Album review: Simple Minds - X5

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BOBBY Gillespie knows it, the Manic Street Preachers know it, nouveau goths The Horrors, The Twilight Sad and Sons & Daughters all know it, and so do Simple Minds and even Simple Minds’ mums – early Minds is best.

Eventually, the band gorged too much on The Breakfast Club and it all turned to stadium flab, but those lean, hungry years around the turn of the 1980s when they couldn’t get arrested but produced their most groundbreaking and, as it has turned out, enduring work are the focus of this box set, which gathers together the first five albums (six if you count Sons And Fascination and Sister Feelings Call as separate works), and an accompanying mini-tour which will call in this Saturday at the sacred Barrowland.

X5 keeps things nice and trim. There’s only a modicum of bonus material, comprising rarely heard contemporary tracks or extended versions from the halcyon days of the 12-inch single. The point is to revisit the albums themselves, which represent a substantial and absorbing journey conducted over a mere four years.

Simple Minds’ 1979 debut album Life In A Day is entirely in thrall to Roxy Music, with its audacious glam synthesizer backdrop and a sparing dash of saxophone here and there. Their contemporaries Magazine, another bunch of ex-punks who quickly got bored with the three-chord thrash, had beaten them to the exotic, experimental post-punk baton by a year. With the bouncy US-style new wave of Sad Affair and new romantic pop of early single Chelsea Girl, Life In A Day sounds like the brighter, poppier flipside to Magazine’s creepy paranoia. That said, Murder Story’s urgent stabbing bassline was echoed later that year in Joy Division’s Transmission.

The album was reviewed in the NME under the headline Secondhand Simplicity but was praised as being “importantly timeless”. Positions were quickly redrawn seven months later as follow-up Real To Real Cacophony took a musical quantum leap forward, but Life In A Day still sounds accessible, imaginative and dynamic, like a good debut should.

Although Jim Kerr was still channelling Howard Devoto on the lean funk likes of Premonition, Simple Minds were becoming their own band on Real To Real Cacophony, giving free rein to their experimental impulses on the hectic jabber of Naked, the scratchy sonic safari of Veldt – a hungry cousin to Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk – and the demented carousel keyboards and Station To Station-era guitars of Carnival (Shelter in a Suitcase). They were never to sound quite like this again.

Their next album, Empires And Dance, released almost a year later in September 1980, opens with the unstoppable, ecstatic I Travel, a totalitarian disco mix of Moroder and Marx, which still sounds utterly glorious more than 30 years on. The rest of the album is a mostly brooding Europhile affair, blatantly influenced by the chattering krautrock pulse of Can, Bowie’s Berlin trilogy and the noble pretension of The Doors.

There was then a change of record label (from Arista to Virgin) and producer (from John Leckie to Steve Hillage) for the double bill Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call. Love Song is the highlight of the first set, with its seductive synth ’n’ bass judder and searing guitar interjections, though moody instrumental bonus track The Earth That You Walk Upon is a study in flickering neon, while the portentous torch song Seeing Out The Angel sounds like a bridge from their left-field roots to their mainstream future.

From Sister Feelings Call, the expansive instrumental Theme For Great Cities remains a great period piece, while The American was their biggest number to date. Titles such as League of Nations and 20th Century Promised Land shouted their stadium aspirations. Back in Glasgow, fringes flopped and guitars jangled in opposition to this bombast, and a whole other fertile scene was born.

By the time New Gold Dream appeared a year later, it was lipgloss and blusher all round for their pop breakthrough. The Eno influence is still there on the glacial synths of Colours Fly And Catherine Wheel but New Gold Dream is the first of their albums to yield bona fide hit singles, the properly catchy Promised You A Miracle breaching the Top 20 for the first time.

The grandiose reach of the album, best represented by the indubitably epic title track, would go on to influence U2 in the making of The Unforgettable Fire. Kerr, meanwhile, was in Smash Hits discussing impending fame. Simple Minds were on the commercial up-and-up but, while there would be a couple more classic singles along the road to mid-1980s domination, their formidable salvo of albums had run its course.

So, if you only buy one box set of previously remastered early Simple Minds albums, better make it this one because the Minds don’t come any better than here.

Rating: *****