Sunday 13 April 2014

SIMPLE MINDS: Sparkle In The Rain

(#295: 18 February 1984, 1 week)

Track listing:  Up On The Catwalk/Book Of Brilliant Things/Speed Your Love To Me/Waterfront/East At Easter/Street Hassle/White Hot Day/"C" Moon Cry Like A Baby/The Kick Inside Of Me/Shake Off The Ghosts

“This is where the staring angels go through.
This is where all the stars bow down.”
“Pibroch” Ted Hughes

As I sit here and write there are decisions to be made; and some of those decisions are ones that are national.  Will Scotland stay within the Union, the centuries-old now Union, or will it go, finding itself increasingly alienated from a nation – England – that does so little to truly understand it?  Will there be, as the new phrase suggests, a “conscious uncoupling” of the two come this autumn?

I exaggerate here; of course I do.  Sparkle In The Rain, though, is just one proof amongst many to suggest that those to the south had no real understanding of the album and hence Scotland – aside from Melody Maker, it was panned – and, I would add, it is probably still being misunderstood to this day.  Yes, Scotland – this album couldn’t have been thought up and thence expressed by people from anywhere else.  It is a strange thing to consider in the abstract, but geography is destiny not just in war or agriculture but in that most invisible of things, music, as well.  It is as if the noise, being intangible and weightless, was seeking to tie itself down to something substantial; something equally of spirit and vitality. 

And it is something to try to equal the experience of being in Scotland.  For instance:  by rail, from London, the train passes through the picturesque south with its farms and canal, then through the industrial dense heartland of potteries and heavy metal, and then somehow goes up to the North, stopping first at Warrington, then to Wigan, Preston, Lancaster, Oxenholme (the Lake District), Penrith, Carlisle…and once the train leaves Cumbria, a funny thing happens.  It’s easier to see on the highway, but suddenly Scotland appears.  The air changes.  The emptiness/presence of the land is truer, clearer.  If you can sense it, the change is subtle but very distinct.  (The same change happens when you leave the US, say via Niagara Falls, and go into Canada – straight into the fruit farm section, rural and utterly quiet compared to the bustle of the border.)  In places like this you need to be loud to be heard; you need to be direct.  The huge hills appear, with sheep impossibly high up on them, sheep on hills no farmer would go up, and the words SPACE and PHYSICAL jump up, demanding to be used.  And then eventually the train stops in Glasgow, after going through the eastern towns of Cambuslang and Motherwell, homes to Midge Ure and Neil Reid, homes to so many who would scoff at the word “bombastic” and would rather you used the word “swagger” to describe this album.  Glasgow itself – what I know of it – would agree. 

The Big Music

"The Big Music," according to Mike Scott of The Waterboys, is "about perceiving spirit in the world, about being touched by a sense of the sacred."  While their A Pagan Place hasn't appeared just yet (it will in June) it is remarkable that in this year of years Celtic music should stand for what rock is supposed to be - already we've had the half-Scottish Eurythmics, and now Simple Minds, and Big Country and U2 to come; all of them chasing their own versions of The Big Music, music you can, for lack of a better word, have faith in.  Apart from Echo and the Bunnymen I don't think any English bands were really searching for The Big Music, in that Bill-Drummond-ley-line-tour-there's-more-to-this-world-than-meets-the-eye way.  The Big Music implies risk, a willingness to go beyond, an eagerness to reach out.  Simple Minds already had the sacred in New Gold Dream; Sparkle In The Rain had to become The Big Music in order for that sense of the sacred to come across to a large, huge amount of people.  Hence the cover with its shield with S and M intertwined, as if the band was now off in the world to advance their cause and fight if they needed to.  That might strike some as pompous, but how on earth could Assorted Images design it as a "normal" or "regular" album cover?

And so the album starts with a count-in (when's the last time we've had that?) and the sense that this is indeed a battle.  Drums, piano, bass flood in as if that sacred fount has just been turned on; each repeat sounds like an elevation, a fresh start, a whack on the head.  This is Simple Minds as unified force, marshaled into position by Steve Lillywhite to knock the listener out, in more ways than one.  It is as intense as any Associates song, "Up On the Catwalk" - and really just as coherent, if not angular.  He wants to see the world, to be on stage, to be someone -

--and gaze into the world, to be possessed, to be a part, to have the world of glamour ("Natassja Kinski!") rub off on him.  He wants his Other - his Angel - to be with him, to accompany him.  It is a delirious song, going from Bombay to Brixton, able to see the problems of the world and still have a sense of...not joy, joy is almost too modest a word here.  It's more awe and ambition: "I will be there, I will be there, I will be there" he sings, as if just sheer will and magical repetition is enough.  There is nothing swoony or subtle going on here, it is more as if Jim is in the throes of something much bigger than himself, as if the 2D has become 3D - a feeling that came across to some fans as going over-the-top, of being too...masculine, too hit'-'em-with-a-brick to be sacred, still.  The Big Music implies change though, and ambition, and a need to go beyond the normal.  This is, in case you don't know it already, a LOUD album and it's a disservice to listen to it quietly.  It is also restless, which to some ears can sound too punchy, too exhausting....

...but to someone living in a place where approximately nothing is happening - and yes, I did get this when it came out - it was practically a necessity.  In March of 1984 my French class - minus me - went to Paris for March break.  By the time I got this album I already knew I wasn't going to Paris, I who read French Elle and longed to be French...and was of course pretty good speaking the language, too.  I stayed home and watched the rain - it later turned out it had rained a lot in Paris as well, which was some consolation - and listened to Sparkle In The Rain.  Much later my mom would make up for this near-tragic event (I can just imagine myself walking around in Paris and not being able to shut up about the food - who knows, I may have just had an epiphany there & then and become a patissier or something) but I had this album in the meantime.

And yes, "Book of Brilliant Things" - a song of gratitude for memories, pictures, the glories of the natural world...was it around this time that I saw lightning strike a power pole, producing a shower of pale pink iridescent sparks?  I so wanted that to happen, metaphorically, to me; to be struck by something, elevated, in a town where very little, if anything, had anything vital about it.  Jim Kerr's "bright and shiny" book is the next level up from waking up on those sensuous "brilliant days" - a record, a scrapbook, of everything that really matters.  "Our hearts beat like the wheels of a fast train" that goes "all around the world."  Note there is no limit to the hearts here, or whose hearts they are.  Brilliance belongs to all...

"Speed Your Love To Me" (with Kirsty MacColl on backing vocals) is a leaping song, tireless, as if time itself was of the essence, Jim's vocals once again on the edge of something...scary?  The narrator is out there, sleepless, willing that love to come to him, that incendiary force that is too good, too much, to be believed.  This is love as near madness - "You go to my head!" he sings, stunned, helpless.  This is what happens when The Big Music just takes over.  The song lunges ahead, like a runaway horse, and Jim does all he can just to keep up...

Now, anyone who didn't like this album when it came out was served notice in late 1983 when "Waterfront," the album's first single, was released.  Again the words SPACE and PHYSICAL have to be used in all caps.  I remember hearing this while in my high school library, not far from the cafetorium* where music was played during lunch periods.  I wasn't the only one who turned my head to the door as if to say "what...the...hell????"  The steady, unrelenting bass of Derek Forbes; the larger-than-life-y'all drumming of Mel Gaynor; the sly winking guitar of Charlie Burchill; the total effect, with Jim Kerr sounding like a Glaswegian God, was to feel the wind, the rain, the rough waves crashing, right there.  Yes it's about Glasgow, about the shipyards, about a feeling of loss and need ("so close yet still SO - so FAAAR")...about the ships and the men and the need to get out of the metaphorical rain.  But the waterfront remains, the memories of what it all once meant (Scotland was, as I understand it, already beginning to feel the effects of Thatcher's policies).  "One million years from TODAY!" "Come in, come out of the rain!"  Simple Minds may no longer be New Pop - with this album they are far more New Rock - but these songs of defiance are about something, not just words that go with the rhythms of the songs.

"East at Easter" puzzled me at the time; a delicate song, anticipatory, as if something is about to happen, something not particularly good.  "There's going to lighten up the sky" sounded as if fireworks were going off...and there's the ships moving south, ships from Glasgow perhaps?...but no, this is war.  Thus the anguish, the constant rocking of the child as a protest against war, the two figures walking hand in hand (lovers? parents? soldiers?).  "AAAUGH they're going to lighten up the sky!" Jim cries out, with the even more "And we will go walking HAND IN HAND" as if that walking itself was the last walk ever, a promise of future togetherness, the delicacy of love being tested and toughened up by war (not just in the Falklands but in Lebanon).  The narrator knows what is going to happen, but seems powerless to stop it - that is the source of the real angst.  And, lest we forget, the ultimate and unthinkable lightening up of the sky, which will be one of the main topics of music this year...

And where there's death, there's sex.  "Street Hassle" is a rarity (for now) - a cover that omits most of the NYC Lou Reed talk for the flirty gentle sensuality that is shameless and regrets not a damn thing.  "We need your loving so badly - come on, slip away!" - he skips to the end of the song, with the rings being stolen off his fingers as he sleeps, but not caring about that, the loving being so great that theft doesn't matter.  (Or to be mushy, she totally stole his heart, even though he claims there's "nothing left to say.")  The song is sha-la-la satiny cool, Kirsty MacColl standing in as the voice of the woman.  The song hovers, dips, and focuses on the need for love, even the purchased kind, the love that is real enough but leaves you wanting something more substantial....

"White Hot Day" is a reflection, a remembrance, of the sort of thing that Simple Minds were into before they were the first punks in Glasgow - Gabriel-era Genesis, something majestic and overblown and yet oddly intimate as well, with lyrics such as "In time only time speak for time in time!" Derek Forbes' bass playing is particularly amazing here (Marcello compares him to McCartney) and the whole song is a swirling psychedelic experience of time during a "quiet night of a white hot day."  "A pretty nation sleeps in time" - I cannot help but think of this nation as Scotland, and certainly the bigness and sense of destiny in this song sound Scottish to me.  "Whisper the things that will come our way."  Sun-dazed and bold, this is the kind of song that must have won over one Chrissie Hynde as she saw Simple Minds perform in Australia (during a package tour in early '84 along with Talking Heads and Eurythmics), where she was amazed by them and subsequently met and married Kerr.

After this song, a triumphant and world-wrapping-up one, in comes the doubt.  "'C' Moon Cry Like A Baby" seems to take place before and after the previous song.  A woman is crying, on "the first day of July" (I smile; that's Canada Day, of course) because "something is missing."  All the fine words have been declared and sung and yet, and yet...there is something that cannot be understood at the heart of all this.  Angels sing about the "fast pace" of things, "earth children" sing about how "love will conquer anything" - shouldn't it be the other way around?  No wonder the girl is crying.  The song stops and starts, no longer triumphant, the moon hanging over the whole scene like a symbol of something new (a waxing moon) that is emerging out of the old.  The girl is left alone by the narrator; with a pointed "we" maybe not being the ones who understand what is going on, as opposed to the girl...

...and now one more push, one more try - or is it a confession?  "The Kick Inside Of Me" again leaps out toward the listener, but who is really being addressed?  "You put the storm out that's up in my head" and damn right the song sounds stormy, restless, like being caught in a high wind with rain coming at you from all directions**.  Jim sounds possessed here, something "deep, deeper" inside of him is alive, full of fear, running for its life.  The music crashes around him like that storm, as if the pretty sparkles in the rain are now dangerous, lethal.  Then, the clue:  "And we steal the world and live to survive/shake out the ghosts and turn around/in spite of ME, shake up the ghosts inside of me!"  This whole album has been but a brave whistling by a graveyard, a glorying in a world that is so intense because it has to be; not just to say this is Glasgow or this is Scotland, but this is the end of a moment.

"Shake Off The Ghosts" is the last song, and in its slow, military lament it is as if we are looking at a vast field of monuments, moments, markers.  By February 1984 (this album could've been released earlier, but they held back to avoid the Christmas rush/January lull) the first era of New Pop was done.  Not that all of the bands were gone, not that all the voices were silent, but so much of the promise of the time wasn't fulfilled, second albums were too forward and awkward to fit into the shiny strangeness that New Pop seemed to represent to most listeners and music fans.  Jim runs and runs to escape the ghosts, but they will not go away...not just Curtis and Lennon, but whole scenes that are going, about to go; Altered Images had broken up, Orange Juice had another year or so left, Alan Rankine had left Associates and thus Billy Mackenzie was somewhat adrift...ABC, OMD and Soft Cell had all released albums that didn't strike the public's fancy as much as their previous ones had; Japan had broken up...a great deal of punctum had been produced by these musicians it had not always been understood; hence the more obvious (if I can put it that way) songs of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, with "Relax" being as visceral and engulfing as anything on this album.  But that delicacy of the first wave of New Pop is gone and "Shake Off The Ghosts" shows how impossible it is to get away from them.  The song builds to a terrible climax, as if the sheer multitude of losses and laments is the cause for the overwhelming and urgent songs the rest of the way through the album.  (I expect this is an album best listened to not just loudly but repeatedly.)  

That lament is in short also a lament for the general reception of Scotland in the union, a place that is separate and misunderstood the further south you go in England, a place that gets addressed in this way in 2014 (note the disparaging mark on Simple Minds' actual rivals in Scotland now, Big Country).  To be in Scotland is to see the UK in a very different light, literally and figuratively; it is incredibly spacious and physical in one way, but utterly isolating and profound in another.  Even taking the bus from outside Glasgow, bumping along through Tollcross, seeing Parkhead Cross where Celtic play, passing by the Gallowgate and the Barrowlands where Simple Minds rule, there is nothing inherently grand or pretentious.  There is that feeling in the air of violence, sure (No Mean City is a phrase that has described Glasgow and its secret sister city Toronto as well) but of a kindness and frankness as well.

Sparkle In The Rain is a mirror held up to the city - that swagger of "Waterfront" and haunting exhaustion of "Shake Off The Ghosts" are there even now.  The battle of the album ends with the wounded everywhere, the band seemingly over a cliff, overcome by its own momentum, Jim's "take me away!" desperation to get OUT an ironic comment on the many Scots who had to get out - yet again - as there was no place for them anymore in their native country.  We will go walking hand in hand; the girl cries, she doesn't understand; is it just my imagination; I want to move on up to the front.  Some say we will be together - some say, for a very long time.  Maybe this was only a number one album for a week because it was made by Scots for Scots, and the "we" is Scotland itself, a Scotland that would go on to produce everyone from The Jesus and Mary Chain to Calvin Harris, who at their best also reflect the ineffable qualities of Scotland which aren't that ineffable here, not when Simple Minds are practically throwing them in your face this whole album through.  And still the folks down south don't really understand.  Can it be they could understand?  With the current strategy of Kate Moss speaking for David Bowie at the Brits - when has Bowie even been in Scotland lately? - and the Cameron (for shame, for shame) government's admonishing the Scots as if they are England's children.***

So yes, maybe if more had listened to and understood this album when it came out, things would not be in the lamentable and unnecessary situation they are in today.  1984 is a year pre-programmed to make everything politicized whether that fits or not, and Simple Minds' sometimes vague lyrics are anchored in such force and anger that it is hard not to hear it as a political album.  That it is a white hot album, an album seemingly made in a place that is as elemental as that Hughes poem, still makes it hard going, I'd guess, for anyone who wants something more polite, subtle, modest.  But 1984 is a BIG year and this is the second one to say, from Scotland, that something is happening and there is no point in pretending that it isn't.  Hearing this now is like hearing the distant early warning of a place that is still allied with The Big Music, a place that looks eager to be free of the constraints and pretensions sent to them by the south.  Free from the sort of thing that is coming next...

*Combination cafeteria and auditorium, depending on the school's needs.  The seating patterns at lunch were as unbending as those in the actual classes.  Music was played during the lunch periods, a nice touch in a time when no one had any 'personal listening devices.'     

**For anyone who thinks this album was made to sound more like U2, keep in mind that this song prefigures "Vertigo" by a good 20 years and is a better song, to boot.  Sparkle In The Rain isn't Simple Minds' War, in other words. 

***No praise or encouragement for the coalition; just endless threats of "you can't use our pound" to which I'd like to say "some places in London won't take Scottish pounds already you doughnut."