Simple Minds Go Straight For Your Heart

With a striking new album, Jim Kerr reflects on his band’s timeless trajectory

Simple Minds can easily be considered a modern pop institution.

Formed in the aftermath of punk’s prime insurgence, they marked a rebirth of prog with songs that soared on anthemic overreach. In the process, they made an ascent to the top of the charts, courtesy of their breakout hit, “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” which was included in the John Hughes film The Breakfast Club, and subsequent successes with singles like “Glittering Prize” (1982), “Someone Somewhere (In Summertime)” (1982), “Waterfront” (1983) and “Alive and Kicking” (1985).

In addition, they scored a string of smash albums, all of which reached number one in the UK — New Gold Dream 81-82-83-84 (1982), Sparkle in the Rain (1984), Once Upon a Time (1985), Live in the City of Light (1987), Street Fighting Years (1989) and Glittering Prize 81/92 (1992), for a total of more than 60 million albums sold. It also made them the one of the most successful bands of the 1980s, a status further affirmed by the 2016 Ivor Novello Award given them for Outstanding Song Collection from the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors, their various MTV Video Music Award nominations, a pair of Brit Award nominations, an American Music Award nomination, a pair of ASCAP Pop Music Awards, and the Q Inspiration Award for their overall contribution to the music industry in general. 

 

VIDEO: Simple Minds “First You Jump”

Notably then, the band refuses to rest on its laurels. Their last album, 2018’s Walk Between Worlds, was so well received, it was praised as an Album of the Week by the London Times. Their new effort, Direction of the Heart, continues to rise in that triumphant trajectory, courtesy of a set of songs driven by data and determination. Although it retains the intrigue and imagination so inherent to the Simple Minds mantra, the songs never sound like they’ve been recycled or repurposed. The 18th album of their 45 year career, it’s as invigorated and inspired as every one of their earlier endeavors.

These days, singer Jim Kerr and guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Charlie Burchill remain the nucleus of the band, with newer recruits Ged Grimes (bass), Charisse Osei (drums), Sarah Brown (backing vocals), Gordy Goudie (additional guitar & keyboards) and Berenice Scott (keyboards) filling out the roster. 

Notably, the origins of the new album can be traced to a period when Kerr was caring for his father in Glasgow and in need of something creative to distract himself at the time. The pent-up emotion contributed to the album’s sweeping sound and resulted in a powerful performance piece that finds a nice fit with the band’s history overall. 

“I’m really delighted that you like the record,” Kerr responded when that admiration was expressed in a transatlantic Zoom call. “We never take that for granted. When we started the record, there was that situation with Dad, and then not so long after that there was the whole pandemic thing as well. It was mind boggling to say the least. Dad lived only 15 minutes walk and when we just started out, he was the one that that gave us the first 100 pounds to make the demo tape and the cassettes that I then hitchhiked with to London. And subsequently, we got the record deal and that’s the reason we’re still here, which he probably reminded me about that on a weekly basis. He’d also reminds me that’d he hadn’t been paid back yet. And there was a quantifiable amount of interest that accumulated. So when it became apparent that he was really ill, the last thing he wanted was us to be sitting around and moping and he was all about getting back to work. Get back to work and that was important to him. So we did.”

There are other connections to the past as well. The final song on the album, “The Walls Came Down,” written by the late Michael Been of The Call, dates back to 1983 and was first heard when The Call supported Simple Minds on tour in the United States. Notably, Simple Minds covered another song by The Call in 2014’s Big Music, a track titled “Let the Day Begin.” That said, it’s consistency that’s always marked the band’s evolution. Inevitably, Simple Minds still retains the signature sound — specifically, the big arrangements that underscore Kerr’s compelling croon — which have identified them from the very beginning.

Simple Minds Direction of the Heart, BMG 2022

“It’s often said that artists —  even the great ones — only have two or three songs or that they have only two or three themes,” Kerr remarked. “That’s the thing, whether you’re Bruce Springsteen or whoever. Bruce is still singing about busting out of New Jersey and hitting the road, which I think, is great. And Dylan probably has something of that as well. Listen, if you’ve got two or three things in there, it’s great and brilliant, but we very rarely rely on that. We have our culture, we have our sound, I suppose. It’s like DNA; you cobbled this thing together, and sometimes you fall in and out of something. Ten years later, it makes sense again, and you play with it more, or you go back to it.  I guess it’s like a painter. They go through their early blue periods or whatever. All the credit really goes to the music and to Charlie and such. It’s endless, as far as I’m concerned.”

Given the number of personnel changes the band has witnessed over the years, one has to wonder how easily it’s been for new member to get acclimated to that regimen, being that Kerr and Burchill have known each other since childhood and, as a result, formed a bond that is unique to the two of them. One would think it might be intimated for anyone trying to intrude on that dynamic.

“That’s a very smart, smart question,” Kerr mused. “There is a process. They come to work with Charlie for the first few weeks, just Charlie endnote myself. I’d like to think I’m a good guy to hang out with stuff, but he’s a really good guy. He likes to drink and he’s a bit more social than me. I can be a bit up and down. I’ll be occupied about something, but he’s always present. And also, I’m not a musician. So they can talk about discordant chords and such. Then Charlie can tell me, things like, they’re not so good in this area, but they’re brilliant in that area. Obviously, the fact that they’re in the door means we already love them and appreciate them and see the potential. But that’s kind of how the culture of it works.”

Given the band’s array of accolades over the years and all the success Simple Minds have achieved, it’s also admirable that they haven’t allowed their earlier glories to stifle their creativity. They’ve never been content to simply recreate carbon copies of earlier endeavors. More importantly, they’ve managed to stay relevant, even in light of the newer bands that came along in their wake. 

“In our case, I’d like to think we were one of the significant bands of our generation,” Kerr replied. “And that was a great thing and all that. But we felt the force of the new generation coming along, the new generation that has its own heroes on the pop charts. And when that happens, you’re gonna get the net coming. We had that ten or twelve years of growing and growing and growing in terms of popularity and profile, and but then by the mid ‘90s and late ‘90s, we were in Alaska. By that I mean we were so cold and we couldn’t get out of the deep freeze.”

Fortunately then, Kerr and Burchill realized they needed to analyze their intentions and perhaps, adjust their strategy.

“We were wise enough to realize that this is kind of part of the deal,” Kerr says. “Becoming embittered about it wasn’t gonna work. No one owes you anything. They loved your records, they came to see you perform, but maybe it’s time to put a full stop on it. Or maybe it’s time to just kind of go quiet for a bit. You have a lot of other things in your life that are needing attending and to take stock of. And then you really ask yourself why do we do this? Did we do this to be topper most of the popper most or did we do it because this is who we are. We’re artists and we express ourselves through thick and thin for the good times with the bad times. And if you’re gonna go on, you’re gonna have to really commit. You gotta remember that at the time when we were coming back, the whole industry was in a set of flux. People were telling us no one’s gonna buy records anymore. No one cares. It seemed to be going to hell in a handcart, so we had to ask ourselves, if we’re just going to continue for the sake of it just going round and round, like a punch drunk boxer that doesn’t know what else to do.”

Fortunately, Kerr and Burchill opted to continue.

“You gotta somehow get off the flatlining table, and bit by bit. get out, get healthy, get your vitality,” Kerr reckons.  “All that sounds great. That’s a good story. Yeah, let’s do the latter. But that’s not too easy to do. You do you do that when you’re 18 or 19, and you have nothing else in your life, nothing to lose. All you want to do is play music. But then, when you don’t need to put the past on the table, when you’ve got a nice house and you’re forced to go to the shitty rehearsal room again, and when you’re in a van, or a mini bus, on your way to work club gig, it’s not so much fun. But in our case, we said yeah, we do want to do it, and we’re gonna give it our best shot. And we are gonna commit and we’re gonna make it the most important thing in our life again, and, and that’s been the kind of bit by bit story of the last 10 years.”

Simple Minds 2022 (Image: BMG)

Part of that goes back to the bond that Kerr and Burchill have forged over the years. Where other duos have tired of one another and gone their own ways — we’re talking Simon and Garfunkel, Oasis, the Everly Brothers and the like — these two have managed to retain their respect and admiration for one another.

“It is remarkable,” Kerr agrees. “And certainly I get the gist of what you’re saying about how within the context of music, people often end up hating each other and falling out over money or falling over over each other. You really live in each other’s pockets when you’re in a band and you’re constantly touring, and you don’t get to go home at the end of the day and all that. So you really have to get on well. Charlie and I are very lucky in that our tastes are very similar. There can be periods where I don’t see Charlie for maybe a couple of months, and all of that when we’re not working and it’s amazing that when we meet up, he’ll go, ‘I’m reading this book,” and I’ll go, ’It’s called blah, blah, blah. I Just read it.’ Or he’ll say, ‘I saw this amazing movie of Werner Hertzog,’ and I watched it last week. So those are just examples. But here’s the other thing. Once a year, we have the most monumental screaming argument, one that borders on violence disputes, really balls up or something. There’ll be a frustration because we’re just not on the same page on something and someone tries to explain why and then the wrong word gets used and then the fuse gets lit.

“But the amazing thing about that is that the next day it’s completely forgotten. Or if a compromise is made, it’s a bit like all right, you will be right the next time. It just doesn’t get into any resentment. It doesn’t get into a lingering niggly thing. That’s what’s so remarkable. We’ve been together since we were eight and when they say oh, it’s a bit like a marriage, one would have to agree. I probably think about the overall thing more than him, but that’s because we’re usually on the same page, and so he’s cool. But he won’t hang back from saying, ‘No, that’s wrong. Let’s sit and think about this.’ And so that’s the way it works.”

 

 

Despite that fact that he’s able to look back on a life well lived and a career that’s been marked by such striking success, Kerr says he’s not preoccupied with the past.

“I could be,” he allows. “But the reason I’m not as nostalgic as I think I should be, is that we’re always pretty busy. And I always think we won’t be, so there’ll be a time and a place for that. And it will be great. You can sit and look back and kind of maybe relive it again, and feel very sentimental. But nowadays, there’s just not much time to be nostalgic. I was in Florence recently, and the car pulled up to one of these small, little hotels. There was nothing about the hotel entrance where you would go, ‘I remember this.’ But in fact, I remembered it from 30 years ago. We stayed in it the night before a tour opening. I was so nervous about everything and I was in a bit of a state. But we were going to this little hotel which had the most beautiful back garden. And so when I turned up there, it was a bit of a rosebud moment. I got emotional.” 

That said, when Kerr looks back at his old photos, he admits it triggers a different sort of reaction.

“You look at it, and you go, ‘Oh, shit, what made what made me ever buy those trousers?,” he chuckles. “What was going on there? It’s like looking at school photos. Still, you have to cut yourself some slack. That was who we are. Sometimes I look back and I’ll see the old pictures and I think, ‘Those little guys are great.’ Not because of a record or anything, but just because we had the chutzpah. That in itself was pretty monumental.”

 

VIDEO: Simple Minds The Making of Direction of the Heart

 

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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