Join us in Glasgow as Scotland’s biggest band look back on 40 years of massive success, retreat and resurgence.
SIMPLE MINDS had the world at their feet in the ’80s, the post-punk band who commandeered stadiums before U2. But they lost the war to their Irish rivals and spent the next two decades in retreat. Tom Doyle meets the Glaswegians on home turf as their bandwagon gathers speed once more.
as a familiar cry of “Whey-hey” sails through the cold Glasgow air. Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill, the time-served, two-man core of Simple Minds, allow themselves a smile. Wherever the singer and guitarist (both 58) go in their hometown, it seems, they are instantly recognised, tooted and whey-heyed, local heroes for more than four decades. Not that they’re strangers to the lighthearted and sometimes surreal abuse for which the Glaswegian populace is legendary. Kerr remembers that a couple of years back they were being photographed in the pair’s old south Glasgow council estate of Toryglen. A young radge wandered up and asked the singer, “You a rock star?” “Er… well…” Kerr responded. “Bet I can tell you the band you’re in…” said the young wag. “Go on, then,” the singer challenged him. “And he goes,” Kerr relates now, “‘Uh, uh… f-f-fucking Beatles!’ and ran away.” He and Burchill burst out laughing, while stood having their photograph taken outside an abandoned church in the Gorbals, the once-notorious area of Glasgow grimly famed for its acute poverty and razorwielding gangs. Both spent their earliest years a literal stone’s throw from here, before their families were decanted in the ’ 60s two miles south to the relatively modern Toryglen. At the age of eight, they first met while playing on a mound of building sand. They are two men who have known one another for half a century. Today, Kerr and Burchill take Q on a tour of their old haunts, kicking off in the Gorbals Sound recording studio where they’ve just made their 18th album, Walk Between Worlds. The building is a former youth club where as teenagers they played their first ever gig in a band called Biba Rom. This afternoon the two sit together and reminisce on the still-existing stage, as Kerr remembers, “It was somebody’s birthday party and there we were playing Heroin by The Velvet Underground.” A short people carrier drive away, they pose outside their alma mater, Holyrood Secondary School. In a house across the street, they’d rehearse with their old punk band Johnny And The Self Abusers as Pripton Weird (Kerr) and Charlie Argue (Burchill). The singer recalls one memorable practice session when their sax player couldn’t use his instrument because a mysterious culprit had relieved his bladder in it, leaving the horn “full o’ pish.” Then it’s on to the Waverley paddle steamer ferry floating on the River Clyde, where the band filmed part of the video for their 1983 hit Waterfront. No one seems to be manning the boat today, so we all sneak aboard. Five minutes later, a bloke emerges through a door holding a bucket. “Is it OK if we take some pictures here?” asks the Q photographer. “Aye, fair enough,” replies unflappable bucket bloke. “It’s funny,” says Kerr, sitting in the same spot where he once sat as a newly-famous 25- year-old. “I don’t wallow in nostalgia. I kind of chuckle at the idea of coming full circle. But I think we do carry this city with us somehow. You wouldn’t doubt that Springsteen’s from New Jersey. We know fine well that Scotland is the rock that we were cut out of.”
Two hours later and three miles east, the latest, sevenpiece incarnation of Simple Minds are running through a dress rehearsal on the stage of the Barrowland Ballroom, ahead of the first date of a tour beginning the following night where they will play Walk Between Worlds in full, along with choice hits and art-rock cuts from their past. Barrowlands, as it’s known to the natives, is a brilliantly scuzzy relic, virtually unchanged since its ’ 60s heyday. It’s a venue known the world over and particularly loved by bands who are regularly thrilled and terrified by its wildly up-for-it crowds, lobbed plastic pint pots of lager and sprung dance floor that bounces under your feet. From 1970 on and for over a decade, Barrowlands lay shuttered and empty, due to its punchy Friday night dancehall notoriety and a never-captured serial killer nicknamed Bible John who picked up his three female victims there. “Barrowlands was infamous,”
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says Kerr. “But people also spoke about it with great affection. “Growing up, I always saw that sign,” he adds, referring to the venue’s humungous street frontage, erected in 1960 to blare out its name amid flashing neon stars. “It’s an amazing throwback to the past.” The venue was closed until Simple Minds shot the live performances for the Waterfront video here, as part of a free gig for fans, leading to its reopening. “Basically, the Barrowlands has thrived ever since,” says Kerr, with pride. “Anywhere we go, if we meet the guys from the Foo Fighters or Iggy Pop, they go, ‘Aw man, the Barras, it’s fucking fantastic.’ It’s been synonymous with Simple Minds from 1983.”
At the time, Simple Minds were already five albums into their career, having quickly evolved from Johnny And The Self Abusers. That band’s final 1977 gig was staged in what Kerr remembers as a “really heavy disco” in Glasgow’s city centre named Terminal 1, where nutters would smuggle in ice skates to use as weapons. “Ice skates to a disco but there’s nae ice,” Burchill rightly points out with a laugh. “We used to call it Terrible 1.” That night, the DJ spun a copy of Donna Summer’s just-released I Feel Love. Burchill and Kerr’s minds were blown. “We went, ‘We need to get a synth… punk’s finished,’” says the singer. So began a run of highly inventive, futureheaded Simple Minds albums, from their 1979 debut Life In A Day through to 1981’ s twin LPs Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call. They were purveyors of an artful, synthy music in thrall to Krautrock and Berlin-period Bowie and Iggy. Simple Minds even met the latter two in 1979 at the fabled Rockfield residential studio in Wales, where the Glaswegian band used to make their records, editing them down from hours of speed-fuelled jams. “Iggy came in looking for a bit of hash,” remembers Burchill. “Bowie comes in wearing a black jumpsuit, holding a can of Heineken and a big bit of cheese,” says Kerr. “I think he had the munchies. Then about two in the morning, they said, ‘Oh, we’ve been working on this song and we want everybody to come and join in on the chorus.’ It was a track called Play It Safe [ from Pop’s 1980 album Soldier]. Iggy changed the words, [ adopts Iggy-ish drawl] ‘You’re too simple minded.’” “Especially in that weird, surreal
“You wouldn’t doubt that Springsteen’s from New Jersey. We know fine well that Scotland is the rock that we were cut out of.” Jim Kerr
Rockfield environment,” Burchill notes, “it was off the scale.” Arriving onstage the next night at Barrowlands, Simple Minds open their set with four songs from their inspired and productive first era, including the hypnotic, motorik disco of I Travel and Love Song. Fans from all over – Japan, Australia, America – have travelled to Glasgow to hear them debut the new album, though it’s the Scottish devotees, some of them bearing Simple Minds tattoos, who go conspicuously mental. When the famous sign outside the venue suddenly appears in electronic form on the backdrop behind the band to introduce new, Bowie-ish anthem Barrowland Star, Kerr loudly dedicates the song to “Toryglen, Glasgow!” The resulting roar threatens to blow the roof off the gaff.
Simple Minds became mainstream pop stars in 1982, with the disorientating, cut-up funk of Promised You A Miracle. It was the year when the post-punks were filling the charts with strange and artful hits. Instantly they were lumped in with the preening, teatowelon-the-head-wearing New Romantics, though in reality they were a tougher bunch who continued to tour hard in the back roads of Europe. “Those bands weren’t doing that,” Kerr stresses. “We thought we were the real deal. You had to be great live.”
“You find out a lot about yourself when you’re driving in a van past a stadium you’ve sold out, going to a club that you haven’t sold out.” Jim Kerr
But as the band’s audiences grew bigger, so did their sound, losing some of its magic and mystery in the process. By 1983, Simple Minds and U2, as friends and rivals, seemed to be locked in a battle to be the first postpunk group to become the biggest in the world. But while Simple Minds had a US Number 1 with Don’t You (Forget About Me) in 1985, at a time when U2 were still struggling for a big American hit, the Dublin band ultimately won the war. “People have said to me, ‘Did you think they’d be the biggest band in the world?” Kerr reflects. “I say, ‘Yeah, cos they told us.’ They said, ‘We’ve got this whole thing mapped out. We’re gonna get all the Irish onside in America.’ But we never strategised. I think one of the reasons why we’ve been able to survive is we’ve never had any bitterness. We would never get to the stage of thinking, ‘Well, that should’ve been fucking us.’” In the ’ 90s, Simple Minds lost their way and, by the end of that decade, Kerr had quit and moved to Sicily. “Charlie said, ‘What are you gonna be? A fucking fisherman or something?’ I went, ‘Fucking maybe. But I’m just not gonna go through with this. We can’t go around like punch-drunk boxers, just doing it cos they don’t know what else to do.’”
Come the new millennium, bands such as the Manic Street Preachers and Primal Scream began talking up Simple Minds as a key influence. Later, The Horrors’ 2011 single Still Life was essentially an homage to the Glaswegian group’s early work. “Suddenly,” says Burchill, “people who I’d never have thought were in any way remotely interested in anything we’d ever done were quoting us as their favourite band.” Simple Minds themselves decided to reconnect to their past with 2012’ s 5X5 tour, performing material from their first five albums. After years in the wilderness, first with 2014’ s Big Music and now Walk Between Worlds, they sound like a band reborn. “You find out a lot about yourself when you’re driving in a van past a stadium you’ve sold out, going to a club that you haven’t sold out,” says Kerr. “There’s been a real great head of steam building up through all those years.” Two days after Barrowlands, Q arrives at the Roundhouse in London as Simple Minds are running through their soundcheck before a sold-out show at the Camden venue. Outside, a long line of fans is already snaking down the street and around the corner. On the floor in front of the stage, a figure in a black coat and dark green baseball cap is madly grooving along as the band play their latest single, Sense Of Discovery. Turns out it’s Jim Kerr. In his mind, as he will declare from the stage later, the Roundhouse remains the scene of legendary ’ 70s gigs by his formative heroes Patti Smith and the Ramones. Now that Simple Minds are back on peak form, the pressure is on to get tonight’s show absolutely right. In his mind, there’s still everything to prove. “Sometimes I’ve felt occasionally embarrassed that we fucked this thing up,” he admits. “We have been given some kind of talent, and sometimes in a weaker period, I think, I never maximised that. So, now, I feel this breathless race is on.” Tonight, Simple Minds absolutely throw themselves at a more than willing crowd, as their new songs neatly dovetail in terms of quality with their classic material. A similarly huge cheer rises up when the Barrowlands logo appears on the screen. Over the next few weeks, Simple Minds will transport their corner of Glasgow onwards to Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin. If, unlike certain other older bands, they never seem to be phoning in their performances, according to Jim Kerr, there’s a very good reason for that. “About five minutes before I go on,” he told Q earlier, “I think, ‘Well, what are we saying here every night we go onstage?’ We’re not just saying, ‘This is our new album.’ We’re saying, ‘This next two hours… this is what we’ve done with our lives.’” Forty-plus years in and still counting. For Simple Minds, it’s too late to stop now.
Simple Minds’ current line-up (from left, Charlie Burchill, Gordy Goudie, Cherisse Osei, Ged Grimes, Jim Kerr, Sarah Brown, Catherine AD), Glasgow, 13 February, 2018.
Lucky Jim: Kerr with friend/rival Bono in Belgium, July 1983; (below) at Live Aid Philadelphia, July 1985.
Old school: Charlie and Jim visit their alma mater, February 2018.
Clyde me a river: Simple Minds move on up to the waterfront, left, in 1983 (from left, Jim Kerr, Mel Gaynor, Mick MacNeil, Charlie Burchill, Derek Forbes); right, Burchill and Kerr in 2018.
Don’t you forget about me: Jim Kerr points to the future.