Simple Minds – Sons and Fascination / Sister Feelings Call
Updated: Sep 14, 2021
40 years ago today, Simple Minds released two albums simultaneously. These albums were a turning point, consolidating the progress they had made on their first three albums. Both albums came with growing sense of ambition, purpose, confidence. Empires & Dance had seen a sea change in Jim Kerr’s lyrics, a shift to a more stream of conscious style, rather than trying to tell stories. On both Sons & Fascination and its sibling, Sister Feelings Call, this all came together into a coherent piece of art – cryptic, strange, arch, arty, rock, funky, shouty, haunting, BIG! The rhythm section was loud and upfront, way more prominent than on previous albums, making this new music propulsive, mesmerising.
Sister Feelings Call was released as a free bonus with the first few thousand copies of Sons and Fascination, a spectacularly odd thing to do from a band that hadn’t really had a hit and were now 4 or 5 albums into a career. They’d already been ditched by Arista. Rather than go commercial, they ploughed their own path with extraordinary confidence. Jim Kerr says "In retrospect I think we tried to achieve the impossible. We wanted to record a double album on the budget of a single one. But at that moment, we were so full of ideas, and we thought they were all useful. So, we decided to record everything and ended up with a huge mess, a veritable nightmare".
Let’s fast forward first though from 1981 to 1985. A confused (about everything) JO’B is starting to find himself. 15 and awkward as fuck, I started to develop some musical taste and quickly developed a habit that I have maintained for 36 years – if I like a band, go back and listen to their earlier stuff.
Simple Minds were one of my first obsessions, though New Order and The Smiths quickly joined them. Once Upon A Time and its preceding single, Don’t You (Forget About Me) were my entry point. I loved them, and still do. They were big, loud grandiose pop. But they were also pretentious and political – everything that appealed to a very serious teenager. I quickly went back and bought Sparkle In The Rain and New Gold Dream (81+82+83+84) and was head over heels in love with them. The logo of Once Upon A Time was scrawled on my school bag and my notebook.
That Christmas, I went out with money I earned caddying for my old man, and finding lost golf balls and selling them. I was dragged around Lullingstone, usually sulking but grateful for the cash. I bought cassettes of their first four albums – Life In A Day, Reel To Real Cacophony, Empires & Dance and finally a cassette with both Songs & Fascination and Sister Feelings Call.
I remember sitting in my parents’ lounge, with my headphones on, very proud of my new haul and playing them on the “good” stereo. I started with debut Life In A Day and was a bit shocked….this wasn’t the majestic, enormous power rock of Once Upon A Time and or even the art synth pop of New Gold Dream. It sounds tinny, punk, odd – I was equally disappointed by the claustrophobic Reel To Real Cacophony. Empires & Dance had its moments but I was very confused. I love all three now, but on first listen this was new to me. I didn’t realise bands didn’t come fully formed, I had no brothers or sisters and the cool kids were not interested in weird little me. So, all my musical education was down to whatever I could borrow from the library, heard on the radio, read about in Smash Hits (and soon the NME) and checked out on listening posts when I trekked into London to visit the Virgin Megastore.
Despite my initial confusion, Sons & Fascination and Sister Feelings Call grabbed my attention immediately. The opening salvo of In Trance As Mission and Sweat In Bullet had me mesmerised. The former’s offbeat bass intro caught my ear immediately, and the latter’s Mick Karn-esque bass was frantic and funky. 70 Cities As Love Brings The Fall remains one of the strangest and most oblique song titles I have ever heard, and it includes what can only be described as this weird, honking drill-like synth sound. Yet it’s wonderful and has the catchiest chorus “Follows in love, love brings the fall”. No idea what it means, but I was hollering along on first listen.
Boys From Brazil was thundering drums, raw and angry, then Love Song takes us down to the disco, but it's nothing like any dance song I had ever heard before. This Earth That You Walk Upon and Sons and Fascination were both cold, stark synth epics, the former all distorted guitars, the latter almost Romanesque with its military, robotic drums.
Closer Seeing Out The Angel is sophisticated, Derek Forbes’ slapped bass dominates along with Mick MacNeil’s haunting synths and Jim Kerr’s finest Bryan Ferry impression. It’s the sign of things to come, and could easily fit on New Gold Dream.
The bonus album is just as good, kicking off with one of their perfect moments, Theme For Great Cities, probably the greatest instrumental I have ever heard. It remains in my most played songs on Spotify every year. The American is yet another perfect slice of distorted guitar pop, with more strange, impenetrable, cryptic lyricism:
“Ameri-Ameri-Ameri-Ameri-Amer-American, in collective fame Ameri-Ameri-Ameri-Ameri-Amer-American, Nassau club day”
But who cares? It’s an earworm you don’t want to remove. 20th Century Promised Land is another huge synth anthem, Wonderful In Young Life is more pounding drums, almost punk in places (original drummer Brian McGee was a massive and underestimated loss). Careful In Career and League Of Nations were the only tracks I would have relegated to B-sides. They could have then crafted one absolutely perfect album, but hey, I love their ambition and self-belief.
After this, they hit the charts with Promised You A Miracle and the perfection of New Gold Dream (81+82+83+84). Sadly, after the brilliant pomp rock of Once Upon A Time, they drifted into mullets, waistcoats, scissor kicks, too much pomp, too much rock, too much “let me see your hands”, just too much…There were moments – See The Lights, She’s A River, Real Life are great songs, but I lost them for a long time.
In 2012, I saw them as they played songs from their first five albums…I dragged a woman I was seeing who was a few years younger than me. She worried that I was dragging her to see more ”old man music”, but was suitably impressed. It was a cool show, and the standout moment was seeing Theme For Great Cities live – absolute heaven.
And I discovered the last four albums, Black + White, Graffiti Soul, Big Music and Walk Between Worlds are all wonderful – better than any band 40+ years into their career should be making. They rediscovered the balance between their ”rawk” tendencies and some artistic, cool synth sensibility. Jim looks unfeasibly well and his voice is as good as ever and Charlie is a wonderful and vastly underestimated guitarist. I miss Del Forbes, Brian McGee and Mick MacNeil but their ever-rotating line-up of musicians is solid – Cherisse Osai is an AMAZING drummer!
My love for them remains strong and Sons And Fascination / Sister Feelings Call is their perfect moment for me. I remember as a 15-year-old sitting with a school friend in his bedroom playing records. He had bought Touch Me by page 3 glamour model Sam Fox; I had bought the 12-inch single of Sweat In Bullet. I knew then I was hanging out with the wrong crowd…