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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Led Zeppelin, Whole Lotta Love (1969)

led zeppelinII

Artist: Led Zeppelin
Title: Whole Lotta Love
Description: album track, Led Zeppelin II
Label: Atlantic
Release date: 1969
First heard: 1972

Long and hard did I cogitate over which Led Zeppelin track to single out as their pinnacle for The 143. Because the band and their manager were so adamant that their albums were “indivisible” and arrogantly eschewed single releases as part of their deal with Atlantic, it seems counter-intuitive, not to mention rude, to boil them down to one song. But I have. It could have been Kashmir, or Moby Dick, or Communication Breakdown, or Custard Pie, or Good Times Bad Times, or even Stairway To Heaven. But it’s not. It’s their most recognisable song. The Top Of The Pops theme.

Actually, Whole Lotta Love was released as a single in the United States in 1969, apparently without the band’s permission and against the terms of their contract. It went to number four and helped break them in America. This is the inconvenient truth. (It was even edited down from its original 5′ 34″ in the process.) The unifying myth of them not putting out singles elevates them from the rock and pop herd: big and principled, they defied record industry orthodoxy and did it their way. As a massive if belated fan of Led Zep’s work, I bought into this myth with my eyes wide shut. So much of the band is mythology, who wouldn’t “print the legend”?

However antithetical to the legend it may be, they also put it out as a single in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain and Switzerland. That’s a whole lotta Whole Lotta Love. One the most imitable and best remembered guitar riffs in all of rock – thanks to its use over the chart rundown on Top Of The Pops throughout most of the 70s – it’s actually disarming to hear in its primal form and for Robert Plant to start singing over it. But he’s got something important to say, and it’s that he’s gonna give you his love. Not only that but he’s gonna give it to you “way down inside, honey”, not just a lot of his love either, but “every inch.”

That Mr Plant also wants to be “your backdoor man” is as close as this disarmingly direct lyric gets to mystery. (Although I think we know what he’s talking about.) Stuart Maconie wrote a piece for Select about the abject unsuitability of most rock and pop lyrics as chat-up lines and the illustration by the mighty Carl Flint depicted an open-shirted Robert Plant schmoozing a wench at a bar and no doubt suggesting she squeeze his lemon until the juice runs down his leg. It was understood, at sufficient ideological remove, that as long as you thought of Plant as “Percy” he could get away with offensive bawdy nonsense that was otherwise verboten. (Plant actually used the word “wench” to Stuart when he interviewed him on Radio 2; I believe it was an off-air invite to a gig in Birmingham that included a plus-one, ergo, “Bring the wench.”)

Away from the tumescent lyric (Plant later described Led Zep II as “very virile” and has spoken of the band’s “carnal approach”), there’s the riff itself, no less sexual as it pumps urgently and snakily away beneath Plant’s entreaties and guarantees in that famous intro. I looked it up, and Jimmy Page is playing a Telecaster through a Vox Super Beatle, whatever that is. It sounds amazing either way, played twice – hey, probably on a different guitar, don’t ask me. Page and Plant build to Bonzo’s lazy-sounding but laser-guided drum fill that ignites the song and we’re off. Page seems to be playing about three or four parts – and producing himself of course. Bonzo does that salt-shaker rhythm where the whole kit seems to be keeping time under his weight, nothing like as flamboyant and dangerous as the man himself, but as solid.

Yeah, it sounds like a hit single in the making. And then. Not even a minute and a half in, Whole Lotta Love stops being popular music, stops being a future TV theme toon, and starts being jazz-fusion. With every knob on the desk being fiddled by Page and engineer Eddie Kramer so we’re now told, it loops off into a prog hinterland of tickled cymbals, errant percussion, scraped strings, spectral echoes, space traffic, orgasmic monkey noises and then, at the three-minute mark, to the sound of radio station playlist managers heading for the car park, Bonzo signals the song back in, with a Page solo that’s built for the concert arena. But it’s not back on conformist track yet. Plant goes “way down inside”, deserted by all but his own cavernous echo. Further rat-a-tat from Bonzo and it’s a warm welcome back to listeners to the heretical 3’10” “radio edit”.

I think I understand why I have chosen what seems such a first-thought-that-springs-to-mind track by Led Zeppelin: it expresses all the foot-on-floor bluesy orthodoxy and stadium-ready majesty of one of the biggest rock bands of all time. It’s dirty, it’s dangerous, it’s over the top, it’s raw and overcooked at the same time, it’s West Bromwich and the Mississippi Delta, and yet it’s a number one smash hit. Good times, bad times.

These qualities, which ought to work against each other, but in fact find sweet, filthy harmony, are “indivisible”.

The Cure, One Hundred Years (1982)

The_Cure_-_Pornography

Artist: The Cure
Title: One Hundred Years
Description: album track, Pornography
Label: Fiction
Release date: 1982
First heard: 1982

It doesn’t matter if we all die …

I was 17, and on the cusp of agreeing with Robert Smith that it didn’t matter if we all die when I purchased Pornography, The Cure’s fourth studio album. Death seems entirely abstract at that age. Sex, too – or at least, it did to me, something I’m now kind of retrospectively grateful for, in the long run. Pornography, which was not even a word that meant much to me at 17, struck a chord though; a great, big, dirty, clanging cathedral chord. This was a record about sex and death, its themes heralded by an opening track to blow all other opening tracks out of the water (“Sounds like a tiger, thrashing in the water, thrashing in the water”).

Having come in with The Cure at A Forest and worked enthusiastically backwards through Seventeen Seconds and Three Imaginary Boys, I bought literally everything they put out for the next seven years (and some things that they didn’t, such as live bootleg cassettes via mail order or Camden market), after which, as a cub reporter, I was able to get them for free. When in 1989, the NME top brass identified me as a fan and allowed to me to write a full annotated discography of the band across a double-page spread – accompanied by a snapshot of me in my backcombed Goth pomp circa 1984 that Robert Smith mentioned when I finally interviewed him in 1992 – I felt I’d achieved all that I needed to achieve. The Cure had been my favourite band for a decade. I still have a lot of time for them. Work took me to Dallas in ’92 to see them play to a multitude of hyped-up plastic-beer-glass jocks in a football stadium, with Curve in support, one of the most memorable gigs of my life.

The concrete manifestations of my teenage fandom – the haystack hair; the intrepid trip to London to see them at the Hammersmith Odeon with my friend Kevin; the accumulated videotapes of every appearance they made on TV in the 80s; the wallpapered bedroom walls – strictly coalesced during the birth of their “pop” phase circa Let’s Go To Bed, when Smash Hits and Record Mirror started to provide glossy, full-colour pix. Kevin and I embraced their ascent overground, and never once flinched. Why? Because the core of their music remained true: Robert Smith was ultimately still there for the nasty things in life, however hard you tapped a toe. But Pornography had been a landmark in externalised misery. It was The Horror.

Rumbling like a God machine, some out-of-control Wacky Races juggernaut combination of the Creepy Coupe and the Army Surplus Special, One Hundred Years leads off the album in manifesto-striking style at nigh-on seven minutes, with a treated guitar riff that might be a cat wailing or a siren warning, and death-rattling electronic drums that must have pissed drummer Lol Tolhurst off, as such contraptions did to skin-and-timber drummers of the age.

We are dealing in doom and gloom, yes, but unlike the poetic, funereal pain of the previous LP Faith, Pornography replaces its shades of gravestone grey with theatrical black and red, blended to create a Grand Guignol puppet melodrama that took migraine ennui to the level of subversive art. As a boy I had been intoxicated and repelled at the same time by horror movies; and subsequently disaster movies – I was drawn to that which frightened the hell out of me. Instantly reminding me of John Carpenter’s Halloween, I can’t think of an album that sounds this much like its sleeve, or a sleeve that so accurately visualises its contents: the band, blurred and Myers-masked, seem intent on bloody murder*.

The first line we’ve already learned: “It doesn’t matter if we all die.” In Smith’s adenoidal cry, set in a permanent echo chamber, this sentiment seems sincere. But it’s when his fevered imagery takes hold that the song moves from the bedroom to the masque. “Ambition in the back of a black car … In a high building there is so much to do.” Already we are into capitalism and mystery, the selling of souls, the industrialisation of pleasure. What post-apocalyptic wasteland is this? “Going home time, a story on the radio …” each line delivered as if Smith is broadcasting from a padded cell in an institute for the all too sane.

I’m listening to it right now. Remember: this magnificent sound was created by three blokes from Sussex, exhausted, drunk, high on drugs and at each others’ throats, imagining they were making their last album, under the aegis of a new producer, Phil Thornalley, who we may assume was neither drunk, nor high, nor at anyone’s throats. If you want to be really brutal: Smith has said that it was either make this album or kill himself. We should give daily thanks for its existence.

As I said, I loved their new, post-Pornographic direction and cherish the pop singles with the comic videos that nobody would have guessed they could make: Catch, Lullaby, Why Can’t I Be You, Just Like Heaven, Inbetween Days, Close To Me … The Cure are one of Britain’s greatest singles bands, right up there with Madness and the Pet Shop Boys and Bananarama and Slade and the Beatles.

But give me their gory years any time. “Something small falls out of your mouth and we laugh … A prayer for something better … Please love me, meet my mother, the fear takes hold …” This is all of my favourite dark art, film and literature in one song: Bacon, King, Dix, Poe, Carpenter, Schwitters, Leigh, Gilliam, Rothko (come on – the colours!), McCarthy, Dickinson, Cummings, Owen, Sutherland, Nash, Steadman, Scarfe, Pinter. When I was an art student, I created a calendar whose imagery was extrapolated from Robert Smith’s lyrics; for “Ambition in the back of a black car,” I stole licks from Ralph Steadman and drew a stretched, hearse-like limousine in chalky pastels, with a pair of female legs akimbo from the passenger windows. My own interpretation may not stand up to the test of time, or taste, but the lyric abides as English literature.

If I ever do curate The 143 albums, Pornography will be one of the first admitted. From this track through to the almost atonal, grumbling title track, via as close as it dares come to a pop tune, Siamese Twins (recently used for a montage in The Americans, and performed live on some Arts Council magazine show in 1983 while two fantastic, whiteface ballet dancers violently entwined themselves to it amid dry ice) and the almost heart-stopping Strange Day (in which “the sky and the impossible explode”), it glows like a nuclear sun on the horizon. One One Hundred Years, the reason we are gathered here today, Fat Bob is “sharing the world with slaughtered pigs.” One year later? “We missed you, hissed the Lovecats.” The boy needed therapy.

*Let’s credit designer Ben Kelly and photographer Michael Kostiff while we’re singing praises.