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Aug 10

SIMPLE MINDS – “Belfast Child”

Popular136 comments • 3,994 views

#623, 25th February 1989

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.

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  1. 126
    Erithian on 16 Aug 2010 #

    Don’t think anyone’s mentioned yet that “Belfast Child” featured in “Which Decade” last year, and at the time I admitted that the ambition, atmosphere and sheer scale of this record do win me over.

    I’m not a natural advocate for Simple Minds. I remember a Q&A session with Jim Kerr on an 80s yoof TV show where he talked about sneaking into gigs as a youngster and then rounded on a kid who asked about high ticket prices for Simple Minds gigs with the words “Find another hobby”. If anything screamed “lost touch with his roots” that did.

    Yes, you can say it’s bombastic and empty, and that getting excitable about the situation was a bad thing – but at least it put the subject on the table for discussion. How should pop react to the Troubles? Extremely difficult to say, but however you do it it’s worthwhile discussing it. From Bono’s own reaction to Enniskillen as captured on “Rattle and Hum” (introducing “Sunday Bloody Sunday” onstage the following day with the words “FUCK the revolution!”) to the Fun Boy Three’s downbeat and resigned “The More I See” in the wake of Ballykelly in 1982 (“they keep telling me it’s not my concern … does anybody know any jokes?”) Get it on the agenda and let’s argue about it then. Much the best aspect of “Belfast Child” is the borrowed tune and the atmospheric opening, but I can’t bring myself to despise Simple Minds for it as much as others on here do.

    I’m very much drawn to Lena’s analysis about the diaspora and the pull of the words “come on home” – even though I have nothing like as much affection for this song as I do for the Pogues and Proclaimers songs she mentions. Oh, and by the way, re the above discussion, what about those who think the Proclaimers do convey a positive image of Scotland? – passionate, witty and inventive. Knowing nothing about Jesse Rae, I caught his video for “Over The Sea” on the Chart Show one day and thought, what the bliddy hell is this? (He’s now a Scottish Parliamentary candidate for Roxburgh, it seems.)

  2. 127
    Alan Connor on 16 Aug 2010 #

    “If you wrote a hands-in-the-air trance anthem about Gaza you’d end up with the same problem.”

    Random play has just brought me the Cafe Del Mar version of the Cranberries’ Zombie, which is making me imagine watching the sun rise, chillaxing to the thoughts “It’s the same old theme since 1916”.

    Also–

    Cover versions: Lives of the Great Songs I’m very fond of, but I like the structure of the history of a song thru different versions. What it has to say about The Cover itself is only implicit, though.

    Proclaimers: The singing in, for example, The First Attack is among the “best” these ears have heard.

  3. 128
    Alan Connor on 16 Aug 2010 #

    WAIT Surely I am not the first to note that the Proclaimers’ relationship with novelty is bunnyable.?

  4. 129
    ace inhibitor on 17 Aug 2010 #

    Why I love Popular, no.56. Who knew that this song would give rise to a heatedish debate about accent/language/identity in music? A couple of thoughts to add to the mix:
    1) I’m guessing that the Proclaimers singing the way they they did in the mid-80s had at least something to do with (post)punk’s sense of place (Edwyn Collins and Roddy Frame spring to mind as 2 other singers who had allowed their accents to filter into their singing voices); as well as James Kelman, Irving Welsh and all points inbetween, OK Welsh as a published writer comes later, but the point being that the fraught cultural politics of ‘Scottish voices’ went and goes way beyond andy stewart and tartan shortbread, it seems to me.
    2) but at the same time I think vinylscot has a point, in that singing-in-your-own-accent is never just ‘natural’ – singing isn’t just the same as speaking, and at least since recorded music ‘our’ musical voices are always plural – so accent is always a Choice, and therefore a Performance, and as such at the very least runs the risk of being heard both as giving voice to what has been silenced, and as a parody, cartoon version of itself. (Funny that Oasis got mentioned upthread as well)
    3) also isn’t the issue here partly that there isn’t one single authentic Scottish (or anywhere else) accent and language? Another guess – maybe ‘havering’ sounds like cartoon Scots in Glasgow, less so in north Fife

  5. 130
    Mark M on 17 Aug 2010 #

    Unapologetic local accent plus song about the Troubles much plugged on Kershaw/Hepworth/Ellen era-Whistle Test:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZCO0W05nCU

  6. 131
    Billy Smart on 27 Dec 2010 #

    MMWatch: Everett True more sympathetic to ‘Ballad Of The streets’ than you might expect, February 18 1989;

    “Tricky one this. Jim Kerr lets rip on a considered, blissfully naieve ballad on the A-side (‘Belfast Child’) which, while not exactly about to make any converts with its thrown-out vocals and mournful pipes, certainly does his fans no disservice whatsoever. The B-side has a couple of well-meant rabble-rousers, ‘Mandela Day’ and a cover of Gabriel’s ‘Biko’. If we’re gonna have straight-laced rock, at least let it be rock with good intentions.”

    True awarded single of the week to the double A-side ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’ Sonic Youth b/w ‘Halloween’ Mudhoney. Also reviewed that week;

    Nirvana – Love Buzz
    Throwing Muses – dizzy
    Jesus Jones – Info Freako
    Depeche Mode – Everything Counts (Live)
    Dusty Springfield – Nothing Has Been Proved
    S’Express – Hey Music Lover
    Fuzzbox – International rescue
    The Style Council – Promised Land
    The Bangles – Eternal Flame
    Bananarama & Lananeeneenoonoo – Help!
    Michael Jackson – Leave Me Alone

  7. 132
    Erithian on 7 Dec 2013 #

    Hard to say anything about the man himself here without sounding trite, but we shouldn’t let the passing of Nelson Mandela go unremarked on this thread.

  8. 133
    Lazarus on 8 Dec 2013 #

    Yep, wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn this evening that ‘Nelson Mandela’ has re-entered the Top 40. There’s bound to be a Facebook campaign to get it to No. 1 for Christmas.

  9. 134
    DJBobHoskins on 27 Feb 2015 #

    Woah…. allowing for the usual caveats about subjectivity etc etc, there is no way this is a ‘1’. I liked this song then, still do now. The lyrics, for all the accusations of earnestness, I still find affecting in my own way (as Lena did in her own way, above, as well). I can see how you might find it an irritating piece of music, something you can’t relate to, whatever, but is it really absolute pants?

    It is too long, though. Try the radio edit (about 5:15). Cuts it down to size.

  10. 135
    hectorthebat on 27 Feb 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    Wanadoo (UK) – The 20 Best Songs of the 80s
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 30
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 2
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  11. 136
    pink champale on 28 Feb 2015 #

    I’ve just seen #131. That’s a good week for singles! Well, not Belfast Child, obviously.

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