Simple Minds hail from Scotland, the most successful musical export from that land during the 80s, with five number one albums in the UK. The long time leaders of the band, Jim Kerr (vocals) and Charlie Burchill (guitars) take a rather unique approach to music, poetry and stagecraft. The band’s music has gone through several evolutions, which range from the first four art-rock/krautrock inspired albums, to the transitional fifth 1983’s New Gold Dream, to the follow up rock heavy Sparkle in the Rainin 1984. The pinnacle of their early more experimental work are the pair of “EP” records Sister Feelings Call and Sons of Fascination both dropped in 1981 without a release in the states.
Released in 1982,New Gold Dream (81/82/83/84) would be the first record available in the states without paying the import fees. after the band signed with A&M records. This landmark record had a production draped in layers of lush, romantic synth, and echoes of Roxy Music, Japan, and Duran Duran. It’s a gorgeous record that pinned the band’s profile to the New Romantic movement.
This incarnation of their sound while popular lasted just a moment, as the next release, Sparkle in the Rain (1984), went to #1 in the UK, even as it was a big turn in the road for Simple Minds. In contrast to New Gold Dream and to extent earlier efforts, 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. The stadium rock sheen led one fan called it right – “art school rock with fantastic bombast.”
Sparkle In The Rain begins with a spoken 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.
There is a re-mastered version of this landmark album 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, 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.
Part of the set presents 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 Timetook the band to stadiums where much of the subtlety found here was lost for a time.
To fully appreciate the allure of this band, they must be seen in concert, and there are several worthy performances captured to cement their place in history. On this set there 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. Perhaps these comments make the best argument for a re-evaluation of this work, and the box set treatment with engineering from Steve Wilson. Before deciding for yourself, check out this set in all of its grandeur.
(photos by the incomparable Armando Gallo)