Echoes of the Big Music
6 · 7 March 95
Simple Minds: Good News from the Next World
For a few minutes, a few times, in the semi-cylindrical confines of Boston's Avalon nightclub, on a winter Saturday night not long ago, time stopped and a decade digit fluttered, for just a moment, to 8. The opening notes of "Don't You (Forget About Me)", from the stage, were suddenly also coming out of the one functioning speaker of the radio in my parents mucus-green 1970 Toyota Corona, the inescapable soundtrack of my 1985. But as Kerr, Burchill and their new accomplices ambled cheerfully through the song, I discovered that it was not exactly the same 1985 I lived through ten years ago. In the one I remember, "Don't You (Forget About Me)" was resented as the commercial sell-out of a great band, as the watered-down, soundtrack-pop, mall-ready adulteration of a band whose crashing Sparkle in the Rain grandeur belonged to the shadowy New Wave (turning "alternative") elite. As "Pretty in Pink" destroyed the Psychedelic Furs the following year, "Don't You (Forget About Me)" destroyed Simple Minds.
Listening to them play the song to a packed 1995 nightclub, though, revealed a shifted view of loyalties and values. From a commercial sell-out, "Don't You (Forget About Me)" has somehow been transformed for me into something universal, a symbol of a great time in pop music, and a classic that also transcends its time the same way it transcends the exact personnel makeup of the band. The people who originally latched onto it without knowing anything about the band have long ago forgotten about it (top 40, as a whole, has a pathetically short memory), and into that void the band's "true" fans have started to return, retaking the song for themselves, relegitimizing it posthumously. As the song, and in part the band, returns to obscurity, those of us who thrive on obscurity have shown up again to see if their old place in our hearts ought to be cleared out again for them. And as, midway through the show, they explode into "Waterfront", the joyous acceptance of the crowd is palpable.
Myself, I'd already made up my mind well before the concert. It took about thirty seconds of hearing "She's a River", the opening track of Good News from the Next World, on the radio, to convince me that the Simple Minds deserved a new chance. Once I put the album on it didn't take more than three songs to get me smiling, and nodding "Yes, the Simple Minds are back." I'm nostalgic by nature, and always eager for the "they're back" feeling, but this band did have some hurdles to reacceptance. Their last decade had left me completely unmoved, completely untouched by the impersonal expanse of their music, by the way their songs had come to seem directed at the concrete, metal and Astroturf of arenas, not even at the people filling them.
And not all of that tendency is gone from Good News from the Next World. This is not a Sparkle in the Rain redux, and the big guitar chords and synth washes here were very much a part of the Simple Minds phases I wasn't interested in, as well. The backing vocals on "She's a River" are reminiscent of the wailing accompaniment way back on "Alive and Kicking". On Sparkle in the Rain the band's early art-synth leanings still occasionally poked through, and you're pretty unlikely to detect any of them here. What's been reestablished, though, in my opinion, is a sense of balance, or perhaps more precisely, of scale. The production (courtesy, ironically enough, of "Don't You (Forget About Me)" producer Keith Forsey) puts the music back in a much more personal setting. The drums sound more like drums, and less like ancient cannons; the guitars don't sound like instruments constructed as Texas State Fair publicity stunts; the synthesizers sound like musical elements, not Valkyries swooning. And, most of all, Jim Kerr's voice is almost completely stripped of effect, with the result that this album rides confidently on the warm tones and careful details of his singing, where for a while he was just another element of the music striving for something ever bigger and perhaps forever unreachable. It's notable (and here is another point of similarity with Richard Butler) how good a singer Kerr has become. Even back when I really liked the Simple Minds the first time, I'd never have listed his technical singing ability among their particular strengths, but somewhere in the process of lasting more than 15 years in rock music, he's become quite an impressive and appealing vocalist.
If this album is still missing something, compared to Sparkle in the Rain, it's a whole killer song. None of the nine here stick in my head in their entirety the way "Speed Your Love To Me" did the very first time I heard it, nor the way "Waterfront", "Street Hassle", "The Kick Inside of Me" and "Shake Off the Ghosts" have come to. This album has its high points instead in individual moments: the drum entrances to "She's a River" and "Nightmusic", the falsetto vocal bridge into the chorus of "Hypnotised" (the part where he sings "I remember the look in your eyes"), the slashing guitar on "Great Leap Forward", the grumbling bass of "And the Band Played On", the mechanical drum-machine undercurrents of "My Life" and "Criminal World", the insect-whine backing vocals of "This Time". If no one song quite captivates me as a song, conversely none are without qualities to recommend them, and the aggregate experience is certainly my second favorite Simple Minds album, and a worthy contender for a short list of great and, to me, welcomed, comebacks.
The Waterboys: The Secret Life of the Waterboys, 81-85
Jim Kerr earned some additional non-musical points from me for an impressive radio interview of him I heard the afternoon before I saw him in concert. In response to a question about how he reacted to all the Simple Minds/U2 style comparisons, he took the opportunity to plug his fellow practitioners of "The Big Music", mentioning U2, the Alarm, the Waterboys and Big Country by name. (Anybody who speaks well of Big Country, my very favorite band, gets big bonus points in my book...)
I'm not sure whether "The Big Music", as a term, is literally a Mike Scott invention, but the Waterboys song by that name on their second (and, in my opinion, best) album A Pagan Place is the first place I heard it, and it's as good a term as any for the sense of sincere, determined, Celtic-rock-folk melancholy cathartic drama that these bands (and others like Cactus World News, Runrig, Hothouse Flowers, and antipodal compatriots Midnight Oil and Hunters and Collectors) all seem to me to share.
The Waterboys, after originating the term, eventually veered into stricter folk territory, and then expired with one last album that did nothing at all for me (Hothouse Flowers' Songs from the Rain was a much better Waterboys album than the one the Waterboys themselves made in 1993, I thought). This compilation, however, released last year in the UK but just appearing a few weeks ago here, reaches back to what has come to seem to me (and, perhaps, it would appear, to Mike Scott too, or maybe just to his label) to be the Waterboys best years. And, it enthusiastically reminds me, those were very good years.
The bulk of the tracks here are alternate versions of familiar songs. There are BBC sessions of "Medicine Bow", "Don't Bang the Drum" and "The Three Day Man", a double-speed version of "This Is the Sea" (called "That Was the River"), re- (or pre-) mixed versions of "A Pagan Place" and "Rags", a live recording of "Savage Earth Heart", and the guitar-and-vocal demo of "Somebody Might Wave Back". Joining these are several songs originally available only on b-sides ("The Ways of Men", "The Earth Only Endures" and "Bury My Heart"), three Waterboys songs that apparently see release only here ("Billy Sparks", "Going to Paris" and "Love That Kills"), and "Out of Control", the song by Mike's pre-Waterboys band Another Pretty Face which led to the Waterboys signing to Ensign records.
Waterboys neophytes would be better served by one of the original albums (A Pagan Place being my recommendation), or by the best-of that came out in 1991 or so. For the already converted, however, this collection is a must-buy. The alternate versions are the highlights for me. The rousing live "Savage Earth Heart" makes me sad that I never saw the band play. The one-take quartet performance of "Don't Bang the Drum" is stunningly bleak, the bare solo rendition of "Somebody Might Wave Back" is terrific in its simplicity, the radio-session version of "The Three Day Man" is raucous and dangerously close to being out of tune. The remixes of "A Pagan Place", "Medicine Bow" and "Rags" aren't dramatically different from their album versions, but I find all of them just enough changed to hold my attention like I'm hearing the songs for the first time again, which is an experience eminently worth $12. The fast "That Was the River" has to be the centerpiece, though, a completely bizarre otherworldly thing compared to the aching "This Is the Sea" that we're familiar with. The chirpy Tom Verlaine lead guitar interjections, in particular, make the song verge precipitously on self-parody, but it keeps its footing along the edge.
"Out of Control" is a fascinating proto-Waterboys moment, a quiet and methodical song complete with bowed 12-string guitar that suddenly lets loose toward the middle with a crazed, noisy, soaring lead-guitar solo. Of the b-sides, "The Earth Only Endures" is my favorite, a Mike Scott acoustic-guitar arrangement of a Sioux death song, sung to the accompaniment of an awesome thunderstorm. "Bury My Heart", a shaky song with all instruments done by Scott, is pretty cool, too. "Billy Sparks" is bouncy, "Going to Paris" jaunty. "Love That Kills", the collection's concluding track, is stately and grand in the best Waterboys fashion, Karl Wallinger's slithery Hammond organ leading the way for Roddy Lorimer's trumpet and Anthony Thistlethwaite's sax, Mike singing his heart out as if his, and possible your, life depended on it. What a great band they were. Too band they aren't still around doing this stuff, but getting a new album full of it to listen to over and over helps. A lot.
Mike Peters: Breathe
Both the Waterboys and the Alarm toured with U2 in the early days, and the Alarm, perhaps more than any band, suffered from the comparison. They had the misfortune to be from Wales, which nobody knows anything about, rather than from Ireland, which everybody knows is involved in some powerful political or religious struggle of some sort, involving terrorists and freedom fighters and all the hallmarks of an Important Area, with the unique advantage over the usual such places that the participants speak English. This gave U2's music a popular political credibility that the Alarm's never quite achieved, and now U2 are megastars and the Alarm are "that skinny band with the big hair that played punk with acoustic guitars; you know, they had that video on MTV way back at the beginning where they're in this room with the lyrics to the song spray-painted on the walls?"
And, frankly, both bands eventually earned their fates. U2 made the richly textured The Unforgettable Fire, then The Joshua Tree, which I consider of modern music's true Masterpieces, and then transformed themselves into fabulously rich comic-book characters. Meanwhile, the Alarm made a great album called Strength, but followed it with the strangely synthetic Eye of the Hurricane, which dissipated much of their stylistic momentum, so that when they returned to their original idiom with Change they had begun to sound uncomfortably often like they were stuck in a ditch somewhere, telling each other the same stories again and again. A solid greatest-hits album seemed like a good regrouping strategy, but the album that followed it, Raw, was a painfully hollow embarrassment that would probably have been better off not released. The band then broke up, to nobody's particular surprise, as the tension between Mike Peters and guitarist Dave Sharp had become plainly evident both on record and in concert.
Dave Sharp subsequently made a solo album that I had no interest in, but I had some hope that Peters would find some new blood and have another go at it. The first two singles of his that appeared, however, gave me no reason for optimism. "Back into the System" and "It Just Don't Get Any Better Than This" were both telling titles, and the songs seemed like proof that, in fact, it wasn't going to get any better than this, ever. Still, periodic playings of Strength and Standards kept my Alarm enthusiasm high enough that when Peter's album finally came out, and a few copies paddled gamely across the Atlantic, I figured I still ought to be supportive.
The good news is that the album is somewhat better than I expected. The new band ("the Poets") sounds good, and doesn't sound exactly like Nigel, Eddie and Dave. The songs, most by Mike and a few co-written with keyboard player Jules Jones, neither shy from the anthemic nor rely on it. The credits are filled with Welsh names, which lays to rest a fear I had that some label would set Mike up with a corps of LA studio hacks and try to turn him into Bon Jovi. My two biggest worries were that Mike would try to do some wholly different kind of music for which he has no facility, and would fail disastrously, and that he would try to do exactly the same kind of music the Alarm ran into the ground, which would in a way have been worse. In fact he does neither. There are songs here that sound like they could have been Alarm songs, of course, but none that strike me as products of an unreasonable hope that a mathematical interpolation of "Knocking on Heaven's Door" into "Absolute Reality" will somehow yield an artistic breakthrough without necessitating a new bout of creativity. The new band finds sources of energy in smaller touches than was the Alarm's wont, like "Who's Gonna Make the Peace?"'s stuttering guitars, the bowed synthesizer riff that opens "Poetic Justice", and the looping drums of "Into the 21st Century". The cover of Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" is surprisingly agreeable, and a much more inspired choice of material than the somewhat pro forma rendition of "Rockin' in the Free World" that the Alarm did on Raw.
The bad news, inevitably enough, is that as a songwriter Mike still has some relatively obvious weaknesses. He still seems convinced that a passionate enough delivery can rescue lyrical cliches, for one thing, and while there were some early Alarm songs that I think actually managed that, it's not going to rescue "The train kept a rollin', a thunderin' down the miles", or "Train a Comin'" (which the previous lyric isn't even from), and it doesn't keep me from thinking that "If I can't have U / I don't want nothing" was probably already getting old back when the Bee Gee's loaned something quite similar to Yvonne Elliman. The "America" diptych in the middle of the album (the heartland-ode "Levi's and Bibles" and the awkwardly naive (if sincere) racism denunciation "Beautiful Thing") also seems painfully shallow and basically inadvisable to me, and mysterious given the overall tone of Welsh-centricity.
In the end, Mike himself summarizes the situation best, in the closing track, "A New Chapter (Reprise)": "A new chapter in the book of my life / A new song in a different key". Breathe is not a new book, and not a song in a new style, but it is another several fine pages of a book whose good parts I, at least, always wished were longer.