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When Simple Minds interrupted the recording of a new album of original songs to embark on an unscheduled acoustic project, the rewarding detour they took fundamentally changed their attitude to music. The band were already on a high following the enthusiastic response to 2014’s Big Music, a swaggering collection that reiterated the Glaswegian group’s world-class credentials. But it was the reaction that greeted 2016’s Simple Minds Acoustic, an organic revamp of hits such as Promised You A Miracle and Don’t You (Forget About Me), that prompted frontman Jim Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill to reassess how they went about their business.
‘There was so much space for invention when we played the acoustic numbers live,’ says Jim. ‘And I noticed a real difference in Charlie’s playing. He has always been a reluctant guitar hero – a lot of people think his guitar parts are actually keyboards, because of the effects he uses – but he sounded amazing. There was so much emotion in his playing. Within a few days, I realised that this needed to be the sound of the new record, with Charlie more prominent. I wanted our music to be leaner, meaner and more emotional, so we put together a different kind of band. It’s been great coming back to these new songs after the acoustic tour. Standing back has given us clarity.’
‘It’s great doing different projects,’ adds Charlie. ‘Making the Acoustic album informed the making of Walk Between Worlds. We went back to our new songs in the studio with our live performing heads on. On the surface, you have two different projects, but they really bled into one another.’
Kerr and Burchill, who have been the creative core of Simple Minds since the group formed from the ashes of Glasgow punk outfit Johnny & The Self Abusers 40 years ago (taking their name from a line in David Bowie's The Jean Genie), began work on Walk Between Worlds the morning after finishing the Big Music tour in December 2014. Working in Gorbals Sound, a studio a stone’s throw away from the Glasgow estates where they grew up, the pair initially envisaged a continuation of the widescreen styles of Big Music. ‘The positive reaction to that album energised us considerably, and we were keen to get straight back on the creative horse,’ says Jim. ‘We worked on two songs and, at first, it was looking like being more of the same. But, as we went on, and particularly after the acoustic tour, the album took on its own identity. But the two main things are always the strength of the tunes and the words you build around them. In our early days, we didn’t really write songs. Like a lot of bands in the Eighties, we wrote big slabs of excitement. They weren’t songs in the sense that Bob Dylan or Neil Young write songs. We now know the importance of quality melodies and lyrics.’
Produced by the group with Andy Wright and Gavin Goldberg, both of whom worked on Big Music, Walk Between Worlds, with its eight tracks rocketing past in 42 minutes, is a relatively concise affair. It is also an album of two distinct sides, with side one tracks such as Summer and The Signal And The Noise revisiting the glassy guitars and new wave dance grooves of the post-punk era and the second half exploring more cinematic sounds, with the title track and Barrowland Star both featuring dramatic orchestrations recorded at Abbey Road. ‘It’s very much an old-school album, with its two sides echoing the format of the vinyl LPs we grew up with,’ says Jim. ‘The Euro-synths of the first side put me in mind of our early Eighties breakthrough albums like Empires And Dance and Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call. The second side, with its ‘big cinema’ sound, is more elegant and thematic. In the second half, we’re trying to open the songs up and give them greater musicality.’
The album artwork, too, is emblematic of the band's metamorphosis. Its central image is by the Brazilian visual artist Heitor Magno, whose work, as is the case here, is often a surreal montage of vivid coloured imagery and black and white photography. With the central character on the front cover bearing what Charlie says is an ‘uncanny resemblance’ to a young Jim Kerr, the sleeve could also be viewed as a telling throwback to the Sons And Fascination era.
Walk Between Worlds is bookended by two songs about faith, Magic and Sense Of Discovery. The first is a reflection on the desire and hunger of youth – the faith in their own abilities that Simple Minds possessed during their formative years. Sense Of Discovery, which features a melodic refrain that alludes to 1985’s Alive And Kicking, is centred on the voice of an older narrator passing on wisdom and advice to a younger individual. Says Jim: ‘Faith can be an abstract thing, especially when it’s not informed by religion, but it’s one of the over-riding themes of the album. These lyrics are a series of reflections. They zip backwards and forwards in time, recalling youthful emotions and the experiences that brought them into being. A lot of the songs offer a contrast in how we felt about the world back then and how we feel about our surroundings now.’
Another key track is Barrowland Star. Named after the iconic ballroom in the East End of Glasgow that has hosted many memorable Simple Minds shows, it’s a song that takes the band away from their traditional comfort zone, layering strings and a spellbinding Charlie guitar solo (one that reminds Jim of Mick Ronson) over some poignant words. The song, which stems from an instrumental B-side the band made in the Nineties, was reprised and given lyrics by Jim, who always felt it had all the ingredients of a great song. ‘Playing the Barrowland was always a big deal,’ he says. ‘Our mums and dads went there in the Fifties and we filmed the video for Waterfront there. It had these decorative neon stars on the ceiling and, when they refurbished the ballroom a few years ago, they presented one to me. It’s a great piece of rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia and it now hangs on the wall of my office. But it means even more to Simple Minds. We spent some of the best nights of our lives under those neon stars, and looking at it now brings back all the excitement – and the fear – of playing there. It truly felt as if we were about to engage in a prize-fight rather than simply play a rock concert.’
Using the rejuvenating template of the Acoustic tour as a guide, Simple Minds will take to the road in 2018 on the back of Walk Between Worlds. With Jim and Charlie now part of a theatrical gang of musicians that are, in Jim’s words, ‘more like Sly & The Family Stone than a traditional male rock band’, the tour will feature percussionist Cherisse and backing vocalist Catherine alongside band mainstays Ged Grimes on bass, multi-instrumentalist Gordy Goudie and regular backing singer (and sometimes lead vocalist) Sarah Brown. ‘The whole stage set-up is now more fluid,’ says Charlie. ‘We’re working on fresh arrangements of some old songs, and there is going to be more movement between the musicians onstage. There will be time for people to digest the songs and more space for Jim to talk to the audience.’
The standard bearers for a new kind of rock in the Eighties, when they took the art-rock invention of post-punk and constructed a musical Colossus by adding rousing choruses and a touch of Celtic soul, Simple Minds are again pushing forwards as they contemplate turning 40. Their legacy, of course, is something to be proud of. But, as Walk Between Worlds shows, their story continues. ‘The legacy thing can be a burden if you let it,’ says Charlie. ‘For us, it has been empowering, giving us the freedom and confidence to make this album. Some bands who have been going for 40 years become more narrow in scope. With us, it’s the opposite.’