EMPIRES AND DANCE – SIMPLE MINDS (1980)
Life on the road. Life in a band. By the mid-1970s these had become among the most prevalent tropes in rock music and the ones which demonstrated how remote and detached those making the music had become from their audience. Following the well-worn advice “write about what you know,” many were unable to see beyond the satin and denim-lined cocoon they now inhabited, often a world away from where they had started; understandably, many had no wish to go back there but those places were still inhabited by the majority who hadn’t got the break and whose daily lot remained heavy industry, characterless – literally and metaphorically – offices, or no employment at all.
The bands radiated indifference. All that they knew of, or cared about, was our majesty the road (for the first and last time ever, thank you Ted Nugent), its myriad temptations and The Business. And so we got ELP writing a song about their engineer; we got Grand Funk Railroad promising/threatening Good Singin’ Good Playin’ in an unsurpassably awful album title; and, in an unsurpassably awful title and cover, we got Mud and their limo in the centre of an LS Lowry pastiche, cruising smugly past the suffocating factory gates and the downtrodden matchstalk masses pouring from them, in the service of an album entitled It’s Better Than Working!!!! (first exclamation mark theirs, the rest mine).
And this travel had no discernible impact on the bands or their music. Venue, hotel, venue, hotel, and possibly a couple of other unsavoury locations, in interchangeable towns, countries continents. Not so in the case of Simple Minds. Emerging from Glasgow at a time when many of its citizens’ attainable horizons still stretched little beyond London, and from the far from prosperous area of Toryglen touring was, however banal it might sound, a real opportunity for Simple Minds – a chance for escape, not cruisin’ down the highway with the wind in yo’ hair but looking, observing, exploring other cultures which were unknown and, unless you actually went there, unknowable.
After two hesitant but ambitious albums which underperformed commercially, the crossroads they were reaching was not one Robert Johnson ever had in mind but was one which had everything to do with the mean, miserable music business they were magnificently failing to sing about. So touring Europe informed practically all of their third album, Empires And Dance, not from the point of view of a jaded, complacent rock ‘n’ roll band but detached observers of a continent where the divisions imposed 35 years earlier would start to dissolve before the 1980s were out but which, for now, were as rigid and impregnable as they had ever been.
It opens thrillingly with I Travel, where the first-person pronoun seems to mean not self-absorption but simply “I travel and wouldn’t have seen and learned what I have otherwise.” The obvious influences of Bowie, Kraftwerk and Joy Division are corralled into an unopposeable dance beat of the kind Giorgo Moroder set running alongside Donna Summer and Sparks. By this stage, the majority of the people who mattered most knew disco did not suck and Simple Minds produced, with respect to the Average White Band, the greatest dance song to have come out of Scotland at this point – and, bar the Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s cover of Jacques Brel’s Next, one of the first tartan toe-tappers to look east rather than west for inspiration.
Along with Celebrate, which followed it as a single, I Travel saw them probing the dance path that New Order would take a year later. In fact, Simple Minds’ role as navvies for the dance of the late ’80s and the ’90s is often underestimated – this despite the later adoption of their vast 1981 instrumental Theme For Great Cities as a Balearic anthem and the sampling of New Gold Dream on Usura’s Open Your Mind (which was also blatantly – though no one’s ever seemed to notice – pilfered by the Charlatans for The Only One I Know).
Today I Died Again (we’d already had The Man Who Dies Every Day from Ultravox and Every Day I Die from Tubeway Army – pattern?) has a clear echo of My Tulpa by avowed influence Magazine but, in place of the panic Paul Morley correctly identified as permeating Magazine’s Real Life album, there’s a weight of melancholy and the deeply evocative line “The clothes he wears date back to the war,” which acknowledges that, while Simple Minds were part of a generation looking unblinkingly, if not always enthusiastically, to the future, many of those who lived through one or both of the world wars had hardly seen their circumstances change – not while others had never had it so good, not while others were swinging, not ever.
Panic is in abundance – along with tension and foreboding – on the staggering This Fear Of Gods, which I believe still stands as Simple Minds’ greatest song. The rhythm is supple, the pace brisk but this is about the empires, not the dance. I always picture it as the soundtrack to a long drive in the dead of night to an undisclosed location which may never be reached – the discordant sax, a sinister three-note figure recurring like a hovering shadow and Jim Kerr’s increasingly anxious and breathless exhortation “faster,faster” all conspire in a hymn to horror.
Over on side two (without meaning to sound flippant, the walls on albums also came down at the end of the ’80s) Capital City’s perpetual Kraftwerk-engineered motion arises as much from Radioactivity’s glide down the dial as from the more obvious source of Trans-Europe Express, Constantinople Line progresses in fits and starts in a way you’d hope the Orient Express never does, while its incantation of “These stations we love them/Newspaper, encounter, confusion” evokes the disorientation of cross border-travel and again positions Simple Minds not as a band on tour but a band of tourists. Room, strange in its brevity (two and a half minutes), stranger still in its puttering rhythm box, its low-key web of colliding melodies and its unsettling lyric (“The razor’s song…I only live here, a fragile man”) brings it all to a splendidly perplexing conclusion.
You may have noticed that I’ve made no mention of what later became of Simple Minds – the sharp descent into hollow, clodhopping stadium catnip which reaped enormous commercial rewards but was utterly bereft of the guile and legerdemain which had previously made them so enticing. No one has ever fallen so far, so fast but I don’t believe it’s strictly relevant here – it’s true that once you’re exposed to something like Alive And Kicking or the ghastly Let There Be Love, they can’t be unheard but at the time of Empires And Dance, they no more existed than Little Fockers did at the time of Taxi Driver.
It’s tempting but fairly futile to speculate on where Simple Minds might have gone if they’d continued on their initial trajectory but for some indication, I refer you to Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden. It’s entirely different in its construction to Simple Minds at their prelapsarian peak, owing to leader Mark Hollis’ visceral aversion to synthesisers, but is identical in its scope, ambition and texture. Empires And Dance, meanwhile, was a moment where the future was simultaneously confronted and embraced – never fled from or shunned (PG).