Simple Minds: Sparkle In The Rain

After ‘82’s critically acclaimed New Gold Dream, the logical step for Simple Minds would seem to have been to go even further away from their art-rock roots and rush headlong towards some funky ‘sophisti-pop’.

After all, head honcho Jim Kerr is on record as saying that his favourites from the era were Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing, Donna Summer’s two classic 1982 singles and Carly Simon’s ‘Why’.

To that end, Nightclubbing co-helmer Alex Sadkin was eagerly approached to produce Sparkle In The Rain, but he declined, busy with Duran Duran and Thompson Twins work.

Instead, inspired by premiering the pile-driving, Pink Floyd-meets-Doors ‘Waterfront’ at Dublin’s Phoenix Park gig (supporting U2) on 14 August 1983, they turned to producer Steve Lillywhite, chief architect of the Return to Rock that was eclipsing New Pop during summer 1983, courtesy of his work with Big Country and U2.

Lillywhite hastily took them into Shepherds Bush’s legendary Townhouse Studios 2, with Howard Gray engineering. Guitarist Charlie Burchill wrote ‘Herzog’ on the back of Lillywhite’s chair, inspired by his and Kerr’s newfound love of the German director’s ‘Fitzcarraldo’ and its theme of dreams moving mountains. A photo of Nastassja Kinski took pride of place on the control-room wall.

There were regular games of table tennis, Kerr using them to psych himself up for the very adrenalized vocal takes, especially on the hysterial ‘Kick Inside Of Me’.

After previous drummer problems to match Spinal Tap, the excellent Mel Gaynor was a real find for the band. Though quiet in the studio, he was a monster on the kit and also apparently contributed effective keyboard and guitar ideas.

Bassist Derek Forbes was more in the background, spending a lot of time drawing his ‘Dan Yer Man’ cartoons. Burchill allegedly gave him a bollocking about his lack of ‘commitment’; the writing was on the wall for the talented player. He’d soon join fellow ex-Mind Brian McGee in a superb iteration of Propaganda’s touring band.

Tellingly, Sparkle’s songwriting royalties are split five ways, except for a truncated cover of Lou Reed’s ‘Street Hassle’ which jettisons some of the more ‘unsavoury’ statements of the original (shades of Bowie’s ‘Tonight’, recorded a few months later?).

But it’s Gaynor, Kerr and McNeil’s album. The latter provides epic textures, very high in the mix. Kirsty MacColl provides a very welcome ‘girl’s voice’. ‘Shake Off The Ghosts’ was certainly noted by U2. ‘Waterfront’ is brilliant. How many other hits use guitar harmonics for their main riff? (only The Hooters’ ‘Satellite’ comes to mind).

Alongside Empires And Dance, Sparkle remains my favourite Minds album. Yes it’s a sonic ‘experiment’ and most tracks go on for a minute too long, but it’s rooted in strong band playing and delicious ambient textures. And it’s bloody loud.

Released on 6 February 1984, it became their first of four straight UK #1 albums. But they weren’t delivering on the singles front: ‘Waterfront’ only got to #13, ‘Speed Your Love’ #20 and ‘Up On The Catwalk’ #27. With hindsight, their reluctant November 1984 recording of Keith Forsey/Steve Schiff’s ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ was a vital career move.

Minds hit the gig circuit for a very busy summer 1984 tour including a record-breaking (at the time) eight nights at Hammersmith Odeon. This was a very different group to a year earlier. It’s fascinating to compare two ‘Oxford Road Show’ gigs from early 1983 and early 1984:

Gone was the skinny, neurotic Euro art-funk. Kerr was a far more wholesome, energised, welcoming character than before, screaming ‘Charlie Burchill!’ before the regular guitar breaks. He even started the Hammersmith gigs up a pole, Julian Cope-style!

But Kerr quickly disowned this period, citing exhaustion on the part of the band. Stateside success seemed so near yet so far. But then came ‘Don’t You’, Kerr’s marriage to Chrissie Hynde, ‘The Breakfast Club’ and Live Aid. The world was theirs.

Further reading: ‘Simple Minds’ by Adam Sweeting

Story Of A Song: Iggy Pop’s ‘Play It Safe’

Soldier, released 40 years ago this month, was seen by Iggy’s paymasters Arista as a great opportunity for mainstream acceptance.

The Idiot and Lust For Life were now distant memories, and the label’s new head of A&R Tarquin Gotch and big boss Clive Davis were ‘taking an interest’, in Coen Brothers-speak a la ‘Barton Fink’.

As band (including ex-Pistol Glen Matlock and ex-XTC keyboard man Barry Andrews) and crew assembled at the legendary/infamous Rockfield Studios in south Wales, producer and fellow ex-Stooge James Williamson was feeling the pressure, apparently at times brandishing a bottle of vodka in one hand and loaded pistol in the other.

The Soldier sessions were long and laborious. No-one seemed to be steering the ship. Iggy was bored, brooding in deepest Monmouthshire.

Then, one night, the proverbial saloon doors swung open and David Bowie swanned in with trusty assistant Coco Schwab. The mood changed instantly. Iggy lightened up and the old megawatt smile returned.

Around the dinner table, Bowie told the story of John Bindon, friend of the Krays, one-time Led Zeppelin bodyguard, part-time actor, alleged lover of Princess Margaret and possessor – also allegedly – of an unnaturally large appendage.

Iggy was fired up. Next morning, he and Bowie jumped into the studio and cooked up an ironic rumination on the lure of the criminal world, with some choice quotes lifted almost verbatim from Bowie’s monologue.

Originally titled ‘I Wanna Be A Criminal’, it featured a classic Bowie descending chord sequence, icy synths and a superb vocal from Iggy.

Fellow Arista signings Simple Minds, hard at work recording their album Empires And Dance in the studio next door, were enlisted to provide amusing faux-Cockney backing vocals (you can also hear Bowie over the talkback mic at the song’s outset).

Some of the more libellous words about Bindon and Princess Margaret were later excised (Bowie apparently sidled up to Iggy at New York’s Mudd Club in early 1980 and begged him not to include them) and the song was finally released as ‘Play It Safe’, possibly Iggy’s self-conscious comment on his loss of nerve.

But he still mustered a brilliantly insane ad-lib towards the end:

Rockin’ and reelin’ like Al Capone
Slippin’ and slidin’ like Joey Gallo
Movin’ and groovin’ with the Son Of Sam
Splish splash, I was Jim Jones!

Bowie had once again inspired his friend to create some of his best – if hardly commercial – work, and the best track on Soldier (though I also have a soft spot for ‘I’m A Conservative’).

The album stalled at #62 in the UK chart and made a one-week appearance at #126 in the US, hardly a success in terms of making Iggy a mainstream concern. He stuck around on Arista for one more record, the forgettable Party.

Predictably, it was Bowie who would again inspire Iggy four years later to create his most effective album of the 1980s: Blah-Blah-Blah.

The 13 Most Unlikely Number Ones Of The 1980s

Number ones: they were the G-spot of all ’80s pop action.

Anyone brought up on Bowie or Bolan’s ‘Top Of The Pops’ shenanigans could die and go to heaven if they achieved a chart-topper (except for The Human League’s Phil Oakey, who reportedly smashed his phone after being told ‘Don’t You Want Me’ was #1 in America…).

And we can probably all still remember the wow factor of singles going ‘straight in at #1’ in the 1980s (pop quiz: how many can you name? Only The Jam’s ‘Town Called Malice’  and Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Two Tribes’ spring to mind…).

But there were some damn weird UK number ones during the decade, in all kinds of styles. For every Madonna (a record-breaking six solo chart-toppers, though George Michael had a ‘hand’ in eight), there was a Goombay Dance Band. For every ‘Two Tribes’ (most weeks at #1 in the 1980s: nine), there was an ‘It’s My Party’.

Here are some of the strangest, in chronological order:

13. Kenny Rogers: ‘Coward Of The County’ (12th February 1980)

There was definitely a country ‘thing’ going on in the UK at the turn of the decade, especially in Scotland. But surely no-one could have predicted the success of this slow chugger, beautifully sung though it is.

12. Don McClean: ‘Crying’ (17th June 1980)

After Roy Orbison but before k.d. lang, there was Don’s sepulchral take on this evergreen tearjerker…

11. Joe Dolce Music Theatre: ‘Shaddap You Face’ (17th February 1981)

We’ve discussed this masterpiece a few times before on movingtheriver.com…

10. Smokey Robinson: ‘Being With You’ (8th June 1981)

Who would have predicted Smokey would hit so big with this charming but not exactly earth-shattering mid-tempo ballad? But hey, let’s celebrate it: this was his first – and to-date only – solo UK #1.

9. Dave Stewart/Barbara Gaskin: ‘It’s My Party’ (13th October 1981)

This was the first thing keyboard wiz Stewart recorded after leaving Bill Bruford’s techno-fusion band and it sounds like it. Certainly one of the weirdest covers of the decade, emphasised by the drummer’s (Bruford?) insane opening fill at 1:02.

8. Goombay Dance Band: ‘Seven Tears’ (23rd March 1982)

No words (apart from those…and those…).

7. Jim Diamond: ‘I Should Have Known Better’ (25th November 1984)

The Glasgow-born singer made it to #1 for one week with this peculiar ballad, replaced fairly swiftly by Frankie’s ‘The Power Of Love’. He sportingly requested that punters stopped buying his single and buy Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ instead, which swiftly became 1984’s Christmas #1.

6. Phyllis Nelson: ‘Move Closer’ (28th April 1985)

UK singles-buyers have always had a thing for soft soul ballads, but this still seems like a particularly peculiar smash hit. Having said that, if it had been revealed as a cover of an early Prince track, no one would have been that surprised.

5. Jackie Wilson: ‘Reet Petite’ (21st December 1986)

There’s no question about the quality of this life-affirming ditty, but the R’n’B/rock’n’roll revival of 1986/1987 was strange and unexpected.

4. Fairground Attraction: ‘Perfect’ (4th May 1988)

Imagine the pitch: it’s in a swing/jazz style, it’s going to be recorded live in one take, there’ll be no keyboards on it and the drummer will play brushes throughout. And don’t forget the brilliant, none-more-Scottish video.

3. Enya: ‘Orinoco Flow’ (23rd October 1988)

Enormo-selling – but still completely bonkers – single by the singer/songwriter who had previously been a member of Celtic band Clannad. It was the lead-off single from her second solo album Watermark.

2. Marc Almond/Gene Pitney: ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’ (22nd January 1989)

It’s the sheer audacity of this duet which beggars belief. On paper, it looks like a crackpot idea – two of the ‘edgiest’ male vocalists on the planet letting it all hang out, metaphorically speaking of course… But it was #1 for four weeks. (FOUR weeks? Check that… Ed.)

1.  Simple Minds: ‘Belfast Child’ (19th February 1989)

A theme of the tracks on this list seems to be that they’re almost all slow-burners – they would barely survive the Spotify ‘grab-’em-in-the-first-five-seconds’ rule. But this nearly-seven-minute epic still delivers, 30 years on.

The 17 Worst Cover Versions Of The 1980s

We’ve looked at some of the good covers of the 1980s before – but how about the stinkers?

Reader: I’m pleased to report that finding them was not an easy task. A quick Google survey of ‘worst covers of all time’ will not reveal many from the ’80s (no, Rockwell’s version of ‘Taxman’ really isn’t that bad…).

But the variety of crap covers is worth noting. In the 1980s, anyone was liable to produce a shocker, from the ageing chart regular to the littlest indie.

Some took them to the toppermost of the poppermost – indeed most of the below were big hits. But of course familiarity breeds contempt…

Most of these efforts, though, smack of both desperation and a dearth of material. The net result is usually a kind of audio shrug. And hey, there’s also that other reliable, recurring theme – the overproduction of post-1985 offerings…

So let the countdown of dodgy ’80s cover versions commence, with this curio:

17. Tin Machine: ‘Working Class Hero’ (1989)

Pointless cover which is one of several fillers on the ‘difficult’ second side of Bowie’s rather good band debut.

16. The Power Station: ‘Harvest For The World’ (1985)

Interesting to hear Robert Palmer challenge himself range-wise but his hysterical vocal and the band’s rather limp arrangement remove all of the majesty of the Isley Brothers’ original.

15. Simple Minds: ‘Sign O’ The Times’ (1989)

Desperately tries to be hip but just comes across as a bit desperate. Jim’s hysterical vocal doesn’t help.

14. Aztec Camera: ‘Jump’ (1984)

Why oh why, Roddy? Some grotty Linn drum programming and an insipid vocal on a pointless Van Halen cover which takes away all the fun of the original. Maybe that’s the point.

13. The Communards: ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ (1986)

I’m reluctant to diss the brilliant Jimmy Somerville but this cover of a Philly classic just drove one to distraction, not helped by the desperately upbeat video.

12. Yazz: ‘The Only Way Is Up’ (1988)

A ghastly version of Otis Clay’s 1980 post-disco classic which seemed to stay at #1 for an eternity…

11. The Housemartins: ‘Caravan Of Love’ (1986)

The concept is a good one – Isley Jasper Isley’s brilliant original was an electro/gospel mashup crying out for an a cappella – but Paul Heaton’s lead vocals and a very unadventurous arrangement scupper this UK #1 from the start.

10. The Flying Pickets: ‘Only You’ (1983)

Yes, it’s the other a cappella song to hit UK #1, but where to start? How about: out-of-tune vocal stacks (and a very unsubtle use of Fairlight vocals) and a chronically unhip bunch of guys? Oh, and it also came out too soon after the Yazoo original.

9. Pet Shop Boys: ‘Always On My Mind’ (1988)

Effective but gross cover, and of course another UK #1 single. Like gorging on cream cake, there’s a brief rush but then a lingering nausea. It’s also arguably the point where the Boys became an ’80s brand rather than a unique songwriting force.

8. Dave Grusin: ‘Thankful ‘N Thoughtful’ (1984)

Sly & The Family Stone’s gospel/funk classic becomes a robotic downer in the hands of the smooth jazz keyboard maestro. Even Marcus Miller’s bass playing can’t save this.

7. Bomb The Bass: ‘Say A Little Prayer’ (1988)

An on-the-nose, in-your-face curio which never convinces. The vocals just set my teeth on edge right from the off. But it still got to #10 in the UK.

6. Bananarama: ‘Venus’ (1987)

See 9.

5. Rick Astley: ‘When I Fall In Love’ (1987)

This was the 1987 Christmas #2 and, to be fair, it was only Rick’s third single. But it was asking a lot of the lad to take on Nat ‘King’ Cole. And whose idea were the horrible fake strings?

4. Kim Wilde: ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ (1986)

See 6 and 9.

3. Gary Numan/Leo Sayer: ‘On Broadway’ (1984)

This is so bad it’s almost good. But only almost. You can’t help but feel sorry for these two gents whose careers had gone properly arse-over-teacup by this point. Numan fans in particular must have been hiding behind the sofa.

2. Band Aid II: ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ (1989)

Stock Aitken & Waterman were tasked with updating this one, coming up with a pointlessly-reformatted, boil-in-the-bag cover without any of the original’s musical grace notes, though singer Matt Goss gives a good account of himself.

And…badly-played drum roll…the worst cover of the ’80s is…

1. Thompson Twins: ‘Revolution’ (1985)

The Twins go rawk, with disastrous results. It was also the point where they started to believe the hype – always a bad move. Tom Bailey’s lead vocal is a travesty and it’s also a bum note in Nile Rodgers’ production career.

1980s Pop: The Best Bits

Earworms: ’80s pop was chock-a-block with ’em.

Studio technology was blossoming fast and there was constant temptation (and pressure?) to come up with new sounds. Fairlights, Emulators, Synclaviers, gated snare drums: there had never been more ways to skin a cat.

But woe betide the ’80s popster who neglected the basic tenets of songcraft; the trick was coming up with memorable ‘bits’ that fitted seamlessly into a track and bore repeated listening.

Thankfully, for every what-does-this-button-do novelty hit, there was a genuinely innovative, memorable pop confection.

So here’s a compendium of good bits from the 1980s, details that mark the decade out as a unique musical era. The rules: one artist per slot and every song has to have made the UK or US top 40 singles chart, or both…

36. Lee Thompson’s sax in the second verse of Madness’s ‘My Girl’

35. Marc Almond’s spoken-word line in Soft Cell’s ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’

34. Mel Gaynor’s volcanic snare-drum fill after the breakdown in Simple Minds’ ‘Alive And Kicking’

There’s a similar eruption in ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’, but this one wins out for sheer audacity. I wonder what ‘anti-muso’ co-producer Jimmy Iovine had to say about it… 

33. The fade of The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’

32. The Middle Eastern-sounding synth riff in Blancmange’s ‘Living On The Ceiling’

31. Steve Jansen’s marimba solo on Japan’s ‘Ghosts’

30. Mark Knopfler’s lead guitar at the tail end of Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo And Juliet’

29. Martin Drover’s trumpet riff on Adam Ant’s ‘Goody Two Shoes’

28. The bassline enters at 0:20 of The Cure’s ‘Love Cats’

Phil Thornalley is a veritable Zelig figure in ’80s pop, but even he couldn’t have imagined that his superbly simple-yet-complex bassline (try playing along) could have had such an impact on this stand-alone UK top 5 single.

27. Martin Fry’s hysterical ‘You think you’re smart/That’s stupid/Right from the start/When you knew we would part!‘ at the tail end of ABC’s ‘Poison Ivy’ 

Pointing the way forward for similar outbursts from Jarvis Cocker et al.

26. The weird coda of Stephen Tin Tin Duffy’s ‘Kiss Me’

Just when you thought this slightly-annoying-but-effective UK top 10 single was all done and dusted, there’s that menacing little DX7 kiss-off…

25. Melle Mel’s laugh-rap on Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’

24. The guitar riff on The Pretenders’ ‘Back On The Chain Gang’

The jury seems to be out on whether Billy Bremner or Robbie McIntosh played this (answers on a postcard please).

23. Pino Palladino’s opening bass salvo at 0:04 of Paul Young’s ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ 

22. David Williams’ guitar break on Michael Jackson’s ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”

21. The jangling piano motif of Associates’ ‘Party Fears Two’

Who came up with this weird brilliance? For a generation of listeners, it’ll always be the theme to BBC radio’s ‘Week Ending’.

20. The post-chorus drum fills on It Bites’ ‘Calling All The Heroes’

Deceptively simple (leading with the left hand is not easy for a right-handed drummer), tasty fills from Bob Dalton, the Cumbrian four-piece’s sticksman.

19. The backing vocals at 1:45 of Quincy Jones’ ‘Razzamatazz’

Patti Austin’s kaleidoscopic overdubs on the Rod Temperton-penned single which reached #11 in the UK chart.

18. ‘Heeeere’s Grace!’ on ‘Slave To The Rhythm’

17. ‘Science!’

Dr Magnus Pyke’s outburst on Thomas Dolby’s ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ still raises a titter, but apparently he quickly came to regret his contribution to this US #5 single.

16. The Emulator string stabs which close Paul Hardcastle’s ’19’

Sending us out into that good night with a chill in the heart…

15. The spoken-word bits in Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s songs

Take your pick from: ‘Well ‘ard!’, ‘Are you flipping me off?’, ‘In Xanadu did Kublai Khan/Pleasuredome erect!’ or my favourite: ‘In the common age of automation, where people might eventually work ten or twenty hours a week, man for the first time will be forced to confront himself with the true spiritual problems of livin”!

14. Neneh Cherry’s cockney accent on ‘Buffalo Stance’

13. The Sweetbreaths’ backing vocals at 1:36 on Tom Tom Club’s ‘Wordy Rappinghood’

Tina Weymouth’s sisters Lani and Laura bring the silliness, interpreted by Google thus: ‘Ram sam sam, a ram sam sam/Guli guli guli guli guli ram sam sam/Haykayay yipi yaykayé/Ahou ahou a nikichi’.

12. Bill Wyman’s French accent in the chorus of ‘(Si Si) Je Suis Un Rock Star’

Or the whole damn song really… 

11. Stevie Wonder’s harmonica solo on Eurythmics’ ‘There Must Be An Angel’

Is there any musician in pop music history who has better communicated pure joy?

10. The ‘Hey!’ sample on Art Of Noise’s ‘Close (To The Edit)’

Not the Noise’s Anne Dudley apparently, but Camilla Pilkington-Smyth (Who she? Ed.). A song of good bits.

9. The ‘Oh yeah!’ sample in Yello’s…’Oh Yeah’

8. Eric B’s ‘Pump up the volume!’ on ‘Paid In Full’

7. That Phil Collins drum fill on ‘In The Air Tonight’

It’s always a bit louder than you think it’s going to be…

6. Roy Bittan’s flanged piano on David Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’

5. The banshee-wailing on The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’

It’s a close call between that and the haunting air-raid sirens at the end.

4. The whistling on XTC’s ‘Generals And Majors’

Real whistling or a synth? Who cares? Colin Moulding’s song has more great pop hooks than you can shake a stick at.

3. Abby Kimber’s cod nursery rhyme at the end of Bucks Fizz’s ‘Land Of Make Believe’

2. The synth riff of Human League’s ‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’

1. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s funky piano on David Sylvian’s ‘Red Guitar’

Aces Of Bass in Early-’80s Britpop

mark_king_1988_tel_aviv_israelWatching the superb reruns of ‘Top Of The Pops’ recently, it’s apparent how many great bass players stormed the UK charts during the early/mid-’80s.

Everywhere you looked, there were hip, young four-stringers with good haircuts and some nifty licks (or ‘kids with a riff’, as Robert Palmer called them).

Though very much under the twin influences of Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Jaco Pastorius, a whole host of ’80s players managed to forge some truly original sounds while clearly utilising the feels and techniques of both American bassists.

Here’s a smattering of great British players of the period (more from across the pond soon) with a few of their enduring performances. Make sure your subwoofer is turned on…

9. Mick Karn

By Japan’s 1979 Quiet Life album, the man born Andonis Michaelides had become one of the most original fretless players of all time, effortlessly bypassing the Jaco template. His lines were also absolutely integral to the band’s formula and eventual success. This minor hit demonstrates his melodic approach (though somehow he was denied a songwriter credit) and his playing reveals new discoveries even 35 years on.

8. Tony Butler

Shepherds Bush-born Butler brought something very unique to ’80s rock and pop with his band Big Country. He also formed a key rhythm section alongside drummer Mark Brzezicki. Check out his bouncy, almost dub-style rhythmic approach on this beautifully structured bass part.

7. Derek Forbes

The hyperactive Glaswegian just couldn’t stop coming up with classic early-’80s basslines. After his departure from Simple Minds in 1984, he also added some quality low-end work to Propaganda’s touring band.

6. Guy Pratt

The Artful Dodger of the early ’80s bass scene, Guy cut his teeth with Icehouse before breaking out to play with everyone from Madonna to Pink Floyd. This quirky 1984 hit is a compilation of all his licks and tricks – producers seemed to like his ‘more is more’ approach…

5. Graham Edwards

According to Pratt’s great ‘My Bass And Other Animals’ book, Edwards was always going up for the same gigs as him back in the mid-’80s. Now an almost forgotten name, he played some excellent stuff in Go West’s live band and also shone on this underrated gem:

4. Pino Palladino

Pino’s highly melodic fretless style had already graced megahits by Gary Numan and Paul Young by the mid-’80s, but this always seemed like his most intense, distinctive groove, with more than a hint of Bernie Worrell/Parliament’s ‘Flashlight’ about it.

3. Mark King

Mr King has to be in this list. Though best known now for his formidable slap technique, his crisp, fluid fingerstyle lines were just as distinctive, not least this Eastern-tinged salvo which really sums up the spirit of 1982.

2. Colin Moulding

The XTC man’s flowing, melodic style showed that he was a worthy heir to Paul McCartney. No matter how ‘standard’ the chord changes, you could rely on Moulding to come up with something memorable.

1. John Taylor

Like or loathe Duran Duran (I have to say I was usually of the latter persuasion), Taylor certainly came up with some memorable if somewhat samey grooves (as gleefully parodied by Mr Pratt), finding a pleasingly-understated style on this minor classic.