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Still Alive and Kicking

Almost 50 years into their career, Simple Minds are embarking on their biggest-ever tour, which includes a show at Birmingham’s Utilita Arena in March. The tour caps a remarkable upturn in the band’s fortunes - and singer Jim Kerr tells What’s On he couldn’t be more delighted...

The title of Simple Minds’ breakthrough hit Don’t You (Forget About Me) could hardly be more prophetic. Nearly 40 years after its release, the band are about to embark on their biggest-ever tour, which is expected to see them play to more than a million people worldwide. It turns out we haven’t forgotten about them.

But for a while it looked like we had. In the early 2000s the band’s popularity had waned so much that singer Jim Kerr recalled “driving in a minibus past stadiums we used to sell out, on route to a club that’s not”.

The softly spoken 64-year-old can’t put his finger on what has changed their fortunes, but is delighted by the turnaround - even if it means the next year of his life is now booked up.

“You can forget holidays or going to weddings and all of that,” he laughs. “That’s the way I deal with it as opposed to looking at the big crowd numbers and getting overwhelmed.

“Because it is a big number, and it’s strange to try and work out what’s behind the resurgence, beyond the fact that more and more bands are playing big shows, and more and more people want to attend live gigs.”

It’s a far cry from the band’s 1980s heyday, when most acts lost money touring but would make it up through album sales - a model long since consigned to the annals of history.

“It’s upside down. If you broke even on tour, that was a big thing, but then you’d hope to make money on the records. I certainly know how the recording side has changed in the last 10 to 15 years, but it’s difficult to put your finger on the live thing.

“Certainly for bands of our generation, it seems there’s still an audience that wants to come along, or come along again. And not only are they coming along, they’re bringing their kids with them.”

Jim says the band’s music appearing in films and TV shows has almost certainly played a role in raising their profile. The Breakfast Club movie made Don’t You (Forget About Me) a hit all those years ago, and now the likes of Stranger Things, The Circle and The Goldbergs are earning the band a new generation of fans.

“There’s all these other connotations and connections when a song turns up in a movie, a TV series or an advert. In the slipstream of all that, it comes alive again, and people can go online or on Spotify or whatever and see our whole history and decide whether it interests them or not.”

That history stretches back to 1977. The band formed from the ashes of Johnny & The Self-Abusers, taking their new name from a line in David Bowie’s The Jean Genie. And while only Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill remain from the original line-up, the art rock of their early albums has played an increasingly prominent role in their resurgence, as well as live sets, in recent years. The renaissance is another thing the singer is fairly philosophical about.

“With some records you make, years later you think the passage of time has left them behind, and that’s not who you are anymore. I’m not 18, I’m not the person who made those records, and you feel a wee bit distanced from them.

“That’s all perfectly understandable, but where it gets a wee bit mysterious is that you go forward a few more years - and don’t ask me why - but it feels ‘of its moment’ again. Or maybe distance makes the heart grow fonder. And far from sounding dated or antiquated, it seems to have some new relevance or new, fresh energy - and that’s what we’ve found through the years.”

Which is great news for fans of albums like Sparkle In The Rain, which turns 40 this year, and its predecessor, New Gold Dream, which the band recently performed at Paisley Abbey for Sky Arts’ Greatest Albums Live TV series - a gig they chose to play without an audience.

“It was a bit of a gamble, that show, in the sense that so much of our thing is playing live - which by its very nature means an audience and interaction with the audience -  but we were the only ones in that series who chose to do it without one.

“But there’s something kinda spiritual about that record - even if you think of the artwork and all that - and that’s what led us to the abbey. We didn’t want to go down that road and then turn it into a sweaty rock gig, so we were playing to the ghosts of the past, and almost trying to meditate on the songs. Thankfully people seem to think it turned out well.”

One of the reasons it turned out so well was the dynamic and dynamite playing of the band’s current line-up - “Quite often we’ll be working and they’ll look at me and Charlie and say, ‘You’re playing that wrong’!” laughs Jim - and their energy and enthusiasm is clearly rubbing off on the old stagers, who have been friends for nearly 60 years and still live walking distance from each other... albeit in Sicily rather than Glasgow.

The duo performed in their new hometown of Taormina on the band’s 40 Years Of Hits tour in 2022. The show, as its title suggests, was largely made up of tunes familiar to the masses. This potentially gives them a headache in terms of choosing a different setlist for the upcoming trek - not least because the arena-size venues means there’ll be a greater percentage of casual ‘hit seeking’ fans in attendance.

“It’s a problem, but it’s one that’s better to have than the other way around, you know? There is a challenge, but you just try to tick all the boxes in the best way.

“What we kinda do is probably two-thirds of the set we play every night and then the other third is up for grabs. So you get a chance to play songs one would expect to hear - stuff from the very start, something from where we are right now - then put in a couple of songs that are maybe for the hardcore fans that they either haven’t heard live for decades or wouldn’t expect to hear live. If you can do all that, and tick all those boxes, it usually provides a set that everyone is happy with.”

Which presumably includes the band themselves?

“Oh yeah, we enjoy it; we just do. When you look out at the end of the night, if there’s joy in the room and something’s happened - a different atmosphere, the place is energised - it’s great. Concerts are the lifeblood of Simple Minds; it’s where we and our audience come alive.”

And while 50-odd years of experience means Jim’s confident about the band delivering on stage, it’s never something he takes for granted - the band still strive to prove themselves every night.

“You still want people to come along and say, God that was better than I thought, or that was as good as when I saw you back in the day. You’ve still got to deliver, and you’ve got to deliver every night. You can’t take your foot off the gas because it’s not New York or wherever. You’re playing for your pride; the band’s reputation is at stake every night, just like it always was.”

Simple Minds, supported by Del Amitri, will perform at Utilita Arena Birmingham on Saturday 23 March

By Steve Adams