Monday, May 11, 2009

Simple Minds “Empires and Dance” (1980)

For better or for worse, people will remember Glasgow’s Simple for two reasons
1) “Don’t You Forget About Me” from The Breakfast Club
2) Their performance at Live Aid.

While the band certainly benefited from the exposure, it’s unfortunate that they became so bland and pompous in the late 1980s. To me, it seemed as though this group had produced nothing of any real value. So you can only imagine my surprise when I learned that the cover of the Manic Street Preachers “The Holy Bible” was inspired by Simple Minds’ “Empire and Dance.” I remember thinking “Wait, what? Simple Minds? The band with the song from the Breakfast Club – get the fuck out!” Since then, I’ve gained a real appreciation for Simple Minds’ early albums and I’ve decided to share some of the things I’ve learned about this group over the last couple of years.

First up, 1980's “Empires and Dance.”

At the end of 1979, Simple Minds embarked on a tour in support of their sophomore album, “Real to Real Cacophony.” While their record label, Arista, initially refused to release the album, critics loved it and the band was excited to hit the road and expand their audience. Between October 1979 and June 1980, they performed in the UK, Germany, France, Sweden, and the Benelux region. They even managed to squeeze in two dates in New York.

It was the European leg of the tour that turned out to be the biggest eye-opener for the young band. The Continent was stumbling further into economic and political crisis thanks to a spike in oil prices, civil unrest, and a recently reignited Cold War. Singer Jim Kerr would later recall “I was twenty, and I looked around me. We had the talent always to be in the place where the neo-Nazis exploded another bomb. Bologna, a synagogue in Paris, a railway station in Munich. Don't tell me anything like that could leave you unmoved.” Despite the ever present instability, the tour was a resounding success and left a profound effect on the young group.

Upon returning to the UK in June of 1980, Simple Minds immediately began work on a new album. This time around, they were much better prepared to record. Seven new songs had been road tested and demoed by the time the band entered the studio. The album, which was produced by John Leckie, was completed during the summer and delivered to Arista Records, who refused to release it. But after much pressure from the band and their management (Jim Kerr took it upon himself to regularly telegram label representatives to release the album), “Empires and Dance” was released in September 1980. But this was not without controversy; Arista initially pressed 15,000 copies, waited for those to sell out, and then pressed another 15,000. As a result the album stalled at number 41.

(That’s all well and good, but what about the music).

The album begins with the stunning, “I Travel,” that was inspired by the group’s visit to a divided Berlin and tumultuous changes in geopolitics. Jim Kerr’s lyrics reflect both fear and fascination. (Again, he was only 20 years old at the time). Musically, it’s one of the most exciting songs the band ever produced. Drummer Brian McGee and bassist Derek Forbes provide a funky backdrop to Charlie Burchill’s soaring guitar and keyboardist Mick MacNeil’s gurgling synthesizers. At times, the song recalls Donna Summer’s 1977 “I Feel Love,” a song that went to #1 in the UK Charts. That such a danceable track could come from a Glaswegian band is actually no surprise. Dance Music was immensely popular among the post-punk crowd, with groups like Orange Juice singing the praises of Chic.

Now, while “I Travel,” is an excellent leadoff track, it is a bit misleading. Yes, the album has its groovy moments, e.g. “Celebrate,” and “30 Frames per Second,” but the remainder of the songs are not that dance floor friendly, and they draw more heavily from the experimental end of the Krautrock spectrum. “Twist/Run/Repulsion,” seems to capture the feelings of confusion and alienation that one might experience in a European train station – complete with announcements in French. (The French announcements are actually passages from Lolita read by Chantalle Jeunet, a friend of the group).

The album’s undeniable apex is “This Fear of Gods,” a song that best be described a Giorgio Moroder track being played at half-speed. The steady bass and drums are augmented by screeching saxophones and synths; all of this topped with a distant and ominous vocal by Jim Kerr. “Don’t You Forget About Me,” it is not.

Listening to “Empires and Dance,” I get the impression that Simple Minds were a young band in a hurry. They were full of ideas and wanted to commit them to tape as quickly as possible. Perhaps they should’ve taken a little bit more time to polish their ideas and make a more cohesive record. This is not to say that this is a bad record. But I can sort of understand Arista’s frustration with the group.

Almost immediately following the completion of this album, Simple Minds hit the road. This time as an opening act for Peter Gabriel, who was touring in support of Peter Gabriel III (aka Melt, featuring the songs “Games Without Frontier”, “Biko”). Problems with Arista Records would come to a head in early 1981. The label had routinely failed to promote albums, singles and concerts and the band nearly broke up in order to avoid dealing with the situation. Eventually, they were let go from their Arista contract (at considerable cost, the band was forced to take on a significant amount of debt) and signed to Virgin.

Download the album HERE
Buy the excellent reissue from Amazon.
A very helpful source of information on this album HERE.


Don said...

Well said. Their old stuff is pretty good, especially the instrumental "Theme for Great Cities". I try to tell people they were once cool, even influential. "New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)" and "Sparkle in the Rain" are worthy purchases for the post-punk devotees. Ironic that a song they didn't even write was responsible for their success and eventual decline.

Aamir said...

I also wanted to express my love for "Theme For Great Cities", what a frickin' awesome track. Fluke's remake/remix on the "Glitterball" single is a pretty good tribute to the original, although it certainly doesn't beat it.

Michael Brisbane said...

Don't get me wrong I am a Sparkle In the Rain to Life in a day SM fan. Glittering Prize is the perfect song and tracks like Sweat in Bullit, Room, League of Nations, Seeing Out The Angel,The American, Factory and Boys from Brazil are epics of synth driven atmosphere.

Having said that, quite of few of their post Waterfront epics are worthy of note.

On the latest Stars Will Lead the way, on Black and White Stay Visible, Alive and Kicking is inspirational, Let There Be Love, Hypnotised, This is Your Land may not be the experimental SM of old but still contain elements of atmosphere.

We all grow and develop. I don't agree with Don that Don't You was a decline. Often it's just sour grapes that people sell out, musicians do. At least Jim does not stay stuck in the past with old hits but at the same time trots out Factory, Speed Your Love to Me and Chelsea Girl at their shows.

Anyway, as much as I would love to go to a SM show without Don't You, I think if I went to a Gary Numan show and no Cars I would fall into a heap, but all artists have a weight around their neck song they must do. Ultravox Vienna, Devo Whip it, The Human League Don't You Want Me, Eurythmics Sweet Dreams to name a few.

Then again with the exception of the Playing the Angel tour, Just
Can't get enough is not done by Depeche Mode.

It is one's own view but I will listen to Real Life, Black and White, Griffiti Soul and Street Fighting Years as well as Sons and Fascination or New Gold Dream or especially Empires and Dance. We have a choice, but for my money SM still product electronic rock music with atmosphere; not all the time, but enough to make sure I won't stop buying and listening to their music.

Stuart (Blue) said...

Stuart Holland

Watch out for the release of 'Empires That Dance' latest single 'Boys From Brazil'. Great band, Great cover versions and something different and very special.