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Simple Minds - Profile

  by Richard Lewis

published: 12 / 4 / 2015

Simple Minds - Profile


Richard Lewis examines a five box set reissue of Simple Minds’ 1984 commercial breakthrough ‘Sparkle in the Rain’ which represents the group’s gradual shift away from their founding art rock template

Lodged between the deep-pile art pop of ‘New Gold Dream (81,82,83,84)’ (1982) and the stadium rock bluster of ‘Once Upon a Time’ (1985), Simple Minds’ sixth LP ‘Sparkle in the Rain’ is one of those contrary beasts, the ‘transitional’ album. The group’s first LP to reach the UK chart summit, the set marks the point where the Glasgow band began their commercial ascent whilst simultaneously commencing a creative decline. With thunderous drummer Mel Gaynor newly installed behind the kit and one of the 1980’s keynote producers Steve Lillywhite manning the recording console, the album saw the group possessed with a newfound confidence and brashness. Borne of hard yards put in round the gig circuit and the commercial and critical success of ‘New Gold Dream’ (regarded then and now as the band’s best LP), ‘Sparkle in the Rain’ has the aura of a band fully in control. Deservedly back in vogue with long-term fans James Dean Bradfield and Brandon Flowers effusive about the band, the group’s 2012’s‘X5 Box Set’ packaged the band’s groundbreaking first five LPs together with an accompanying tour that showcased just how ahead of the game the ‘Minds were during the late seventies/early eighties. Further proof of how successful their newly minted alloy of thudding Euro disco and arena-sating choruses was the band’s most recent LP, 2014’s impressive ‘Big Music’, which saw a return to the sound captured on ‘Sparkle in the Rain’. ‘Sparkle in the Rain’ also stands as the last LP with bassist Derek Forbes (aside from a brief return with 1998’s undistinguished ‘Néapolis’), whose inspired foundation lines had provoked some of the band’s best material (‘Thirty Frames a Second’, ‘Lovesong’, ‘In Trance As Mission’). With the benefit of several decades’ hindsight, Forbes’ departure may possibly have accounted even more than the massive US success of ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ for the band’s drastic change of direction away from the Bowie/Roxy/Kraftwerk inspired themes of their early albums towards a more straightforward rock format. Filing down the serrated edges that had initially made them so interesting and aiming squarely for US FM rock radio, the huge sales came at a price, something that lead singer Jim Kerr was admirably candid to admit to ‘The Guardian’ in 2012: “I'd hate to seem begrudging of success, but at the same time I'd like to be honest enough to say maybe we shouldn't have cashed in all the chips.” While Simple Minds’ stadium rock years in the second half of Thatcher’s decade prompts eye rolling, ‘Sparkle in the Rain’ combines the band’s propulsive art rock leanings with a panoramic viewpoint perfectly suited to vast live arenas. Undeniably front-loaded with the superior material placed on the first side, the opening crash of ‘Up On the Catwalk’ signals the band’s intentions. Piloted by Gaynor’s pummelling beats, the oscillating keyboards and bravura vocals set the scene for what follows. Underpinned by Mick McNeil’s piano motifs, ‘Book of Brilliant Things’ would easily have worked as a prospective fourth single from the LP, with the re-mastering highlighting the deft synth textures. Combative second single from the LP ‘Speed Your Love to Me’ sees guitarist Charlie Burchill honing in on one of the spikiest riffs the group has created to date, while the pugnacious rhythm section and Kerr’s bellowed delivery demonstrate why the track has been a fixture of the band’s live set ever since. While all of the aforementioned tracks have a greater sense of drama than previous material, the songs are more than strong enough to back them up, style complementing substance, none more so than the monolithic ‘Waterfront’, one of the band’s signature cuts. Driven by a colossal drum sound that is the complete antithesis of subtle, the track tumbles from the speakers with an energy that makes it pretty much unstoppable. McNeil’s atmospheric keyboard embellishments and lyrics that deal with the River Clyde’s declining ship building industry lends gravitas, while the band’s avant garde roots still remain: how many groups would be daring enough to create potential hit singles that revolve around a single note bassline? The lighter but still dramatic ‘East At Easter’ provides respite after the storming opening sequence while an abridged, airbrushed rendition of lengthy Lou Reed track ‘Street Hassle’ opens what used to be called Side 2. Here things begin, however, to unfortunately go awry as ‘White Hot Day’ and ‘‘C’ Moon Cry Like a Baby’ are simply filler whose presence was surely to pad out the running time. The former track is congenial but unremarkable, rescued somewhat by Forbes’ sterling bass work, while the latter is unlikely to divert listeners’ attention more than a handful of times. Thankfully the final two tracks restores the latter stage of the LP back to the standard of side one. Benefitting from its near-berserk delivery, ‘The Kick Inside of Me’ is something of an obscure gem in the group’s catalogue and has only been played live a handful of times. Seemingly instructed to play as hard as possible, the band’s urgency cuts through after the previous tracks soporific nature. Led by a bassline that sounds distorted through sheer force of playing rather than any FX pedals, Kerr yells his lyrics, Burchill sparks off a series of minimalist riffs while Gaynor batters his drum kit like a man attempting to bludgeon it into submission before it attacks him. Back to a calmer waters, the concluding cut ‘Shake Off the Ghosts’ demonstrates the band’s capacity for instrumentals, picking up the baton from the expansive ‘Theme for Great Cities’ and ending the album on a restful note. The second disc of this lavishly appointed five disc set presents a grab bag of 7” single edits and attendant B-sides, that prove unlike their contemporaries the Smiths, flipsides weren’t the ‘Minds speciality (the prosaically titled ‘Bass Line’ is an instrumental version of ‘White Hot Day’). Discs three and four showcase the group in concert a few weeks after the LP release on the opening date of a five night residency at the legendarily raucous Glasgow Barrowlands in February 1984. The location of the ‘Waterfront’ video shoot, the show is refreshingly presented in the raw as attendant squeaks of feedback and occasional dips in guitar volume testify to. The set shows little if any post-production meddling, thankfully avoiding the stock live album practice of pumping up the crowd noise to make as though millions had attended the event. Along with the bulk of ‘Sparkle in the Rain’, an extended reading of gorgeous art pop gem ‘Glittering Prize’ and a wired take on stunning post-punk/death disco mash up ‘The American’ provide the highlights on an excellent showcase for the band’s live power. The accompanying DVD meanwhile includes the videos for the album’s singles along with a ‘Top of the Pops’ performance of ‘Waterfront’(how many versions does one box set need?) and solid live renditions of ‘Up On the Catwalk’ and ‘Speed Your Love to Me’ from BBC yoof TV showcase, ‘The Oxford Roadshow’. A summation of a year in the life of Simple Minds effectively, the following 12 months saw the group ascend to the top of the US Billboard 200 with that song from ‘The Breakfast Club’ soundtrack and make their first appearance on the US Top 10 albums with the overcooked ‘Once Upon a Time’. Paring back the live excesses of the late 1980s, Simple Minds’ dynamism as a live draw effectively sustained them for almost twenty years of declining fortunes, before a gradual re-emergence over the past decade, culminating in last year’s aforementioned ‘Big Music’. Rediscovering what made them special in the first place, the fact that the group have returned to variations on the template established by ‘New Gold Dream’ and ‘Sparkle in the Rain’ on their past three albums gives pause for thought of if the band had pursued this direction further where they might have ended up.

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Simple Minds - Profile

Simple Minds - Profile

Simple Minds - Profile

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