From the opening notes, before you’ve even glanced at the title, you know that this next #1 isn’t going to be a barrel of laughs…
Belfast Child, by Simple Minds (their 1st and only #1)
2 weeks, from 19th February – 5th March 1989
It’s heavy, portentous, serious. ‘This is an important record’, the stately synths and sparse drums announce. The opening lines from Jim Kerr add another layer of chin-stroking: When my love said to me, Meet me down by the gallow tree, For it’s sad news I bring, About this old town and all that it’s suffering… In comes a penny-whistle, and some violins, for that olde Oirish authenticity.
While I wait for this one to really get going, my mind turns to other number one singles that have featured place names. Off the top of my head, no peeking, I’ve got ‘San Francisco (Flowers in Your Hair)’, ‘Massachusetts’, and ‘The Poor People of Paris’… Answers on a postcard with any others, please! (It would probably arrive before this song ends…)
We reach the three minute mark, and finally things are picking up. A sort of Irish jig is about to break out. This tune’s melody is based on a traditional song ‘She Moved Through the Fair’, with lyrics updated to reflect the Troubles. The war is raging, Through the Emerald Isle… Kerr howls, as things eventually build to a pretty impressive Wall of Sound climax. He was inspired to write the song after watching footage of the Enniskillen tragedy, in which an IRA planted bomb killed twelve people in 1987.
Of course, pop music can deal with weighty issues. It shouldn’t all be love and sex and having a great time. But, can’t it at least be catchy? Not this seven-minute sermon of a song? At the same time, how could you make a catchy pop hit about a terrorist attack? It would hardly be appropriate. It’s a conundrum, though not one Simple Minds apparently struggled with. They threw everything into this epic, and got their biggest British hit. And for one of the eighties’ biggest bands, it feels right that they did eventually manage a chart-topper.
As impressive as this record is – and it does reach a pretty daunting peak, in which voices, synths and guitars swirl around one another – I can’t say I’ve enjoyed it. For the most part, I found it quite dull. I can’t say I’ve ever heard it before, either. In fact, this might be the final #1 that I’d never heard before writing about it…
Nothing here screams ‘#1 hit’, apart from the fact it’s by a popular band. Was it purely a fan purchase? Technically, it was one track from an E.P. that also included ‘Mandela Day’, which the band had performed at Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Concert the year before. Was that perhaps the more on-demand song?
In any case, ‘Belfast Child’ is the song that went down in the record books. It went down in the record books in different sense too, as at 6 minutes 40 seconds it is one of the longest number one singles of all time. I’ve struggled to find a definitive list, but I think at the time it was the 2nd longest (behind ‘Hey Jude’), and it currently sits at 5th in the all-time rankings (the video below is shorter, but the single was released unedited).