When I mentioned to a couple of muso-mates that I was reading Graeme Thomson’s superb biography of Simple Minds, their questions were pretty much identical – “I wonder if it will answer why they became so bad?”
The moment that this perceived negative transition can be probably pinpointed in my mate’s eyes to a place and time – Wembley in November 1984 when they recorded Don’t You (Forget About Me), somewhat against their own will.
If I were to sit my friends down, I suspect they would say the rot had set in with Sparkle in the Rain. The LP featured a drum sound which overwhelmed the delicacy of the remainder of the musicians. It had a second side that had fizzled out after a front loaded side A. There was a cover version of Lou Reed’s Street Hassle which wasn’t awful but didn’t feel like it needed to be so prominently featured on the follow up to their breakthrough New Gold Dream 81/82/83/84. It was probably all redeemable at face value to my friends – get a different producer, take one step back to go forward two steps.
A number of factors are evident from Thomson’s superb book. Firstly, whilst the five members of the band that recorded the first five albums were a tight unit, by the time they got to 1984, enthusiasm for a common goal had drained within the band. They were in their early 20s from working class Glasgow and were struggling to communicate and agree what that collective aspiration even might be.
For Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill, who formed the band, I sense they wanted financial freedom generated by success to do what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives, which was make music on their own terms. Brian McGee, the drummer who had been so central to the metronomic bedrock of Empires and Dance in particular, had gone. He was homesick. He wanted to be back in Glasgow with his fiancee, having a relatively normal life – house, family, security. The jack the lad bass player Derek Forbes was enjoying the fast life, cars and girls. The interest of hanging around recording studios waiting for the magic to spark had dulled. Forbes was out not long after the Breakfast Club tune had become a hit, sacked in a corporate night of the long knives the handling of which Kerr and Burchill now regret.
Mick MacNeil was the last to go, parting on good terms but bored with arena gigs, his background in traditional Scottish music supressed by the need to communicate with the people 100m from the stage.
They’d not wanted to record (Don’t You) Forget About Me. It was essentially a deal with the devil, their American record company. The US bigwigs acknowledged they hadn’t promoted their recent albums sufficiently well and committed to changing this if the band covered Keith Forsey’s song. Arms were twisted and they knocked the track out in a single day in Wembley.
I remember being at University in Liverpool at the time. Simple Minds had been a cult act amongst mates in the Black Country during the transition from Sons and Fascination to New Gold Dream. Now at Liverpool, the University Rugby crowd, the sort of jocks that took the piss out of our music taste a few years earlier were the first on the floor, fists pumping to Alive and Kicking. It was a very weird reversal.
By the time McGee and Forbes were out, America had opened up, catching up with Europe and Australia. (Don’t You) Forget About Me was number one in the US and the first gig for their new bass player John Giblin was Live Aid in Philadelphia. Jimmy Iovine produced the arena sized Once Upon A Time – the band were financially set for life. They’d had a moment to walk through the door and done so, meaning that they didn’t have to worry about mortgages, food bills, paying the electricity. In a sense, who can blame them?
Thomson pinpoints their first moment of being pop stars as the clip below. It is from the Australian pop show, Countdown. They flew from Melbourne to Sydney immediately before the recording. Jim Kerr is wearing his man bag, not having had time to ditch it as they were rushed in to mime to their new single. They were flown straight back via helicopter to play a gig in Sydney that evening. Limosines were involved too.
They’ve revisited that original muse on a few occassions. I saw them on the excellent 5×5 tour which concentrated on those early records in 2012. Forbes rejoined for the Neapolis album in the late 90s. MacNeil has recorded a few songs with them too.
Forty years on, and they have a new record out. I’ve played it through a few times. It has a couple of excellent songs. The rest can’t hold a candle to the critically acclaimed years but which bands of that longevity and success are capable of that anyway? Jim Kerr has a lovely hotel in Sicily. In preparing this article, I googled “Jim Kerr Regret”. Top of the list was that he missed buying shares in Greggs, the British bakers who are omnipresent on the high street here. He and Charlie Burchill remain fast friends. They appear to have a very good life, which in an uncertain world for previously successful musicians (and most other people) is not to be sniffed at.
Simple Minds are essentially a different band to what came before. If you want to get anything out of the music they are making now and the history matters to you, then you need to move beyond it.
In the meantime, I’m sure Kerr and Burchill will keep plugging away, doing the thing they both clearly love. Graeme Thomson’s book, Themes For Great Cities, is a fantastic read. It asks all of the questions that you would want. It describes the process and the personalities which led to the unparalleled run of albums from the Euro dread of Empires and Dance, the futuristic gauze of Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings to the Chic optimism of New Gold Dream, written and recorded in a two year period. Those bewitching transcendant wholly unique records are still regularly played here and still offer something that no other can. They felt like the future then and still do now, four decades later. This probably says as much about the pace of recent musical development as it does about the prescience of the music created.
In any event, if you are fan of the band, I would unreservedly recommend Thomson’s book. One for the Christmas list – you can buy it from Amazon here