Simple Minds are one of the UK’s most successful bands, having achieved six No.1 albums in the UK as well hitting the top spot in countless other territories including Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Australia and New Zealand.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is that people say to me what Simple Minds are you talking about? The avant-garde, the art-rock, the pop, the ambient, the instrumental group, the political, the folk, the stadium band? We’ve been on one hell of a journey. To play all those different styles but at the same time be quintessentially Simple Minds is an amazing thing.” Jim Kerr.
SIMPLE MINDS – 40 ICONIC YEARS
Simple Minds have been musical pioneers for 40 glittering years. Catching the mood of the post-punk era, when the angry sounds of 1977 were splintering into a thousand different shapes, they emerged with a style rooted in the art-rock of David Bowie and the electronic dance of Donna Summer. They went on to become one of the great bands of their generation, deploying rousing choruses and booming atmospherics to provide a soundtrack that has endured.
They topped the American chart with Don’t You (Forget About Me) and followed suit in the UK with the Ballad Of The Streets EP (featuring Belfast Child). In selling over 60 million records, they have seen three of their 20 studio albums reach number one in the UK – Sparkle In The Rain, Once Upon A Time and Street Fighting Years – a chart-topping feat equalled by their live album Live In The City Of Light and the compilation Glittering Prize. A spellbinding touring band, they have graced the world’s biggest stadiums. They starred at Live Aid and played three momentous London shows in honour of Nelson Mandela.
The past decade has also seen a remarkable resurgence, their world-class credentials acknowledged by a Q magazine Inspiration award in 2014 and an Ivor Novello in 2016. They are now marking their 40th anniversary with a world tour, live album and career-spanning compilation. As their recent albums Big Music, Simple Minds Acoustic and Walk Between Worlds have shown, they remain a band touched by magic – willing to experiment while remaining true to their original instincts.
The roots of Simple Minds were humble. Coalescing around the talent of childhood friends Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill, they emerged from the ashes of Glasgow punk outfit Johnny & The Self-Abusers in November 1977. In true punk fashion, the Self-Abusers – ‘atrocious and amateur’ according to Jim – released one independent single, Saints And Sinners, and split up the same day. Two weeks later, singer Kerr and guitarist Burchill started Simple Minds, taking their name from a line in Bowie’s The Jean Genie. The duo, augmented by keyboardist Mick MacNeil, bassist Derek Forbes and drummer Brian McGee, retained punk’s D-I-Y spirit, but were keen to look beyond the genre’s three-chord limitations. For them, punk was a springboard rather than a template. Says Jim: ‘From the moment we first heard a DJ playing the 12-inch version of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, I knew we had to find a local musician with a synthesizer. As we got going, we soon realised there were a clutch of other bands, like Siouxsie And The Banshees, The Cure and Magazine, who were also moving away from punk.’
The band hooked up with a manager, Bruce Findlay, and used their interest in electronic music to experiment with rhythm and texture. A debut album, Life In A Day, emerged on Findlay’s independent Zoom label, backed by the distribution muscle of Arista, in April 1979. Leaning on Roxy Music, the album and its attendant single Chelsea Girl showcased a group still finding their feet. Much the same applied to its sequel Real To Real Cacophony, released seven months later. Darker and less conventional, it yielded the single Changeling and signalled the start of a fascination with European culture that became more pronounced on 1980’s impressionistic Empires And Dance. Inspired by the industrial rhythms of Neu!, Kraftwerk and Cabaret Voltaire, Empires And Dance mixed synthetic sounds with Charlie’s electric guitars to produce the first fully-realised Simple Minds album. ‘It took us a couple of albums to rise above our influences, but by Empires And Dance we were flying’ says Jim.
The angular, industrial edges of Empires And Dance were refined on The American, the group’s first single for new label Virgin. Showing they were determined to set their own agenda, Simple Minds then released their fourth and fifth albums – Sons And Fascination and Sister Feelings Call – simultaneously. The latter was initially included as a bonus disc with the first 10,000 copies of Sons And Fascination, but was then re-issued in its own right. Reiterating how quickly the band were moving forwards, the albums were produced by Steve Hillage, guitarist with progressive rock group Gong, with whom they shared an interest in German electronica. The albums yielded a hit single, Love Song, and the trance-like instrumental Theme For Great Cities, a track which proved so enduring it was re-recorded as a B-side to the 1991 single See The Lights. Unlike most of their post-punk peers, Simple Minds also toured relentlessly, supporting Peter Gabriel (a fan of Empires And Dance) and spending hours traversing Europe’s highways in their own right.
The band assumed a global presence with New Gold Dream (81,82,83,84), their first UK Top Ten album, in 1982. With songs like Someone Somewhere (In Summertime) and Glittering Prize, the album added a sense of lyrical exaltation that chimed with the optimistic musical spirit of the time. In Promised You A Miracle, a single influenced by the funk and rap the band were hearing on New York radio, it also contained their first ‘pure pop song’. With new drummer Mel Gaynor on board and jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock a guest on Hunter And The Hunted, it was clear that Simple Minds were changing musically as they developed into a global force. ‘If Empires And Dance was our first landmark album, then New Gold Dream sealed the deal,’ says Jim. The latter was followed by 1984’s Sparkle In The Rain, a more rock-orientated record characterised by the singles Up On The Catwalk, Speed Your Love To Me and Waterfront. Their first UK chart-topper, it pushed the band onto bigger stages, where they found themselves sharing the spotlight with their contemporaries U2 – sometimes quite literally, with U2’s Bono joining them at the Barrowland in Glasgow and Croke Park in Dublin.
Another massive single arrived the following year with Don’t You (Forget About Me). Recorded for the John Hughes film The Breakfast Club, which starred Molly Ringwald and Emilio Estevez, the song was written by producer Keith Forsey and musician Steve Schiff, of the Nina Hagen band, but it was the epic performance of Simple Minds that made it memorable. The single paved the way for a sixth album, Once Upon A Time. Produced by rock legends Jimmy Iovine and Bob Clearmountain, Once Upon A Time added celebratory soul and gospel to the band’s shimmering arena rock on Alive And Kicking and Sanctify Yourself. The group went from strength to strength live too, playing in front of 135,000 fans – and a TV audience of millions – on the American leg of Live Aid in Philadelphia.
The band were also the first to sign up to play Nelson Mandela‘s 70th birthday concert at Wembley Stadium in 1988. Organised by producer Tony Hollingsworth and Jerry Dammers, of The Special AKA, the event was conceived to raise awareness of the plight of African National Congress leader Mandela, imprisoned by South Africa’s apartheid regime. As well as performing the song Biko with their old touring partner Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds wrote a new song, Mandela Day, for the event. Released on the Ballad Of The Streets EP alongside Belfast Child, it gave them their first UK number one single. ‘Jerry came to see us in Glasgow and we agreed to take part within a heartbeat of being asked,’ says Jim. ‘We wrote Mandela Day to make it an artistic statement too. I’m proud we had the chutzpah to do that, as it’s hard to write a political song without sounding trite.’
Moving into the Nineties, Simple Minds remained a commanding live act. They continued to tour and were voted the world’s best live band by Q magazine in 1991. In the studio, a string of eclectic albums ensued. Real Life explored a softer sound, Good News From The Next World was the band’s last album under their original deal with Virgin and Néapolis harked back to their electronic pop roots. But, despite this steady trickle of studio activity, the whirlwind pace of the band’s imperial phase began to ease, with Jim retreating to his adopted home in Sicily and Charlie basing himself 500 miles away in Rome. ‘We hadn’t stopped between 1977 and 1989,’ says Jim. ‘Then, as a new generation emerged – The Stone Roses, Blur, Oasis – it was time for us to wind down a little. There was no desire to make music and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure where we fitted in anymore.’
But the creative urges eventually came back. After paying homage to their heroes by covering songs originally by Roxy Music, Bowie, Kraftwerk and others on 2001’s Neon Lights, Simple Minds toured extensively between 2002 and 2004. With momentum building, they then pushed forward with Black & White 050505 – an album named in part after its release date of 5 May 2005. A further tribute to Nelson Mandela, in Hyde Park, came in 2008, with another studio album, Graffiti Soul, arriving the following year. The reawakening gathered even greater pace with 2012’s X5 box set, 5X5 tour and 5X5 Live double album, a batch of retrospective projects that revisited the band’s early albums. They were a timely reminder of the band’s ongoing appeal and a springboard for the burst of creativity that has since ensued. As Jim says: ‘We had kept a low profile, but the music found its place again – a new generation saw its relevance.’
By the time of 2014’s new studio album, Big Music, Simple Minds were once more firing on all cylinders. Working with collaborators old (Steve Hillage) and new (Iain Cook of Chvrches), the band were on a creative roll. Big Music revisited the widescreen styles of old, but also contained Jim’s most personal lyrics to date. Honest Town, inspired by memories of his mother, was a dream-like travelogue through his childhood stomping grounds on Glasgow’s South Side. Mojo magazine called the record the band’s best in 30 years. Big Music was followed two years later by a first acoustic album, an unscheduled detour on which Simple Minds added fresh nuance to hits such as Promised You A Miracle by rearranging them in a softer style. For the subsequent acoustic tour, Jim and Charlie were joined by bassist Ged Grimes, acoustic guitarist Gordy Goudie, new percussionist Cherisse Osei and long-term singer Sarah Brown. The lessons learnt making Simple Minds Acoustic were also put to excellent use on the group’s next studio album proper. Walk Between Worlds, released in 2018, added even greater subtlety to a lean sound now shorn of its big, booming drums, allowing more room for Charlie’s intricate guitar work. A concise affair lasting just 42 minutes, the album put its onus on Jim and Charlie’s songwriting. Magic revisited new wave dance grooves. Barrowland Star, written about the Glasgow ballroom that has hosted so many memorable Simple Minds shows, featured dramatic orchestrations recorded at Abbey Road. For the ensuing tour, Jim and Charlie worked with a fluid group of musicians that were, in Jim’s words, ‘more like Sly & The Family Stone than a traditional rock band’.
The 150-plus shows Simple Minds played around the world in 2017 and 2018 included their biggest ever American tour, a 31-date trek from one coast to the other. With an extensive campaign now underway to mark the 40th anniversary of Life In A Day, the band are issuing a 40-track live album from that tour. Recorded at the Orpheum in Los Angeles in October 2018, Live In The City Of Angels features songs dating from 1980’s Empires And Dance to Walk Between Worlds plus covers of Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town and Prince’s The Cross. Augmenting the live album, a new compilation – Simple Minds 40: The Best Of 1979-2019 – is also being released. Alongside re-mastered versions of hits, the latter contains a new, string-driven cover of the song For One Night Only from Fife singer King Creosote‘s 2014 album From Scotland With Love. The anniversary is also being marked by a tour that will take in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, with further dates to be confirmed. The activity is certain to enhance a legacy that has already seen the Manic Street Preachers, The Horrors, Moby and others cite Simple Minds as an inspiration. Four decades on, they are still very much alive and kicking.
‘The truth is we never fully wound down,’ says Charlie. ‘But the perception that we’re now gathering pace is down to our attitude to playing live. There have been lots of different incarnations of Simple Minds, but we’ve always kept our identity. A legacy can be a burden if you allow it to be. For us, it’s been empowering.’
‘Simple Minds are different now,’ adds Jim. ‘We’re not a stock rock band, but we haven’t changed our line-up to be cool. We’ve done it because it’s great to have so many amazing players on board. I’m grateful for the career we’ve had, but I’m mad enough to think we can still hit new levels. This is what we do – write, record and play live.’
The rise and rebirth of Simple Minds continues…
Simple Minds are Jim Kerr, Charlie Burchill and a selection of very talented collaborators including Ged Grimes, Sarah Brown, Gordy Goudie and Cherisse Osei.