ALIVE AND KICKING: Simple Minds are back on tour
When Simple Minds hit the stage at Wembley Arena tonight – finally kicking off their Covid delayed 40 Years Of Hits tour – one song is guaranteed to raise the roof.
Even those who know little about one of Britain’s most globally successful groups will recognise Don’t You (Forget About Me), the song that propelled Simple Minds to the top of the US charts in 1985 and soundtracked iconic ’80s teen movie The Breakfast Club.
Yet the tale behind the song is complicated. For a band with a rich catalogue of self-composed singles and classic album tracks, the fact Simple Minds didn’t write what has become their best-known song still smarts a little, to say the least.
Original keyboard player Mick MacNeil, who left in 1990, refers to Don’t You (Forget About Me), still a radio staple 37 years after its original release, as a “shackle”.
Even now, the band pointedly places the song in the middle of their live set, never at the end.
In fact, it required many months of arm-twisting before Simple Minds finally agreed to record Don’t You (Forget About Me) and, when they did, they spent only a single afternoon on the song which, for many, has come to define them.
Singer Jim Kerr of Simple Minds performs on stage at Orpheum on October 29, 2018 in Vancouver
At the time they regarded it as a “throwaway”, admits singer Jim Kerr. Yet those few hours changed their lives forever.
“How often in life does it happen that you work your balls off on something and it doesn’t quite land?” wonders Jim.
“Then the thing that you do as a little extra, without thinking, hits a deflection and goes into the top corner of the net – and that is then your best goal, ever, as far as the world’s concerned. Sometimes it feels like that.”
In 1984, Simple Minds had been a going concern for six years. Formed from Glasgow’s post-punk scene, their early albums were filled with abstract art-rock, intense music fuelled by a life lived at full tilt on the margins.
“We were speedy,” admits Jim, who recalls once arriving at Rockfield studio in Wales with 20 grammes of amphetamines.
“We took anything that gave us energy and could make us travel and play and be up all-night working.
How do you think we made all those albums in that amount of time? First of all, it was the only thing in our lives that we wanted to do. And secondly, we didn’t sleep.”
CROWD-PLEASER: Jim Kerr at a 1985 Live Aid benefit concert in Philadelphia
Commercial success had proved elusive, but with their most recent albums, New Gold Dream (1982) and Sparkle In The Rain (1984), Simple Minds had finally broken through in the UK and Europe, with hit singles Promised You A Miracle and Waterfront. In America, however, they were not receiving the kind of promotional muscle required to reach the top.
“Our American label, A&M, came to us and said the kind of thing that record companies never say,” recalls Jim, now 62.
“They said, ‘Listen, we blew it. Your last two records, we should have got behind them. You have a future here, and your next record we’re going to make a priority. It’s going to happen, believe in us’. Great! Then there was a but.”
The “but” involved Don’t You (Forget About Me). The song had been co-written by English expat musician Keith Forsey, who had produced Billy Idol’s first two solo albums and co-written the Oscar-winning title song for Flashdance.
His new composition, written with guitarist Steve Schiff, was earmarked as the lead song for a new John Hughes film, The Breakfast Club, which was co-produced by A&M. The label regarded the song and the film as the perfect opportunity to break the band in America. Simple Minds, however, weren’t keen.
Simple Minds performing at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert
When Forsey made his first approach to members of the group, clutching a demo recording of the song, they dismissed him as a drunken fan and lost the cassette without listening to it.
Don’t You (Forget About Me) was subsequently offered to Bryan Ferry, Billy Idol and The Psychedelic Furs – none of whom, fortunately, took up the song, but Simple Minds remained first choice.
The record company became more insistent. Jim recalls: “They said the thing they should never have said: ‘It sounds just like Simple Minds, you’ll love it’. It was like your mum trying to talk you into wearing a sweater. Being as precious as we were, we were like, Get the f*** out of here!”
In the end they finally agreed to listen to the demo.
“It wasn’t bad, but a bit twee lyrically, and certainly not something I would write,” says Jim. “We just weren’t that excited.”
Next, the label sent over a rough cut of the film. That didn’t make an impression either. “We were wanting to do Werner Herzog movies! It wasn’t bad, but it was – nothing.”
Simple Minds performs at The Pearl at Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas
As the pressure grew, a delegation from the film studio and record company visited from America and “went in hard”. Kerr was introduced to John Hughes and liked him.
The band’s resistance was further ground down after meeting Forsey, with whom they got on famously.
“We got stick at that time from a lot of quarters who thought [recording the track] had been some big strategy,” says Jim.
“There was a strategy, but we ignored it. The strategy was that we liked the guy, didn’t like the song. Keith hung out with us for a few days, and it turned out that they had put in a contingency where they had booked a film studio inWembley.
“Keith said, ‘Listen, let’s go in for a couple of hours, see how we get on’.”
Thus, Simple Minds recorded their biggest hit on the fly, in a single November day at De Lane Lea studios in north London.
In those few hours, they supercharged
Forsey’s demo of Don’t You (Forget About Me), including adding the unforgettable “hey, hey, heys” to the introduction.
When it came to lyrics, Jim grudgingly accepted “baby” but was reluctant to sing the now iconic wordless refrain at the end.
“I said to Keith, ‘Let me come up with words. Take a break for 40 minutes, have a cup of tea and I’ll get it amazing’,” he recalls.
“They went out and I sat with my notebook and came up with all this poetry and stream of consciousness.
“Keith came in and went, ‘What the f*** is that?’ I said, ‘I think the la, la, la works better, don’t you?’ He said, ‘Too right’.”
They left the studio with little concern over the song’s future.
“We just thought, it’s a movie soundtrack, a compilation album,” says Jim.
“Then it turns out that it’s the single and MTV loves it, it’s going to be their big thing. There’s a part of us loving hearing all that, but the larger part is still: ‘We’re not sure about this’.”
The Breakfast Club went on general release in the US in February 1985, featuring Don’t You (Forget About Me) over the closing credits.
The single was released in the US on February 20 and reached number one spot exactly three months later. It spent a week at the top – Madonna was No 1 the week before and Wham! No 1 the week afterwards. In the UK, it rose to number seven by early May and hung around for weeks.
In JULY, Simple Minds performed the song to 100,000 people at Live Aid in Philadelphia. They followed up Don’t You (Forget About Me) with another monster hit, Alive And Kicking, and by the autumn they were playing arenas.
It was a febrile time, professionally and personally. Kerr had recently married The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde and would soon become a father. Yet the band were left with conflicting emotions about the song that made them international superstars. They pointedly left it off their triple platinum album, Once Upon A Time, and were often dismissive of the track. “I think over the years we’ve been a bit unfair on it,” admits guitar player Charlie Burchill. “It was like, ‘God, this thing!’ It obviously means something to a lot of people.
Charlie were success “I’ve started listening to it when I hear it with different ears. It’s a great pop record, and what’s wrong with having one of those?” Now as they return to the stage to perform hits spanning four decades, from Promised You A Miracle to recent single Act Of Love, Simple Minds will play Don’t You (Forget About Me) with pride and passion.
“I’ve never wanted it to disappear,” says Jim. “There’s sometimes a frustration if it obscures something else but anything you do that has meant something to people, you have to be grateful.
“In this case, it has become a song of a generation. People have adopted it for their own reasons, whether it’s the movie, or they saw it at Live Aid, or it just makes them feel great. You’ve got to be grateful if you’ve got anything like that in your locker. And, cut to the chase, it paid for my house!”
He laughs. “For a couple of hours work at Wembley on a Wednesday afternoon, I’m going to get all churlish about it? I don’t think so.”
- Simple Minds are touring the UK until April 16. Visit simpleminds.com/tour for more info.
- Themes For Great Cities: A New History Of Simple Minds by Graeme Thomson (Constable, £20) is out now. For free UK P&P, call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832 or visit expressbookshop.com