Friday, 24 July 2015

SIMPLE MINDS: Street Fighting Years




(#386: 13 May 1989, 1 week)

Track Listing:  Street Fighting Years/Soul Crying Out/Wall Of Love/This Is Your Land/Take A Step Back/Kick It In/Let It All Come Down/Mandela Day/Belfast Child/Biko/When Spirits Rise


"Students, we came too late. We are sorry. You talk about us, criticize us, it is all necessary. The reason that I came here is not to ask for your forgiveness. What I want to say is that you are all getting weak, it has been seven days since you went on a hunger strike, you can't continue like this. As time goes on, your body will be damaged beyond repair, it could be very life-threatening. Now the most important thing is to end this strike." - Zhao Ziyang, May 19th, 1989


It was an exhausting spring, the spring of '89; none of the signifiers of spring seemed to bring very much calm - not the green grass, the blue skies, flowers, the lilac tree blooming - it felt a bit like living in a picture book, where I was.  Very calm, while outside in the world, it was anything but calm.  It was fine that a spirit of change and freedom was in the air, but you have to have your health to enjoy it, or even fight for it.  By now I was nearly done with Ryerson - as mentioned before I graduated, I had time to do nothing and nothing was about all I could do, recovering from anaemia as I was.  I went out for groceries as my mom didn't feel like doing it (we also, for the first and last time ever, had groceries delivered to us - my mom couldn't drive*, so father's car was useless to us) and at some point I bought - while still having to go to Ryerson for exams - this album.

I remember listening to it on my father's old tape deck - it could record tape-to-tape and it also had a function where you could play a tape on repeat, which is just what I did one day with Street Fighting Years, laying on my bed and trying to gain some sense of things....

I press play and it starts...

A bass; a few notes, then a rhythm, not a fast one, more one that ambles along, with some drums and other percussion joining in; then some guitar and keyboards, and Jim arrives last...and like the rest of the music, his voice is quiet.  This isn't like, say, Sparkle In The Rain at all...

"Chased you out of this world...suddenly you were gone.."  The music gains strength, and his voice introduces the key line and idea - "here comes a hurricane."  No amount of patient Trevor Horn production (for it is he, he who has waited so long to work with them) is going to mask what is going on here.  "Will you look down this way...I need you 'round me."  Charlie Burchill plays the blues, dammit.  The song increases and is like a scene of amazing 360 degree completeness...and then, stops...

...I get a shiver from the new chords as Kerr sings "there's a multitude of candles in the windows of this world" and "we've got panic in the evening...I hear your sister call out (Sister Feelings Call)...don't you think that I don't care and don't you think that I don't know" And finally "I love you, I live for you..." as the song calms down and then resolves itself, eerily.  Some of this is boomed out with that mid-80s voice of Kerr's but mostly it's been softened, hushed, and hidden somehow.  The song is big, and Kerr meets its bigness, but he seems vulnerable, lost, unknown.  The maelstrom is upon us and all his previous music has been powerless to stop it.  The one phrase that sticks out for me here in this late tumult is "things won't be the same."  "I hear big wheels turning" he says twice, as if it is him vs. the machine, and he is doing his best, darn it, to adjust.  But it is tough; these are the "street fighting years" and there is indeed panic on the streets...

"Soul Crying Out" is less a mountain of a song but a documentary.  This album was recorded in Scotland and has, even for Simple Minds, a profoundly Scottish outlook on things.  The rhythms of the street are always what count here, and here is Scotland, facing the Poll Tax a year before England "the government says you have to pay pay pay."  And then, without much warning, these lines:  "I see the woman with tears in her eyes/I hear the baby, crying in the night/Something on the bed, was it something she said..."  And remember this is a man who is married, who has a child of his own.  The world is shrunk down to that trio, and the words of escape - everyone is crying out, crying for relief, for escape - points to domestic disintegration.  (Disintegration by The Cure was #3 behind this album and entry #287.)  He wants "peace of mind" but if you do not have it at home, you do not have it anywhere.  All the chaos of the outside is reflected by the sorrow indoors; or vice versa.  This is a tough thing to pull off, without sounding pathetic, but at the time I didn't know that there was such discord, it was not literal but figurative for me.

"Wall Of Love" is a booming tough song with delicate Horn touches; the Wall is of course in Berlin, and the wall Kerr wants is a new one, not just in Berlin but in "the townships of Soweto."  The "devil with his chainsaw" wants to cut it down, but that wall is going to be built.  "I believe one great day the rain will come and wash this mess away."  Yes, Taxi Driver signifies here, as much as "the prisoner in the wagon while the children chase the dragon."  "There's people making love tonight" he sings as the song ends, but that love, that reaching out, making the wall of love, is somehow still "not enough."

Quiet, then a sound like a gong; a simple line from Burchill, some percussion, and all is calm again.  "This Is Your Land" is like getting out of a stuffy car and breathing in the sea air.  It is also a call to Scottish nationalism, at a time when that was unfashionable.  The rambling lyrics see old people, the sky, the city, the sea and the ancient places.  Then look who shows up but...Lou Reed to say "Money can't buy me...money can't buy me...I've.got.time...time is on my side."  "You don't know what you've got 'til the whole thing's gone, the days are dark, the road is long" says Kerr quietly, and then Reed replies "When you go away, when hope is gone, tell me what is right...what is wrong."  And with that endorsement from a man who knows what it's like to stand for a place himself (hello, New York), Kerr comes back to say once again that you have to take where you live in your hand, to hold it, to possess it - to defend it.  (How many places gain their freedom and independence during this time of uncertainty?)  And yes Lisa Germano comes in at the end with her violin, the song becomes a march, a march to self-determination and independence.  I can't say I knew that much about Scottish nationalism at the time, but the fractals of land on the cover and the multicolored view of a city - is it Glasgow? - inside point to a rethinking of things, of a taking account. 

Bolstered by this, the last song on side one comes in with a drum roll, and who knows what goes on behind closed doors?  Is he singing to the people of Scotland, or to the world or to...one person?  There's the early line about "try to shake the deep foundations of this land" but then we are in that fancy hotel and I can see this through a haze of angry, tearful phone calls and "Take A Step Back" has a new meaning beyond getting a fresh perspective.  Is the narrator - it's Kerr, that's clear - is he the "wanderer" who hears that "the rumors all around, said you're coming back to me"?  Well yes, but it is clear from the music - unsettling, rattling like the train the narrator is on somehow - that it is too late.  "Don't tell me it's a bad dream/"Don't tell me it's not what it seems" - there is an unease at the heart of this song of deceit and of rollercoasters of emotions and actions.  Kerr is the needle in the haystack, elusive, not gracious or accepting, but cold and angry.  The 80s are coming to an end, and a lot is coming to an end with them....

...the tape ch-chunks over to side two.  My room feels a bit small by this point...

"Kick It In" starts with some organ, guitar, synth, sliding up to a beat that is big, ambitious.  Never forget how ambitious this band in; Kerr steps in and sings of a city that is destroying itself, only to build itself up.  Could it be Glasgow?  The city wants you to "spread your love all over town" as he says, and the song is a sprint up a hill, a race down Montrose Street to the very center, a leap across the Clyde itself....and then this pulsing beat disappears for a moment as Kerr sings "Take off with me..."  (This after closing the door so the demons - whatever and whoever they are - won't get in.)  The song stops and pauses, hazy, as the city - not just Glasgow but any city, appears...then song picks up again, and that phrase "new gold dream" appears out of nowhere, as if that dream won't happen without some demolition, some adventure, some renewal.  And the song ends on a heavy note, abruptly, as the work is there to be done and there's only so much that needs to be said....

As the decade ends, there is a sense that there are a few things left hanging that need to be tended to, old losses that are still niggling away that have to be addressed.  The decade is collapsing, caving in on itself, it seems both big and hollow at the same time....

...and "Let It All Come Down" is one of the exit songs of the decade.  If it seems like the sibling of The Korgis' "Everybody's Got To Learn Sometime" then that's due to Trevor Horn, who helped out the band with the song - but this is sung clearly to someone, from Kerr to Hynde (the "get close" is a direct pointer to her Get Close) and it is sung at night, anticipating a sunny but cold morning.  She is crying, and he is encouraging her to cry, to keep crying.  The music is big, ennobling, scary in a way.  If you have ever been in a breakup, on either side, you know how awful it is, how much crying there is, how horrible it can be.  "I cry and cry, and this isn't like the crying all the times before, not lusty and somehow pleasurable.  This is the coldest, loneliest feeling in the world" as Julie Powell puts it in Cleaving.  "All is in control (she's lost control again) love is on the open road...make me wanna live, make me wanna die" he sings as the piano picks up, then moans wordlessly, and comes back to the shining sun, the one spot of light possible.  "So let it all....let all come down" he sings, and the song is quiet and then crashes in, collapses, as Burchill once again plays the blues.  There is nothing left to say.  Words are not meaningless, but this is beyond words.  The main theme, the terrible truth, comes back, or rather looks over its shoulder at the ruins of the song, the end of the relationship.  It is The Korgis' song from 1980 that acted as one of the first songs to mourn Ian Curtis (there are so many that unofficially do this, but the end of the song does refer to Joy Division) and here we are with that grief echoed yet again, circled back to, as if the decade cannot end with at least one more song about his loss.  As bright and shiny as the 80s were, all that is rubbing off now, and it is ending where it began...

"Mandela Day" is, by contrast, a song that looks forwards - it is an act of magical thinking, and it has the light air of something that is confident, hopeful, warm.  It sounds vaguely African without being Paul Simon about it, and was written specifically for the Mandela Day concert in June 1988.  It is a song celebrating his release before he has been released - much as "New Gold Dream" looked to '83 and '84, to a Utopian future.  It has been 25 years, and now he is free; free as he is now so well-known that his fame, even before release, is a kind of liberation.  The sun rises too in this song, but its promise is not the cold one of the previous song, but the warm one of fresh air, no shackles, and liberation not just for him but for all his people...."what's goin' on" sings Kerr at the end, another link back to the past...

Sometimes a song has one meaning, no matter where you first hear it; songs can change in emphasis, however, if you are in a different place than most listeners, and I use the word “place” in more than one sense here…

As I've said at this time I was still living in Oakville - a quiet, modest, reasonably well off town full of people from the UK who had at some point decided to leave and try their luck in Canada. At least two of my father’s fellow teachers at Sheridan College were from the UK, and there were countless others across Canada who left for whatever reason and yet still felt a pull towards home, even if they could not return. To hear a song that explicitly calls for native sons and daughters to ‘come on home’ is perhaps one thing when heard on one side of the Atlantic, and quite another across the ocean. (My favorite Pogues song by far is “Thousands Are Sailing” which also came out around this time; and let’s not forget The Proclaimers’ “Letter From America” that lists the towns devastated as residents moved away, were forced out…)

What to do if your home and native land (to quote “O Canada”) is full of violence? What if you leave? How can you go back when you know very well awful things are continuing to happen? “Someday we’ll return here” he sings, “when the Belfast child sings again.” (Echoing, if a bit clunkily, of all things, “Someday We’ll Be Together.” Part of the confusion of the song is that Kerr sings the verses as someone leaving and then in the chorus as someone encouraging himself and others to return.) This is a song that tugs rather heavily on what is usually buried or not talked about, not without some diligent prodding, and that is the idea of home and where one’s actual ‘home’ is. It is an awkward subject for a song and yet when he cries out “The streets are EMPTY!” and then quietly resigned, nearly whispers “Life goes on…” – that is the punctum for me. Life goes on whether the person – indeed the people – return.

So the picture here is of a man talking to himself in a room, his own heart breaking and being vulnerable – overly-vulnerable you might say – to the quiet and semi-buried misery of others, their own losses and longings. It is as if the shiny yellow New Pop balloon has burst and here he is, seeing the world in a new (fractal and fragmented) way, full of separations. “But all’s not lost!” he sings at one point, however – he still has that “81-82-83-84″ optimism that something is going to change; not right now, but something is going to happen.  And as any exile or expat knows, you are often in the odd position of feeling as if you are in two places at once, and having to make a decision, if you can, as to where you really want to be.  "Belfast Child" is about wanting joy and return and renewal again, but the lumbering quality of the song shows just what a struggle this is.  To miss someone is one thing, but to miss an entire culture and land is another....

And so back to 1980 and Peter Gabriel and "Biko" - Simple Minds toured as support for Gabriel back then, and this is their tribute to him as well as Steven Biko; this album has several of Gabriel's band members on it as well**, so another circle is neatly drawn together.  Simple Minds' version is less stark than the original, but no less felt; if Gabriel introduced many to the horror of his death, then here the horror is known, famous, almost turned into a curse against his oppressors.  There is the sense - all the way through - that something else is being referred to, via the synth/bagpipe skirls.  The fire of nationalism is there, the wind will blow it higher, and indeed something already is happening.  The world is going to change, in this year, in 1990, and in decades to come.  Scotland - the other Other in so many of these songs - is evoked yet again, as Kerr reaches for the quiet in his voice - "gotta wake 'em up, gotta face up - I think you've gotta wake 'em up...never turn away."  And the song ends, puuuuuuuussssssssssssooooooooossshhhhmmmmm, with the finality of a roll of thunder.

"When Spirits Rise" makes all this subtext, text.  An instrumental that has all the bagpipe and drum corps strictness and passion you could want, it lures and ennobles again, as if that Utopian future really is possible if you are already there in spirit, that your energy and determination are always aimed for it.  The calling to a higher consciousness - to a sense that the world is much bigger than your bedroom, and that it includes you, you there eating your defrosted breakfast early on a chilly morning, is one that is not always welcome.  It can seem like a burden, but the promise of the burden is that you will be (paging Public Enemy) doing the right thing.

This album shows the struggle to get to that point, beyond the personal heartaches, or rather through them, to something bigger, something that you can put your heart and spirit into, if only it's a march, a signature on a petition, or an actual action like volunteering or changing a personal habit or method of doing things.  The 80s have come crashing down, and there's a lot of building and refurbishing to do, and the chaos and uncertainty these times have lends itself to both tiny and sweeping gestures. 

As it says on the inner sleeve, "Out there in the darkness, out there in the night, out there in the starlight, one soul burns brighter than a thousand suns."  But you have to stay strong and healthy to keep your soul going, and your spirits up.  This is yet another album that helped to make that possible (for me and others), and I am guessing was only too tangible for those living in Scotland, and other places where weary spirits needed it.  A new decade beckons...              


* My spatial relations are so bad that driving for me is pretty much an impossibility; if I could just walk everywhere I'd be happiest.

**Stewart Copeland plays drums on this song; Mel Gaynor and Manu Katche play them elsewhere.  

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