Two years ago, Jim Kerr experienced the mother of celebrity comedowns. His band Simple Minds were in Copenhagen, 10 dates into a world tour, when all the remaining shows were canceled because of Covid. Kerr returned to Glasgow and supermarkets lined with empty shelves. “It was like the first time I’d gone to East Germany in 1978,” he chuckles. “All that was left were cabbages and broccoli. I reached for the last cabbage and a woman burst in front of me and grabbed it. Two nights before, I’d been a rock star. I thought: ‘What happened to my life?’”
In fairness, that’s a question he could have asked many times since 1977, when he began his journey to stardom from a tower block in Glasgow’s Toryglen. Kerr and his old pal de el Bono virtually wrote the job description for “stadium rock god”, but Kerr was the last person you’d have expected to become one. In his teens, no one knew people in bands and he felt “you had more chance of becoming an astronaut”. He was painfully introverted and spoke with a stammer.
“Having met Peter Gabriel and all of these people that are 10 times more successful than I’ve been,” Kerr reflects, “quite a lot of them are freaks or introverts. I was never bullied, because my dad got me a set of boxing gloves, but outside of my circle I would never speak. When you’re quiet, you notice things that other people maybe aren’t noticing. I had my own dialogue going on in my head.”
In January Simple Minds released the single Act of Love, written in 1978 but never recorded because it was drowned out by so much other music. “It was the first song where I thought Simple Minds had a chance,” Kerr remembers, describing how the then 18-year old guitarist Charlie Burchill came up with the riff and he thought: “F**king hell! We’ve got a shot!”
‘It turned out my Dad had wandered off and got talking to Bob Dylan about folk music but he went: ‘Great fella”
Today, the 62-year old Kerr is video-calling from a holiday home in France, grabbing a short break prior to the rescheduled 40 Years of Hits tour. His eyes sparkle with the enthusiasm that took him from Toryglen to the world. As he puts it: “That sense of wonder is still in what we do.”
The son of an Irish builder’s laborer and a factory machinist, Kerr first had his horizons broadened when the family moved from the tenements of the Gorbals to that 11th-floor flat in Toryglen, and he rejects the popular view of high-rise living as a living hell. “It had central heating and elevators,” he says. “Heroin hadn’t turned up yet. There were jobs. It was the modern world.” The building’s older teens would return suntanned from places such as Jaipur or Morocco, clutching Van Der Graaf Generator albums or The Tibetan Book of the Dead. “I am being poetic here, but it seemed the whole world was out there.”
He was working as a butcher’s boy when David Bowie played a Ziggy Stardust-era gig in Glasgow. Kerr missed that after injuring himself standing on a rusty nail, but he did see Foxtrot-era Genesis, Roxy Music and Lou Reed. The pivotal incident came with the onset of punk. He and Burchill hitchhiked to London to try to see the Sex Pistols, but a truck driver said he was going to Paris, and would they like to go there instead? “We knew Patti Smith was playing in Paris, and in those days you could get a temporary passport,” says Kerr. “We’d read Jack Kerouac and we were On the Road.” They missed the gig, but ended up spending a month hitting through France, Belgium and Holland. As he puts it: “It felt like you could stick out your thumb and find emancipation.”
After four albums of starkly entrancing dancefloor-friendly post-punk, 1982’s Promised You a Miracle gave Simple Minds their first hit. Kerr sang “Everything is possible”, and the rest of their sublime fifth album, New Gold Dream, radiated youthful possibility against a background of mass unemployment and the Falklands war.
Was there so little optimism that he had to conjure up his own? “I’m not entirely sure where it came from,” Kerr says, “but I know from meeting contemporaries in other cities like [Echo and the Bunnymen’s] Ian McCulloch or [Associates singer] Billy Mackenzie, we all felt the same. Punk had left remnants. People were starting their own magazines or somehow conjuring up the money to make a movie or a documentary. Suddenly, things were regional, whether it was Tony Wilson’s Factory Records in Manchester or the Sheffield bands once they got their hands on synthesisers. In journalism, [NME’s] Paul Morley would review the new Dollar single and mention a Yukio Mishima novel. You could see the ingredients of Simple Minds – Magazine and Ultravox – but people like Boy George or Morrissey were truly unique. There was this idea of self-invention, the potency of imagination.”
Kerr hadn’t left the tower block long when Don’t You (Forget About Me) rocketed to the top of the US charts, after featuring in John Hughes’s 1985 film The Breakfast Club. Famously, the band didn’t want to record it for the film, only relenting because songwriter Keith Forsey came up to see them. They took him to the pub and really liked him. But suddenly Simple Minds were what he calls “definitely one of the bands of our generation”. They had three consecutive UK No 1 albums between 1984 and 1989. Kerr is modest – but not falsely modest. “Who would have thought that MTV would come along and put us in every living room in the world?”
Kerr spent the pandemic working on a memoir and enough songs for a double album
Live Aid, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s 1985 concert for Ethiopian famine relief, broadcast from stadiums in the UK and US, showcased what he calls “the side of me that I haven’t mentioned, that thinks: ‘The biggest event since the moon landing. We’re just gonna f**king blow people away.’ We were young and No 1 in America and fancied our chances.”
He can’t describe what it actually feels like to sing for 1.9 billion people (90,000 of them in Philadelphia’s JFK stadium, where Simple Minds were on the bill for the US event) because the day passed in a blur. His vivid memory of him is of his father, who had flown in from Glasgow. “He’d stopped drinking by then – when I was young, he drank enough! – But he was still the sort of guy who would meet a taxi driver and become best mates. Anyway, five minutes before we’re on – no mobile phones back then – where’s my f**king father? He turned up and said: ‘Oh, I was with Dylan.’ I’m thinking: ‘Is that one of the roadies?’ He goes: ‘F**king Dylan!’ It turned out he’d wandered off and got talking to Bob Dylan about folk music but he went: ‘Great fella, but I’m a bit worried because he’s going onstage with Keith Richards later and the pair of them are steaming.’” He beams at the memory of his “best pal”. Before his father died aged 83 in 2019, Kerr returned to Glasgow to share every day of his final 10 months.
However, Kerr was unprepared for the tabloid scrutiny that accompanied his two marriages, to the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde and the actor Patsy Kensit. Legend has it that he met both of them in hotel lifts, but he points out that with Hynde (to whom he was married between 1984 and 1990) he was waiting for the lift. “I was surrounded by fans, trying not to make eye contact. I kept hearing this voice and it was Chrissie, taking the piss. Her dad de ella has Scottish roots, we got chatting and – what can I say? – Cupid intervened.”
Kerr and Kensit – married from 1992 to 1996 – met in Spain, where she was filming. “I met her in the elevator and she said: ‘I’m utterly bored here.’ I said: ‘Why not come out with us?’” But he loathed the accompanying lifestyle of being in Hello! magazine or being invited to one of Michael Winner’s dinners with guests such as Arnold Schwarzenegger. “She said: ‘Don’t you understand? This is my job!’ I’m not being disparaging to her, but none of that appealed to me whatsoever.”
In the late 80s and 90s, with pop fired up by Live Aid, Kerr opted for activism as Simple Minds toured for Amnesty International and performed at the two giant concerts for Nelson Mandela, one marking his 70th birthday, the other celebrating the ANC leader’s release from prison. It wasn’t a big stretch: Kerr’s family were socialists (“Everyone in Scotland voted Labour”), and he had been “profoundly affected” by seeing ancient slavery ports on holiday in Senegal.
“The [Thatcher] government was dragging its feet over apartheid and calling Mandela a terrorist,” he says. “I wanted to use my platform for more than selling records or merchandise.” He admits to “conflicted” feelings about whether rock stars should try to heal the world until Mandela gathered all the artists and told them: “This is a brilliant thing. When there was no voice allowed, the voice of the artist gave us the oxygen we needed.” Kerr accepts that “singers, writers, journalists and film-makers” helped end apartheid, but he is not self-congratulatory, saying: “Others died or went to prison. We just turned up for 15 minutes.”
Pop subsequently turned away from huge-scale activism, and Kerr notes: “People get wary of rock stars reading them.” None, he mentions being “in conversations” about a benefit concert – announced after we speak – for Ukraine.
On tour, Simple Minds will perform 1980’s I Travel, an uncannily current-sounding song about strife in central Europe. “We were cold war kids,” he says. “Everywhere we toured, it seemed like Europe was on fire, whether it was bombs in Bologna train station or a synagogue in Paris the day after we left, or the Baader-Meinhof gang, or the IRA. I sang ‘Tragedies, luxuries, statues, parks and galleries’ because all that stuff was going on in these otherwise cultural centres. So I suppose that song has found its time again.”
The same could be said for Simple Minds. After a rocky period in the early 2000s when Kerr remembers “driving in a minibus past stadiums we used to sell out en route to a club that’s not sold out”, they decided not to “go around like punch-drunk boxers, just doing it because we don’t know what else to do”, and instead revitalized the band with a postmodern reboot. Their last album, 2018’s Walk Between Worlds, reached No 4 in the UK. Kerr spent the pandemic working on a memoir and enough songs for a double album. The gigs are getting bigger, too: Simple Minds are back in arenas, which Kerr finds “intimate – not too cavernous”.
Today’s seven-piece touring lineup includes three women. “And no mullets,” Kerr says, laughing, although he points out that Simple Minds had a female vocalist, Robin Clark, in the 1980s. “But if you look around most organizations now there are women, and you don’t get more macho than rock bands. We never thought: ‘Which boxes do we tick?’, but everyone needs to strap on new engines.”
When not on global jaunts, Kerr divides his time between Glasgow and Taormina, Sicily, where he built a hotel, after deciding that one day he would live in Italy during a school trip to Rimini when he was 13. Only Kerr and Burchill remain from the five-piece that played to hails of bottles in Dunfermline, or recorded their debut single Life in a Day in 1978, but Kerr feels like their great teenage adventure never stopped. “This is who we are and what we do,” he says. “It’s the prism through which we try to make sense of the world.” – Guardian
Simple Minds are playing at the 3Arena, Dublin, on April 17th, ticketmaster.ie