Listen to this track by Scottish post-punk and eventual stadia-ready music proponents Simple Minds. It’s “Up on the Catwalk”, the third single from their last-of-its-kind 1984 album Sparkle In The Rain, the band’s sixth record.
This would be one of the songs for which the band is most associated in the first chapter of their career. It was put out near the end of an era for the band, and before a new direction would carry them into the second half of the decade, which included a top 40 mainstream hit in “Don’t You Forget About Me”.
That tune’s smash success was helped along by its inclusion in the era-defining John Hughes movie The Breakfast Club. This was the song that placed them in a pure rock/pop top 40 sphere, and in the record collections of those who’d perhaps not been familiar with them in their earlier incarnation as dark and spiky post punk purveyors.
Yet before that more mainstream success, “Up On The Catwalk”, would capture the band at the height of their post-punk roots, and perhaps at the tail end of that era for many bands contemporary to them.
Nineteen eighty-four was a transitional year for music, it seems to me. It was the year when the rush of ‘new wave’ was beginning to slow down, and fade into the morass of top 40 singles that took the poppier hooks of that earlier period, and smoothed out the edges, with patchy results in many cases. Aesthetically speaking, the floppy-fringe and eyeliner thing of the ’79-’83 period was almost entirely gone by then. Many bands and the songs they put out in the early part of ’84 were still very much in this vein. Yet, it was a last hurrah as the early ’80s turned into the mid-’80s.
Simple Minds had helped to define this earlier sound in Britain, with their songs dealing in lyrical shadows, and with Bowie-style androgyny and Velvet Underground lyrical imagery well in place. In North America by the early ’80s, Simple Minds were very much what would be called ‘alternative’, before that term was coined for music. The word that was attached to them at the time in North America was ‘import’, with an unabashedly British sound, although in this song also full of Lou Reed-styled quick-fire lyrics.
“Up On The Catwalk” is drenched in echo, which is something I’ve always loved about it, especially on the keyboards that serve as an alternate voice to lead singer Jim Kerr’s breathlessly punctuated vocals. That, and the thunderous sound of the drums, also soaked in reverb. Here the music is full of dread and menace; claustrophobic, and sounding almost subterranean. There is a sound of desperation in this song, definitely allied to the post-punk ethos of urban alienation, and being on the social extremities. It would be their last single in this vein.
Subsequent releases like “Don’t You Forget About Me”, “Alive and Kicking”, and “Belfast Child” would be appealing in their way. Those songs are full of epic bombast and anthemic power, aimed at open air stadium audiences rather than at the underground post-punk scenes that bred the band that delivered them. They were becoming a different band entirely.
As the ’80s progressed, founding members Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill, plus keyboardist Mick Macneil gained A-player status in terms of creative direction and control. Bass player Derek Forbes left. And by the end of the decade drummer Mel Gaynor, and newly recruited bassist John Giblin were sidelined down to session player status. Soon they too would be out. By 1991, Macneil was gone as well, leaving Kerr and Burchill as keepers of the creative flame for yet another phase in the band’s life into the 1990s.
To me, it’s this album, and this song that make up Simple Minds’ best work as the classic quintet, and as a musical force. This is a band that helped to exemplify all that was appealing about that late-70s-early-80s post punk sound out of Britain. Where you can understand what would motivate them to move on from an original sound as every band must, it also made the loss of that original new wave sound all around all the more bittersweet.
Simple Minds is an active band today, comprised of singer Jim Kerr, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Charlie Burchill, new members Ged Grimes and Andy Gillespie, and a returning Mel Gaynor behind the kit. Check out the official Simple Minds site for more information.