The facts: “Belfast Child” is a song written by Jim Kerr in grief and anger after the atrocity of the 1987 Enniskillen bombing, built on a traditional Irish folk tune. “I’m not saying I have any pearls of wisdom,” he’s quoted on Wikipedia as saying, “But I have a few questions to ask.”
Noble intentions rarely translate into effective outcomes. There are an awful lot of cynical and rude things one could say about “Belfast Child”. They might involve words like “stupefying”, “leaden”, and “is that the time”. Or indeed, “desperate”, “wannabe” and “Bono”. But that would be too glib, and would also underestimate the extent to which this kind of statement-making seemed at the end of the 80s like something rock music could and must do. Rock was now happening at a scale where its practitioners felt they should use it to raise awareness of certain issues and causes. The B-Side of “Belfast Child” was “Mandela Day”, premiered at the 1988 Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute, the climax of this entire tendency – the line-up now reads like a nightmare of worthiness but there was no doubting the performers’ sincerity, or the cause’s importance, or the way that this idea of rock as a moral force had become naturalised since Band Aid.
But that very scale was also a trap. Kerr’s “few questions to ask” catches the problem – stadium rock amplifies and simplifies a musician’s feelings, and you need a remarkable level of skill to keep nuance alive in those circumstances (just ask “Born In The USA”). So when a musician “raised awareness”, it wasn’t simply in the form of a PSA, it was awareness filtered through their own understanding and response. “Belfast Child” rests on two assumptions which can’t easily be separated: that the situation in Northern Ireland is worth making this kind of record about, and that Jim Kerr’s take on that situation is a valuable lens for it. And if Kerr doesn’t really have a take – if all he’s got is “a few questions”, the same baffled anger and horror with which most of the mainstream mainland reacted to Northern Ireland, when they thought about it at all – then the danger is that the music he’s playing will shape itself into a take by its simple force.
Which is exactly what does happen. “She Moved Through The Fair” is actually quite a good song for the purpose – it’s about disappearance and death, the random and mystifying cruelty of sudden loss – and it’s got a lovely melody, the kind which would force the word “haunting” even if one wasn’t in the song. A straight cover might have been effective – OK, not a straight cover played by Simple Minds, but by someone. But “Belfast Child” takes the song’s weight and associations and won’t leave them alone: it piles on more and more over six long minutes, switching from cod-folksiness (“gallows tree” and that bloody tin whistle) to full-bore Rock Unleashed Mode.
The first sign of this shift is when Kerr sings “some say Troubles” with clomping emphasis and then turns the next word into a big arena rock growl just like the one he used on “Don’t You Forget About Me”. And now he’s getting to the real meat of the song he can properly let rip, so in come the drums and he’s off, yelling “Come on Billy!” and “War is ragin’! Cross the Emerald Isle!”. When surely the whole point of the record should be that getting quite so excitable about that stuff is a bad thing. But he can’t help it, this is arena rock and this is what arena rock does: the song is structured so that invocation of war is its natural climax. If you wrote a hands-in-the-air trance anthem about Gaza you’d end up with the same problem.
Scale and abstraction were once what made Simple Minds worthwhile – on New Gold Dream (“worldwide on a wider screen”) they were making big music too, as enormous, beautiful and unreal as the grid-plans for some great future city. Then during their chest-thumping years there was an exhuberant innocence to their huge singles, empty and absurd though they were. But this awfully misconceived thing is where it all comes crashing down. “Belfast Child” takes the grubby, botched, intractable brutality of the Troubles and makes them sound grand and mythic, which would be embarrassing enough even if it weren’t exactly what the fighters on both sides liked to play it as too.