SIMPLE MINDS are one of the UK’s most successful bands to emerge from the post-punk era. Yet with millions of records sales and still being enough of a draw in 2013 to play arena sized venues, they polarise as far as their live presentation is concerned.
Two of The Electricity Club’s team state their opposing views in a brand new feature series, named after Jim Kerr’s beckoning catchphrase…
√ The Case For by Paul Boddy
When the ‘double-header’ SIMPLE MINDS / ULTRAVOX tour was announced earlier in the year, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to a) catch up on ULTRAVOX having witnessed the ‘Return To Eden’ set, but had missed out on the ‘Brilliant’ tour and b) see a band who I’d not seen live before. To be brutally honest, in terms of recorded material, I have always favoured Midge Ure’s band over Jim Kerr’s, primarily as ‘Vienna’ was the first album I ever bought and with the exception of ‘New Gold Dream’, I had missed out on the formative years of SIMPLE MINDS and their earlier more experimental 4 album phase (5 if you count the bonus disc ‘Sister Feelings Call’).
So it was with this mindset that I approached the final night of the tour at London’s cavernous O2 arena. I am not going to dwell too much on ULTRAVOX, as this article is not specifically focused on them, but despite delivering a strong / punchy set, the band’s sound didn’t suit the venue at all and a few nerves meant that Ure fluffed his lines during ‘The Thin Wall’ and Cann’s drumming during the set opener ‘New Europeans’ was decidedly shaky.
This scenario brought to mind TALKING HEADS’ David Byrne’s TED lecture on how bands and musicians throughout the years had (in some cases) written music specifically to suit the venues that they knew they would be playing. For example, CBGB’s in New York was a regular haunt for Byrne’s band and the tight / clipped New Wave sound that they played during their early days suited the venue with its lack of reverb perfectly as it did other acts which graced its stage including BLONDIE and THE RAMONES.
With the advent of Live Aid in 1985 came the realisation that bands could potentially fill humongous sports arenas, and this gave birth to the whole stadium rock era, a time probably most associated with bands such as U2 and… SIMPLE MINDS. Which begs the question that Kerr and co’s music (and in retrospect) least critically acclaimed period came as a result of writing music to suit both the acoustics and the size of the crowds they were playing to back then. And this brings us neatly onto SIMPLE MINDS’ live reputation, which for many seems to hang on their stadium rock phase where songs were dragged out to ten minutes… you could take a comfort break, shell out for another pint of lukewarm beer, come back and the same song would still be going strong. And it was with this mental picture that I approached the O2 gig…
Pleasingly, the opening song ‘Waterfront’ wasn’t dragged out beyond any reasonable length and it soon became apparent that unlike some bands of their era (hello DEPECHE MODE!), SIMPLE MINDS are not afraid to strongly represent their earlier material in their sets. Hearing really early tracks like ‘Theme For Great Cities’, ‘The American’, ‘I Travel’ and ‘Love Song’ would be equivalent to Basildon’s finest casually dropping ‘Big Muff’, ‘New Life’, ‘Photographic’ and ‘Puppets’ into the ‘Delta Machine’ tour, a scenario which would have most diehard DM fans pinching themselves.
The band’s most critically acclaimed album ‘New Gold Dream’was also strongly showcased, and the fears of being bored into submission with endless drum solos and song breakdowns were soon laid to rest and hearing the intro to ‘Someone, Somewhere in Summertime’ actually raised some goosebumps. It has been mentioned that because keyboard player Mick MacNeil and bassist Derek Forbes are no longer present in the band, this somehow negates SIMPLE MINDS’ current live validity, but when a single member of JOY DIVISION (Peter Hook) is touring both their’s and NEW ORDER’s songs with a whole new line-up to a rapturous reception, it really calls into question this argument!
From a musical point of view, the band are all superb instrumentalists, this was something which set the act apart from some of its counterparts from the New Wave / Electronic era – where many bands were happy to plink out one finger melodies, MacNeil’s signature keyboard sound was much more polyphonic. Mel Gaynor is not, as Jim Kerr likes to continually point out, “the best drummer in the world!” but he is certainly better than most in the context of bands from this time period and in combination with Charlie Burchill’s textural guitar, they are still a hard act to beat.
What also impressed was the way in which sequencing and electronics were used during the show, the early Minds material often featured strong Moroder-ish patterns and the synth programming to represent this was pretty much spot-on throughout. There was even an electronic instrumental re-work of ‘Speed Your Love To Me’ to open the first encore which was (pleasingly) almost unrecognisable from its recorded incarnation as a bombastic Steve Lillywhite drum sound demonstration record! It was not all perfect; the encores were a bit stadium rock and Kerr’s trademark “Show me your hands!” clarion call has now become a bit of a running joke in The Electricity Club camp. But all-in-all, the evening was one of surprises and certainly not the two hours plus of musical bombast I was expecting.
It’s possible that I may be in the minority with my viewpoint here, but Tobbe Lander, DJ and founder of Gothenberg’s legendary ‘Romo’ night has witnessed SIMPLE MINDS live trajectory at first hand and sums things up succinctly: “As a fan since 1981, I couldn´t believe what happened between 1985-2010. I saw SIMPLE MINDS in 1984 and 1986 – but in 86 I fell asleep during the concert… they did a cr*ppy version of ‘Love Song’ and Kerr had obviously spent far too much time with Bono… I saw SM again in 2006 and 2009 – but again ‘Belfast Child’, ‘Mandela Day’, ‘See The Lights’, ‘Biko’, ‘Ghostdancing’… yeak! But in May 2011, I went to The Roundhouse to attend the ‘5×5’ show, it became one of my best concert moments ever. Every SM song I really liked was in the live set – and very, very true to the original sound. Kerr was fantastic and the crowd was in heaven. I thought ULTRAVOX 2 years earlier was a religious moment, but not even close to this”
Long time SIMPLE MINDS fan and respected blogger Stevo Music Man added: “Does it matter if they are relevant still? Music seems to go round in cycles. All of a sudden new electronic and indie bands began to cite them as an influence which supports my theory. They have embarked on their biggest UK tour since 1984 and incorporated a few new songs. Some people said where have they been? Admittedly they no longer set the charts alight but how many acts which dominated the 80s still do? Yet time after time, we see other acts sample the band’s vast catalogue which possibly vindicates that they still are relevant”.
The morale of this piece is don’t judge a band on a single time period of their career… acts evolve, and if you are lucky, learn from their mistakes. If you do get an opportunity to catch SIMPLE MINDS on an upcoming tour, give them a chance or at the very least give the ‘5X5’ live album a listen to hear how the band present their back catalogue now and you might be in for a pleasant surprise…
× The Case Against by Chi Ming Lai
I loved SIMPLE MINDS between 1981-84. The ‘Sons And Fascination’ double opus and ‘New Gold Dream’ were some of the finest works from the Synth Britannia era. And although the more conventional ‘Sparkle In The Rain’ was a disappointment, its first side was equal in quality to anything from that pair. Come 1984 and I finally had the opportunity to experience SIMPLE MINDS during their residency at Hammersmith Odeon in May 1984. They had the reputation for being one of the best live bands in Britain and looked supreme on the BBC’s ‘Late Night In Concert’ special of their Newcastle City Hall gig in 1982; I was really looking forward to it.
But come the opening number ‘East At Easter’, the audience were aghast at Jim Kerr perched up rather unsteadily on a pole, hectoring the audience with bellows of “SHOW ME YOUR HANDS”, “UP” and “HIGHER”. What then followed was a ponderous 2 hour show featuring just 12 songs… yes, that’s an average song length of 10 minutes! What was going on?
The attempt at grand music led to attempts at grand gestures! Give the dog a Bono please! Meanwhile, the band were plodding away with synths barely able to be heard amongst all the bombast! While granted, an elongated take of ‘The American’ was a highlight, the 15 minute encore of New Gold Dream’ incorporating snatches of ‘Light My Fire’, ‘Take Me To The River’ and ‘Gloria’ most certainly was not! The artier eloquence had been exchanged for a tedious pomposity. “JUST PLAY THE F***ING SONG” I thought!
You couldn’t help wondering what SIMPLE MINDS career trajectory might have taken had the band stuck with their first choice of producer Alex Sadkin for ‘Sparkle In The Rain’ instead of going with the over rated Steve Lillywhite. Noted journalist and band biographer Adam Sweeting commented in ‘The Sony Tape 1984 Rock Review’ that those Hammersmith shows were “a heady mixture of tragedy and farce” while “the band played collectively as though auditioning for a spot on the Des O’Connor show, devoid of their usual subtlety and grace”! It was the first truly awful concert I had ever been to; my sister remarked that SIMPLE MINDS could make the best album in the world but she would never see them live again… she kept her promise. Me? Rather foolishly, I thought it was an off-night and gave them the benefit of the doubt!
Come 1985 and SIMPLE MINDS had broken the US. Despite my scepticism and to the chagrin of others who had already bowed out, I actually enjoyed the ‘Once Upon A Time’ album for what it was; an immediately enjoyable, uptempo rock pop album.
But I resisted seeing them live and the screening of their Ahoy concert on ‘The Tube’ with its horrible, overlong workouts of ‘Waterfront’, ‘Ghostdancing’ and ‘Once Upon A Time’ confirmed my suspicions. But even I conceded that the 9 minute ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ with the entire audience joining in the “la-la-la-la” closing refrains looked like a fun, rousing affair.
However with the ‘Live In The City Of Light’ document that followed later, it featured more manageable if not entirely successful, edited arrangements of songs that for the most part, did not outstay their welcome compared with what had been going on at The Ahoy. Had SIMPLE MINDS finally seen the light and realised that less could mean more? I was prepared to give them another chance!
Cologne Sporthalle in 1989 and unfortunately, this tour was to promote the anti-climactic ‘Street Fighting Years’. It was Jim Kerr’s earnest social conscience essay consisting of 10 lengthy party political broadcasts! And all but one got played. Kerr didn’t bother singing most of ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ while ‘Big Sleep’ (the weakest song from ‘New Gold Dream’) was the only representative of SIMPLE MINDS’ best period, chugging away in a reworked funereal manner that matched its title.
With so many personnel on stage now, it all got a bit muso and self-indulgent. During ‘Ghostdancing’, Kerr stopped mid-song to tell a short story about Elvis Presley while ‘Belfast Child’ went on longer than the Northern Irish conflict itself!
Frankly, I was looking forward to getting back to my hotel after 2 hours BUT they carried on for another hour!! Still hectoring the audience with shouts of “let me see your hands” and “singalong with me”, it was as if he was trying to cover up for something! As Frank Doberman would say “OI! KERR! NO!”
You’d have thought I’d have given up by now. But in 1991, as a big OMD fan, I was quite taken with the prospect of seeing the Wirral synth pioneers support SIMPLE MINDS at Milton Keynes Bowl. The new album ‘Real Life’ in my opinion was better than ‘Street Fighting Years’ with its shorter, sharper and more rhythmical arrangements while the fresh attitude seemed to have transferred onto stage.
Streamlined to their original quintet band format, length was kept to a minimum (ironic given Kerr’s reputation of being longer than The Forth Bridge!) although quite why the band were still persisting with the formless coda jam on ‘Book Of Brilliant Things’ rather than playing the actual song was puzzling! While this 1991 performance was still a hands in the air experience, it was and still is the most enjoyable SIMPLE MINDS concert I have ever been to. The strike rate had not been good but I liked it enough to return… what a mistake!
It was 1995 and Jim Kerr had grown his hair long again as some kind of rockist statement. The album ‘Good News From The Next World’ was poor and lacking in tunes… it must have been bad because the band only featured 3 songs from it at Wembley Arena. The band were bereft of charisma while new drummer Mark Schulman played like he had a wooden leg… a later broadcast of the band performing ‘Alive & Kicking’ at Glastonbury confirmed I had not been hearing things! And Wembley was my last ever SIMPLE MINDS concert.
Occasionally, I would catch them over the years on telly and via free live download bundles from the SIMPLE MINDS website but Jim Kerr always made a meal of his “SHOW ME YOUR HANDS” routine. His irritating and annoying manner made you want to throw things! So even the 2008 tour with ‘New Gold Dream’ played in full and the 2009 jaunt with OMD as opening act couldn’t tempt me back. Reviewing the 2009 Wembley Arena show where OMD appeared to come off best, The Guardian commented “you suspect Jim Kerr can’t visit the grocer without yelling: Lemme see those hands!”. It affirmed again that caution paid. I still resisted the 2012 ‘5×5’ shows playing the earlier material and the 2013 arena gigs with ULTRAVOX as support because I simply couldn’t trust Jim Kerr not to ruin everything!
So why have I bothered to write about a band who I clearly have no love for anymore? Because in an account of SIMPLE MINDS’ recent gig at London’s O2 Arena, blogger Jasmine Storm confirmed I was right: “(Jim Kerr) asked the audience to ‘show me your hands’. Errm why? Do you think they need washing?… He said it a lot. A lot. A LOT! It got a bit old after a while… I have a personal hate of singers expecting us (the audience) having to sing the song for them. It’s ok for the odd one line or for the extras but… We paid to hear you sing Jim – stop making us do the work!”
So it seems like in nearly 30 years, SIMPLE MINDS haven’t moved on and are still doing their same Emperor’s New Clothes trick! ANALOG ANGEL’s Ian Ferguson has an interesting take on Kerr’s stage antics: “I saw SIMPLE MINDS loads and loads of times back in the early days (I’m even in the ‘Waterfront’ video) and was thrilled at their success with ‘New Gold Dream’; it was like seeing your pal score a winner against England at Wembley. But ‘Sparkle In The Rain’ was the start of the slide. The reason we get the whole ‘Show Me Your Hands’ shtick is because Kerr isn’t and never has been a great live vocalist… on the earlier material his style was different and arguably the songs themselves weren’t as reliant on his voice”
But at the end of the day, SIMPLE MINDS played four well attended arena dates at the close of 2013 to conclude one of their biggest ever tours. But how? Why are this lot still playing the aircraft hangers when their artistically superior contemporaries are stuck in theatres or clubs? Surely 60,000 people across the UK can’t be wrong? (K)Err! Oh yes they can!
London O2 2013 Setlist:
Broken Glass Park
Once Upon A Time
All The Things She Said
Hunter & The Hunted
Promised You A Miracle
Theme For Great Cities
Someone Somewhere In Summertime
This Fear Of Gods
See The Lights
Don’t You Forget About Me
Let It All Come Down
New Gold Dream
Speed Your Love To Me [instrumental]
Alive & Kicking
Ghostdancing / Take Me To The River / Gloria
SIMPLE MINDS ‘Celebrate – Live From The SSE Hydro Glasgow’ DVD+2CD is available for pre-order at: http://www.simpleminds.com/sm/PreOrder-The-Deluxe-Live-DVD-Book-Set-b899
Information on SIMPLE MINDS 2014 live dates can be found at: http://www.simpleminds.com/
Special thanks to Tobbe Lander, Stevo Music Man, Jasmine Storm, Ian Ferguson and Martin Mann
Text by Paul Boddy and Chi Ming Lai
4th January 2014