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Aug 10

SIMPLE MINDS – “Belfast Child”

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#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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Comments

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  1. 91
    Rory on 12 Aug 2010 #

    Yep!

    Sunshine on Leith went triple-platinum in Australia. In relation to Oz, at least, I’d take that bet.

  2. 92
    Rory on 12 Aug 2010 #

    @90, if there’s nothing inherently objectionable about singing in your own accent, what’s objectionable about singing “ALL their work, whole albums of the sh*t” in that accent? What are they supposed to do, Peter Sellers voices?

  3. 93

    “We’ve fallen in dah water!”

  4. 94

    As you were, that’s a Spike Milligan voice.

  5. 95
    vinylscot on 12 Aug 2010 #

    Rory, although there is nothing wrong with singing in your own accent, there is no need to do so in such an exaggerated, unnatural fashion.

    If you haven’t guessed, I’m not a fan.

  6. 96
    Rory on 12 Aug 2010 #

    @95 – Yeah, I guessed. ;) But for my own country-with-“funny”-accent reasons, I like thinking about this stuff. A lot of Australians are ambivalent (or downright snooty) about “Aussier-than-Aussie” performers like Paul Hogan and Steve Irwin, and would say similar things about their “exaggerated, unnatural” accents – but they are (or were) their own accents, how they sounded all the time. And there are actually many others in public life who sound just as exaggerated, but we don’t notice because we slot them into a different mental category: politicians, TV personalities. When you hear them out of context, as expats more easily can (e.g. occasionally you’ll hear an Australian politician interviewed on Radio 4), they sound just as unnatural. Australian accents never sound more grating to an expat than when you land in the international airport of Melbourne or Sydney after a few years away: the PA announcements, the customs officers, the taxi drivers, exaggerated and unnatural, every one. Except they’re not, they’re just being themselves. And yes, it can feel uncomfortable to realise that you sound that way too, to others, and your mates do, and your family does. And then the feeling passes.

    Not every Edinburgher or Fifer sounds like the Reids, I’ll grant you. But a lot do. It’s a very different accent to the ones on a Bis or Franz Ferdinand album, because it comes from a different place.

    Speaking of which: Simple Minds were Glaswegian of course, and from the accents on their big ’80s hits I couldn’t have told you that at the time. I thought of them as a British band, not a Scottish one. Back when Glasgow could reasonably have taken pride in them, would such lack of awareness of their origins have been cause for disappointment?

  7. 97
    LondonLee on 12 Aug 2010 #

    For what it’s worth, they did make an issue of the accents at the beginning by making ‘Throw The R Away’ the first track on their debut album.

  8. 98
    Tom on 12 Aug 2010 #

    I had forgotten that after U2 released “Discotheque”, Simple Minds put out “Glitterball”. More of that eventually.

  9. 99
    punctum on 12 Aug 2010 #

    #84: Ah yes, Alex Harvey. The impression I get whenever I go up to Scotland is that The Meejah there is slightly ashamed of the No Mean City school of seventies hard-knuckle Glasgow rock (see also Stone the Crows, Frankie Miller &c.) and so poor Alex has been put in a box at the back of the wardrobe and doesn’t get spoken about. Unlike, as you correctly point out, Eddi Reader, who’s always on the Hogmanay telly, the subtext being “well, we’ve moved on from all that now.”

    The Proclaimers being from Fife, I don’t know how far that extends to them, unless there’s a similar “don’t talk about Nazareth” thing going on.

  10. 100
    vinylscot on 12 Aug 2010 #

    Simple Minds were from Glasgow, and Glasgow was proud of them for about as long as they were proud of Glasgow. Like Lulu, Sheena Easton, and many others, they left Glasgow, not the other way round.

    Speaking as someone who saw Johnny and the Self-Abusers live, and regularly saw these guys on the streets in the late 70s, I was disappointed in them for that.

  11. 101

    Speaking as someone who saw Boots for Dancing on a bill with U2 and Talking Heads, Nazareth are WAY better than the Proclaimers.

  12. 102
    punctum on 12 Aug 2010 #

    I once saw Sheena Easton at an open air concert in George Square about twenty years ago. She was proclaiming (ahem) how great it was to be back in her home town in an accent which sounded as though it had been sent by Western Union from Austin, Texas. Cans and bottles were thrown.

    I loved how in the early eighties Radio Clyde would invariably refer to “Glasgow’s Simple Minds” every time they played one of their records (which was quite often; “I Travel,” “Celebrate,” etc. were big sellers up in Scotland but never crossed over to the national chart).

  13. 103

    “I Travel” <-- clue in songtitle?

  14. 104
    lonepilgrim on 12 Aug 2010 #

    re96
    the embarrassed attitude towards one’s own cultural output has been described as ‘the cultural cringe’ (more detail at wikipedia) and is explored in Peter Carey’s novels for one.

  15. 105
    Rory on 12 Aug 2010 #

    @104 Like the “tall poppy syndrome”, “the tyranny of distance”, “the lucky country” (used ironically), a subject of endless Australian academic and media debate!

  16. 106
    vinylscot on 12 Aug 2010 #

    Has the “No Mean City” era of Glasgow not been awarded cuddly-toy status now. Alex (and Les), Frankie and Maggie, all national treasures – even my mum talks fondly of them, and she’s 77!

    I think the adversities suffered by most of the “No Mean City”-era Glaswegians, has rather romanticised and sanitised our collective memories of them.

    I want my hell-raisers back!

  17. 107
    MikeMCSG on 12 Aug 2010 #

    # 102 Didn’t she get a similar reception at a gay venue a few years ago ? Like the Dragon’s Den band she should accept that she’ll never transcend how she came to our attention; she’ll always be a pub singer who got a very lucky break.

  18. 108
    swanstep on 12 Aug 2010 #

    I still can’t understand a word Alex Ferguson says, I darkly suspect Julia Gillard of exaggerating her ocker accent (to forestall accusations of either Welsh alienness or out of touch limousine leftish-ness), and Leon on Curb Your Enthusiasm is my fave comedy character since Susie Essman on Curb. Accents friggin’ rule. The world is full of complainers….

  19. 109
    Snif on 13 Aug 2010 #

    “I darkly suspect Julia Gillard of exaggerating her ocker accent ”

    Just this past weekend I caught up with an old acquaintance I haven’t seen in 30 years, who’d been to school with Julia Gillard – apparently she’s just the same now as she was then (JG, not the acquaintance)

    “If people outside Britain think of the Proclaimers nowadays, it’s with nostalgic fondness for one or two songs from the 1980s;”

    Tick.

    By the way, what is havering? I used to be (still am, really) crap at deciphering song lyrics, and at the time thought to myself “Sounds like havering, but there’s no such word, surely?”

  20. 110
    swanstep on 13 Aug 2010 #

    @snif, 109. Excellent, then in that case she has a unambiguously magnificent accent, which I’m all for.

  21. 111
    Rory on 13 Aug 2010 #

    @109 – “Havering” is talking nonsense.

  22. 112
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 13 Aug 2010 #

    Havering

  23. 113
    Rory on 13 Aug 2010 #

    @112 – Ha! Bet it’s a place where every Scots tourist stops to get their photo taken next to the town sign.

  24. 114
    vinylscot on 13 Aug 2010 #

    Rory, although I assume he’s not being serious, has just illustrated my point perfectly. Non-Scots assume that it’s all part of Scottishness, but it’s not – it’s part of the cartoon.

    “Havering” is not a widely used word. Yes, we may know what it means, but we know what “Och aye the noo” means as well, and to bring it back to Andy Stewart, we know what “troosers” are although not many Scots would actually use that word.

    Rory, you’re Australian – how much of Barry McKenzie’s slang were you happy with? – “whack-o the diddle-o”, perhaps?

    And Rory, I’m not having a go at you personally, just trying to put my viewpoint forward.

  25. 115
    glue_factory on 13 Aug 2010 #

    I’d always thought havering was included as a deliberate archaic term because the subject of the song is historical (well, I’m not sure if it’s specifically about emigration in the past or more generally throughout Scotland’s history including the present, but the fact it’s a “letter” and not a phone-call makes me think it’s largely historical)

  26. 116
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 13 Aug 2010 #

    To rethink #88 on the back of this (very interesting) debate, maybe when it comes to politicised cultural nationalism you have always to be aware that one person’s stance is another person’s kitsch, very much depending on where (and when) they’re standing?

    (As in “these cartoons degrade us” vs “even our seemingly silliest moves are not to be sneered at”)

  27. 117
    Tom on 13 Aug 2010 #

    “Letter From America” surely an Alastair Cooke reference? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letter_from_America

    So not a literal pen-and-paper deal. (well, in the song it probably is, but it doesn’t imply archaism to me, just the songwriters knowing a catchy/resonant title when they saw one.)

  28. 118
    glue_factory on 13 Aug 2010 #

    #117 That’s undoubtedly true, but the fact it also mentions sailing (from Wester Ross to Nova Scotia) also makes me think it’s largely a reflection on emmigation in times past. Do boats even sail from Wester Ross to Canada anymore?

  29. 119
    Mark G on 13 Aug 2010 #

    .. and “Lochaber no more” I saw on an old 78rpm record once.

  30. 120
    Rory on 13 Aug 2010 #

    @114 – Not serious? Well, yeah, I don’t expect every Scots tourist would do that, but if I came across a town in England called “Boofhead” or “Drongo”, too right I’d take my photo next to it. In Australia I once made a 100km detour on a long and boring drive home to see a flyspeck of a settlement called Grong-Grong, just because it was called Grong-Grong. (Which doesn’t mean anything in particular, but come on, Grong-Grong.)

    You say “it’s part of the cartoon”, but in that case it’s a cartoon that only Scots know. We’ve just heard from a non-Scot who didn’t know what it meant, and neither did I until I moved here. It’s not a word you hear outwith Scotland (like “outwith”), which is why its use was so striking to non-Scots in “500 Miles”.

    But just because a term seems dated or cartoonish to some locals doesn’t mean others don’t or won’t use it. I’ve worked with people here, within the last decade, who say “och, aye” unselfconsciously. I know that’s not the norm, at least not in my circles, but clearly it isn’t unheard of.

    And it doesn’t mean you can’t reclaim a term and reinvent it. I do that with some dated Australian slang, using it and keeping it alive, because it reminds me of older Australians I used to know when I was a kid, not least my grandparents. So your question about Barry McKenzie isn’t as straightforward as all that. I’m actually perfectly happy with his slang, because it’s a great time-capsule of its era, the late ’60s and early ’70s, and a testament to his creator, Barry Humphries, who actually invented a lot of it out of whole cloth, and brought to wider attention what previously had been very localized terms, some of which have since passed into the national language (like “chunder”). I wouldn’t myself go around calling women “sheilas”, because that’s very dated – but I know people who do, even today. There are regional and class factors at work in how any particular term is used and perceived; just as there could well be regional and class factors at work in your response to some of these Scottish terms. Glasgow isn’t Edinburgh, as we both well know.

    So the Reids could easily have had more complicated reasons for using it than just playing to populist sentiment, to a “cartoon”. They used it on the lead single from their second album, the one after they’d already had a number 3 hit single and been feted down south. They knew they had a sizable audience who wouldn’t know the word. And they knew that the people who would know the word would also have known that it was old-fashioned or regional within Scotland (its first recorded use in the OED was by an Edinburgh councillor in 1721), and consciously using such a word can mean all sorts of things. And what does the word actually mean? To talk nonsense. Talk about an in-joke.

    So we’ve got to sort out the “cartoon Scotlands” here, and how the Proclaimers relate to them. There’s the cartoon Scotland that the rest of the world knows: tartan on everything, Nessie, “och aye the noo”, all the tourist crap they sell on the Mile. The Proclaimers have nothing to do with that; they didn’t and don’t sing about it, they don’t pander to it, their music didn’t code that way to the Australian audience (and presumably Americans, but I’ll keep it to the audience I know). The stuff you object to, the “exaggerated, unnatural” accents, just sounded Scottish to us (cf my comments on Hogan and Irwin), and words like “haver” were just meaningless colour, but intriguing because of it. So we looked past those things and related to the music, the singing, the lyrics, and liked what we heard. That’s why I’m saying they don’t make the Scots look stupid to non-Scots; and if they make you look stupid to yourselves, and if your perception of how stupid they look depends on what part of the country you’re from (Edinburgh/Fife vs. anywhere else) and/or what class you come from, then we’re in classic cultural-cringe territory.

    Back in Oz, musicians and writers and comedians and cartoonists play with the cultural cringe all the time. They toy with it and make fun of it and explore it as a way of reclaiming old identities and creating new ones, pointing out that there’s a there there, not just a few leftovers of our former colonial masters. And those cultural games don’t have much to do with other countries’ “cartoon Australia”, with its walking upside-down and corks on hats (both the invention of English cartoonists), although every now and then something breaks out and gains an international audience and adds to that bigger cartoon. Sometimes that’s accidental, but sometimes there’s a clever mind behind it, someone who plays off the national cartoon and translates it for an international audience – like Barry Humphries.

    So no, I’m not embarrassed by Barry McKenzie. Of course it’s a cartoon: it started as one, and was written for a non-Australian audience, but in a way that nodded and winked to Aussies as well. Which annoyed some Australians at the time, too: the conservative government of the day banned a book compiling the original Private Eye strips on the grounds of indecency. If your jokes have any edge to them at all, there’ll always be someone who won’t like ’em.

    (And I very much appreciate your carrying on the conversation, vinylscot – no worries there on my account. I’m increasingly aware that I should have saved all this for #1054, but strewth, I mighta carked it by then. Someone remember to link back to it if I have.)

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