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!

The Sound – Winning

Spotify played this track to me about a week ago and I had never heard it (or them) before. I really liked the sound (!) of them so went and listened to the rest of the album this song was off. I mentioned them here in one of my video posts.

They sounded really good. Anyway, this shows up in my YouTube recommendations.
Minds fans, take a note of what he sings at the 3min 10sec mark – BOBT, anyone? Wonder if Jim had seen them…?

Obviously I did a bit more digging and had no idea The Doors had done a song called “Five To One” which is surely where Jim got the lines from.

Anyway, enjoy this live version of Winning.

30 Day Song Challenge – Day Fourteen

A song you’d love to be played at your wedding.

I wanted to move away from the obvious choices here. If you take in the lyrics, they can SO apply for a wedding day.

“Messenger calls / calling us up / stand over by my side.
Finding myself / believing in you / get over by my side.

In every heaven / there’s a chance that I take
In every heaven / dreams can awake
In every heaven / til morning lights stay”

I mean…just beautiful. Jim Kerr writes the most beautiful words.

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…

Why I Love…Careful In Career

Jim’s voice, and his lyrics. They are deep (both voice AND lyrics), as per usual in these early years. His lyrics have a depth beyond his tender years at this point in the Simple Minds story. He so very quickly becomes such a stark, bold lyricist. The imagery he conveys is startling. God, can you tell I’m in love with him(!) as a songwriter? Lol.

Another Simple Minds song in which there is a demo version to compare and contrast. The demo is pretty much fully formed, musically. The drumming is softer…and Charlie’s guitar is WILD. It really screams! Mick’s synths are disturbing and sit up front. And even though at this point in the song’s life, Jim’s lyrics are sparse and still taking shape, his vocal performance is still mesmerising. “How can this be?”, I hear you ask. Just listen to the demo!

When we get to the album recording…we have positively STONKING lyrics. It’s almost like Jim’s version of Rock N Roll Suicide. More than likely still only just 21 when he wrote it. Still younger than Bowie was when he writes Rock N Roll Suicide.

Disturbing lines…

“It’s a shame
To go away
It’s a shame
To die already”

Musically it becomes softer and tighter. I’m not sure that makes sense. Perhaps softer and more succinct is what I mean. Charlie’s guitar becomes softer and sweeter, but still has those soaring highs. Mick’s synth is refined, toned down. The chords aren’t as disjointed and off-key as they were on the demo. And the beginning of the song has much more impact. The way the drum comes in. Serwwweeet!

But it really is all down to The Boy on this one. Those grand, dark, disturbing lyrics. Images of despair, emptiness…like, you’re wondering what it’s all worth and whether you should even bother any more. Wanting to live – “I’ve come so far already”…but wondering whether you should – “It’s a shame”.

And the way he delivers them too. The looooong, drawn out, deliberately protracted pronunciations of words I think are fantastic. One of his best vocal performances on record. (And I’m trying REALLY hard to be unbiased here)

And that is why I love Careful In Career.