Why Simple Minds almost didn't record the classic hit Don't You (Forget About Me)

Ahead of their Dubai concert, lead singer Jim Kerr tells The National why the Scottish group were apprehensive about their most famous song - and explains how their first track has been reinvented

Singer Jim Kerr of Simple Minds will be performing live in Dubai on Tuesday, the band's latest album going back to their roots. Photo: Frank Hoensch
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There is a moment in the new documentary Simple Minds: Everything Is Possible when the band reflect on a career-defining moment on the US leg of a Live Aid concert in 1985.

The 15-minute set by the Scottish group at Philadelphia’s John F Kennedy Stadium included the first live performance of Don't You (Forget About Me) from the hit teen drama The Breakfast Club. It propelled the group from arty rock band to arena fillers across the US.

Singer Jim Kerr describes it best in the film. “It didn’t just open the door … it was like a bomb going off,” he says. Not bad for a song that the band did not want to record and a gig they had been unsure of.

When it comes to the latter, Kerr, 64, says the excitement of being part of a Live Aid concert was momentarily dampened when they discovered that it was not in London, but was a sister event in the US.

“We were so happy because David Bowie was going to be in London with Queen and loads of other bands that I love,” he told The National ahead the band's Dubai concert at Coca-Cola Arena on Tuesday. “But then I remember (Live Aid organiser) Bob Geldof telling us 'Err, no, you won't be with them because you will be in America.' And I was like 'Oh, come on!'”

But the decision made for good reason. In the lead up to the mammoth gig, Don't You (Forget About Me) had become the group's first US chart-topper and this was a chance to cement their burgeoning star status.

“Minutes before we went on stage we went into a little huddle and our manager at the time told us 'This is your chance. This is your Mount Everest. Are you going to show them what you can do or will you blow it?'” Kerr recalls.

“We realised pretty quickly that we had to deliver, even though there was no warm up or soundcheck. We knew we were not going to be totally comfortable on stage, but we went out and did it. Good memories.”

As for the actual song, with its glistening synths and achingly nostalgic chorus, Simple Minds were not fans at first. Written by Steve Chiff and Keith Forsey, the composers behind The Breakfast Club soundtrack, Kerr remembers the band being against the idea of recording someone else's song.

“The demo we heard sounded pretty good but not better than what we had been writing and, more worryingly, it also sounded like it could have been sung by any other band,” Kerr recalls.

“We eventually decided to do it when we were allowed to put our own Simple Minds spin on it, which means giving it more grandeur and energy. We also added that big 'hey, hey, hey' hook that became a signature of the song, which the crowd loves.”

First song they ever played

Simple Minds were too seasoned to be crushed by the weight of the song’s success.

Formed in Glasgow in 1977 by Kerr and childhood friend and guitarist Charlie Burchill, the group had established themselves as a vibrant and arty nu-wave act before finding mainstream success with their 1984 breakout album, Sparkle in the Rain, which included hit singles Speed Your Love To Me and Waterfront.

“It was a very different atmosphere at the time in which records were as much about atmosphere as the songs,” Kerr recalls. “So there was more experimentation going on and the music was more on the arty side than just being pure rock'n'roll.”

The latest Simple Minds album, Direction of the Heart, which was released last year, takes the band back to their roots.

Act of Love, a standout track, is a sprightly new version of an unreleased 1978 song that literally introduced the band to the world. “It was the very first song Simple Minds played at our first gig in Glasgow,” Kerr says.

“We were still young, and we didn't quite have the art of writing songs and when it came to recording our first album we thought it wasn't so great and so we left it.

“But we always loved the riff and energy behind it so we revisited it 40 years or so later. We just rebuilt it similar to a classic car but with a new engine and wheels.”

While the songs on the latest album are suitably anthemic, reverie pervades the work with lyrics throwing up existential questions about things such as the nature of love and a life well spent.

A more sombre direction is the result, reflecting on Kerr's move back to Scotland from his home in Italy to look after his late father in 2019. Kerr recalls how Direction of the Heart's opening song, the elegiac and punchy Vision Thing, was inspired by the exchanges between the pair.

“I moved into the house to be with my father and while I was working, I would be listening to music and tapping my feet,” he says. “I remember my father saying 'What are you doing, you are making me crazy with the music', and it just felt like I was a teenager again. I couldn't tell him that I was writing a song about him.”

Song from an empty hotel

The death of Kerr’s father was followed by the Covid-19 pandemic, which halted the live performance industry.

With a European tour abruptly cancelled, Kerr and Burchill reconvened at Villa Angela, Kerr’s then empty Italian seaside hotel in Sicily, to complete Direction of the Heart. The rest of the band would collaborate with the duo remotely from their respective locations.

“It was weird and sad to be in the hotel I built, and find it empty and the staff missing. But Charlie and I decided that we need to fill this place up with music because the hotel was built out of the profits made from our music,” Kerr says.

“I remember working in the main suite and the window overlooked the volcanic Mount Etna. Some nights it was capped with snow, while on others you can see some lava.

“It was fire and ice and it was just so cosmic. It reminded me that the world is a very old place, it has seen some terrible and good things, but it always continues. It also reminded of our capacity as humans to endure and still be able to create.”

Simple Minds perform at Coca Cola Arena, Dubai on February 27. Doors open at 8pm. Tickets start at Dh395 and are available at coca-cola-arena.com

Updated: February 23, 2024, 6:02 PM