It was 40 years ago this very month that Simple Minds released Empires and Dance, possibly the most un-Scottish of albums ever to be released by any world-famous Scottish band.
It’s an LP that saw Arista Records make a complete balls-up, failing to realise what Simple Minds had been progressively gearing up to over the previous 18 months, effectively dismissing it from the outset by pressing up just an initial 15,000 copies of the album and, once these had been cleared from the shelves of the record stores that had managed to obtain copies, choosing to press just a further 15,000 copies, making it difficult for many fans to find (although, to be fair, it wasn’t a big problem in Glasgow with all the shops, large and small having it on sale).
It was the culmination of an unhappy time with the label. The previous two albums, while critically acclaimed, hadn’t provided any great commercial success, while none of the singles had charted. The band was deeply in debt to the label, chiefly from the costs involved with touring, and in later years, the band members revealed that there were serious discussions around splitting-up to get out of the mess.
Luckily, other A&R folk were paying attention to Empires and Dance and realised that it contained songs which could be part of the changing scene in clubs, where ‘pure’ disco was increasingly giving way to electronica, especially the ‘heavier’ European-vibe with its co-reliance on great bass notes. And, while Empires and Dance is very much the work of the five-man collective, it is the contributions from Mick MacNeil on keyboards and Derek Forbes on bass that make it stand out. So, when Arista let the band go just four months after the album came out, the folk at Virgin Records pounced and, having agreed to a sum to pay off part of the debt to the old label, took the band on and put them firmly on the road to superstardom.
It is quite bemusing to look back and wonder why Arista made such a mess of things. The album opens up with the genuinely jaw-dropping I Travel, a song that I’ve previously said is a cross between disco-stomping Giorgio Moroder and early experimental Roxy Music (but played at 100mph!!), coming with an almighty punch in which every member of the band played/sang as if their very future existence depended on it.
It surely had hit single written all over it….but not on Arista’s watch in 1980. Indeed, the label only realised what they had missed out on a couple of years later when the cashed-in on the new-found success the band were enjoying and pushed out Celebration, an admittedly excellent 10-song compilation of material from the first three albums, with its b-side containing three tracks lifted from Empires and Dance together with a b-side from the I Travel single.
I Travel might be the cornerstone of Empires and Dance but there is so much more to the album, and I’ll crib from a review that can be found over at Julian Cope‘s Head Heritage website to illustrate:-
“Empires and Dance is their most European album- Bowie/Eno, Can, Kraftwerk, Neu!, Nite Flights, Fear of Music all appear to be influences. Opening single “I Travel” is like Trans Europe Express on speed…..a pulsing pop song that delivers on the influences of Kraftwerk and Moroder.
“Today I Died Again” has more in common with Magazine than U2- the lyrics in the same avenue as Ian Curtis ruminating on fascism (“Walked in Line”, “Dead Souls”) “The clothes he wears date back to some war…She can’t remember before this heat/He can’t remember his wife’s Christian name…Back to a year, back to a youth/Of men in church and drug cabarets…”- can’t help but think of films like Cabaret, The Damned, The Night Porter & Salon Kitty. Maybe The Tin Drum also?
“Celebrate” sounds like Chic producing Gary Numan, robo-funk at its finest; while This Fear of Gods pre-empts 23 Skidoo’s “Coup”- (the influence/sample for Chemical Brothers’ “Block Rockin Beats”) & the keyboards are very Trans Europe Express also. Epic stuff, though like a lot of great records, I haven’t got a clue what is being sung about.
“Capital City” and “Constantinople Line” continue the Europa themes, alienation and paranoia rule then- & this leads into “Twist/Run/Repulsion” – a series of oblique mantras (“Contort!”) over a female voice sample creating a track not far from those found on Eno/Byrne’s sampledelic-classic My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
Even better is “Thirty Frames a Second”, which recalls the time-reversal themes of books like Counter-Clock World (Philip K Dick) & Time’s Arrow (Martin Amis) and musically is their most Krautrock inflected moment. Brief instrumental interlude “Kant-Kino” is very side 2 of Low, and segues into final track “Room” – the most melody-driven track here. Shimmering guitars, pulsing percussion & almost funky bass- pity it’s so brief though! This is the kind of song that would make music critics wet themselves if Primal Scream or Radiohead produced it now…”
I probably listen to Empires and Dance a couple of times a year at most, thus ensuring it retains its fresh and vibrant feeling. My vinyl copy has long been trashed and I’ve made do with a CD version that was later issued by Virgin Records. But, having now got myself that decent turntable again, I sought out a copy of the original vinyl via Discogs, one that was actually delivered by the postie on Saturday 12 September, which was 40 years to the very day that it was released. These have been ripped from the album:-
Looking back, it’s head-scratching that none of these made it onto the ICA I pulled together back in May 2016…..