Thursday 7 November 2013: Simple Minds live
There are two bands called ‘Simple Minds’. The first released five albums between 1979 and 1982 of such magic and sublime musical alchemy that even now, over thirty years later, I can listen to and be excited by those recordings without the props of nostalgia and irony that might be required to enjoy, say, Depeche Mode’s ‘Speak and Spell’. The second Simple Minds, which coalesced in 1985 and persists to this day, made some fine music - indeed, some great music - which totally lacked the internal mysteries that made the first band’s oeuvre so endlessly compelling.
(Arguably, between 1982 and 1985, there was a third band, the one that released ‘Sparkle in the Rain’, but this was a ghost and a fiction, a band that had ceased to exist yet had failed to realise it. Thus, this singular zombie album, with Steve Lillywhite its unwitting Frankenstein, brought forth both the bombast of ‘Waterfront’ and the mesmerising ’Shake Off The Ghosts’, unsure of what it was and suddenly floored by this uncertainty, which had once been a key component of its music.)
I started going to gigs just as the first Simple Minds came to end and thus my first live experience of them, in the cavernous and soulless Birmingham NEC, was the second incarnation. It was one of the most disappointing nights of my life and the journey on the coach back to Liverpool was without consolation. For a while I continued to buy albums with ‘Simple Minds’ written on the front and each would contain at least one great song but only ‘Street Fighting Years’ offered some echo of the first band, as though they could see and attempt to copy the shape of what they had once been without any chance of capturing the spirit. I expected that, by choice, I would never see them play live again.
Then, perhaps four years ago, it seemed they were going to play the whole of ‘New Gold Dream’ live and cautiously I agreed to go along with some university friends to see them play in Liverpool. Ash and Rob in particular *understood* the significance of Simple Minds to me and I felt that I would be free to express and joy or disappointment with appearing melodramatic. It transpired that they were not playing the whole album but, crucially, they played far more of their older material than I expected and,crucially, with the degree of respect that was required. Whilst they could no longer access the rare creative energies they had once enjoyed, it seemed they could still play those songs earnestly. As if panning for gold, I took those nuggets away with me and disregarded the rest.
Something turned. After so many years of trying to prove that the successive band could outdo the first, it seems that Jim Kerr allowed himself to accept the alchemy evident in those early albums and to take pride in the work without being defensive of what followed. And so the prosaically named ‘5x5’ tour was announced: five songs from each of those first five releases. Furthermore, the venues chosen were not the barns appropriate to their stadium songs but rather spaces where one could enjoy the music viscerally. When the band played, the respect for the material was clear. Kerr wisely did not attempt to conjure up his young self but did leave his stadium persona at home. The songs were well chosen, delivered perfectly and at one point during the gig at The Roundhouse, I felt a tear run down my cheek. This, at last, was the gig I’d ached for in 1985.
And, once again but for entirely different reasons, I decided that I’d never see them again. I had a memory to cherish.
But earlier this year the band announced a gig at Koko in London as part of Virgin’s 40th birthday celebrations. For no good reason other than a self-delusion born of a lifetime’s unmanageable optimism, I decided that the band would refrain from playing a lot of new material and that I should go along and see them again. Thus, and further reassured by the comforting presence and understanding of Ash, I went to tonight’s gig.
For one song - the relatively recent ‘Broken Glass Park’ - my hopes spiralled groundwards but rallied just before impact as the band launched into ‘Waterfront’. I enjoyed this far more although my pleasure was tempered by an anxiety about what would follow. And then they played ‘I Travel’. Ash glanced ‘round at me and managed to convey with a look and a smile an empathy for everything that I was feeling: relief, joy, hope and pleasure. ‘Today I Died Again’ arrived next and, speaking as someone who’d feel queasy about delivering lyrics I wrote a lifetime ago, I must say what a brilliant job Kerr did singing his old words, both for this track and the rest of the gig. ‘Sweat In Bullet’ followed, then a triptych of ‘Hunter and the Hunted’, a rip roaring ‘Glittering Prize’ and the ever-glorious ‘New Gold Dream’.
Bizarrely, there was the a scheduled 20 minute break, which most people took as an opportunity to head to the bar, so Ash and I drifted further forward without the need for a single “excuse me”, and then Charlie Burchill and the keyboard player returned for what I think was an odd interpretation of ‘Speed Your Love To Me’. I know three cover’s of Kraftwerk’s ‘Neon Lights’ - by U2, OMD and Simple Minds - and they are all awful but, this evening, Charlie and the keyboard player were joined by the backing vocalist for a sympathetic interpretation, which, whilst greeted by some general bewilderment, was much enjoyed by me and Ash.
And then we were back to the main event: the bass player demonstrated that he was up to the awe-inducing job of filling (original bassist) Derek Forbes’ shoes by tackling ‘Someone, Somewhere (In Summertime)’ albeit with some justifiable grimacing. The only other new song of the evening came next - ‘Blood Diamonds’ (meh) - and then we were back into the thick of the glory days: ‘This Fear of Gods’ (“That’s the stuff!” Kerr exclaimed, quite rightly, afterwards); ‘The American’ (their earliest and most acceptable singalong); ‘Love Song’; and, finally, the epic ‘Pleasantly Disturbed’.
As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not a fan of the encore as a gig institution, but one is acceptable if the wait’s not too long. The band reappeared to play that other major bass-playing challenge ‘Theme For Great Cities’ and that would have been a good point at which to leave, although unfortunately one can only know these things with hindsight. Still, we saw the band surprisingly but endearingly fluff the opening of ‘Don’t You’ before full on karaoke ensued although any hopes I had for a finish with ‘Seeing Out The Angel’ - which would have been *perfect* - were dashed by the never-welcome ‘Alive and Kicking’, the stadium sized gravestone to the first incarnation of Simple Minds.
However, the dark does sometimes serve to amplify the light, and I have come away a very happy man. That was a far, far better concert than I had any right to expect and I’m really glad Ash was there to share it; joined by a sympathetic soul, a pleasure shared is a pleasure amplified.
I doubt anyone has read this far but for anyone who is that interested, here are my reviews of those early Simple Minds albums:
Real To Real Cacophony
Empires and Dance
Sons and Fascination / Sister Feelings Call
New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)