Released in 1979, Simple Minds’ debut album ‘Life In A Day’ was a largely unremarkable affair. Mostly made up of post-punk/new wave material (played by what sounds like a pub band), the only things which ever remain memorable are its two singles – the title track and ‘Chelsea Girl’.
Few people could have predicted that the band’s second album, ‘Real To Real Cacophony’ (released only seven months later) would feature an almost complete stylistic change. Gone are the straight ahead, pop-rock styled chorus songs. In their place, a collection of twisted art rock gems.
The spiky ‘Naked Eye’ weaves around a funky bass part from Derek Forbes and a slightly unhinged vocal; both this and ‘Citizen (Dance of Youth)’ show Wire influences. There’s a dark feeling at work during ‘Citizen’ which reminds me of Wire material (from ‘Chairs Missing’, particularly) meeting with a more lightweight offering from The Birthday Party. ‘Premonition’ creates a nice contrast, being one of the album’s more accessible tracks – stylistically, still a long way from the debut album, there’s an obvious early Roxy Music influence and here, seems to be where Jim Kerr is in strongest voice. In fact, it’s one of the only tracks where he’s recognisable as the Jim Kerr most people would know. Also more song-based is the album’s only single ‘Changeling’. It’s been said elsewhere that this track is weak. To be fair, it’s not weak – it just feels a little out of place here amongst the darker, arty stuff. Maybe the band had been told they needed a single and this was thrown in at the last minute; or maybe it was written before the sessions took a dramatic, experimental slant? I don’t know.
That said, ‘Calling Your Name’ could never be called experimental either. A bouncy new wave tune, this mightn’t have been out of place on XTC’s ‘Go2’, or ‘Drums and Wires’. John Leckie’s production is sharp and the band is in good shape, but generally speaking, it fits rather more into the ‘fun’ category. With it’s almost slow ska rhythms and carny-influenced keyboards, the obviously titled ‘Carnival (Shelter In A Suitcase)’ [I’m guessing ‘Carnival’ was its working title due to that keyboard riff], is in good company with ‘Calling…’, but even this slightly more commercial sounding material bares little in common with the Simple Minds with which most people are familiar.
The online music bible AMG claims that ‘Real To Real Cacophony’ wanders into directionless territory in the middle, but I couldn’t disagree more. ‘Cacophony’ and ‘Veldt’ appear wilfully arty for the sake of it on the surface, but like the aptly named ‘Film Theme’ near the album’s end, these songs are wonderful, Eno-esque soundscapes and show a real appreciation for art rock. Charlie Burchill’s guitar work on the soundscape style tracks ranges from under-stated, to sharp and discordant. His guitar never feels out of place, despite most of the album sounding like an experiment in late seventies electronica. It should be noted, though, that while the various Roxy/Eno/Bowie and Wire influences over parts of the album are more than obvious, absolutely none of it sounds plagiarized. Each influence has been given a new slant, making ‘Real To Real Cacophony’ a captivating listen.
Although the album doesn’t feel traditionally coherent, there’s something about this ragbag of misfit songs which feels right when played as a whole. It’s dark, often challenging and sometimes even difficult listening. If you’re a casual fan looking for stadium pop hits, there’s nothing for you here. As far as Simple Minds are concerned, sometimes I’m convinced ‘Real To Real Cacophony’ is their best record.
[The 2003 remastered version was erroneously retitled 'Reel To Real Cacophony']