Artist: Simple Minds
Title: Theme For Great Cities
Description: track, Sister Feelings Call
Release date: 1981
First heard: 1981
Here comes the flag …
Until I found my feet at the NME in 1988, aged 23, my only experiences of foreign travel were a school exchange trip to Normandy in 1977, by ferry, and a couple of family holidays to the Channel Islands, again by ferry, no passport required. I was not alone in this unworldliness. From the perspective of this island, it was not yet a small planet. Which is why, I think, in the early 80s, so many of our more inquiring and knowledge-thirsty bands of the day were fixated on faraway cities. In 1981, something of a flashpoint, Ultravox hymned the capital of Austria in Vienna; Duran Duran randomly included the instrumental Tel Aviv on their first LP (good track, actually); Japan, who were already named after Japan, used their Orientalist fifth album Tin Drum to cast their net towards Visions of China and a Cantonese Boy; even Gary Numan’s Dance contained the mixed-up Slow Car to China. Our dreamers were chasing the travel-broadened Kraftwerk, who’d found inspiration in the Autobahn and the Trans-Europe Express, and would soon release Tour de France, and Roxy, who’d vicariously flown down to Acapulco and Rio on Virginia Plain a decade before, spoke of grey lagoons, songs for Europe and a prairie rose.
But no post-punk band was as brochure-gazing as Simple Minds. Pale-faced residents of Glasgow south and students of – yes – Roxy, Bowie and the Velvets, these five young self-abusers established the first Simple Minds line-up in 1978, and took their influences into the Top 30 with first album Life in a Day. Seven months later, Real to Real Cacophony set out their stall with a series of borrowed keywords: naked, citizen, change, youth, factory, film and perhaps most tellingly, suitcase. That these starry-eyed Scots saw beyond their borders was paramount. Bowie didn’t stay in Bromley. John Cale put the Amman Valley behind him. Ferry didn’t hang around in Country Durham for long. The key track on Real to Real was Veldt, an instrumental imagining of the southern African plain. The first single from breakthrough LP was I Travel. Their case was made.
Empires and Dance was Simple Minds’ boarding card, a whistle-stop tour of the world of their imagination: Capital City, Constantinople Line, Kant-Kino (the Berlin nightspot) – who needed stamps on passports when vicarious movement was free? The band’s hunger for the great beyond eclipsed the sun in 1981, with two travelogues for the price of one: Sons and Fascination, and its sister album Sister Feelings Call. Whisking The Boys from Brazil to The 20th Century Promised Land, via Sound in 70 Cities, the League of Nations and The American, with progressive producer Steve Hillage of Gong at the controls, this double photo-album was a voyage around the imagined world.
I loved then, and I love now its glistening surfaces and machine-tooled glamour, and the blurred, Ballard-esque freeze-frames of airports, concrete, bodywork and skylines on the twin sleeves (Sons and Fascination in colour, Sister Feelings Call in blue-tint and black-and-white). Simple Minds were a band you could lose yourself in; pack up your troubles and go places. The second album came free with the first 10,000 copies of the first. I was at the front of the check-in queue with what would’ve been my wages from a Saturday job at Sainsbury’s, where shelf-stacking gave me time to imagine. I’m drawn back to this bonanza of sound – 15 brand-new tracks in one hit – as I reduce my appreciation of Simple Minds down to one number.
Theme for Great Cities is a disloyal choice, in that it’s an instrumental, and thus locks the mighty, air-chopping Jim Kerr out of the mix (he wrote and sang all of Simple Minds’ lyrics, while the whole band were credited as songwriters; these days, it’s Kerr and the conjoined Charlie Burchill). But as a theme, it still stands supreme, 40 years after it was conceived on the anvil of cinematic evocation. It wasn’t a single, because it was wordless, but it wasn’t just me who singled it out for special measurement; it “defined Balearic for a generation of clubbed-out Ibiza party-goers”, according to simpleminds.org, as it found itself remixed for the dance floor.
Jim tried to pen a lyric for keyboardist Mick MacNeil but gave up. It was known as The Third Track in demo. The image you want is Kerr walking around Glasgow listening to it repeatedly on his new-fangled Sony Walkman device. All concerned seemed happy with it going out wordless.
Despite the lack of a vocal, it sings loudly of the implied sophistication of travel: the Grand Tour of 18th century gentlemen, but reclaimed by people who lived in the long shadow of tower blocks. It hovers in over an eerie MacNeil synth-wash, which almost sighs before Brian McGee’s snareless drums, bendy bass from Derek Forbes and percussively choppy guitar from Birchill fall into step. The keyboards provide the riff, but from a distance, followed by a harder-edged electronic moan over ever-decreasing ripples of atmosphere. Still, the moans and howls emerge from the hinterland, like diamond dogs, or rats the size of cats. It’s sleek and slick, but there is something in those bushes.
It’s closer to music for a film, or an undiminished symphony, and that’s Simple Minds. The lack of a Kerr vocal is the ultimate sacrifice from a general to his troops. It is a great theme for cities, and a theme for great cities. Simple Minds peaked over and over again in the 80s. When Mel Gaynor joined, with his tree trunks for drumsticks, he panel-beat the band’s sound into new, harder, rockier shapes, and just in time for stadia to beckon. The world finally lay at their feet.
But they’d been around it plenty of times in their minds.