GREAT LOST ALBUMS: Simple Minds (#5 in an occasional series)
Real to Real Cacophony, the second album by Simple… no, no, wait! Come back! I know what you’re thinking. Simple Minds, shameless and clueless purveyors of vacuous eighties bombast, the people who U2 at their worst (and that’s saying something) employ to make them look good, the band fronted by a braying fool given to dropping to his knees while bestowing upon his burger-and-fries arena flock windswept encyclicals concerning nothing at all? The act formerly known as Johnny and the Self-Abusers? That Simple Minds?
Well, yes. And no. Because before there was that Simple Minds (which began with 1983’s unlovable Sparkle In The Rain and quickly deteriorated) there were two distinct other Simple Mindses, the second of which produced some extraordinary work. Real to Real Cacophony (you’ll have noticed by now that album titles are no more their forte than band names) marks the transition between the two, and it’s beguiling largely because they haven’t quite worked out what it is they’re trying to do.
Released in 1979, RTRC is, I think, the second album by the first Simple Minds more than it is the first by the second. You were hoping I’d clear that up, I can tell. Before it comes Life In A Day, not without appeal but very clearly the sum of its influences, which include Roxy, Bowie, Sparks, Ultravox! (as distinct from Ultravox) – the usual, for the sharper kids of its time. After it come Empires And Dance; the sprawling, Hillage-produced Sons And Fascination / Sister Feelings Call double and their unlikely shimmery pop masterpiece New Gold Dream. These are all ridiculously good. They are as close as any live band since has come to reproducing the methodology and effect of dance, or sequencer, music. And at the time they made these records the reference points for sequencer music were pretty much Kraftwerk and Moroder and that’s your lot, unless you count Jean-Michel Jarre, which I don’t. Thirty years later, all three albums still sound startlingly original, perhaps partly because they remain unplundered by this decade’s crop of archaeologist-necrophiles, who presumably took one listen to the restrained, poised interplay between needly echoplex guitar, efflorescent keyboards and Derek Forbes’s remarkable, snaking basslines* and thought – nah, too much like hard work, let’s get back to trying to copy Joy Division.
Even in 1979 nobody would have described Real to Real Cacophony as “startlingly original”. Having said that, the album’s primary sources have moved on significantly from the overfished Smart Glam waters of the band’s debut to the new music of their post-punk contemporaries. There’s a large debt to the first Magazine album, for instance – bits of Great Beautician In The Sky seem to crop up on each of the first four songs – while the looping bass and powerchords of Premonition sound like nothing so much as… people trying to copy Joy Division. But it’s 1979, don’t forget. Ian Curtis, the corpse who launched a thousand shit bands, is still very much alive, and JD are still very much “just a band”, to borrow a phrase from the Bard, although it’s become clear to anybody who’s paying attention that they are a very fine one. More importantly, Premonition is good: a claim nobody with a valid ear licence would consider making for the likes of Editors or the risible White Lies, who come across just as smug posh boys who have been advised by their marketing consultant that angst sells.
At its best, though, as on the more conventionally poppy tracks like Factory(!) and Calling Your Name, it’s not so easy to pin the tail of influence on this donkey. Best of all is Changeling, which presages the mechanistic sound they’d define and refine over the next two albums (New Gold Dream is something else again), but does so in an incomplete, are-we-there-yet fashion reminiscent of the music New Order (them again!) made in between buying a sequencer and figuring out how to integrate it to their music. Lest anybody mistake this for damnation with faint praise, I’ll stake a quick claim for Temptation being the greatest pop single ever made, although I’ll have to reserve the right to decide tomorrow that it’s actually Party Fears Two, or Biology, or Teardrops, or Hey Ya. Changeling is none of the above, it’s not even close. But then, most things aren’t. And Changeling is very good.
Even at its worst, Real to Real Cacophony couldn’t be accused of failing to entertain. The track Veldt propels the so-bad-it’s-good ethos to heights the likes of Right Said Fred and Neil Hannon can only dream of. I’m speculating like a bastard now, but this is my version of how it came about. You, lucky reader, can play Jim Kerr. Here we go. Band is in thrall to Bowie, particularly the albums from Station to Station onwards. And it’s 1979 (did I mention that?) so Lodger’s attempt to keep the formula afloat with “ethnic” borrowings is the latest tablet to be handed down from the mountain. Anyway, the rhythm section comes up with this boingy, tommydog thing that reminds you a bit of Africa. You decide to put the popular BBC Sound Effects number entitled “Jungle” on top of it. Then you name the track “Veldt”, demonstrating a grasp of the Dark Continent’s geography every bit as firm as you will later show of its politics. But still you feel that something is missing, so you go for flat broke by singing “Day-O!” a few times. I can’t tell whether you’re Jim Crow or Jim Davidson. Or, more encouragingly for you, whether you’re serious. But what’s funniest of all the many funny things about Veldt is that it pre-dates the massively overrated My Life In the Bush of Ghosts by two years, although nobody but a braying fool would assert it to be as ahead of its time as I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts.
Enough already with the convulsing in the aisles. Both of you. It’s unseemly, what with those shiny pates and overcoats. And besides, you’re putting me off writing the obligatory concluding paragraph. I dislike obligatory concluding paragraphs. When I went to university – and I was only 35 at the time, so didn’t know anywhere near as much as I thought I did – they told me that the perfect essay, rather like the brontosaurus, should begin by telling you what it’s about to say, say what it says, then end by telling you what it has just said. Given the limitations on word count (to say nothing of stylistic considerations) this seemed like spectacularly bad advice. But nobody ever went broke, etc. And I’m tired. So here it is. What’s left of it. Real to Real Cacophony is a very good record. The three that come after it are even better. Crafted by unicellular organisms in the primordial swamp of the eighties cusp, they have more in common with Underworld than they have with any of the many artistically-failed versions of U2 we’ve been subjected to over the years. You should hear them. On ecstasy.
(*Singled out because he’s a true original on the instrument every bit as much as his contemporaries Hooky and Mick Karn, but nobody talks about him. Listen to Glittering Prize if you don’t believe me. Nobody plays the bass like that. It’s just not allowed.)