Paranoia And Passport Controls: Simple Minds’ Empires And Dance

Simple mindsArista Records, released 12th September 1980

8/10

Before their mid-‘80s commercial peak, Simple Minds were an art-rock band par excellence.

They fitted perfectly into the post-punk landscape and on Empires And Dance, their third album, they certainly wore their influences boldly on their sleeve – Kraftwerk, Can, Roxy, Joy Division, Eno, Magazine, Velvet Underground, ‘Lodger’-era Bowie – but combined them exceptionally well.

Musically very strong, with Derek Forbes’ memorable basslines very much to the fore, this uncompromising album combines motorik beats with doomy vocals, Eno-style ambience, jagged post-punk guitar and deliciously sludgy synths.

Jim Kerr’s travelogue lyrics compliment the music perfectly, snapshots of bleak European passport controls, attempted assassinations and wintery landscapes. Producer John Leckie brings his usual spirit of experimentation and lays on the brittle, creeping sense of paranoia.

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While the one-chord grooves tire a bit on ‘Today I Died Again’, ‘Celebrate’ and ‘Capital City’, the Euro-funk of ‘I Travel’ and ‘This Fear of Gods’ chills the blood. ‘Twist/Run/Repulsion’ is almost an early example of sampling with its random speech, out-of-phase horn blasts and queasy, looped drums. Kerr channels Bowie’s ‘African Night Flight’ with his high-speed rap (though on the demo he took a different approach).

‘Thirty Frames a Second’ and ‘Constantinople Line’ almost approach the work of Throbbing Gristle and Gary Numan with their garish synth tones and forbidding atmospheres. ‘Kant Kino’, named after a Berlin art-house cinema, pits a slight but very catchy Charlie Burchill guitar melody against amplifier hiss, tape echo and synth drone; Eno would surely approve and the track was possibly an influence on U2’s ‘4th Of July’.

The closer ‘Room’ could almost have come from the first Velvet Underground album (though they could have done with playing to a click track; the song almost doubles in speed by the end…).

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Empires And Dance peaked at 41 in the UK album charts. According to writer Mike Wrenn, it might have gone higher had Arista Records pressed more than just 7,500 copies at a time. The band couldn’t get off that label fast enough (like Iggy Pop).

But Peter Gabriel became a major fan and took them on tour with him throughout October and November 1980, allegedly paying most of their expenses.

Empires And Dance is very interesting album and a great companion piece to Peter Gabriel III and Talking Heads’ Remain In Light.

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4 thoughts on “Paranoia And Passport Controls: Simple Minds’ Empires And Dance

  1. Matt – You are definitely speaking my language here. It’s my favorite album by a favorite As for the band’s paranoia, not only were they going through Checkpoint Charlie on tour, Kerr has said that they were also speeding back int he early days. It is any wonder the album is like a treatise on paranoia?

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    • Hi there, thanks for the comment, I couldn’t agree more. It’s a pretty scary ride. It’s interesting you say that were ‘speeding’ as well as speeding around Europe in their tour bus… Makes perfect sense. Jim Kerr certainly looked wired in this era – in an elegantly-wasted way of course!

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      • Matt – Jim said that their first hearing of Moroder’s “I Feel Love” as a Dj played a set before they took to the stage on an early tour was fueled by wine and cheap speed. They managed to make “I Travel” stand apart from its inspiration very capably. It’s a song that never fails to excite me even after hundreds of plays later.

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  2. For sure. Great stuff. My other favourite of theirs from the ’80s is probably ‘Sparkle In The Rain’ – there’s a good (but short) article about that in this month’s MOJO magazine in case you’re interested. Cheers.

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