Sunday, 11 October 2009

1989 Simple Minds: Belfast Child

By this stage in their career, Simple Minds had come a long way; from their early punk and new wave origins via Krautrock to frilly shirt new romantics and finally stadium rock, Jim Kerr and the band had tried on and discarded a good many slippers in their quest to find one that fitted.

Following 1985's 'Once Upon A Time' album, Kerr and the gang now seemed ever keen to marry their increased popularity and newly found stadium sound with a social and political conscience. Hence, the very name of this EP 'The Ballad Of The Streets' tries to portray the band as streetwise roughneck renegades with a message from the people straight to 'the man'. Though promoted at the time as an artefact of value in that it contained three new songs, the lead track that got the radio play was 'Belfast Child', a commentary on the Northern Ireland 'troubles' inspired by the 1987 Enniskillen bombing.


As if to emphasise it's Irish origins, 'Belfast Child'' opens with a spare theme based on the melody to the traditional 'She Moves Through The Fair' played on a lone flute. It's the sort of identikit Oirish sound that could be piped into O'Neils on a quiet midweek afternoon to go with the Oirish bicycles in the window. Far from evoking genuine images of the old country, the impression garnered is of someone digging out their '100 Great Irish Tunes' karaoke disc.


With a song pushing seven minutes long, this simplistic start isn't going to hold it together for long, and sure enough some mighty drums and guitars appear on cue, amped to the max by Trevor Horn on a post Frankie comedown and they build up to a climax of textbook stadium angst for Kerr to bellow over. This particular karaoke disc came with no words though, or if it did, Kerr chose to sing his own and 'Belfast Child' has him mumbling his take on 'the troubles' and longing for the day when the titular lad sings again to make everything alright - 'One day we'll return here, when the Belfast child sings again'.


It's blatantly obvious that all concerned had their eyes on U2's post Live Aid success both at home and in the USA and thought 'we'll have a bit of that'. But whereas Bono at even his most excruciating always strove to sing about what he at least thought he knew something about, Kerr's pontificating on Northern Ireland sounded little more than lazy bandwagon jumping, of hitching his cart to a whole load of worthiness and dragging it off down the road in a welter of clich├ęd imagery. It's a surprise the single didn't come as a shamrock shaped picture disc.


But such subject matter is nothing to take lightly, it demands a serious approach and while Kerr can do 'serious' very, very well, 'Belfast Child' rings with the informed honesty of a junior school pupil writing a poem about the horrors of World War 2. It's a creative writing exercise on how terrible it must have been rather than anything born from personal experience.


'Come back people, you've been gone a while
, and the war is raging, in the emerald isle. That's flesh and blood man, that's flesh and blood. All the girls are crying but all's not lost' - it's an idealistic imagination of 'what it must have been like', and in that regard, 'Belfast Child' is hateful in it's exploitative naivety , it's sentimentally cloying use of the 'Billy' and 'Mary' children imagery and it's hackneyed use of 'emerald isle'. It's unimaginative, simplistic and hollow to the extreme, one long anthemic chorus designed to wave lighters to at concerts but with the actual content having a depth that ranks it alongside the Flowerpot Men's 'Let's Go To San Francisco', a paean to the hippy ideal from a band who never left Birmingham.

The other tracks on the EP were 'Mandela Day' and a cover of Peter Gabriel's 'Biko' - with that load on board, it's a wonder that the entire project didn't crack under the weight of it's own worthiness. All that's missing was it to open out with a pop up wagging finger and an electronic greetings card voice sombrely telling us how tough other people had it. Again, in trying to better their masters, Simple Minds end up falling wide of the mark - one thing U2 never forgot was that first and foremost they were in the entertainment business and that a good pop single should be something other than a summary of the nine o'clock news.


And as for the 'value' of the EP - all three of the songs here appeared on the parent 'Street Fighting Years' (roughneck vagabonds again see?) album, meaning that the vast majority of the fans ended up owning them all twice. Joy.


3 comments:

  1. Oh please! You are far too kind by half to this release! At the time it was released, I was annoyed that I could not find a copy on import in The States. By the time, I finally bought the turgid "Street Fighting Years" album, I was elated that I hadn't ponied up the $10 an import single would have cost and thanked my lucky stars that I only have a single copy of these wretched songs in my home. The cover of "Biko" was particularly pious, overblown, and pointless. The Peter Gabriel original never fails to move me, but this version was gaseous and billowing with every ounce of self-importance that Kerr and Horn could muster up for it. And I consider myself a Simple Minds fan. You don't want to hear my opinion of U2!

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  2. I sometimes think it would have been for the best if Kerr had called a band meeting after they released 'New Gold Dream' and said 'Listen lads, there's no way we're ever going to top that so let's call it a day now and spare everyone a load of grief". Thanks for reading.

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  3. Haha - fantastic (and on the nail) review. However...

    "Bono at even his most excruciating always strove to sing about what he at least thought he knew something about" - right up to the point he wrote many of the songs for the Joshua Tree.

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