The art of buying a record sight (or sound, as it were, in this case) unseen is a precarious one. There are those titles where the purchase are solely because the covers are so awesome (Iron Maiden’s Killer and Trio’s debut album immediately come to mind) and then you discover how great the music inside the sleeve.
Then there are those records that you buy because your friends-or some dumbass music blogger-recommend them. This is usually a bit more successful than the cover art method, particularly if your friend or favorite music blogger happen to have an idea of your personal tastes.
When in doubt, always begin your recommendation with James Brown’s Star Time box set.
Finally, there are those sight unseen purchases that are based entirely on the success or experience with previous records. Usually, these are the ones that you put into your shopping cart before the record is even released. The Police’s Synchronicity immediately comes to mind, as at least a dozen friends that I knew of mindlessly pre-ordered an album that had no chance of ever being out of stock.
And until I’d had enough after NYC Ghosts & Flowers, I used to religiously purchase Sonic Youth records the same week they were offered.
But there is one record buy that I’ll never forget which came from the love of one song so awesome that it’s still popular today, and used as a reference point when waxing nostalgic about the 80’s decade.
Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” wasn’t even written by the band, a Scottish outfit that had their obligatory roots in punk rock before changing their sound so dramatically that they are mainly known as part of the New Romantic movement.
Unlike Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet, nobody in
ever heard of Simple Minds. You’d have a couple of geeks that claimed to be
fans since “Promised You A Miracle,” but the reality is that tune barely got
airplay until the band got tapped to sing a Keith Forsey tune that both Billy
Idol and Bryan Ferry turned down previously.
I think that “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” is so good that it would have been a chart-topper even without the help of The Breakfast Club. With that being said, the placement of that song in John Hughes film is priceless, and it will forever be tied with that cultural touchstone.
It was so good that when Simple Minds prepared to release their first album after the enormous success of “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” I was at the front of the line.
Once Upon A Time is a record completely motivated by that fact that it would be gobbled up by schmucks like me, and it’s blatant commercial production was designed with the hopes that something within its paltry eight tracks would stick to the brains of us dumb Americans.
And who better than Jimmy Iovine than to concoct the correct mix for us dumb Americans?
Actually, the downfall of Once Upon A Time isn’t Iovine’s fault at all, because the record sounds positively gorgeous, even a quarter-century later. No, where the record begins to come apart is during the creative conception of the material.
Clearly, Simple Minds had world domination in mind with this record, incorporating elements of American soul, gospel and disco into Jim Kerr’s lyrical activism and social commentary. When there were matters of the heart, Kerr tackles the subject with such a heavy hand.
With “Alive And Kicking,” the record’s first single and most notable entry, finds Kerr with a call and response with vocalist Robin Clark (former Chic vocalist and wife to guitarist Carlos Alomar, for all you Bowie freaks), asking such weighty questions like “Who’s got the touch to calm the storm inside?”
The arrogance of what is nothing more than a simple love song is smothering, so credit Iovine again for matching such pretentiousness with an equally grandiose arrangement.
There’s no way that what you’re hearing on Once Upon A Time started life with the same sounds and tones that you get on record. They are so bloated beyond mortal men that it transcends Simple Minds from a rock band into a slogan, and that slogan has its own soundtrack.
But because that soundtrack is for a slogan with world domination on its mind instead of a detention party for Brat Pack teens, Once Upon A Time rings like a hollow Wyclef Jean charity. The band carries a big megaphone but has very little to say, turning the entire record into less of a Scottish band of socially aware men and more of a farm-league U2.
By the time listeners get to side two, they’re greeted with “Oh Jungleland,” an attempt to channel the youthful musical fruits of
Glasgow from the
perspective of a wise, old sage who witnesses their creativity and drive with
pride and support.
The “wise, old sage” is Kerr, who would have been 25 years old at the time “Oh Jungleland” was written, a fact that does little to add to the credibility of such lines as “You’ve got the love drugs/You’ve got the long nights/You’ve got the heartbeat that spirals to Heaven.”
If there ever was a time to enjoy the “love drugs” and “long nights”, it’s when you’re 25 years old. So the fact that Kerr and Simple Minds were sitting on the sidelines watching such Scottish bands like Orange Juice or Jesus and Mary Chain with envy or admiration is a testament to their own priorities and how much they compromised in their quest to get
to notice them.
Instead of channeling their youthful exuberance into music with passion, Simple Minds chose the route of mainstream acceptance and then had the silly notion that it all had to mean something more than it really was.
Once Upon A Time is the unfortunate result of their lofty expectations, and it wouldn’t be too long before audiences caught wind of the huge gap between Simple Minds’ own self-importance and the reality that their entire career was based on a pop song that even The Fixx turned down.
To even suggest that the band somehow warranted the title of social commentators is utterly ridiculous, yet here they are on Once Upon A Time hiring a big name producer to tidy up their unwelcomed worldview.
Hopefully, all of this narrative and irrelevant back-story paints somewhat of a clear picture of the disappointment in my poor vetting process with this record. Once Upon A Time was clearly intended to capitalize on the success of “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” while forging a path in utter contempt of it.