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By Joe Matera
First formed in Glasgow in 1977, Scottish band Simple Minds celebrate 45 years as a musical unit this year. Although the band underwent lineup changes along the way, its two main songwriters and founding members, vocalist Jim Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill remained a constant.
Their first commercial breakthrough came in 1982 in the UK and Europe with their fifth studio release, New Golden Dream (81–82–83–84) but it wasn’t until 1985 that their single, ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ which featured in the 1985 film, The breakfast club that the group finally broke into the lucrative US market with the single topping the US Billboard charts. Their seventh studio album, Once upon a time released later that same year, further strengthened their commercial position in the United States.
This month, the group releases its nineteenth studio album, direction of the heart. During a stopover in France on their recent European getaway, Kerr, 63, spoke with Gold mine.
GOLD MINE: The new album, direction of the heart is a record with electro-rock sounds. As it was recorded remotely and in various studios across several countries, did the changing environment have an influence on the final result?
Jim Kerr: I don’t think moving around particularly influenced the sound. However, if you have been in a good place where you feel good and have energy and creativity, there is no doubt that it has an influence. The thing that overshadows this album was the COVID thing. We were all working around that. We have spent many of these months of confinement in Sicily where I live and where Charlie (Burchill), my songwriting partner, also lives. So that gave us a laser light which, between there and Germany where we also worked, Charlie and I worked on writing the songs.
GM: Were you surprised by the resounding success of “Promised You a Miracle” which gave Simple Minds their very first UK hit?
Jim Kerr: When I first heard the riff for “Promise You a Miracle”, after Charlie had invented it, I immediately thought he was going to do it for us. With each release we were climbing up the pop charts and so between that and the growing live audience, it was only a matter of time to find a pop song that was in tune with it all. I think if we had sat down and tried to write a pop song, I don’t think it could have happened. But walking into the room that day and hearing Charlie play along to the melody, I knew it was going to do it, just hearing that riff. It’s not so much a pop song, it’s just a Simple Minds pop song. A song that I felt would open doors for us.
GM: New Golden Dream (81-82-83-84) has been cited as a big influence on U2 and their producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno.
Jim Kerr: Yes, they said it and it’s very nice of them to say it. I know the band released a book several years ago that detailed the recording sessions for The unforgettable fire album and there’s a lot in there about the music they were listening to at the time and New golden dream is mentioned a lot. Personally, I don’t really hear it, but it’s very generous and a compliment for them to say that.
GM: “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” transcended the movie it originally came from, while the movie sounds dated now, your song isn’t. Do you think the song would achieve the same kind of success if it were released today, either as part of a movie soundtrack or as part of an album?
Jim Kerr: I marvel that the song sounds so fresh and pervasive. But would it be a success if it were released today? No, it wouldn’t be because what music isn’t playing on the radio now? But based on the premise that a good song is always appreciated by later generations, I think it’s become a song of a generation because of the combination of the movie and all the other stuff and I think the other generations seem to relate to the iconicity of it; it’s an authentic 80s song. Other than that, I think there’s so much joy in the song and it’s a feeling that most people can relate to.
GM: This song was originally offered and rejected by both Bryan Ferry and Billy Idol, but the fact that Simple Minds recorded it led to the band achieving their first US No. 1 single.
Jim Kerr: We initially refused too, just because we didn’t do other people’s songs. We thought, “You want us, but don’t you want our songs?” But we were young and brattish and insecure about it all. However, they pursued us so much that what ultimately helped us was meeting Keith Forsey the producer (and songwriter of the song with Steve Schiff) and director John Hughes and having their enthusiasm convinced us to try again. . And literally, it was one time, as we walked into a studio for three hours and came out the other side. And we all thought that sounded pretty good. I think the success was due to the combination of the movie and MTV America being right behind us and everywhere. It happened at a time when we were about to step out of the big leagues anyway because we had already recorded “Alive and Kicking” which went to number 2 on the Billboard chart in America.
GM: years of street fighting (1989) was originally intended to be a political synth-pop opus co-produced by Trevor Horn, but instead saw the band venture down a more folksy path.
Jim Kerr: One of the reasons we wanted to work with Trevor was because of all the wonderful productions he had done before with the Fairlight and the keyboards and all that groundbreaking stuff. And at the same time, we were boring ourselves with our thing because at that point we had about seven or eight albums and about 10 years and we were at a stage where we wanted to attach another engine to our thing. However, at the same time, the reason Trevor wanted to work with us was because he too was bored with his stuff! So, it was a really tough record to make, but we found a way. On “Belfast Child” it was on this song that Trevor really encouraged us because Mick MacNeil, who was our keyboardist, was also an accordionist who also played Celtic music, but when Trevor discovered him, he is said: “It’s a real strength!” You have to find something in this world”. And so we did, and it became “Belfast Child”.
GM: Why was Simple Mind’s 2005 album Black and white 050505 ever released in the USA?
Jim Kerr: The truth is that for about 15 years prior to this album, Simple Minds was considered pasture as far as players in the industry were concerned. And so, we had to make a decision. The chances of getting to where we are today were really very limited at the time and, although it seemed like we were done, we still felt good music inside us and so we didn’t want to stop us. But there was no interest in the group in America. It was as if we were on the flat table. And how do you leave the table? We thought there was a chance that someone would come along at some point and re-evaluate us if we just folded in and did a great job continuously and worked with whatever fanbase we had.
So, we bought into that and said, “Let’s do it.” And you can’t do it halfway. You have to do it almost knowing that your record will never be released in America and it will never play on the radio. But we still decided to go ahead. And then we had to build on trust over the years, where people started to re-evaluate us and other groups that came in checked us out. Suddenly the landscape changed and here we are today with this record and with an American record company that is happy to work with Simple Minds again.
Is the music industry so different today compared to when you started?
Jim Kerr: I’ve been hearing about the death of rock and roll since the 80s. When was the last time you walked into a pub and saw a band playing? There is no pub circuit or college circuit today. Back then, pubs were where bands were created. And there are no record companies that really want to pay for a band like six people and all their salaries. It’s easier for them to have a kid with a computer and acoustics, so you could say we come from a time when rock and roll not only ruled the culture, but music also ruled the culture. While music for a lot of people now, and there are as many people listening to music now as ever before, but maybe they listen to it as some kind of utility.