Taking Kerr Of Business
Simple Minds: On the banks of a New Gold Dream? Or Simply wet? Don Watson fathoms it out with Jim Kerr.
Don Watson – ‘NME’ 3rd September 1983 (UK)
Whump! It’s that point when the aeroplane’s acceleration borders on the terrifying, when there’s the momentary flash of fear, the back of your stomach meets the front, and a hidden rush of energy is released. Capturing that momentum and harnessing its energy is an art of which Simple Minds are masters. Their music has, for me, become synonomous with travel. ‘New Gold Dream’ evokes arriving at the Gare St. Lazarre at five in the morning. Taking off for Dublin, just at lift off, I could hear that moment in ‘Theme For Great Cities’ when the melody soars from behind the clouds.
If, as Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld recently quoted from the futuristic manifesto, “There is a new dimension to beauty – the beauty of speed”, Simple Minds have become its greatest aestheticians. Movement courses constantly through the molten moments of Simple Minds’ mission, movement as a means to an end and as an end in itself, physical, spiritual and musical movement interwine until, as in all romantic dreams, the search itself becomes the reward. Now, for Simple Minds, the movement has, for the moment, come to a halt. After months of pursuing the New Gold Dream across Europe they played their last date of the tour in Dublin before returning to London to work on a totally new set. “When something finishes,” as Brando observed in Last Tango In Paris, “it begins again.” So I flew out to Dublin to catch the transition between end and beginning.
For someone who, during performance, glows with such weightless grace, Jim Kerr is an ungainly figure offstage. His hair, previously sleek black, now falls over his forehead in a wispy mop of natural auburn, his nostrils flare from a still untamed nervousness and his eyes bulge from a face swollen from lack of sleep. Every now and again he’ll shudder to a halt in the middle of a sentance and stare, with a desperate look, over your shoulder as he stumbles on the edge of a stutter.
Beneath the nervous exterior, though, there’s a constant store of energy and enthusiasm which frequently bursts through during the course of the interview. “Yes” he’ll say with a strangely removed excitement, “that’s right,” and launce into a restless stream of words. Often he loses literal meaning along the way, but maintains an instinctive sense, and a power of pure likeability that makes you feel precisely what he means. Perhaps it’s just a certain amount of the past we happen to have in common, a common stretch of history along the banks of the Clyde. Although Simple Minds have never made much of their Scottish roots, there’s a power in that past that exerts its control on even the freest spirit.
There was an indication on ‘New Gold Dream’ that Kerr was turning to matters closer to home, to a lyrical romanticism that was more distinctly Scottish than anything the band had done before. Now it seems that, at the very time I come to interview him, there is an increased feeling of national idenytity creeping into Kerr’s work. “I’ve never thought of myself as a Scottish person, I’ve never been patriotic in that sense,” he begins, “but last year I’d had a bit of a block on writing for a while and I was feeling a bit disturbed by that. Then I got back to Glasgow, and it was pissing down with rain, and somehow getting back there was like rediscovering an identity, a realisation that although it was nice to think about all these exotic places this was where I was from, and I realised that you can gain a great deal of strength from the place where you were born.
“The only thing is that feeling is so often abused. In Glasgow particularly the image has always been that ‘hard man’ bit, and most of the singers have been gravel voiced, bluesy groaners that drink whiskey by the bucketful.” Interestingly enough, though, the creative explosion that has occured in Scotland over the last few years has worked to counter that stereotype, not only with the new breed of Scottish groups but with Bill Forsyth’s cinema. “That’s right,” he agrees, filled with further enthusiasm, “there is a connection when people go to see Forsyth’s films, they come out using words like ‘beauty’ that have never been associated with Glasgow before, and the same words have also been used to describe ‘New Gold Dream’. Its good people are seeing there’s more to the place than the immediate impressions they get from seeing the slums.”
The one new song included in the Phoenix Park set was ‘Waterfront’, a wide screen epic with a rougher edge reminiscent more of the power of ‘Empires And Dance’ than the smoother dynamics of ‘New Gold Dream’. As Jim points out, with that LP they were experimenting with the idea that “a whisper really could be louder than a scream,” a progression that included numerous accusations of blandness. To anyone that listened, though, there was a power of optimism in that collection that continues to run through ‘Waterfront’. The romantic force is the same – but this time they’ve decided to scream it. The song itself was inspired by Kerr’s return to Glasgow, although its sentiments are no more restricted than those of his European songs.
“People were always asking me why I didn’t write songs about Glasgow and the problems there, but it was because I felt it would be hypocritical. I could have written about it from a bird’s eye view because, although I wasn’t there, my family and friends were – but it just wasn’t me. With this song, I feel I’ve got the combination right because I was there when the idea happened, but it still has that cosmopolitan feel to it. “Wherever I go there is something that always takes me to the water; if I go for a walk I’ll always end up by the river.
“This particular time I walked right along the front, and Glasgow was packed with empty ships, like ghost ships. Even from the factories you could hear from the echoes and acoustics that they were all empty, just shells. And it was kinda special for me because all my people, my grandfather and that, worked on that front. So I was looking about and there was this real sadness. I hope it doesn’t sound too romantic, but I had a fantastic view, which I didn’t know you could get from there and I couldn’t help but feel… you can sit around and say it’s all finished, industry’s finished. Glasgow’s a ghost town, but the river was still going through, and there is a force there that you can’t hold back. “It was just moving on and moving on, and that is to a great extent how I go through it – you can wallow in it for a while, but you somehow come up saying ‘It’s more than that’.”
Like most of the worthwhile music of today, Simple Minds take despair as the basic premise and move on from there. Quite apart from the rivivalist hammer horror schtick currently being peddled by black clad goths, the songs of the moment are mostly from graveyards like Sheffield, Glasgow and New Cross. In Simple Minds’ case, though, there’s a force of optimism rising from the realism.
While ‘Empires And Dance’ crawled with imagery of marching men across central Europe and a continent with a chronic lanuage problem, there was a creeping wonder seeping through the follow-up pair of ‘Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call’. That collection, although it suffered from a rushed and hyperactive recording rate, contained the germ of the feeling that was to create ‘New Gold Dream’ that giddy sense of awe that called to mind the image of a kid staring up at a skyscraper. “Really,” Jim wonders, “it’s brilliant that you say that… because I lived in a skyscraper for 14 years,” he brays. “I do love that feeling of size, though, and I love the feeling of looking up and even if its so massive, having that sense that if you really forced yourself enough, you could shadow that and…” he trails off, clenching his fists together, struggling to express his excitement, “and just… I don’t know, get up there.”
If the ‘Sons/Sisters’ collection expressed the desire, ‘New Gold Dream’ attained what seemed at the time an unscalable height. Criminally unrecognised as a modern classic, it reels with a dizzy excitement of being on the top while the world is spinning. “When that LP was finished,” he recalls, “I remember phoning up Bruce, our manager, and saying ‘We’ve really kinda surpassed what we should be’. And he’s going ‘It’s two o’ clock in the morning, what are you rabbiting on about’ and I wuz just going, ‘You don’t understand!
“Those backing tracks were just so enormous I was just really afraid of trying to find a voice and a sentiment that could match them. Inside I knew that I had them but it was just a matter of bringing it out without going over that fine line that divides grandeur from pomposity. Eventually I had one day left and I was just forced to do it. I had all these pages with phrases on them and I just formed the structure of the songs as I went along. “Then, when I came out and I knew it had worked it was just a brilliant feeling, but a feeling of danger that you’d attained something that you’d got no right to, you’d reach a point you really shouldn’t have reached.
“We were worried in a way that once we reached that point there would be nowhere else to go, but it never seems to work like that. It’s like growing up in the one room and you think you’re getting really big, then you grow to the level of the window and you realise there’s so much more out there.” It’s that naivety that has distinguished Simple Minds; naivety not in the sense of ignorance or childishness but an openness and a continuing will to learn. “There’s absolutely no world weariness about us, some bands travel from Manchester to Liverpool and they’re fucken’ world weary, whereas we like to take something from anywhere that we go.
“There’s always the Graham Greene’s of the world who’ll say no matter where you go the place is fucked. The technicalities might be, but there’s always incidents that show that the rest isn’t and it’s the incidents that make the world turn.” Is that an attitude that’s hard to keep up, or does it have a strength that perpetuates itself?
“It must have because nothing seems to even give it a bash, nothing dents it for a moment, but it’s not as if we wander around with a determined idea of ‘Ah things will be better’ but I can’t help thinking, even when people throw it in your face, that this is not the end, it just can’t be the all and end all.” But wasn’t ‘Empires And Dance’ fascinated with despair?
“Yes, because it was there, but once you’ve come through it what’s the point of getting bogged down? We did it at a time when people in Britain were going ‘War, what war?’, because in Britain things were still OK, but we’re missing fascist bombs in Munich and the whole Paris synagogue thing. You could just feel it spreading across Europe, that discontent. So what could you do apart from write it down? “At that time I felt terribly young and that all I could do was record fragments. Then a year later the whole thing had raked through Britain and a year later again people did know what a war was in Britain. By that time, though, I’d gone through it and to go back to that would just have been too easy.”
So why the countdown to 1984 in ‘New Gold Dream’? “The year 1984 has no significance to me whatsoever, as far as I’m concerned we’re not afraid to look forward to the future and that is just stating the case.” There’s an increasing strength and boldness about Simple Minds, a belief which is almost religious. That one subject though causes Jim to clamp his jaw. “I just can’t talk about it,” he says, “at least not until I feel capable of articulating the way that I feel.” Does he believe in God? “Well, I’m not vain enough to think that everything I do comes from me alone, I believe it comes through me and I channel it. I don’t feel comfortable talking about it, though, it’s something that makes me feel very vulnerable.”
Is there a limit that you place on yourself then? “No, I was talking to Bono the other night, he’s the one person I have most respect for within music and we were really firing one another up. But certain things that we were saying… I don’t know… I think we could get ourselves in trouble.”
“Because there are no limits, so there’s no holding back. The only real danger is when the music stops and you’re left with a personality that the music has entranced in you. Then the music stops and you could go out on to the street and just do something. I could envisage the situation when I could,” he stops again and grips the air,” …I don’t even know, but I do know that there is a danger in some of my ideas.
“When we were in Germany some people really hated the kind of optimism that I had. One journalist particularly I know would have liked to punch through my skull to it. I realised then… It comes down to belief really, a lot of people just get smashed out because of what they believe in and what they’ve done through their beliefs, whether they’re planned or spontaneous actions. “You think about sitting in a room and nothing’s really happening and you just get up and kick something.” There is an energy and an aggression in Simple Minds right now and it erupted on stage at the Phoenix Park show.
“My head is just spinning with all these new ideas,” Jim told me before he went on, “we’re just going to storm our way through that hour.” And they did, in a performance that was almost frightening. It was fitting that the last show was in Dublin; there was something tangibly right about the setting as we drove along the shabby waterfront of the Liffey towards the site. The final coincidence lay a quarter of a mile from the stage in the shape of the huge metal cross, straight from the cover of ‘New Gold Dream’. “Erected in memory of The Pope’s visit,” our taxi driver told us proudly.
“The Pope used our PA when he came to Glasgow,” Jim announced, adding mischeviously, “I hope he didnae catch anything,” and continuing to chant, “The Pope’s got herpes,” as I glanced nervously at this taxi driver and the madonna on his dashboard and wondered whether he was going to throw us out. A Catholic upbringing, they say, stays with you, whether as a belief or a desperate blasphemous urge, it seems that Jim just can’t decide which way to go.
“Mind you, Mick, our keyboard player had a protestant upbringing and his was the weirdest of the lot, his old man used to get drunk and talk to the dead. You’d go round there and his mum’d be watching the telly, and his old man’d be lying on the table talking to the dead, and Mick’d be sitting there in the corner with his synthesiser goin’ ‘Ach will you shut up’.”On stage, from the first number, all traces of Jim’s nervousness is gone. His hair lifted into a crest by a slight cross wind he leaps towards the audience screaming “Come out, come out, come out of the raaain.” The tension crashes out through the immensity of that sound and WHUMP! The front of your stomach meets the back.