When you hear that a band “used to be good” then it’s a safe bet that at some stage in their careers that band has committed some musical atrocities.

So it is with Simple Minds best known as the overblown stadium act of the late 80s and early 90s. However the evidence that “they used to be good” is presented on a box set reissue of their first 5 albums released this week.

I’ve always had a latent interest in early Simple Minds. My first exposure to the band was through the ‘Empires and Dance’ era singles which I always thought were pretty good. But unwittingly (at that time) I HAD heard one of their earlier songs – when a neighbour at university played ‘Chelsea Girl’ on repeat for several hours. Understandably I became rather sick of that particular song although it wasn’t until I finally heard first LP ‘Life In A Day’ that I found out it was Simple Minds at all. Which is actually a pertinent fact when it comes to reviewing the band’s early career.

Anyhow, what’s ‘X5’? Well, it’s the latest in the round of Simple Minds reissues and is essentially a bargain box set containing their first 5 LPs up to and including ‘New Gold Dream 81-82-83-84’. Despite positive comments in the press, it’s very much a vanilla release with the CDs contained in cardboard sleeves replicating the parent LPs covers with no liner notes.

In terms of the music, the remasters are apparently the 2002 versions which were issued on CD in, well, guess. The LPs differ from these releases though as they have all had extra tracks added, a mix of non-LP tracks and remixes of the singles. But there’s nothing here which can be regarded as a rarity.

Despite the fact that there’s a real psychological hurdle to buying anything by the Minds these days, the box set appealed to me as I actually have previously purchased very little of the music on the LPs – just the ‘Celebration’ compilation featuring tracks from the first 3 LPs, a couple of singles and ‘New Gold Dream’.

So let’s start at the beginning.

‘Life In A Day’ is a record I’d heard before on cassette but not for 30 years and I was never that struck with it at the time. With the benefit of experience, it’s easy to pick out the influences, particularly the dominant one of Roxy Music. The oft-quoted Magazine influence is limited to a regular feeling that Mick McNeill has been kidnapped and replaced by Dave Formula. Otherwise there’s a bit of the Doors, the Skids and even some Sparks.

Most curious of the lot is the 8 minute centre-piece ‘Pleasantly Disturbed’ which starts off as the Doors, previews their stadium years in the mid-section then ends as Roy Wood era Electric Light Orchestra. A real curio and one which might actually have ended up as two of the better songs on the record had it been split.

But overall my feeling in 2012 is that LIAD is a far stronger record than I remember and one I might return to more than I expected.

Next up is ‘Real To Real Cacophony’ which marks a significant shift in tone. It’s a record that is less overt about its influences (the blatant Roxy/Magazine hybrid of ‘Calling Your Name’ excepted) even if Mick Formula does still make the odd appearance. The whole thing’s a lot darker than LIAD from the opening quartet of short taut songs to the second side where the likes of ‘Premonition’ and ‘Changeling’ herald the band arriving at their own, more expansive sound.

The record also sees the band starting to delve into instrumentals with ‘Cacophony’ and ‘Film Theme’ particularly good.

On this one though my memory holds up pretty well. Regardless of thgeir new sound it’s a still slightly patchy record with the great tracks balanced by the truly horrible cod ska/reggae mash-up of ‘Carnival (Shelter In A Suitcase)’ and the pointless cut-up ‘Veldt’.

By third LP ‘Empires and Dance’ Simple Minds have undoubtedly found their identity, a slightly claustrophobic bass heavy futuristic Euro club sound. ‘I Travel’ is the best thing they’ve done up to this point and the first four tracks (including the other single ‘Celebrate’) are particularly strong.

I guess that the intense sound has to be leavened at some point but ‘Capital City’ midway through the record is a disappointment as is Constantinople Line’. ‘Twist/Run/Replusion’ is a peculiar beast mostly something which could have been used as a soundtrack to a black and white 50’s French thriller but it does at least demonstrate a band continuing to push its boundaries.

The album finishes strongly with the likes of ’30 Frames A Second’ and once again there are pointers in the closing tracks to where they would go next. Back in the day I always thought that there was a big difference between the great E&D tracks and the lesser ones. But again it’s a better record than I remember and my previous judgement feels a little harsh today.

That’s enough for now – next week the rest of the box set – ‘Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call’ and ‘New Gold Dream 81-82-83-84’.

Here’s a segment of 5 Simple Minds songs all of which feature on ‘X5’ as filmed by STV in 1980:

Photo borrowed from here.