“81, 82, 83, 84 …”

THE things that stay with you. One evening in 1984 I was sitting in a student flat in Stirling listening to Janice Long on Radio 1. During her handover to John Peel, she dedicated the last record she played to the veteran DJ. The track in question was Speed Your Love to Me by Simple Minds, I think. Or maybe it was Up on the Catwalk.

What I do remember more clearly, though, is John Peel’s response at the start of his ownprogramme. “Thanks, Janice, for that piece of pomp rock,” he said (or words to that effect; pomp rock was definitely the dismissal) before pressing play on something that was more to his liking (I want to say The Fall, but that part of the memory has long since faded).

In my head it was a marker of how things were on the turn. Two years previously the reputation of Simple Minds couldn’t have been greater. The release of the New Gold Dream album both propelled them into the charts and into the album of the year lists in the music press. It felt like the culmination of the band’s steady progress from punky wannabes to art rock giants, “a gradual, heady ascent up a huge mountain,” the music critic Dave Simpson once suggested.

New Gold Dream was the mountain top. A hypnotic, pulsing, thrilling thing. One of the great Scottish albums.

But with its anthemic feel and thunderous percussion, the release of Waterfront in October 1983, the first single off the Sparkle in the Rain album, flagged up the fact that the band were beginning to drop the art and concentrate on the rock. As a result, they began to lose the critical acclaim and cult status and became a global success. Swings and roundabouts.

In the years that followed the Minds would rack up hit after hit and bad review after bad review. When it comes down to it, most bands would. quite understandably, prefer the former over the latter.

However, success fixed the image of the band in the public consciousness. As the years – decades now – have passed, they are usually remembered as the band who gave us Alive and Kicking and Belfast Child and recorded Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff’s Don’t You (Forget About Me) for the film The Breakfast Club (despite their reservations about the song at the time). The shimmering electro of early singles such as I Travel or The American, the songs I danced to in a Stirling student disco, are often overlooked.

So, one of the (many) pleasures of Graeme Thomson’s new book on the band, Themes for Great Cities, is its desire to be an act of reclamation.

Thomson wants to challenge the lazy cliches that have attached to the band’s reputation, to complicate the story, to, as he says in his introduction, “remystify” his subject. To that end he revisits the early years of the band and suggests why they matter.

He follows the bands from Toryglen to the charts, concentrating on their earliest records, from 1979’s Life in a Day to 1981’s brace, Sons and Fascination and Sister Feelings Call. Records touched by the influence of both krautrock and Giorgio Moroder, post-punk and prog. This was music, Manic Street Preacher James Dean Bradfield once suggested, made by “crystalline gods.”

And music made not just by singer Jim Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill, the faces of Simple Minds now for over four decades, but by all of the band’s original line-up. The democratic first incarnation of the band was fuelled as much by Derek Forbes’s bass, Mick MacNeill’s keyboards and Brian McGee’s drumming as by Burchill and Kerr. All five members contributed to the sound of Simple Minds.

“It was very much a collective,” Thomson tells me when we speak in January. “I like that autodidactic thing of young working-class people stretching themselves, pushing themselves and absorbing all these influences and just how abstract a lot of that music is. It’s very challenging, I think it’s still very fresh. I think it warrants a listen. I like the fact that it’s not canonised.”

Thomson, who has written acclaimed books on Kate Bush and John Martyn, is a long-time Simple Minds admirer. Now 48, he was 11 or 12 when he first discovered them around the release of Sparkle in the Rain, when the band were nearing their commercial peak. Like a true fan he then went back to explore their earlier records.

One of the reasons for writing the book, he says, was simply to celebrate their nascent achievements. “You want to write about the music you love, and these albums are among the earliest and first records I ever loved,” he points out.

“You also look for fresh ground. I don’t think those records have been written about, compared to a lot of the records in the canon. Even post-punk records that at the time were quite marginal, like Unknown Pleasures, are now part of the musical establishment.”

The story Thomson tells is of a young band moving fast, constantly changing, looking outwards to the continent ("In central Europe men are marching …”), growing up, finding their feet.

And that explains how they became more and more central to the story of pop by the mid-eighties. They’d found a map to take them from the outskirts to the centre of the city. Next stop, stadium tours.

“They get this accusation of selling out,” Thomson suggests, “and I suppose I wanted people to see how they started making that bigger music in the mid-eighties and how it was organic in a way. It kind of makes sense when you see how their story evolved.

“I think when a band’s made six or seven records before they have a hit it’s hard to accuse them of being cynical.”

Simple Minds in the early days moved fastSimple Minds at their mid-1980s peak

The story of Simple Minds is the story of the 1980s, a story of experimentalism followed by a return to classicism. They were not the only ones who followed a similar trajectory.

The Waterboys, led by Mike Scott, sang of their quest to capture “the big music” on their 1984 album A Pagan Place and they weren’t alone in that desire. Big Country, U2 and even Echo and the Bunnymen were all chasing the same goal at the same time.

It was a moment when horizons broadened and, Thomson suggests, old worlds were rediscovered. In the book he paints a picture of a group of young men from Glasgow, perhaps disillusioned with their surroundings, who go and experience Paris and Berlin and then return home and begin to see that Glasgow is also European.

“And you start to reflect more of your own culture,” Thomson suggests. “And I think you can hear that in Simple Minds when it starts to become a bit more Celtic, a bit more elemental.”

More than that, though, the band was changing too. Drummer Brian McGee left in 1981 and bassist Derek Forbes left in 1985. Line-ups change and the music being made is transformed as a consequence.

“You can argue that Simple Minds have been many different bands really,” Thomson suggests. “There are two central figures, but when you lose a drummer and you lose the bass player, then it becomes a different band, and you work in a different way. The music inevitably is going to change.

“Brian McGee the drummer was replaced by Mel Gaynor, who is this huge propulsive rocket launcher of a drummer and I think that changed the sound.”

The thunderous drive of Waterfront was the first evidence of that.

Simple Minds the band have continued to evolve over the years, have been, as Thomson says, many bands. And yet their image is frozen at the point of maximum visibility, in their mullety, sing-along-chorused commercial peak.

The comparison with their contemporaries U2 is an interesting one. At the start of the 1990s U2 were able to reinvent themselves when they released Achtung Baby and Zooropa and moved away from the epic widescreen Americana of their 1980s high point. They rediscovered their “Europeanness” if you like.

“It’s a picture in reverse,” Thomson says. “Simple Minds started complicated and got more accessible. U2 did the opposite. They wanted to become more experimental, and I think when you start from a point where you are painting pretty crude pictures, as U2 were, it’s easier to mess with that.

“U2 borrowed a lot from Simple Minds. Simple Minds were ahead chronologically, and I think artistically, for a long time. New Gold Dream certainly had a huge impact on U2. You can hear it on The Unforgettable Fire.

“And also, like the Tory party, U2 stuck together. They managed not to lose any members. Keeping the same personnel in place during your whole career is going to enable you to do that.

“By the early 1990s Simple Minds were just Jim and Charlie. And then you are working with session musicians, and I think it becomes much more difficult in that scenario to find that spot.

Simple Minds in the early days moved fastAuthor Graeme Thomson

“The band that goes weird is always acclaimed. If you start off quite mainstream and then go weird people see that as a very courageous thing.”

Thomson has spoken to most of the original members of Simple Minds in writing his book. Does their reputation matter to them? Do they yearn for the excitement of those early years?

“Jim is very relaxed now. I think it feels very old to him and he can point to all the success the band has had since then.”

“I think they understand why diehard fans love that stuff, but it’s not something they can replicate. It was a very long time ago.”

Simple Minds in the early days moved fast

 

Themes for Great Cities by Graeme Thomson is published by Constable, £20