For those of you who read progarchy, you know that we often (maybe not often enough, but often) review things that are, at best, vaguely prog. We often veer into art rock and art pop. My favorite genre outside of “straight” prog is progressive pop such as PET SOUNDS, SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR, and SKYLARKING. But, I also love Thomas Dolby, early New Order, and Sixpence None the Richer.
One of my earliest loves in terms of non-Yes, non-Genesis, and non-Jethro Tull was Simple Minds. To say that in high school and my first few years of college that I was not obsessed with Jim Kerr and company would be an outright lie. I was rather obsessed. This was back in the days when the internet did not exist for the public, and I had to dig like mad to find articles in various libraries about the band. America never had the tradition of music magazines in the way that Britain did, and I would often even ask pen pals to buys articles in Europe or the UK and photocopy them for me, sending them to me in the states. Sometimes, if I found a good bookstore, I would ask them to special order British magazines. For better or worse, I have long since disposed of my Simple Minds articles, but there was a time when they were as critical to my being as were my paperback copies of The Lord of the Rings, my comic books, and my DnD manuals.
Back in the pre-STREET FIGHTING YEARS. I knew EVERY single note of SONS AND FASCINATION and SISTER FEELINGS CALL. I had never heard anything like this kind of music except for Tangerine Dream, and this seems far better. Why? Because the lyrics were so romantic, and, even though I was an atheist at the time, I loved the Christian symbolism. It seemed to have captured the essence of Christianity without all of the institutional trappings. After all, I didn’t have to accept the supernatural aspects of the faith as long as I accepted the teachings—which, frankly, are the best teachings I’ve ever come across. Then came, NEW GOLD DREAM. What was not to love, completely, utterly, and totally? This was everything. The innovation of the previous two albums but with lyrics that mattered immensely to me. What young man of the 1980s could not be failed to be moved by “Someone Somewhere” or “King is White and In a Crowd.” I wasn’t thrilled with “Promised You a Miracle,” but I put up with it in the way I put up with “Misunderstanding” on DUKE. Not great—maybe even downright embarrassing—but such is life. And, for those of us who knew the history of Simple Minds, the instrumental, “Somebody Up There Likes You,” seemed exactly right. A perfect followup to the previous experimental albums.
And, that album cover. What can one state. Again, it captured the essence of Christianity without forcing it down your throat. It still remains a favorite album cover, probably only rivaled by Talk Talk’s THE COLOUR OF SPRING.
Then came SPARKLE IN THE RAIN. Granted, this was a major change. It was as though Bono had taken over Simple Minds. Still, I pretty much loved the album. As with “Someone, Somewhere,” “Book of Brilliant Things” and “East at Easter” rather blew me away. Again, the instrumental “Shake Off the Ghosts” was rather perfect.
Then, their popularity with the song, “Don’t You Forget About Me,” overwhelmed everything they had ever done. I liked the song, but mostly because The Breakfast Club is one of my all-time favorite movies. It is, after all, the single best expression of the anger my generation felt toward the ex-hippies-turned-tyrants who tried to turn us into tapioca, unthinking conformists.
After it, though, Simple Minds lost its way. The next album, ONCE UPON A TIME, is an amazing U2 album. Especially the first side, which really has no flaws. But, by the time you get to side two, the effect begins to wear off, and the album starts to repeat itself. Mostly out of nostalgia, I purchased every SM album that has since appeared. For what I can tell, the albums all have some interesting things, but the interesting things are always superficial, while the deeper aspects of the albums seem to drag.
This summer, feeling more than a bit of longing for the resurrection of some old heroes, I purchased all three box sets that SM have recently released: for NEW GOLD DREAM, SPARKLE IN THE RAIN, and ONCE UPON A TIME. Not surprisingly, the order of the original releases reflects the goodness or not of these three releases. I must admit, I’ve listened to the first two almost non-stop. The packaging is gorgeous as are the six disks that come with each. Each had booklets with tons of information. I knew most of it from my love of SM back in the 1980s, but it’s fun to relive much of the excitement of the band from back then. Unlike Mark Hollis of Talk Talk or Roland Orzabal of Tears for Fears who never fail to inspire me, Jim Kerr, however, does just the opposite. His lesson in the music world seems to be a list of what NOT to do. The boxset for ONCE UPON A TIME is mostly just embarrassing. This is a band that is as lost as it was successful. The worst part, by far, are the two live disks from a concert in Paris. The band is either terrible live, or they decided to play all of their more interesting songs in the bombastic style of arena rock. They’re horrible. The noise levels are horrible, the playing is horrible, and the subtlety of their earlier songs is completing missing. If you want to hear the beautiful songs such as “New Gold Dream” played without any form of nuance and at full volume, you’ll like the two live disks. If, like me, you want the subtle, beautiful, romantic Simple Minds, not the over-the-top U2 arena blast, you’ll dislike the ONCE box set as much as I do.
When Kerr (and, I suspect, Michael McNeill, especially) want to be beautiful, no one does it better. When they want to be loud, they make me want to run into my fall-out shelter and shut myself away from a world awaiting Soviet nukes.