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Simple Minds

+ {Johnny & The Self Abusers} + {Jim Kerr}

Scotland had been searching for a top-selling rock/pop band for around a decade when SIMPLE MINDS matched the success of Celtic rivals, U2, in the mid-80s. Not since the previous decade, had the likes of the BAY CITY ROLLERS and English-born ROD STEWART enticed tartan hordes into sell-out arenas all around the globe, and now – although without a scarf or ginger bonnet in sight – Glasgow’s SIMPLE MINDS didn’t really have to try that hard when they pleaded, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”, at the prestigious Live Aid concert, the pinnacle of their career.
It was a long way from their independent days in ’77 struggling to compete in the toilet circuit punk scene as sextet JOHNNY & THE SELF ABUSERS. An almost forgotten `Saints And Sinners’ 45 (released for London based Chiswick Records) was buried among a raft of similar, run-of-the-mill releases, and it was clear that Messrs Jim Kerr (vocals), his former school buddies Charlie Burchill (guitar/violin), Tony Donald (bass) and Brian McGee (drums), should break from the fractions equally caused by original guitarist John Milarky and his pal, Alan McNeil (the third guitarist!). Unable to support the said single as the latter pairing went awol – they’d duly form The CUBAN HEELS – the remaining quartet enlisted second guitarist, Duncan Barnwell, while choosing part of a line from BOWIE’s “Jean Genie” to become SIMPLE MINDS.
Throughout 1978, the band – once again a sextet with the addition of Barra-born ivory-tinkler, Michael MacNeil – gigged constantly, mostly at Glasgow’s Mars Bar; a support slot to ULTRAVOX, then featuring JOHN FOXX as frontman, more or less secured the needed exposure to attain their goals. Tony Donald was first to depart, his place filled by former Subs bassist, Derek Forbes. Finally signed on the strength of a demo tape sent to local Edinburgh music guru and record store owner, Bruce Findlay (who also became the group’s manager), it was agreed that Barnwell was no longer needed.
Through his association with Arista Records, Bruce’s Zoom independent employed John Leckie (who’d produced BE-BOP DELUXE) to work on SIMPLE MINDS’ debut album, LIFE IN A DAY (1979) {*5}. Very much in the vain of ROXY MUSIC and Leckie’s other protege, the aforementioned MAGAZINE, the post-punk set scraped into the Top 30, bolstered by a couple of well-received singles, `Life In A Day’ and `Chelsea Girl’. From the bright opening salvo, `Someone’, to the chunky guitar riffs in `Wasteland’, one could see promise and potential; the over-length `Pleasantly Disturbed’ (think VELVET UNDERGROUND) and `Murder Story’ also had merit.
Its minor success led to a proper deal with Arista, who delivered a rush-released follow-up, REAL TO REAL CACOPHONY (1979) {*8}, a set of post-punk, electronic experimentation best sampled on the evocative synth spirals of `Film Theme’. Leaving behind the glam guitars of their previous teething set, the futuristic SIMPLE MINDS took an industrial KRAFTWERK-meets-DEVO (or even JOY DIVISION-meets-MAGAZINE) approach on the tuneful `Carnival (Shelter In A Suitcase)’, the uptempo title track, `Citizen (Dance Of Youth)’ and `Calling Your Name’. Although like an outtake from a recent GARY NUMAN set, surely one-that-got-away, `Changeling’ (and for that matter, ‘Premonition’), was a delight next to the jerky noodling of CAN-esque instrumental, `Veldt’.
SIMPLE MINDS took another about turn with EMPIRES AND DANCE (1980) {*8}, a near Top 40 album heavily influenced by the harder end of the Euro-disco movement, the abrasive electro pulse of the `I Travel’ single becoming a fan fave and cult dance-floor hit. If one can imagine GIORGIO MORODER producing KRAFTWERK or JOY DIVISION (in Berlin!), then the densely frenetic beats of `Celebrate’, `Today I Died Again’, `This Fear Of Gods’ and the paranoiac `Thirty Frames A Second’, emphasized political and apocalyptic tension at the time; the chaotic and epileptic `Twist – Run – Repulsion’ was the group’s “Revolution #9”.
Initially released as a twin-set, SONS AND FASCINATION (1981) {*7} – eventually sold separately from the accompanying SISTER FEELINGS CALL {*6}, marked the first fruits of a new deal with Virgin Records, and gave the group their first major success, peaking at No.11 in the UK chart on the back of minor hit jewels, `The American’ and `Love Song’. The latter track had introduced new wave veteran Kenny Hyslop (to replace McGee), while `Sweat In Bullet’ (another Top 60 entry), the 7-minute `In Trance As Mission’ and the regal title track showered the main set with glory. The “Sister” set was also worthy of singular reviews, featuring as it did the aforementioned hook-line 45, `The American’, plus `Theme For Great Cities’ and the almost-perfect, `Careful In Career’ – Burchill’s guitar licks heavenly.
SIMPLE MINDS were beginning to find their niche, incorporating their artier tendencies into more conventional and melodic song structures. This was fully realised with NEW GOLD DREAM (81-82-83-84) (1982) {*8}, a record which marked the pinnacle of their early career and one which, arguably, they’ve since failed to better. Constructed with multiple layers of synth, the band crafted a wonderfully evocative and atmospheric series of undulating electronic soundscapes, often married to pop hooks, as with Top 20 breakthroughs `Promised You A Miracle’ (which introduced temp sticksman Mike Ogletree before he left for FICTION FACTORY) and `Glittering Prize’ (now with permanent drummer, Mel Gaynor), but more effectively allowed to veer off into dreamier territory on the likes of `Someone Somewhere (In Summertime). While SIMPLE MINDS and U2 were often compared in terms of their anthemic tendencies, a closer comparison could be made, in spirit at least, between “New Gold Dream” and U2’s mid-80s experimental classic, “The Unforgettable Fire”. The album reached Top 3 status, a catalyst for SIMPLE MINDS’ gradual transformation from an obscure cult act to stadium candidates, this process helped along nicely by the angular rush of the title track and the 7-minute closer, `King Is White And In The Crowd’.
The success of bombastic singles, `Waterfront’ and `Speed Your Love To Me’, plus the newfound swagger and confidence of Kerr, SPARKLE IN THE RAIN (1984) {*8}, became the band’s first No.1 album. Though it lacked the compelling mystery of its predecessor, the record featured such memorable SIMPLE MINDS moments as `Up On The Catwalk’ (another Top 30 gem) `Book Of Brilliant Things’, `East At Easter’ and an inventive cover of LOU REED’s `Street Hassle’.
The track that no doubt finally alienated the old faithful was `Don’t You (Forget About Me)’, Keith Forsey’s theme tune for quintessentially 80s movie, The Breakfast Club, and surely one of the most overplayed records of that decade. The song had stadium-friendly written all over it, subsequently scaling the US charts (Top 10 in Britain) and paving the way for the transatlantic success of seventh set, ONCE UPON A TIME (1985) {*8}; Forbes had now given way for John Gibling. Unashamedly going for the commercial arena-rock jugular, the album was heady, radio orientated stuff, the likes of major UK hits `Alive & Kicking’, `Sanctify Yourself’ and `All The Things She Said’, among the most definitive anthems (alongside other contenders `Oh Jungleland’ and `Ghost Dancing’) of the stadium rock genre. And then there was Live Aid, the group’s piece de resistance. A ensuing world tour, culminating at Le Zenith in Paris (August ’86), where an obligatory stop-gap double-set, LIVE IN THE CITY OF LIGHT (1987) {*6} was recorded, kept the loyal content and happy.
Predictably, the critics were unimpressed, although they didn’t really stick the knife in until the release of the overblown `Belfast Child’, a UK No.1 despite its snooze-worthy meandering and vague political agenda; alongside flipside `Mandela Day’. The accompanying album, STREET FIGHTING YEARS (1989) {*6} brought more of the same, although with further singles fodder (`This Is Your Land’ and `Kick It In’), it cemented SIMPLE MINDS’ position among the coffee table elite. A version of PETER GABRIEL’s `Biko’ also matched their political bent, while PRINCE’s `Sign O The Times’ lead out the “Amsterdam” hit EP.
Down to a trio of Kerr, Burchill and Gaynor (others now in support roles), the group hired a team of session players for their next album, REAL LIFE (1991) {*4}, the record almost spawning a Top 5 hit in the celebratory `Let There Be Love’. Although the album narrowly missed the UK top spot, it held nothing new (bar a few other hits `See The Lights’ and `Stand By Love’) for a band unwilling to relinquish the 80s for the 90s. The same could be said for their long-awaited next album release, GOOD NEWS FROM THE NEXT WORLD (1995) {*4}; `She’s A River’ and `Hypnotised’ aside.
You couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for Celtic fan Jim Kerr (one-time spouse of CHRISSIE HYNDE, between 1984-90), not only does a young pretender like Liam Gallagher hook up with another ex-missus (Patsy Kensit), but his band became something of an anachronism in the ever changing world of 90s music.
Although Kerr, Burchill and Gaynor brought back Derek Forbes and signed a new deal with Chrysalis Records, 1998’s NEAPOLIS {*5}, was little more than marking time as the band only managed to scrape into the Top 20. Bypassing a shelved set recorded in ’99 (see further on), the ill-advised covers set for twilight label, Eagle, NEON LIGHTS (2001) {*3} was somewhat tragic for a band who could be so creative. All one can do is name the offending inspirator/karaoke playlist: `Gloria’ (THEM), `The Man Who Sold The World’ (DAVID BOWIE), `Homosapien’ (PETE SHELLEY), `Dancing Barefoot’ (PATTI SMITH), `Neon Lights’ (KRAFTWERK), `Hello, I Love You’ (The DOORS), `Bring On The Dancing Horses’ (ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN), `The Needle And The Damage Done’ (NEIL YOUNG), `For Your Pleasure’ (ROXY MUSIC) and `All Tomorrow’s Parties’ (The VELVET UNDERGROUND).
Much was again underwhelming come their 2002 release, CRY {*4}, a leap backwards into the world of old SIMPLE MINDS. Granted, the group had started using loops and adding a little guitar playing here and there, but what remained was a keyboard-driven album that gave us little in the way of musical vision. While U2 have at least made an attempt to move with the times, SIMPLE MINDS’ sound is so deeply rooted in the 80s that it seems inconceivable they could ever make any kind of relevant departure.
Those words may well have to be eaten judging by the unheralded and unanticipated acclaim generated by OUR SECRETS ARE THE SAME (2003) {*6}, the much talked of but hitherto unheard set shelved in the mid-90s. The album’s savvy pop smarts harked back to their early 80s purple period, only underlining the shortcomings of “Neapolis”, while the sassy momentum of `Jeweller To The Stars’ could’ve easily regenerated Kerr and Co’s contemporary credibility.
SIMPLE MINDS were back in the UK Top 40, courtesy of the Bob Clearmountain-produced “comeback” set, BLACK AND WHITE 050505 (2005) {*6}; the post-punk 80s going through something of a revival. Eddie Duffy (on bass) had been added to the equation (Andy Gillespie on keyboards), while Messrs Kerr and Burchill found inspiration from retro acts such as The KILLERS and INTERPOL, who’d been ripping through the 80s (DURAN DURAN, U2 and SIMPLE MINDS) like there was no tomorrow. Minor hit, `Home’, plus the searching `Stay Visible’ and the cerebral closer, `Dolphins’, were all gracious in their attempts to regurgitate the SIMPLE MINDS of old – and for the most part it worked.
Loyal or lucky readers of the Sunday Express (on the 15th and 22nd April 2007) were in for a treat when a LIVE (2007) {*5} double-set was granted an official release through the newspaper; studio tracks were added to maximum its appeal. Not bad for a freebie.
A worthy attempt to reinstate SIMPLE MINDS as stadium-filling rock contenders (while also marking their glittering 30-year anniversary), Top 10 set GRAFFITI SOUL (2009) {*6} ticked most boxes for the fifty-somethings. Okay, it was commercial fare, but tracks such as opener, `Moscow Underground’ and flagship download single, `Rockets’, reminded one of just how potent the band could be. Stalwart fans were mildly ecstatic with at least two other tracks, `Kiss & Tell’ and `Light Travels’, while the deluxe edition featured an additional disc of various odds ’n’ sods from the likes of new wave contemporaries, SIOUXSIE, MAGAZINE and The STRANGLERS.
Frontman KERR subsequently opted for a solo career, LOSTBOY! AKA JIM KERR (2010) {*6}, a decent enough recording that made inroads into the charts. Covering one of Jimbo’s favourite cuts, `Bulletproof Heart’ (from The SILENCERS), one could at least vouch for others such as `Shadowland’ and `Refugee’. His group, meanwhile, continued on their sojourn to win back the hearts and minds of their huge following with the release of double-disc, 5X5 LIVE (2012) {*6}.
Many expecting to hear SIMPLE MINDS getting back to their roots, 16th studio album, BIG MUSIC (2014) {*7} was indeed a trek back some three decades or so. Augmented on a few pieces by Scot, Iain Cook (of CHVRCHES), the young adult element that Kerr and Co had been searching for years had been reinstated; albeit with one cover, that of The CALL’s `Let The Day Begin’. Synthetic to the max with all the bombastic attributes that set them apart in their spirited halcyon dancehall days, the 5-piece (Ged Grimes now added to Andy Gillespie, Gaynor, Burchill and Kerr), the edgy overtones were in fill flow through `Blindfolded’, `Midnight Walking’, `Honest Town’, `Imagination’ and the title track.
Stripped back to the bare bones, albeit indulgently polished and refined in places, ACOUSTIC (2016) {*7} re-instated a long line of “unplugged” sets; STATUS QUO and UB40 stretching the formula’s roots beyond its sell-by date. Hits a-plenty on the dozen “Glittering Prizes” on board (`The American’, `Chelsea Girl’ and `New Gold Dream’ as buoyant as ever), there was even room for KT TUNSTALL on `Promised You A Miracle’, and a RICHARD HAWLEY cover, `Long Black Train’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD-MCS // rev-up MCS Dec2012-Nov2016

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