Review: Themes For Great Cities – A New History of Simple Minds by Graeme Thomson

“This is a fast story”, author Graeme Thomson says at the beginning of the book and keeps reminding us a few more times further in. 

It’s a story of the formative years of two pals from Toryglen, their school chum down the road, the keyboard player from the Chinese restaurant and the bass player that was meant to be a guitarist. 

The focus is as one would hope – primarily on the music and the band itself. The meeting of five incredibly creative and gifted men and how those quite different young men come together to produce the alchemy that results in the early music of Simple Minds. We learn most about their creative and working lives. There is little about their individual backgrounds, only vaugaries that are relevant to the telling of the overall story. 

Although the story is heavily focused on Jim Kerr, Charlie Burchill, Mick MacNeil, Derek Forbes and Brian McGee, we also hear from others deeply involved in the story (if not necessarily within the band itself or the creation of the music). Jaine and David Henderson, Bruce Findlay, John Leckie, Simon Draper, Steve Hillage and Pete Walsh get mentioned and/or spoken to at length. 

Graeme Thomson has been meticulous without dragging out the pace of the story. As he continues to reiterate through the book it is a fast story. Like the five men that feature most strongly within the story, there is not an ounce of fat on it. Nothing lags. Nothing is protracted. Succinct, yet never lacking in detail. If I had got around to writing a book about the band I love, then this is EXACTLY the book I hope I’d have written. 

Along with content from interviews conducted with the primary band members, there is also input in the form of small “bridge” chapters from Bobby Gillespie, James Dean Bradfield and Ian Cook. There is also a dedicated “Q and A” interview chapter with art designer Malcolm Garrett. 

Some never-before-seen (even by me!!) photos are contained within the two sections of photographic content within the book. A number of wonderful photos by Virginia Turbett are within. Rare gems from John Leckie and Carole Moss can also be found within. 

There are things that I have questioned or pondered within my time as a Simple Minds fan that are discussed in the book. For instance, was the Life In A Day album already too “old” by the time it was released? Was Jim Kerr’s pudding bowl haircut a work of genius? Is Real To Real Cacophony one of the best albums they ever made? Is there anything that you cannot like about Empires And Dance? Why didn’t Grace Jones ever record a Simple Minds song? (Love Song gets singled out as the prime pondering here.) Can I ever stop my mind from wandering off to the object of my sexual desire when discussing Jim Kerr’s “Archimedes moment”? I may be the only person who grapples with that notion to be honest, but I am happy to keep on pondering it. “Eureka!”

If you want the WHOLE story of Simple Minds then this isn’t the book you want. But actually it IS the book you want. It is exactly the book you want! Because without this beginning, then there would be no “whole story”. This book is about the building blocks. That sandpit on the Toryglen building site where Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill met as eight year old boys is such a fantastic serendipitous metaphor for the whole story of Simple Minds. Getting a gang of workers together. Gathering the materials required. Assembling the parts. Laying the foundations and by album number six, having a cathedral to wow yourself (and others) with. 

For the ardent Simple Minds fan, the book actually contains few new revelations. I don’t want that to be a disappointment to the ardent fan because Thomson tells the story so well you will find it utterly enthralling all the same. The retelling is compelling. 

For anyone who is newer to the Simple Minds fold, or came to Simple Minds from the point of Once Upon A Time and hasn’t really explored their back catalogue extensively, I implore you to read this book. 

For the diehards – YOU NEED THIS BOOK! It is a fast and exhilarating ride. The book jumps off around the time of the recording of Once Upon A Time. That’s a different tale to tell then. 

I honestly have not enjoyed a book like this since I read The Complete David Bowie by Nicholas Pegg. With Pegg’s book it was the telling of the Hunky Dory/Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane years of the Bowie story that struck a chord most. The telling of Bowie’s meeting with Tony Defries and the MainMan years in particular. It made me “want in”. I wanted to be part of it. It fed the hunger of the dream to be in “the thick of it”. To be right in the cogs of that working machine. 

I am feeling the same with how Graeme Thomson tells the Simple Minds story here. He takes you right in. I can feel myself in the recording studio. At Rockfield, walking about those barns and inside the studio, at the mixing desk. Watching John Leckie orchestrate these young guys as they get to grips with how to write songs and produce music that confounds and mesmerises, enthrals and bewilders. 

To experience the “coming of age” of these young men, from the evolution of Jim Kerr as songwriter and stage performer, to Mick MacNeil finding his feet as a musical architect and composer, working alongside Charlie Burchill, it makes you appreciate more than ever what actual musical juggernauts both Burchill and MacNeil are. Also just what a bedrock the rhythm section of McGee and Forbes were together. 

A tale told with utter distinction. I genuinely have not wanted to put this book down for a single moment since it arrived. Hide yourself away. Devour it at will. Gorge upon it! You won’t be disappointed. It is a feast. Then play those first six albums again with new ears and a newfound appreciation of the astonishing band Simple Minds are. 

I have two copies of the book to give away. If you would like to win yourself a copy of “Themes For Great Cities: A New History of Simple Minds” by Graeme Thomson, simply answer the following question: In the book Jim Kerr tells of his “Archimedes moment” when writing the lyrics for which song? (Hint – search this website to find the answer.) Leave your answer in the comments section of this blog post. You’ll find the comments section at the bottom of the post titled “leave a comment” (you may have to scroll past the existing comments to leave your own unique comment. Fresh comments will provide me with details to contact the winners). If you have trouble with the comments section, you can also enter via the “contact me” form found HERE. All successful entries will go into the draw to win one of two copies of the book. The competition closes on Sunday, January 23rd, 2022 at 23.59 GMT. Winners will be notified shortly after. The competition is open worldwide. Good luck!

Virgin Boys With Warm Fizz

I’m a lucky, lucky girl to work for my Boss Lady (as I affectionately call her) – Virginia Turbett, because I get to enjoy some perks. One being viewing wonderful photos before many others get to see them.

Today I was asked to post these to Instagram with the following caption:

“Due to popular demand – here are a couple of never printed and never scanned images of Simple Minds on the day in March 1981 when they signed to Virgin. See the gorgeous, young laddies from Scotland sup warm champagne out of plastic beakers in the artfully ‘junk shop’ styled office of Virgin MD Simon Draper. Also there that day were Virgin A&R Legends and Minds Super-fans – Ross Stapleton and Ronnie Gurr, both of whom have championed the band from their earliest gigs to this day.”

Gorgeous young laddies alright! Lord knows I have my preference. “WHO could it be?” You’re all wondering….well…. his first name rhymes with a slang term for a certain body part! 😱😉 That’ll keep you lot guessing…and if you’re brave enough – comment your answers and if someone gets it right, I’ll send you a print – of my artwork…not of Virginia’s. Sorry – I have no authority to do that!

Anyway…geez, what a momentous day that Virgin signing was, eh?

Priptona Talks – To Bruce Findlay: Part Two

In part two of my conversation with Bruce, we discuss more on Life In A Day – namely the infamous Drury Lane gig as well as talk on the release of Chelsea Girl and the making of the video. We also discuss Real To Real Cacophony more in depth – from Arista’s dismay of its musical style, through to Bruce’s thoughts on Veldt, and the luxury of studio time. Finally, the move to Virgin and the set up of Schoolhouse Management.

It’s now the late spring in 1979. Life In A Day has been out a few weeks. The band are in the middle of a tour supporting Magazine. As I had asked Jaine Henderson her recollections of the night in question, and Jim had also talked about it previously, I thought I should ask Bruce what he remembered of it.

What’s your recollection of the Drury Lane Magazine gig?

BF: The band had been going down extraordinarily well at all the gigs prior to London and SM were definitely on an up and a couple of songs into the gig suddenly the sound just went out. Dead. Finish. Stop. And the whole show had to stop which obviously broke any kind of momentum the band had. It started again fairly soon after and it was a quite simple thing that the main “plug” if you like, the main socket to the PA had been knocked out by accident. *cough*

Accident? Inverted commas?

BF: No idea. I’ve no idea if it was deliberate, God forbid, or a genuine accident. Whatever it was, it was certainly unprofessional. It was certainly amateur. It was certainly something that shouldn’t happen at a gig in a big theatre, but it did. And it certainly upset any rhythm the band had going for them.

It was essentially their debut in London. It was their first ever gig in London, and they were on a high. However, as the next couple of years proved, we got over that and soon had London as one our favourite spots to play.

That’s my memory of it, yes. I was there for the gig. And I was freaked out at the time because you don’t know what’s happened. When you’re watching the band you feel utterly and totally helpless. You know, the band are on their own. They felt even more helpless because they’re facing an audience, an audience of Magazine fans who are going “Impress us. Tell us you’re good. Everyone says you’re good.” The word was out that Simple Minds were happening.

But the thing is Simple Minds were very big fans, and Jim Kerr in particular was a very big Magazine fan. So we had no axe to grind. We didn’t imagine for one second they [the band] would do anything to hurt us and I don’t think they would. But sometimes road crew and sometimes the people around the band…the management, they can get [pause]… confused with their loyalty for a band and what is right and wrong and can just make a decision that’s the wrong decision, to be honest. Whether it was a deliberate act, we’ll never know, but we certainly had our doubts at the time.

How did the video for Chelsea Girl come about?

BF: Well, videos in the late 1970s were a relatively new thing and only bands with a major deal with a record company tended to get them because they were extremely expensive. We begged and pleaded with the record company to do one. Well, we begged for Arista to find the money to do one for Zoom, and they did.

The actual construction of it. The image of “the girl”, Jean Shrimpton…the painting of Jean Shrimpton, that is the model in the video. And on the front cover of the single. Picture sleeves at the time were “de rigueur”. They were very important in those days. So we had our picture sleeve. The front cover was meant to be what became the image on the B Side – the Garden Of Hate cover. (The rather dark artwork of the trio of clowns in a garden as painted by artist Mary Ruth Craig) The band weren’t too sure about it. Jim wasn’t…he loved the picture but he wasn’t sure about it as a front cover. And they loved a painting, an original painting on the wall of the business affairs manager at Arista, which was a painting of Jean Shrimpton (by artist Thomas Rathmell). The business affairs manager being, Robert White. And that’s before I took him on as my partner at Schoolhouse Management. The band loved that picture and asked Robert if maybe they could use that as the front cover. They felt that she was probably more appropriate for “Chelsea Girl”. So that’s why that cover was used.

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So when it came to making the video, the art director at Arista records used images of that and “cartooned it”, if you like and used that for the Chelsea Girl video.

As you will probably know, it wasn’t a success, in a commercial sense. Neither Life In A Day or Chelsea Girl were hit records. Much to our huge disappointment. So all that did [having the video made] was add to our mounting debt with the record company. It goes against the band, that cost.

The next question and answer, regarding Real To Real Cacophony, is in audio.

 

On that note of you saying about realising you were with the wrong record company with Arista, was it true that Ross Stapleton came to see the band some 12-18 months before they were signed to Virgin, and that it was him championing them that lead to them being signed to Virgin?

BF: Why do ask that question? What made you ask that question?

Erm…Oh, God…I don’t know, I just suppose because of….

BF: Eighteen months before we signed to Virgin would be when they signed the deal with me.
(That’s not quite right…18 months from when Simple Minds signed to Zoom would have been April/May of 1980. They signed with Virgin at the beginning of 1981.)

I suppose I asked because I saw in one…

BF: Listen…Simple Minds began to develop a big following in London, once they started playing in London. People like Peter Hammill, who was on Virgin Records, came to see us. I was friendly with a lot of people at Virgin. Remember I still had my record shops, so I dealt with Virgin. People at Virgin Records came to see us, including Ross Stapleton.

Before Ross got involved, I’d already been to see Simon Draper. And this is something that people don’t know. So this is new. But I was already pissed off with Arista. I’d done a licence deal with them and the licence deal had two sides to it. One was to release singles. They gave me funding to release five or six singles a year, of which they gave me a sum of money for. On a separate deal we signed Simple Minds, still under the Zoom banner. The moment I brought out the first Simple Minds album, they [Arista] didn’t think the other deal was working very well and said they wanted to drop it. So they effectively dropped me from the original deal, but kept Simple Minds…the Simple Minds part of the deal.

I was furious with them. And I went to Virgin behind Arista’s back and saw Simon Draper and said “Look, I’ve got Zoom Records and I’d be interested in a licence deal. I have Simple Minds and I am about to sign Mike Scott and The Waterboys. He’s a friend of mine. We’ve made a super demo. I paid for them to produce a demo and they were friends of mine. And I’ve got other artists.”
Simon said to me “Well, we’ve already got our own Simple Minds and we’re not selling many records of theirs.” The band he was referring to was, of course, Magazine. They were one of the house bands at Virgin. They were one of their favourites, but they weren’t doing very well commercially.
He said, “Also, we’re interested in signing Mike Scott direct, why would we need you?”

And he was being nice when he said that. He said “You know we’re just gonna cut you in but when in fact we could maybe sign him direct. We know he’s interested.”
I said “Yes, I know he’s interested too because he’s my friend. You know, without being his manager or anything else, I’m kind of his mentor. I’m advising him. I have no qualms if he signs direct with you, however, Mike’s an artist and I know him and I know I can get on with him and I think he would work better for me than he would for you. No disrespect, because he knows me and I know him.”

So they liked SM but they saw them as second rate compared to Magazine. They could sign The Waterboys direct, so why would they use me…so they gave up on the idea of striking a deal with me with Zoom. So that didn’t happen.

A year later we make our third album, Empires And Dance. It doesn’t do well although it’s a hugely commercial album as everyone knows now, but it didn’t succeed commercially. It sold quite a lot, you know. It sold 40,000 copies or something…at that time. It’s subsequently sold 200,000 copies or more since, but it wasn’t a commercial success.

And then we were free. I negotiated us out of the Arista deal and then we signed direct to Virgin. Everyone knows that. But we could have been there a year earlier….if Virgin had bitten. I think I could have gotten them out of the Arista deal. They wanted rid of us. We were becoming costly and they weren’t making money from us. At the same time, people were telling Arista that SM were one of the best bands in Britain. Why are they not selling records? So Arista knew they were partly responsible for our lack of success.

It was the pundits. The John Peels of this world…the Paul Morleys, the Adam Sweetings. The journalists. The “hip” journalists. The cool journalists loved the band. The cool DJs…Kid Jensen, Peter Powell, John Peel all loved Simple Minds. They were having them in for sessions on the radio. We were very popular with “the cool people” and we were building a huge live following, but we just weren’t selling huge amounts of records.

So we could have signed to Virgin a long time before we did, if Virgin had bitten earlier. However, they didn’t. During that time. Between the time of me going to see Simon Draper and us finally signing with Virgin, people like Ross Stapleton and others at Virgin, including the retailers, were all saying to Virgin “You should sign SM. They’re great.”

Bruce continues to elaborate, explaining the choice for the deal with Virgin…

 

BF: And so I phone Richard up and I said “Richard, we’re slightly concerned about your enthusiasm for the band. I mean, Simon [Draper] said we were not as good as Magazine 12 months ago…”
“Oh no. He’s changed his mind. You guys have come on a long way.” “That’s fair enough. I accept that. I’ve changed my mind about artists before. But, we’re looking for a lot of money. I mean, it’s a big deal.”
And he said “Bruce, you know what? Any doubts I had”, and he didn’t mention Ross Stapleton, “any doubts I had were negated because what I did, I phoned up 3 or 4 of my top managers of the record shops” – I can’t remember which cities he mentioned, one of then was no doubt in Scotland, either Edinburgh or Glasgow. I think maybe Liverpool or Manchester and one in London, “all of them said ‘whatever it costs, sign them. They’re going to be huge.’”

So I give credit to…I give some credit to Ross Stapleton, yes. A good friend…but Ross Stapleton would make out that we signed to Virgin because of him. That’s not true. He was part of it. He was the salt. The record shops were the pepper. Do you understand what I mean? But Richard Branson and Simon Draper signed SM to Virgin. Nobody else. They were the principle people. And the influence that Ross had, and one or two others in the company whose names I kinda forget, but were enthusiastic…people in Virgin Records, within the company. Three or four of them were already major fans. Willie Richardson…there’s a name. Now he was their rep. in Ireland. All of Ireland, north and south in those days, and was a massive fan of Simple Minds and he shouted about them. Along with Ross Stapleton and others. But Ross deserves some praise for championing us. And he came to see us and hung out backstage before we’d signed. So yes, he was there. But to give him any more credit…I mean some people ignore him altogether and make out he had no influence at all. That’s wrong. He did. Other people say it was totally down to him. That’s bullshit. Somewhere in the middle. He was part of the additional ingredients that helped us sign.

Richard was no slouch. Richard’s a very canny and clever businessman. Richard himself was no fan. He quite liked the band and he liked me. We were friends. And he liked the idea of signing the band, but not because he was a major fan. Richard’s not a big music lover, actually. He likes music in the same way any layperson does. He’s not actually a music “expert”. Simon Draper is. So when people ask me who would YOU give the credit to if you had to give ONE person the credit, I would say Simon Draper WAY ahead of everyone else. So Simon Draper is the man that signed Simple Minds to Virgin Records and deserves all the credit. All the bulk of the credit…not ALL the credit, but the bulk of the credit.

At this point in the interview, I was worried that maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew. And my very newly developed and hopefully continually improving and refining interview “skills” (or lack thereof) were being tested…all with some wonderful Scots “banter”…

 

Mettle tested, I continue with the questions…

 

Bruce continues…

BF: He moved from London up to Berwick. And the reason he moved to Berwick and not into Scotland was because Robert was an English lawyer and English law and Scottish law are different. And if he’d come to Scotland, if everything had gone tits up and Simple Minds had failed, Robert would have to make a living and he can do that as a lawyer but he would have had to sat different exams and tests. He was a man in his 40s at this point. He didn’t want to do that. Whereas if things went wrong he was in Berwick which is on the border with Scotland but it’s still in England. So if things went wrong, he could still practice English law. So that’s why he moved to Berwick. And he had relatives that came from Berwick, so he had some association with Berwick. So that’s why he moved to Berwick, so he could retain his English law title and it was geographically close to Scotland. And the reason we called it Schoolhouse was because he’d moved into the old schoolhouse in a little hamlet just outside of Berwick and we just thought…like you do…you know like “What will we call the band? Simple Minds.” You know what I mean? Crazy names.

The other question attached with it you’ve kind of, sort of answered within that anyway was when did it get established? Was it established due from you taking on the management role of the band – so you’ve kind of answered that for me anyway…

Yeah. I mean I was already Bruce Findlay, you know. I was already managing the band and I remained their manager throughout the next ten years. But we formalised the company called Schoolhouse Management at that time and Robert came up. And a couple of years later made it a limited company when I brought in Jimmy Devlin as well.

I get back on the subject of Real To Real Cacophony and have one final probing audio excerpt to share…

 

Were you there much for the recording of Real To Real Cacophony?

BF: No. I was in and out. I was there some of the time. But I couldn’t be there the whole time. I mean, it would have been really boring. You’re not allowed to do that. I was in doing some hand claps at one time but they kicked me out because I couldn’t keep time!

So I would sometimes go down and add a bit of…just vibe them up, be inspirational, if you like. And also because I’d want to check on how things were going. So I was in and out a few times but I wasn’t there all the time. Not at all. It’s not really the job and to be honest, you can get in the way. I mean, you can love your husband, your wife, your boyfriend, your girlfriend, and your mum and your dad, but you don’t want them in your place of work.

There’s certain things you can do. I’m actually lucky because I was in the recording studios on every album the band made (when I was managing them) for quite a lot of the time but I kinda kept out the way and I tended to be there during the playing back a track or something, or even a rough mix. I’d be there sometimes during actual recording moments but in many ways you can get in the way.

People are doing a job and you can get in the way of that. It’s not your job. My job was not…it’s like “were you on the mixing desk, Bruce?”…yeah, I used to get on the mixing desk lots when the band were playing live, but quite often the guy that was doing the mixing was intimidated by me being there. “God, the manager’s right over my shoulder”. Do you know? So you can intimidate people. And I didn’t stand beside the guy doing the lights because it would intimidate him. It’s not fair, you know? Do you know what I’m saying? Do you understand?

Yes.

BF: So, yes, I was there quite a lot but I wasn’t there all the time. I wasn’t a producer.

It was there I wrapped things up. Bruce had afforded me copious amounts of time by this point, over the two interview sessions. An amount of time I have the highest gratitude that he afforded me. Thank you so much for this opportunity, Bruce, for your time and patience.

Virgin Records Labelled With Love – w/ Contribution By Jim Kerr – Classic Pop Magazine – Sept/Oct, 2013

It’s amazing when trawling around searching the Internet the kind of titbits you unearth…