‘A nuclear reactor of music’: the story of Simple Minds’ classic album Empires and Dance

<span>Photograph: Virginia Turbett/Redferns</span>
Photograph: Virginia Turbett/Redferns

During a break in rehearsals for Simple Minds’ 2020 arena tour, conversation turned to the fact that the guitarist Charlie Burchill had moonlighted on saxophone on the band’s early records. Their drummer, Cherisse Osei, was intrigued. With some reluctance – Burchill likens his youthful forays on the sax to “the cat getting strangled” – he played Osei Twist/Run/Repulsion. A sound collage lurking with menaces on the second side of their 1980 album, Empires and Dance, Burchill’s foghorn alarums vie with a sickly semitone bass shift, the singer Jim Kerr’s torrential abstractions, and a woman reciting a passage from a Nikolai Gogol short story in its French translation.

“Cherisse was like: ‘What’s that?!’” Burchill mimes a horrified facial expression. “Because it’s fucking bonkers.” Pondering whether Simple Minds would ever plan a themed album tour around Empires and Dance, the guitarist shakes his head. “I think it would be a bit obscure, that one.”

Kerr, too, recently enjoyed a similar interaction. “We were playing some of Empires and Dance and one of the band said: ‘Love the new stuff!’ It’s great that it sounds that contemporary. Some of the people we work with weren’t even born when that album came out.”

The two tales are illustrative. Empires and Dance can feel a long way away – not merely from the current iteration of the band that made it, but also from the world of music as it is now. Yet it is also a strikingly resonant record, almost disquietingly prescient. “Europe has a language problem”? OK. Keep talking.

The sleeve of Empires and Dance.
The sleeve of Empires and Dance. Photograph: Vinyls/Alamy

“Empires and Dance was massive for me,” says the Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield. “It was almost like learning a new language. It’s a nuclear reactor of musical orchestration from five working-class Glasgow boys – it’s fucking brilliant.” He says Empires and Dance taught him that “you don’t have to be like a bad actor, asking: ‘What is my motivation?’ You can just let the music come through you … It taught me to look a bit farther beyond and not to be worried of pretension, either. Go into your brain and see what’s there.”

Sustaining an overpowering and unrelenting mood, music, voice and words perfectly in lockstep, Empires and Dance is a Mitteleuropean psychodrama. It strips a continent down to bare lightbulbs and hard wiring, the pomp and pretence of classical culture raised up only to be kicked in. Unwavering, uncompromising, steely, committed, it is powered by a fearsome cohesion of intent; not a single crack breaches a shared sense of purpose.

For their previous album, 1979’s exquisite and bewildering Real to Real Cacophony, Simple Minds played outside the UK for the first time. Seventy-two hours in New York had felt like a fever dream, vivid but barely real. Europe made a deeper and more sustained impression. “That European tour was a big thing,” says John Leckie, the producer of Empires and Dance. “They were attracted to it. The Beatles, rock’n’roll, American country, Johnny Cash – forget all that. Europe was the future, the way forward.”

At home, Kerr has a framed and mounted black-and-white photograph of the band in 1980, shot at the Berlin Wall. “We did grow up in the shadow of all of that,” he says. “We’d get to places with all these famous names we knew from history – bad history. I remember being in Paris and a synagogue was set on fire just down the road from where we were. In Germany, it was the Baader-Meinhof gang. When we got to Italy, it was the Red Brigade. All the stuff that, sitting here, you read about in the newspapers, it was in the air, it was around. I started to write sort of as a character moving through all of that.”

Kerr calls Empires and Dance “a travelogue with spiky dance music. We were young men travelling through classical Europe, reading Camus, and it was all feeding the machine.” Burchill toured with a case filled with novels, which were passed around. Kerr borrowed The Master and Margarita, which made a deep impression. Reading Albert Camus and Mikhail Bulgakov by day, by night, crucially, they were listening to Chic, Kraftwerk, Donna Summer, Michael Rother and Grace Jones in the clubs.

“We were bedding into the culture, because we were clubbing it every night and having a brilliant time,” says the former keyboardist Mick MacNeil. “Doing a lot of smoke, meeting a lot of women, thoroughly enjoying what age we were, on tour. It felt natural … We’d be listening to Grace Jones or something funky in a German nightclub and thinking: I really like that. Then you go back home and it obviously starts to bleed through.”

As Simple Minds travelled by road from Hamburg to Berlin, barely 24 hours after arriving on the continent, they witnessed megatonnage of military hardware passing on the other side of the autobahn, a seemingly endless line of tanks, trucks and missile launchers, dozens of helicopters tracking them above. It was a huge military exercise involving British, American and West German forces. The cold war was at its height, but the second world war didn’t seem so far away, either. “In central Europe men are marching” – still.

On Empires and Dance, everything about the continent’s strangeness is romanticised, catastrophised, heightened. Kerr travels through this stylised landscape as the observing alien-fugitive – dragged in, shoved out, exhilarated, frightened, spilling images and words. “It’s not defined, but it’s a travelogue,” he says. “The person seeing this stuff is a bit ambivalent. It’s voyeuristic. Churches everywhere, these great cathedrals and monuments, which, still, dominate everything. It broods, but it is somehow glamorous, too.”

The singer’s agitated reportage layers old European decadence – prewar “drug cabarets”, postwar drudgery, the rot and stink of classical civilisation decomposing (the first image we have is of “cities, buildings falling down”) – on top of first-hand observations and secondhand imaginings of new European turmoil.

The band follows his path deep into the heart of disco-rock darkness. Empires and Dance is nothing so overt as a concept album; MacNeil is keen to point out that there was no conscious attempt to “paint all those pictures” with the music. Through the mysteries of creative fusion, however, when recording began at Rockfield Studios in south Wales, an exhilarating osmosis occurred between the album’s themes and its sound.

More than ever, the bassist Derek Forbes and the drummer Brian McGee built the rhythmic scaffold. McGee is Empires and Dance’s unerring pulse, its engine, allowing Forbes to take the melodic lead with a series of extraordinary basslines. Song structures emerged from long jams, stretching from midday until the early hours. “There would be a lot of tape editing if the arrangement needed it,” says Leckie. “It’s labour-intensive, but you get something special. If we’d done Empires and Dance on a computer, we wouldn’t be talking about it today.”

Simple Minds
‘It really felt like it was going somewhere’ … Simple Minds in 1981. Photograph: Peter Noble/Redferns

The musicians felt liberated by the technology at their disposal. “The gear has always been really important,” says Burchill. “Every single album, especially those first five, you can hear the equipment developing. Almost by accident, something would come up. We’d say: ‘Don’t touch that, just leave that there!’ Then we’d start playing over the top of it.”

At Rockfield, they honed the opening track, I Travel, into a hard ball of whirling dance-rock, a post-punk I Feel Love with MacNeil’s juddering Jupiter-4 riff at its heart. Leckie gathered the band around a table-tennis table to bash out the rhythm. Although there is plenty of clatter and kling-klang on Empires and Dance, it stops short of full industrial immersion. The hand claps left real blisters. The producer regrets that they didn’t go further: “I wish we had hit a metal girder or an anvil with a hammer!” Kerr sings it all as though standing at a lectern, a state-branded microphone in front of him, flanked by flags and colonels.

If I Travel is a thrilling opener, many more highlights follow. On the almost unbearably taut Thirty Frames a Second, existential panic and the lure of the glitterball unite in perfect lockstep. The relentless Celebrate is chain-gang electro-glam, while the monolithic Today I Died Again is suffused with a dread that can be felt in the bones and the teeth. On This Fear of Gods, Forbes supplies yet another sublime, unyielding bassline as backwards reverb washes over Kerr’s abstract fragment, partly inspired by a recent reading of Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths. The five lines protrude from the title phrase like the sharp points of a pentagram.

These are the “song” songs on Empires and Dance. Then there are pieces that Leckie calls “the strange tracks. Fragments. Experimental kinds of things.” These include Constantinople Line, which may be the ultimate musical tour de force on an album filled with them. Kerr is a traveller on the old Orient Express route, Paris to Constantinople (now Istanbul). The train journey is symbolic of his floating identity. He is stateless and foreign, everywhere and nowhere, speaking “a traveller’s language / Caucasian talk”. The man is trapped between east and west, between countries and class.

The geography has maybe changed, but the issues never change – war, violence, human rights, justice

Jim Kerr

The band loved the obscurity and ambition of Kerr’s lyrics. Empires and Dance abounds in opposing or arresting images, free associations that hint at themes and a unified meaning. Words are used as texture, offering flashes of recognition, odd juxtapositions. Clothes are a recurring motif. There are soldiers everywhere, legionnaires, marines. Uniforms bleach away identity just as effectively as the poverty of oppression.

“By the time we got to Empires and Dance, in retrospect, you can really hear Jim’s development,” says Burchill. “Tracks like I Travel and This Fear of Gods – wow! You listen to that album and feel like you’ve gone through some kind of a journey. It’s in a lot of the titles: Constantinople Line, Kant-Kino. Very Eurocentric.”

What is Empires and Dance about? One can never quite pin it down. It’s a series of vaguely connected encounters and experiences that add up to something more substantial than simply a bunch of songs. Everyone is moving: on trains, on foot, going backwards, heading west. Asia looms; languages meet and confuse. “I was aware that he was trying to say something about Europe,” says Bradfield. “He was saying: yes, we have civilisation and we have history, but there is an undercurrent that we can’t decode. People still want more freedom, people still want more identity, and they will do anything to achieve it. That album tries to tell that story.”

Kerr says: “The interesting thing for me is that, obviously, you grow away from it at a certain point. It’s like old clothes: I wouldn’t wear that now; what the fuck was I thinking? Then it somehow comes back and finds a new relevance, or is seen through different eyes. The issues never really go away. The geography has maybe changed, but the issues never change – war, violence, human rights, justice. When you go on the big themes, the idea that we could be sitting here now saying that Britain is no longer a member of the EU. Are you kidding me on? So the songs can always be relevant.”

At the Lyceum in London on 20 June 1980, Simple Minds performed a set of almost all new material. The album was already finished and they were buzzed about it. “I thought that was the dog’s bollocks, that record,” says Kerr. “I thought: we’re fucking good.” As recently as March 1980, in Amsterdam, they were still filling out the set with covers and leaning too heavily on their influences. A few months later, on the other side of recording Empires and Dance, there was a new focus and intensity.

Jim Kerr performing live.
‘He twisted words around and he twisted himself around’ … Jim Kerr on stage in 1980. Photograph: Virginia Turbett/Redferns

Kerr was by now a magnetic, mesmeric frontman, tough but seductive. He wore plain T-shirts or white work shirts tucked into baggy trousers, his eyes lined with kohl, his dark fringe flopping over a pale face. He held the microphone lightly, by his fingertips, between tenderness and caution, as though it might be a baby or a bomb. “A great frontman, great ideas, great movement,” says Forbes. “A point of focus; weird-looking. He twisted words around and he twisted himself around. I think he got a bit more confident. He was always a bit inward, I think, but once he got up and moved about … he commanded the stage and then the rest of us just got on with it.”

Says Kerr: “It might be some arts centre in Germany, but when we knew that we had done the business, that was the only oxygen we needed. We were growing in stature with every gig. ‘We can’t wait to play tonight, we’re going to destroy this place.’ It was very like that.” For Forbes, “the best times were [playing] the clubs. My job was to pull all the birds. Pull them and bring them back, because the band were all shy.”

Empires and Dance was released on Arista/Zoom in late September. “It felt like the perfect title,” says Kerr. It kickstarted a trend in the early 80s for album titles linking two artfully (dis)associated phrases: Heaven 17’s Penthouse and Pavement, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s Architecture & Morality, Wire’s Document and Eyewitness and Thompson Twins’ Quick Step & Side Kick are among the records that quickly followed.

The cover design, by the Artifex Studio, felt instantly iconic. A stark white border and faux-Cyrillic typeface framed Michael Ruetz’s photograph of a chipped statue of a deposed military grandee, shot against the backdrop of the Parthenon in Athens at dusk. “Straight away, it transported me to some kind of faux-chic communist statement,” says Bradfield. “That captures me. I can see that they’re talking about some point where you’ve passed the delusion of greatness, you’ve passed the creation of vanity and hubris. Now, we’re in reality. Civilisations can stand or fall by their moral structures. This is gamechanging. Now, we’ve got to stand on our own two feet; there is no more delusion. That is what I saw when I saw the cover.”

The artwork amplified the darkness and agitation of Empires and Dance, which at times can feel very real. You listen and worry a little about Kerr’s state of mind. He sounds hollowed out, racked, driven from peace: “Play me fear / Only rhythm I hear.”

“Being in a band, half of it isn’t reality, especially when you’re performing night after night,” Kerr says. “It was a hyper-reality. From first thing in the morning to last thing at night, my head would be full of it – movies and books and characters. Mad with it all. It was our life at that time.” He recalls sleepless days and nights in the Columbia hotel, the staple scruffy, downright lawless London base for most mid-level travelling bands living away from home on the record company’s tab. He remembers staying up all night, feverishly plotting “mind-blowing” music, living on “three yoghurts a day” and “the girl who would visit at midnight … I still don’t know her name”.

They were charged, unforgettable times. Yet everything seemed provisional. Many of the British shows out in the sticks were far from packed. There were long, dismal drives in a tiny van. Beneath the japes, McGee was becoming increasingly unhappy. On top of it all, they felt they could be dropped at any moment.

“The only darkness was that, in our naivety, wanting to be an art-rock band, we assumed that we would never be a big band, but if you could get a following, well, even the idea of being a cult group sounded good,” says Kerr. “But the realities came in on Empires and Dance. We were three albums in, never really sold anything, the debt was piling up and there was talk of the plugs getting pulled. There was a shadow there. The counterpoint of that was that every time we played, people would go mental. It might have been 50 or 500, or if we were opening up for someone much more prominent than us, we would blow them off.”

They were championed by influential music journalists such as Paul Morley, Adam Sweeting and Chris Bohn, and considered the peers of bands such as Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen and Siouxsie and the Banshees. In NME, Morley noted that the music on Empires and Dance was remote but not sterile – a crucial distinction – and lauded Kerr’s “grudge against reality”. This, he wrote, was music that goes “directly against all rock conditioning … melodramatic yet modernist. An authentic new torch music.”

Related: Jim Kerr: ‘I spent a night in the cells after climbing the walls of the Russian embassy while tripping on LSD’

The 12-inch of I Travel, hand-tooled by Leckie, made a splash in the clubs and helped Simple Minds make small strides in the margins of the incipient new romantic scene. They had kudos, a growing and fervent fanbase and a superb new album of which they were inordinately and justifiably proud – yet Empires and Dance stalled just outside the Top 40 in the UK and spent only three weeks in the Top 100. The first pressing of the album amounted to just 7,500 copies. “Empires and Dance should have been a smash hit and that’s when we really fell out with Arista,” says their former manager, Bruce Findlay. “I get angry, because we never had the commercial success on record that we were having live.”

By now, Ben Edmonds, the A&R man who had signed Simple Minds, had left the label. Aside from the fact that, as Leckie says, “no one at Arista was into them”, the primary problem was financial: the band wasn’t paying its way. “We had so much debt and I think they knew they were just going to get more of this stuff,” says Burchill. “They didn’t know what it was. It was kind of evident that we had to go.”

Yet the quality of the album and the strength of the critical reaction “gave us a certain power”, says MacNeil. “It was like: ‘We don’t care how much debt we owe you, we know we have something and you’re not really doing it for us.’”

Kerr adds: “There was a feeling that everything was just really good, and the lyrics felt right, and it really felt like it was going somewhere. The record company didn’t feel that, but we did. The landscape was Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen … [Empires and Dance] felt part of that, but unto its own – and as good. It wasn’t bravado. It just felt like this was the stuff we wanted to be listening to, as well as be making, and when you get to that level you don’t really have any doubts.”

This is an edited extract from the paperback edition of Graeme Thomson’s book Themes For Great Cities: A New History of Simple Minds (Constable), out now