Simple Minds showed how it should be done. They attain the kind of elegant, outlandish falmboyance Wasted Youth and Martin Dance long for, without resorting to the tempting deviations the others use. There's no sign of visual distractions, the musicians are unobtrusive to the point of visual insignificance, with the exception of Jim Kerr, frontsman and actor, who with the whole of his face and form mirrors the frantic and flickering lines of thought in the lyrics.
The rest of the band's energy is channelled into the music, and the result is an unnerving, rich sound, bursting with the inward tension and intensity of the music and jarred by the sporadic, unconnected imagery which leaves you, the voyeur, feeling as if you're clinging to the edge of the centre of a whirlwind, temporarily avoiding being sucked in by the atmosphere, watching the iamges and film clips pelting lunatically around. Over the solid, marble-like foundation the synth lays, Jim Kerr's voice, the fourth and most extravagant instrument, soars in neo-operatic arrogant melodrama. The guitars are confined to the background in most part, consistent but never stagnant, subtly enhancing the vigour of the vocals and keyboards.
They started with 'Capital City', a grandiose parade through alien streets, portrayed by the promise-of-something-worse wail of guitars and keyboards with Kerr's voice soaring haughtily and lugubriously over. This filtered into the wonderful 'Factory', which has the vocals and guitars hiccoughing over the gorgeously rounded keyboard melody, until it all coheres and climaxes into a pealing, church-like refrain. "A certain ratio we know have left us..."
The next song, 'Thirty Frames' with its chaos of hopelessness and euphoria, celebration and confusion was the most wildly subversive song of the night. Here, Kerr's despair ("I lost my job / Security / Self confidence / Idenity") is set against a whirling background of pulsating disco guitar and zooming keyboards. This sent the audience into a roar of unanimous approval.
Pause for identification: stage left, Charlie Burchill, sweet-faced boy, guitarist. Centre, Jim Kerr, vocalist, all burning eyes and pale expressive face. Derek Forbes plays bass, a languid, feminine sort of person, and a tiny bit self-aware, with it. And Michael MacNeil, invisible behind his synthesisers, but a keyboardist of immense ability.
Of course they played their single, 'I Travel', recently demolished on 45, but here taken faster and unabridged, a glorious and hedonistic tide of instrumentals, with Kerr being swept along indifferently, making observations in his haughty grandiloquence. Simple Minds played for nearly an hour and left me still dancing to the echoes of 'Fear Of Gods' while a hall full of exhausted people bellowed for more and more.
A year ago Adrian Thrills wrote off a Simple Minds show as "a night of tradition, pretension and broken promises". Last week, mainminds Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill made Thrills face the music...
In Central London some men are talking. In a small twin room on the third floor of a modest Paddington hotel, the air is fusty and claustrophobic. The stuffiness is punctured and
peppered only by the consistent whine of two passionate Scottish voices.
The first voice is eager and breathless, like the stammering whinge of a tearful schoolboy unable to talk without lapsing into an unfortunate stutter. The voice will grasp desperately for all the right words, pulling phrases from thin air and coming up with the odd wrong one now and then. But between the gasps and the sips from a plastic cup of Bristol Cream sherry, the dialogue pours out in a confused, determined torrent.
The second voice appears from behind a disarming boyish grin and is more relaxed and succinct than the first. This second voice has less to say, but conveys it in a more assured and direct manner, the flow not quite as frantic, the diction less jagged.
The first voice is that of Jim Kerr, a frail and pensive lead singer, a Simple Mind.
"We've always been very open in our use of images in songs so we do run a giant risk of getting labelled as pretentious, being Glasgow boys and singing about Europe and things like that. But you can't just blind yourself and pretend that nothing exists outside your home town.
"What do they want us to sing about? Football? Life in the Gorbals? I think we've always been a bit more open than that! At least we did spend most of the last year in Europe ourselves, so we do feel it is legal to sing about it.
"But that whole European thing has been used very wrongly just lately by people like Ultravox in 'Vienna', the new Europeans and all that. Sometimes you can sit down and write about something like that and it just looks really tacky. It seems pointless just using the names of foreign people to impress people, coming up with something like 'Vienna'. You just have to know where to draw the line.
"We're not trying to solve the problems of the world or anything like that, but we are showing that we don't just sit in the recording studio and assume that there's nothing happening in the outside world, nothing outside the fact that we are in a group."
The second voice chimes up for the first time. It belongs to Charlie Burchill, a smiling young Celt- featured guitarist and occasional sax player, another Simple Mind.
"I know that if some German group had a new album and they were singing all about unemployment in Glasgow, it would seem really strange to someone like me. But, from our point of view, you don't just go on tour somewhere without finding out something about the places that you visit. You soon find out what's going on and that's where the majority of our lyrics come from. It's almost documentary in a sense."
Simple Minds - Kerr, Burchill, bassist Derek Forbes, drummer Brian McGee and keyboard man Mick MacNeil - sing a lot about European threat and mystery these days. An impressionable group, they tread a thin line. Sometimes they slip into the predictable pratfalls of dramatising the inane old chimerical cliches of Euro elegance and decadence, setting it all to the battered backbeat of the Eurodisco throb.
Their last Arista LP 'Empires And Dance', however, showed the Minds rising well above the hollow contrivances of some of their fellow travellers au Beau Monde - okay the "futurists" if you must! - to back up their European dalliances with glimmering flecks of eye-catching wit and insight. 'Empires And Dance' - a certain substance!
But isn't most of that all becoming one massive cliche? And a rather patronishing one at that? Charlie Burchill once again pipes up defensively.
"I don't think the European audience themselves see it as being patronising. The people we played to, a lot of them are very in touch with what's happening in Britain. But over here, people start labelling things as 'European' and they have only a really vague idea of what they mean by it.
"In Germany or Holland, the whole musical idea of 'the Europeans' means nothing. It doesn't exsist! The only people to who that whole thing exsits are the readers of the British music papers!"
Jim Kerr argues that it is probably far more honest for Simple Minds - who, after all, did spend most of last year on the continent - to play their songs for Europe rather than sing about dole queues and boredom in Glasgow.
"Okay, our last LP has got a lot of European imagery in it, but everything there did actually come from meeting and talking to people and drawing from that experience. I think people should define what they mean by realism before they start accusing us of pretention 'cause we're simply drawing from our experience all the time.
"Like, I wasn't looking foward to going to Berlin at all. It just seemed a far too tacky thing to do. But when we went and we were driving through East Germany, it was like going from a colour picture into black and white, no neon lights for 60 miles. Just before you go into the western sector of Berlin, there are these Russian tanks, troops and missles everywhere. Now, how can you not be affected by something like that?
"We get called pretentious for using that sort of imagery - soldiers and war - for lines in our songs, but it's just the sort of thing that people tend to forget about. It's all too hard and harsh. Even when you see Northern Ireland on the television, you might get a bit concerned but you tend to dismiss it as just something on the TV tube.
"I think we must be the first generation that hasn't seen either the draft or a war. We just haven't seen all those sorts of things, guns and uniforms. But when you do see signs of it, even through a van window in Central Europe, how can it nor affect you?
In some ways 'Empires And Dance' was Simple Minds' 'Sandinista!', the results of a group responding to an unfamiliar environment rather than just staring at picture postcards of home on their travels, but with its sights trained on the European mainland rather than the United States. Although flawed and fanciful in its more indulgent moments, it still spotlighted a group striving towards confident, rounded maturity after three years of nervous, tenacious development.
The undeniable quality of much of 'Empires And Dance' is all the more remarkable in the light of some of the considerable growing pains the group have endured since signing to Arista over two years ago, a contract that they finally wrenched there way free of last month (but more of that later).
Their debut LP 'Life In A Day' was weak and muddled, a dismally derivative re-tread of a range of influences from the obvious - Roxy and Bowie - to the more eclectric - Genesis, John Cale, Doctors Of Madness , Eno, Van Der Graaf Generator and Peter Gabriel. Liberally garnished with gothic studio trickery that the group's slimline songs just could not support, it collapsed under the weight of its pompous musical trimmings and over-production, as even Jim Kerr nows concedes.
"I don't think you'll really find us sticking up for some of our earlier stuff, particularly the first LP. But at that time, we seemed to be one of the only groups who were into playing in tune, sining in tune and using the big studios, the whole works. But that was the time that you had people like The Mekons who were making a stand against all that sort of thing, and they were far hipper than us.
"But I'm not saying that LP was a good one. We're not blind to that. But I think we can take a lot of refuge in the improvements we've made since then. And I think a lot of people who like 'Empires And Dance' should still be able to find something in those first two LPs, something that has been developed on since, despite the mistakes.
"The thing is that it's been two years since the first LP," adds the grinning Charlie. "But we're still getting judged by it as a group. It's getting to be an albatross! I think Tony Stewart did a good review of that LP in NME when it came out. It wasn't particularly favourable. He just put it in perspective and said that we could do something worthwhile if we were given a decent chance."
The follow up to 'Life In A Day' was the slightly more assured 'Real To Real Cacophony'. Written and arranged largely on the spot in the recording studio, it showed a rare willingness to take expansive risks, but still ended up on the wrong side of the thin wire between vibrant spontaneity and an imcomplete rushed-job.
By this time, however, a tension and lack of empathy between group and record label was becoming increasingly apparent and Simple Minds started to look for ways to free themselves from an unhelpful Arista.
"With Arista, we were losing a hell of a lot of LP sales because no money was being spent in any big way on marketing and manufacture. They'd press up just 7,000 copies of an album and, within two weeks, there'd be orders for 21,000 and Arista wouldn't be able to meet the demand. What's the point in paying £15,000 to record an LP and then just press a few thousand copies just to see how things go?"
Both 'Empires And Dance' and it's stinging attendant single 'I Travel' were the group's most complete artistic successes to date. But their commerical failure seemed to damn Simple Minds once and for all as a bunch of worthy losers.
"I don't think we've ever seen ourselves as a loser band," contradicts Charlie. "The thing with us, the difference, is that we've actually progressed over three albums. I really think we have, which is giant for us. If anything, we're actually getting more and more converts as we go on, so how can we think that we're losers?"
Do they harbour any resentment towards the Numans, Ultravoxes and Spandaus et al who seem to have usurped what could have been Simple Minds' chart ranking?
"There are certain times when you do get a bit depressed, like when some group have a hit doing the sort of stuff you know you can do a lot better. But you've got to believe ultimately that you can produce stuff that is much better than a group like Ultravox.
"The thing is over the past two years, British music has been in a completely confused state. Every six months or so, you've got a new fad or fashion. We've been a bit out of all that for the last 12 months 'cause we've been touring almost all that time in Europe, and the success we've had there has given us that satisfaction, that pat on the back that I suppose you want, the sort of thing that we haven't had in Britain yet.
"That's why we haven't got into self-pity. Once you start getting like that, then there's no way of going back. This isn't meant to sound like bravado but I think a lot of people can see that our stuff has got a lot more backbone than most of the so-called futurist groups. Most of that stuff is so hollow!"
Hollow or not, the current Beau Monde futurism might still indirectly provide Simple Minds with a ticket to ride, if their new masters Virgin are quick-witted enough to realise it. If indeed they have a mass audience, the people who put Ultravox and Visage singles into the top ten could well constitute a large part of it, although Simple Minds are standing by a resolve not to compromise themselves in contriving their appeal to suit any phoney futuristic standards.
"We've never tried to shape ourselves to suit any safe little niches," Charlie says. "At one stage, we were given the old art school tag, but we've never tried to model ourselves in a straight, narrow direction. In retrospect, its been good for us that we've never fitted snugly into one little box. It means that we've been able to change as we go along and get away with it.
"Like if you went to see The Skids last year, you'd get all these wee guys in the audience shouting for 'Albert Tatlock' and Jobson would come out with something like 'Dulce Et Decorum Est' instead and a lot of people would find it pretty hard to cope with that sort of change so quickly. One minute Jobbo is Nicky Tesco, the next minute he's Jean-Paul Sartre!"
Though Simple Minds and The Skids were the two most prominent, promising groups to emerge from post-punk, pre-Postcard Scotland, the contrasts between their styles could hardly be any more marked. While the Skids have always openly embraced their Celtic roots through the Jobson's poems and lyrics. Stuart Adamson's tonal guitar playing, the jokey 'Scottish Jungle Music' tag and the current interest in traditional highland music, Jim Kerr has gone out of his way to play down ethnic aspect.
"People do make too much of where a group comes from. People always expect us to be very Scottish, very patriotic and proud of our roots, but we've never been a patriotic type of group. In fact, at the start, we deliberately shied away from that.
"I think people expect us to be even more like that 'cause we come from Glasgow. They expect us to be even more over the top. But I think it alienates people if you play too much of it, like people start liking various groups just because they come from Sheffield or Liverpool. It gets a bit like football. Music is about sound, isn't it? It's about heart. It's not about what's happening in the background or what's behind it. It's something that provokes a reaction there!"
If 'Empires And Dance' counts for anything, then the Simple Minds liaison with Arista Records could be said to have been fruitful at the least, although the group maintain that it was always an unhappy, frustrating deal and one which they were relieved to have terminated.
"We thought we'd just be dropped but when it came to the crunch, they said they weren't dropping us. We'd just got some good reviews for 'Empires And Dance' and we were getting a bit of reaction in Europe so they weren't prepared to let us go as easily as we'd hoped. We were well sick!"
The Arista contract was finally ended last month, a full six months after the release of 'Empires And Dance', with compensation payments to the record company leaving the group heavily in debt. Considering their unhappy experiences with one major label, it seems surprising that Simple Minds have signed straight back to another large conglomerate, Virgin, probably just as brutal and businesslike a set-up beaneath that glossy veneer of a hip, go-ahead, caring young company.
Simple Minds could quite easily have done things themselves within the framework of their manager Bruce Findlay's Zoom independent, based in Edinburgh. Surely they are going against their better instincts in signing to Virgin, a company already inundated with a few not entirely dissimilar groups, most notably Magazine.
"In your heart, you must know that you're going to get things done much better if you do them entirely yourself," Jim says. "It's obvious. But in the situation that we were in, we just couldn't consider it. We did think of doing it ourselves, but we realised that there would be limitations on just how much we could achieve.
"We're in debt and we're not ashamed to admit it. We're only in debt through trying to make things better for the group, getting out of that contract and making sure that we've got the best possible equipment and the best instruments and everything."
In the past, poor organisation has combined with established media prejudice - mine included - to hold Simple Minds back. If they hadn't gotten out of the Arista deal, Jim claims they'd have spilt up by now. Despite their past and current problems, their most recent work has undoubtedly been their most impressive and the group are now as confident, unrepentant and ready for the challenge as ever, fired by a feeling that their moment may have finally arrived.
"The only thing that we've been guilty of is making a substandard first album. You might accuse us of being suspect in that we've fallen into the whole syndrome of doing tours and albums all the time. But that's just us. We happen to like doing that!
"I remember you once said that one of our gigs could easily have been something out of the early '70s, and I suppose from the point of view of all the silly encores, it could have been something like Mott The Hoople.
"So maybe we sometimes do just go on and do a concert in the normal rock 'n' roll way. Does that make us suspect? Maybe we are suspect. But where do you draw the line? The line?"
That's simple. It's all in the mind.
Once you get onto the European mainland, it's hard not to be infected by the virulent strain of fatalism sweeping the continent. En route to Charles De Gaulle Airport on the first stage of a journey back to the deceptive security of this island home, I'm injected with a final dose by a brazenly cheerful, walrus-moustached taxi driver.
The Russians are still far away, but Communists hold suburbs in the foothills of Paris, he moans. He sees conspiracies on every street corner, resentment in the face of youth reticent to defend the tricoleur. They're probably in on it, too! This isn't speculation, his grey whiskers quiver, this is fact. Or so his paranoia will have it...
Simple Minds have been infected by the disease, but there singer Jim Kerr sensibly refers to it as an education. And while he's learning, he's not taking any sides. We're careering across Belgium and France in the back of a minibus, through lush farmland too uniform to hold our attention, so conversation turns to the uglier aspects of modern living.
At the moment Jim's recalling an eventful ride through East German customs after SM's Berlin gig.
"We were going through customs, playing a tape of the soundtrack from Apocalypse Now, and just as 'The End' started, a whole convoy of American tanks rolled past on their way to Berlin." Quite a coincidence of song and real life. "Now how can you ignore things like that? I mean people might say we're pretentious for using words like, er, guns, in our songs, but it would be more pretentious to ignore what's going on around us."
He lapses into silence. We pick up the trail the following afternoon in a Parisian hotel room.
"It's so easy in Britain when you don't see a soldier or a gun, just to say (adopting a derisive tone) 'Oh what is all this then?' But when you're there - and we've been in Europe four times this year, we've been here more than anywhere else - how can you not be affected by it?"
He extends his line of thought into his songs and those of his peers.
"The whole thing with this new European stuff, I mean singing songs about Europe can be so crass unless you do it right. I remember a band in '77 called The Automatics, who did a song called 'When The Tanks Are Rolling Over Poland'. I mean, whoo," he sighs resignedly. "What's that all about?"
During a brief pause, the strains of Simple Minds' 'I Travel' echo in my mind. The first track of this year's most subversive dance album 'Empires And Dance'. it's a marching song for these desperate times. Above it all, Kerr's grandly exaggerated vocal taps tragic depths, when he sings:
"Europe has a language problem/talk, talk, talk, talking on/In Central Europe men are marching/Marching on and marching on/Love songs playing in restaurants..."
Kerr comments: "I think we can do a song that's appealing, but with an edge so that it doesn't get too comfortable, people might listen to what's being said. And the language problem in the song is politics - the last line goes: "Babble on".
Scheduled for single release, the message should hit home. The chorus has already formed a loop running through my mind:
"Travel round I travel round/Decadence and pleasure towns/Tragedies, luxuries, statues, parks and galleries."
Travel has obviously broadened Simple Minds.
Simple Minds broadened mine and now I'm travelling to Paris and Brussels to find out how they did it. Up until their Hammersmith Palais gig a few weeks back, I'd always damned them with very faint praise, saying basically that they covered well in the absence of gods out-of-town like Bowie and Roxy.
Their first album 'Life In A Day' was a bulging holdall of influences regurgitated practically unchewed; cosy images of alienation and other modish themes nestled alongside jarring noises always a touch too familiar and comfortable to really cut it.
They revealed a more electronic bent on the second 'Real To Real Cacophony', but things like the title track scanning almost identically Kraftwerk's 'Radioactivity' didn't improve their critical status any. Coming in the wake of Numan, it was mostly dismissed as just another hopeful cash-in, but Simple Minds' rhythms have always packed too solid a punch for them to be bracketed under light-frame electronic pop, no matter how ethereal the topping. And though they're not doing anything that radically different now, they're certainly doing it a lot better.
Somehow they've madde the great leap from being raw young impressionables unsure what to make of their vast input of information and influences, into a confident, adventurous band suddenly aware of their potential.
The resulting album 'Empires And Dance', is distinctly Simple Minds. They know it and are justifiably proud of it. It is everything Bowie's 'Lodger' could have been if he were younger and more open to life around him. Like 'Lodger', 'Empires And Dance' rapidly switches locations, but sensibly stays in Europe, whose problems are also ours. And unlike Bowie, Simple Minds are inexperienced enough to involve themselves with what they feel around them, using their songs as a field of operations for coming to terms with their own "confusion" - a word that crops up a lot in Kerr's coversation.
The album consists of gloriously depicted, desolate cityscapes, but however gloomy the music gets, a strong sense of discomfort prevents the listener cocooning himself in self-pitying melancholy. Simple Minds' struggle is not easily admired from a distance, but it has to be felt. That is the crucial thing.
Simple Minds' present visit to Europe comes courtesy of Peter Gabriel, who liked them enough to invite them along free of the massive fees usually associated with the support spots on prestigious tours. Not only that, he makes sure they get enough time for a good soundcheck, too. This sort of behaviour ought to be common decency, but it's rare in the cut-throat world of rock and roll.
Personally, I never thought I'd be grateful to Gabriel for anything, but the sound in Brussels is great - you can even hear the words. Simple Minds open with 'Capital City' a pulsing suspense story, then, 'Thirty Frames A Second' is even better, an autobiographical slice of Kerr's life viewed in flashback: "I lost my job/Security/Self-confidence/Bank account/Identity". The effect is overwhelming as the memory slips back another notch to the point where protagonist attempts to break free from the chains of his past - his family, religion, childhood.
"Go back to father/Father where's my food?'/'Your food is on the table'/'But that can't be food/It is dirt'."
"It used to be a lot heavier than that when I first wrote it," Kerr tells me now. "It was about a man, who becomes a father, but he no longer recognises his children, because they don't take up his mistakes, so they turn around and say 'I'm sorry Dad, I don't recognise you anymore.' They reject his food an' everything. But it turns out to be a song of a man looking back, trying to grasp what purpose there is in existing, what is required, what you are meant to do. You too often get to the state of looking back, saying 'I should have done this and I should of done that..'"
He pauses before starting up again angrily. "Sometimes it pisses me off, sometimes I wish I went the full way with songs. I always feel that I've left out the best and put in just the beginning.
"Well, that's the trappings of being 'contemporary', I think. Maybe if I get 'contemporary' enough to get in a safe position with finance, I'll be able to go out of control, to do just what the hell I want."
Throughout this conversation Kerr confuses the word "contemporary" with commerical.
I ask him what stops him taking the songs as far as they'll go.
"It frightens me, because at the last minute I always think I don't know enough... each day you get the kick when you think you see differently now, and one day you stop and think, yes, finally, this is the answer. But when does it stop being ambiguous? And when does it really start to get in there, to be direct?
"My songs are just an attempt to educate myself, to get to grips with what's going on outside - start reading, start listening..."
Though we're in Paris, thoughts return to Glasgow. Family ties appear to be stronger north of the border, the processes of channelling that much harder to break away from. Kerr talks with slight discomfort at first about his past, but quickly opens to the subject.
"Sometimes I like to talk about it, and other times I don't. The whole Jimmy Boyle side of it gets glorified to much. Once a journalist asked me where I came from, and I said Gorbals, and the first lines of his article sort of said 'Gorbal Boy...' and things like that. It really came across the opposite of what I wanted it to. All that Alex Harvey street fighting man... There is beginning awareness in Glasgow, but there's still ignorance."
The life-dulling cycle of scholl-job-unemployment can't help increase it - especially in a town so culturally arid as Glasgow.
Exactly, that's what it is. People get caught up in drink. There's not much to do, their jobs are boring, so at the weekend all they're concerned with is getting out and forgetting it. They meet a girl, want a car, then they're too busy working to pay for all these things. Before they know it they're married - and once you're married, you're just the same as your father.
"I think there's an awarness there now - a lot of good bands coming up. There always has been - we're by no means unusual. We weren't gifted with this awarness, a lot of people had it at school, but it just comes to the point where they think, 'ah well, what's the use?'
"When you go home people come up to you and say that you can't be doing all that good, because you haven't been on Top Of The Pops yet. Well, I'm stumped by that response! I'm travelling, it's really great, I'm having a good time. But I find myself getting a bit sad (not to mention patronising - Ed.) because I think other people should get the chance to see the world. I mean, I don't think of myself as having more talent than anyone else. If anything, I've had more cheek, or perhaps arrogance, and that's what got me these places."
If '30 Frames A Second' exorcised Kerr's private past, SImple Minds are still stuck with their public one. Especially here in Europe where 'contemporary' pressures dicate that they devote the remaining three fifths of their 35 minute set to older, less substantial numbers. 'Premonition', 'Factory' and 'Pleasantly Disturbed' are all sweet enough to consolidate their considerable following on the continent, but they lack the power of anything on 'Empires And Dance'.
Sometimes, SM's willingness to conform to commerical needs work against them, but then without an ear for strong, disco beats and persuasive tunes, 'Empires And Dance' wouldn't have been half so potent.
"It was great the last time we were in Europe," recalls Kerr. "In the nightclubs, 'Premonition' was played alongside Ohio Players, Donna Summer and The Talking Heads. It was really appealing for us to hear DJs liked it as much as Donna Summer; 'Premonition' has far more direct substance.
"That was why it was important to have a really good drum and bass sound, which you couldn't get by doing an album for £200 and releasing it on your own small label. That's taking a 'contemporary' route and hopefully putting a kick into it. There's an awareness in the song that you'll not normally get at this 'contemporary' level."
Guitarists Charlie Burchill chips in: "'Premonition' is dance music, but it's also discomforting - people listen to it and that discomfort spreads."
But doesn't it get to the point where one cushions the discomfort to satisfy commerical needs?
Kerr replies: "Well, if you want as much control as possible you need money. If you've got it, you're no longer in the company's debt. Even if you don't hate them, there's this mental barrier which says if you don't please them they'll treat you tit for tat and say you'll not get this or that. It is a struggle, because we do want to remain 'contemporary' and use the channels already provided. And because it's 'contemporary' we do make concessions. We are ambitious. Our music might appear transparent, but if you've got an open mind it says a lot."
True now, but cynics might say Simple Minds' career suffered due to early guidance by similar principles. Maybe a bit of background will expand Kerr's own interpretation of their past. Formed around a nucleus of himself, Burchill and drummer Brian McGee, who all attended the same Glaswegian Catholic school, early incarnations of the band used to play the music they enjoyed listening to at home: The Doctors Of Madness, Velvet Underground, even Genesis - " "Foxtrot" was the first album I bought," admits Kerr.
Later joined by bassist Derek Forbes, who'd been playing in dance band in Spain and solo twelve string in pubs and clubs, and keyboards player Michael MacNeil, their sole motivation was fun when they came to record the demos that led to their Arista contract and first album 'Life In A Day'. "We were a very marketable proposition," recalls Kerr candidly. "There was no real venom or fight. At the time there was no real competition in Scotland. Life was nice and safe, no real heart."
They blithely went in to record their first album, possessing all the right noises but no positive direction, content and pleased with themselves for getting this far. The reviews quickly bracketed them with the likes of Ultravox and Magazine, and being Simple Minds ('78 version) they were quite happy about that too, flattered even.
But disillusionment set in shortly after its release.
"We didn't see much of ourselves in it," remarks Kerr. "It was hard to see what went wrong. After a few months it was a matter of taking the whole thing and smashing it up."
Instead of carefully dismantling their career and reconstructing it, they persuaded Arista to let them back into the studio before they'd completed any new songs. It shows in the subsequent 'Real To Real Cacophony', which was recorded so fast they didn't have time to sift out the influences properly. Much of it sounds like straight theft.
"Yes," laughs Kerr. "It seemed to me as though there was an act distinguishing good thieves and bad thieves - a good bank job and not so successful. But it became more us.
"Listening to the first album now," he continues "I can see that we didn't really have the ability to pinpoint then what we were getting out of these bands, to break it down to the appealing elements in their music, to which we could add our own."
Their music struck him as so empty, their lack of motivation frightening.
"We were in the studio recording 'Real To Real', when news of things like Pol pot were filtering through to us and I was thinking at first, what is the point of sitting here and pretending that nothing's happening outside? And the confusion carried through to the recording level. We began to grasp what was going on. We still admit that we hadn't kicked out every single influence, but at least 'RtoRC' proved we were aware of the fact, that the battle was definitely going on."
How did he respond to all the negative reviews that greeted it, which suggested that Simple Minds would hop any worthwhile bandwagon passing by?
"It was a little unfair to suggest we were coming behind these other (electronic) bands, because at the time Numan was just on his way up and we could've jumped in and said: 'Yes this is us'. We could have made 'RtoRC' a lot more direct. Look, with the electronic thing you can switch the synthesizer on and get really appealing tunes, to which you could sing typical science fiction lyrics and things like that. The record company would have loved it if we chose something so direct..."
"The reviews seemed to disregard the fact how easy it is to manipulate the public," interrupts Burchill. "We could have all worn the same futuristic clothes, splashed wires and capacitors across the album cover and all that..."
"But we were trying to suggest that we'd sussed something out, that there was soething going on outside us getting a debut album into the charts at 28. The whole thing with us has been an education. Every day we just open our eyes and minds, opening up more and more, slowly forming a backbone of our own," concludes Kerr.
Simple Minds' stunning contrast of naivety and suss works. Still in awe of their heroes - "Big" Kid Strange, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel - they're inspired by them now, as opposed to being shackled to them.
In Brussels, part-time SM sax player and full-time Endgame Paul Wishart and chatty Derek urge me to catch Gabriel's show. I've seen it before, I say, and can't share their enthusiasm. However, temporarily caught up by it, I try again. I find myself standing next to Kerr, who notices my growing discomfort.
Gabriel's well chosen image sanitise the dirt and pain of his real-life subjects, whereas the youthful probing of his chosen supports hit all the sensitive spots. Compare his 'Biko' to their more oblique, brilliant 'This Fear Of Gods' and check which one reaches the heart of the matter.
It's not all Gabriel's fault. This Belgian audience, like the London one I saw in Spring and the Parisian fans of a few days later, gives him far too easy a time. Their indiscriminate, enthusiastic applause gets embarrassing. I rant my disapproval in Kerr's ear. He partly concurs, but adds later: "When I see Gabriel now I can't see it from the outside. There's still this little boy in me that remains from the time I saw Genesis when I was 13, and I'm still in awe of him. He still has intergrity (I agree). Take, for instance, something like Throbbing Gristle. They give the impression that they'd rather take pictures of a man getting beat up in the street than help him. 'Biko' might drown in its art, but it still draws attention to its subject."
Did he want the sort of uncritical adulation Gabriel's audience heaped on their hero?
"That's difficult. At times onstage you feel like a mad dog barking. You don't know whether you're here to entertain them, to provoke or make contact with them. There's a lot of confusion going on. We do have arguments within the band about things like encores - whether this or that one would have made a better encore. But I'm not interested in that - that's pure show business talk.
"I mean, what's the point? You've got the audience right up here already, you must have impressed them enough, and then you come back onstage on your knees?"
These days, Simple Minds are confident enough to stand on their own 12 feet. Their own feats provide all the support they need.
European travelogue set to a speedy electronic beat
Taken from their dance-tinged, Euro-centric Empires & Dance album in 1980, I travel was the breakthrough single that never happened. The electronic rhythm sounds like an amphetamine-spiked Moroder beat as singer Jim Kerr rushes through images of "decadence and pleasures towns" with a vague but manic intensity. The blend of impressionistic lyrics and aggressive, synthesized backing make it one of the highlights from that era of British pop, containing both the potent, angular urgency of post-punk and electro's more experimental sounds.
Hear it on Empires & Dance 1980
Simple Minds were once a great band - which is something hard to square when taking in that song they did for that Bratpack film, the bombastic political posturing of ka-ka like Belfast Child, or the dull, diluted U2-isms that followed. But Simple Minds WERE once a great band, after being a quite good, or at least interesting one- their second album Real to Real Cacophony (1979) saw them spew up a Kid A-type album at the start of their career. By the time they reached this album the following year, the original line-up of the band with producer John Leckie (The Fall, Dukes of Stratopshear, Stone Roses, Radiohead), they finally delivered on the promise of their earlier work.
Opening single I Travel is like Trans Europe Express on speed, the backdrop of the era (Cambodia, Rhodesia, Iran, Boat People, New height in the Cold War etc) all feeding in: "Evacuees and refugees, presidents and monarchies...Travel round/I Travel round/Decadence and pleasure towns/Tragedies, luxuries, statues, parks, and galleries..." - I Travel is a pulsing pop song that delivers on the influences of Kraftwerk and Moroder. E&D is their most European album- Bowie/Eno, Can, Neu!, Nite Flights, Fear of Music all appear to be influences. Today I Died Again has more in common with Magazine than U2- the lyrics in the same avenue as Ian Curtis ruminating on fascism (Walked in Line, Dead Souls) "The clothes he wears date back to some war...She can't remember before this heat/He can't remember his wife's christian name...Back to a year, back to a youth/Of men in church and drug cabarets..."- can't help but think of films like Cabaret, The Damned, The Night Porter & Salon Kitty. Maybe The Tin Drum also? Celebrate sounds like Chic producing Gary Numan, robo-funk at its finest; while This Fear of Gods pre-empts 23 Skidoo's Coup- the influence for Chemical Brothers Block Rockin Beats (& the keyboards are very Trans Europe Express also). Epic stuff, though like a lot of great records, I havent' got a clue what is being sung about: "Violence and vivisection? Fear is fast I'm turning white now???" Empires & Dance is very much Derek Forbes album- his bassplaying appears to be the centre of most of the songs here...
Capital City and Constantinople Line continue the Europa themes, alienation and paranoia rule then- & this leads into Twist/Run/Repulsion- a series of oblique mantras ("Contort!") over a female voice sample- predating Eno/Byrne's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Even better is Thirty Frames a Second, which recalls the time reversal themes of books like Counter-Clock World (Philip K Dick) & Time's Arrow (Martin Amis) and musically is their most Krautrock inflected moment. Brief instrumental interlude Kant-Kino is very side 2 of Low, and seaugues into final track Room- the most melody driven track here. Shimmering guitars, pulsing percussion & almost funky bass- pity it's so brief though! This is the kind of song that would make music critics wet themselves if Primal Scream or Radiohead produced it now...
Like many bands (Roxy Music, Television, Can, Associates, Talking Heads, Scritti Politti, Echo& The Bunnymen, Pere Ubu, Gang of Four etc) Simple Minds produced great material in their early career- prior to dirfting to incomprehension or MOR (it was the latter affliction). 1981's double set Sister Feelings Call/Sons & Fascination (produced by Gong's Steve Hillage) & 1982's New Gold Dream (81, 82, 83, 84) ended this creative peak. It's hard not to hold Kerr et al's crimes against their whole career (Sanctify Yourself????? Really...) - but these early releases highlight the fact that Simple Minds were one of the great bands of the new wave/post-punk era...
Hardly content with fumbling around with the same sound, Simple Minds shifted gears once again for album number three, Empires and Dance. The "dance" aspect of the title needs to be emphasized, but it's apparent that the group's globetrotting and simmering political tensions in Britain affected their material in more ways than one. One gets the idea that Simple Minds did some clubbing and also experienced some disparate views of the world.
The opening "I Travel" is the most assaultive song in the band's catalog, sounding like a Giorgio Moroder production for Roxy Music. Think "I Feel Love" crossed with "Editions of You," only faster; gurgling electronics, a hyperkinetic 4/4 beat, and careening guitars zip by as Jim Kerr delivers elliptical lyrics about unstable world affairs with his throaty yelping (this was still before he developed that predilection for foghorn bombast). The remainder of the album repeals the blitzkrieg frenetics of the beginning and hones in on skeletal arrangements that focus on thick bass lines and the loping rhythms that they help frame.
The hopping/skipping "Celebrate" isn't much more than a series of handclaps, a light drum stomp, some intermittent bass notes, and some non-intrusive synth effects. It goes absolutely nowhere, yet it's more effective and infectious than most verse-chorus-verse pop songs. The seven minutes of "This Fear of Gods," which boast another dense rhythm abetted by trebly atmospheric elements (distant guitars, percolating electronics, sickly wind instruments), come off like an excellent 12" dub, rather than an original mix. Just as bracing, the paranoiac disco of "Thirty Frames a Second" should have been played regularly at every club in 1980 and should live on as a post-punk dance classic. It's a true shock that this record was released with reluctance. The band coerced an unimpressed Arista into pressing a minimal amount of copies for release (fans still had trouble locating copies), but thankfully Virgin reissued it in 1982.
One of the forgotten albums from the beginning of the decade, Empires And Dance remains the most disturbing piece of work from Simple Minds(a band that still has interesting things to say in the '90s). Empires And Dance seems to inhabit some post-apocalyptic world where no hope exists; instead there is paranoia and dread, bundled and delivered with plenty of black humour in songs such as the eerie "Today I Died Again", or the very sardonic "Celebrate". The album is so uncompromisingly bleak that it's a little surprising their record label agreed to release it. It's not an easy album to listen to, nor very comprehensible at first, but it sure stands out from conventional, mainstream pop.
So where does this album fit in? Empires And Dance is a work relevant to its time: released as the '70s ended and the '80s began, it captures that period's atmosphere of unease, particularly in the European sphere. The songs came out of the band's experiences while touring Europe at a time of escalating Cold War tension;they speak of the hostility of that environment as well as the prevalent feeling of moral/social decay. There is irony in the title Empires And Dance: in the face of world calamity and political intransigence, people just keep partying 'til the bitter end.
Proving this statement is not an easy task, I admit. How to even start defending Simple Minds! I mean, if you consider the popular mental image that most people would have of Simple Minds it's an open and shut case, m'Lud, is it not? Ponderous but well meaning, those lumpen power chords dovetailing in an ungainly waltz with those lowing vocals, (and those bloody spandex tights Jim Kerr had circa 1987), stadia full of stone washed denim; (I notice that thus far no one has tried, even ironically, to revive the stonewashed jeans jacket). I concede that I am "batting on a sticky/facing an uphill struggle/going into the lion's den" blah; blah fucking blah...I mean how can I start this? Maybe it is time for a bit of personal history.
Back in the dark days of 1986/7 all the football lads, the "Neds" the "Scallies", the "Larry Heads" (or indeed Lads in Lumpen General), would all fairly cheerfully admit that Simple Minds were, if not their favourite band, at least someone they liked well enough. Like U2. All the precocious arty types at the time like yours truly, (who pretended to read Wilde AND Jung whilst reading neither), and hung around looking glum, would not be seen dead with a 'Minds record. I mean, did anyone see them on Live Aid? Sweet Jesus... terrible fist thumping anthems, with Herr Kerr dancing in that awful cod-Jagger way, legs apart, wiggling his arse as if he was trying to dislodge a hen's nest.
Anyway around this time there was this kid at our college who would brazenly walk around with this early Simple Minds album; I mean quite brazenly. And he was no "lad" in the normal currency of the word; far from it, he was a fully paid up member of the 6th form art squad. Being timid, I dimly perceived that this act was if viewed correctly, scored shed loads of points, and could be worth aping in front of girls. I mean, this was what Stephen Pastel, or Jim Reid was big on; Being Ironic, wasn't it? So I asked him; wow, carrying the devils spawn around; that was a cool thing to do. "Post-modern" was something that had yet to be explained to me in full, (despite me using the word ad nauseum at the time) maybe this could be interpreted as a post-modern act. (Actually, on reflection, maybe it wasn't. I certainly (and thankfully) didn't accuse him of being post-modern).
Anyway, I digress; his answer and manner shocked me. He angrily told me to fuck off and stop taking the piss out of one of the best records made. As proof of his anger, (and I bet he got this kind of thing quite a lot from the art squad), he offered to lend it me there and then. So I timidly took it from him, hid it under my coat, and furtively smuggled it out on the bus back to Accrington. The album that sparked the row was Empires and Dance and had been made in 1980. I shoved my records aside and put it on. Bloody heck. How do I describe that moment looking back? Let me tell you now - as I suppose I muddily realised then - that I consider Empires and Dance to be a cornerstone record. It's a stone classic. Despite its nods to Eno, and to the Kraut giants such as Kraftwerk, Can and Neu!, it's a formidable beast in its own right. Set as a futuristic, nihilistic soundtrack around Europe, the band create a hugely effective paranoid setting for Kerr to dramatize what he sees in a brittle, caustic way. Better than that, the sound of it, grandiose (with an old pre 1914 feel), thumping, DANCEY; (there I was, I still remember thinking, Simple Minds, groovy!??). To this day I still back this album. I just never tell anyone who it is when I put it on at a party. No one ever believes me.
Anyway, after that night, I began to cautiously check out other releases, keeping strictly to a date that was pre- the Simple Minds I knew and loathed (which is Waterfront from 1983. Waterfront was the marsh light signalling that awful bombast). And I have to say that I was rarely disappointed. Top marks went to Reel to Reel Cacophony, the fabulously sparky 1979 art collage/Eno/Low rip off and Sons and Fascination the 1981 follow up to Empires and Dance; a richer more sprawling sound. Whilst not being as perfect in concept as Empires and Dance, Sons was (and is) pretty damned great, especially when you consider tracks like the rich undulating In Trance as Mission or the cutting choppy groove of Theme for Great Cities. As for New Gold Dream, (their "breakthrough/crossover" album), I was fascinated that a band could degenerate from this sublime, ethereal, gentle dance pop to thumping out slabs of condemned meat like Ghostdancing. Get this as well, during this period Simple Minds wore fucking mascara and lippy! Jim Kerr, the saviour of the planet, in lippy? I mean.
Anyway, I suppose this homily leads us as to why they slipped down the Steve Lilywhite breast beating path from 1983's Sparkle in the Rain onwards. And our answer (apparently) leads to the door of Bono. For it was whilst Simple Minds were having trouble with the follow-up to New Gold Dream, (how do you out-perfect the perfect?), U2 came a calling, The bands got on very well, (as far as I know, anyway), bonding in earnest on the continental concert circuit through the summer of 1983. In fact, they got on so well that Jim Kerr & Charlie Burchill had a "revelation". This was 1983; maybe experimentation and impressionistic, Motorik-led soundtracks were dated; after all, four years of cussed artistic experiment had resulted in no money and only modest general acclaim. Look at U2; they kept it simple and direct, and they were on the cusp of becoming really big... Hmm.
So, out went the lippy, out went the balance and rhythm, and out went the dark undercurrents. Welcome big sounds, happy/positive/meaningless/dribble lyrics and JK balancing up a pole (literally). Sparkle in the Rain is just a messy disappointment. I suppose it fitted the times beautifully. As for 1985's Once Upon a Time, released just after the Live Aid appearance, well, that was just massive; people loved it, its glossy banal confidence confirmed everything about the shitty ol' mid 1980s. However much the band would have disclaimed it, this was the soundtrack to the "young entrepreneur", meat and two veg, aspiring-mullet crowd. (Dare I, do I need to, mention the T word?)... Despite 1989's "attempt" to return to New Gold Dream territory, With Street Fighting Years, the album revealed itself to be just wind and water wank. I gave up there and then: trying to get people to go to Stone Roses and Pixies gigs was where my head was at aged 19.
And to be honest I couldn't name another album of theirs, (outside of the okay Neapolis, which was recommended to me because it had original bassist Derek Forbes on), but I can safely assume they are all pretty average. Get Empires and Dance instead. You'll be amazed.