Simple Minds’ masterwork Once Upon a Time reaches a noteworthy milestone turning 30 in October of this year. Where does time go? In many ways that question is appropriate when considering the album. Time, its passing and the changes it brings were an underlying theme of the release. It becomes immediately apparent that the 30th anniversary re-release deluxe box set of Once Upon A Time is spectacularly prolific. The release is filled with remixes, demos, live concert recordings and interviews. The deluxe box set is available on December 4th and is a must have for Simple Mind’s aficionados. Included among the embarrassment of riches are 5 CDs, a DVD, unreleased materials, b-sides and new interviews with Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill. Also included in the box set is the amazing live recording of Simple Minds in Paris called Live in the City of Lights. This live recording is one of the best concert recordings of any band of the 80’s era, as it captured the band at its Everest peak of success and displayed all the power of the band in concert.
Let me take you back to the summer of 1985 an exciting time for Simple Minds, Live Aid would take place in July and Simple Minds had been the first band asked to perform at the Philadelphia venue of the event. The request was generated by the band’s recent capturing of the public’s attention with the unexpected hit, the Keith Forsey written Don’t You Forget About Me off of the Breakfast Club soundtrack. Those familiar with the back story know the band was somewhat abashed by the song’s popularity; so much so that the song would not appear on Once Upon A Time. That tune was a great devise in opening up the US for the band and building anticipation for the forthcoming album. It also allowed the band to snag the production “dream team” of Jimmy Iovine and Bob Clearmountain.
The band had already tasted success in the UK and Europe but until the event of Don’t You Forget About Me had only a small cult following in the States. That had all changed with the success of the soundtrack single. However it was a mixed blessing in that “Don’t You” provided definite opportunities for the band but also many drawbacks; the major one was the danger of being pigeonholed with a sound that was not exactly a good fit with the band’s prior discography,. In addition a conscious turn to a full on pop mainstream sound would lose long time fans. The band in opposition to advice decided not to include the song on the album. The decision not to include the song on Once Upon A Time is as contentious now as it was then for many critics and fans. The success of Don’t You Forget About Me changed the landscape for the band and it was going change even more drastically with the release of Once Upon a Time.
Simple Minds convened in May of 1985 to do the rough work on what would be their seventh studio album and followed up the scintillating Sparkle In the Rain. At The Townhouse in London, the band began the initial formal recordings for a majority of the songs on the release. Plans were then made to finish the album in Bearville Studios in Upstate New York which happily coincided with the band’s live appearance at Live Aid. The day after their splendid Live Aid performance, the band entered the Bearville Studio to finalize the recording. Simple Minds at that point was comprised of; Jim Kerr vocals, Charlie Burchill guitars, Mick MacNeil piano and synths, Mel Gaynor drums and backing vocals and John Giblin on bass. It was at Bearville that Iovine suggested the addition of Robin Clark from the band Chic, Michael Been of the band the Call and The Simms brothers, Frank and George for additional vocals. With all the parts now in place Simple Minds would go on to create the musical magic that would be Once Upon a Time.
Once Upon a Time shot out of the gate with its release. The album catapulted the band into the musical stratosphere of the time. Prior releases New Gold Dream and Sparkle In the Rain had set the band up for success and “Once Upon a Time” took the band over the top. Simple Minds with the album captured the zeitgeist of time. The band fully understood that their close up had arrived and ran to it with open arms. How successful was the release? It sold 2 million copies in the first two months worldwide. It was #1 in the UK and broke the top 10 in the US; it produced 4 top 10 singles and a 15 month world tour. In the UK it went triple platinum by 1996, Gold in the US in 1986 and in Canada double platinum in 1986.
It had taken almost a decade since their formation in 1977, but the band had finally reached Rock music’s pinnacle. Once Upon A Time’s title track opens up with a kicking scintillating musical intro and Robin Clark’s great voice. Drummer Mel Gaynor unleashes his percussive artillery building to Kerr’s opening vocal, he proceeds to swoop and croon in and out of the accompaniment. This track sets the tone for the joyous, ponderously reverent and energetic album. The song itself sets up the theme of the changes time brings as it ever races on into the future; “that’s time, time looked around itself, time got excited that’s when we all got started.” The song was additionally a contemplation on God’s fairness and why the good sometimes suffer and the bad prosper. It is a powerhouse song that showcased each member of the band’s strengths.
All The Things She Said opens with a signature Simple Minds’ wonky keyboard. There is a back and forth call and response between Kerr and Clark’s vocals. One side is attesting to how the world is and the other describing how we wish it to be. One side says everything and everyone is going to straight to hell, the other side says the opposite and that heaven is only around the corner. Kerr ever the optimist points to the beauty of the world in the elegant lyrics,” Tell me about the ocean moving in slow motion, I see it glitter in the sun and it is freezing in the moon light, never look back never look back.” It is no secret to many fans of the band that there are underlying themes of Christianity running throughout many Simple Minds songs, and this is one. Kerr performs a beautiful balancing act of delivering those themes very deftly without preaching; making for an inspiring and glorious song.
Ghostdancing takes some of it influence from the term “Ghost dance”, which was originated in 1889 by the Paicute prophet dreamer Wovoka. He had announced that the return of the departed and the ousting of the white man would be hastened by dances and songs revealed to Wovoka in spiritual visions. Kerr took that concept and combined it with pondering about the wrongdoings of western civilization. The song suggests possibly that there would be a better day if wrongs were righted in places like South Africa, Ethiopia and elsewhere. The track itself contains outrageous energy and Burchill’s guitar work is spectacular. Kerr also makes the wry point that reality and happy endings are not an inevitable conclusion. There were serious subjects addressed in the song, but it is so amazingly constructed that the song is uplifting and not the downer one would expect.
About the time most albums typically mellow out, the band counter intuitively unleashes an even more dramatic tune with Alive and Kicking an undoubted anthematic stadium rocker. It is the quintessential Simple Minds song. The anticipation builds and builds in the song and pays off enormously in the chorus. Kerr is just barely tethered to the earth as his vocal takes off. The song is all about holding on to hope through life’s adversity, hanging on for the hope of a new day. “You take me home to where the magic is from.” In some ways the keyboards on the song mirror “Don’t You” till the explosion of sound later in the song which ends the comparison. This song can still produce goose bumps and the version on Live In the City of Lights is even more enthralling.
A song that many critics of the era cited as a Springsteen inspired tune was Oh Jungleland which in fact was a song that most reflected the band’s New Gold Dream era. The gritty lyrics spoke to poverty in the third world and the universal desire to escape. “But there’s a kid called Hope, he’s holding out his hand, he sees the northern lights above this high rise land.” Kerr was able to again balance the political message of the song with hope for a better day. The track is simply filled with pure adrenalin. I Wish You Were Here could be taken two ways, pleading for a missing lover or for the return of Christ. It is a song with obvious Christian themes. The song pointed out how civilization never seems to get better which leads to Kerr’s desire for Christ to return to repair a messed up world. The song is filled with punctuated drums and an ebb and flow bass guitar that built an amazing accompaniment.
Sanctify Yourself was a song that displayed what a different ethos was at work during the time of its creation. In popular music culture today could you imagine a rock group putting out a song with the main theme being the process of becoming holy and have that song become a top 10 hit? The song married a righteous dance beat with Kerr pleading to the better angels of our nature to turn from evil to good. “Control yourself, love is all you need, control yourself, in your eyes, sanctify yourself, be a part of me, sanctify yourself, sanctify, sanctify yourself set yourself free.” The song in the final verse speaks to helping those in poor circumstances, “…Giving hope and making more chances, well I hope and pray that maybe someday you’ll come back down here and show me the way.” Kerr totally sells the song’s theme without embarrassing himself, because he is completely heartfelt in his desire. The track is a revival set to song and utterly uplifting in its message.
Sanctify Yourself segues into Come A Long Way featuring Kerr’s vocals backed by a samba percussion that ushers the album to its end. Kerr’s vocal harkens to Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music on the track. It is a summation of the themes of the album. The track examines time and how things never seem to change but can change in an instant. There is an engaging coda at the end that brings the spectacular album to a perfect conclusion.
When taking into consideration the popularity of the album it is safe to say it is Simple Minds’ masterwork. The band would continue to have stellar releases; their latest Big Music is a fine example of the unsurpassed works the band produces no matter the whims of popular music. It has always been clear that the band makes music they love and that comes before any other considerations. Once Upon a Time is the Simple Minds album that contained everything that characterizes the band; Burchill’s always mesmerizing guitar work, Gaynor’s arm of the god’s artillery drumming, Kerr and his ever emotive and heartfelt singing and lyrics, MacNeil who was dead on with the keys and Giblin who added the bump and funk to the rhythm, and let us not forget Clarke’s stellar additional vocals. Simple Minds on Once Upon a Time were at the very crest of the musical wave where their musical stylings matched the zeitgeist of the time perfectly. Looking back after 30 years it is both inspiring and timeless.
There is another whole article that could be written about the band’s fortunes after Once Upon A Time. Opinions vary about whether success hobbled the band for a period after its event. An undeniable fact is that for an all too brief period in 1985/1986 Simple Minds ruled the charts and the music world. To take a twist on the title of their earlier effort, they were truly at that time Sparkle in the Rain. If I have to rate Once Upon A Time it earns a wholehearted 10/10. The 30th anniversary deluxe box set is an apt and deserving tribute to the Masterwork.