Interview: Jim Kerr, Simple Minds

Jim Kerr
Jim Kerr
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IT MIGHT be hard to believe, but 30 years ago – before the celebrity marriages to Chrissie Hynde and Patsy Kensit, the blustery stadium rock of Belfast Child and Sanctify Yourself, and the latterday forays by frontman Jim Kerr into hotel ownership – Simple Minds were the coolest band in Britain.

And it is precisely those glory days – that golden, or rather, New Gold Dream moment – that Simple Minds will be recapturing later this month when they play in Glasgow as part of their 5 X 5 European tour. The band will perform five tracks from each of their newly reissued first five albums, ones that for once richly deserve that much overused term “seminal”.

Mandatory Credit: Photo By Sipa Press / Rex Features'Simple Minds with Jim Kerr in 1985

Mandatory Credit: Photo By Sipa Press / Rex Features'Simple Minds with Jim Kerr in 1985

Not for nothing have everyone from The Horrors to Primal Scream, and Manic Street Preachers to Moby, been queuing up to pay lip service to those records – Life In A Day, Real To Real Cacophony, Empires And Dance, Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call and New Gold Dream (81/82/ 83/84) – that Simple Minds made in a brief but brilliant burst of electronic pop invention between 1979 and 1982.

It was a period when it seemed as though – as Kerr sang on Simple Minds’ 1982 breakthrough hit Promised You A Miracle – “Everything is possible”.

That feeling of belief in the possibilities of performance and success, travel and imagination, first came to Kerr and his schoolfriend (and, later, Minds-mate) Charlie Burchill even before they formed short-lived punk band Johnny & The Self Abusers. It was when they were still teenagers living in a Toryglen tower block in Glasgow’s Southside, dropping acid and listening to Yes and Genesis, The Stooges and Stevie Wonder, Hawkwind and Van Der Graaf Generator.

“What I loved was being up in the air and looking out over the city,” he recalls. “I was convinced I could see the whole world. Not that I wanted to dominate that world, but I loved the idea that there was stuff going on out there. And that’s what we were getting from the music. We had a great imagination. And those bands were all feeding this imagination. We had a real desire to brush up against it all.”

Simple Minds may have had a track, from 1980s’ Empires And Dance album, called This Fear Of Gods, but they had no trepidation about reaching a level of enormity that would see them enjoying, circa their iconic appearance at Live Aid, almost messianic status on a par with U2 (those other self-confessed Minds fans who made The Unforgettable Fire under the influence of New Gold Dream).

But even in their early days, when they were seen as derivative synth-pop new wavers on a par with Gary Numan, they always aimed big.

“There was a size to our music,” agrees Kerr, remembering the larger venues the band began to play in the early 80s. “It worked in those places. We weren’t trying to blow it up.”

Simple Minds never recoiled from accusations of pomp and bombast; in fact, they relished them, partly due to the fact that, as well as the proto-punk of The Stooges and MC5, they spent their formative years high on hallucinogenics, immersed in the grandiose meanderings of the prog brigade.

“That’s what happens when you grow up with Pink Floyd and Yes – you’re not intimidated,” he laughs. “We were slated as pompous, but that was just idiots taking a guess from a distance. I would never apologise for trying too hard. The idea of having ambition – why the hell not? You’re putting out music, presumably for people to hear, and presumably the more the merrier?”

Kerr and Co first seized upon the idea of a panoramic, widescreen electronic dance music that drew on early 70s prog and krautrock and the late 70s experiments by David Bowie and Brian Eno in Berlin as well as New York funk and disco, after hearing Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s 1977 single I Feel Love, a record that merits that other much-maligned epithet, “seismic”.

“That was a pivotal moment,” says Kerr. “We were still playing as Johnny & The Self Abusers, and we were about to go on stage at this really violent discotheque called The Terminal 1. And I was loaded on cheap wine and speed, terrified but full of Dutch courage, when the DJ put on this 12-inch record. I was transfixed. I remember thinking, ‘Punk’s finished.’ And within a week we’d brought our first synthesiser.”

If Life In A Day (1979) was a tentative debut – Kerr actually now concedes that it was “a colossal disappointment” when measured against the landmark albums of that year, such as Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, PiL’s Metal Box and Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music – then the follow-up, Real To Real Cacophony, released only nine months later, was a considerable advance, and a sign of the new European electronica to come.

“Movies, books, they all fed into what we were doing,” explains Kerr. “Back then, if you read a Bowie album review there would be references in it to some German sculptor or art movement, and you’d be like, ‘I’ve got to check this out!’ ”

It was an era when alternative bands were plugged into arthouse cinema and philosophy, when “pretentious” wasn’t a slur. And Simple Minds’ music reflected the breadth of their passions, their song titles often reading like scenes from a fast-paced European film.

“There were movies in our head,” says Kerr. “By 1980, we’d been round Europe three or four times, and our eyes were wide open. We’d visit the galleries and art exhibitions and parks, but at the same time we’d be aware that someone had blown up the train station in Rome or the Paris synagogue where we’d just been, we’d be in Germany at the time of Baader-Meinhof or in Spain when the Basque separatists hit. Meanwhile, in Britain there were riots. There was something in the air, and those elements of danger and beauty came together in our music.”

By 1981, Simple Minds were sufficiently emboldened to release two albums simultaneously – Sons And Fascination and Sister Feelings Call (with attendant blurry, this-is-the-modern-world sleeves). The original intention had been for them to be issued as a double set; unfortunately it was deemed too expensive to do so by their new record label, Virgin. Nevertheless, the sense of a band poised on the edge of greatness was strong, right from the opening statement of intent, in Trance As Mission.

“It was like, ‘This is it, here are the young men,’ ” says Kerr. “We had a sense that maybe we could be one of the bands of our generation. I remember walking through London at 3am with my Sony Walkman on, listening to tracks from the album, and it was really exciting.”

If Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call were, as Kerr puts it, “claustrophobic, brooding and edgy, almost like storm clouds gathering”, then their next album, 1982’s New Gold Dream, was the light after the darkness. It remains a shining celebration of ambition and adventure.

“That was a great year for us,” he sighs at the memory. “For the first time we had gold discs and we were being played on the radio. We thought, ‘Maybe we could be big.’ It was a time of ‘new pop’, as [music journalist] Paul Morley coined it, of groups like the Associates, Human League, Depeche Mode, ABC and New Order. It was a fantastic time when bands wanted to be on the cover of Smash Hits as well as NME.”

The sleeve of New Gold Dream captured the quasi-religious euphoria expressed in the music. “The image of the cross shocked us,” he admits, “but we couldn’t deny it felt right and, more to the point, looked striking and beautiful. He [designer Malcolm Garrett] was tripping on the music and lyrics, and the idea of faith, of mysticism and spirituality. He felt that from what he was hearing and it influenced his work.”

So much for the past. Is Kerr looking forward to revisiting Simple Minds’ five early peaks in a few weeks?

“Yeah,” he says. “Because those songs still stand up. Recently we played Celebrate live for the first time in 28 years and our management were like, ‘What’s this new song? It’s great!’ And that’s the thing about the 5 X 5 gigs: it’s not about trying to go back to some outfit who don’t fit any more. A lot of current bands are drawing from that period; it sounds contemporary again.

“The challenge is to, as far as possible, evoke the spirit of those early days without sounding retro. If we get it right, it should be a great night.” «

Simple Minds play the Barrowland, Glasgow, on 25 February.