October 21, 1985 saw the release of Once Upon A Time, the most successful album of Simple Minds‘ career. Hot off the heels of their smash hit “Don’t You Forget About Me,” from February of that year, the album capitalized on the success of that single and became one of the biggest records of the year and one of the biggest of my life.
Once Upon A Time was the band’s seventh (or eighth, depending on how you count) album in six-and-a-half years, and it continued their progression from avant-garde, new-wave soundscapes into the more radio- and stadium-ready rock hinted at on their two prior albums, New Gold Dream and Sparkle In The Rain. While their only real success in America up to this point had been a single from the soundtrack to a teenage comedy, they’d been topping UK charts for years. Hard to conceive of now, but in 1985 Simple Minds had seen more chart success in the US than U2, whose opus The Joshua Tree wouldn’t hit for another year-and-a-half.
This is one of those albums that partially defines my adolescence, one of those albums where I don’t know which songs were singles and which were not (unless I look them up) because I played the whole cassette on a continuous loop for weeks at a time. The lead single, “Alive And Kicking” was released seven months after “Don’t You Forget About Me” first hit airwaves and while I’d liked the earlier release, I loved the new track immediately. It had a massive sound to it that their prior US hit lacked and lyrically it straddled a line between romantic love and religious worship that was very enticing to me as a pubescent kid trying to balance lust and faith.
And that’s mostly how the album was for me. In 1985, as a 14 year-old boy, this record was all about Jim Kerr‘s lyrics, which were just malleable enough that I could read into them most anything I wanted by way of interpretation and implication. But as a 46 year-old man, this album impresses on so many levels. It is still very much of-a-piece in that, as a single cohesive artwork, it achieves much more than it does if broken down into its component singles and accompanying album cuts. It enters with authority with the enormous kick from Mel Gaynor‘s drums before launching into Charlie Burchill‘s soaring, chiming guitar on the title track and it doesn’t let up from there. There are no high school slow-dance ballads on this record. This is urgent, powerful rock-and-roll from the get-go. There was none of the treacly pop of “Don’t You Forget About Me,” either (a song I would later learn was penned by others and which Simple Minds only recorded after Billy Idol turned it down – or so legend has it, though he would later cover it in the early 2000s). Though I wasn’t aware of the term “arena rock” at the time – I don’t think it was even in common usage in the mid 80s – that was the sound that drew me into the record and propelled the import of Kerr’s lyrics.
The energy and urgency of the opening cut never let up in the course of eight songs over forty-one minutes. “Once Upon A Time” heads directly into “All The Things She Said,” which ended up being the third single from the record. Again, the lyrics are open to interpretation and can be about love, war, faith, grief, or any other meaning with which you might want to imbue them. And that’s the power of the song and of the album – while, in other hands, lyrics that could be seen to mean anything would, at the same time, end up meaning nothing and wash away under the weight of their own vagueness; with Kerr’s delivery and lyrical skill, however, the lyrics ended up meaning exactly what I needed them to in the moment, and it’s for this reason that the record has stuck with me my whole life.
I glanced back quickly through the lyric sheet for this album and except for non-singles “Oh Jungleland” and “Ghostdancing,” that interpretational openness exists across this entire listening experience. Now that I’ve written that, it occurs that there aren’t very many albums that I’d refer to as a “listening experience,” but that’s what Once Upon A Time is; it pulls me out of my present and into my past as the songs I internalized as a teenager stretch out one after the other, always in the same sequence (because that’s the only way to experience this), singing along by the time “Alive And Kicking” reaches its “da-da-DAA-da, d-da-da-DAA-da,” refrain and continuing through the closing notes of “Come A Long Way.” And at that moment, I half expect the auto-reverse on my Walkman to kick in and start the album over on Side One.
I’ve never been able to understand why this band wasn’t bigger in the States. I’m guessing it has to do with aspects of the music business that I don’t totally understand like promotion and marketing, the hiatus between this, their biggest album, and its follow up, 1989’s Street Fighting Years. Their sound is massive but accessible, grandiose but relatable, occasionally self-indulgent and self-important, but other bands accused of as much – U2, Oasis – rose to much more sustained popularity and success. Though they continue to record and perform to this day, their US following remains well below what it should be for artists of their caliber. It remains a mystery to me but I’m pleased that their output continues to remain consistently excellent, that they remain – you could say – alive and kicking.