COME A LONG WAY
After a mammoth world tour, Simple Minds are preparing to record the follow-up to ‘Street Fighting Years’. Bassist Malcolm Foster takes time out to talk to Michael Leonard.
Michael Leonard – ‘Guitarist’ September 1990 (UK)
As we’re minutes from Hampton Court, retreat of regal nutter and wife basher Henry VIII, the Kings Arms public house seems an apt setting. Is ‘The Queen’s Head’ just down the road, I wonder? In this posh part of the ‘Rockbroker Belt’, Malcolm Foster is enjoying some time off before joining the rest of Simple Minds in Scotland to record their 10th studio album. But before that, he’s off to see Paul McCartney and an old guitar-playing colleague.
“Robbie McIntosh was with me in The Pretenders, so it’s nice to see old friends doing well. He’s been doing a lot of sessions and has finally got himself into a band again. You can’t get much better than McCartney as far as playing and learning is concerned – he’s got so much to teach people.” Malcolm’s no stranger himself to landing the big gig of course – after an on-and-off stint with McIntosh in The Pretenders, he was called to fill the considerable shoes of John Giblin in Simple Minds. How did it come about?
“It was a telephone call from Jim Kerr – would I like to come up and have a play – and it just fell into place. I played for about three days and it was just ‘do you want to join?’ ‘Yeah, why not?’ I’ve known them for years though, because when I first went out to the States with The Pretenders, Simple Minds supported us. That’s when Jim met Chrissie and all that, and Mel Gaynor lives just around the corner so I’ve always kept in touch.”
Do you know why Giblin left the band? “I don’t know why they fell apart really, because what he did on ‘Street Fighting Years’ was brilliant – he’s a very clever player. Obviously it didn’t work at the political level of the band, but it was a very good opening for me,” he smiles. “I was very glad of it.” Thrown straight in at the deep end, Malcolm duly set off on the band’s ’89 world tour. 75 dates from May to November, including their biggest gig so far at Wembley Stadium and the Italian show recorded for the ‘Verona’ video. Hard work but fun, I persume?
“Yeah, great. It was the most enjoyable tour I’ve done in my life – a bunch of excellent, straightforward people. All the crew and management were on the line so it was really nice. There were people there to do everything other than wipe your arse, basically. Everything else is catered for and you’re playing, nothing else. It’s the same with recording – the band have their own studio in the middle of nowhere, private, and it’s a really good atmosphere.”
Did you get nervous before playing such a big tour? “This sounds terribly blase, but I don’t tend to get nervous before gigs. When I first started working with The Pretenders we went straight into massive stadiums in America – 50 to 100,000 people – so the nervousness isn’t really there any more. I actually enjoy the adreneline rush before you go on, so where other people might get butterflies, I just can’t wait to get out there and play. They are a very straightforward band and have no preconceptions about their starquality as it were, but just want to play, so that’s great.
There must be highlights and lowpoints on a project that long, though? “The highlight was Wembley, definitely. The lowpoints were a couple of gigs in Belgium, just when a very good friend of mine was killed over here, so that was tough to get through. But it was a good learning process, using that emotion to play.” The band didn’t go to America this time – any particular reason?
“Well, they liked ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ and ‘Waterfront’ type of songs, but I think with the last album – being a bit more political in a European way – they left it alone. It did quite well on import, but I don’t think it even got a general release. But I think there has been a few sackings over there and there’s now the right people in the right places and there’s an offer to go over there and use some American musicians. So there’ll probably be a lot of touring to be done in America next time.
The other half of the Simple Minds rhythm section is of course, the living legend that is Mel ‘forearm smash’ Gaynor. What was playing with him like? “Oh he’s just the best, no question. He’s very intuitive and he listens. His monitor system is very good so he listens to every nuance of every player and drives it along – and as soon as you think he can’t take it any higher, he’ll step up a gear and give it more power. He’s just a natural drummer.”
In recent years the Simple Minds sound has filled out into a spacious, almost progressive rock sound – a stark contrast to the tight style of the four-piece Pretenders? “Yeah, The Pretenders were very raw, while Simple Minds are more anthemic. There’s a terrible conception that they’re trying to copy what U2 have done, but the different aspects to the bands are miles apart. It’s just that commitment to the music, that power, that makes it sound like that. But Jim’s changing again. The new stuff is more back to the ‘Once Upon A Time’ sort of stuff – a lot more rock ‘n’ roll, a lot less political.
Was this eight-piece band the largest you’ve played in? “Well, I played with an eight-piece band years and years ago… called Rocky Sharpe and the Replays.” What, the Rama Lama Ding Dong Rocky Sharpe?! “Yeah,” he laughs. “I did two albums with them and one or two gigs, but that was about it. The Variety Club in Batley was one I think, where you come on after the bingo and there’s juggling poodles in the break…” More embarrassment follows as Malcolm reveals earlier affiliations that could make even the most hardened of session pros blush…
“A claim to fame here – I was involved in the Tight Fit organisation. Remember them? It was basically Clive Cawder and Tim Friese-Green, and I did all the singles with them and a couple of dance records – one with Angela Rippon,” he grins, shaking his head. “Obviously not great, but it was constant work and you just went in there and done it.” Laugh? I nearly bought a round. Foster was still in search of the band ethic though – as he admits, “session work can be really cold. I haven’t really got that session attitude – switching on to a song, playing for three hours and switching off again.” There followed some more ill-fated projects…
“I played in the pubs and clubs for years. There was an amazing circuit in London in the seventies – it’s gone now which is a kind of a shame. It’s like being in the studio – you’re under scrutiny. You’re playing somewhere small and you see someone in the audience who you saw the week before playing some really good bass and you think, ‘God, he’s going to be listening to me’. You try something flash and bugger it up… big embarrassment. But that’s what’s it’s all about. If you want to play in some unique style and be recognised for that, then you have to go through that. The more pubs and small clubs you play the better.”
What happened after that? “After Rocky Sharpe I did something with Mud… then Wishbone Ash, just a few things here and there. Wishbone Ash was really funny, because I was in rehearsal with them for a week and I just couldn’t hear myself play, they were so bloody loud. The gear I had with me just wasn’t up to it! I had to stand right by my amp trying to hear what was going on, but they just said ‘you’re too introverted, you don’t move around enough. We don’t want you any more!’ They were a nice bunch of people, but ridiculously loud!
“This is up to about ’82, and through a few connections, my brother got in touch with Jimmy Honeyman-Scott and he phoned up Robbie to play guitar with the Pretenders, ‘cos Jim’d had enough of playing guitar and wanted to play keyboards. Pete Farndon, their bassist, had been sacked, and then he and Jim died… But things got going again after a few months with me on bass and Robbie on guitar.” That must have been strange – the two deaths must have affected the atmosphere around the band?
“Yeah, Chrissie was going through a weird time as well – she was having her baby and going through the bust-up with Ray Davies. But she thrives on that ‘pain of life’ thing, it provides a good inspiration for her writing. But we went to America, made ‘Learning To Crawl’ and toured that. It was the first time I’d toured America and we were playing much larger places than I’d expected.”
Was the move from pubs to American stadiums daunting? “I enjoyed the whole aspect really. It’ll be a bit more difficult next time, with having a child at home, but generally it’s a very enjoyable process. You are chaperoned through it and you approach these cities on such a level that you’re not too bothered about things – you stay in great hotels and you’re chauffeured around. I love flying and I love meeting people, and you can learn a great deal from musicians over in America – they’ve got a great knowledge of music.
“Over there they’ll drive 150 miles to see a gig, you drive straight into the gig, its got good parking, cheap tickets and you’re guaranteed a good show because everything is geared towards the gig. You get tons of radio play, lots of TV adverts, it’s all geared to bringing people in. Over here… I didn’t even know Prince was playing at Wembley! Then there’s Knebworth, Glastonbury – and we really should be hearing more about these things.” Come 1986 and the preparations for the recording of ‘Get Close’, there were more upheavals in The Pretenders camp.
“Martin Chambers hadn’t been playing much – his playing wasn’t as good as it could of been. And Chrissie basically sacked him. My whole argument was that Martin Chambers was the rhythm section of The Pretenders and it didn’t really matter who was playing bass. So I just said I didn’t want to be involved any more. I went off to do… well, very little for eighteen months basically,” he laughs. “Then, I got another phone call from Chrissie saying that the band she had was crap and could I come back! So I went over and toured ‘Get Close’ right until the end of ’87. I suppose I’ve had the luck to be in the right place at the right time. I think I’ve always given the best of my ability and never tried to shit on anybody. I enjoy what I do, basically.”
Joining Simple Minds must have been Foster’s biggest musical challenge to date. Not only did he have to take over from Giblin, but there was also the legacy of Derek Forbes, whose fluid lines had a central melodic role in the band’s earlier material. Was it difficult getting to grips with their various styles? “Well, something like Someone, Somewhere In Summertime is a classic bass line, but very clanky, very Rickenbacker. I just play it as i would have always played it – a lot more bassy than Derek would have used. But then the band’s progressing, the bass is more of a foundation now.
“It’s especially importnat with Mel, because he’s a very busy player. And Charlie’s really coming out of his shell and a lot of the nuances are reliant on him now, as opposed to Derek or John. Before, Mick and Charlie would play this wall of sound which John or Derek would play these intricate lines over. But it’s nice now because it allows you to pick and choose the particular points where you want to accent. But one of the things I like about Simple Minds is that they chop and change their styles within their musical parameters.” Do you play fretless at all for some of Giblin’s parts?
“Yeah. For ‘Street Fighting Years’ I got hold of a pre-production Yamaha electro-acoustic. (The APX b12F, as reviewed in May’s Guitarist.) It’s a really beautiful instrument but I’ll probably get rid of it now because there’s not much I could use it for on this next album. It is a pretty difficult instrument to play, though. It feeds back a lot, and harmonically it’s awkward – when you try to get clean notes to sustain. But it was a great way to start a gig – go on with this thing and fight with it for five minutes then throw it away. No problems ’til tomorrow night!
“My main bass is built by Roger Giffin – I’ve actually got three of his.My main one and a fretless are from 1983, when he was in his peak building phase – they were actually the first two basses he ever made. Then I’ve supplemented those with one of the new Wal MB4 MIDI basses, which I’ll use on this album a lot more I think. Steve Lipson, the producer, is really into the different sounds of things, so I’ve basically got it to allow him to expand as he wants. I’ve also got a couple of Warwicks – a 4-string and a 5-string – the Yamaha acoustic, and an old Danelectro Longhorn which I use for those horrible, filthy sounds. It’s this perspex blue, really cheap and probably worth around £100 new. But its got this very distinctive sound to it – a sort of early Entwistle clank, all top and bottom with nothing in the middle.
“And i put it all through Ampegs – SVTs and 4×10 cabinets, always. I’ve got very few effects, just a Roland echo and a Korg digital delay. I’m trying to get hold of a Minimoog rack – basically and old Minimoog that’s been put in a rack so you can get all these distorted sounds for bass. And I use Samson radio mikes, but that’s it. I actually prefer just the bass straight into the amp. For a long time it was just a Precision and the Ampegs, and I drifted into the effects because of Simple Minds really – they require lots of slap-back echoes and stuff. It’s a new thing for me really because I am a bit of a purist.”
Who influences you as a bass player? “My main influences would be Carl Radle of Clapton’s band, who’s just a wonderful country and rock ‘n’ roll bass player. McCartney, obviously. Chuck Rainey, who did all the Steely Dan stuff. And Willie Weeks who played all the early Aretha soul stuff and then the Doobies. He’s played on just about every record you could ever imagine on Motown. If it wasn’t Jerry Jenner or Carol Kayne, then it was Willie.
“The best albums to listen to would be ‘Sgt Pepper’, because of the parameters they used on that album… well, there aren’t any. ‘Royal Scam’ by Steely Dan, which is my favourite album of all time. It’s just the best, cool playing. Any Elvis Presley album, just for the feel and groove of it, and any Crusaders album for the same reason, because of the way they changed people’s ideas about jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. And the new Kylie Minogue album – because it’s crap, and if you play nothing like that, you’ll do okay.” What do you feel about jazzy rock types who’ve almost turned the bass into a lead instrument?
“Well, it’s very clever playing I suppose, but i prefer to pick and choose, and not walk in knowing I’ve got to play a hundred noted a minute. I’d much rather be minimalistic about it, leave holes and allow other people to come through. “Steve lipson is very clever as well. He builds things up slowly, there’s no rush and the sontaneity of the players allows the track to change direction half way through. ‘Street Fighting Years’ was a different way of recording. It was recorded in six or seven different places and stitched together like a jumper. I think it worked. A lot of people berated it when it came out, but I think that’s because they didn’t listen to it enough. I defy anybody to say it’s not a good album for what it is – and it sold alot of copies, which is the bottom line really.”
Is money what attracted you to the business? “I suppose it does everybody at the beginning. my heroes at the time were Elton John and the Stones and you just think, ‘Oh that’s kind of cool’. But after that, you find the enjoyment of just playing. It’s great to go and play with a reggae band, and then go and play skiffle or whatever…”
Acting like some probing careers officer, I ask Malcolm what he’d like to be doing in ten years time. To his credit, he has an answer… “I’d like to be living in Australia as opposed to here. It’s a beautiful place, very independent and a good music scene. It’s still in the genesis stage down there – there’s some great bands coming out but the production leaves a little bit to be desired. “I would like to get into a bit of production, but just carry on with what I’m doing really. I don’t ever see myself stopping playing, be it in the local pub or in front of a million people on TV – it doesn’t bother me.”
FOR SALE: ONE SOAPBOX
….slightly over-used? Jim Kerr thinks it might be – which is why Simple Minds’ new album marks a move away from lofty conscience pricking. “I used to say, dreams are all,” he tells Phil Sutcliffe. “Now I’m saying, Quit dreaming, this is real life.”
Phil Sutcliffe – ‘Q’ Magazine – May 1991 (UK)
“I enjoy staying here,” says Jim Kerr, the broth of his Glasgow accent as thick as ever. His upturned palms take in not only the airy “umbrella suite” – cutely bedecked with paper parasols – which his record company has hired for interviews, but the pastel luxuriance of the Halcyon Hotel in general. It’s his usual London pied-a-terre during frequent trips away from his home beside the Forth Bridge. In fact, he says, contrary to the habitual rock star lament, he enjoys staying in expensive hotels wherever they may be. “I don’t think, you know, it’s, uh…” He pauses, plainly on the brink of some reference to “guilt feelings”, but then decides against any form of apology. “It’s so good,” he says.
Defying cliche again, Jim Kerr enjoyed every moment of Simple Minds’ last tour, in 1989, as well. “Life just couldn’t have been better for us then,” he declares. “The three years off the road we had before that put it in perspective. There’s a lot of perks to this life and I still have a bit of a soplifter’s mentality towards them. You don’t know how long it’s going to last and I’d hate to look back and think I didnae enjoy it. With Live Aid I know we played. I’ve seen the video, b ut I do not remember one thing about it. It was just, whoosh. So I thought, I’m not going to let that happen again. I’m gonna take a couple of moments to savour things, whether it’s the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam or watching AC Milan at the San Siro stadium. Because this is pretty remarkable.” Now the upturned palms indicate his life at large.
To find Jim Kerr in such gung-ho mood is hardly a surprise. He’s the good guy with the good ideas who translates them into good deeds (be it organising Mandela Day or refusing massive sponsorship from a brewery). But he’s also the career campaigner who’s constantly said things like “I love success, I love to see winners” and “I want to achieve greatness” (1981), “I’m interested in cleaning the board, sweeping the world” (1982), and “I’m one of the few people in britain who still believes in the rock monster” (1989). He’s self-made and proud enough of it to have once butchly proclaimed, “I’ve dragged this band up by the balls!”
Jim Kerr has always expressed both the best of intentions and the biggest of ambitions and, at 31, he’s made a lot of his speechifying come true. On the other hand, it hasn’t been the easiest of years fro Simple Minds – losing their original manager and keyboard player and, at the concert to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s release, finding themselves in a bizarre and potentially disastrous confrontation with friend, hero and fellow good bloke Peter Gabriel.
The ’89 tour was a comeback of sorts. Their previous multi-plantinum albums, Once Upon A Time and the double Live In The City Of Light, had seen formerly friendly critics turn on them. The accepted line was that they had become “pomp rockers, repackaged and trimmed in American chrome”. then, introduced by the distinctly quiet and sombre Belfast Child single and otherwise laden with serious politics, Street Fighting Years at least passed muster with the reviewers. But as soon as they got out on the road again and fell into “rockists” habits like playing loud, jumping about, shouting “Hello, Paris!” and the like, they were back in the critical doghouse.
According to Kerr, though, these slings and arrows were brushed aside by the fans’ reaction. “The press have never stopped us doing what the hell we like,” he says, with some fervour. “You see, we had the small comfort of 40,000 people every night getting into it…” (Well usually more like 12 or 15,000 – but lots, nevertheless.) “Anyway, for me, playing live was better than ever. Until that tour I’d always been so nervous about the shows that daytime on the road was fairly miserable. I was fraught, brow furrowed – look at these lines!” He proffers a corrugated forehead for examination. “I puked a lot too. That’s one reason I used to be so thin. Mind, there were a few times at those early gigs with punk audiences where I thought it might come in handy. They’d all be gobbing at me and I’d think, Wtach it, I’ve got a secret weapon here.”
Disappointly, he could never exert quite that level of alimentary control. Instead, many a gig would be interrupted by the singer’s unscheduled dashes for the dressing room, all too ofetn aborted for undignified depostion of diced carrot in front of the drum riser. Thus descended to matters base and physical, and recalling that this band once styled itself”the thinking man’s Motorhead”, had Jim – his marriage to Chrissie Hynde broken up a year or so earlier – regressed from New Man to less enlightened, “laddish” ways back on the road?
“Uh. The weather was beautiful, everyone was very friendly, there seemed to be lots of days off and I made the most of them and… how do you mean ‘laddish’?” Sex and drugs and the usual. “Oh.” he ponders. “No drugs…” Within days of the tour ending. Simple Minds went into an Amsterdam studio and recorded their cover of Prince’s Sign ‘O’ The Times – much-maligned, but a hit nonetheless. Jim and guitarist Charlie Burchill (they met, aged eight, in a Glasgow playground sandpit) took to the place,
felt they didn’t want to stop, and had the outlines of 10 new songs by the time they left just before Christmas. But before they could get down to celebrating a year spent at Number 1 somewhere or other nearly all the time, the balance sheets from the tour started to come in. Cue a series of number (and emotion)-crunching conversations between Kerr and Bruce Finlay, the former record shop owner from Edinburgh who had been the band’s manager and friend since 1979. “We werenae happy on the business side,” says Jim. “The outcome was a bit ramshackle.”
You mean you didn’t make enough money? “Yeah. Though I’d hate people to think we’re saying, Poor us. And we weren’t ripped off, nothing like that at all. But it’s a big, big business. Things had to be handled differently. Sadly, they couldn’t agree on exactly how. Bruce Finlay broadly confirms Jim’s view of their parting, though adding that the “reorganisation” proposed by Kerr would have cut his percentage and demoted him as underling to a hypothetical hard-nosed financial wizard. “Simple Minds are hungry for success and more success. Perhaps that has become an obsession,” he says, without rancour. “I’m no heavyweight and that’s what they want.”
Evidently. In America they’ve signed to Randy Phillips, a palpable potentate who also handles matters fiscal for Prince and Rod Stewart. The little local difficulty he faces is that, since their Number 1 single with the untypical and hastily cobbled together movie theme song Don’t You (Forget About Me) and Top 10 album Once Upon A Time, in 1985. Simple Minds’ US career has been on the critical list and will shortly be wheeled away to the morgue barring swift and radical surgery. Meanwhile, in regard to what the music industry knows as “the rest of the world”, Kerr says that “bruce shoes are hard to fill,” and day to day affairs are still attended to “temporarily” by their long-standing tour manager, Jim’s brother Paul.
But that wasn’t all. They’d barely got back into the own “Bonnie Wee Studios” at Loch earn, Perthshire, to start recording the next album than they realised another wheel had dropped off – apparently Mick MacNeil, keyboard player, was no longer with them. “he said he wanted to do other things with his life,” says Jim. “I thought he’d get bored and come back, but he didn’t. And meanwhile the music went on.” So MacNeil quit gradually, by a sort of osmosis, but Kerr’s feeling about it seems to have been much the same as when previous original members and mates from his teens, drummer Brian McGee and bassist Derek Forbes, departed. They were “cruising”. They’d lost the consuming passion he demands.
“Listen! If you get an idea when you’re 12 years old like I did, a vision, when you start the band it’s a bit like a boy’s club,” he says. “You think the gang’s going to stay together forever, but things change. As well as the antagonism and bile that comes from living so closely on the road, people go off in different circles, get married, have kids.” He pauses, then mutters darkle, “And when their wives start joining the band…no.” He doesn’t elaborate. “If that vision goes, it’s a bit pointless hanging around.” Especially when, as Brian McGee remarked some while after he left the band, “Once Jim gets his teeth into something it comes away in chunks.”
These departed chunks clearly provided much of the character which shaped Simple Minds’ early albums from interminable weeks of jamming. The charm has been replaced piecemeal by the craft of experienced sessioners Mel Gaynor (drums, the last to join as a full member – ie on shares not wages), Malcolm Foster (bass) and now Someone else (it was Peter Vitesse, occasional sideperson to Peter gabriel and Kate Bush, on the record but it won’t be on tour).
“There’s a sadness,” says Jim, “but the good in it is that communication’s much faster. I still love the idea of bands. But 10, 12 years together like that, it’s a bit unreal. Write democratically, by committee, and what do you get? Yes songs. So now me and Charlie are waiting for the icy moment when we look at each other and say, ‘Who’s next? You or me?’ No, that’ll never happen. Fuck it, it’ll sort itself out.”
“This one feels like coming back to your own private thoughts, your own unquiet thoughts,” he says of Simple Minds’ thenth album, Real Life, out this month. “The bring-your-own-soapbox routine was what we wanted to do with Street Fighting Years, but it was very draining: I’ve got to write a song about Mandela, about Belfast, about the poll tax. I’m sure I will go back to those things, but we have to cool it for a bit. At the moment I’ve got people coming up to me and saying. Have you written a song about the Gulf War yet?” he shakes his head and puffs out his cheeks in exasperation.
He says there’s no theme, bu the title track may serve as a keynote at least. Equipped with the latest variant on Simple Minds panoramasound, it’s a Walk On The Wild Side sort of tale about a London girl who flies into New York, the “land of her dreams”, and lives her life in a day by getting married and, somewhat inconveniently, murdered inside 24 hours.
“Dreams have been a big thing in Simple Minds’ lanuage,” he says. “We’ve used the word in a postive sense. But I wrote Real Life after I’d seen an Ominbus programme about voguing.” It showed how the dance cult, seized upon by Madonna, had become a peculiar form of performance art-cum-competitive sport in New York gay and transvestite community. “As the story emerged there was something heartbreakingly sad about these people and their dreams which they could never attain in a million years. There was one particular girl who made a big impact, very waif-like, but she was a hooker and in the end she got wasted. It made me think. Dreams are killing you if they’re as wild as those people’s.”
It’s quite something for Jim Kerr to grant his notion admittance to the world of Simple Minds. When they were making significantly-titled New Gold Dream album in 1982, he took an enormous fancy to Werner Herzog’s movie Fitzcarraldo (the story of an eccentric who tries to drag his ship over the Andes) and in particular to its epigrammatic sub-title. “Only dreamers can move mountains.” It seems to have crystallised his fondness for visionary, inspirational rhetoric to evoke and promote the band.
“There’s a richness to us, a hugeness,” he’d say, or “Euphoria probably isn’t the right word, but what am I going to call it? Grace? Majesty? Momentum?” Praising Van Morrison, he said, “When he writes it’s like he’s got a direct connection to the centre of the universe.” When they played Wembley, he said, “It was a pub gig! I’ve never gone on stage and thought the place was too big”. he preached the universality of Simple Minds’ music, “The big ‘people’s bands’ were The Clash and Paul Weller. We felt. They’re not people’s bands at all, they’re London bands. They’re not international, they’re not even worldly, and we have all that quality inside us, inherent and boiling.”
At the start of their global success in 1985, he said, “I love the idea of rock music which shoul be used to inform or communicate or even, dare I say, educate” The Minds’ world tour for Amnesty International and their many other campaigning songs and concerts followed that stadium-size statement. Perhaps he’d brought all the dreams back round to reality – somehow, for a while, combined all the contraflowing instincts imbued in him since his extraordinarily happy childhood in an eleventh-floor Glasgow council flat where his lefty father stuck a picture of Lenin on the living room wall, his devout Catholic mother responded with Jesus, and they both honoured a portraitn of the late President Kennedy.
“I remember the Fitzcarraldo thing,” he says, “but he’s completely off his head, that Herzog. I don’t know what that says about me. Well, we all ger carried away. In Real Life I like the sense of irony about what I used to say: dreams are all, without dreams you cannae live, all that. Now I’m saying, Quit dreaming, this is Real Life. I like the sense of recoiling. There’s something very point blank about it.” As Jim Kerr considers his visions and realities, how they relate to Simple Minds and how much they mean to him now, it’s worth recalling that this is a man who has several times described the break-up of his marriage to Chrissie Hynde as the outcome of a straight choice between his wife and his band.
“If it wasn’t for Peter Gabriel I don’t know if I’d be ina band,” says Kerr. The first band he ever saw was Genesis, probably at the Glasgow Apollo in 1974, with Gabriel performing The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. The connections have continued ever since, by design and happy coincidence. As soon as Simple Minds formed, in 1978, reviewers began comparing them with Genesis (a damning thing to say about a young band at the time). then two years later, when Minds’ relationship with their first label Arista had run aground and, says Kerr, “things were looking almost over for us”, Gabriel offered them the support spot on his European tour. Not only that;
he befriended and took responsibility for them, ensuring they had ample time to soundcheck, and personally persuading the promoter to pay them £500 a night rather than the £50 which had been their fondest hope beforehand. Later, as their relative positions in the rock pantheon shifted, Kerr sang backing vocals for Gabriel on the So album, squirmed himself into knots of embarrassment when he found that Simple Minds were headlining over their friend and benefactor at an Italian festival, and sang Biko with him at the first Mandela concert, the “70th Birthday Party”.
However, last year’s Mandela Freedom celebration was to prove quite a strain on mutual respect and affection. The pressure was on for all the artists under the microscope of worldwide television. But Simple Minds were playing live for the first time ever without Mick MacNeil and amid consequent rumours that it would be the band’s final gig. Moreover, Kerr was in some personal turmoil over the political upheaval the event represented. “At the first concert, everyone was shouting for the freedom of Mandela, but I don’t think any of us expected it to happen so soon,” he says. “It was a dilemma for me as someone who had contributed to the cult of personality around Mandela when he was a prisoner, the man in the iron mask so to speak, being used as a symbol for the need to end apartheid. Then suddenly this rather fragile old guy has to come out and deal with the myth we’d created.”
During the build-up to the concert, Kerr had been told that Gabriel’s camp wanted to go on before Mandela’s speech. Simple Minds were quite happy to follow him. But when, for unspecified security reasons, the police brought the timing of the speech forward, Gabriel’s set was moved to closing the show and from then on things turned sour.
“Peter’s manager, Steve Hedges, got in touch beforehand and wanted to manoeurve around,” says Kerr. “We weren’t very keen. Deep inside I felt that there’d been a general wimpiness from their side, a preciousness which I couldnae understand and I was cheesed off with it. Then again on the day Peter himself asked if he could change places with us, but there didn’t seem to be any reason why. We were all psyched up to go on at the agreed time and, just then, we didn’t care about anyone else’s fears or problems so we said no.”
But then the sustained ovation for Mandela – nine minutes, “terrible radio” as a fretful Beeb person remarked – and the measured tread of his message to the world threw the revised schedulen out of wack once more. Towards the end of the speech, Hedges and Gabriel rushed into Simple Minds’ dressing room demanding that they cut two of the four songs they were scheduled to play because otherwise BBC2 would be off the air before Gabriel got on stage.
Bruce Finlay, a semi-detached observer by then as Simple Minds’ ex-manager, watched the battle of wills from the sidelines. “Steve Hedges said that Peter was always being the nice guy and losing out,” he recalls. “Jim and Peter showed a lot of restraint in fact, making their points very articulately. But it was a shame to see two great artists arguing about their position on the bill – especially on an occasion like that.”
“People bursting through your door a few minutes before you’re due on stage, it’s wildly….. unprofessional,” says Kerr. “I couldn’t believe myself – I’m looking at my hero and what I’m saying is, You’ve got a fucking cheek!” But he did agree to cut Simple Minds’ allotted four numbers to two to accommodate Gabriel. Then, quite definitely unknown to any of them, the controller of BBC2 who was in the stadium extended the broadcast by half an hour and Gabriel ahd all the time he wanted – which did nothing to cool Kerr’s anger.
“Jim Kerr and Peter Gabriel really are two of the nicest guys in the business,” says Findlay. “They both have ruthless streaks, though, they couldn’t survive up there without that. What happened was bad, but forgivable.” “I’ve put it down to nerves on Peter’s part,” says Kerr diplomatically. “We’re still talking. The last time I spoke to him he was telling me he’s trying to devise a way of recording in the car, because he gets all these great ideas when he’s driving. Imagine doing an overdub on the motorway! That’s Peter, I guess he doesnae work like other people.”
A seasoned operator like Jim Kerr knows the importance of detail. He plays the tricks of the trade impartially on himself and others. Some days before this interview he stopped listening to the Real Life album to remove the temptation to mess about with it as infinitum. Meanwhile, he was witholding the tape from the Virgin offices because he wants everyone concerned with “working” it to come to it fresh when the promotional thrust begins.
It’s a high-powered campaign. At home the objective is to sustain the glory with a fifth consecutive Number 1 album. But in America it’s more a matter of square one on their first tour in six years, realistically returning to 2,000-seat theatres rather than the sports arena of the mid-’80s. The world tour takes a turn around the bigger British barns during July and August. “Non-stop for 12 months and then head for the hills,” says Jim with relish. “That’s what I like to do. It’s a bit of a bank job actually.”
The hills, when he makes it, are quite literal whether they be around the studio at Loch earn or in the highlands and islands when he takes off alone, as has been his habit for the past several years, at the wheel of his “slightly dented” Saab. “I think I’m probably moonlighting as a loner,” he says, “It must be awful to be really lonely and I’m not. I choose. I like freedom. For me, the greatest thrill of having a certain success and money is getting the credit card so that you can go to Rio or to India tomorrow if you want. “I don’t mean that in a flash bastard kind of way.” he adds, succumbing – on this occasion at least – to the gremlins of guilt.
Whispery – Vague, swooning Simple Minds marry art and commerce
Mat Snow – Q Magazine (UK)
Much has happened to Simple Minds since their 1989 album Street Fighting Years topped the album charts in nine countries. Chief of which was the replacement of keyboardist Mick MacNeil in controversial circumstances by veteran sessioneer – he counts Jethro Tull among his campaign medals – Peter Vitesse. Fans, however, will discern no dramatic new challenges to the ear – if anything, Real Life is perhaps too smooth a refinement of the sound of its best-selling predecessor. One senses that the occasional brickbats the band received when they were conquering the world’s stadia a few years ago have hit home. Produced by Steve Lipson, Real Life is an album that wants to sound big yet is terrified of also sounding pompous or bombastic. Amazingly, it largely succeeds, through a number of devices increasingly familiar from records by the likes of Sting, U2 and Phil Collins.
Courtesy of Malcolm Foster, there is the pensive bass, humming to itself with a discreet but statesmanlike authority, whilst drummer Mel Gaynor keeps plenty of power in authoritative reserve. The churchy atmosphere of Vitesse’s organ matches the band’s frequent recourse to gospel harmonies when they want not only to underline the chorus but to feminise the vocal texture dominated by the hunky Jim Kerr larynx – which itself spends more and more of its time in a whispery lower register. You can still picture its owner live and in excelsis,
but rather than blaring the word, he vouchsafes it confidentially like a sage of the hills. Quite what the word is, of course, remains one of those mysteries. Kerr has largely forsaken the issue songs (albeit not too controversial) of 1989 – Belfast Child, This Is Your Land – without returning wholesale to the sense of wonderment and scale that characterised Simple Minds when they were still critics’ darlings in the early ’80s. Instead, he aims for a sense of stillness and intimacy at the heart of the symphonic sweep when he sings of love and love-related things with a swooning yet manly vagueness that subordinates lyrical specifics to the surge of the music.
One can confidently state that when he intones “when you cry, it rains, Africa”, Jim Kerr is on the side of the angels, but agreeably uplifted though one feels in the company of all these songs, one remains none the wiser about the small print conveyed with such a sense of import. Cynically, one might observe that any problems discerning the narrative of such as the title track on the radio are easily remedied by buying the record and the enclosed lyric insert (Mick Jagger always buries his vocals in the mud of the mix for just this reason).
The commercial success of Real Life can be in no doubt. It is, however, worth noting that one of the countries where Street Fighting Years did less well was America. The new one is better positioned to restore their Stateside eminence, containing in Ghostrider, the single Let There Be Love and Travelling Man, FM radio-friendly anthems that subtly evoke such chart-bestriders of yesteryear as Waterfront. Jim Kerr is a man with a mission other than to line his pockets, but he also wants to cast his net wide. As a marriage of convenience between art and commerce, Real Life will be hard to beat.
Jon Homer – Teletext (UK)
Following an album as good as 1989’s triumphant ‘Street Fighting Years’ was never going to be easy for Kerr and Co. But with ‘Real Life’ they’ve made a bloody good attempt. ‘Real Life’ Isn’t as overly political as previous recordings and yet still has the Minds trademark of dramatic, crunching rock chords and intricate melodies that creep up on the listener. Fans of the band, incidently, will love it.
Album openers ‘Real Life’ and ‘See The Lights’ build slowly, full of grace and power, while other tracks hint at the Simple Minds of old while remaining very much in the present. There are some rather worrying Americanisms creeping into Kerr’s lyrics (An attempt to resusitate the band’s US career?), which are really the only weakness here. All of which bodes well for Simple Minds live, later in the year. I’ll see you there!
LET THERE BE LOVE
Tony Thompson – Teletext (UK)
Simple Minds are and take no notice of certain gapheads writing for other less-well read music mags, one of the best bands ever.No question! ‘Let There Be Love’ is a track which builds slowly to a dynamic climax of wailing guitars and Kerr’s limited but highly effective vocals. A welcome breath of fresh air.
single of the day
Simon Dudfield – NME (UK)
Before we start, it has to be said that I’ve never been wild about Simple Minds. In fact I probably know less about them than I do about the internal politics of Portugal, ie, bollocks all. What then qualifies me to comment upon this magnum opus? A piece of work on which Simple Minds have poured a year of their life? Isn’t it rather like asking a chimpanzee to negotiate the beauty of Picasso? Well, actually, yes. But a fresh perspective wouldn’t go amiss. A view of the album as a single entity, rather than just another chapter in the biography of Simple Minds.
There are disturbing memories that have steered me clear of Simple Minds in the past. They remind me of gaudy 18th birthday parties in Morecambe where the only track the rugby players would leave their seats and beer for was ‘Alive & Kicking’. Once upon the dancefloor they would embark upon a ritual (in much the same way as they’d all sit upon the floor and preten to row to the theme of Hawaii Five-O) which entailed marching on the spot for ages until it came to punch the air for the crashing guitar bits. But time passes and wounds heal, and if anything I really want to like this album.
Partly because all the old hacks around here reckon Simple Minds went down the pan years ago and are never gonna meet the high standards of their early ’80’s period. Mostly, though, because Britain has such a wanky thing for the underdog. Why can’t we celebrate enormous acts? Isn’t success what we always want for the bands we like?But then people say ‘Oh they’ve blanded out, they don’t do anything for me anymore’. What do you expect? All Simple Minds stuff sounds similar, they aren’t a crap Indie band releasing a tawdry atmospheric drone in the name of art. This is big time.
Which brings us to the album. Erm, it’s crap. Damn. But not because they used to make stonking anthemic tunes or because they’ve yurned into charity bores. Simply because this album’s romantic scope is so very unromantic. Unlike, say REM, I cannot imagine sitting on a balcony in Paris, on a sunny day, reflecting on beauty whilst this album plays. It doesn’t work on its intended level. It’s a failure. It’s meant to be a change from the universal inspection of the past couple of Simple Minds albums to a view of personal introspection.
I’m sure Kerr and Co aren’t fickle people, but if this is introspective then it has no depth. ‘Let There Be Love’, the single, is pompous and dull. Neat sentiment but bereft of any atmosphere. ‘Women’ has some nifty bongoes a la Prince’s ‘Time’, while ‘Stand By Love’ has a cool intro that manages to sound like a Bounty advert and Bob Dylan at the same time. But what a voice Jim Kerr has. Trying ever so hard to growl some depth into his performance, but groaning fake sentiments every time. Putting the lyrics on the sleeve is a foolish move. “the city looks pretty tonight/Oh hold now let’s go ’til morning.” It’s a cheap shot but they’re asking for it.
‘African Skies’ has an annoying fiddly drum pattern while ‘Ghostrider’ starts off on a funky rocket but has a keyboard part ordered from Kentucky fried Chicken. There is, however, one truly beautiful song called ‘Rivers Of Ice’. It starts off real slow and mellow but unlike the Simple Minds norm it doesn’t burst into bombastics after the first verse. It remains quiet and charming with more passion than the rest of the LP put together. ‘Real Life’ just washes over me, leaves me cold. it doesn’t touch any emotion, not eben hate. How many sad people must there be in our sacred land to propel this straight to number one?
BACK TO REALITY
THE MINDS’ NEW BLOCKBUSTER, ‘REAL LIFE’, HAS PROVOKED A SCALDING RESPONSE FROM SOME CRITICS OF THEIR BLUSTERY POMP ROCK. BUT JIM KERR IS UNREPENTANT. ‘WE’VE ALWAYS DONE WHAT WE WANTED TO DO, REGARDLESS OF WHAT WAS HIP OR WHAT WAS NOT HIP,’ HE INSISTS.
Hanspeter Kunzler – ‘Melody Maker’ 20th April 1991 (UK)
“The birth of this album was about this time last year and the backdrop to it was very traumatic, because, after 12 years, we were saying goodbye to Michael MacNeil who, as you know, had been with us from the beginning….” Jim Kerr is explaining how, just before they started work on the new ‘Real Life’ LP, Simple Minds were reduced from a creative trio to just Kerr and guitarist, co-writer, co-conspirator and childhood friend, Charlie Burchill.
“I knew there was tension – there’s always tension in a band, various diagreements and stuff,” he muses. “You know, it gets better then it gets worse, then it explodes. But I thought that our bond was, erm, unbreakable, and, as I say, this time last year we found that it wasn’t the case.” Matters apparently came to a head at the end of the band’s last world tour, when Kerr and Burchill decided to start work almost immediately on a new album. “We loved the tour and we ended up not feeling tired, but feeling charged up,” Kerr recalls. “There was no need to go on holiday. Charlie and I wanted to write instantly, because it had been three years between ‘Once Upon A Time’ and ‘Street Fighting Years’, and we didn’t want to wait any longer.”
But MacNeil had other plans. “First thing I knew, he’s saying ‘I wanna do other things in my life’,” recalls Kerr, “which, although we were a bit shocked, I could understand – 12 years is a long time and he has a kid and a wife. I could understand, but deep down I thought he’ll get bored after two months, he’s upset now, he’s tired. I said ‘Look, we’re gonna write, and you join us when you want.’ If he’d said, ‘I’m quitting’, I think Charlie and I would have been really freaked out because we have never written without him for 10 years. We thought, ‘this is gonna be interesting, we’ve never done this before, this is different, and he’ll join us later’. “But,” he pauses and gives a little laugh, “it doesn’t look like he’s coming back.”
Despite the trauma of MacNeil’s departure and the further upheaval of a rift with longstanding manager, Bruce Finlay, Kerr appears surprisingly relaxed and eager to talk. No topics seem to be off limits or too personal for him to consider thoughtfully, honestly and articulately. He’s on good form. In part, he attributes this to his revived enthusiasm for touring. “I always liked being on stage before, nut I’d get so nervous the day before, it was a bit of a love/hate thing. Then I found on the last tour all my nerves had gone, replaced by just excitement for an evening, as opposed to worry.
“After 10 years, I suddenly felt very confident, because everything was going so well – the band was really cooking in rehearsals and we had a great set…. I couldn’t wait to play ‘Belfast Child’ and ‘Street Fighting Years’ and the band in rehearsal sounded fantastic, and the album seemed to be Number One in every country. “And I think something that dawned on me was that when you go on stage, with 30, 40, 50 thousand people there who’ve bought tickets four months in advance, they’re not coming to examine you. Maybe there are two dozen people there to examine you – and they are you guys,” he says meaning journalists.
“But people in general aren’t coming to examine you, they’re coming because they like the music, and to have a good time, and they’re coming wanted it to be good. The stage had become a natural environment and I thought if I can have a good time doing this, what the hell! What’s there to be nervous about? In fact, Kerr became so relaxed during shows that one night he simply walked off the edge of the stage – and broke his arm! Apart from pain, what did that feel like?
“The pain was nothing compared to the humiliation,” he laughs ruefully. “It was ironic because it was two nights after having played Wembley Stadium, and we were then in a small town on the border of Holland and Germany. Everyone was saying that after Wembley this would be very ant-climatic. But of all things, the audience was so over the top that it was just a steaming show. But I don’t know what happened, I just seemed to have a Condor moment… and just took a walk and that was the end of it.
Part of Kerr’s renewed confidence stems from Simple Minds’ triumphant appearance at the Mandela 2 show. “The first Mandela concert was a unique pressure for us. We hadn’t played for about two-and-a-half years. Not only were we playing without even a small warm-up, coming on stage right after a two-year break and appearing with all the creme de la creme, Sting, Dire Straits and Whitney Houston, but it was at Wembley Stadium as well…
“It was the first time we played there, and some people had said that we couldn’t play there, that it wouldn’t work, that we wouldn’t reach the back. “But we went on, and the sense of joy when we started ‘Waterfront’ and the place erupted! I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but to me the whole day wnt up about five on the Richter scale. It was there, and our music was on course. That day we had 20 minutes to do our thing, and we had a song for the event. No-one else seemed to have that. We had the best song of all, ‘Biko’ by Peter Gabriel. We really worked hard those 20 minutes, and in the planning of it. And it was a great success.”
The new album – especially tracks like “African Skies” and “Let The Children Speak” – recaptures the rhythmic clash of classic Simple Minds. Kerr credits producer Steve Lipson as the motivating force behind the record, especially in tis early stages which he’d kept from the “Street Fighting Years” sessions. “So we had these rhythms early on and after ‘Street Fighting Years’, we knew that if we were gonna make a different record, we had to try and make the arrangements shorter and sharper. Because ‘Street Fighting Years’ was landscapes, and song building… I love ‘Street Fighting Years’ very much, but we had to avoid it. So that was it – no big plan, but a couple of key pointers.”
These pointers led Kerr and Burchill to explore brooding rhythmic swathes that are much darker than the songs on ‘Street Fighting Years’. “Yeah. ‘Let The Children Speak’ was a groove more than a song and on ‘African Skies’ Lipson came up with a tribal loop and Charlie did an interesting thing, he played an almost classical European melody over it. “I was getting this image of an Africa, not like we’ve been talking about more recently, but of Sudan, or the droughts. There’s a beauty there but a kind of futility as well. I kept getting these kinds of images. Really beautiful landscapes, but the hardest life ever. It seemed to me like a really cracked, scorched-earth type of thing. Very much a kind of impression-piece.
“this record didn’t have an overall theme,” he declares. “On some records a theme appears early on, and that theme appears to make sense to everyone instinctively. Whether it’s ‘Street Fighting Years’ or ‘New Gold Dream’. With this record there wasn’t. It was a collection of songs, as opposed to a theme. “On the last album we were involved in the big picture, the big battles, apartheid, Belfast, poll tax, and all these things, and there’s something convenient when you concentrate on the big picture – by contrast, your own fears and battles and hardships seem small and pathetic, even self-indulgent.
“And on the last record I didn’t want to come to terms with a lot of things – and the big picture was something you could wilfully escape into. So this record is like a return to my realities – a return to real life – it felt I was coming back from the workfront with these songs to confront my own fears and hopes and nightmares and a sense of loss, though on a smaller, more private and personal scale.” It’s interesting that you say there’s no real theme because the first side – lyrically at least – deals more with love in a sense of personal relationships, whereas the second side has a more universal relevance.
“Yeah. Well, the first songs we worked on were definitely the love songs or the more romantic songs – ‘Let There Be Love’, ‘See The Lights’ and ‘Woman’ were the first songs that we worked on and they were the ones with the pressure on because we wanted songs we knew weren’t like the last ones. And then, when we had them under our belt, there was a loosening up, and we worked on the songs that covered real life – ‘Let The Children Speak’ and ‘African Skies’ and ‘Two Worlds Collide’.”
After the way the tabloids reated your spilt from Chrissie Hynde as a fairly public spectacle, were you worried that by returning to a more personal style of songwriting you’d be exposing your private life to unwelcoming public scrunity? “That happens anyway,” he sighs. “We played the Mandela concert and Chrissie came on stage with eight other people and a lot of tabloids said that we were back together again. There’s always that thing. But with my songs, two lines may be about me. That can lead to all kinds of interpretations. I’ve given up on that type of thing, because people will say what they’re gonna say.
“See, the only reason I wouldn’t bare my heart completely is not because I’m afraid of what people say, but because for 24 hours every day I’m not really interested in myself that much, usually. I’m not someone who can analyze my feelings so much. “And the only thing that’s important to me is this: Burchill makes this music, I don’t know what else to do but go with the emotional response that’s in it. I wouldn’t sit down and say, “I’m gonna write a song about a sense of loss, or a broken hearted love song.’ But if Burchill comes up with this thing and if that says to me ‘broken-hearted love song’ then I’ve probably had some experience with it.”
By comparison, do you worry that critics accuse you of pouncing on issues like apartheid merely because they are hip? “No. You can’t write songs about apartheid and not expect a certain amount of examination. Our music already had those things in the lyrics and we just made them more concrete. If we’d done them again on this record we would have been in danager of becoming a paraody of it. That doesn’t mean to say that ‘Street Fighting Years’ was just a phase, something we went through, and now wer’re over it. I’m sure it’s something we’ll go back to at some point.
“A journalist at the last Mandela concert, early on in the day said, ‘Don’t you think people get really bored with these concerts, don’t you think it’s just the Eighties’ phenomenon and that we’ve had enough of them?’ I said, ‘No. Maybe the media definitely has had enough, but the tickets sold out in two days. So why don’t you ask the public how they feel?'” What would you say are the main songs on this album?
“For different reasons, ‘Real Life’ is one, because musically I haven’t heard anything like it, although people tell me that it’s archetypal Simple Minds, hahaha. I think that’s a great piece. And I think that ‘See The Lights’, a broken love song, is the best song.” I was struck by the spareness of ‘Woman’. “Yeah, the end is really haunting. I was so pleased with the way the voice sounded, shadowy, it sounded a bit like a murder mystery to me. Or something very very spooky. It’s all very sparse, which is Charlie without Mick. Before, maybe we’d have filled them out. But the sparseness is really effective.
“There are others which are returns to familiar ground musically. ‘Travelling Man’ is a throwback, maybe even ‘Let The Children Speak’… “Then some new things like ‘Banging On The Door’ and ‘Two Worlds Collide’ came from messing around with the Prince song, which regardless of how is was received, we did enjoy doing. An atmosphere that maybe came from that got into this song. We tried something with my voice that we’d never tried before.”
At the time of this interview, it was obvious that Kerr still felt unbearably close to “Real Life” – too involved to be able to judge the music objectively. “The record was only finished on Wednesday night,” he says, “and I refuse to listen to it until it comes out. Because if you do, I guarantee you’re immediately gonna want to start remixing it. So I really haven’t had time to get my manifesto together in terms of the thoughts of the reader.”
But, on a grander scale, he seems to have no doubts about Simple Minds’ place in rock’s rich tapestry. “All I would have hoped for has happened. The Eighties happened for us with ‘Street Fighting Years’, and ended with us being one of the biggest bands of our genre, whatever that means. We survived the Eighties, got through, kept learning, capped it with ‘Street fighting Years’ and the tour, big events.
“That’s a great thing, but so what? This is the Nineties… it’s not that I wanna smash the mythology, smash the past. I don’t. But I don’t wanna pay homage to it or take any of it for granted, or get into smugness. All we wanna do now is write better songs, play better shows and make better records. “I don’t want to fall into the trap that maybe the bigger bands of the generation before did. It would be easy to get lost in that. I can’t deny that Simple Minds is an establishment, but there’s no reason that you can’t reshape or redefine.
“The last album we did that was as varied as this, ironically, was our first one. Then we were just kids who wanted to sound like Patti Smith, Cockney Rebel and Lou Reed. That’s only natural, you only have your record collection, and you want to emulate everything and you havent found it. Some bands make a glorious debut, but not us. We were trying to find our feet.” It’s been a long journey from “Life In A Day” to “Real Life”. What are your plans in the short-term now?
“Well, interestingly for us, we’re gonna start our world tour in America, where we havn’t played for five years. They didn’t like the last album there, so they didn’t want us to do anything….unfortunately.” Any idea why “Street Fighting Years” didn’t do well in America? “Yeah,” he admits with a wry grin. “The subject matter, really – they’re not interested in Belfast in Texas! It’s terrible to generalise, I know, but the radio just isn’t interested in Mandela.
“I was frustrated by that, but I had thought it might be like that. They were looking for another ‘Alive and Kicking’ or ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’, and we knew that album didn’t fir with that. We could have gone to play to just the loyal fans, and I’m sad on one hand that we didn’t go. But on the other hand I’m glad because we would have lost the momentum of coming off the tour on a real high. We would have probably wanted a six-month break; then it would have taken another three years to do an album. So my attitude, and Charlie’s is the same, is okay, they don’t like it, so we’ll do another album soon and if they like that, then we’ll go!”
he looks at me and grins as he gets up to leave. As a parting shot, he adds a final justification that almost seems to sum up Simple Minds career to date. “We’ve always done what we wanted to do, regardless of fashion, of what was hip and what was not hip. And even if we did things that seemed commerically the best thing to do, we didn’t do them grudgingly, we did them because we wanted to.”
Paul Evans – ‘Rolling Stone’ (US)
Kicking off Simple Minds’ tenth album, ominous strings introduce delicately threatening guitars, world-beat percussion slams in, and Jim Kerr snarls, “Quit dreaming/This is real life/Baby.” Lush off-kilter keyboards urge the mini-epic toward a crescendo that, earnest and theatrical, recalls the group’s considerable gifts. Most of Real Life shares the power of the Minds’ trademark stress on atmosphere over melody; the remainder, however, reveals the technique’s weaknesses – sketches passing for songs, gorgeous flesh without much spine. What might have been the band’s most cohesive record misses, if only by frustrating inches.
Spawned in a Glasgow ghetto in 1977, Simple Minds turned from punk outrage (their original name: Johnny and the Self-Abusers) into an outfit flexible enough for the spiritual uplift of Once Upon a Time, from 1985, and the Third World advocacy of Street Fighting Years, from 1989. This time, Kerr’s lyrics evoke a mature tension of disenchantment (“Summer’s gone and I can’t tell you lies”) and romanticism (“Love will conquer everything”), his from-a-whis-per-to-a-wail singing remains dramatic, and the band plays smart – Mel Gaynor is a shamefully underrated drummer; Charlie Burchill is one resourceful guitarist. But a fragmentary chant-along like
“Let the Children Speak” and the formulaic swagger of “Travelling Man” drain the legitimate strength of the gemlike “Rivers of Ice” and the savvy of “Stand by Love” (a sort of Celtic-reel-meets-Spencer-Davis rocker) – and the album doesn’t quite add up. Still, Simple Minds can’t be faulted for lack of spirit. An ongoing experiment, they combine craft and soul with honorable ambition, and their themes – of love and conflict, the mundane and the mystic – remain serious and inspiring.
SEE THE LIGHTS
Jon Homer – Teletext (UK)
The second single from the ‘Real Life’ album and probably the strongest Minds track in some time. ‘See The Lights’ finds Jim Kerr in husky vocal mood and the backing is suitably atmospheric.A great melody, a chilling chorus and a real sense of power under the surface. Simply brilliant.
Single of the day
Alex Kadis – Smash Hits (UK)
Simple Minds have got this formula for making records: Step One: A swirly, deeply atmospheric beginning (i.e. they all play their ‘synths’ at the same time). Step two: A low key, sort of nonchalant easy bit (no tune to speak of). Step three: A moderately rousing chorus (quite tuneful). Step four: Sing tuneless verse a bit louder. Step five: Sing chorus louder. Step six: Sing everything louder and repeat until frenzy pitch is reached. Step seven: Book about 50 years in the studio so that you can perfect everything to a tee.
To be fair, when their formula works it works brilliantly, but when it goes wrong it’s tragic. And, sadly, the songs on ‘Real Life’ fall into both camps. The good ones (‘Real Life’, ‘Let There Be Love’) are the Minds at their best – i.e. they make you want to rush to the nearest mountain top and talk to the breeze, man. The bad ones, like ‘Ghostrider’ and ‘Woman’, just plod along in a very torturous manner and if you forget to concertrate it all sounds like one big long song anyway! Oh well.
MAINE ROAD STADIUM, MANCHESTER (10TH OF AUGUST 1991)
The Sun (UK)
Simple Minds may not be my favourite band but they put on a superb show at Machester’s Maine Road Stadium. Watched by singer Jim Kerr’s new love Patsy Kensit, the band ignored driving rain to put on a slick two hour set. The 40,000 crowd lapped up songs including Alive and Kicking and All The Things She Said. But the highlight was an encore of Belfast Child which Jim dedicated to freed hostage John McCarthy. As for the support acts The Stranglers and OMD, the less said the better….
Rating: Simply Excellent
STRIPPED DOWN TO JUST THE TWO MEMBERS, THE SIMPLE MINDS HAVE RETURNED TO THE CHARTS WITH THEIR ‘REAL LIFE’ ALBUM. CHAS DE WHALLEY FINDS HOW GUITARIST CHARLIE BURCHILL HAS RE-BUILT HIS SOUND FROM THE GROUND UP…
Chas de Whalley – ‘The Guitar Magazine’ Vol 1 No 6 1991 (UK)
‘Simple Minds?’ says our photographer. ‘My girlfriend really likes them.’ ‘What is she, deaf, no?’ cracks back Charlie Burchill in a broad Glaswegian accent barely softened by 10 years of Rock ‘n’ Roll globetrotting. This is what I like to hear. A man with a sense of humour.
Simple Minds’ critics may well have dubbed them the most po-faced and pompous bend ever to have strutted a stadium stage. And altogether too seious for their own good. But the description hardly fits guitarist Charlie Burchill. The man I meet sports a super-confident smile sure enough, and has a cheery word for everybody, including total strangers. But I could swear he actually blushed a little when I ask him, somewhat cheekily, just how good a guitarist he thinks he is.
‘What? On a scale of one to 10? Probably about two,’ Burchill laughs modestly. ‘I guess I’ve got better over the years. It’s hard to mark your progress because as soon as you think you’re getting smart and you’re climbing up the ladder, you see someone playing and realise you’re miles away. Guys like Ry Cooder. Or Robbie Macintosh who was with The Pretenders for a while and is playing with Paul McCartney right now. Ot Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jeff Back and Jimi Hendrix have to be the best ever.
‘You see, I never grew up with the blues. I was too young. The first records I can remember getting off on were the bands like The Sweet and Roxy Music. And then punk. By then the Blues was labelled Boring Old Fart musikc, wasn’t it? So I only got into it all much later when I began to realise what ‘feel’ was all about. As my won style and character as a player became more established, and I got more confident in myself I started looking back at those essential things that I’d missed out on. Like Blues records and some of the great old acoustic players like Davey Graham.
‘I’ve come to realise that there is a power in simplicity. Round about the ‘Once Upon A Time’ album, and more so on ‘Street Fighting Years’, I started putting one or two Blues licks into a song and I felt this incredible impact. It distorted the way people thought about Simple Mionds. Now I find I can be quite hammy about it and throw in a real cliche here and there. And it really works too. You can sense how it turns people on!’
Charlie Burchill brought up the Blues without my prompting him. But the man sure done got ’em on his trail if Simple Minds’ most recent LP ‘Real Life’ is to be believed. It’s liberally sprinkled with classic Blues licks. And much slide guitar too. Yet there’s hardly a suggestion of a 12 bar chord sequence on the entire album. Indeed, after the disappointingly limp ‘Street Fighting Years’ collection, ‘Real Life’ marks a return to the bold gestures and widescreen perspectives of ‘Sparkle In The Rain’ or ‘Once Upon A Time’: Classic Simple Minds Lps with which Charlie Burchill – in company with U2’s The Edge and INXS’ Farriss brothers – helped redefine the role of the electric guitar in what was once termed the Designer Rock Age.
‘The early ’80s were really more about electronics. I can’t really speak for anybody else, but for me the interest factor of the guitar lay in the colours you could paint with it. All the different tones and atmospheres you could create with echos and wah wahs. Anything to get away from having to play too many notes cos you were pretty terrible, you know! But I suppose there was more to it than that. I was competing with synthesisers and trying to make the guitar sound bigger than it actually is. It’s just a little monophonic thing after all and I was trying to make it sound as polyphonic as possible. Sometimes I think the reason the guitar survived through the ’80s when people kept saying it was going to die is because it can be so powerful and at the same time somincredibly vulnerable too.
‘On those albums like ‘New Gold Dream’ and ‘Sparkle In The Rain’ I was using mostly Roland gear. Especially a Roland 501 chorus echo unit through a JC120 without much distortion on the amp. In retrospect I think it sounds terrible but people really like it. Nowadays I play through a Marshall which is something I swore I’d never do. But I’ve tried just about everything else there is and nothing beats the JCM 900.’ Burchill’s first echo unit was an old Echoplex. He still has it at home somewhere as part of a collection of Yamaha and Korg boxes picked up and then discarded over the last 10 years. Nowadays he favours a tc2290 and an Eventide Harmoniser.
“The thing about good echo is that it will alter the way you play and the way you write songs. You begin to think of parts in terms of the sounds they make and the effect they have on the dynamics of a track. You don’t consider their musical value at all. We got quite deeply into all that. But we’ve grown out of it now. We realised we’d better get the parts right and the songs right or else we won’t be around for much longer!’ Sense a humour aside, Charlie Burchill adopts a serious, even conscientious attitude towards what is, after all, his livelihood. He whiles away the empty hours on tour, so he tells me, by experimenting with tunings and trying to teach himself new guitar techniques like Ragtime or Flamenco. The study of chords and the theory behind them he finds particularly fascinating.
‘The voicing of chords is so important. Invariably the most powerful chords are the ones where you’re just using the top four strings but you’re voicing them correctly and you’ve got the top note right. I’ve learned such a lot from playing piano, where you have so much flexibility to develop chord movements and recognise the relationships between them. You suddenly realise that not everything needs to have sub-bass on it. Steve Lipson, the producer we worked with on ‘Real Life’, was really into that. He and I would sit down for hours and mess around with chord voicings. And the thing is that, once you get it right, you don’t have to EQ the guitar half as much, or put half as many effects on it. You create the illusions in a different way. Which is what all the master guitarists do.’
The hallmark of a Simple Minds track has always been that magical meld of guitar and synthesiser which created an almost hologram-like illusion of size and space and power without the bludgeoning chords of Heavy Rock. But what was new and exciting in 1983 became something of a cliche by the end of the decade. So, reading between the lines, did the recent departure of keyboard player Michael MacNeil mark an attempt by the band to re-assess and regroup? Burchill is reluctant to be drawn into discussing band politics.
‘Let’s just say that you don’t need to have those clouds of keyboards hanging there if you want to sound powerful. Somebody like Todd Rundgren can do it with one cheap analogue synth and create something just as big and in your face. I suppose that’s the good thing about Michael leaving. For years we couldn’t get away from having five keyboard pads on every track, supplying every possible frequency range. It was like we were hiding something. We recognised that cos we’re very critical of what we do. It was great creating those atmospheres and people perceiving us as big and powerful and triumphant. But at the same time we like the idea of being a little more vulnerable and taking the reverb down a bit. There’s been so much echo and reverb on some of our albums, it’s like we play it now and it comes out of the speakers two months later!’
Now Burchill is the only musician left in the SImple Minds writing team – indeed he and singer Jim Kerr are the only two original members of the band that debuted in a Glasgow bar as Johnny and the Self Abusers some 14 years ago. And, whether by accident or design, ‘Real Life’ is undoubtedly as more subtle and relaxed album than it’s immediate predecessors. But it’s not short on keyboards either. Those parts Burchill doesn’t stab out himself are provided either by producer Steve Lipson or sessioneer Pete Vetesse. What’s new is Burchill’s enthusiasm for his Casio MIDI MG 510 and MG 380 guitars. They play key roles on the album, almost eclipsing Burchill’s other ecording favourites: a Gretsch White Falcon, a Les Paul and a Gibson Chet Atkins 12-string.
‘I use the MG 510 as my main stage guitar now. Not just for MIDI work in the studio. It’s brilliant for slide. A guitar maker in Glasgow, Jimmy Moon, changed everything on it for me. Pick-ups, whammy bar, machine heads, the lot. It’s better than any single coil Strat I’ve ever played! It has separate leads for the audio and MIDI signals, I’ve also got the Casio MG 380 which will send the two signals down the one lead and radio transmit them too. In the studio I link them up to a rack-mounted Kurzweil 250 Sound Mobile.’
Among Burchill’s favourite MIDI mixes are the trombone sample in behind the guitar on ‘Woman’ (‘It gives this really breathy tone’), the strings and choirs which add atmosphere to the various six string parts on ‘Ghostrider’ and a subtle harpsichord which provides an extra sparkle to just about every jangly guitar figure on the album.
‘The big myth about MIDI guitars is that you have to adapt your technique to get them working properly. That’s certainly true if you want to play straight synthesised sounds. But I don’t do that because the MIDI tracks too slowly. It doesn’t respond as quickly from a guitar string as it does from the direct connection a key makes. It’s pretty instant on the high strings nut on the low ones there’s a definite time lag. But if you use the MIDI like I do, as an effects unit responsible for only 1/8th of your sound, it doesn’t really matter. I switch it in like you might switch in a chorus pedal or something. It fattens up the sound in a way people don’t expect and it often confuses them into thinking they’re hearing a keyboard when it’s actually a guitar.’
‘Real Life’ took almost eight months to write and record. Ideas conceived in the mobile demo studio Simple Minds carry with them on the road were then re-examined in Wisseloord Studio 7 (‘a cupboard in Holland’) before recording began in earnest in the band’s own Bonnie Wee Studios in Scotland. For those finishing touches like orchestras and choirs, the band jetted between A&M studios in LA and London facilities like Maison Rouge and The Townhouse. Producer Steve Lipson walked every step of the way with them, helping out on writing and arranging and even playing bass on most of the tracks.
‘The demo process merged into recording process. We were continually re-assessing what we had. And for some reason the simplest songs took the longest time to get right! We’d normally start with a drum machine pattern and Steve on bass and I’d sit at a Disklavier MIDI upright piano with my guitar in my lap. I’d put a few piano chords down for a verse and then switch to the guitar for the choruses. That’s how ‘Let There Be Love’ came together. It was basically a guitar riff with four pretty standard guide chords we expected to alter later on, although we never did. We needed to accelerate into the chorus to give it that final thrust which would allow it to hang effectively. So, only to get a guide structure together, I suggested we pick up the pace by making the chords change twice as quick. Suddenly Jim said, “Oh yes. This is definitely a bridge, I can get into this!” and it was there.
‘Our songs are much more structured now than they used to be. They were always based around atmospheres and jamming. Which I suspect is true of a lot of bands in the early ’80s. We’d set up a hypnotic bass line, I would play an arpeggiated figure which would suggest chords rather than actually state them and the melody line would spin off that. It was like whatever happened happened and every idea was an accident!
‘Now I think it’s better to start off with a definite set of chords and try to stick with them. This thing of dropping overdubs, and atmospheric melody lines is so easy for us. It’s like falling out of bed. What’s difficult is having the courage and the belief in your original idea to keep everything simple. And to plan everything out properly. But there are merits on both sides. Accidents inevitably catch you on the hop and you don’t get the time to consider your next move. You’re vulnerable and exposed. And probably at your most creative too, because it’s like you’ve suddenly stepped out of yourself and over the line into something unknown!
‘The ‘Real Life’ album is full of them. Like on the track ‘Woman’. We decided we’d end that with a guitar instrumental coda over the same chords as the verse. And that it would only happen once in the song. But the whole thing began to get a bit boring until, quite by accident, I played a bottom E which should never have worked because the last note of the top line is an E flat. But they were far enough apart from each other to suggest this E major 7th chord which so shifted the mood of the track that we went back and completely restructured the song with the new coda pattern as a major hook. That sort of thing happens all the time. ‘Making the album was a little like painting the Forth Bridge. Just when we thought we’d finished a track we realised we had to go back to the beginning and start again!’
‘There’s one special tuning I use all the time. I don’t know if it has a name, or whether I invented it myself. ‘Basically I drop the B on the second string to an A and tune the D on the fourth string up to an E. I discovered it one day when I was trying to work out a Joni Mitchell song and I couldn’t figure out the tuning. She hit a row of six harmonics and I though: Those must be her six open strings! ‘I tried to dissect it. As it turned out, it was nothing like her tuning at all. But it’s great round A and F and it works for Gs and Es as well. I call it A neutral. I guess it’s more like a cross between and A minor and a suspended 4th.
‘The third is neither major nor minor. You can hear it most obviously on ‘East At Easter’ but I use it all over the place because I feel really confident with it and I’ve explored it a lot. I know where all the chords lie. “So if I want to do something conventional in that tuning I can do it. The best thing is that every so often you go to hit a lick and forget you’re not in standard tuning and by accident come up with something you’d never have dreamt of playing in a million years. ‘You learn by those mistakes and add a bit of your vocabulary,’
Burchill’s bag of tricks:
- Apple Macintosh
- Computers: Outbound System with Sycologic hard disc
- Akai S1100 Sampler
- Roland R8 Drum Machine
- Roland M160 Channel Mixer
- Roland PC 200 Keyboard
- Alesis Midiverb
- Voce DNP 1 Keyboard
- 2 x Bose Roommate Speakers
On The Road:
- Guitars: Dinsdale Newholme 6-string acoustic
- Casio MG 510 MIDI
- Casio MG 380 MIDI
- Ibanez Charlie Burchill custom
- Gretsch White Falcon
- Gibson Chet Atkins 12 -string
- Fender telecaster Semi acoustic (specially customised by Derek Nelson)
- Morley WVO wah wah pedal
- Roland GP8 SC100 pedal to trigger Eventide Harmoniser TC 2290
- Yamaha Rev 7
- Kurzweil 250 rackmounted sound module
- Marshall JCM 900 head
- Marshall 4×12 cabs