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Simple Minds, Brilliant Things

Simple Minds SITR CoverSparkle 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
SimpleMinds_Catwalkvid
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

Mel Gaynor
Mel Gaynor

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 CD’s

Jim Kerr
Jim Kerr

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

Charlie Burchill
Charlie Burchill

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.

Mick McNeil
Mick McNeil

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

Conclusion

Derek Forbes
Derek Forbes

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.

Lucky 13 – Best Concerts of 2013

IMG_07382013 has been quite a year for live music.  We made it to over thirty shows including a few festivals – Coachella in Palm Desert, Outside Lands, and Not So Silent Night in San Francisco.  I had the chance to travel to Britain twice – once for the Stone Roses followed by two Rick Wakeman shows, and later this fall for a long weekend of gigs including Steve Hackett, Brian Ferry, Peter Gabriel and Camel – what a amazing time that was!  The day after Steve’s show we met Peter briefly at the train station in Manchester before the last night of his “Back to Front” tour.  I told him we had been to see an old friend of his and that tears were shed during “Dancing a With The Moonlit Knight.”  He seemed pleased 🙂

There were a couple of bands we missed – I know if we had been able to see Steve Wilson, Ozric Tentacles or Atoms For Peace they would have made the list – having said that here are the top 13 shows we did attend, in order of rating:

1. Camel, the Barbican Theater, London – speaking of tears being shed, they flowed for Andrew and company at this amazing display of talent so long absent from the stage.  “The Snow Goose” was wonderfully recreated along with a second set of classic Camel tunes.  To be in London in an auditorium of adoring fans, cheering long for this oft forgotten band was an amazing experience.

2. Steve Hackett‘s Genesis revisited tour, Royal Albert Hall, London – Just attending a show at the RAH was one thing, but to have it be Steve playing all early Genesis tracks, and including “Return of the Giant Hogweed” and the aforementioned Dancing was heaven.  Ray Wilson joining to sing two of the tracks was priceless.  The show was really a dream came true for this one, being raised on Genesis and loving it all.  Looking forward to seeing them again on Cruise to the Edge in 2014.

3. Rick Wakeman, family show, Gloucester – I flew over from California with my son to this show and the next night’s stop in Cheltenham.  Have to put this one at the top of the list, as Rick played alongside three of his children, now all grown, as they each performed a couple of tracks, told stories, and even explained Jemma’s bedtime routine to the song of the same name from Family Album.  An afternoon I hope never to forget!

4. Goblin, The Warfield Theater, San Francisco – their first time in the states will hopefully not be their last – a tight set of horror movie soundtrack gems, with backing film clips and a dancer, especially appropriate during “Suspiria.”  This along with a handful of their progressive rock compositions made for a great night with the Italian prog pioneers.

5. Peter Gabriel, Back to Front Tour, Manchester – a great set that began with highlights from Peter’s catalog, followed by the entire So album in proper sequence, with two encores.  It was hard not to miss the darker period just before So, particularly after rousing versions of “The Family and the Fishing Net” and “No Self Control” from his prior two releases.  But all in all, amazing musicianship and exciting delivery recalling the original tour and mid point of Peter’s remarkable career.

6. The Stone Roses, Coachella, Palm Desert – somehow I missed this band on their first time out in 1989.  This year I found their guitarist John Squire, vocalist Ian Brown and the rest of the guys to be a very pleasant surprise – their psychedelic sound revival finding its way back to the stage at what seems like just the right time.  Had the chance to see them again in London a few weeks later with all of us – seemingly everyone in the crowd – singing at the top of our lungs.  Music as the catalyst for love and devotion!

7. Black Sabbath, Shoreline, California – if you suggested in 2012 that these founders of heavy metal would make my top list this year I would have scoffed and made some crack about Satan and bats – but after releasing a stellar album 13 and clearly back in form, we found ourselves head banging joyfully to the actually somewhat proggy sound of these survivors.  Am so glad to have seen and heard Tony live showing his riffs along with most of this band still intact.

8. Depeche Mode, Shoreline, California – These purveyors of doom and redemption sound as great as ever live and master writer Martin Gore may be in his finest voice – I find the drama in their sound goes straight to the soul.  The Beatles of the ’80’s to these ears, with another couple decades of great work after that founding era.

9. The National, Outside Lands, San Francisco – this band delivered an awesome set of their moody fitful music, reminding me at times of Morrissey/Marr with less humor.  When joined for a few tracks by guests The Kronos Quartet, the combination of this tight outfit with metered drums, horns, and strings brought some of their woeful best to transcendent conclusions.

10. Simple Minds, Orpheum Theater, Los Angeles – on their Greatest Hits+ live tour, Simple Minds finally returned to the states after a 10 year hiatus.  Not as rewarding as the 5×5 show we went to see at London’s Roundhouse, but then we did not expect to be as excited about a hits retro above a show dedicated to their first 5 records, which had been spectacular.  This band continues to sound excellent – we are big fans of lead singer Jim Kerr’s vocals and writhe delivery.

11. Heart with Jason Bonham, America’s Cup Pavilion, San Francisco – Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart still rock n’ roll, proving it this year in a double bill with Jason Bonham’s band opening, followed by his return for encore with Heart performing a handful of Zeppelin classics, including a smoking rendition of “Kashmir”, and a beautiful “Rain Song”.  Heart’s best move – pulling off the classic “Mistrel Wind” from Dog & The Butterfly and building to it’s own Zep-like coda – show stopping excellence.

12. Alison Moyet, The Fillmore, San Francisco – Alison is back to electronica, with a great new album, looking fit and sounding as amazing as ever delivering her warm smoky vocals atop those cold synths.  One of only three nights in the states, we felt lucky to be there for the show.

13. Muse, Oracle Arena, Oakland – as they’ve grown during the last dozen years, Muse has become for me increasingly more interesting, particularly live.  An incredible amount of energy flows from the stage as they expertly build anthemic rock tomes to shattering crescendos of sound.  Maybe a notch below the last time around, but a great concert to start off the year.

Honorable mention goes to: The Specials, The Warfield Theater, San Francisco – just had to mention – it’s been a dream of mine to see Terry Hall live, scowling through anything he’s been part of whether it’s The Specials, Fun Boy Three, Colour Field or solo.  To me one of the greatest and most underrated British vocalists alive today.

That’s a wrap.  Thanks also go out to Yes, Ian Anderson, Eels, Bryan Ferry, Fiona Apple, Sea Wolf, Pink, Bad Company, Fleetwood Mac, The Postal Service, Hall and Oates, Pearl Jam, Van Morrison, Capital Cities, and Paul McCartney for making it a great year in music.  Looking at the list, I vow to make it to more new bands this year!

Simple Minds In the Beginning, Today

Occasionally there comes a once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness a moment in music history – to revisit the past or celebrate the present success of a major band. During March of 2012 at the London Roundhouse theater one of those chances came when we saw Simple Minds perform five tracks from each of their first five records- the 5X5 tour. The show was spectacular, with singer Jim Kerr’s voice in great shape, backed by original guitarist Charlie Burchill, and drummer Mel Gaynor joined by tight backing bass and keys. As promised five tracks from each of their earliest work were performed, highlighting these early, darker, more experimental albums. As presented at the Roundhouse, the band breathed new life into these early songs, so loved by their core fans, and so different from their later rock-oriented work.

In the states, Simple Minds were not well known until and after their fifth album, 1982’s brilliant,  New Gold Dream, which included the singles “Promised You a Miracle” and “Glittering Prize”. It wasn’t until later in 1985 that the band had their first and only #1 single in the states with “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” recorded for the John Hughes film “The Breakfast Club.” Unlike their more commercially successful Irish brethren U2, the Scottish band Simple Minds were prone to more challenging, rambling, avant-garde sounds, presented live by the writhe Kerr. Something about the way Jim fronted this band always appealed to me – he darts in and around the beat, often departing from traditional verse-chorus-verse structures into something like scat punctuated by anthemic calls. Much less direct than U2 and more interesting to these ears. The early work attracted a core of fans, then growing a stronger following in the arena-rock mid 80’s period. Their post-80’s work saw a decline of interest in the US, though they remain ever popular in Europe.

The show was made up from only the band’s first five early releases. These albums include 1979’s Life in a Day which broke the band, and was part of the post-punk period. Their second release, also from 1979, Real to Real Cacophony veered into moodier territory, showing off the first of their works driven by minimalist song cycles driven and often fronted by the bass and drum. This was highlighted by the driving tracks “Premonition” and “Changeling.” Their next release Empires and Dance from 1980 incorporated elements of Euro-trance and art-rock typified live by the excellent “Celebrate.” The best of their earliest work comes form 1981’s Sister Feelings Call and Sons and Fascination. These two albums were recorded during the same sessions with progressive rock veteran Steve Hillage and feature “Love Song” and for me the best track of the night “70 Cities as Love Brings the Fall” – a brooding, psychedelic song cycle that predicted the trance movement. Last but not least we heard five from 1982’s “New Gold Dream” with standout track “Hunter and the Hunted.”

The thing that was surprising for me was how fresh and current it all sounded. Possibly skewed by my love of the work, yes, but all in all an incredible night that was a thrill to experience.