. . . the catalyst is important because, sadly, think about how many people do have an idea. Many English schoolteachers have still got their novel under their desk. They never sent it away. How many people come up with a film outline but never really commit? That’s what we loved about the punk thing: it made us commit.
So said Jim Kerr, Toryglen kid who went on to conquer America with his friend Charlie Burchill thanks to their band, Simple Minds. A name that, up until fairly recently, invoked derision among music critics and fans due to their stadium years (1985 – 1992), exemplified by this joke from Mark Lamarr:
The album ‘Street Fighting Years’ was dedicated to a Chilean poet. The connection being that Chile and Simple Minds are both notorious for atrocities committed in stadiums.
However, the post punk revival in the early 21st century has helped to shine a light on their early catalogue, leading the band to revisit them in the live arena. Nowadays, albums like Empires and Dance and Reel to Reel Cacophony are (rightly) regarded as pivotal records. Songs like I Travel, Theme for Great Cities and Premonition exude a mixture of curious experimentation and a wide eyed outlook. Astonishing material.
And now long-time fan/journalist Graeme Thompson has put together this tome which not only tells the story of the band in those years but offers up his interpretations of what makes those records so brilliant.
Emphasising both Kerr and Burchill as working-class didactics, Thompson depicts 70’s Glasgow as a place of endless possibilities due to its longstanding trade links with various countries, a rich civic society and a radical political history, but also a place where many thought its best days were long gone. Thus, this combination of gritty realism, a long legacy of creativity and the notion that the rest of the world was a boat ride away fuelled Kerr and Burchill
Thompson also gives props to Derek Forbes, Brian McGee and Mick MacNeill for being key contributors to the band’s imperial phase but also looks at the various circumstances that would see them departing as the 80’s progressed due to exhaustion, ego and reduced musical involvement. Forbes and MacNeill are forthcoming about these issues and offer a glimpse into how being (unintentionally) ebbed out of the songwriting process (especially when you have contributed so much over the years). This is an oft remarked, but not widely understood, problem that bands have to negotiate as time (and ideas) move in favour of the leaders. Add in commercial expectations and new band members who you don’t share the same musical camaraderie with, and it can be an explosive situation.
Where Thompson really comes into his own is discussing the merits and songs of each album. His assessment of Empires and Dance as an album that doesn’t yield to specifics because Kerr …is intrigued by the pleasures and pretensions of abstraction…rarely to the point of wilful incoherence…He is a man living his life and at the same time playing a part. He is at the centre of his own movie. Someone might be watching; best keep up appearances brilliantly sums up the schizophrenic nature of the record where disco, glam rock, jazz and electronica are melded together to create something not quite European but certainly not something parochial.
Mark Lamarr be damned. Simple Minds were amazing and let this book remind you of that,
Graeme Thompson, 2023, Themes for Great Cities: A New History of Simple Minds. Constable Books ISBN-13: 978-1472134011
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.