Sparkle in the Rain, released in February of 1984, went to #1 in the UK, even when it was a big turn in the road for Simple Minds. The release came on the heels of the more gentile New Gold Dream from the prior year, which had a production draped in layers of lush, romantic synth, and echoes of Roxy Music, Japan, and Duran Duran. In contrast, Sparkle In The Rain presented a muscular, aggressive version of the band, a demanding wall of sound produced by Steve Lillywhite, who had been at the helm for U2, Peter Gabriel, Siouxsie and the Banshees and others. It’s a classic album from the 1980’s that should be in every collector’s catalog.
The album begins with a count in for opening track “Up On The Catwalk” (1,2, 1-2-3-4) followed by the crack of drummer Mel Gaynor’s snare in time with Mick McNeil’s ringing piano chords on his new Yamaha Grand. It’s a fantastic way to start the album – a powerful song with lyrics about hypocrisy in Britain, constructed from a riff and a promise that “I will be there” instead of a chorus, delivered with urgency by lead singer Jim Kerr. Throughout the record, guitarist Charlie Burchill’s adds rhythms, serpentine licks and washes of color to each track, often begging the attentive listener to wonder how he is achieving the sound. Again on this album as with their back catalog, bassist Derek Forbes, one of the absolute best players in that era, drives many of the tracks with his propulsive, creative leads – demonstrated by just a cursory listen to the hit “Waterfront” or “Kick Inside of Me”, the latter including fierce vocals from Jim that sounds as if he is actually shaking off fearful ghosts:
And we steal the world and live to survive
Shake out the ghosts and turn around
In spite of me, shake up the ghosts inside of me
Now full time drummer Mel Gaynor smacks his snare with what seems like Herculean might – and when he runs the toms from top to bottom its like the roar of approaching thunder. This coupled with Derek’s monster bass leads, establish the bottom end of the sound, and part of said wall, through which it often seems the bits of piano, synth and guitar emerge, shine, then fade back into the mix. Jim’s vocals work in and around the music structured more often than not in a scat-like rather than verse-chorus-verse form, something that made this band unique among peers. All of these elements combine to create the brilliant things found herein.
The Box Set
Last week a newly re-mastered version of this landmark album was released in a box set format. It includes the original album re-mastered in stereo and various surround sound mixes by prog wizard Steve Wilson, an audio recording of a live concert from the era, a few videos, and live performances from the BBC and various TV shows, a beautiful re-print of the concert program for the tour, and a complete background on the album, with track by track liner notes. This is all aimed at the collector, rather than casual fans, and it is we who will be impressed.
The first disc presents the original album re-mastered with all the clarity and shine one would hope. Bass and drums appear warm, midrange is full without sounding muddy, and the top end is all shimmering clarity. The audio herein is of the highest quality – critical for this album because in compressed formats the engineer’s wall of sound can be noisy and overwhelming. Disc two has the B-sides and rarities – mostly edits or extended mixes of the album tracks – it’s the least essential of the set. Things get more interesting on discs three and four, which present a live concert from early in the tour, recorded at Barrowland Glasgow on February 28, 1984. It’s an excellent document that captures the band on their home turf and in their prime. Called the “Tour du monde”, the tour to support Sparkle… included a seven-night residency at the Hammersmith Odeon. It was the last tour of that period booked primarily in the smaller theaters. I caught it at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco on a night that cemented their vaulted place in my heart. The recording herein is a potent reminder of the band’s live prowess at this time. After this tour, the next album Once Upon A Time took the band to stadiums where much of the subtlety found here was lost for a time.
Rounding out the forth disc are three performances captured at a Radio One Session in London 1983, including an interesting, more rhythmic, sparing sound for “Waterfront” and “The Kick Inside of Me” indicating perhaps what the record might have sounded like if the band continued more in the vein of it’s prior release.
The DVD presents the album in various 5.1 surround formats, along with a high-resolution stereo mix. These surround mixes are not always worthy, but in this case, they reveal details in the songs that reward the attentive listener. Uncharacteristically, bass and drums are presented strongly on the rear channels, allowing the guitar, keys and vocals more space in front. If you have a system for this, and ever find yourself spinning a CD and really listening to it, than these mixes are worth the price of the set.
Also included on the DVD are three videos, followed by television appearances of the same tracks – “Waterfront,” “Speed You Love To Me,” and “Up On The Catwalk.” The latter two live videos, though truncated by credits, are taken from a performance on the Oxford Road Show at the end of January 1984, just before the album was released. Of all the television and live concert appearances of the band at the time, this is one of the greatest – as the two tracks are played faithfully to studio versions, allowing us to be witness to just how their sound was achieved, certainly answering the question, “just what is Charlie playing!”
Only carp about the DVD is that it should have included the film taken at Westfalenhalle, Dortmund on 24 June 1984. This is excellent footage of the band still available on Youtube that would have rounded out the box set: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkanFaSJXIU&feature=youtu.be
Because Sparkle in the Rain sits in their catalog between the romantic New Gold Dream, and the subsequent more commercial smash Once Upon A Time, it might escape the attention it deserves. In fact, booklet liner notes suggest the album promised that greater things were to come from the band. There is an assertion that the album might be considered transitional – even Jim Kerr is quoted as saying the songs on the second half of the album needed more time to develop and that while the album showed their evolution, it was not a landmark, favoring instead the more song oriented follow-up Once Upon a Time, produced by American Jimmy Iovine. Of “Speed Your Love to Me” Jim opines that “with a less puzzling arrangement it could have been …a huge hit” for the band adding that he wished they had left “Street Hassle”, a Lou Reed cover, off the record. Perhaps these comments make the best argument for a re-evaluation of this work, and the box set treatment with engineering from Steve Wilson.
Instead for this observer the album’s true place is as their landmark creation, besting its follow-up, more directly commercial cousin as the pinnacle of their achievements in the 80’s. It is as one fan called it “art school rock with fantastic bombast.” Before deciding for yourself, check out this set in all of its grandeur.