Dance Of Youth: Graeme Thomson’s Book On Simple Minds

A new book about Simple Minds explores the early years of one of Britain's most misunderstood bands

Photo by Bruce Findlay

What to make of Simple Minds? Untrendy stadium fillers with a social conscience or the postmodern band that twitched an unseen thread between Stevie Wonder and Neu!? It’s a long-running question, first aired by fans and press at the height of their commercial success in the mid-to-late 1980s. Themes for Great Cities, by Graeme Thomson, is the first title to look at Simple Minds as a creative force for a long time, probably since Adam Sweeting’s study of the band. It is maybe worth remembering that Sweeting’s book was already looking to address the public perception of the Minds in the light of their worldwide hit, ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’, a record that could be seen – in terms of its reception on provincial dancefloors – as laying the cornerstone for the lad culture that the likes of Oasis patented a decade later.

Taking the lead from his chosen title (that of a key track from 1981’s Sons and Fascination / Sister Feelings Call “double album”), Thomson concentrates on the formative years of the band, focussing on individual street-level perspectives and origin myths in the context of post-industrial Glasgow. By looking to fashion mystical, or romantic early personal experiences against the backdrop of a home city, Themes… isn’t so far away in tone and format from recent titles such as Bobby Gillespie’s Tenement Kid, Will Sergeant’s Bunnyman or John Savage’s epic Joy Division title, This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else. So far, so “lockdown rock book”, you could say. Where Thomson’s work really comes into its own is how it shows Simple Minds took on the demands of trying to be a successful rock band whilst clinging, however erratically and unsuccessfully, to the notion of being a musical collective. Truly a story of “ambition in motion”.

But what actually constitutes success in the eyes of a wider public. Selling records? Creating a wide-ranging and sincere body of work? Carving out a life a million miles away from where you started? Still actually being a band despite many commercial and critical reverses? Thomson shows us Simple Minds have done all these things over time, often at significant personal cost. Yet this reveal is secondary to the book and only comes fully to light in the rather long and slightly diffuse ending chapters that deal with the Minds’ Smash Hits years and the thorty odd years of international stadium grind that followed. Somehow the reflections start to lap against each other and the reader is left with a vague sense of thankless grind, a dizzying ascent and a burn out that still emits flickers over a thirty year timespan.

Where Themes… really wins out is in the refocusing – doubtless for a new readership – on the band’s incredible early run of albums: six good-to-brilliant long players in four years. And the retelling of how Simple Minds somehow managed to maintain their core mystery for so long in an industry that needs the spotlight to survive. For many music fans in the early 1980s, Simple Minds made fascinating music that betrayed a mix of artistic ambition, awkwardness and accidental beauty, often propelled by a beguiling and hypnotic beat. They were otherworldly and hard to pigeonhole, and ever so slightly progressive, which could be a social death sentence back then.

Initially seen by label Arista as 1979’s next big saleable thing, the band was quickly sidelined as their love of experiment and a strong sense of self-determination took hold. Corporate bungling and bafflement meant Simple Minds’ first releases were never promoted in a way that made commercial sense, a strange fate given equally cussed peers such as The Cure and Public Image Limited sidestepped such quandaries. By the mid-1980s, a mere handful of years after release, their early albums and singles were either never to be found or cheaply reissued. These reissues, on Virgin’s budget range (alongside those of “uncool” artists like Gong and Van Der Graaf Generator), somehow projected work such as Real to Real Cacophony as non-essential, certainly for the stonewashed armies snaffling up copies of Live in the City of Light and Once Upon A Time.

How Simple Minds forged their run of early albums, then, is fertile subject matter for a story. And one that has (wildly, for such a saturated subject as British post-punk) been lying fallow for a while. Yet Themes… doesn’t always fall into line with how the modern rock tale is told. For one this is an involved, sometimes intense book with a hermetic sense of time and a strong sense of personal character. Thompson’s detailed and up-close examination of the band’s committed working methods start to rub off on the reader, who is aware from very early on that Jim Kerr and co didn’t see the record-making business as a picnic. They were cussed, driven and eccentric, a peculiar blend of “chalk and cheese” individuals who gave up a great deal for the cause, such as original powerhouse drummer, Brian McGee. A band that shares one pint between them in an act of quasi-communist socio-cultural solidarity, or writes and records futurist electro grooves in a barn full of chickens is not one to be taken lightly, even if bassist Derek Forbes can play his guitar with his teeth. Luckily, Thomson is canny enough to trust the story’s obvious narrative arc to take the weight. For once the tale of individual personalities and influences, formative years, first singles and being signed – leading inexorably to an album-by-album description – doesn’t feel too lumpen or unimaginative. This is probably because Simple Minds moved at such a pace and had so much to say in such a very short time, that trusting too much to anecdote or interpretation would lead to a loss of focus.

Now and again, however, other perspectives bring a marshlight to this feverish mist, most notably manager and mainstay Bruce Findlay and producer John Leckie, who provide a mirror view to the days long sessions and frenetic touring schedules. But even the bits that would sound lairy in the telling with other bands – Jim Kerr spending days in the notorious “post-punk” Colombia Hotel, living off yoghurt and other fruits of the rock singer’s life – are a means to an end. Kerr hints that such rites and behaviours primarily came about due to his constant writing and genuflecting about the band. Then there are a number of passages that almost uncannily mirror the music: the description of the wildly successful 1981 Australian tour (a pivotal moment for a band and the original new gold dream according to Findlay), opens up a window on a beautiful vision just out of reach. Kerr’s description of the Australian countryside is terrific, chiming with the bittersweet melancholy of much of the music found on 1982’s New Gold Dream.

I was looking at the sky and it was like seeing the sky for the first time. […] We drove through petrified forests. For the first time I began to think about the world as an old place.

These are the points of Thomson’s story where the narrative and inner vision perfectly align and enhance the narrative. However at times the book feels strangely unformed, at others fussy or unfocussed or lacking. I think this is mainly down to tinkering with the basic structure Thomson gave himself. A couple of re-reads fail to assuage the niggling suspicion that the appraisals of Simple Minds (by fellow musicians and fans James Dean Bradfield, Bobby Gillespie and Iain Cook) are not strictly necessary in this mysterious tale. Not that the chapters are badly written. Bobby Gillespie – as seen with his recent memoir – is a fair writer. And here, his thoughts reinforce a sense of what 1970s Glasgow was like (though it’s maybe more instructive to read passages of Tenement Kid alongside this book). Elsewhere, Malcolm Garrett proves himself again to be an interesting and warm-hearted raconteur in his discussion of his part in the band’s artwork. I am just unconvinced these sections are needed in getting the core message across in this particular book.

It is a shame, too, that drummer Mel Gaynor did not contribute and we didn’t hear more about the “enigmatic” Kenny Hyslop… The closing chapter, a lookback of sorts with the band members also feels weirdly unnecessary, though Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill (as well as keyboardist Mick MacNeil, the band’s colourist) are always erudite and engaged. I suppose Thomson, with his strong personal links to Simple Minds, couldn’t really cut them out of their own tale. But as a book I would wager an abrupt stop after their 1985 smash LP, Once Upon a Time and the incessant world touring that led them to crash, burnt and exhausted to ground, would have made a more intriguing ending.

Have Simple Minds escaped their past image? I would answer yes and no. The hoary old anecdote of playing a Simple Minds record from 1979–82 only to be asked by someone what new release it was is a story I’ve heard passed around many of my peer group. Thomson even alludes to it in his book. Early Simple Minds records still don’t really seem to fit an over-curated British post-punk narrative: even though a pithy summary like “mascara’d art-rock band with an intriguing folio of non-songs that are more like audio snapshots than actual saleable content” could be describing a lot of records by The Cure. In some ways their early music is a perfect secret waiting to be rediscovered. And for that alone Thomson’s book is to be welcomed.

Themes for Great Cities: A New History of Simple Minds by Graeme Thomson is published by Constable

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