- 17 Sep 22
On this day 40 years ago, Simple Minds released their classic album New Gold Dream (81–82–83–84). To mark the occasion, we're revisiting a Hot Press interview with lead singer Jim Kerr...
"In many ways the music industry is a scam..."
These words of wisdom belong to Jim Kerr, a working-class boy from Glasgow who proved that he was as good at scamming it as the next man...
Interview: Colm O'Hare.
Originally published in Hot Press in 1998.
It's easy to forget just how big Simple Minds once were. Alongside U-know-who, the Scottish outfit, for an extended period, ranked among the biggest bands in the land, scoring eight top three albums including five No.1s and countless hit singles, defining the production excesses of the 1980s along the way.
In Ireland, they were particularly adored, easily filling a venue like Croke Park for two nights consecutively. Less happily, however, they spawned a host of copycat bands here, who sadly concentrated more on the form than the content of their output (take a bow Zerra 1, Cactus World News, Silent Running et al.)
Of late, Simple Minds' fortunes have waned more than somewhat. The last album, 1995's Good News From The Next World, was one of their least successful in a fourteen-album career, ultimately causing them to be dropped by their record company, Virgin.
Now, 20 years after they first got together, the classic line-up of Jim Kerr, Charlie Burchill, Derek Forbes and Mel Gaynor has re-united and unleashed a new album, Néapolis, this time on the Chrysalis label. Engineered by long-time collaborator Pete Walsh, it's seen by many as a return to their earlier European influences and a move away from the wide-angled, bombastic sound which eventually precipitated their fall from rock's premier division.
For Jim Kerr, this artistic rejuvenation comes not a moment too soon, as he explains. "At the risk of doing myself out of a job," he begins, "I think the rock thing has truly been done to death. If some dictator turned up and said 'Right, that's it, no more guitars' we could hardly cry out too loudly, could we?"
What exactly has he got against guitars, then? Are they not the very cornerstone of modern popular music?
"I know all that's true, but it's just the fact that you see four guys up onstage and you know exactly what it's going to sound like," he explains. "Take a band like Reef who I saw recently. I think to myself 'They can play, he's a great singer, they're a good band'. A minute and a half later I'll be wondering where it's all going. It's the same ingredients every time. Occasionally, you'll get someone like Radiohead who can bring something new to the form but most of it is predictable."
Presumably then, given his distaste for the conventional rock line-up, Kerr is more enamoured by the evolution of dance music as the dominant music form in the late '90s.
"In some respects, yeah," he concedes. "Yesterday, for example, I spent the whole day with the new Massive Attack record and you're talking great melodies here - it's visual music, cinematic with lovely spaces in it. As for dance music in general, I'm not really into that culture - I don't do the drugs for a start! I like words, melodies and songs. The German, Krautrock thing that influenced us in the early years had great melodies - it never seemed monotonous or cold. And while that's where a lot of dance stuff is coming from, the melodies are mixed and remixed right out of the picture. At the same time, I love the fact that dance as an industry has its own rules and dynamics."
Kerr also politely dismisses the notion that the band's recent efforts were anything less than successes, at least in an artistic sense.
"In pure record company terms, the last two records were commercial failures," he suggests. "But quietly, over the last few years they've each ended up selling a few million between them and we've toured to huge crowds. So in our minds we haven't failed. The thing is, we're a lot more relaxed about it this time around. It's not the most important thing in the world to us anymore and, if we stopped enjoying ourselves, the old 'yacht on the Cote D'Azur' scenario becomes an attractive option.
"In many ways the whole music business is a scam and you end making it up as you go along - anything to avoid real life. I do ask myself sometimes, with all the other temptations out there, why not go and enjoy yourself? Maybe it's the Presbyterian in me. But we're songwriters and it's taken us a long time to realise that's what we do."
Looking back over their twenty-year history, Kerr agrees that 1982's New Gold Dream album - the one that gave them their big breakthrough - is the one that fans and critics speak of most affectionately.
"It was our holy grail, I suppose," he ponders. "Some people are trying to say that Néapolis is a kind of a spiritual successor but we don't see it that way. I suppose the fact that the same people are involved gives it a kind of a continuum. But it would be a pointless exercise in trying to re-capture that sound. Times are different, technology is different and in some ways the audiences are different. But I've noticed that certain themes can become cyclical. I would like to think that there is a thematic connection to that period.
"What excites us about the album is that we can hear some doors opening. On the next album we'll reap the benefits of that. We dropped a lot of things and we picked up the mantle on a few things."
Back in the early '80s, Simple Minds were closely allied with U2, each of them often being accused of assimilating each other's influences and, in some cases, worst excesses. How does he see the relationship and comparison between the two bands now?
"I think we could both cut it live back then and that stood to both bands," he says. "But they had the balls to go for it, that was a big influence on us. They had a masterplan to become the biggest band in the world. We didn't have that initially and we were happy for them that they achieved that huge success. I don't think that could happen nowadays.
"They did a survey in the US recently and discovered that a huge percentage of kids wouldn't buy two albums from the same act. People aren't loyal anymore - there's just too much going on. But maybe that's the way music should be."
Does he keep in contact with his old sparring partners?
"I always watch what they're doing and we see them at airports. Occasionally I'll get a call from 'your man' which is always great. Actually we missed getting together with them in South Africa recently - we were in Johannesburg and they were in Cape Town and we just couldn't connect.
"But we've remained friends over the years and there's absolutely no rivalry between the two bands."