Get This!, Kraut-y

Travel Agents

I met Charlie Burchill once. Tiny and comically round, he looked like a pantomime pirate who was missing his beard; the tight black jeans, pointy boots and dazzling white blousy shirt that probably cost more than my monthly mortgage repayment brought to mind Captain Pugwash on shore leave. While my 5ft 8″ towered over him I was instantly enlightened as to why that white Gretsch Falcon he was fond of playing in those Simple Minds videos always looked ridiculously over-sized on him.

I’m being a wee bit cruel though; Charlie was very smiley, extremely chatty and, in the same way that he and Jim Kerr had moments earlier been gushing over the Roxy and Bowie 7″s that filled the Wurlitzer we happened to be leaning against, he listened enthusiastically to my stories of how Simple Minds had played a major part in my formative years.

I came to Simple Minds around the time of Glittering Prize and Promised You A Miracle – the New Gold Dream album is an incredibly-produced LP – stick it on at some point and lose yourself in the textures – and while it was Don’t You Forget About Me that brought them to the attention of my mum and the rest of the world, it was I Travel that melted my mind to the possibilities of music.

By the time I’d first heard I Travel, the band had just played Live Aid and were chronologically closer to Belfast Child, Mandela Day, Biko and the posturing, political pap that disenfranchised an entire generation of fans who’d been by the band’s side since the days of the Mars Bar in Glasgow, the knowing Chelsea Girl single and the Empires And Dance album. The New Gold Dream album though had me scampering backwards to see what else the band had done, and it was on a scratched copy of Empires And Dance from Irvine library that I first encountered I Travel. Listening to it as I type, I’m still waiting on a skip that doesn’t happen. Europe has a lang….oblem. It’s funny how music lodges in your head like that, eh?

I Travel was the first track on that album and signalled a brave new direction for the band. Its clattering, steam-powered industrial funk is propulsive, futuristic (still) and highly infectious. It’s the sound of industrial Victorian Glasgow breaking free of its chains, the sound of the shipyard welders’ blow torches set to scorch, the sound of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love as played by art punks from the south side of Glasgow.

Simple Minds I Travel (extended)

I have two copies of I Travel. There’s the original, 12″ version, bought on a rare outing to the Virgin Megastore on Union Street, back in the days when folk still smoked behind the counter and you darenae go up the stairs to the second floor on account of all the scary-looking punks and their brothel creepers blocking the way. I also have a reissued 7″ found whilst rummaging through a box of Gene Pitney and Sonia 7″s in a Lake District charity shop. I was scared to leave it there, unsure of what fate would befall it should I put it back. The 12″ is a well-played piece of vinyl. It was often the soundtrack to drunken teenage stupidity, stuck on at filling-loosening volume as soon as someone’s parents had reversed out the drive for a week in Wales. It’s a great record.

How did they write it? It’s not a guitar tune in the traditional sense. You won’t find the chords on your favourite tab site. Wee Charlie adds occasional textures here and there, and there’s a fantastic blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Nile Rodgers-esque flourish midway through, but the song’s genesis must lie somewhere between Derek Forbes’ groovy never-ending bass, the sequenced synths and that head-nodding, rattling rhythm. Imagine being there while the band jammed it, working all its nuances out?! Played live, it’s a cracker;

With the benefit of acquired musical knowledge, it’s clear that Simple Minds had been listening to the right sort of European records. Kerr’s baritone echoes the more esoteric moments from Bowie’s Berlin phase and he sings of culture; decadence and pleasure towns, tragedies, luxuries, statues, parks, galleries. He might even be singing of Glasgow – the lyric certainly ticks all of that subject matter.

Strip everything else away – the 8 note keyboard motif, Burchill’s splashes of colour and Jim Kerr’s vocal and you have a record that sounds like its made by machines with soul. A bit like Kraftwerk, I suppose. In fact, if it popped up vocal-free on 6 Music tomorrow, you could be forgiven for assuming its retro-futurism was the latest Underworld release.

Expertly glued together by John Leckie, I Travel hints at a group of musicians growing into themselves. Hindsight shows that Simple Minds went on something of an imperial run around this time. Imagine if I’d never looked back and instead fell for the stadium shows and the hey hey hey heys. There’s an axis-turning thought.

19 thoughts on “Travel Agents”

  1. Came to them earlier than you Craig, and was fortunate enough to see them several times at small glasgow venues during the first few albums. Like you I Travel and also Celebrate blew me away on first hearing. New Gold Dream and a memorable gig at Tiffanys was the high water mark for me… started to get a bit bombastic at times after that….

    What i was gonna say though was i have often thought that Mick McNeills keyboards were a key ingredient in the early material, and as well as the stunning soundscape of I Travel in particular in those ” textures ” you mentioned in NGD could all be attributed to him. think they lost something, and certainly lost me following his rather sorry exit. He’s something of an unheralded hero in the Simple Minds story in my opinion.

  2. You’re correct Neil. Sonic architect, call him what you will, but he was more than ‘just’ the keyboard player. Theme From Great Cities, Love Song etc all sound they way they do in no small part due to Mick.

  3. I Travel – defo in the top 5 most requested (and played) choons at SongsYaBass in the last 7 years. Nuff said.

  4. I always thought they were never the same after Derek Forbes left. His bass was a massive driving force in the early days. P. S. I think I may have taped the same copy as you from Irvine library. 🙂

  5. Ha! I hope it wasn’t you that scratched it! I taped Unknown Pleasures from there too. It was an original ruby red Factory pressing. They’re worth a fortune nowadays. I sometimes wonder what other rarities the library unwittingly stocked.

  6. Love love LOVE the Minds, those halycon early gold days especially. Missed out on them in their pomp due to my being a wee bairn to use Scots parlance, but when later in life I began rummaging in the jungle of disc-overy, needless to say I soon fell hook, line and Synclavier.

    I used to be in a band with a bunch of musical cavemen, all of whom professed to loathe Simple Minds, them being only familiar with the stadium-filling rawk era (which I actually happen to like a lot of, even though granted it’s not a patch on the early gold). I tried in vain to convince my hombres that between 1979 and 1984 the Minds were magnificently daring Euro art-rock renegades yada yada, a notion they guffawed at. So as a last resort I decided to compile what I felt were the best moments from Life in a Day, Real to Real Cacophony, Empires and Dance, Sons and Fascination, Sister Feelings Call, the crowning glory that is New Gold Dream and the underrated but at it’s best almost equally brilliant Sparkle in the Rain, compiled the tracks onto a playlist, burned three copies and gave the untitled disc to each of my then-bandmates, but refused to say what was on it. “Just listen to it”, said I. Only one of them bothered to, but I could tell he was impressed by what he heard, although I suspect his inability to admit he had been wrong meant he didn’t acknowledge having seen the error of his ways. Those lads were the biggest mansplainers on the planet. My ex-bandmates that is, not Simple Minds.

    (Hi-)Hats off once again Mr McAllister

  7. PS I’m 100% with those above who mention they were never the same without Derek Forbes and Mick MacNeil. Why do bands fail to learn the same age-old lessons over and over and over? A band’s musical chemistry is precious and almost always irreplaceable, but as I’ve seen many times including on a personal level musicians themselves seem to be the ones most oblivious to this. I suppose expanding egos and the disorientating effects of fame are a lot to blame. I heard Forbes was forced out due to some ludicrous reason, something about Jim and Charlie being envious of the girlfriend he had (don’t quote me on that! But I remember reading the reason and thinking it was brainless, it was some absurd tiff over something trivial anyway). Very sad, they were never the same force thereafter, then again no band ever is once the session boys start to waddle in with their ponytails to start watching the clock. Not only did Forbes play like the devil, he looked cool as fuck while he was doing it. Same with MacNeil, he was a huge part of their sound and chemistry. Although I know he bailed out for his own reasons.

  8. It’s funny, isn’t it, how Simple Minds are three different acts with three different line-ups; the arty early years, the air-punching stadium stuff and the later Jim and Charlie and whoever soldiering on years. They’ve certainly made the most of things.

  9. The only way you could get this 12″ in 1980 was to purchase the French Import. Arista could press cheaper in France than the UK at the time. This was what you got.

    Arista were not really getting behind this spectacular 12″ mix at all. They just didn’t get it. A Radio One DJ played it and I heard it in the staff room at work. I travelled up to Listen in Glasgow to buy my copy during my October holiday that year. It wasn’t released as a 12″ UK pressing until 1982 when it was re-issued to co-incide with Arista’s “Celebration” Simple Minds Compilation. Ithink it was played at every disco I went to from 1980 onwards. It was everywhere – except the charts.
    The ultimate cringe is the 12″ segued version of “Changeling-I Travel” on the B-side of the Celebrate 12″ from Feb 81.It was Arista’s last throw of the dice before the band were swept off their feet by Virgin.
    The next 6 singles for Virgin remain an astonishing achievement. From Love Song through to the NGD singles. A band at the top of their game. Brilliant.

  10. That’s a great, comprehensive reply Stewart. Thanks for taking the time to write it. You’re right too about that stellar run of singles that followed. Cheers.

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