It was one of the most anticipated Irish gigs of 1983. U2 and Simple Minds were among the main attractions at the old Phoenix Park Racecourse that August.
Bono and friends were well on their way to mega-fame — their War album had yielded several huge songs — and Glasgow’s Simple Minds seemed to be heading in that direction too. During their set, they debuted a new song, Waterfront, which even in its embryonic state seemed to be machine-tooled for stadiums.
Shortly after the gig, they met Steve Lillywhite in Dublin. The Englishman had been on something of a winning streak with U2, having produced their first three albums, although they were about to turn to Brian Eno for The Unforgettable Fire. Lillywhite was taken with Waterfront and its potential to make the band so much bigger.
He convinced them that he was the right person to produce their next album. Lillywhite’s fingerprints are all over the supersized Sparkle in the Rain, the first Simple Minds album to top the UK chart, and the one that made them the biggest Scottish band of the 1980s.
In Themes for Great Cities, Graeme Thomson’s insightful and engaging “new history” of the band, that Dublin meeting with Lillywhite is comprehensively documented. There was a certain reluctance, he writes, for Simple Minds to use a producer as synonymous with U2 as he was, especially as both bands had so frequently been compared with each other.
Ultimately, frontman Jim Kerr decided Lillywhite was the man who would help them refresh their sound. He certainly did that — Simple Minds were never the same again, although Kerr and others would have misgivings about Lilywhite’s none-too-subtle style of production.
It’s a sliding doors moment: what would have happened had they made Sparkle in the Rain with a different producer? Would they have retained the art-rock stylings that made them one of the most revered British bands of the early 1980s? Might they have completely eschewed the bombastic elements that pockmarked some of their most popular songs, including the cringe-inducing Belfast Child?
Thomson devotes the vast majority of his book to the band’s early days and wonderful creativity in the early 1980s. They influenced many — including U2 — and albums such as 1980’s Empires and Dance and 1982’s New Gold Dream should be in the collection of any serious music lover.
Thomson is no stranger to the rock biography, having delivered fine books on several legendary figures, including Phil Lynott and John Martyn. His focus is chiefly on the music, rather than the gossipy stuff around it. It’s the same approach here and he writes with authority and passion about Simple Minds’ best work.
His words will certainly enhance dedicated fans’ appreciation of albums such as Real to Real Cacophony — their first truly excellent long player — and Once Upon a Time, when they were at their commercial peak. And for those of us who haven’t bothered with Simple Minds for some time — preferring instead to obsess over the work of those other Scots, the Blue Nile and Mogwai — Thomson’s clear-headed and artfully conveyed analysis will have you returning to the material. He certainly gave this reader a newfound appreciation for the band.
Several members have come through the Simple Minds revolving door, but the original five are all quoted extensively here and it is the group’s central pair, Kerr and Charlie Burchill, whose recollections carry greatest weight.
There’s much to enjoy about Thomson’s account of the formative years when the memorably named Johnny and the Self-Abusers morphed into Simple Minds. Hearing Donna Summers’ groundbreaking I Feel Love in a Glasgow nightclub in 1977 encouraged the young band to eschew some of their punk rock trappings and embrace synthesisers
Years later, they would work with Keith Forsey, who played drums on Summers’ disco classic. By the mid-1980s, Forsey had become a Hollywood sensation, having written songs for Flashdance and Ghostbusters. He had a new song up his sleeve for a new movie, The Breakfast Club, and wanted Simple Minds to perform it. Initially underwhelmed by the demo, they relented thanks to Forsey’s persistence and power of personality. The result, Don’t You (Forget About Me) topped the chart in the US — a territory that had previously been immune to their charms — and helped make Simple Minds radio titans for the remainder of the 1980s.
It’s curious that the bulk of the book takes place before 1990 — after all, they’ve been a going concern ever since and play Dublin’s 3Arena on April 17. But then, the peak of both their creativity and commercial appeal happened a few years either side of 1985, so perhaps Thomson’s approach is right. Diehard fans might wish for more detail about their adventures over recent decades. For the rest of us, Themes for Great Cities does the job very well indeed.
Music: Themes for Great Cities by Graeme Thomson
Constable, 368 pages, hardcover €24; e-book £10.99