Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Last Band Standing: Simple Minds Vs. U2

One of the great things about the Eighties was the significant variety of new and innovative artists still available to the casual, mainstream listener. Given the selection available today, I long for even the Eighties, if not earlier decades, when trendy fad and copycat acts were the exception, not the rule.

These days, if you want pop, you have your choice between an army of Britney Spears and an army of Justin Timberlake. If you want rock, you get to choose between Nickelback's clones and Disturbed's clones. If you want country, you can take your pick of the Big Lots! generic versions of Mellencamp or the Eagles. And what used to be the promising new genre of rap might as well burn itself out in an explosive gang war before it can get any more humiliating.

When considering the amount of musical variety, Jim Kerr of Simple Minds summed up the Eighties perfectly in a
small interview I'd read a while back:
". . .there weren't two or three bands like The Cure, there was The Cure. There weren't two or three bands like The Human League, like the Birthday Party, like The Smiths, there was one. A lot of real individualism and wonderful imagination to such a level that it was almost overwhelming."
Although the post punk and new wave acts of the Eighties all shared similar characteristics, such as an emphasis on keyboards, funky beats, and an overwhelming bombastic sound, each band had its own distinctive style if you listened closely enough. Only the casual listener could confuse The Smiths for The Cure, or Simple Minds for U2, or Duran Duran for INXS if they were reminiscing from today with fuzzy memories of all the bands that existed back then. When pitted against each other, the differences in style and delivery are readily apparent. When enveloped in the music scene at the time, the bands were readily apparent. Only a retarded hermit who solely listened to mid-Fifties country would think "Don't You (Forget About Me)" was a U2 song. (Note: There must be a lot of retarded, hermit country music fans accessing peer-to-peer clients.)

Even the obvious corporate capitalizing copycat artists like Rick Ocasek or Robert Palmer had their own styles and were readily identifiable and easy to listen to. Even in pop music, with all the women clamoring to become the next Madonna, it somehow wasn't so completely devoid of artistic relevancy as it is today. You could eliminate Nickelback, Train, Creed, Three Doors Down, Rob Thomas, Staind, Godsmack, and sadly enough Pearl Jam, and attribute all their songs to one of them, and no one would really know the difference. The same could be said for Disturbed, Slipknot, Korn, Tool, Limp Bizkit, Cheville, Sevendust, Saliva, 3 Days Grace, and a legion of other similar artists. Just how much percussion-heavy angst metal with nearly no sense of melody does the record industry think we need? Headline: It gets pretty boring pretty quick when the entire musical selection consists of one percussive hammering after another. Granted, I unfairly lumped a couple bands in there who really only slightly belonged just because of their influence on the burgeoning genre, and by that grace, Tool and Korn may stay on the radio because they at least show promise. Don't even get me started on country and rap. The music world would probably be done a favor if some overly anxious country felt a little extra froggy and decided to simultaneously drop bombs on Nashville, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. As many as it would take.

This leads me to today's topic. The Eighties gave us a lot of bands who were stylistically similar to yet characteristically divergent from each other. Two very successful Eighties rock acts that stand out in my mind as embodying this paradigm are Simple Minds and U2. Both are Celtic bands, one from Scotland and one from Ireland, respectively. They share many similarities, such as their post-punk beginnings and new wave classifications. Their guitar tones are similar and their singers' voices are sometimes indistinguishable to all but the most finely honed ears. Yet between these shared traits lie a vast ocean of differences, so I'm going to point out some of the differences and examine how one of these bands could eventually grow popular enough to rival the Beatles and one could fade into nostalgic pop obscurity.

I chose these two in particular because I am fairly knowledgeable about both. I grew up on U2, them being a more popular band. During my teenage years, they were one of my favorites. I kept up on U2 news, listened to all their songs, and even researched in-depth accounts of the band's history. I'm not quite sure what it was that led me away from my U2 glorifying. Maybe I just got burned out on their songs. I certainly am now, although I still enjoy a select few of their songs and keep tabs on them out of nostalgic interest. I think the main turning point, though was when I recalled never getting sick of hearing "Don't You (Forget About Me)" and wondering what the Simple Minds had been up to since their major American one-hit wonder. I went to the local used CD store and picked up their 1995 release Good News from the Next World on a whim and I was hooked ever since. I quickly purchased and assimilated all their albums, and U2 was pretty much a relic of a younger and simpler time in my life.

Having divulged all that, I'm sure you'll find my band comparison to be a bit biased, but I'm fine with that. It's okay to be biased when your bias is right. One thing that Henry Rollins forced me to acknowledge on an eight-minute diatribe about U2 is that
"they've been recycling the same bass line for the past five albums."
When you listen closely, it's a pretty accurate observation. It might vary slightly from song to song, but overall there's not much disparity. The Simple Minds, however have a much wider range of bass rhythms in their catalog.

Then there's the guitar. The Edge may be slightly more experimental with technology, but he rarely plays more than his core three chords and he has never done anything that would strike one as proficient. He uses a very minimalist approach despite the fact that U2 features their guitar work nearly as much as they feature Bono himself. However, like The Edge Evans is Bono's "other half," Simple Minds guitarist Charlie Burchill is singer Jim Kerr's. Charlie and Jim are the core of Simple Minds throughout various personnel changes, and it's their adverse friendship is what keeps the band going and keeps them creative. However, unlike The Edge, Charlie shares his spotlight with their keyboard player, and has in recent years become more of a backdrop, despite his being a more adept guitarist than The Edge has ever proven to be. Evidence of this can be found on earlier Simple Minds albums such as Real to Real Cacophony, where he played with an eccentric intensity that could mirror Fripp or Belew.

Simple Minds rely far more heavily on keyboards than guitar to construct their signature sound, though. U2 embellishes their songs with ambient keyboard pieces from the king of ambient keyboard work himself, Brian Eno. Simple Minds, however, create a much more prominent and bombastic keyboard sound than U2, combining it with their bass to create a gigantic wall of sound. Whereas U2 tends to favor more mild, meek, and contemplative instrumental work, Simple Minds punches you in the face with a joyous fanfare.

Bass, guitar, and keyboard work down, U2 does have two things going for them that Simple Minds tends to lack. One is the drumming. Simple Minds never have had really complex percussion. Some of their time signatures are odd, but otherwise, the drumming is rather straightforward. Larry Mullen of U2, though, is a proficient, if punctual, drum player. I'll give him that. The other thing U2 have going for them musically is that, although their tonality is virtually identical at times, Bono seems to have a hair more stylistic range than Jim Kerr. However, Bono's vocals are more abrasive whereas Jim's are velvety smooth, so it's almost a matter of preference to say who is more aesthetically pleasing, and currently, I'm on the fence. I think they both do very well for their respective types of music.

The main thing U2 have going for them, though, is lyrics. I don't care what you think about the rest of the band as a whole, but Bono is one fuck of a good lyricist. The man can turn a phrase with near Dylan-like effectiveness, and his more serious songs are deep enough to hit on multiple levels with multiple meanings. I'm not talking about the obvious, obligatory radio gimmicks like "Vertigo," "Elevation," or "Mysterious Ways." If you listen to songs like "Tomorrow," "Exit," "Love Is Blindness," or "Please," you'll understand what a powerful songwriter Bono actually is.

Simple Minds' songs aren't quite as powerful as U2's. Jim is a decent songwriter in his own respect, but unlike U2, the Simple Minds are, at their core, a pop band with pop lyrics. I don't mean that they're like the Backstreet Boys pseudo-pop. I mean, Simple Minds are a good and independently creative pop band with a new wave style. U2 is more of an angsty band, a precursor to the 90's grunge movement. Although U2 are looking for the light, they're doing it from the pit of darkness. Simple Minds not only embrace that light, but they play hoops with it. When asked once to sum up the overall sound of Simple Minds, Jim Kerr responded that he felt their music "creates joy." Ever since they broke away from the post-punk Eurodance movement and developed into an arena rock band with New Gold Dream, every album Simple Minds have produced have focused on creating joy. One of the main reasons I eagerly anticipate new albums from the Simple Minds is that it astounds me that they can still create interesting new songs that stick with the principle of creating joy without losing the core sound that makes the band unique amongst its peers. If you want to listen to something dark and powerful, choose U2, but if you want to feel happy and energized, Simple Minds is the way to go.

Simple Minds and U2 came onto the music scene around the same time. Simple Minds beat U2 by only two years in releasing their respective first albums. They both grew to champion the new wave style of arena rock, rivaling each other for success by the mid-Eighties, however their influences were somewhat different. Simple Minds were influenced by German dance music, and artists like King Crimson, David Bowie, Brian Ferry, and the Velvet Underground, whereas U2 were influenced more by singer / songwriters like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Patty Smith, and bands like Thin Lizzy, The Who and the Beatles.

While U2 only continued to grow in popularity, Simple Minds quietly faded into the background by the end of the Eighties. U2 continued to play to sell-out arenas despite parodying themslves and pop music in general throughout the Nineties, whereas Simple Minds grew so creatively frustrated they almost broke up several times. Even still, during this period, they were able to record one of my favorite albums of theirs Néapolis, and the highly-acclaimed "lost" album, Our Secrets Are The Same. Many critics pointed out the Simple Minds' lack of creativity and weaker songs throughout the Nineties, with only a few songs on each album being worthwhile. Most critics wished they would go back to their avant-garde sound of earlier albums, but I don't think they ever really lost it; I think they just got better equipment and eventually came into their own. If they're still doing the same style they've been doing since 1982, chances are the first several albums were them attempting to find that niche. Every band has weak songs on their albums, though. Even an album as solid as The Joshua Tree has a few tracks that I find mediocre at best, so I can't fault Simple Minds for not being able to put out an album full of solid material during the creative low point of their career.

These days, I'm finding far more duds on U2 albums than on Simple Minds albums. The last couple of U2 albums have featured three or four songs that harken back to the band's prime enough that I might consider them instant classics, but the rest of their albums have been filled with long, boring periods of dullness, too. "In A Little While," "Peace On Earth," "Man And Woman," "Original Of The Species" all share a common theme, and that theme is that they're all uninteresting. However, the last couple of Simple Minds albums have put out have been far more solid listens. Cry was an overindulgent nod to their pop sensibilities which admittedly leaned too heavily on style over substance, but it was a fun album nontheless. Black and White, however, saw the band re-emerge in a major way with one of their strongest albums in many years, followed up by a highly successful European tour.

There are probably many reasons why Simple Minds faded into obscurity while U2 became one of the biggest bands in the world. One would be the drive and desire in the band. U2 wants to be famous. They want to be the biggest band in the world, so they work for it. Simple Minds just want to make happy music and share it with the world, so they're not quite as passionate with their lust for fame. Another reason could simply be record label representation. When Polygram bought Island Records in the early Nineties, U2 was just about the only successful band on the label at the time, so they made a considerable investment in the band. Naturally, they'd like to see that investment rewarded. Conversely, Sony/EMI had become apathetic to promoting what they considered nostalgia acts when the face of music had changed so drastically at the start of the Nineties.

Probably the most important factor, though, is the fact that the face of music had changed by the Nineties. Rock became far more angry, far more aggressive, and much more cynical after Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Nine Inch Nails, Tool, and other such acts exploded onto the scene. U2 were already writing angsty songs about soul searching in a dead world, so they were more readily accepted by the angsty grunge and post-grunge crowd despite their attempts at integrating pop and techno music throughout the decade. Artists that wanted to create happy, joyful songs were no longer embraced. People were tired of feeling happy. They wanted to release all the pain they'd been hiding just underneath the surface for a decade or more. These days, though, in a world wrought with uncertainty, fear, poverty, and war at every turn, compiled with a natural cycle of Eighties music nostalgia, people are beginning to rely again on music to lift their spirits and make them forget about the troubles of times. Hence Simple Minds are getting a foothold again and U2 are gradually slipping.

Of course, it could be because the general public doesn't like to think too heavily about their music, and you can't deny Bono's lyrical ability. U2's simplistic style and powerful lyrics have always been their saving grace. To the casual listener, Simple Minds are flashy pop with an Eighties style, but when you dissect the songs, you'll find that the Simple Minds are not quite so simple after all. I'm inclined to say that in a head-to-head musical competition, Simple Minds would win for talent and skill.

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