Five-disc box of demos, sessions and lost album.
‘Uncut Magazine’ – October 2004 (UK)
This exhaustive trawl through demo, session and concert detritus traces Simple Minds’25-year career from 1979, when they were still a Magazine supplement, through to the 1988 stadium bombast of “Mandela Day” and beyond. Yet it’s likely to be of interest mostly due to the inclusion of Our Secrets Are The Same, recorded in 1999, yet stuck in contractual purgatory until now. It finds Kerr and Burchill still a bit in the slipstream of ’90s U2-tastefully epic, techno-fringed and extravagantly exasperated (“Death By Chocolate” and “Neon Cowboys”) with the wickedness of a world gone wrong.
SIMPLY OUT OF MIND
80s stadium-fillers Simple Minds are back releasing records again, but as lead singer Jim Kerr points out to Neil McKay, they never really went away.
Neil McKay – ‘Belfast Telegraph’ – 26th November 2004 (UK)
Simple Minds may be gone and forgotten in the eyes of the record-buying public, but singer Jim Kerr is adamant that the band are very much alive and kicking. Contemporaries and friendly rivals of U2 in the mid to late 1980s – indeed for a few years the Scots seemed the more likely to translate their promise into world-straddling success – Simple Minds gradually faded from view in the 1990s. They still released albums, albeit much less frequently than before, and to a diminishing audience, but as Kerr frankly admits “we ran out of juice”.
And while U2 unleash their long-awaited new album, Simple Minds celebrate 25 years in the business with the low-key release of a five CD box set, Silver Box. It’s a treasure trove for fans, with dozens of previously unreleased demos, session and live tracks, and their ‘lost’ 1999 album Our Secrets Are The Same.
“Initially we were a bit ambivalent about the box set,” says Kerr. “It was a record- company idea, but once you decide to do it you want to make sure that the artwork is good, and the mixes are good and all that stuff. “Then towards the end you think that it isn’t a bad idea. It proves that you do have a history. I think the fact that we could include a whole album of unreleased material – to me it gave the whole thing substance. EMI sat on that record (Our Secrets Are The Same). They liked it when they were given it, but when it was about to be released everything ground to a halt for six months when rumours about EMI merging with Warner Brothers started.
“Charlie (Burchill, guitarist and only other remaining member of the band) and I had a meeting with them and to be honest I got pretty anti-social, and let’s say talks broke down, and the album lay there. In a way it became this mythological thing, our ghost album. Every band worth its salt has one of these up their sleeves so in a way it kind of took on a presence. But it is good to see it getting out at last.”
Simple Minds peaked in the UK with their 1989 No 1 single, Belfast Child (“we shot part of the video in the shipyard and we shot another part on a rubbish tip. We were wondering how other bands got to go to glorious locations and we found ourselves standing on a rubbish tip in Belfast,” Kerr recalls with a laugh) but their star faded throughout the 90s.
“In the 80s we had seven or eight records, and in the 90s we had only two or three, so although we never actually ground to a halt, as far as the punters are concerned we probably had,” says Kerr.”We had worked non-stop for 10 to 12 years and if you run out of juice you’ve got to put your hand up and step back. You won’t get us blaming anyone else or pointing the finger – we enjoyed every minute of it, and still are, and indeed through stepping back you do get a renewed energy again.
“We had a great time, but personally I paid the price a couple of times for being all over the place. Now when we do things it’s a lot more low-key, except for the minutes we’re on stage; they’re not low-key at all, they’re as ecstatic as ever.”
Kerr and Burchill are negotiating for a new record deal, and are about to go into the studio in Sicily where Kerr has a home. So, can they be contenders again? “It would just be wrong for us to ask for more than what we’ve had, but at the same time, give us a shot and we’d be up there. Our thing came apart, the wheels came off, but at the end of the day we sold more than 20m records. We didn’t do badly.” Silver Box (Virgin) is out now.
Alive and Kicking
Adam Sweeting – ‘The Guardian’ – 1st October 2004 (UK)
If you chucked out most of discs three and four from this beefy five-disc box, you’d be left with some fascinating insights and lost nuggets from the past and near-present of Simple Minds. Over a 25 year career, the band have gone from eclectic experimentalism through clapalong mega-pomp and back to something in between, and that trajectory is captured here.
This collection consists entirely of unreleased material, with demos and radio sessions covering the Minds’ earlier years; previously unreleased live recordings documenting the shouty, lumbering 1980s-to-1990s; and a complete unreleased album, Our Secrets Are the Same, on the fifth disc. The album, dating from 1999, was scuppered by legal wranglings, but it’s some of the best music the band have made in 20 years. Tracks such as Death by Chocolate or Happy Is the Man recall something of their old pioneering spirit, and show a fascination with the process of recording rather than with prancing about in front of a sea of cigarette lighters.
Anyone interested in the band’s history will be gripped by the first two discs. There are 1979 live recordings of their earliest songs, such as Life in a Day and Chelsea Girl, which display precocious focus and imagination. And there’s an excellent batch of demos from the Empires and Dance sessions, produced by John Leckie and mostly very close to the finished versions. From 1981, there are demos of songs from Sons and Fascination, including the long-lost Life in Oils, and powerful performances of tracks from New Gold Dream recorded for David Jensen’s Radio 1 show. You can hear the wheels starting to come off during a horrific 1985 live recording of New Gold Dream from Barrowlands in Glasgow, which goes on for hours and features synchronised bellowing from Bono and Jim Kerr. And the rest of the mid-80s live materials is dismally oveblown and over-long. But maybe they’re on the brink of a critic-defying comeback.
Alistair Fitchett – ‘Plan B Magazine’ (UK)
Okay, so context is everything. Take that as a given. If you didn’t already know it, the context of the early Simple Minds is that of the post-punk fallout, the time when everything hinted at by Punk came to fruition. The time when the raw r’n’r spit and holler gave way to strange dreamers of psychedelic cities in the sky, the time when the Punk spirit coalesced with a love of Krautrock motorik electronics and hinted again at returns to its glam Art School roots. If you didn’t know it already, the context of the early Simple Minds is that of a sketchy,
edgy debut album with a clutch of moments to raise an eyebrow. It’s that of a dark brooding second album filled with madcap midnight walks down European post-war side streets with the warped ghosts of an early Roxy Music for company. That of a third album that took the European dreaming further and created a soundtrack to inward journeys through smoky Budapest railway station cafes and booking halls. Presented here, the Peel session and John Leckie produced demos for those albums are fascinating moments that remind me that the connections between this early Simple Minds and the mighty Magazine were more than skin deep. So, the early Simple Minds were magnificently strange. They got better.
Fourth/fifth album set Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call was a gem of rhythmic hypnotism, an expressionist masterpiece of angular guitar bursts to the heart, keyboard stabs in the eyes and elliptical bass lines making rhythm and melody all at once. It sounded threatening, celebratory, melancholic and inspirational. The Steve Hillage demos found here are edgier, emptier than the albums themselves, and are no less impressive. These were recordings that cast eyes backwards and forwards all at once; that drew from the past and that dared to dream of where Pop might go in the future. But the future got derailed.
Had Simple Minds broken up in 1982, had they suffered some tragic suicide or death, we’d be seeing lengthy magazine articles telling us all how influential and important they were. Instead, Simple Minds descended into a nightmare world of Stadium Rock of the worst pomposity and inflated egoism. Sure, the New Gold Dream songs BBC radio sessions collected on CD2 still have some optimistic sparkle. But by the time the disc ends on monstrously overblown 1985 live recordings from Glasgow (with guest appearance from Bono) and a Live Aid rehearsal you know the game is up. Stadium Rock, Pringle sweaters and Casual crews with Stanley knives: context is everything, indeed.
Rob Fitzpatrick listens to a band going from art-school cool to global fools – and back again
Rob Fitzpatrick – ‘NME’ – 28th August 2004 (UK)
Simple Minds Silver Box It’s hard to believe, and much of this lavish five-CD set of live and demo rarities doesn’t help, but – honestly – once upon a time, Simple Minds were cool. As angular, theatrical and plain weird as Roxy Music, Sparks or The Futureheads, in 1979 they were true underground stars. Listen to the live version of ‘Life In A Day’, ‘Premonition’ from a 1979 Peel session or the demo of ‘thirty Frames A Second’ and you hear strartling pre-echoes of the starchy, uptight Euro-funk that also underpins Franz Ferdinand.
CD2 finds the band hitting an early peak with ‘Promised You A Miracle’, where their nervy invention is welded to a fuck-off chorus, and the groove-heavy atmospherics of ‘Hunter And The Hunted’. All good. Then, in the mid-’80s, something terrible happened. U2 became enoromous and the Minds found their own take on what was called, in all seriousness, The Big Music. Bono appears on a live take of ‘New Gold Dream’ that’s nearly 13 minutes long and ‘quotes’ from The Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’. It’s immeasurably bad. The Live Aid rehearsal of ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’, finds Glaswegian Jim Kerr singing in a Lahndahn accent. As a cultural artefact it’s interesting – once – but you’d have to be mentally ill to want to hear it twice.
By CD3, ‘Waterfront’ – a neat throb of a single – is bloated into ten-plus minutes of wanky noodling and ‘Ghostdancing’ is so clearly in hock to U2’s ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ it’s embarrassing. By CD4 it’s time for ‘Belfast Child’ God no! Miraculously, though, CD5 the band’s 1999 ‘lost’ album is almost wank-free.
So, devour CD1, check out two, throw away three and four and burn five. Lesson learned.
Box-Set Of The Week
They were never the coolest of the New Wave of 70s bands, but Simple Minds eventually achieved the Glittering Prize of stadium stardom. Classic Rock talks to frontman Jim Kerr about the journey from Glasgow pubs to being one of the stars of Live Aid. Buying into the New Gold Dream
Hugh Fielder – Classic Rock April 2004 (Issue 65) (UK)
“When we started our first arena tour of Europe, in the early eighties, I remember thinking: ‘Yes, this will work, but wouldn’t it be great if we had some songs that were fucking built for these things’. That was probably the first time we started to get calculating in that sense.”
Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr is acknowledging a pivotal moment in Simple Minds’ career. Rock stars will cite all manner of influences on their songwriting: love, longing, lust et cetera. But cavernous concrete halls? Not really, of course. But Simple Minds saw their chance and went for it. Rock music in the 80s was defined by scale as much as anything else. It was the era of big arena rock that grew into massive stadium rock. Simple Minds’ resonating riffs and swirling, widescreen songs rose to the challenge.
“We looked at the other bands that were playing these places and thought: ‘How do they do it?'” Kerr continues. “And it’s all about the big gesture. You can’t be cool in those places. There were people who were giants compared to us but they died there. Elvis Costello didn’t work, Van Morrison didn’t work, Paul Weller didn’t work.”
But Simple Minds worked. As did the smarter 70s surviviors and their other great contemporaries from the 80s, U2. “The first time I saw U2 I had no doubt that they would become what they are now. Because they wanted it. they wanted it every bit as much as Madonna wanted it. And it wasn’t just them, it was their management, their road crew, everyone around them. It was both intimidating and inspiring to see. It wasn’t just to be rich and famous or whatever, it was because it was there to be had. They smelt it and went for it.
“To a degree it was the same for us. It was like, ‘America is giving you a shot, better go. Might have to compromise’. And being the kind of band we were, it was, ‘Compromise? No way’. But in fact you’re compromising every day of your life. You walk across the street and you compromise. It’s knowing when to compromise and how to compromise.”
Compare and contrast with another of Simple Minds’ contemporaries Echo And The Bunneymen. A band at least as gifted musically, but so crippled by cool that they couldn’t be bothered to reach up and grab the glittering prize, and sat there waiting for it to be lowered into their lap. To cap it all, Bunneymen frontman Ian McCulloch frequently vented his sarcastic spleen on Simple Minds and U2 as both sped by them en route for the arenas and stadiums.
“I think it comes from the kind of people you are,” Kerr offers, effortlessly refusing to rise to the bait. “Some of the guys in Bunneymen I knew hated touring. And you could see it, because some nights they would be good and some nights they would be awful. Ultimately, at that level a bad gig is unacceptable to an audience; they won’t come back, and they’ll tell their mates.
“I think U2 took a more stoned approach to it, while we tended to treat it more like the European Cup: it’s there, we’re gonna take this; so we’re gonna play this festival in Holland, we’re gonna get on the bill and we’re gonna make the biggest noise. That was our attitude.” That’s certainly not cool. It is, however, ambitious – arrogant, even. “That’s true,” Kerr agrees. “And you can try too hard; you can come a cropper. You can be too keen. We certainly had our moments.” But Simple Minds’ attitude surmounted their ‘moments’, and propelled the band to the top of stadium rockers by the latter half of the 80s.
Fast forward a decade-and-a-half and now you can count the number of guaranteed stadium-fillers on two hands – maybe one. Rock music has revised its new gold dream So too have Simple Minds. After 20 years of single-minded determination their energy and creativity began to wane, and the new millennium found them in something of a trough. But they re-emerged in 2002 with their first album of new material for seven years. Reinvigorated, they toured again, and spent the last half of 2003 on the road with the appropriately titled Alive & Kicking Tour, back in the halls and arenas they used to know.
“It’s almost like we’re existing in our own quiet little thing,” Kerr says with obvious satisfaction. “Every night there’s a good crowd going nuts.” And not just the nostalgia seekers. “Not at all,” he confirms. “The other night I noticed two really attractive girls down the front. Unfortunately in between them was their dad. But they were all really into it. And that’s great.”
By the time you read this, Kerr will be back in Scotland working on a new album with Simple Minds co-founder, guitarist Charlie Burchill, who fashions the band’s sound and has shared the whole adventure with Kerr while remaining resolutely invisible. But while the frontman may have enjoyed more of a rock-star profile, he has also mantained his privacy. Despite having gone through a couple of ‘celebrity’ marriages to (and subsequent separations from) Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde in the 80s and actress Patsy Kensit in the 90s, Kerr has cleverly avoided becoming fodder for the tabloid beast.
Today he’s at his old record company, EMI, to finalise the track-listing for a box set of rare tracks spanning Simple Minds’ career; he has already compiled a visual history on the Seen The Lights DVD package. having kept his eyes fixed firmly ahead for so long, Kerr is still not entirely sure why anyone would want to look into various recesses in Simple Minds’ history, although he admits that if I was holding a tape of a Roxy Music gig from 1972 he’d grab it out of my hand. “Or Genesis, or Lou Reed’s Street Hassle tour, or Bowie’s BBC sessions; I can get into the comparing the session version of ‘Width Of A Circle’ with the album version. I suppose I didn’t think it would happen with us.”
As a teenager, Jim Kerr consumed rock music avidly through the first half of the 70s, courtesy of the Glasgow Apollo. “I had a ticket to see Bowie on his ‘Ziggy Stardust’ tour, but I trod on a needle on the day of the show and my foot swelled up like a ballon. So the first gig I saw was Genesis on their ‘Foxtrot’ tour. And the physical thing of hearing that volume and seeing the lights and stuff… I’m not exaggerating when I say that I knew my life was about to change.
“In the months afterwards I saw Roxy Music and Bowie’s ‘Aladdin Sane’ tour, and I was aware that this other world existed – not just the music, but of exotic art and lifestyles. But it was all a subculture. There was no MTV, no pop columns in the dailies. When I saw Bowie I didn’t know about him taking Andy Warhol and Jean Genet and Lou Reed and making something new out of it. I didn’t know about any of that, it was just, ‘He’s from Mars’. The language, the clothes, the attutude, the sexuality… I’d just never seen it. Anywhere.”
But Kerr learnt quickly, and his special vantage point at Glasgow Apollo taught him something else that was to prove valuable later: the ‘big gesture’. “A friend’s brother was a security guy there, and he’d sometimes sneak me into the balcony. Up there it was like, ‘They don’t know I’m here’. But Freddie Mercury knew you were there. Alex Harvey knew you were thre. Steve Harley knew you were there. Lou Reed was stoned and wouldn’t know anything. And The Eagles wouldn’t care; but then they were about something else.”
Kerr and Charlie Burchill, who’d been mates since the age of eight, decided to form a band while they were hitch-hiking through Europe, a trip that confirmed to them that there was more to life than Glasgow. And because it was 1977 it was obviously going to be a punk band. Johnny & The Self Abusers? That’ll do nicely. “We’ve always been opportunistic as a band,” Kerr says. “I wasn’t one of those kids who hated everything that had been going on. I mean, if Pink Floyd or Genesis had a new record out then I was interested. But where punk really hit the maek for us was the live music scene in Glasgow, which was really laconic, lazy; there were endless bands playing Wishbone Ash covers.
“I’d been brought up on music that had a different level of creativity. And while I knew that Little Feat were a great band, I needed more than that. I needed stuff that was myserious, enigmatic. And when I heard punk it was, ‘Oh, right, there’s something we’ve been missing here’. It was that primitive element. “There was a lot of dross in punk, but those first records that we heard were really fucking good: Patti Smith, Television, Talking Heads, The Sex Pistols, The Stranglers. The whole thrust of the thing, and the fashion. To me it was coming out of groups that I knew like The Tubes and The New York Dolls.
“So punk wasn’t a stretch for us. And what I liked about it was not so much the Malcolm Mclaren stuff about anarchy and all that, but more the Lou Reed school of ‘get up there and do it’. It was, ‘Get your mates and make a noise’.” In the true spirit of punk, the six-piece Johnny & The Self Abusers spilt up on the day their only single, ‘Saints & Sinners’, was released by Chiswick Records. Half of them headed back to the 60s to form the Cuban Heels, while Kerr and Burchill took a more experimental route with Simple Minds, taking the attitude of the new wave and blending it with the melodic sensibility of art-rock faves like Roxy Music.
Ironically it was Simple Minds who revived ‘Saints & Sinners’ last year, including it as an encore on their touring set-list. “We did it out of a sense of fun,” says Kerr. “We’d been listening to bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes and we were thinking, ‘Hang on, we’ve heard this before’. When we were making that kind of noise we were being influenced by The Ramones and The Damned. And the song went down great even though most of the audience didn’t know it.”
Back In 1978, it took the emerging Simple Minds a while to achieve a settled line-up. They were on the third one by the time they played their first gig, and there was more changes before they got a record deal with Arista at the end of 1978. “Most of them were forced on us,” Kerr explains. “For three years we had very little success and therefore very little money. And as much as Charlie and I and some of the others were committed, others were perhaps not so committed.
“Actually we got off to a really good start. We wrote these tuneful, pop-oriented songs like ‘Life In A Day’ and ‘Chelsea Girl’. We did some demos, and I hitched down to London and dropped them off at various record companies. Within a couple of weeks the phone started ringing and it was ,’Come on down to London. We’ve got you a support slot with The Only Ones’ or whoever. But I’d refuse and say, ‘We’re from up here, and this is where we play, and if you want to see us you’ll have to come up here’. That was kind of unheard of back then. But it worked. We had a Sunday residency at the Mars Bar Club, and we’d been making tapes for friends, so when these A&R guys came up they saw us in this tiny place with about a hundred people all going nuts.
“And we were pretty good by then. We couldn’t really play, but we had the lights and everything; we had girls and singers. Our first review in the NME said we were ‘destined’. I think we gave off this vibe of, ‘We’re taking all the good stuff here; we’re taking Television and Magzine and even a bit of Cockney Rebel.” With half a dozen record companies interested, Simple Minds signed to Arista. “It was all very exciting at that stage,” Kerr recalls. “We went into Abbey Road studios with John Leckie, which for us was incredible. I mean, we didn’t really know what a producer did, but his name was on all these records that we liked, like XTC and Magazine.
“So there we were in Abbey Road, straight down from Glasgow, and it was suddenly, ‘What is all this? But the record just wasn’t there. It was stillborn. In hindsight someone should have said, ‘Your Glasgow demos sounded great. Do your record in Glasgow’.”
Simple Minds’ first album, ‘Life In A Day’, peaked at No.30 in April 1979; the title track single failed to register. “Everyone was saying it was a sure-fire winner. We’d even got a spot on The Old Grey Whistle Test on the strength of the demos. So we were left with our tail between our legs,” the singer recalls. “It looked as though we’d been hyped; but we weren’t Secret Affair, you know, we hadn’t come along as part of some new movement. We had something, but it wasn’t on the record. We never had a dilemma about the influences we were taking, because we knew we could make something out of them.” (Which some of the band’s John Peel Session tracks from that period certainly bear out.)
“At least our second album was scrambling for a vision. If people liked it, it was by default. It became enigmatic, it was this, it was that,” Kerr continues. Actually, 1979’s ‘Real To Real Cacophony’ wasn’t anything in terms of the chart, although ironically the media, who had been smelling a hype, suddenly decided that an album so non-commercial simply had to be ‘visionary’.
More significantly, Simple Minds were building a reputation as a live band. “Nothing was happening sales-wise, but live we were making an impression,” Kerr says. “We were learning our trade, getting better at it night after night. Promoters were instantly booking us back and we’d be doubling the numbers. “And then Sounds started publishing this New romantic chart every week, and suddenly we’re in at number five because Rusty Egan’s playing a new mix of one of our tracks. Obviously there was that whole Bowie/Roxy axis with the New Romantic thing, albeit with a Donna Summer disco beat or a Giorgio Moroder synthesiser, not to mention bits of Kraftwerk and Eno and so forth.
“All of those were our influences too, but it was already in the music rather than us going, ‘Oh here comes the New Romantics, let’s jump. In fact it was actually tracks from ‘Real To Real…’ that were being played in those clubs, probably because they sounded like something from Bowie’s ‘Low’ or ‘Heroes’.”
“So although we did sit with New Romantics, our influences were more diverse than that. And like all of them, I guess, we tried to pose. But we weren’t that good at it; we’re too open to be cool. But we had a punch, a rock ‘n’ roll punch. We might not have had a ton of slapstick on our faces, but we would get the thin Lizzy crowd because there were two ot three songs that were just wallopers. Maybe that’s why we sometimes appeared to have one foot in something and yet not be totally committed to it.”
So Simple Minds sat with the New Romantics without ever playing their subscription fees, while they continued to search for an identity of their own. And while videos of their time exhibit some fashion crimes, they are nowhere near the disasters perpetrated by the likes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. The ‘Empires And Dance’ album in 1980 showed more promise, but the double ‘Sons And Fascination’/’Sister Feelings Call’ the following year was the first album their live following could identify with as the band wrapped their dance, funk and electronic pop around a defined groove. The album reached No.11 and ‘The American’,’Love Song’ and ‘Sweat In Bullet’ became stand-out live songs.
Simple Minds’ breakthrough came with ‘New Gold Dream (81,82,83,84)’ in late 1982. “That’s when things came together,” Kerr offers. “The alchemy worked. We grew out of our influences into something that was us. It was Simple Minds, it wasn’t Ultravox or Roxy Music or whatever.” The surprising thing was that the band’s identity was solidifying even as their line-up underwent more upheavals – something that has been a regular occurrence throughout their career. ‘New Gold Dream’ was recorded with three drummers, including Kevin Hyslop (ex-Skids), whose small but significant contribution was to give ‘Promised You A Miracle’ the oomph that helped it into the Top 20. That track opened up the airwaves, and ‘The Glittering Prize’ and ‘Someone Somewhere In Summertime’ took advantage.
Throughout 1983 ‘New Gold Dream’ stayed in the UK album chart, and fanned out across Europe as well as making inroads into America. Simple Minds toured after it relentlessly, pausing only to hook up with producer Steve Lilly white. The first fruits of their collaboration, ‘Waterfront’, ended the year on a high for the band, and the ‘Sparkle In The Rain’ album early in 1984 yielded more of the arena-size hits that reflected Simple Minds’ growing stature. “We were getting better and better,” Kerr recalls. “We were playing our arses off everywhere. We were going to Australia, South America, and every night we were killing the audience.”
The secret to their cracking America was more touring, backed by heavyweight radio promotion. But by late 1984 the band were getting frustrated, because although they’d fulfilled their half of the bargain, despite having mover to Virgin Records they couldn’t get ‘Waterfront’, ‘Speed Your Love To Me’ or ‘Up On The Catwalk’ away as singles. “We were pissed off because ‘Sparkle In The Rain’ was doing well everywhere, but in America we were still on the college circuit,” Kerr says. In fact they were so pissed off that when the gift horse did eventually show up the band did their best to kick it in the mouth.
“After the tour the record company apologised for not getting behind us. They said: ‘You were right, we were wrong. We didn’t see it, but now there’s a momentum there and we need something new from you now’. And we were going, ‘Too late, we’ve been touring for fourteen months and we haven’t got anything. You’ll have to wait for the next album’.
“We were quite arrogant with them. But they came back a month or so later and explained about this movie called The Breakfast Club, and Keith Forsey, who’d done the music for Flashdance, apparently had a song for us. We said: ‘What do you mean? We write our own songs’. And they were going: ‘He really wants you to do it, and it would be good for you’. But we were just: ‘Fuck off, no chance’. It went on like that for weeks.
“Meanwhile, the record company is pleading with us and Keith comes to see us while we’re writing songs for the next album and says: ‘Please, give it a shot’. They’ve got some duff studio in Wembley booked in a couple of days, we didn’t really like this song, and I’m going: ‘I can’t relate to the words. I’m going to write them again’. But I was so disinterested I didn’t get round to it. I just thought, if we go in and do our bit, it’s not going to happen and we can all move on. So we went in, added the intro and other bits, and the track sounded great!
“Then we thought it [‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’] would just be part of the soundtrack, but of course it becomes the main song. And not only do they release it as a single, it goes to number one. We called it The Black Hit From Space, after that track on The Human League’s ‘Travelogue’ album, about a song that arrives from nowhere and takes over the world.”
The second part of Simple Minds’ 1985 double whammy came in July when the band appeared at Live Aid in Philadelphia and, along with Queen and U2, made the most of their 20 minutes of unprecedented global exposure. Bob Geld of reckons they were the best performance to come out of the American show. And the result was that the band made that transition from arenas to stadiums.
“The thing about Live Aid was that not only did audiences see it but promoters saw it as well. And they came to bands like us who could fill two or three nights in an arena and put together a stadium package. But Live Aid made you realise something else: that the audience is the star. When they get together and do that wave thing, corny as it is, they were saying: ‘We’re going to add our bit’.
“When we did a stadium tour with all these screens behind us, every time we showed the audience they went mental. And I realised: ‘This is about them’. However many gigs they’d been to see that summer, this was their cup final.”
Once again Simple Minds delivered the songs to go with their elevated status. Their ‘Once Upon A Time’ album may not have included ‘Don’t you (Forget About Me)’ – “Terrible! The rows we had over that!” – but there were four more hits to echo round the stadiums: ‘Alive And Kicking’, ‘Sanctify Yourself’, ‘All The Things She Said’ and ‘Ghost dancing’, the latter played at Live Aid and dedicated to Amnesty International, for whom they played some benefit shows later that year.
Indeed, it wasn’t until they got to the stadiums that their social conscience started to kick in, with much of that conscience being directed against South African apartheid regime that had kept Nelson Mandela incarcerated for over a quarter of a century. Simple Minds were among the first to sign up for the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute at Wembley Stadium in June 1988, writing the stirring ‘Mandela Day’ for the occasion. They also raised £40,000 for underprivileged children from three Glasgow Barrow lands shows (the new name for the Apollo) at the start of 1989. And the title track of their ‘Street Fighting Years’ album was dedicated to Chilean poet and writer Victor Jara, who was murdered in prison by “right-wing scum” General Pinochet and his henchmen.
‘Street Fighting Years’ was an unabashedly political album, nowhere more so than on ‘Belfast Child’, which gave them their only UK No.1. “I was brought up to take a view about these things,” Kerr says. “It was natural to us, and we were inspired by the likes of Peter Gabriel and Robert Wyatt, who were doing great music with questions at its heart. If you have any kind of career at this level there’ll be a time when you write about what you perceive as the issues of your time. I’m from Glasgow, but my father’s family are from Nothern Ireland. And Belfast was always in the news.”
Another series of line-up changes at the end of the decade left Simple Minds down to a core of Kerr and Burchill. But that was scarcely news to anyone who’d perused their album sleeves during the 80s. And they picked up in the 90s where they’d left off, playing at Nelson Mandela’s freedom bash at Wembley Stadium, and in East Germany soon after the Berlin Wall had come down. But it would be another year before they released their next album, ‘Real Life’
By the end of the world tour that followed, however, Simple Minds were starting to feel jaded. And while they were still doing well in Britain and Europe, in America the returns were diminishing. After 15 years of relentlessly driving onwards onwards, the strain was beginning to show, although they never fell victim to any of the obvious vices that can turn a band into road monsters.
“Well, it came close, but I don’t think we came a cropper over any of the potential pitfalls,” Kerr says. “The major pitfall we actually came a cropper over – and the only one I’d change, given the chance – was thinking there’s endless energy. But there’s not. Once it starts happening, and you’re making money for everyone, you just keep running. And suddenly it’s five years down the line without stopping. “We were never complainers, though. We liked the work and we liked the lifestyle. We loved what it gave us. But there’s that point where you’ve reached it: you own the jumbo jet, but you’ve got no fuel. And you know it. And that’s terrifying.”
There is, of course, plenty of artifical fuel around to lighten the load. “Yeah, but in my case I realised it was an artifical culture. When my daughter was born I think it changed me. Up until then I’d have paid you to let me do what I do. It was just as we were hitting the jackpot, and I realised I was responsible for someone other than myself. And I realised that I wasn’t going to see her. This whole thing was taking off. We couldn’t put the brakes on it now, the least I could do was to make sure we got the max out of it.
“Two weeks later, on tour, being in a room with a bunch of jerks – part and parcel of the whole thing – and I’m thinking: ‘Who are these creeps? My perspective had changed. And that’s when I got more… whatever you want to call it… cotporate, career-minded, whatever. I mean, it’s all manageable until you try to have a life outside it, and then it gets tricky.” The second half of the 90s was certainly tricky, particularly after 1995’s ‘Good News From The Next World’. Kerr divorced Patsy Kensit and Simple Minds divorced Virgin. The band signed to Chrysalis, but 1998’s ‘Neapolis’ (which saw the return of bassist Derek Forbes and drummer Mel Gaynor) seemed unsure of whether it was going backwards or forwards.
Another album, ‘Our Secrets Are The Same’, got shelved after record company pre-millennial tensions (it will be on the forthcoming ‘A History’, a four-CD box set of early demos, rarities and other previously unreleased material) and they didn’t really get back on track until they’d switched labels again, to Eagle Records, and confronted their influences on the covers album ‘Neon Lights’, which included songs by David Bowie, Patti Smith, Roxy Music, The Velvet Underground and – ahem – Echo And The Bunneymen. Now there’s a perspective, where before there was just a blinkered look forwards.
“It’s almost a wilful denial at times,” Kerr admits. “It’s that thing of being there, in the moment, self-consciously contemporary, looking at your peers. All that stuff. But actually, what a luxury it is to be able to go out and play to an audience that does know your catalogue. At the same time, the reason we’re making another record is that we know we’re going to be playing live again, so we’ve got to come up with some new stuff.” “When we began this period of activity it felt right and credible to be nostalgic. After all, we do have a story to tell. Why should we shy away from that?”
THE KERR-ING DECADE
Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr recalls the death of punk at the hands of Giorgio Moroder and refutes claims that the 80s were all about Thatcher and money
Joel McIver – Record Collector June 2004 (Issue 298) (UK)
On the eve of release of a 5-CD Simple Minds box set taking in demo, live and rare tracks, singer Jim Kerr sounded like a happy man. And so he should be – after all, his band were among the most successful British bands of the era, reaping a lucrative American dollar harvest with their anthemic, stadium-sized tunes. However, as those who were paying attention in the early 80s will recall, Simple Minds weren’t always just about big snare drums and fists-in-the-air polemic: subtler influences were at work when the band emerged from their Glasgow origins. Will ‘Big Jim’ admit that he was almost a new romantic?
Why release the box set now?
It’s almost part of the deal, if you’re in a band which is lucky enough to have had a long career like we have, that a thing like this comes out. It’s like clearing the vaults. Six or seven years ago I would have thought, is this stuff meant to be heard? Is it worthwhile? But since the advent of the internet everything ends up in the public domain anyway, so you may as well take what is there and get it sounding good and packaged well. It’s a thing for the hard-core fans, and it gives them a chance to get it in its best light.
You didn’t feel like putting any of the Johnny & The Self Abusers’ music on there, I notice.
Believe it or not, we would have liked to have done! As much as that band only lasted about six months, that’s where the roots of Simple Minds come from. Without Johnny & The Self Abusers we would have been still sitting around today talking about one day getting a band together. In the whole of the punk madness, Johnny & The Self Abusers was a catalyst for actually getting up and doing it. It really enabled us to do it in a less self-conscious way.
Before punk you wouldn’t have gone near a stage unless you could play like Eric Clapton or Rick Wakeman! And punk said, anyone can get up and give it a go – whether you’re good at it or not is always gonna be subjective, but at least you can try. The great thing we got out of Johnny & The Self Abusers was that from the very first gig, as much as it was chaotic and shambolic and not very good on the ears, we knew that it was something we wanted to do for the rest of our lives. We knew that within the first few minutes.
Were Johnny & The Self Abusers fuelled by anger and outrage like the rest of the punk bands?
No. The punk that I related to was more the American punk – Lou Reed, The New York Dolls, The Stooges and stuff – and although there was anger there, it wasn’t like the British punk, which was more politicised. For us it was more the fact that you could learn three chords and get a hell of a noise going. When you’re 18 you’re just dying to let go, heh heh. In that sense there were links to early rock ‘n’ roll, where people just wanted to make this noise out of natural exuberance. Noise that made them feel 10 feet tall.
Simple Minds were influenced by Bowie and Roxy Music too.
We had them in terms of language, yes. Unfortunately, we couldn’t play! That was the great thing about Lou Reed and The velvet Underground: if you could play three chords you could play a dozen of their songs. Whereas Bowie and Roxy, brilliant stuff although it was, and also influenced by the The Velvet Underground, they were more art-rock. There was a finesse that I think we finally accomplished, but not in the early days.
Reel To Reel Cacophony and Empires And Dance are regarded as quite avant-garde nowadays.
They came after a lot of progress. We’d found Michael MacNeil, our keyboard player for Simple Minds, who brought in synthesisers and drum machines and rhythm boxes and stuff. We left the rock ‘n’ roll Neanderthal thing for a while – in fact, I remember a defining moment at a Johnny & The Self Abusers gig in a terrible toilet in Glasgow. It was full of skinheads, and the last thing they wanted was us. That day we’d sat down and done interviews with all these punk fanzines, and of course we were fuelled by lager and pontificating how punk was the be-all and end-all.
Then this guy came over and said, you’re on after this song – and this song came on that I’d never heard before. It sounds ridiculous to say it now, but it was the first time I’d heard a synthesiser record or a dance record – it was Donna Summer’s I Feel Love. It was these machines, and she was singing this almost Arabic melody. And I honestly remember going, punk’s finished. Ha! So, within months we had acquired sequencers and so forth.
So, were Simple Minds a New Romantic band?
Only in the sense that Sounds magazine had the first New Romantics charts – the first dance and club charts – where you would see Spandau Ballet, Blancmange and Soft Cell and so on. After a while Simple Minds started to appear in there. It was because the Blitz club DJs were starting to play some of our tracks, like I Travel and Changeling, things that had grooves and sequencers and electronics. We hadn’t thrown our lot in with them, but it was nice to start getting any kind of profile, to be honest!
But you never did the frilly shirts and all that?
No, we couldn’t afford them! The other thing was that those bands all played art galleries and wrote about Berlin and Cabaret Futura… and we were very much in the van going up and down the motorway. We were much more rock ‘n’ roll.
Why were Bowie, Roxy and the other influences on the New Romantics so strong in Britain?
Well, the first three gigs I saw were Genesis with Peter Gabriel – and you can imagine the impact that made on me – then Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, and then Roxy Music. And then I saw Lou Reed when he was doing his blonde hair and make up. For me, it was like, this is the shit! This is the stuff! I think a certain amount of people grew up with these bands and went back to them after punk. Bowie was still the catalyst, because him and Eno were still doing those very influential records. They had expanded beyond the rock ‘n’ roll language and for me, a kid in Glasgow who had been brought up very much in a meat-and-potatoes industrial city… If there was a sound of Glasgow,
it would be a hard-graft whiskey-drinking kind of music. It held no appeal to me. So when Bowie and the rest of these people wheeled into town, it is not an exaggeration to say that my life changed. I knew that there was something else out there. And it wasn’t just the music: you can look at Bowie and say that he did the kabuki thing and the Velvet Underground, but then you’ve got no source of reference – he came from fucking Mars! You learned that there was so much more out there in terms of language and books and culture that could be incorporated into rock ‘n’ roll.
And it had an edge, whereas a lot of Yes and ELP and Genesis – as much as I liked it, because it was the only thing around and it got your parents annoyed – it was more Jon Anderson singing about trout and rainbows. Which was fine, but then you had Lou Reed singing Walk On The Wild Side and Bowie singing Jean Genie and Bryan Ferry singing about blow-up dolls. And I was just part of that generation of kids that went on to have bands. Siouxsie Sioux would be the same, Howard Devoto.. so much of it leads to Bowie, Roxy, Iggy and The Velvet Underground.
You supported Peter Gabriel in 1980. How important was this to your career?
It was crucial in many senses, because – and it sounds rather mundane to say it – but we’d been round and round and we were sort of learning our trade, but through him we went to the big arenas, which was incredibly unfashionable. Stadium rock was the antithesis of punk and cool and New Romantics and stuff.
It was more acceptable in America, though.
America was never really politicised, they just threw everything in and if you had a good tune.. they probably liked us in the same way that they liked, say, The Cars. But the Gabriel thing took us into those rooms and, apart from him being an absolute gentleman – if you’re a support band, you never get that – we saw how our sound worked in those places. I’ve seen people who I admire, and who are far better geniuses than us, whose sound just does not work there. Our sound worked there and that was a great inspiration to us, because commercially we weren’t selling anything at the time. On the one hand there was a doom-laden picture, but with the live thing we were going on to being booed and shunned, but coming off getting encores and growing nightly.
It’s thought by many that Simple Minds had changed into a rock band by the time of the Waterfront single.
What happened was that the New Gold Dream album took us onto our own big stage and got us onto festivals. Also with that album we came across the drummer Mel Gaynor, who started out as a session drummer. We were playing these 60-70,000 crowds in places like Belgium and Holland, and enjoying it, seeing how our sound could work – and after doing that for a year, by the time we came to record that was the natural sound of the band. Also, we worked with Steve Lillywhite, who was working with U2 and Big Country, and he was one of the few guys at the time who could get you to make a rock ‘n’ roll record in your own way. We had a cracking live sound at the time and it was working. We were loving it. There was something very powerful and joyous about it, which was captured.
Did you ever see The Breakfast Club?
(laughs) It’s funny because I relised the other day that I hadn’t seen it since it came out and we were shown the rough version. At the time we thought, this’ll never work, but of course with hindsight it’s become one of the cultural landmarks of the time. Last year Don’t You Forget About Me was the most played 80s song on the radio. Think about the songs from the 80s – The Police, U2, Blondie, whatever – that makes it a song for the generation that went to high school there. It was a beautiful gift to us.
Do you agree with some pundits’ view that the 80s was the selfish ‘Me’ decade?
No. I can understand that view because people immediately home in on Thatcher and Reagan and the yuppies, but for us in the context of our band the 80s were about Greenpeace, Amnesty International, human rights, anti-apartheid, Nelson Mandela, the Berlin Wall coming down, Lech Walesa… I mean, what do you want? Serious, serious issues. There was a point when it felt that things were coming together. In terms of bands like us and our ilk, there was a great idealism there.
It didn’t always work though. Remember Red Wedge?
No, it didn’t always work, because it’s got to entertain. It has to. When we were asked to do the Mandela concert in 1988, it was so important to us to cross over whether we agreed with the cause or not. It still had to be a great show: Live Aid, what a great show. It’s always a polemic thing: I remember people saying that Live Aid was the pits because before then, people didn’t really play in stadiums that much, and also you could say that it was the start of the whole CD generation, with rock becoming very corporate and global.. but there are always opposing views.
How were the reissues received in 2002?
Ironically, the biggest critics are the fans. I recall looking at the websites and all the postings on there and although you can’t keep everyone happy, everyone seemed to like the sound. Either the new mixes or the improved sound quality. Whenever a new piece of technology comes up, you’re pretty much forced to do these things because the industry starts to produce records in that format and you’re like, we can’t be left out. I have to be honest and say that the albums were reissued for that reason, rather than because of any inherent desire. When you have a history, it’s important to keep it current and up to scratch.