If my list tends to skew 1980s pop at moments, it’s because I grew up in the 1980s with little more than a boom box where I ripped hundreds of hours of radio, plus several episodes of Video Hits (my boom box had a built-in mic. Yes, I did pretend to be a DJ like John Peel. Except I had no clue who John Peel was then. Casey Kasem or Rick Dees were more likely). I had parents who fed my ears with classics ( the Beatles and Tchaikovsky). It was in my teenage years in the 1990s where I began to expand my musical knowledge. It’s when I discovered that Simple Minds were more than the band who sang that totally awesome song in the John Hughes movie which is one of my top five movies of ALL-TIME!!!!! and so on.
The strange power of The Breakfast Club and it’s one truly great musical moment, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” (1985) continues to dominate Simple Minds’ career. It wasn’t even their song, really, they didn’t write it. But it was symptomatic of what the band had become, starting with the brilliant pop of “Waterfront” (1984) and slowly went down from there. Before 1982, Simple Minds were interesting. They were arty, post-punk, weird. Really weird. They still had a few years to go before selling their souls completely. The bridge between Real to Real Cacophony (weird is putting it nicely) to the atrocity that is “Belfast Child” (1989) are a series of really good pop albums with some really good songs. Listening to New Gold Dream is a frustrating thing to do, because they balanced perfectly on this album, and they went on to murder a folk classic only seven years later by stripping it of its lyrical content and replacing it with a political screed.
I might keep falling back on “Belfast Child” as a crime against music. Because it was.
The melodies are interesting on New Gold Dream. Some have accused the album of being pretty melody free, but that seems to be a reaction to the fact they are atypical. We’re not talking pop melodies of the highest order. We’re talking melodies that zag where they should zig, dip where they should hold steady, leap when they should pirouette. Yes, there are synthesizers and pop sheen. There is a vibrancy to the music, it’s not oddly angular nor is it a schmaltzy weeper loser. Fantastic album cuts like the darker “Big Sleep” play with the poppier dance singles like “Promised You A Miracle”. Jim Kerr’s vocals are still hiding under the melodies and propulsive beats, but occasionally he peeks out and gives you a hint of sun amidst the inimitable baritone. The bass lines are rich and heavy, the drums militaristic and sharp.
If anything, New Gold Dream defines for me the story of the mid-80s pop scene. Interesting acts who sprung out of the post-punk era saw the dawn of the MTV era and decided to become pop acts. One cannot blame them- cocaine is an expensive drug, models like expensive gifts. Why would you want to be the Clash when you could be Duran Duran. It’s no coincidence Simple Minds had their biggest hit with a song someone else wrote- Jim Kerr had interesting ideas, and when he decided to become a pop writer, he ran out of mainstream ideas fast. Unable to find the midpoint between interesting and commercial, Simple Minds lost ground and then did things like that horrific “Belfast Child”. U2 became the biggest band in the world despite being lesser musicians.
This is an album I come to when I want to remember that great band sometimes become bad jokes musically, and to remember that greatness is within reach if you choose to be great. Great and popular are not the same thing. There is a sadness in my heat when I listen to this record. I would have been a happier Simple Minds fan if they had just done the one-two punch of “Waterfront” and “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”, then retreated back into their darker, jagged beginnings. New Gold Dreams is their apex creatively. It reached number three on the UK album charts. I would have been happy with that being their commercial apex as well. Alas, Sparkle in the Rain and Once Upon A Time were both to come, and from there- a pit of musical hell.
Here, on this album, they had it pretty close to perfect, and we should celebrate the lovely and vibrant music on this record.