Close The Box Open The Minds
Paul Morley – ‘NME’ – January 5th 1980 (UK) Jim Kerr, troubled and thoughtful Glaswegian, lead singer for the Scottish quinet Simple Minds – let’s get the fire in your eyes and the whine in your voice, for a moment let’s lose your unfortunate stammer, and maybe any caution.”People have looked at the group and just said : Art School Rock. Art School Rock! We’re fucking closer to bricklayers and plumbers. It’s just stupid!”
Keep it up
“They say we’re moderne lads with silly eye mascara, making pointless cold music, all alienated and everything. I should fucking think we feel alienated, coming from the Gorbals in Glasgow where, if you weren’t totally into football or girls, there was something really the matter with you, and where it was really difficult for you to do anything like music.” And Simple Minds find that superficial accusation of coldness insensitive. “We try hard to put soul and feeling into every song we do. Passion is important, to move people.”
Charlie Burchill, eager and considerate guitarist and co-writer of songs with Kerr, ‘soul’ and ‘feeling’ are not words many would associate with Simple Minds are they? “People look at our ambition, and maybe see that we’re trying to do something a little different from the rest, to do things in new ways, and they think we’re trying to do something above the rest, kind of detached, that we’re not one of the boys. But in order for music to progress you must take steps forward… Through all this we’ve always had a slight tounge-in-cheek attitude, there’s a lot of humour in our songs. But people tend to want to put you into a convenient box.”
Those involved in rock ‘n’ roll, who blithely create and confirm the prejudices that indulgently set solid the limited traditions of rock and clumsily hinder how the majority of us react to and receive music, have made an incidental art of tagging and filing away. They love slipping things into those old and tattered boxes, keeping things tidy and under control. This silent movement was especially quick to tuck Simple Minds into that box of dissenters over there in the corner, the one that’s sloppily marked ‘pretentious’, ‘naive’, ‘derivative’, ‘unoriginal’ – the one that Gary Numan is illuminating with his halo of fame. And as Numan’s techinical expertise has been severely underrated, so too has the determined adventure and rapid growth of Simple Minds being ignored.
Simple Minds are mischievous. Simple Minds are tenacious. Simple Minds are self-conscious. Simple Minds are vulnerable. They are conscious of rock’s prejudices and traditions that interfere with any new attempts to contribute unorthodox and unexpected experiences to an increasingly complex, and in many ways increasingly reactionary, rock culture. Prejudices and traditions that upset the development of a natural communication, that feed off the fear of the new dance, discussion, danger. The same old labels and dismissals are always introduced.
Simple Minds, it’s frivolously said, ‘sounds like’ Roxy Music, or Magazine. And if their new single ‘Changeling’ is some kind of hit the name of Numan will be used as an irritant. These comparisions emphasise how little people actually listen to music these days, how reticent they are to move past surface shine and scrape a little deeper. “I wish there was a decent title, much as I don’t like them, for representing these types of group like Roxy, Magazine and us. Like when you get two R&B; bands, you don’t compare the sound of the R&B; bands, you look at them both and say that’s R&B.; There should be a reasonable title to use.”
New title. Another box. But often it seems the only way: fight boxes with boxes. Simple Minds’ ‘roots’ are not the accepted, true rock ‘n’ roll lineage – the Berry/Stones/Beatles/Who drift. Minds come from the manner and music of Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Doctors Of Madness, Van Der Graaf Generator, Ultravox, David Bowie and John Cale. The people who in the early ’70s were erratically stirring darkness, disgrace and melodrama into a mixture of psychedelia, torch, cabaret and electronics and making noises that shocked and repelled.
The influence of these elegant and/or eccentric early ’70s explorers weaved its way through the stormy punk period and has emerged lately as the purest and sharpest form of inspiration. These musicians’ arbitrary and abstract methods of composing, the extravagance of presentation and premise, the bold claims, the diversity and dissatisfaction of the lyrics, the constant fallible need for experimentation, is beginning to mean more and more as rock speeds forward. Pick a few contemporary vitals, XTC to Joy Division, Skids to Talking Heads, Human League to Cabaret Voltaire, and it’s the shadow of Bowie and Eno that hangs over them rather than Berry or Townsend.
Many mourn or moan. Art within the context of rock ‘n’ roll! it emarrasses or amuses many. Who cares! I see what I see! What is it in the music of Roxy, Van Der Graaf, Cale, Eno, even patches of Genesis (“There was always a menace behind their music with Gabriel, it was never just far out hippy stuff”) that attracted Kerr and Burchill? Kerr: “Oh, I don’t really know. It’s just a natural thing that happened. It’s not something you pick out and say why. I still don’t really know what Roxy’s ‘Bogus Man’ is about, but the atmosphere I get from that is great.”
Burchill: “This kind of music takes your mind our further. It’s trying to take steps ahead in rock music generally, into unknown areas. For example when listening to Brian Eno, you suddenly realise he’s taking steps out there. Compare it to the desert: nothing happens out there, no one wants to go there, and it’s the same with music really. There are areas where no one will go near, they feel it’s unappealing or too unusual, they feel uncomfortable. This type of music moves out there. In that respect I would say we are like those bands. We want to go out there.”
The development of Simple Minds has been a wild one, creating comparatively few ripples, messed with fearful rock accusations such as hype, pretension, greeness… The closet Simple Minds came to recognition was as pink and precious wonder boys who had it easy. Early on, as Johnny And The Self Abusers fiddling about in the paradoxically comforting punk swell, they made a scrappy jokey single for Chiswick records. And as we now know, people always remember where you’ve been. After that, they settled down, added a keyboardist, became Simple Minds, and looked for a sound and a challenge. They were determined to avoid the sickly swamp of the London music scene, and so concentrated on working from Scotland and attracting, perhaps mistakenly, major label interest from there. That they could be busy and work up a following without needing to venture South proves the advantage of the latterday decentralisation.
But the disavantages…
“We started to get rave reviews early on, which is a danger, because the thing with local writers is that if they see something close to them that they think is good they tend to be patriotic, and if you get young bands coming up now you somehow associate where they are with what they are, it seems to be quite important for some reason.
“But we’d always gone out of our way to steer clear of any Scottish nationalistic thing, but we became known as Scottish, and somehow people see Scottish things as being primitive, uncouth. We always tried to play the local thing down. Apart from anything else we don’t feel that we are a Scots band or a Glasgow band. We are just a group. It doesn’t seem right to stick Glasgow with Simple Minds.”
Simple Minds, with a seductive flamboyance and strong purpose of mind, attracted enough favourable local response to convince a handful of major labels to go and see what the fuss was. The group, having had an unhappy experience with the poorly organised Chiswick, wanted the benefits of major label promotion, but also the freedom of independence. But in coupling the Edinburgh Zoom label with Arista, the group all but lost out both ways.
After signing with Arista following months of hard work performing and sorting out their sights and sound, their problems were just beginning – the trival problems of rock ‘n’ roll business swings and roundabouts that matter because they put a block on the music, discolour character and harm the spirit. “We signed straight from the pub thing in Glasgow, we came straight from that to a big label. Then we got a chance to do the Old Grey Whistle Test, and people must’ve thought: what the fuck’s this. A band we’ve never heard of going on the Old Grey?
“But what were we supposed to say? Were we supposed to say no?
“The producer Michael Appleton had decided to change the programming, to change the direction and have on newer bands just off the street. he’d heard our tape, liked it and wanted us on the show, and before we did it we knew that it was going to be a real big number. But is was something that we had to go through with. “And then we went straight into the Magazine tour, and we were already getting the Magazine soundalike tags, even though we’d got our sound before we’d even heard ‘Real Life’. And we went on this tour with no LP and no single… and we gout out there and really there seemed to be no pressure on us and we just went out to enjoy ourselves. “So our first LP came out midway through the tour and it went straight into the charts at 29 or something and that was without the Hopes, the Peelies, the London press; and everyone thought type, which was a word that used to kill us. It was all just accident. We wanted the small thing, we went out of our way to avoid gimmicks and everything…”
Despite the unusual, noisy sort of build-up, the band ended up fairly faceless. “Faceless is the wrong word. We did have a face but it wasn’t our own. It was the face of four or five other bands. “We did come down south totally green and naive to an extent, because we didn’t want to get involved with the whole charade… but we had people coming up to us at gigs – and it was really bad because we wanted an image of our own – and they were saying: Well, I heard you were like Magazine, Bowie and Ultravox! So I came along.”
Simple Minds first LP ‘Life In A Day’ wasn’t particularly strong, which didn’t help. A momentary place in the charts, a committed NME discussion, but the record was a serene collection of interesting songs worn out by time and blandly decorated with fastidious studio obviousness. A tantalising opener, but limp and lacking in inviduality. By the time it was released the group were far ahead, and while criticisms of plagiarism were partly justified because of the sound on that LP, the stage the group had reached deserved far more careful consideration. The group are honest in their appraisal of that record.
Kerr: “We didn’t use the keyboards very subtly or cleverly… the LP has got this really embarrassing sound. When you’re in the studio for the first time it’s the first time you really get to hear yourself, and through the studio speakers you hear this really big powerful sound and you think it’s great. But that’s daft because anyone could put more and more in, it’s knowing what not to put in. “We were overawed as well. We were just playing about, messing with influences but not having the power to bring ourselves out, and the sound was just an everyday gloss job “Someone said it was a coffee table album, real background music, and that really hurt. Because I don’t want to do that, i want to put out something that really stands, that just doesn’t just hang there.”
Did you feel that you were lightweight?
“To an extent. We knew we could be much harder. Everyone in the group can play really well (Burchill, Derek Forbes, Mick MacNeil. Brian McGee and Kerr) and we listen to lots of good music. Obviously something has to come out of it. We just had to chop things down a nd look out ourselves and really think. The production on the new LP is really telling.” After just a few months of the distorting, disrupting ‘big time’ Simple Minds almost seemed caught in the flow, quickly eroding: trapped and fading. They could have drifted along and no one would have noticed, but they felt a need to move forward.
Burchill: “I need to take risks. I want to move into other areas because I believe in the other areas.” And needing to record masses of new material they had accumulated they moved into Rockfield to assemble the second LP. Wiser, more mature, determined to use the machinery rather than be used. Heavily in debt, pressurised on all sides by the conflicting reputations they had collected, their attitude was that they had nothing to lose and so didn’t consider safety first.
The group that made the exciting, extreme ‘Real To Real Cacophony’ LP was far removed from the outfit that contrived ‘Life In A Day’. Apart from the advancement of material and imagery in the songs, the new pushy cohesion of the unit, the major reason for the wide difference between the two LP’s is Simple Minds attitude towards recording. Upset by the weakness of ‘Life In A Day’, shaken by critism, but still confident the group accidentally discovered that the role of the studio can be altered.
“A studio can be a bit of a factory. It’s got all these rules that you just don’t do: you don’t do that! And we thought this time we’re just going to do things and dismiss the rules… we’re not going to be bothered if the needle goes into the red, you know?” They used the same producer, John Leckie.
Kerr: “He’s very good. We didn’t demo anything before we went into the studio, all we had were cassettes with little bits on and we talked with him and we knew that we had to get a sound of our own. If the two LP’s had sounded the same we wouldn’t have wanted to work with him again because there wouldn’t have been any point. But this time we just questioned everything, even in the vocals. “On the first LP they were so held back, bland and smooth. But this time I just wrote everything down, sat back for half an hour, working it all out, then I’d go in and say: Right, I’m going to do it now, and catch the spontaneous feel. That’s what it all comes from. All the songs on the first LP we’d been doing for a year, so perhaps we were a bit bored with them and had lost the feel. That’s why this time we just wnet in and that’s going to be our attitude from now on. On edge, where you have to make spot decisions. It wasn’t very safe and that felt good.”
Simple Minds incorporated the opportunties, potential and atmosphere of the recording studio into the compositional procedure. The notion that groups come across best live means that the studio is not an obstacle but an instrumental, a form of catalyst. “We didn’t go in with songs and record them. We went in and turned on the tape and talked through the ideas. A really different approach.
Where does the LP put Simple Minds?
“It gives us a lot more depth than we ever had. And although we’re really happy with it, it’s only a starting point in the direction that we want to take. “We had to take risks with this LP. We had to go for a change… “I’d like to hear what the reaction to the LP would have been if it was our first. I know that’s an easy thing for us to say – oh yeah, the first doesn’t count – but in some ways this is our first. We had an attitude of our own; we had more of a hand in the promotion; we felt we could incorporate each instrumental much better.”
Kerr says that an ideal response to Simple Minds’ music would be for other groups to name them as influences. “Also, a great response to the LP is when people say they played it once and they hated it, but after a few times they really loved it.” For all Kerr’s hopes and dense inventiveness of ‘Real To Real’, the LP has drifted away thanks to a combination of established prejudices and record company apathy. Simple Minds remain unsteady, in one way obscure, in another on the verge of probable commerical success as a fashion group. Both ways have their different absurd pressures.
Ever since they signed with a major label they’ve been fighting to get out so that they’re only working for themselves. They view commerical success as appealing in that people are reached, but also as destructive. They just want to continue to create and maintain a balance between communication, compromise and commerical cynicism. A dangerous life. “Our main aim must be to take off live so that we can make enough money to be totally independent and self-supporting so that when it comes to being dropped, which they’ll have to do, we should have a good following and some money.” Then they’ll be able to make the music they want to make.
Perhaps that label we were reluctantly groping for a few hundred lines ago is SF (Science Fiction? Speculative fabulation? Space fish? Surly fingering? Oh! The old arguments!) We talk about words, Kerr likes words. “it’s weird. I haven’t really conquered reading yet. My reading on the road, in the van, you just can’t do it… and at school it was always a task, and the only time I got to read was at night in bed and you could only get ten minutes. Most of the things that I’ve read have been the cliched things, it’s exactly as people say, Huxley, Burroughs…”
Did you enjoy them?
“Oh yeah… I’m beginning to get into it more and more. I can’t stand really shitty books, like some of the band get at service stations. Right now I’m reading Vonnegut, it’s like all headlines, bit I like the sense of humour in it. I think he’s got good ideas as well. To gain knowledge you have to read. I’ve always tried to think as much as I could. I like time just to think.”
Yes, there’s a charm about Simple Minds, but also a toughness, and something a little sinister. ‘Real To Real Cacophony’ is unusually stimulating. I listen to it like I listen to ‘Future Days’, ‘Another Green World’, Peter Hammill’s ‘Camera’, Roxy 1 and 2, ‘Real Life’, ‘Fear’… for whatever reason. “It would be easy to be weird for weird’s sake. That’s the easiest way out. I just don’t know where our destiny lies, which is a great thing.”
It’s all in the Mind
Simon Ludgate – ‘Record Mirror’ – January 19th 1980 (UK)
Forty-Five minutes with Minder Jim Kerr in the foyer of the Parish Theatre. It was the unlikely end to an unlikely day which I spent chasing Jim around London as the Simple Minds tried vainly to cram a week’s work into a day. Life In A Day, perhaps. It was a day born in all innocence. Down from Glasgow on the sleeper, staying up all night getting bevvied. Arrive at Euston a little crusty, desperate for something to vanquish the almost inevitable Hughie. The record company has arranged a stint on the BBC ‘In concert’ programme. Sounds simple, huh?
The rot sets in as the Minds are hindered by hacks and messed by meetings. In the resultant chaos I find Jim waiting uncomfortably in the theatre foyer. “Er, hi,” he shakes my claw politely. “Cozy Powell is still doing his soundcheck and it’s impossible to hear anything downstairs.” No exaggeration, this. The joyful racket one associates with the man who does unlikely things to the 1812 Overture is loud enough, even in the foyer.
We wait for “it” to finish. It doesn’t and Jim mutters about the lousey lights, sound and atmosphere. We wait a bit more. I note Jim looks entirely normal without the eerie make-up he sports on stage. Two dry old ladies totter in and hassle the doorman for tickets to God knows what and some Yank journalist arrives and tells the guy with the guest list that he’s me. I nod encouragingly – it’s far too late to start asking questions. The bashing from below continues unabated and we agree to commence Act One of our little comic opera right there in the foyer. The screen shimmers as we have a flashback to six years ago.
“Charlie Burchill (guitar) and I went to school together at Glasgow High. We lived in the same block of flats and we were, like, best mates. We still live in the same flats now, with our parents, and that’s where we go when we are home in Glasgow. “The first band we were involved in was one of the first real punk bands from glasgow called Johnny And The Self Abusers. We were pretty rough, but it didn’t matter. Then this guy who worked in a record shop persuaded his boss to put up the money for us to do a single. When it eventually came out on Chiswick, in fact the very same day, the Abusers spilt up.
“Over the next six months, from November ’77 to May ’78, we worked really hard at getting the Simple Minds together. We rehearsed all the time. Bruce Findlay from Zoom Records in Glasgow saw us at a gig and really liked what we were doing and how we did it. Those six months really paid off. Bruce approached Arista, too which Zoom is licensed, and got us the deal we needed to really get on.” The nervous, shy impression from a year ago has been replaced by a confidence and ease.
“I do feel a lot easier now than I used to with people. They frighten me more than anything and always have. At the same time they are the most interesting thing about life and for that reason I have forced myself to get near other people. It’s also really important amongst the band, because when Mike, Charlie, Brian, Derek and I used to get together to discuss something we used to argue and needle one another. I think that was also due to a general lack of confidence but none of us was really sure of how to deal with other people.
“Our first album, ‘Life In A Day’, reflected that lack of confidence. We were very green and felt overawed by the studio and it showed on the album.” Apart from the brilliant single of the same name, which was based on that distinctive sawing synthesiser of Mike MacNeil, the album did seem to me to consist of a muddled hotchpotch of Roxy and Ultravox rip-offs. Pretentious piffle, in fact Now, a year later with the time allowed for coming to terms with “the business” and “record company types” we have a new Simple Minds album, ‘Real To Real Cacophony’, which is altogether a different bunch of brain cells to ‘Life In A Day’. Jim explains.
“We had much more control over every aspect. I’m fed up with all these glossy packages around at the moment, so we went for a matt blue effect and really underplayed the graphics. We want it to reflect the fact that the music is really different, too. I would call what we’re into now a kind of experimental pop that reflects what goes on around us – industry, the electronic age, war – but we don’t want to lecture people about it, just tell them that it’s there. We’re very apprehensive about the new material, some of which continues what we started on the track ‘Life In A Day’ and also introduces some experimental ideas of our own. It hasn’t gone down particularly well with live audiences, but I think that’s because the new stuff is just harder to get into at first.
“We chose the name because it sums up the whole thing. It means that the only reality for us is what passes from reel to reel on the master tape. The cynics amongst the ranks may titter at this, but the boy means it. “For us this album is the music of the eighties. At the moment almost every single musical influence is enjoying some kind of revival, which is good. It’s great to work under conditions where you are being exposed to every kind of music at one time.” Surprisingly, for someone behind and album as hot as ‘Real To Real’, Kerr comes across as modest and appreciative of any attention. He thanks me and departs for another sound-check. Cozy is still hammering away like a good ‘un.
Real To Real Cacophony
Eric Chappe – CMJ New Music (US)
For their second album, Scotland’s Simple Minds once again put their influences to good use. This young quintet, fronted by vocalist/songwriter Jim Kerr, play music that not long ago might have been termed “progressive” or “art rock.” What this meant was a large emphasis on keyboards, grandiose chord changes and a heavily overdubbed sound, not far from the approach of Yes or Genesis.
But the influence of new wave has not gone totally unnoticed by Simple Minds. A powerful rhythmic base pervades the group’s sound, giving it enough added zip to keep it from floating out into space. The subject matter of the songs is typically ominous, far-reaching and artsy. But the group’s determination to constantly add unexpected touches to the arrangements saves them from becoming just another progressive outfit with lots of sound, but little substance. Vocalist Kerr also helps to distinguish Simple Minds’ sound by virtue of his unusual warble (reminiscent at times of Bryan Ferry or Russell Mael) which balances well against the fast, rhythmical paces of the synthesizer-drive melodies.
Side two’s “Calling Your Name,” one of Real’s most well executed tracks, shows just what the group can do when on target. To a quick, bouncing rhythm, the music’s crescendos rush up and hit you with the fury of a tidal wave as Kerr intones his message above the road. Simple Minds is a band just bursting with ideas. Where they go from here is anybody’s guess.
Real To Real Cacophony
Mixing art-rock and synth-pop, 1979’s ‘Real To Real Cacophony’ was a confusing escapade for Simple Minds that can somehow only have existed in that era. ‘Real To Real’ has an Oriental charm that leads to inevitable comparisons to Japan and ‘Citizen’ was perhaps an early influence for The Wolfgang Press’ early obsession for white funk music it was impossible to dance to. Jim Kerr’s yelping new wave vocals were very much of the time and only once is an indication of their later work detectable,
when Charlie Burchill lets rip with his guitar on ‘Premonition’. As one would expect some of these pieces don’t seem quite as relevant now as they did then; ‘Naked Eye’ and ‘Calling Your Name’ can be put down to experimental follies. It’s hard to take this kind of music too seriously nowadays but the curiosity value is much higher when compared to their bloated late-80’s-early 90’s material.
Real To Real Cacophony
Andy Kellman – All Music Guide (US)
To the delight of some open-minded post-punk fans – fans who also had space for the relatively new, untraditional likes of Devo, Kraftwerk, and Eno in their record collections – the relative simple-mindedness of Life in a Day was blown to bits and left for dead on the pub floor by Real to Real Cacophony, the wide-eyed carnival-like follow-up released only seven months after its predecessor. The artistic … Read MoreTo the delight of some open-minded post-punk fans – fans who also had space for the relatively new, untraditional likes of Devo, Kraftwerk, and Eno in their record collections – the relative simple-mindedness of Life in a Day was blown to bits and left for dead on the pub floor by Real to Real Cacophony, the wide-eyed carnival-like follow-up released only seven months after its predecessor.
The artistic leap from Life in a Day to Real to Real has to be one of the most mesmerizing ones imaginable, an improvement that is even more impressive when the short time between release dates is considered. It’s where Simple Minds ventured beyond the ability to mimic their influences and began to manipulate them, mercilessly pushing them around and shaping them into funny objects the way a child transforms a chunk of Play-Doh from an indefinable chunk of nothing into a definable chunk of something. Aside from a mercifully brief lapse into aimless murmuring and doodling that occurs during the middle of the record, Real to Real Cacophony is rife with countless bizarre joys. It knocks you on your back with pretentious artsy-fartsiness as instantly as New Gold Dream dazzles with its art pop pleasures, but its challenging melodicism through jerky time signatures and an endless supply of varied sounds and textures keeps you coming back for more.
“Real to Real,” a sinister rewrite of Kraftwerk’s “Radio-Activity,” is a good, quick point of reference. Guitars are employed less frequently and are replaced by burbling electronics and further use of keyboard shadings, though the absolute high point of the band’s early years, “Changeling,” benefits from plangent, angular jabs. The record is certainly as much of an achievement as New Gold Dream – an achievement that’s on a plane with other 1979 post-punk landmarks like Metal Box, 154, Entertainment, and Unknown Pleasures. No kidding.