Happy 30th Anniversary to Simple Minds’ eighth studio album Street Fighting Years, originally released May 8, 1989.
“I’ve got a New Gold Dream / I’m Moving On,” sings Simple Minds’ lead singer Jim Kerr on “Kick It In” from the band’s eighth studio album Street Fighting Years released 30 years ago this week. It is perhaps the most apt summation of Simple Minds’ musical journey to that point.
From their first outing, the post-punk/new wave Life In A Day (1979), to Street Fighting Years the band had incrementally grown in musical direction and commercial appeal. With 1982's landmark New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84), the band found its footing and began a trio of records that crossed them over from new wave experimentation to stadium rockers with their juggernaut release Once Upon A Time in 1985 that saw them crack the US market and rival U2 for stadium rock domination and socio-political commentary.
So with New Gold Dream critically acclaimed as their turning point, this line served as a signpost to a new turning point in the band’s career. And it was a brave statement and braver move, for it would have been easy for Simple Minds to return to the studio after the global success of Once Upon A Time and bash out a carbon copy to cash in on their appeal.
Instead, the band honed its stadium-filling sound and even pushed against it with more cinematic atmospherics and Celtic elements guiding the music with a mix of smoother rock sensibilities and acoustic ambitions.
The moody and somber lead single “Belfast Child” is evidence of this. Grand in scale yet intimate in execution, “Belfast Child” is at once morose and hopeful. Based on the traditional Irish folk song “She Moved Through The Fair,” the song was inspired by an IRA bombing in Enniskillen that killed 12 and injured 63 others.
Reflective and haunting, the first half of the song is built around Kerr’s soulful lament against a dramatic chord structure. The song builds in the second half where Celtic rhythms dance around quintessential Simple Minds guitar noodling by Charlie Burchill. With each passing moment the arrangement fleshes itself out to combine folk elements with rock arrangements.
Surprisingly sparse of the hooks that drove many of the tracks from Once Upon A Time, “Belfast Child” plays for over 6 minutes and was a revealing entree to the new direction the band were exploring. Even more surprising, it was released a whopping 3 months prior to Street Fighting Years’ arrival on an EP entitled Ballad of the Streets. The song charted at Number 1 in the UK and cracked the top 10 in many international markets, but failed to make a blip on the US charts perhaps confusing an audience who had discovered the band through MTV mainstays “Don’t You Forget About Me” and “Alive and Kicking.”
As a fan of the band for many years leading up to its release, the eventual arrival of Street Fighting Years filled me with excitement. I had seen the band live during the “Once” tour, devoured their epic live album Live In The City of Lights and gathered with my friends at the record store waiting for the physical album to be delivered (remember when that was a thing?!).
And on the whole the album did not, and to this day does not, disappoint.
Opening with the titular track, the song fills with sparse production, sweeping instrumentation and mixes all the elements of modern Simple Minds that I love. There was real musicianship and songwriting at play here. A sense of drama in the verses. A cinematic feel. It was epic, felt almost orchestral, and had movements to it, filling its 6:26 running time with intrigue and excitement. Part of track’s magic was the broader musical landscape Simple Minds had come to occupy, and part of it was the production of maestro Trevor Horn and Steve Lipson. There is a quiet power present in the song, something that carries through to the rest of the album.
Tracks like the slow rolling “Soul Crying Out” and the lament of “Let It All Come Down” creep up on you. This isn’t Simple Minds trying to smack you over the head with a singalong “Hey, hey, hey, hey!” This is Simple Minds looking to engage your soul and spirit. Kerr’s calming vocals belie the conflict that’s contained in many of the album’s lyrics. Where his lyrics usually were filled with optimism, here there’s aching and even resignation to the conflicts brewing in the world around them and also within them. Yet somehow it soothes and comforts.
For all the intimacy at play in the album, the band still manages to belt out the stadium shaking rockers. “Wall of Love” pulses with a flurry of hi-hat rolls and off beat snare hits, and broods with expansive synth beds. All of which are underpinned by Kerr’s passionate vocals. It is perhaps the counterpoint to Once Upon A Time’s “Ghost Dancing” and matches it for sheer rock vitality.
Similarly, “Take A Step Back” seems purposefully built for the stage with its rollicking choruses and big sound. It gallops along and sweeps you up in its momentum. Strangely enough, the most deliberately focused rocker of the album, the aforementioned “Kick It In” is the only weak point on the album. Kerr’s usually poignant lyrics feel throwaway and the song has everything thrown at it production-wise yet nothing seems to really stick. And all these years later, with multiple airings in the meantime, the song still feels strangely rushed and undercooked. It’s the only track on an album of multiple songs passing the 6-minute mark that feels long.
The standout on the album has to be the modern folk rock hybrid that is “This Is Your Land.” Featuring a very Lou Reed-y guest vocal by Lou Reed himself, the song lulls you in with its soft, warm melody and gathers pace in an extended coda that dials everything up from booming Bonham-esque drums to sweeping guitar work, jittery piano accents and jagging strings. It encapsulates so perfectly where Simple Minds was sonically with panoramic production and musical arrangement.
Having toured heavily in support of Amnesty International in the years leading up to its release, it was no surprise that a more political focus would appear on Street Fighting Years and the final three songs (pulled from the Ballad of the Streets EP) act as an extended lesson in modern politics and social awareness.
The beautifully hopeful (and ultimately celebratory) “Mandela Day” was written and performed a year earlier at the 70th Birthday Tribute Concert for Nelson Mandela. Written at a time during Mandela’s incarceration, the song calls for his release and connects us to his ultimate freedom. It also demonstrates the level of pressure, and potential persuasion, music had at the time when events such as Live Aid and Mandela Day (as it became known) could move beyond platitudes to actionable change.
The band also put to tape their cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Biko,” giving it a soulful, more expansive and fuller reproduction. With both songs dealing with the blight of apartheid In South Africa, they acted as socially guiding bookends to “Belfast Child.”
Sequencing these final songs together adds an extra sense of gravitas to the album, leaving the listener moved and inspired. With the musical coda of “When Spirits Rise,” the album concludes on a hopeful note, adding a touch of optimism to the proceedings. Interestingly enough, when Simple Minds toured in support of this album, this song that closed the album was used as a prelude to the live show.
Whilst critics and fans will debate whether or not this album began a sequence of diminishing returns for the band both in songwriting input and consistency of output (although it should be noted last year’s Walk Between Worlds heralded a strong return to form), there is no denying that Street Fighting Years was a new chapter for Simple Minds. And though it didn’t live up to the commercial success of its predecessor, Street Fighting Years pushed beyond it artistically and musically and remains an exciting and inviting listen 30 years later.