Don’t you – think of Simple Minds as a heritage act.
Unlike other bands that formed in the late ‘70s, this Glasgow alt-rock group doesn’t do nostalgia package tours. It releases new studio albums semi-regularly and still retains the original creative core of singer Jim Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill.
“I’ve never criticized anyone for taking opportunities. We’ve been offered those [kind of tours] a million times, but we don’t want to be a retro thing,” said Kerr, in a recent phone interview from Paris.
“We’ll always be known from a certain time and a place, yet we want to be a great band that has transcended periods and decades and continued.”
Simple Minds is best known in America for “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” from The Breakfast Club soundtrack, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1985 (side note: a new deluxe Criterion Collection of the film was just released on home video and a cover snippet of the tune can currently be heard in a State Farm TV commercial). The group’s run of more than a dozen U.K. top 20 singles actually began three years prior with “Promised You a Miracle,” “Glittering Prize” and “Waterfront.”
Worldwide best-seller Once Upon a Time was critically maligned in ‘85 for being too slick at the time, but it connected with audiences in a large way. The album spawned such top 10 AOR radio hits here as “Alive and Kicking,” “Sanctify Yourself” and “All the Things She Said,” and the band performed during the Live Aid broadcast at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium.
“I love that album,” admits Kerr. “What a success! We went to America, worked with Jimmy Iovine and Bob Clearmountain. Before we’d even recorded a note, we were getting criticized for selling out. You know, that was the sound we wanted. The best sounding records were getting made in America. We wanted the chance to go and work there. It all added up.”
While making the stellar new album Walk Between Worlds, Kerr was keenly aware the 40th Anniversary of Simple Minds’ first live gig was looming in early 2018. He said the last thing they wanted was for Worlds to come across like a relic from the past.
“It should sound like you’re a bunch of teenagers still having a ball.”
Still, there was a fine balance between being able to “maintain the classic things, but at the same time, you want it to be refreshed and have a feeling of being contemporary.”
Kerr says “the goal is always to make better songs and to be a better singer. When you’ve got a catalog or a legacy, sometimes you’re competing against that.”
A propulsive “Magic,” driven by Burchill’s trademark ringing guitar sound, opens the album. Kerr has described the alluring “Utopia” as a cross between latter-period Roxy Music and his own band’s 1982 LP, New Gold Dream (81/82/83/84).
From the start, the Scottish singer said it had “that ‘Avalon’ thing about it. Even the title. The whole myth of Avalon is otherworldly. The very notion of utopia is also somewhat otherworldly. It’s a mysterious part of music. The song is about praising the effect of music.”
Then there’s the epic “Barrowland Star,” inspired by Glasgow’s music venue The Barrowlands and its star-emblazoned ceiling. As subtle orchestration swells, Kerr and Sarah Brown join for a memorable chorus and Burchill outdoes himself on the ending guitar solo.
“I was pushing and pushing” for that, recalls Kerr. “He thought it was getting a bit overblown. I said, ‘no, we can afford that. This is calling out for the big treatment. That big widescreen cinematic sound…You don’t hear guitar solos like that much these days. You don’t hear Charlie shouting from the rooftops as he’s doing. He’s also emoting. To me, you can hear lots of Mick Ronson and all his heroes there in that solo. I think it’s wonderful.”
The title track also uses orchestration to fine effect. It was done at London’s Abbey Road Studios, a place that the front man compares to a “sacred temple.” Watching classical musicians record it and just “being in that room” brought back memories of Life in a Day. Simple Minds’ 1979 debut LP was partially made there with producer John Leckie (previously a tape operator/engineer for Pink Floyd and various Beatles solo albums).
Back then, the still-teenaged Kerr felt he wasn’t worthy enough for such hallowed halls.
“As a treat, we scrimped and saved so we could have a weekend at Abbey Road. John thought that would be mind-blowing. Indeed, it was. Half the band raised [their playing level] and were really inspired. I went the other way: I was overwhelmed. I shrunk. I thought, ‘that Mellotron over there, they used that on ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.’ What are we doing here? Who needs music from us?’ Suddenly we were in the major league and I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t enjoy it the first-time round. I certainly enjoyed it this time round.”
Another highlight of the new album is the dreamy “Sense of Discovery,” where Kerr and Sarah Brown’s singing in the chorus is a close counterpart to what he did with the inimitable Robin Clark on “Alive & Kicking.”
Since the 2010s, Simple Minds has steadily expanded. Now a sextet, the current lineup is making its all-electric debut this month during a foray across the U.K. and Europe (some stripped-down live dates there for Acoustic took place in 2016-17). An American tour hasn’t happened in nearly five years. Kerr says they’ve been holding out for the right double bill because they want to play all around the country.
Although longtime drummer Mel Gaynor – whose on and off membership dates back to 1982 – contributed to songs on Walk Between Worlds, his latest departure was a result of the guys getting “a wee bit distant over the last couple years” and wanting to work more on his own solo material.
“When we did the acoustic [album and tour], I don’t think Mel would mind me saying that it just wasn’t his thing.”
Yet Kerr acknowledged “the door’s never closed, people are never ostracized or anything. Mel’s incredible.
“From the early days, once a couple of the initial guys started to drift off, we thought, ‘let’s not get tied down. Let’s always try to work with great people, but when it gets tired, let’s up and change,’” recalls Kerr.
With new drummer Cherisse Osei, keyboardist Catherine Anne Davies and backing vocalist Brown all in the group now, there’s a strong feminine influence in Simple Minds like never before.
“It was more coincidence that they were women, to be honest,” admitted Kerr. “When we grew up, all bands were a bunch of males. It was all very testosterone. Later on, I actually married a woman, Chrissie Hynde, who rocks. I should’ve known from Day One that women can do it better than anyone.”
Thinking specifically about Osei, he added, “I’m pretty sure if Prince was still around, he’d want to steal her in a second.”
The first-ever Acoustic album/tour stemmed from a Swiss ski resort owner that had been bugging the band to play there unplugged and offering loads of money. Finally, the musicians relented and found some songs “revealed themselves to be much better than we ever thought they were. With a lot of them, it was the time, the production, the place, the style. Breaking them down to the chords and sentiments, there was a profundity that we didn’t expect.”
A bonus live track on the deluxe version of Worlds serves as an example of that tour: it’s an enchanting cover of Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town.”
As for the 40 years since that first Simple Minds show, back then, Kerr felt many of their idols like David Bowie and Roxy Music hadn’t been recording that long, yet already seemed to have been around forever.
“The idea that things could stretch into decades and all that, no one did it apart from the old American blues guys. They were the ones you looked at and said, ‘they’ve done it through good and bad. It’s a lifetime vocation. I have to assume somewhat similarly that’s been the case with us now.”
Kerr’s confidence as a front man didn’t come straight away. Instead, his fellow musicians “gave me courage from the early days that no other person in my life did. I didn’t walk down the street with that kind of swagger. I loved Charlie’s guitar from the first time he plugged it in.
“Even at those early gigs – this is where it is mysterious and why I feel blessed – people went wild.”
So, the band knew something was going right.
“We were making a connection. We didn’t have our chops together and we didn’t have the craft. We had to learn all of that. I remember when we got our record deal about a year later, being so excited about that, but then thinking, ‘what are these things called songs?’ We knew we were making a great noise, but there was nothing [to compare us to]. You couldn’t go on YouTube and see how it’s done…you had to invent something that was intrinsically yours.”
The longstanding musical partnership between Kerr and Burchill can be tied to fact that they met as children and later shared similar music interests.
“That’s been [our] huge bond ever since then. We met playing in the street. We were eight. Music wasn’t in our life yet. By the age of 13 at school, in those days, you started to work out which tribe you’re a member of. It was obvious that Charlie and I would be in the same tribe because we walked around with the same albums under our sleeves. It was like having a billboard. The kids you gravitated toward were the people that liked Lou Reed and Roxy Music and David Bowie. One day, Charlie said, ‘I got a guitar. Come on up.’ I went over and that was the beginning.”
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