Simple Minds, Theme For Great Cities (1981)

SimpleMindsSisterfeelingscall

Artist: Simple Minds
Title: Theme For Great Cities
Description: track, Sister Feelings Call
Label: Virgin
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, citizenchangeyouth, 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.

 

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The Fire Engines, Candy Skin (1981)

FireEngines

Artist: The Fire Engines
Title: Candy Skin
Description: single
Label: Pop:Aural
Release date: 1981
First heard: 1981

I wrote at great length about “indie” for the mighty – and mightily missed – Word magazine in 2006. They headlined the piece, with typical panache, Wan Love. By “indie”, I meant that multifarious music which sprang forth from the bowels of punk, taking with it the rigid-digit spirit, but pressing that attitude not just into the noise it made, but the means of production by which it distributed that noise. In 2006, I reluctantly wrote indie’s obituary, as its DIY ethic had long since flown the nest, replaced by a cuckoo of workaday guitar and major label largesse disguised as something “edgy”.

In 1981, indie – the abbreviation not really yet in common circulation (I can’t have been the only young person convinced that the “Indies” chart published initially in Sounds pertained to music from the West Indies) – meant something. It meant The Fire Engines. It meant Pop:Aural, a subsidiary of Fast Product. It meant Bob Last and Hillary Morrison, who founded Fast Product and ran it from a tenement flat. It meant Candy Skin.

The scratchy, discordant, Marxist sounds that emanated on Warholian waves from punk-energised cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Glasgow and – in the case of the Fire Engines – Edinburgh, did not necessarily seek to destroy, but to enhance, to romanticise, to drag out of the gutter and aim somewhere higher and more intellectual. Led by Davy Henderson – a handsome, windswept, literate pop star who never was, but ought to have been (trading as Win he even had a song used on a McEwan’s lager ad) – the Fire Engines epitomised a movement, especially north of the Wall, whose cultural glue was civic, even economic (the recording of the Fire Engines’ debut is fabled to have cost £46). That such sweet, romantic music arose from dirty urban centres should not surprise archaeologists of Detroit.

The Edinburgh scene also produced the Scars, Josef K, the Flowers, the Rezillos, Shake (I seem to recall), the Prats and Boots For Dancing. I have chosen The Fire Engines to represent the clan, as Candy Skin has never stopped resonating in my heart since I first heard it on John Peel in the earliest 80s. In 1988, as the new kid in the NME art room, I was asked to design and illustrate the paper’s latest compilation cassette, Indie City. Candy Skin nestled on Side 1 between Blue Boy by Glasgow compatriots Orange Juice and Never Been In A Riot by the Mekons (the first ever release on Fast, which actually specialised in Northern English in its early years). I can claim no credit for the intuitive brilliance of the track listing, but Candy Skin was a constant highlight when mainlining that double-cassette with a surfboarding Noddy on the inlay card.

There are a number of sounds which historians should take note of. Chief among them, the lead guitar, which stitches into this ramshackle tapestry one of the great riffs of the new dawn. It defies “scratchy”, and “angular”, and affects something closer to “tingly”. It tingles. A goosebumping ostinato that crystalises everything about 1981 in one electrifying, melodic phrase, augmented thereafter by an entire jumble sale of bashes, squeaks, voices, vibrations and even chocolate box strings, which unite to attain a certain kind of DIY nirvana. Henderson’s deep quasi-croon speaks of a soulful, sometimes operatic ambition that also gave us Billy Mackenzie, Edwyn Collins and Roddy Frame. The sound of young Scotland, indeed.

In February 2006, a trigger for my Word treatise, I’d been for a haircut at Toni & Guy in Reigate, and asked Mel, my young stylist, to take plenty off the back and sides, thin it out on top, hack me out a side parting and leave me a heavy fringe, enough to cover one eyebrow. She commented, “This haircut’s quite fashionable. A lot of the indie bands have this.” RIP indie. Long live the Fire Engines.

The Jesus & Mary Chain, Never Understand (1985)

jesus & mary chain never understand

Artist: The Jesus & Mary Chain
Title: Never Understand
Description: single; album track, Psychocandy
Label: Blanco Y Negro
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1985

Scene: 3rd Floor lift lobby, Ralph West Halls of Residence, Battersea, London
Date: February, 1985

A 20-year-old art student bursts from his cell in what is a great big tower block full of art students in South London, overlooking the park. A haystack of backcombed hair atop his head, he sports a selfconsciously de-sleeved t-shirt, roomy dungarees and kung fu pumps without socks. Kicking the wooden wedge under his door to prop it open, a declarative skreeeee of amp feedback at full volume follows him from the Hitachi stack into the “communal area” by the lifts, where he flings himself down onto an armchair. And waits.

Never Understand, the just-released second single by music press sensations the Jesus & Mary Chain blasts forth from what might ordinarily be a “study bedroom” were the block not full of art students. (The art student had erroneously first read the East Kilbride band’s name as Jesus & The Mary Chain, when their violent early gigs were reported in the NME and the buzz coalesced into legend.) From the squall, a grumbling bassline, then a crackling guitar riff and rudimentary drum signature emerge, and an oddly sweet but half-hidden voice makes recognisable words amid the interference. It is – to borrow an ugly phrase from a quarter of a century into the future – his latest jam.

Nodding his hair, he revels in the racket, adoring the way the song’s conventional beauty is deliberately obscured under layers of extraneous din. Too young to have heard punk in its purest, pre-commoditised form at its creation, he feels blessedly connected to this music at the ground floor. Even though the band have already had an indie number one, it had passed the art student by, and Never Understand was his initiation. Its three minutes were even more intoxicating than the music-press descriptions hinted at, with their references to the Beach Boys. When was the last time an indie guitar band had done an Elvis “uh-huh-hur” and meant it?

The art student had bought the 12″ without ever having heard a note of the band (a common strategy for the NME disciple in the post-listening booth, pre-internet darklands); he knew. That pure red sleeve bearing just the band’s name? The torn-porn collage on the back? The b-side, Suck? The fact that he guessed it wasn’t even a longer version than the cheaper 7″ and boasted no extra track, but he wanted the 12″ anyway: a bigger piece of plastic and a bigger cardboard wrapper for his collection; a bigger declaration of unconditional love.

Within weeks, the fabled North London Poly “riot” would cement the Mary Chain’s reputation and confirm that he had backed a winner. But more immediate affirmation was afoot.

Lost in the fuzz, the art student’s heart leaps when it happens, mid-song. Another art student, one without a haystack of hair and with socks, wanders into the communal area and says, earnestly and helpfully: “I think there’s something wrong with your stylus.”

Victory.