The day that many a Simple Minds fan has been anticipating is upon us. Today sees the release of a new book, Themes For Great Cities: A New History of Simple Minds by renowned music biographer, Graeme Thomson.
Last week I had the privilege of interviewing Graeme for the blog, asking him about his career in writing and in particular the aspect of music journalism his writing centres around.
I started by asking Graeme what made him decide on a career in music journalism.
“I’m not sure it was a decision, really. And I’m still not entirely sure it is what I do, I suppose, but I guess it is.
“I always wanted to write and I’ve always loved music. I’ve always listened very intently and very closely to the music I love. I’ve always been quite interested in the people who make the music that I love. So, I guess between those two things, the love of writing and the love for music, that has led me in that direction.”
The passion for writing and music has seen Graeme Thomson release several highly acclaimed music themed biographies, most recent among them, Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn and Cowboy Song: The Authorised Biography of Phil Lynott. Thomson has also produced books on George Harrison, Johnny Cash, Kate Bush, Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello.
With a long, well established background on music biographies I was curious as to what attracted Graeme to the Simple Minds story.
“It goes back to my record collection. In many ways these were among the first records that I really loved. When I was 11 or 12 years old, in 1984 and 1985 when I first got into the band. And then you go backwards and discover the records they’d made previously. That was the first time I had really done that with a band. Really immersed myself in the albums and the whole catalogue. Simple Minds are among my oldest and deepest loves and that has never really wavered over the years. There have been periods in my life where I haven’t really listened to them as much.
“Also I feel, and I don’t know if you agree, but I felt they were badly underrepresented in literary circles. There hasn’t been a lot. Certainly within the last 20 to 30 years, there hasn’t been anything. And that ties in with the fact that they are underappreciated as well. Because they never split up and they kept going, it becomes a much messier story to tell and less easy to pin down then a band like, say, Joy Division, where you’ve got a very stark beginning and end and you can kind of make sense of it.
“So, first there was the pleasure. You want to write about music that you love and I wanted to do that. I wanted to shine a light on stuff that I felt hadn’t been overwritten about. Some albums now have been written about so much you feel there’s not an awful lot new to say about them and I didn’t feel that was the case with these records. It was then just the question of getting all the pieces in place. To make it work in the way that I wanted to make it work.”
I asked Graeme if writing had appealed to him from an early age.
“Absolutely. Reading and writing, from as long as I can remember. It has always been a part of my life. So, it was something without ever articulating it or intellectualising it that has always been there.”
Having asked Graeme who are or were the influences on his writing career I was pleased to get the initial response of, “that’s a very good question”. It’s always great for the renowned amateur to fire off a good question to the professional. It makes one feel as though maybe there is something in the existence of this blog to look positively upon.
“I’m not really sure that I can pin them down. I grew up as a music fan as a teenager in the 1980s and the writing of Melody Maker in particular in that period was very vivid and kind of adversarial as well, which I don’t think I am as a writer. It was kind of picking sides and I think as a teenager you quite like that.
“In terms of reading fiction and non-music based writing, there’s so many people I admire that it would be hard to pick any out specifically.”
“Do you have any Scottish writers, per se, that would be particular favourites?”
“Yeah. I think that movement … I mean, I studied English Literature at Glasgow in the early 1990s and it was quite a potent time then, I think. So, people like James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Jeff Torrington, Tom Leonard, Anges Owen… that kind of school of Scottish/Glaswegian writing, I was very attracted to and found very influential. I still do and I think that sense of that vernacular voice and that language that is rooted in the cultural experience of where people come from, how they think, and how their culture looks to them I think is still probably an influence.
“Funnily enough in the Simple Minds book it felt important for me to root the band in their own cultural background to get a sense of actually where they came from and where that music comes from. So those writers, those Scottish writers were quite important to me when I was younger.”
My curiosity was piqued, being the Alasdair Gray fan that I am. Thinking of the time and place in which Graeme would be during his days at university – Glasgow in the early 1990s, and knowing that Alasdair Gray would be quite the figure around campus at that time, it begged the question of whether Graeme ever had the chance of meeting Gray.
“No, but I had a very awkward phone conversation with him once. I was due to interview him for a journal. This would have been in the early 2000s and I had phoned him. He either hadn’t been told or he had changed his mind and … he let me know that quite abruptly! He said ‘I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to do it’ and put the phone down on me.
“I met James Kelman a few times. He was friends with some of my lecturers at university and he used to drink in The Halt Bar on Woodlands Rd in Glasgow (and he’d frequent The Scotia also) and there was a sense of being around that culture in the 90s which was actually quite inspiring looking back.”
Getting back to the book itself, and more specifically the choice of Graeme bringing out a book on the Simple Minds story, and with my own dalliances in writing about music, I was curious to know how a writer gets themselves motivated to write upon subject matter that may not necessarily appeal to them. I asked Graeme how he went about that.
“There’s a few books I’ve written where I’d say I wasn’t a huge fan of the music. I liked it, but I was more interested in the personalities perhaps, or the story, or the narrative. Whereas in this case [the Themes For Great Cities book] it was very much music driven I would say.
“I have picked all my own subject matter with my books. I wouldn’t write about anyone or any group at that length if I didn’t feel there was some substance or something within the music that I kind of responded to. Like with someone like Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy. They weren’t a band that was hugely represented in my record collection but I still like them and I like certain songs and I felt there was something there.
“In smaller features as a journalist where you do get commissions where you need to write stories about things that you aren’t really that interested in on the surface you just have to make yourself interested in it as a fan. As a music fan. I think you could find something in most things.”
“Is it down to research? That within the research of a topic it opens up doors of interest?”
“I think so. And, you know, people are fascinating. I always try and remember … or not forget, rather, at the back of my mind that these are human beings making stuff for a reason. It’s usually not completely commercially driven and it’s not cynical. It’s people who are trying to say something through the medium of music and there’d be a reason for that. And they’ll be going through a time in their life, for whatever reason, whatever is happening in their life that will be contextualising that as well. It would be hard not to make that interesting and that’s the job. That’s the job. To find something interesting in the music and the context of when it was made and communicate that to the reader.
“I write for certain people and I don’t write in a pop context and so perhaps I don’t feel qualified to write about certain things in that respect. I generally write about music I’m drawn to.
“I do turn things down occasionally when it feels I’ve got nothing to say about it. Also if I feel I’ve written too much. I wrote a book about Kate Bush and I am very grateful. It’s led to huge amounts of extra work and commissions on very interesting things but you get to a point where you’ve said all there is to say, from my perspective, about a particular artist. So you kind of stop because it gets a bit tiring, for me and then for the reader as well.”
More on Themes For Great Cities itself, I was curious to know when the idea for the book was first in Graeme’s thoughts. Interviews he had conducted with Jim and Charlie in 2012 prior to the 5×5 Live tour feature in the pages towards the end of the book so I asked if it had been those interviews with Jim and Charlie that had planted the idea for the book.
“No, that wasn’t. That was just a piece that I had pitched to The Guardian. It was a couple of years later. It’s taken a while. I remember I spoke to Ian Grenfell, Simple Minds’ manager, and I had explained to him what I wanted to do. By that point I had interviewed Jim and Charlie a few times, probably three or four times, and had written about them.
“We met at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh in 2015. We met with a view to talking about doing a book and everyone was quite keen. Then various things happened. There was talk about Jim writing his own memoir. Then his father passed away. So it got held up and in the meantime I wrote another book about John Martyn.
“These things find their time. We revisited it all in 2019. I got back in touch with Ian and said, you know, ‘where are we with this?’ So at that point I spoke to my agent and my publisher about it and at that point it got going, at the end of 2019. The interviews were conducted in 2020.”
“So, all pre-Covid?”
“Just! God, yeah…just. I remember meeting Bruce Findlay at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh and it wasn’t really pre-Covid. It was right at the beginning of Covid. And we all knew things were going to get worse. Bruce had a terrible cough. Mike Heron from the Incredible String Band was with him and he wasn’t feeling great, so we just sneaked under the radar for that. Mick MacNeil I met up with in the summer just as some of the restrictions were lifted slightly. Other interviews were conducted on the phone. It was tricky.
“It was always the idea that it was my book and I was going to write what I wanted to write and that they were going to contribute, which I thought was very considerate of them. It was good of them to offer their time on that basis.”
“And very good that it happened?”
“Well, I think Ian Grenfell certainly saw from very early on the benefits of revisiting this period again and writing about it in, hopefully, an intelligent and exciting critical way. He saw there was a benefit to that for the band and the brand of Simple Minds, I suppose you could say.
“Ian’s been a great supporter of the book. I’m very grateful to him for that because he kind of opened doors up. And because everyone is still on reasonable terms, we managed to get hold of everyone who was important to that story.”
The next question was one I grappled with asking Graeme, but I was curious to get his feeling on it. So I asked if he was disappointed with Brian McGee’s decision not to be quoted in the book, having been interviewed for it. And also whether it resulted in any rewriting?
“To answer the second part, no. It didn’t involve any rewriting because the interview was conducted before I was getting into the nuts and bolts of writing the book.
“Yeah, I was disappointed. I don’t want to put any words into Brian’s mouth or to speak for him. He was always very amenable. I enjoyed meeting him very much and he had a lot of very interesting things to say. I wouldn’t want to speculate on why he ultimately didn’t want to be quoted in the book. But he’s there, he’s a living presence in the book, I hope. I really wanted to honour his contribution to the band, as I did with all the original members.”
I interject, “Well, you did do that.”
“I hope so. Yeah. I mean… it’s difficult. You’re telling the story of five people and you’re trying to be true to all of their experiences, many of which are kind of conflicting, or their memories are or whatever. Not everyone sees things the same way so you’re trying to be fair to that while also telling the wider story. I just hope he [Brian] feels that I pulled that off for him. But as to why he didn’t want to contribute in the end, that is a question you’d have to ask Brian himself.”
As a fervent fan of the band that I am, there was only really one thing in the book that I learned that knocked me for six, to the point where it made me question the very name of this blog and the moniker that I had chosen to use for my art. Without wanting to give too much away, there is a revelation about the name ‘Pripton Weird’ that, well, made me question stuff.
With that in mind, I asked Graeme was there anything in writing the book that surprised him most?
“Do you mean things I found out about the band or just things about the process of doing it?”
My amatuer and gallus response to that rebound question was … “either one?”, with a chuckle, which Graeme reciprocated.
“Well, one of the things I like about the book is that it’s kind of…well, not scrapbook style, but I like the fact that there are bits in there that take you out of the narrative. There are bits by Bobby Gillespie, James Dean Bradfield and Ian Cook…”
I interject once again, “What I classified as the ‘bridge chapters’ in my review?”
“Bridge chapters. Well, that’s a really nice way of putting it, yeah. And, like an email from Jim or the interview with Malcolm Garrett, which I think sits quite nicely within the linear narrative. I haven’t really done that before and I like that. I like the fact that it broke things up and that it sheds a different shade of light on what’s happening. Things like with Malcolm Garrett’s interview is it retrospectively tells you things that you’ve already read about and I quite like the way that worked.
“In terms of the band, I just really loved… I loved the way they worked. I love the fact that the first album really is songs written by Jim and Charlie together in that very traditional style. And then they had the courage to dump that. I thought that was quite unusual for a band to go, actually, we’re not going to do that, we’re going to let everybody into the process. Which, if you know bands and you know frontmen and guitar players, they’re pretty possessive of their territory, and their songwriting credits and all the rest of it. So to open that up and go we need to be more interesting and need more influences, I thought that was quite courageous, artistically.
“Then the way they worked. This idea of Jim… I loved this image of Jim just prowling around all day every day, soaking up this music, listening to it. Him just chiselling away at it, trying to find a shape. Or sometimes not trying to find a shape but just kind of leaving it as a little abstract miniature art piece or something.
“So the more I found out about that process, the more I loved it, really. And to find how heavily invested all five of them were in that. That sort of obsessive pursuit for something. I liked that.”
I responded to these words from Graeme by reiterating what I had said in my review, telling him how I felt that he had captured that wonderfully well and how much I felt as though I was right there in the studio with them, at Rockfield, watching all that work go on.
“Well, that’s lovely because, you know, so did I. That’s the thing. You put yourself into it. It’s funny that you were talking earlier about fiction and non-fiction. Non-fiction can be really very personal and I always find that these books are very personal to me. They’re not just writing about stuff that happened to other people. I feel very there and very present and I’m trying to say something about me as well as them. So it’s nice to feel you felt you were there because that’s how I feel. That I’m right in the middle of it and I’m trying very hard to communicate what it feels like to me to be writing about this stuff, and how important it is for me, I think, about how people can make art in that environment. It is a weird time travel, personality shift… whatever you want to call it. You do get right into the thick of it. Those bits were really important to me. Those parts in the earlier chapters where you’re really trying to communicate how this band worked.”
In response to that I say that short of having a TARDIS, the book is the next best thing.
“Well, it’s lovely. And it was lovely to get feedback from people like Bruce Findlay and Billy Sloan and people who were actually there saying this is how it really felt, that you really captured the sense of what it was like at the time. And that is massively gratifying because you are taking a punt to a certain extent. You’re trusting your guts and your instincts because I wasn’t there and I was a very wee boy at the time, so you’re kind of trusting your instincts that you’re getting this stuff right. It feels right but you’re just hoping that it is right.”
Going back to the broader subject of music in general I was intrigued to find out how Graeme finds new music. And so I asked him what ways he chooses to discover new music.
“Well, my kids are good! My kids are 16, 17 and 21and they have very wide ranging tastes so I do listen to what they’re listening to. If they have things that they think I might like then I’ll listen to them.
“I get sent a lot of stuff. I get sent a lot of emails and new albums and pre-releases, so I do try and make time to listen to things that I feel I might enjoy. I don’t think I’m as good as I could be when I listen to things outside of my comfort zone, perhaps. I could be better at that.
“And just reading. There’s still a lot of really good stuff out there. I write a lot for Uncut and Uncut always has a picture of the kind of ‘heritage’ rock star on the cover but actually inside there’s a lot about a lot of new music. And the other music mags like Mojo, Record Collector… they’re all the same. They do cover an awful lot of new music although they are orientated towards a kind of nostalgia, I suppose, in some ways. So reading them.
“So those are a few ways; I get sent stuff, I pick up stuff from people around me and I’ll just read as much as I can.”
“Is there anyone around currently that you particularly like?”
“I love Phoebe Bridges. I think she’s fantastic. Joan Shelley who’s been around for a few years now. Modern Nature I think are a really interesting band. I’m always bumping into new stuff that I think is worth checking out. Others I’d mention would be The Weather Station, Katherine Priddy, Arooj Afrab, Blue Rose Code, Karine Polwart and Young Fathers.”
I asked this next question from more of a personal angle if I am honest. I asked Graeme if he had any advice for anyone wanting to pursue a career in writing and in particular music journalism.
“I don’t know. It’s a very different landscape than it was when I started out. I’m primarily a print writer and I don’t know how long that’s a sustainable avenue for people to get into as writers. I don’t know if I would have the first idea now if I was coming into writing about music where to start. I’m not ducking the question but I really don’t feel qualified to answer it because it’s a very precarious business now and I would probably hesitate to recognise it.
“It’s still a worthy endeavour and if you love writing and you love music then it’s something you’ll do and I guess you’ll probably find your path. And I’d like to think that if you’re good enough you’ll definitely have somewhere to get published and that people will read and enjoy your work. But I wouldn’t know where to begin with that.”
With my time chatting to Graeme coming to an end and in light of his success as a writer, gaining copious plaudits for his most recent book written prior to the Simple Minds story, one on John Matyn, my final question to him was this.
“It is said that those in the arts are usually doing something that they perhaps didn’t initially want to pursue – musicians rather be actors and vice versa, actors wanting to be film directors, and so on. Have you ever felt you were a frustrated musician or perhaps a visual artist, say?”
“Definitely not a visual artist, no! What did I get, now? I think I got a G in my GCSE art. I’m not a visual artist in any way, shape or form. But I do play music and I’ve played in bands and I’ve written songs. I’m not frustrated at all because I get a lot out of doing it on a personal level. I suppose if I had my time again and I was 17 and 18, when we were in a band that was potentially quite good and we maybe could have pushed a little harder to do something with that at the time. But it’s not a regret or a frustration at all. I mean still I love playing music and just doing stuff myself with that. But it’s certainly not an ambition I have for a profession or anything like that.”
My sincere thanks to Graeme for his time (and patience!) for this interview. You can find out more about Graeme’s work on his website – graemethomson.net – which includes a list of his published works.
Themes For Great Cities: A New History of Simple Minds by Graeme Thomson, published by Constable is on general release today, January 27th, 2022. Available at all good booksellers, including Hachette.