03 Oct, 2005 A Meeting of Minds
Andrew Cowen talks to Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr about stardom second time around…
Way back in the 1980s, Simple Minds were one of the biggest bands on the planet. There was simply no way of avoiding them.
Like a Scottish U2, their home was the world’s largest stadiums and the band’s albums sold by the barrowload.
Fronted by Jim Kerr and instantly recognisable for Charlie Burchill’s strident guitar slashes, they scored hit single after hit single and could seemingly do no wrong.
Just like U2, they married a humanistic political stance with massive air-punching choruses. They were the very epitome of the first Live Aid generation, rubbing shoulders with Nelson Mandela and lending their influential name to all the righteous causes.
Their journey from humble punk roots to media darlings was hard won. Starting life as the shambolic Johnny and the Self Abusers, the band only began to get into their stride when they changed their name to Simple Minds and tied their punky spunk to a raft of art rock influences from Bowie to Roxy Music via the then de rigeur krautrock vibe.
Like the first incarnation of Ultravox, their was something otherworldly and post-modernly clinical about early Simple Minds.
A debut album, Life In A Day was a bit of a limp lettuce marred by weak production and overly commercial material, but a second set for Virgin, Real to Real Cacophany, saw the band starting to come into its own.
Synthetic sequences, cryptic lyrics and obtuse guitar made it an instant favourite in sixth form common rooms across the land.
Third album, Empires & Dance was even better, with the same experimental spirit given a commercial spit and polish. Opening track I Travel gave Simple Minds their first hint of a hit single.
Things began to go better with the double set Sons & Fascination / Sister Feelings Call. Produced by Steve Hillage, the album managed to include mostly classic songs, despite its long running time.
New Gold Dream (81 82 83 84) hit paydirt though and put the band in the super league. It had the same effect on their career as R.E.M’s Green or U2’s The Unforgettable Fire. Nothing would be the same again.
The band handled it well, putting in the legwork with ever-expanding tours and bigger and bolder albums. Sparkle In The Rain, Once Upon A Time and Street Fighting Years were massive sellers all. The gigs became more messianic and Jim Kerr found himself sitting at the top table of rock’s new aristocracy.
Sadly, it wasn’t to last. As the gigs became bigger, Simple Minds were forced to make the albums more anthemic and pretty quickly the powerful hooks became all posture and bluster.
When you reach the top by riding a simple formula there is nowhere else to go but down. Lacking the savvy for reinvention of U2, Simple Minds were quickly forgotten, Britpop was the final nail in the band’s coffin.
The band regrouped spasmodically but the handful of albums in the last ten years showed a band trying to bimble its way out of a cul de sac armed only with some powerchords and a vague notion of life’s injustices.
They wisely avoided the pitfalls of nostalgic package tours which have kept the soup on the table for the likes of The Human League, ABC and Spandau Ballet and quietly drifted off to various parts of Europe. Jim Kerr fetched up in Sicily where after a couple of high profile marriages to Patsy Kensit and Chrissie Hynde he seemed to have relaxed into the life of a gardener and small businessman.
Now, almost out of the blue, Simple Minds are back. Touting their strongest album in years, Black & White 050505 , they are about to embark on a UK tour which takes them away from the stadiums and back into venues where they will be able to actually see their fans.
Their timing, for once, is perfect. With Franz Ferdinand leading a new charge of Scottish artschool dilettantes and a full-on 1980s electrorock revival, the name Simple Minds is once again cool – as long as you don’t mention the later hollow albums.
Black & White 050505 sounds like the work of an old friend who’s been given a new lease of life. Familiar without flogging an old horse, it plays to all the band’s strengths and is hugely refreshing. Simple Minds, miraculously, sound relevant again.
Jim Kerr’s in upbeat spirits when I talk to him in a London hotel room. He’s also disarmingly honest. The phrase “return to form” has been bandied round in relation to the new material, so dismissing the band’s entire post-peak output. How does that make Kerr feel?
“Well, it is a return to form,” he says. “The previous decade was very stop start for us. That’s part and parcel of having a long career. The people who inspired us – David Bowie, Lou Reed – have all been through long periods when their work has not been as focussed, for whatever reason.”
With the feeling, possibly, that this was the band’s last chance, Kerr and co rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in.
“There was a concentrated effort this time,” admits Kerr. “We closed the door and said let’s get it done. We wanted to make a record that made people sit up and along the way discovered a vitality. It took a commitment creatively and also with our time.”
During the sessions, a lot of material was recorded but only 42 minutes-worth made the final cut. This was a delberate ploy. Rather than releasing a long and potentially flabby album, Simple Minds have delivered something that’s taut, melodic and memorable.
“We had some very good songs that didn’t make the album as they would have disrupted its flow. They would have stuck out. We wanted the album to be solid and focussed whereas in the past we were probably tempted to simply pile them up.”
The album was mixed by studio legend Bob Clearmountain who was responsible for the stadium mashing sound on Once Upon A Time.
This was an astute move for, as Kerr readily admits: “There is a certain style of Simple Minds song which he makes sound fantastic. Once I heard what he’d done with (first single) Home and Stay Visible, the hair on the back of my neck was starting to stand up.”
Being away from the top flight for so long, success for a second time is far from guaranteed for Simple Minds. I asked Kerr what he was hoping to achieve with the album.
“I suppose we were hoping for visibility,” he says. “Hoping that things get heard. That exercise now feels complete amd the reaction we’ve had, both nationally and inetrnationally, has been fantastic. It’s gone a long way towards reestablishing us. The new material sounds brilliant live and slots in effortlessly next to the older stuff. We now want to continue working and build on this momentum.”
Simple Minds play Birmingham Academy on Thursday February 9, 2006. For tickets call 0870 400 0688 or visit getlive.co.uk.
Simple Minds new album Black & White 050505 is out now on Sanctuary Records.