Dream, dream, dream
It’s the eighties’ youthful theme
Loving the city
A theme for great cities
And loved ones
And love

- “Wonderful In Young Life” (1981)

 

Americans know them mostly as “that Breakfast Club band” from the 80s, but Scotland’s Simple Minds have carried on in one form or another long enough to enjoy a new critical appreciation.  DJs have incorporated prominent samples from Simple Minds recordings into dancefloor bangers.  The millenium’s postpunk revival restored the group’s dance-rock credentials; add cowbell to a track like 1979′s “Changeling,” step up the tempo a bit, and you’ve got a decent recipe for the Rapture’s 2002 “House of Jealous Lovers.”

To this retrospective, I want to propose the importance of Simple Minds’ urban aesthetic.  It seems to me, and now I’m wondering why, those of us who came of age with UK music in the early 80s intuitively recognized Simple Minds as an ‘urban’ group, whatever that might have meant decades ago — a synth-based sound, their reign on nightclub sound systems, the pretensions of the new romantics and new Europeans, their penchant for pleated trousers.  Yet I think there’s something more important to this question than just a long-standing obsession.  As I’ll argue, today we all inhabit, to some extent, the urban world envisioned in Simple Minds’ early work.

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To explore this issue, in this essay I examine the group’s urban aesthetic to show how it evolved in tandem with the musical developments of the group’s first six albums (recorded between 1979-84) and broader changes in urban geography and history during this first phase of the band’s career.

(I realize that most observers mark Simple Minds’ early career with the first five albums, which the band has recently taken to commemorating via the 5×5 tour and live recordings.  However, I extend this period up through their sixth album, 1984′s Sparkle in the Rain, for two reasons.  First, it’s the last to feature Derek Forbes, one of postpunk’s most creative bassists and a key contributor to their post-punk sound.  And second, yes, I’m a new wave damage-case who still has a soft spot for this album, even though it points toward the direction that the group would pursue, in my estimation, with less relevance to pop music in the following years.)

 

Theme for great cities

Anyone who has held a Simple Minds album in their hands know that representations of the urban are plainly evident across various song titles, lyrical references and promotional visuals (the group never really exploited music videos successfully).  But one of the most exciting qualities of Simple Minds’ music is that listeners can discern an urban aesthetic within the sonics of the music itself, without recourse to their visual or lyrical references.  I’d say their urban sound is best captured by a number of songs from albums #3-4 — Empires and Dance and the two-record release Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call — that reveal the foundation of two musical elements.  First, the rhythm section is up front in the mix, anchored by Forbes’ throbbing, hypnotic basslines shorn of its high-end treble.  Drummer Brian McGee’s style is simple but memorable, repeating spare rhythms of one or two bars’ length for machinic effect while generally eschewing cymbal crashes or drum fills.

Second, keyboardist Mick MacNeil dominates the mid-registers with clarion melodies on keyboard and organ, arpegiators looping one-bar synth figures, and beds of ambient chords and textures.  In combination, these elements convey the musical sensations of motion and altitude — what Kerr evokes as airmobility (in “Sweat in Bullet”)  — giving the listener a window seat on a trip through vast, technicolor landscapes.  (From “Premonition”: Fly over land/Where no one’s heart can beat.)   If this recalls the logic of German motorik groups like Neu! or Kraftwerk, or for that matter what it sounds like to drive into an immersive urban setting accompanied by any contemporary techno soundtrack, that’s no mistake.  In a very significant way, Simple Minds’ early recordings comprise a key link between German krautrock and today’s techno urbanism.

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Because bass, drums and keys comprise the most important elements of the early SM sound, it’s ironic and maybe telling that singer Jim Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill are the only original members left today.  Not to diminish Burchill’s skill, but on these early records (specifically after their debut Life in a Day), his best contributions are almost indetectable to the listener.  Like Irmin Schmidt’s keyboards in the German band Can, Burchill’s scratches, noises, embellishments, sustains, and melodies sound everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Virtually synonymous with ‘Simple Minds,’ Jim Kerr is highly charismatic frontman who isn’t necessarily endowed with a recognizable voice (except for his occasional tendency to enunciate with curious stresses — uh-live and kee-king), nor shows special flair as a storyteller.  In their early period, Simple Minds’ lyrics typically comprise abstract images ordered together with little narrative or perspectival coherence.  Consider these verses from 1981′s “Love Song”:

Flesh of heart
Heart of steel
So well so well
I cut my hair
Paint my face
Break a finger
Tell a lie
So well so well

America’s a boyfriend
Untouched by flesh of hand
Stay below it
Stay below
In glory days that come and go
Some promised land

In the cut-up tradition established in rock music by David Bowie, Kerr’s impressionistic montages let listeners reach their own individual connections — pretty much a normative lyrical strategy in postpunk.  If their meanings are opaque, his words nonetheless sound good when sung; alongside the scattered, unsustained instrumental flourishes provided by MacNeil and Burchill, they add another tone to the increasingly complex sonic palette of this five-piece band.  Kerr and the other members also have an intuition for when not to join in, which leaves crucial spaces in their arrangements and recordings.  Tellingly, Simple Minds is probably the post-punk group with the keenest aptitude for composing instrumentals.  Perhaps Kerr’s lyrical associations serve best as oblique prompts to his band, guiding their musical instincts away from conventional songwriting and pop maneuvers and toward more experimental directions.

 

Ambition in motion

The urban contains a multiplicity of social and spatial relations embedded in physical environments, social geographies, and historical eras.  It’s impossible for any single individual to experience or comprehend these in their totality, much less for any one band to channel and convey them effectively within music.  So which urban does Simple Minds’ early recordings occupy?

Simple Minds hailed from Glasgow, a bustling, gritty industrial seaport in Scotland, whose horizons the band quickly sought to transcend when they formed from of the ashes of punk pretenders Johnny & the Self-Abusers.  Within a few short years the group realized these aspirations by establishing fanbases as far away as Canada, Australia and Japan.  However, Simple Minds’ urbanism has a very concrete reference point: the European city of the 1970s and 80s.  In its geographical scope, Europe represents the poles of estrangement and familiarity, of alienation and communion, between which Simple Minds’ urban aesthetic developed.

Europe and its cities connote several things within Simple Minds’ music, starting with a promising future to contrast with the economic stagnation and Victorian moralism beginning to sweep over northern England and Scotland in the 1970s.  Germany was famously a source of inspiration to many post-punk groups. It gave rise to the musical influences and inspirations of Kraftwerk, krautrock, and other industrial/techno musics, while Bowie and Iggy Pop epitomized the possibilities of musical/artistic reinventions amidst urban squalor with which Berlin has long enticed Anglo-American beholders.  But Simple Minds set their sights well beyond Germany to encompass the north Atlantic Benelux countries, France, Scandinavia, and the Mediterranean countries.

Two specific spatial relations tie this larger group of nations together in the band’s aesthetics, beginning with the activity of travel as the means to encounter other ways of living and reimagine the self.  Simple Minds’ 1980 breakthrough single “I Travel” literally announces this ambition of the group: to pursue artistic development and commercial success through a frenetic recording schedule and, more importantly, an incessant itinerary of touring.

The second spatial relation involves the geography Simple Minds traveled through Europe.  Consider this startling fact: the group played 610 concerts from when they began as Simple Minds proper in January 1978 to their final gigs with Derek Forbes in January 1985 (before their Live Aid performance).  I haven’t checked to see if this is a record for any post-punk band, but it’s still a staggering feat: an average of over 100 concerts per year for six years straight.

Simple Minds tour dates

Granted, this statistic is pushed upwars by the massive tours for New Gold Dream (125 dates) and especially Sparkle in the Rain (146 dates); the latter included a leg supporting the Pretenders through North America that was essentially Kerr’s honeymoon with new bride Chrissie Hynde.  And as expected, Scotland and the rest of the UK dominate Simple Minds’ gig itinerary.  The group never played outside the UK until October 1979 with a first date at Berlin’s Kant-Kino (commemorated by the instrumental “Kant-Kino” on their next album, Empires and Dance).  Nonetheless, the level of touring to different countries and to different cities within those countries is remarkable.  Quick: can you name 12 different cities in the tiny Netherlands?  Well, Simple Minds played all of them — and then they traveled to some other Dutch cities.

In this phase of their career, the group generally headlined their own tours (with two exceptions, supporting Peter Gabriel in 1982 and the Pretenders in 1984) and played clubs and small theaters.  By 1982, they began sprinkling in summer dates on the nascent European festival circuit: Roskilde, Torhout-Werchter, Pinkpop.  (I saw Simple Minds headline the Werchter music festivals twice, in 1984 and 86, where they worked the festival stage and whipped up the crowd with the same skill as U2, their only peers among European audiences at the time.)  They covered big cities often by playing two or more dates, either consecutively or on return legs.

To put Simple Minds’ touring in some geographical perspective, look at the map below of European cities in 1990 with more than 1 million inhabitants.  (I reproduce this from Patrick Le Galès’ book European Cities, which in turn incorporates maps by François Moroconi-Ebrard.)  The data may be old, but 1990 is a useful bookend to denote the geography that Simple Minds traveled in their early career, with the exception of the reunited Germany.  We see there were about 45 European cities with more than 1 million inhabitants in 1990, of which 15 lay behind what was then the “iron curtain” (which Simple Minds didn’t venture past until 1990).

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This leaves us approximately 30 cities in Western Europe, which provides a generous circuit for most rock bands’ Europeans tours — maybe too generous, if we want to emphasize Europe’s core urban zone.  A 1989 analysis by the French spatial planning agency DATAR observed a so-called blue banana (shown in the map below, reproduced from a 2004 article by Neil Brenner) comprised of Europe’s key economic cities with regards to the economic and political integration promoted by the “blue” European Union.  Notably, this geographical constellation bypasses Europe’s Romance language nations — no France, no Spain, and no Italy beyond the prosperous industrial cities of the north — and Scandinavia as well.

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Now look at the table of Simple Minds’ tour destinations again: the group played 82 different cities in Europe between 1979-84.  This suggests a more inclusive map of urban Europe, comprised of the approximately 3,500 towns of more than 10,000 inhabitants in 1990 (reproduced from Le Galès).  By this measure, from 75 per cent to 85 per cent of Europe’s population lives in urban areas, depending on the country.  (In comparison, the urban population in the United States is 20 per cent lower, as Le Galès points out.)  For that matter, this map also reveals the hidden urban geography within the UK, particularly England — the backdrop to the 55 different UK cities where Simple Minds played in their first six years.

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This last map reveals a different kind of European geography that we can imagine the group and its crew driving through in a van or later a tour bus for months at a time, covering smaller distances and reaching more places than the phrase “European concert tour” generally implies.  Making no assumptions about the band’s sight-seeing habits, such a touring itinerary would necessarily reduce travel time and leave more time for local immersion and engagement with European towns and local residents than less extensive tours of Europe.

 

20th century promised land

Simple Minds’ peripatetic traveling and extensive geography comprises the experiential context for the group’s imagination and representations of European cities.  To demonstrate how these evolved, I now take up the group’s first six albums in order.

 

Life in a Day and Real to Real Cacophony

Simple Minds’ debut Life in a Day (released in April 1979) is certainly the least classic of their ‘classic’ early records, introducing what sounds like a non-descript new wave unit plying fairly conventional compositions.  Several tracks show the influence of Roxy Music, although the group’s lurch, Burchill’s barre chording, and MacNeil’s jaunty keyboards makes the Stranglers another reasonable comparison.  Kerr frequently adopts a snotty, nasal vocal style that shows the influence of British punk — never a genre for which the band showed much musical or attitudinal affinity.  Only the buoyant synth on the title track hints at the musical altitudes that Simple Minds would reach on subsequent albums.

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A more important element on the debut album is the establishment of the essential theme in most Simple Minds’ lyrics.  As illustrated below by “Somone,” the opening track, an alienated ego is drawn across a liminal or transformative space to a human connection via someone’s “calling.”

She says
Someone is calling
Someone is calling for me
She says
I got some feelings so different
No one else can see
She says
She says

Note the kinds of spaces depicted on Life in a Day: The children from the street call out my name (“Murder Story”).  Into the street/People can meet/Don’t turn your back to the view (“All For You.)  I’ve seen the streetlights/Shine on the underground (“Pleasantly Disturbed”).  I see them walking/You know they’re walking at night/Oh in the dark you know/They’re shining out so bright (“No Cure”).  Is it true you’re running round?/Now is it true they’re calling you the Chelsea Girl? (“Chelsea Girl”).  The street, the underground, the dark, streetlights at night — these are clichéd backdrops for punk’s urban youth revolt, albeit rendered uncanny in the sci-fi style of Gary Numan (“Down in the Park”) and Joy Division (from that group’s “Shadowplay”: To the centre of the city where all roads meet/Waiting for you).

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Recorded in September 1979 with the same producer (John Leckie), the second album Real to Real Cacophony saw the group jettison almost all of their debut’s punk or new wave influences to develop a more original, innovative sound.  The album’s styles are eclectic, its strategies varying track by track (including three instrumentals), but it set Simple Minds down a sure path from which they would never look back.  MacNeil’s keyboard takes center stage, while Burchill largely eschews riffing (the monster “Changeling” notwithstanding) to concentrate on texture.  Real to Real Cacophony also shows a newfound fluency in dance rhythms, with “Premonition” laying down an ominous groove as compelling as that of any Factory Records band.

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Otherwise all over the place lyrically, a pair of themes emerge on Real to Real Cacophony that would reach fuller expression on the next two albums.  First, the closing track “Scar” yields Simple Minds’ first explicit travelogue: Kerr narrates an auto voyage into a cityscape that promises hidden meanings, before reaching an end practically ripped from the pages of J.G. Ballard’s Crash.  Second, “Citizen (Dance of Youth)” introduces a geopolitical critique with its depiction of life under a totalitarian regime as seen from a divided city (most likely Berlin: An American/Got got a camera/Takes a picture).

Citizen
The state that we’ve come to love
Love’s a crime against the state
I hate the sound of bells
Communications lost
Something we’re after
I hate democracy
One more contact lost

 

Empires and Dance

1980′s Empires and Dance, Simple Minds’ third album, is a chilling yet danceable album — an essential contribution to the post-punk canon by a highly confident musical unit.  The first track “I Travel” launches with a manic loop of whirring electronic noises before exploding into an amphetamized rush of Kraftwerkian proto-techno and Moroderesque eurodisco (with Forbes echoing the bassline from Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”).  Suddenly, the album shifts into dystopian, minor-key territory, as massive, almost oppressive rhythms (especially on “Celebrate, “This Fear of Gods” and “Thirty Frames a Second”) tune the listener into Orwellian scenes of state control and elite exploitation.

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Or so it seems to me.  In moods and lyrics, Empires and Dance demonstrates a narrative coherence missing on Simple Minds’ prior albums, although Kerr’s abstract imagery allows at least two possible interpretations.  “If there’s any kind of concept to Empires And Dance, it must be the boy or man who’s run away — a fugitive,” Kerr has said, but the international touring that the band had dove into also supports a geopolitical framing.

I was twenty, and I looked around me.  We had the talent always to be in the place where the neo-Nazis exploded another bomb.  Bologna, a synagogue in Paris, a railway station in Munich.  Don’t tell me anything like that could leave you unmoved.

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The album cover displays a photograph by Michael Ruetz from his series on the Greek dictatorship of the 1970s; an ersatz cyrillic font and titles like “Constantinople Line” suggest forgotten circuits of authoritarianism and brutality laid down in a long history of western empire.  From “Celebrate,” The road is long/Seven thousand miles/Soldier talk/And uniform; on “Thirty Frames a Second” we hear of conflict between Young immigrants/And legionaires.  Although Kerr refrains from delivering explicit manifestos or political analyses, Empires and Dance devotes considerable attention to themes that will further develop through the remainder of Simple Minds’ first six albums.

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The first is a view of internationalism as a Babel of diverse tongues and cultures, united only by a purposeful failure to understand the other.  Europe has a language problem/Talk, talk, talk, talk, talking on, he sings on “I Travel,” later diagnosing America and Asia with the same problem.  A first-class rail passenger looks down upon new boarders of the titular “Constantinople Line”:

Hey Waiter,
I’m first class.
Hey Waiter,
Where are we now?.
Am I last?
Am I last?
Hey Waiter,
Don’t talk back.
These tenants speak
A traveller’s language
Caucasian talk
They’re saying nothing
I see a land
As we crawl by night
I see a face
In the window in front
These stations are useful
These stations we love them
Newspaper
Encounter
Confusion

This stanza also illustrates another theme, the compulsion of movement, epitomized on Empires and Dance by references to modes and way-stations of travel and transit.  This train is late/I hesitate/To a city that they live on, Kerr observes on “Capital City,” but his narrator is seduced by movement: Pulse/Feel/Pulse.  I always took the echoing French female voice in “Twist/Run/Repulsion” to be an intercom announcement in a busy European airport, which made sense in juxtaposition with Kerr’s mumbles of preoccupation; in research for this essay I learned that the voice is actually reading from a short story in French by Nicolas Gogol about the main street in St. Petersburg.  This alternate interpretation is still thematically consistent, however, since ‘the city’ is represented here as a site of travelers’ superficial, ironic assessments, not a place of sustained cosmopolitan engagement.  From “I Travel”: Love songs playing in the restaurants/Airport playing Brian Eno.

A third theme is skepticism about formal international cooperation, as marked by a first reference (more would follow on the next album) to the League of Nations, the failed pre-WWII precursor to the United Nations.  These reptiles scream/A violent party/All art and jazz/And League of Nations, the first-class bigot announces in “Constantinople Line”.  On “I Travel” Kerr observes Euro-Bureau-Interpol/Making love to the criminals.

Granted, these songs may contain unreliable narrators, and more generally no theme on Empires and Dance are invulnerable resist semantic instability and intertextual contradiction.  Kerr’s skill as a lyricist on this album really lies in his litany of concrete details of urban environments and geographic mobility, beheld impressionistically in a rapid, even explosive montage that Italian futurists could recognize: Travel round/I travel round/Decadence and pleasure towns/Tragedies, luxuries, statues, parks and galleries.  Simple Minds’ most extended meditation on cities, Empires and Dance remains their most symbolically resonant work.

 

Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call

On an artistic streak after months of further touring, Simple Minds rushed themselves once again into the studio with a new label (Virgin) and producer (Steve Hillage).  So much material was recorded that the band opted to put in out two albums released simultaneously.  Per custom, I regard Sons and Fascination and Sister Feelings Call as a single album, Simple Minds’ fourth, although Sister Feelings Call is shorter and less developed — for example, its “Sound In 70 Cities” is simply an instrumental version of Sons and Fascination’s  “70 Cities As Love Brings The Fall.”

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The glut of material explains why some fans and critics view the fifth album as underbaked and in need of editing, at least when compared to the albums that preceded and would follow it.  If anything, I think this makes Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call the most underrated of Simple Minds’ first six albums.  Yes, not all of these tracks work equally well (true perhaps of all Simple Minds albums), but precisely because the tracks are less composed, they function more as soundtracks with all the emplacement of the listener into psychogeographic settings that this form entails.  (Stated differently, Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call sounds fantastic when driving in a car.)

Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call is also the key transitional album in Simple Minds’ catalog.  On the one hand, there are clear sonic and thematic similarities with Empires and Dance.  The cover photos juxtaposing blurry movements of cars and people before the immobile band members convey the familiar compulsion of movement and mobility.  There’s a continuing geopolitical criticism, now with new attention to America, where the group had just toured a second time.  (Kerr manages a Brecht quotation in “20th Century Promised Land”: Unhappy the land that has no heroes/No! Unhappy the land that needs heroes.)  “Sons and Fascination” and the almost-instrumental “League of Nations” put a drum machine to the service of ominous modernism familiar from Empires and Dance.  And of course, the fourth album further pursues dance grooves on the spiky “Sweat in Bullet,” the effervescent “Love Song” (that tambourine on the chorus!), and the ethereal “Theme for Great Cities.”

On the other hand, a shift in mood on Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call signals the emotional blueprint of the group’s future recordings as Simple Minds venture into more complex major/minor-key sequences, uplifting moods, and a new sense of epic scale.  The opening track “In Trance as Mission” announces this new direction.  A foregrounded bass and drum playing a 6/8 motorik rhythm lay a foundation for a subdued bed of synth swells and guitar feedback.  For just one moment in time/I hear the holy back beat: in a becalmed baritone, Kerr recites a litany of spiritual visions seen in a new type of light.  Burchill’s guitar chirps melodically, evoking seagulls soaring through a dusky sky as the narrator observes Something crashing against white rocks.  This serenity is undermined only by hints of a familiar restlessness: No calm to my hand… You’ve got to move on…

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With Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call, a new vocabulary became necessary to describe the kind of sublime moods and wide-angle, naturalistic vistas expressed on tracks like “In Trance as Mission” and “Seeing Out The Angel.”  While the group would refine these aesthetics on New Gold Dream, their next album, elsewhere the group develops a post-postpunk rock that would be further realized on the sixth album, Sparkle in the Rain. Thunderous drums and sustained guitar distortion on “70 Cities as Love Brings the Fall,” “Boys From Brazil,” “The American,” and “Wonderful in Young Life” signal how capably the group has rivaled or surpassed the achievements of other guitar groups of the time — the Skids, Echo and the Bunnymen, and yes U2 — in exploring a yearning, unironic rock.

The urban aesthetic appears a bit harder to discern from Kerr’s abstract, indetermine language.  Gone are the European settings narrated on the last album; on “In Trance as Mission,” a nameless city and a statue in fog are the only defined objects in the spiritual vista Kerr describes.  “Theme for Great Cities” of course is completely without lyrics, while that title gets name-checked in another song, “Wonderful in Young Life” (quoted at the beginning of this essay), a vaguely Whitman-esque paean to youth, love and dreams.

So what is urban about Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call?  Maybe a better question is, where are those 70 cities in which love brings the fall, anyway?  In fact these could be any cities.  Tellingly, in live performance Kerr would rattle off any number of place names familiar to concertgoers in an added stanza.  What the phrase “70 cities” really connotes is a broader affiliation of musical communion that transcends the narrator and listener, as forged in the actual bond between the group and its audiences.

I should add that by this point, Simple Minds and Kerr in particular had become rather capable and powerful in concert.  In part this reflected new commercial and artistic ambitions (an occasion for a change in record labels); in other part it resulted from the considerable touring experience under their belt.  Recall from my earlier discussion their extensive penetration of the UK and Europe circuit that sent them out to far-flung locations.  Such efforts not only were paying off by this point, in terms of developing a growing fanbase and shedding the group’s cult status, but provided the experiential basis for the unexpected spirituality that the group was beginning to express.  The lyrical affirmations that began to creep into Simple Minds’ music — love, dreams, beauty and so on — doubled as performative utterances, as if by saying these things in performance, Kerr made the musical communion of the audience real.  In turn, ‘the city’ is what Kerr names this exuberant collective.

 

New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) and Sparkle in the Rain

Simple Minds wound down their urban aesthetic with two very different albums.  New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) was the commercial breakthrough, with two singles (“Promised You a Miracle” and “Glittering Prize”) contributing valuably to 1982′s closing “New Pop” chapter in post-punk.  This album remains the group’s artistic zenith, using quieter volumes and softer textures to convey a romanticism and spirituality at no expense to groove.  Central to the album’s dynamism was the replacement of drummer Brian McGee by a trio of experienced drummers, the most important being his permanent replacement Mel Gaynor, who introduced an intuitive swing, improvisatory fills, and unmistakeable finesse (listen to that cymbal work on “Someone Somewhere in Summertime”) to the group.  It’s no coincidence that the irrepressible title track was initially called “Festival Wave,” since New Gold Dream saw Simple Minds graduate musically and commercially to the status of arena rock.  Their big-sounding music had finally found a home in correspondingly big venues, yet the group never resorted to arena rock’s traditional force or ham-fisted gestures to realize their epic scale.

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Alas, the same can’t be said for 1984′s Sparkle in the Rain, which reasonably deserves the “U2 with keyboards” comparison that had begun to tag Simple Minds.  The album has its high points, certainly more than any Simple Minds album to follow, and MacNeil in particular gives inspired performances on “Waterfront,” “Book of Brilliant Days” and “White Hot Day.”  Disappointingly, Burchill released the repressed rock guitarist from the band’s debut, perhaps egged on by Gaynor’s pounding attack.  (Matters weren’t helped by the cluttered, muddy production of Steve Lilywhite, who couldn’t find the sonic clarity he had just achieved with U2′s War.)  And while I can say from firsthand observations at a Belgian disco in 1984-85 that people danced to the singles off Sparkle in the Rain, it sure wasn’t pretty; with this album, Simple Minds left behind their Eurodisco rhythms and any remaining postpunk spirit once and for all.

Significantly, with both New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) and Sparkle in the Rain, Simple Minds also abandoned the modernism that had fueled their urban aesthetic to this point.  Musically, New Gold Dream sounds fantastic, which I mean literally; the band puts such a dreamy sound in service of such emotionally engaging melodies that the listener can’t help but feel transported to imaginary environments that are less sci-fi and more magical (“Colours Fly and Catherine Wheel”), less urban and more edenic (“Somebody Up There Likes You”).  Lyrical references to cities on New Gold Dream are few, nondescript, solely metaphorical, and immediately followed by an elemental references, as if to hold cities equivalent to natural forces in the group’s romantic language.  Once more see city lights/Holding candles to the flame (“Someone Somewhere in Summertime”).  And the world goes hot/And the cities take/And the beat goes crashing/All along the way (“New Gold Dream”).  (This begs the question, just what do cities “take”?  Take in?  Take on?)

The eclipse of the urban by nature advances further in Sparkle in the Rain, which is replete with references to rain, the sky, fire, moon, day, storm, shadows, time, and so on.  “Up On The Catwalk” name-drops several cities, ostensibly to convey the universality of love, tragedy and hope among a planetary community:

Up on the catwalk there’s street politicians
That crawl in from Broadway say then “Who are you?”
And up on the catwalk there’s one thousand postcards
From Montevideo say that I’ll be home soon
Get out of Bombay and go up to Brixton
And look around to see just what is missing
And up on the catwalk, girls call for mother
And dream of their boyfriends
And I don’t know why

Simple Minds’ last truly great song, “Waterfront,” finds Kerr dwelling in and upon one city in particular: Glasgow, the band’s hometown.  Yet while the vocalist talked in interviews about how the song originated with his return to the shuttered shipyards that his grandfather worked at, this urban story is stripped of any mention to Glasgow and rendered universal: Get in, get out of the rain/I’m going to move on up to the waterfront.

As Simple Minds pursued a metaphysical lyricism and a dynamic sound suited to moving thousands of people, their songs lost their sensitivity to concrete environments and real urban life.  A telling example is Sparkle in the Rain’s cover of Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle,” originally a three-part suite about the life and death of a New York City junkie-transvestite.  With his famous ear for dialogue and detail, Reed zeroes in on the lusts and profanities of the underworld: But when someone turns that blue/Well, it’s a universal truth/And then you just know that bitch will never fuck again.  In their version, Simple Minds edit “Street Hassle” to its first part (“Waltzing Matilda”), scrub the lyrics of their queerness and lasciviousness (gone is the line what a humpin’ muscle), and set the remaining story of orgasmic communion to a flashy exercise in rock dynamics. The incongruity of a final remaining profanity, the ambiguous line just like she had never come, only underscores how the tone and scale of Simple Minds’ new music was at odds with the urban everyday.

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Simple Minds’ epic turn is made graphic on the covers of their fifth and sixth albums.  New Gold Dream features a large cross with burning heart and ancient book (the bible?) at its center; a gauzy background suggests a stone wall in the mists — a ‘new medievalism,’ perhaps.  Sparkle in the Rain shows a coat-of-arms depicting (ahem) sparkles in the rain in one quadrant and the group’s initials in another; on either side, banners encircle lances of two-bar crosses, interpretable as both variants on the initial M. and derivations of the cross from New Gold Dream.

 

And how do I feel living in the 80s?

This recognizably European iconography frames the final development of Simple Minds’ urbanism.  From the clichéd punk streetscenes of Life in a Day to the geopolitical travelogues of Empires and Dance to the spiritual visions begun on Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call, the alienated ego at the core of Simple Minds’ early lyrics has always been searching for “someone, somewhere.”  By the fifth and sixth album, it appears to have found its home in a Catholic conception of Europe.  By this I don’t mean the Catholic, generally Romance-language nations of Europe or in particular communities and fellowships that practice Catholicism.  The spiritual imagery of New Gold Dream and Sparkle in the Rain has actually been a bit of a red herring, as Kerr has pointed out: “No one in the group practises religion, but most of the band are Catholic.  I think you get stamped with that when you’re young and it’s there forever, you can’t really escape it.”

Instead, what Catholicism symbolizes in Simple Minds’ music is the inclusive collective that reintegrates the alienated ego.  This symbolism has material basis in the group’s career, as the evolution of the group’s themes of searching for connection coincided with their tours of Europe and the increasingly larger, rapturous crowds they played to.  Having seen Europe through an initial lens of unfamiliarity and estrangement (best captured on Empires and Dance), Simple Minds eventually found in Europe the familiar — a common nature, even a pan-European ‘citizenship,’ activated in each successful performance.  Admittedly, the terms to this ‘citizenship’ are unclear and vague.  Simple Minds’ music tends to emphasize the experience of belonging: an exuberance that resolves their first four albums’ mind/body dialectic — i.e., a ‘fascination’ with real places set in tension with incessant physical/spatial motion — into a transcendent, celebratory and (most unfortunately) no longer danceable form of stadium rock.

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Of course, having achieved this particular musical and semiotic synthesis, this is about the point when many fans believe the group became uninteresting and stopped developed artistically, except to release some well-meaning political anthems (“Mandela Day,” “Belfast Child”); to see Forbes, MacNeil and Gaynor leave the band for long stretches or permanently; and, by the new millennium, to betray anxiety over their diminished commercial status.  However, the European citizenship expressed in Simple Minds’ early work has a cultural significance that outlives the group’s vitality.  To appreciate this, we need to recall the historical context of 1978-84.

For many, the ‘European community’ at this time would more likely denote NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) than the European Union.  The latter had only 12 member nations in 1986; the Euro, the single-market Eurozone, and the relaxation of passport controls at international borders were but plans until the following decade.  European youth would more likely regard geopolitical institutions through the framework of the Cold War and its conditional extension of citizenship’s rights and freedoms (military conscription wasn’t abolished in most major continental European nations until the new millenium).  The middle albums of Simple Minds’ early period, particularly Empires and Dance and Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call, speak to this geopolitical/militaristic anxiety quite clearly: What’s your name?/What’s your nation? (“This Earth That You Walk Upon”).  And yet Simple Minds’ political agenda, if you will, has been to envision a more affirmative and inclusive vision of European community, one which escapes the narrow ‘realism’ of an anxious era.  This community would be invoked on New Gold Dream and Sparkle in the Rain and convened as a practical matter with every audience held skillfully in Kerr’s hands.

Where do we find Simple Minds’ vision of European community today?  The group leaves an ambivalent legacy.  It can be argued their Catholic and pan-European imagery draws on a symbolic imagery that has resurfaced in post-9/11 anxieties over ‘civilizational’ conflicts between Europe and Islam.  Considering this is the band that played Live Aid and wrote a song called “Mandela Day,” I tend to give Simple Minds the benefit of the doubt where claims of retrograde cultural/racial politics are concerned.  Yet their iconography is admittedly ethnocentric in its connotations.

I think a more relevant connection can be drawn from the group’s UK origins, from which Europe provided an obvious and geographically accessible site of artistic reinvention; their skepticism of state institutions and Cold War militarism; and their aesthetic/career embodiment of spatial movement.  Combined, these promise nothing less than the EU’s vision of a continent without war, united through the free movement of people, goods and capital.  Is this not the European utopia realized by, say, any DJ from England or Spain who moves to Berlin to spin techno?  (While there, be sure to snap a photo of the original Kant-Kino!)

For some commentators, the circulations and concentrations of capital promoted by EU policies consolidate a neoliberal urban hierarchy of fortune and underdevelopment — world cities at the top, industrial outposts and small towns at the bottom.  But recall, one final time, the urban Europe (pop. ≥10,000) that Simple Minds has retraced on tour and in symbolism — the especially southern and central Europe of visible history, local customs, grand places, town churches and outdoor markets.  This romantic geography of travel and residence off the beaten path is the Europe of Simple Minds’ urbanism, not the interchangeable major cities of the blue banana.  Today it’s the Europe accessed via what sociologists Michaela Benson and Karen O’Reilly have called lifestyle migration, or what I would call quality-of-life migration — a geography of individual freedom and mobility, unencumbered by frictions of states or histories.  It’s the Europe Kerr himself lives in today.

JIM KERR (MAY 28, 2012): Most groups can usually recall specific gigs that for some reason of importance were “career defining” or “career changing” for them.  In our case there are quite a few, notwithstanding our first ever gig of course. After all, it is said that every journey begins with a first step.  However a few gigs, due to consequences, perhaps mysterious and therefore unforeseen, actually became “life changing” as a result of them having taken place.  And well, next month marks for me the anniversary of one of those gigs in particular.

The show I refer to took place almost 30 years ago in a smallish, outdoors sports arena, situated near the harbor front at the port of Messina.  It was to be my first night in Sicily, a place that at no time prior had I given much thought to, or at least so out with the context of Francis Ford Coppola’s award winning Godfather movies.  But lo and behold, some kind of magical seduction seemingly took over me when I set foot in Sicily for that first time, and as some might already know, a whole three decades later and as a result of that first gig, I am still there.  (Or at least I am still there very often when not on concert tours, or writing and recording with Simple Minds and Lostboy! AKA.)

I don’t have a place that I call home and it has been that way for a decent amount of time.  The main reason I have no home is that I don’t spend enough time in one specific place for me to feel like it is really my home.  Sentimentally speaking, Scotland of course will always be “home” for me.  It is where I grew up, is to where I will always feel that I belong.  I am quite sure of that, but the reality is that for most of my grown up life I have not lived there enough for it to be my home as I am neither based or work from there.

All of which brings me back to Sicily, because in the absence of having any real physical home, Sicily has been a kind of on-off sanctuary for me, it is quite definitely my spiritual home and continues to be so even decades later.  Or it is as long as we agree that the definition of “spiritual home” is: A place where you feel you belong, although you were not born there, because you have a lot in common with the people, the culture, the landscape and the way of life.

And what was it about the gig in Messina all those years ago that influenced such an outcome that led to Sicily getting under my skin and into my heart?  Well, I could write a book on what happened during my first 48 hours in Sicily.  I could explain how Taormina floored me with its charms in a way no place has done quite since.  (Kyoto in spring comes close though.)  I could also hint at many other things that came to pass in a couple of days that then led me to make my base within striking distance of Mount Etna.  But much of that would be way too intimate, relevant only to me for the most part.

So let’s just say that it was the fact that the gig occurred, otherwise in a busy schedule that has kept me active all of my working life, I might not have found my way yet as a tourist to this most southern tip of Europe.  And with that being so I might have remained in the dark with regards to a place that has brought so much mystical light to me.

[Special thanks to the Dream Giver website for Simple Minds history and lyrics.  And yes, I’ll be at the Simple Minds concert in New York City on October 24, their first in over a decade.  Hit me up if you’re going!]