compilation “Early Gold.” While learning its way to the stadium-sized rock that would be its post-1983 calling card, Simple Minds did a hell of a lot of soul-searching, experimentation and good-natured blundering, and in the course they made some terrific-sounding music. The stalking-cat thump of “Premonition,” the Joy Division-like hypnosis of “Thirty Frames a Second,” the industrial disco of “Sweat in Bullet” — these are the songs of a band that doesn’t care if it ever gets a hit. By the time “Early Gold” gets to a song you’ve heard — the new-wave epic “Promised You a Miracle” — you’re sold on Simple Minds as a studio band, and you’ll be primed for their further adventures.

The good news is that the band’s 1984 breakthrough album, “Sparkle in the Rain,” is a stomping affirmation of all that came before it. The bad news is that it was the last great album the band ever made. After the one-two punch of “Sparkle” and “Don’t You Forget About Me,” Simple Minds traded personal for populist: Having gotten a taste of stadium life, they began making records that were built to play live, and they never recovered. The band has made the occasional good song in the intervening years, but for the most part, my enjoyment of Simple Minds’ music after “Don’t You Forget About Me” has been largely predicated on the fact that the band made “Sparkle in the Rain,” one of the best “big music” releases ever.

The producer of “Sparkle” was Steve Lillywhite, who steered more than a few post-punk classics (he also engineered the first few U2 records, XTC’s “Drums and Wires,” and Big Country’s “The Crossing”). It may well be the most orgasmic explosion of ascending riffs, exploding snare drums and cool blue keyboard noise ever put to record. As “Rain” plays through, a curious thing happens: The music gets bigger and bigger, and vocalist Jim Kerr says less and less. “Sparkle’s” first two songs, “Up On The Catwalk” and “Book of Brilliant Things,” each have a full set of lyrics — verse-chorus-verse, with a bit of improvisation at the end — but by song three, “Speed Your Love to Me,” the verses have become disjointed and Kerr ends up repeating some of them a few times:

I couldn’t sleep a wink last night
I’d love to hold on
Love to see the fires in motion
Love to feel a free world turn tonight

Meanwhile,”Speed Your Love” builds and builds, and is still building as the song fades out. It’s easy to imagine the song continuing forever, or at least until the band drops dead from exhaustion.

Song four, “Waterfront,” is something else again. Over Derek Forbes’ pulsing bassline, an Eno-esque bed of keyboards and the kind of fat, echoing drumbeat that only Lillywhite can deliver, Kerr sings a quartet of what he called “anecdotes,” changing their wording slightly from one instance to the next:

Step in step out of the rain
I’m gonna walk on up to the waterfront
Said one million years from today…
So far, so cool, so close, yet still so far

Splashy keyboard hits are timed against cymbal crashes, and guitarist Charlie Burchill plays a pair of wailing, up-down chords; the effect is not unlike watching the sea crash against rocks, then recede. The middle eight section builds up tension on ascending chords, and as Kerr wails “Soooooooo faaaaaaaaar,” your mind tricks you into thinking that a key change is in the offing — but the song smashes back into the same melody, the same pattern of crashes and back-building, and “Waterfront” re-assumes its aura of bombastic, yet dreamy hypnosis. My friend Krysztof Nemeth, an artist and musician who’s probably put more than his share of Simple Minds favorites on mixtapes, once told me that he could pick up his bass and play “Waterfront” forever, and I believe him. It’s the rare song that excites you while calming you down at the same time.

“Sparkle in the Rain” remains my favorite Simple Minds album. It allowed me to accept much of the crappy music the band made later in its career, and more importantly, it tinges “Wolf Like Me,” “No Cars Go” and “Reckoner” with nostalgia. When I say, “Hey, that sounds like ‘Sparkle in the Rain,'” I mean it as a supreme compliment. That’s probably why those hippies at Rolling Stone didn’t want me as a freelancer.

Geoff Carter

This piece originally appeared, in different form, in the Spellout Seattle blog.

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One Comment »

  1. I LOVE this piece! Simple Minds never really got the critical acclaim that they deserved, particularly in the US. My experience was that when the album, “Sparkle in the Rain” (and “New Gold Dream” before that–I’m REALLY old!)came out, everyone said, “they’re crap–just another bunch of mascara-clad pretty boys..”
    Today, however, I hear people about my age say, “Oh man, Simple Minds… I was a BIG fan. They’re legends of eighties music!”. Sad, yet funny how it is now “cool” to admit fandom! Kudos to Geoff Carter for declaring himself a fan then and now! And for making me feel better for just not being able to deal with the “new sound”.

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