Scotland’s Simple Minds are famous in America for their number one hit, 1985’s “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” But that song, featured in the John Hughes film The Breakfast Club, is a small piece of Simple Minds. Six of the band’s albums, for instance, reached number one in the United Kingdom. Simple Minds albums also topped charts across the globe, including Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Australia and New Zealand.
In February, Simple Minds released Walk Between Worlds, the band’s seventeenth studio album. In the U.K., The Sunday Times named it the best Simple Minds music in decades. The Daily Mail cited the album’s “unwavering energy” and “gallivanting grandeur.” In the U.S., Paste noted that singer Jim Kerr’s “fearlessness permeates this album.” Walk Between Worlds, the Paste review continued, is “a wonderful collection of dramatic, thoughtful songs that contains messages that can serve both personal and universal concerns.”
Simple Minds co-founders Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill grew up in Glasgow. When Burchill’s elder brother wasn’t around, they listened to his record collection on the sly. After Kerr and Burchill were old enough to work afterschool and Saturday jobs, they spent their money on concert tickets. Their early concert experiences included David Bowie, Roxy Music, Lou Reed, Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, the Who and the Peter Gabriel–era Genesis.
In 1977, Kerr and Burchill launched Johnny & the Self-Abusers, a punk outfit that quickly crashed and burned. Influenced by Magazine, an early post-punk band from Manchester that combined artistry and theatricality with punk verve, Kerr and Burchill formed Simple Minds in 1978. Next year will be the 40th anniversary of their album debut, Life in a Day.
Between 1979 and 1984, the prolific Simple Minds released six albums. After 1985’s “Don’t You (Forget About Me”), the band rivaled U2 in popularity. But Simple Minds didn’t sustain stadium-level success in the 1990s. A revival of Simple Minds, however, happened in the twenty-first century.
Simple Minds are currently on a 30-plus-date tour of the U.S. that includes the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans on November 6. The morning after the trek’s first show, Kerr spoke to OffBeat.
How do feel about playing an extended North American tour for the first time in many years?
My apology for the gap is one of the first things I say on stage. The reasons for it are manifold. We’re always excited about playing live and touring, but it makes it doubly so to finally get a chance to go extensively, as this tour in North America is going. It’s something we weren’t sure we were ever going to do again. So, it’s great that we’re here, because we always wanted to be here again.
Why do you think your popularity in the U.S. didn’t always parallel your success in the U.K. and other countries?
It was always a little out of kilter in America. We released five albums before we even got a deal here. Those first years of the band, we were knocking albums out every nine months. But in America we were knocking our heads, touring and touring. We were building a good foundation here, at colleges and all that stuff, but we weren’t getting any mainstream action.
But then came “Don’t You (Forget About Me).”
It blew up with the combination of the John Hughes movie and the song, MTV and Live Aid. Suddenly MTV put us into every household. You wouldn’t have got us complaining about that. But if ever it was a wrong time, it was a wrong time for us. Because we had been working six or seven years and we were almost dead on our feet. So, it meant that the next album took a few years in the making.
You’re speaking of 1989’s Street Fighting Years?
The record company hated it. They wanted “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” part two, I guess. And who could blame them? But we had moved on from that sound. We were writing songs about the big issues. Now you would say Street Fighting Years is a political album. It didn’t really get promotion here, so we didn’t come to America. And then in the ’90s, in some sense, the band’s wheels came off. We never gave up, but some of the key members left. And before we knew it a long time had passed. And with that so had our star power.
You didn’t want to tour the U.S. in a smaller sort of way?
We didn’t want to come in some ’80s package thing. We didn’t want to come diminished. We said, ‘We’ll hold our ground.’ We might get a chance again one day to bring a good, good show and all that. And lo and behold here we are.
Did your popularity in the U.K. and Europe decline as well?
There were dips. The ’90s, we really didn’t do much. Like Paul Simon says, every generation throws its heroes up the pop charts.
But you weren’t ready to let Simple Minds go?
First of all, we had to decide if we were up for it ourselves. I mean, we’re greedy so-and-sos. Not only did we want all of this, we wanted a life outside of this. So, time had to made for children and all the stuff that gives everyone balance.
You eventually decided you wanted to be more active in music?
Coming back, we had to roll up our sleeves. I would say, in the past 15 years, we asked ourselves, ‘All right. What are we in this for?’ We’re in it for the sake of it. For making music and for playing live. And we’re gonna do it for the good, the bad, the ugly. And it’s gone from strength to strength.
Is the friendship you and Charlie share at the heart of Simple Minds?
I’m so used to saying ‘we’ for almost everything now. Charlie and I are not only songwriting partners and the founder members of Simple Minds. We go back to the age of 8. And we still retain that friendship. Although it’s usually my big head that gets in the papers, Charlie is very much a part of this.
What were some of the early musical experiences you shared with Charlie?
When we were teens, we were very lucky because Charlie’s elder brother, James, had the record collection. He was the cool guy. We weren’t allowed to touch his records, but of course we would.
And then you and Charlie began to attend concerts?
Once that started, well, our passion was really ignited. And that led to us picking up instruments ourselves and trying to work out how to write songs and all that stuff. And that’s how the band started.
That’s when you formed the punk band Johnny & the Self-Abusers?
The only good things about Johnny & the Self-Abusers were the name and that we released only one single and we split up the same day the single was released. You can’t get more nihilistic than that. It was more a satire than a serious thing, but we still reckon Johnny & the Self-Abusers, despite all the fooling around, was the catalyst. The impetus, the energy of punk, the madness of punk made us get up and plug in and jump up and down. Somewhere within the joy of doing that we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we did this for real.’ And that led to Simple Minds.
Magazine, a band in Manchester that featured Howard Devoto, a former member of the Buzzcocks, was a major inspiration for Simple Minds.
They’d added a musicality to the punky attitude. We thought, ‘That’s where it’s at.’ Magazine was the sort of North Star we followed when we put our band together. We could identify with Magazine. People like Jim Morrison and David Bowie, we identified with their music, but they were from another planet. Magazine, like us, manifested out of the punk scene.
Did it take some time for Simple Minds to find the band’s sound?
I would love to be one of these bands that just arrived with a glorious debut. And there it is, it’s all formed. The Smiths were like that, even Patti Smith was like that. Nothing sounded like that ever before. But that wasn’t to be in our case. We had to really work our influences, shape our influences. We used them as soil from which to grow something of ourselves. People started referring to the Simple Minds sound around New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) album. The title is kind of perfect because that’s when the alchemy of our influences and own imagination came together and we emerged with our own vision.
Your musical partnership with Charlie reminds me of John Lennon and Paul McCartney from Liverpool, Johnny Marr and Morrissey from Manchester and other British bands.
It was a kind of working class, blue-collar thing. Some of the more arty bands met at art school and university, but in the cases that you mentioned, rock bands usually grew up around a singer–frontman who hooks up with a guitar player. Morrissey and Marr in the Smiths and it goes on. But quite often they end up hating each other.
How have you and Charlie managed to stay friends and collaborators for 40 years?
I guess we both have this, as yet, unending passion for it. Sometimes the passion hits the rocks. But in general, this is not even a career anymore—it’s what we’ve done with our lives. Although it took me the longest time to understand it, I’ve come to realize there are sprinters and there are marathon men. We’re in the latter category.