Simple Minds returns to the city that helped jumpstart their career in the 1980s.
Scottish band Simple Minds have been consistently making music and touring, though this week marks their first Toronto visit in more than a decade.
By: Nick Krewen Music, Published on Mon Oct 21 2013
In many ways, it seems fitting that one of the most popular rock bands of the ’80s is returning to the city’s venerable Massey Hall on Tuesday night.
It was a little over 29 years ago that Scottish rockers Simple Minds sold out two nights at Massey Hall, but it was the third that really symbolized just how significant their relationship with Toronto music lovers actually was: radio station CFNY booked the venue for a third night, and gave away all 2,600 tickets on-air to their listeners.
Known at the time as “The Spirit of Radio,” CFNY (now 102.1 The Edge) earned a reputation for breaking a number of acts in North America, among them the Glasgow-born Simple Minds, who had perennially scored either the top spots or Top 10 designations in the end-of-year best album polls determined by the station’s listeners.
“They were an integral part of the music mix of the ’80s at CFNY,” recalls David Marsden, the station’s program director and visionary responsible for its eclectic freestyle format from 1978 through 1987.
“We started way back with Simple Minds, playing ‘Chelsea Girl,’ which was off the first album (1979’s Life in a Day) that nobody played, and probably a lot of people don’t even know exists. To my knowledge, I don’t think anybody else in this country began playing them until (1983’s) Waterfront.”
So when opportunity knocked, Marsden brainstormed and found a unique way to celebrate the station’s birthday with a June 4, 1984 concert.
“They were doing two shows at Massey Hall that were completely sold out, so we bought a third night and we gave away all the tickets. And then we had a birthday party and it was fabulous — what can I tell you?”
While Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr doesn’t remember the specifics of the occasion, “I do remember the station.”
“I remember the great playlists,” he said Thursday from a New Jersey tour stop. “We didn’t have stations like that in the U.K. There were some amazing random playlists. It was a groundbreaking station. And for them to recognize us in the way they did was amazing, because they must have been some of the first awards we got anywhere. You never forget how that feels.”
Kerr is also hoping that after an 11-year absence, Toronto audiences regard him as warmly as he and the rest of the lineup — which still includes co-founder Charlie Burchill on guitar and steadfast drummer Mel Gaynor — remember the city.
“I can’t tell you how much we’re looking forward to it,” says Kerr, 54. “Or how much Toronto, and indeed Canada, encouraged the band during the early days. We had some great, great nights. It’s great after such a long absence to get back to a venue like that, and hopefully go to work again.”
Kerr says Torontonians shouldn’t underestimate how important they were in helping Simple Minds achieve North American success.
“It wasn’t until our third or fourth album that we could get a domestic release in the States, but Canada — and particularly Toronto — embraced the band from the very beginning,” Kerr recalls.
Success didn’t come easily: partially because, with its first few releases, the band would radically change their sound. Life in a Day was heavily ’70s influenced; Reel to Real Cacophony, also out in ’79, was post-punk; 1980’s Empire and Dance embraced electro dance beats.
“Back in the day, artists were allowed to grow organically,” Kerr explains. “It often took bands three or four albums to develop their own thing, to bring it to fruition. They did that when they had to write and record non-stop, and we were one of those bands.
It wasn’t until 1982’s New Gold Dream when Simple Minds found its sound.
Produced by Peter Walsh, Kerr says the album “has a finesse that let the pop quality come through” and helped several new wave acts reach mainstream audiences.
“Peter showed us that sometimes less could be more,” says Kerr. “There was a lot of pop music starting to come through: ABC and The Human League, The Associates, The Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen — they all started to have hits. We came with a sort of a pop manifesto, and yeah, it worked.”
While Canadians and the rest of the world ate up catchy songs like “Love Song,” “Waterfront,” Someone, Somewhere in Summertime,” and “Promised You a Miracle,” the U.S. was still resisting the Simple Minds charm.
That is, until a 1985 John Hughes film called The Breakfast Club changed everything with the soundtrack song “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” a smash chart-topper that the band didn’t write and initially vetoed.
“We must have turned it down about half a dozen times,” Kerr recalls.
He says it was song co-writer and producer Keith Forsey who persuaded them to record it, after he unexpectedly showed up in Scotland to hang out.
“We got to like Keith after a few days,” Kerr admits. “So we spent an afternoon and we put our own feeling in it. We arranged it our own way. We put our own trademarks. We came up with the ‘hey-heys’ and the ‘la-la-las’ and this monster appeared from nowhere.”
The band’s upward momentum continued with 1985’s Once Upon A Time — their only U.S. Top 10 album — and the hit “Alive And Kicking,” as well as appearances at 1985’s Live Aid and 1988’s Nelson Mandela 70th birthday tribute for which they wrote “Mandela Day,” a song that helped cement their reputation, along with U2, as rockers with a social conscience.
“When we were asked to join this (Mandela) concert and write a song for it, we were gung ho because it had been part of the way we were brought up, and it was just wrong,” says Kerr. “Apartheid is wrong at every level. Our government was buying into it and we were young men — it pissed us off.”
Simple Minds’ decision to go heavily political with 1989’s Street Fighting Years crippled whatever U.S. momentum that was generated by Once Upon A Time.
“We had no choice,” Kerr states. “That was the music that was in us. Maybe we were still too new in America. They could have been dealing with ‘Twice Upon a Time,’ and it was just too much of a land shift.”
While Simple Minds slowed down some of its activity, they released another half-dozen albums, some which made it into Canada, others that didn’t, and “toured everywhere but North America.”
Releasing a greatest hits album called Celebrate earlier this year with two new songs, Kerr says Simple Minds is finishing a new album and that the time “feels right to go back and go to work.”
“The benefit of not being around your neck of the woods for a long time is that the band has got a lot better,” he states. “The band was always a pretty good live band, but I think it’s become something. That’s why, everywhere we go, people ask us back. We’re hoping that will be the case in Toronto and in Canada.”