Simple Minds: Themes For Great Cities
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SOME PROMISED LAND
Graeme Thomson is not a name I’m familiar with and I suspect neither is mine to him, but it’s clear from the intro he is not just a Simple Minds enthusiast but a poet (the Scots are awfully good with words and of course music – see my Hats off to the Scots blog for the proof).
Thomson goes through each band member with prosaic praise and wonderfully aims to ‘remystify’ his subject, to approach the music from within (that is to say from the band’s own perspective, and to recapture the essence of it).
No mean feat as some of these records are now over 40 years old, and as Thomson says, they ‘challenge the natural order of cultural permission.’ The words were flickering scenes from never-made arthouse films.
Some Promised Land is one hell of an intro and could be to some extent an epitaph! What’s also clear is that this is a book able to command and/or demand repeat readings and unofficially a love letter to Glasgow itself.
Like any city it has its good and bad but I’ve not heard of anywhere being referred to as ‘post-place’ before, perhaps this would also suit the recent battle grounds of southern and eastern Ukraine.
FORMATIONS, MISSION AND DESTINY
The first few chapters deal in great detail the trials and tribulations of the young Kerr and Burchill, Glaswegian bohemians first seeing their city Glasgow from the high rise tower block they called home, then hitchhiking Europe and the evolution from punk to what would become new wave. And in the process consuming music, books, films – as Thomson puts it, ‘messages from the world beyond’ and ‘an art school band without the art school.’
MISSION cruises along at a steady pace and it’s here that the line up crystallises, while DESTINY discusses the recording of their first album Life in a Day (the title track should be the opener imo) and its place or non-place in Minds history and it seems that it was just that even on its release.
DANCE OF YOUTH
Real to Real Cacophony is where the band ‘fused the hippie ideology of getting it together in the country with a restless yen for futurism. The handmade meets the space age’ and all of this being laid down in South Wales.
I played the album for the first time ever for this blog and it’s a bit schizophrenic; part XTC, part Split Enz, part Talking Heads, part Eno, part French carnival music but otherwise Derek Forbes was right – it was in essence the birth of Simple Minds, more so on Empires and Dance.
There’s a lovely ode to Kerr’s method of madness in the listening and writing stage. He is hearing city boulevards at night; classical columns pockmarked with the shrapnel scars of a recent militant uprising; a setting sun hitting the windows of a shabby grey tower block; a scene of torture; a threadbare suit; a painful memory carved into the face of an old man.
It isn’t the only romantic deluge the book conjures up, check this… ‘Autumn in New York seduced them all. They arrived at night and drove into town under the Lincoln Tunnel. The first sighting of the Manhattan skyline was like a movie, like a dream. Yellow cabs, steam and noise.’ It continues…
‘Later, back in Toryglen (Glasgow), buying Chinese takeaway, they would shake the memory from their heads as if it had been a mirage.’ A trait I can identify with myself – reverse culture shock (see my Cardiff blog about returning from teaching in China).
Here’s how my two stand outs are described in the book; ‘Premonition,’ is hard, futuristic Euro-funk, noir keyboard, ambient electronic howls, streaks of vaporous guitar. ‘Changeling’ is metallic post-punk meets the theme to the Wombles – brilliant depiction!
James Dean Bradfield gives a rousing doctrine on his love of Empires and Dance which preludes the main chapter. Empires and Dance, writes Thomson in the book, is a Mittel- European psychodrama; bare lightbulbs and hard wiring.
Kerr has mentioned several times, it’s a travelogue. It was their young men travelling album. Similar to my Voyage of Nomad and Notate books (plug plug 😉 They were reading Camus (I was on Calvino) and listening to Chic, Kraftwerk, Donna Summer, and Grace Jones by night in the clubs. Bedding into the (European) culture as keyboardist Mick MacNeil puts it.
I also learn Kant-Kino was a cinema in Berlin, this highlights the importance of books as an educative medium! Empires also took its cue from ‘Edgar Froese, Moroder’s futuristic München music, and Bowie’s trio of ‘Berlin’ albums; the films of Herzog and Wim Wenders; the books of Grass, Hesse, Goethe; the art of the Bauhaus, and its intimidating architecture.’
For Kerr at this time, cinema was perhaps the most direct and vivid agent acting on his songwriting imagination. Charlie Burchill on the other hand would travel with a case filled with novels. As Thomson observes ‘We may not know what’s going on in many of these songs but, by God, we know where we are.’ It’s the most expressive of the chapters …so far.
AMBITION IN MOTION
I tell you something here, you know when you hear about great films or books and all the reviews say it’s the bees knees and all of that but you’re still sceptical – well Themes for Great Cities is the real deal.
I really don’t know how the hell Graeme Thomson rose to the challenge on each chapter to come up with orgasmic superlatives to describe what must be for him one of if not his fave band. But he did it! Check this…
Sons and Fascination and Sister Feelings Call are where Simple Minds disappear inside the music, to manifest words as images, sound as pure feeling. They (artist and/or albums) transcend to intense enthralment and mesmerised awe. These are mantras and meditations, manifest as deep-rooted rhythm-music that rolls on and up and over, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, always with an immense power!
These albums come from a time when Kerr was still delivering prosaic masterstrokes in his titles. In Trance as Mission, 70 Cities as Love Brings the Fall (another beautiful analogy of that in the book too), I could go on. As Kerr himself says ‘The feelings were so profound, they were so deep. They were soundtracks to films that didn’t exist, but they existed in my head.’
Sons and Fascination was special for me in its design, so it’s nice to see Malcolm Garrett given another nod of approval in the book. S&F doesn’t have the religious connotations that New Gold Dream does but it’s interesting to read Garrett waited on ‘the word of Jim’ and that Kerr himself viewed the band as some kind of brotherhood.
Onwards it goes in describing how they signed to Virgin and procured Steve Hillage as their new producer without souring relations with his predecessor John Leckie. The band were still an active live force, another great phrase from the book ‘as they soaked up the miles and the milieu.’
In the same way the Hall and Oates book makes you re-evaluate their catalogue, Themes for Great Cities will call on you to engage with the Simple Minds catalogue, songs you may have heard many times, in a new light and in addition those like the Manics track on the playlist below that you may not be as familiar with.
Thomson comes from a similar school of thought to me in that he analytically observes they almost never begin with ‘the single’. For those interested this is quite the reverse for ICEHOUSE whom open every album bar one (Code Blue) with a single.
The song from which the book takes its title (save for adding an s to the word theme) also gets its own glowing review, English electronic wiz ‘Delia Derbyshire on chemical overload, powered by swirling sci-fi atmospherics and astounding rhythmic thrust.’
One of the highlights of S&F for me is its title track and it’s nice that it too gets the extended treatment in the verse of this bible of the minds. I always thought he was singing ‘My Son, Wore Black’ and I’m not sure what I thought the Semi-monde was now.
There is some anorak text about what could’ve gone on S&F, personally I would have fancied The American in place of 70 Cities – the moo synth does my head in after a while. And could League of Nations gone on side 2 ahead of or in place of Love Song/This Earth? But anyway all of this is fan nerd geek fodder, back to the book.
As a sort of appendix to the whole chapter on S&F, WARM LAND details the tour with Icehouse in the UK and especially in Australia – guess who left the bigger stars?
POSSIBLE MIRACLES (THE LIGHT IN THE NEW GOLD DREAM)
Were you in any doubt that the aural alchemy, and masterclass in mystery that is New Gold Dream would receive a pretty big write up.
The first single which in itself is a few steps ahead of anything previously attempted ‘Promised You a Miracle’ is an exemplar of a golden period in British music history when art and pop shuffled from their respective corners and engaged in a prolonged clinch.’
For Someone Somewhere In Summertime, Thomson runs through the various references to light: ‘burning gold’; ‘silver’, ‘brilliant’, ‘immaculate’, ‘shine’. There are ‘golden days’, ‘golden times’, ‘burning dreams’, ‘candles’, and ‘flames.’
Australia is the last thing that comes to mind when listening to New Gold Dream’s glacial European terrain, yet apparently it all stemmed from the Aussie tour with Icehouse. To access the full experience, one must bear in mind that New Gold Dream is not only a rainbow of gilded light, but ‘a rhapsody in black and blue.’
Not sure what he means by that to be honest, speaking in terms of my own synesthesia, there is a lot of deep pink, clarets, maroon (Colours Fly, Big Sleep, Somebody Up There and Glittering Prize). Promised You a Miracle and Hunter are grey while Someone, Somewhere – bathes in a warm yellow. The title track is orange, King is White – white/pale pink.
Garrett’s cover design echoes the spiritual dimension of the music. ‘Light bottled from a mystery source’ is a nice way of putting it. Its power lies in its unity of mood and purpose, its dream-like atmosphere, sustained across nine tracks and forty minutes.
But could it be too seductive? ‘You step into New Gold Dream and it is sometimes hard to step back out again. You might want to live there, or at least spend the summer.’ As an appendix, we also get Jim Kerr explaining the origins of the title.
There’s another quote much later in the book which I also connect with: If Simple Minds had kept on making variations on Sons and Fascination or New Gold Dream ad infinitum, it would have killed the band and led to a creative cul-de-sac.
Waterfront is in essence NGD gone rock! As Thomson puts it ‘Waterfront’ reimagined Glasgow – the ‘post-place’ – as a city of the future as well as the past. While U2 channeled their inner Minds for The Unforgettable Fire, Simple Minds went the other way.
An interesting note in the chapter WHITE HOT DAYS is that if any band should be working with Brian Eno, it should be the one that made Real to Real and New Gold Dream not the one that made War (no prizes for guessing). I have long wondered whether the band haven’t connected with Eno because of it being seen as another similarity with U2?
It’s equally intriguing that Kerr had initial misgivings about Steve Lillywhite for the same reasons yet he got the gig and how I wish it had been Alex Sadkin but alas not to be.
Drummer Mel Gaynor was the other catalyst to the sound and Kerr himself didn’t want to make NGD2 – kudos for that but Sparkle in the Rain is one of those love it or hate it albums and it’s nice to see Kerr says more or less the same.
As well there should be comes an extensive and emotional part about Derek Forbes departure, I felt like crying reading it! The main part of the book tails off with Once Upon a Time and Live in the City of Light, in essence covering their early career.
The coda SENSE OF DISCOVERY deals in brief with the rest (except that is the noughties era: Neon Lights, Cry, Black and White and Graffiti Soul are lost in the mix).
‘Simple Minds is not a straight line or a strategy, just as a life is not a straight line or a strategy. They all dived in forty-five years ago and hoped for the best. For some the water became too cold, or too hot, or too deep, and they came out early. Others were determined, come what may, to make it to the farthest shore.’
40 years later we are still listening to New Gold Dream and the imagery of Empires and Dance looms large over their retrospective Celebrate and echoes their Walk Between Worlds set, SIMPLE MINDS labours have been beautifully chronicled here, I just wish there was a second volume.
PLAYLIST AND CREDITS
Meanwhile, stay tuned with things here at Kulture Kiosk via THE ATLAS or on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram where you can see some of my photos from around the world.
White Light, White Heat – Velvet Underground
Come Up and See Me (Make Me Smile) – Cockney Rebel
The Jean Genie – David Bowie
Wasteland – Simple Minds
I Feel Love – Donna Summer
Act of Love – Simple Minds
Pleasantly Disturbed – Simple Minds
Life in a Day – Simple Minds
Premonition – Simple Minds
Changeling – Simple Minds
Celebrate – Simple Minds
Thirty Frames a Second – Simple Minds
Mausoleum – Manic Street Preachers
In Trance as Mission – Simple Minds
Seeing Out the Angel – Simple Minds
League of Nations – Simple Minds
Sons and Fascination – Simple Minds
Promised You a Miracle – Simple Minds
Someone Somewhere in the Summertime – Simple Minds
King is White and in the Crowd – Simple Minds
Somebody Up There Likes You – Simple Minds
C Moon Cry Like a Baby – Simple Minds
Shake Off the Ghosts – Simple Minds
Don’t You Forget About Me – Simple Minds
Come a Long Way – Simple Minds
Sense of Discovery – Simple Minds
Images: Book cover from Hachette, other images from discogs