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J Im Kerr 2
Nine Songs
Jim Kerr

From quintessentially-British summer afternoons to a brush with Bowie and a Rolling Stone, Simple MindsJim Kerr takes Maddy Smith down a memory lane of songs that paved his way into a life of music.

21 October 2022, 11:00 | Words by Maddy Smith

“We finished our tour this summer, we’ve been touring forever and have seen it all. But I still think it’s remarkable. The question is, why do people get together and sing? What is it about it that’s so special?”

As he reminisces on forty years of Simple Minds, who are about to release their eighteenth album Direction of the Heart, singer Jim Kerr picks out a connection with the songs that encapsulate his love of music and how he managed to create a lifelong career in the music industry. “This is beyond our dreams”, he tells me. “When we were kids we thought, ‘Wow, imagine if you could be in a band, take it around the world and get a life out of it.’

Reflecting on his career highlights so far, whilst obvious peaks in anyone’s book would include Live Aid, the Mandela concert, or getting a Number 1 hit in America, for Kerr, nothing quite tops the feeling of playing live. “There’s something that happens every night at the end of the night” he smiles. “You look out and something’s happened in the audience - people are jumping up and down, smiling. Something transcendent has happened, and I never feel like we’ve done that, but to be of service is a great thing. It’s so unusual in life to be a part of something where you can make people forget their worries for a couple of hours. We get that every night, it’s one of life’s highlights.”

“From our point of view on the stage, you actually see the joy in people’s faces”, he explains. “Okay, it’s not for everyone - but for people who love that kind of thing, there are so few places where you feel that. You once would have got that experience in church, but outside of that - I guess maybe the world’s a lonely place. When people go to concerts and they feel the power of a positive crowd - when people come together to sing, linking arms - there must be something in that. Perfect strangers singing together and enjoying that commonality.”

Kerr’s Nine Songs also take in a sense of community, being part of something as well as finding his own path and identity. From childhood memories - with his early years being raised in a family of tradesmen - to the eccentricity of Little Richard and the iconic innovation of David Bowie, his song selections explore a musical history rich in colour, unique vocals, riffs emblematic of rock n’ roll, as well as close family ties. As an integral part of Kerr’s journey into music, his parents were not only instrumental to the music he listened to growing up, but his father also gave the band £100 to record a demo tape and translate their music into a studio.

“I then hitchhiked to London and went around the record companies with that cassette”, Kerr laughs. “From that, our story began, and Dad never failed not to remind me of that! It was always a pleasure. He was a reader and loved to travel, so if we were going to some amazing place, I’d bring them to see us.”

When Simple Minds played at the Philadelphia leg of Live Aid, Kerr explains that his Dad was desperate to go. “He was already friends with some of the people we’d worked with. Everyone liked him and the great Kirsty MacColl was there with her husband in the hotel, I think with a couple of The Rolling Stones, who were all working on an album at the time.”

“Kirsty said to Dad, ‘Come on Jimmy, come with us!’ So off he went, and I didn’t know where he’d disappeared to. We were wondering ‘Where the hell is he?’ as we were getting ready to go to the gig, and eventually he turns up five minutes before. ‘Where the fuck were you?!’, I said. He replied, ‘Oh, I had to help Bob Dylan, what a mess he’s in. I had to help him to his bed. I don’t know how he’s going to play the night! We’ve been drinking all afternoon, sharing stories. I don’t know how Bob’s going to stand up!’ Lo and behold, if you look at the footage from Live Aid, the performance of Dylan and Ronnie Wood - it’s abysmal. They’re so rollicking.”

“If I Had a Hammer” by Peter, Paul and Mary

I would have been a toddler when I first heard this, and I was thinking, apart from nursery rhymes, this would have been one of the first songs that I knew the words to and remember singing. It made sense to me in many ways, being a very catchy tune. My mum and dad had it and would play it, but it was also on the radio.

I was brought up in a family where my dad and uncles and everyone worked in construction or on building sites - they were all tradespeople. Everyone had hammers and shovels, so it was symbolic of that. I came to understand at a later age that the song was adopted by the American civil rights movement. A lot of protesters at the marches on the White House, or for Luther King, used it. I guess they were saying ‘If I had the power to make a change.’

On Friday and Saturday nights, being around the house was a big thing in Glasgow, people would go to these parties. If it was granny or granddad, it would be more so folk songs, but my dad was quite a political activist, and this reminds me that music was really becoming the backdrop of our lives.

So it's an amazing song, a song that a kid can run around and sing like a nursery rhyme, but it can also work in a whole different scenario. It's amazing when music can do that.

“Goldfinger” by Shirley Bassey

This is of course a movie soundtrack, and a reminder that music also came my way through musicals and films. As a young boy there was nothing more exciting than a James Bond film. I remember being taken to see Goldfinger and being enthralled with it; the fast action and the glamour of it all. And of course, the John Barry song that begins and ends the movie. Those ominous moments form the perfect song for a James Bond movie.

Bassey is so glamorous and there's a sexuality in there as well, which I didn't know back then. It’s one of the iconic British movie soundtracks which was very of its time. As I said earlier, at that age you are subject to everything around you, and certainly going to the cinema was a big deal, Goldfinger was a blockbuster.

Her voice is absolutely incredible, what an amazing singer. And lately the tradition goes on, with Adele, and Billie Eilish. It's a hard act to follow though, being compared to Shirley Bassey!”

“A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Little Richard

As I was saying earlier, when I was growing up there was a lot of black music, blues music and party music, so those early rock n’ roll records, such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard, were what people loved to jump around to.

I must have watched Little Richard first with my mum, because she was such a huge music fan. There was a channel called Granada Television, which used to be adventurous, I think that was the first time Little Richard had been on TV in Britain, because he was so outrageous, and in the way that he dressed too.

David Bowie talked about him and said there would be no David Bowie without Little Richard - he was so inspired. He would have been 15 or 16 seeing him, but I was about five at the time. For me, it's really the sense of joy in the music, he made you laugh! He was such a freak, in the most complimentary way.

I had the chance to meet him, by accident actually. We were staying at the same hotel in LA at the time, and late at night he used to go down to the lobby. I don't know what he was looking for. He was an old guy dressed in the suits and all of that, but he still wanted the recognition. At a point it became almost taken for granted, but it was thrilling nonetheless, and he’s very much still a musical hero.

“You'll Never Walk Alone” by Gerry & The Pacemakers

I’ve mentioned James Bond and all that, but going to my first football match was a big deal. Not just for the game itself, but to see these crowds. One of the first games I got taken to see was a friendly between Liverpool and my team, Glasgow Celtic.

Liverpool have a tradition of singing this amazing anthem. It actually comes from - and I didn’t know this until fairly recently - a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which was then recorded by Gerry and the Pacemakers, or Gerry Marsden. Of all things, it’s surprising that football fans adopted it.

In a funny way the song was translated into a gospel feel and Elvis Presley covered it in that style. But with regards to my own experience, hearing those Liverpool fans singing it and Celtic fans adopting it brings me back to that time in my life of going to school, the movies and football - so these are the snapshot moments.

“Sunny Afternoon” by The Kinks

I probably first heard this when I was around 10. I liked to carry around a little radio and in the summer holidays, there you were, a bit bored with seven weeks off of school, so you’d go and stand around listening to music.

When you look back, sometimes there’s a song or a sound of that summer and I remember this Kinks’ song. It’s a kind of funny track, and ironically it’s about a down in heels rockstar; the taxman has taken all of his money and he’s alone in this stately home. They’ve taken his yacht and his boat and it’s a really funny image.

I can assume there’s probably some reality to that, for those bands at that time. I heard that back then they were paying something like 90% of their earnings, and The Beatles actually wrote ‘Taxman’ about it. I guess this was a tongue-in-cheek protest, but it has a great, lazy, summery sound to it. I think with the lyric - he’s so half-assed singing it - like he can’t be bothered with this stuff anymore!

It’s a really great song and it ticks so many boxes; it’s funny, sentimental, catchy as hell, and for me it summed up being a bit bored of school holidays and wondering, ‘What are we going to do today?’

It has such beautiful harmonies and it’s very quintessentially English sounding as well. Whereas The Beatles and The Rolling Stones didn’t hide their American influence, The Kinks almost sounds a bit busker-y. There’s such great imagery in this song.

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by The Rolling Stones

Back then there was a bit of competition – and there still is – about ‘Who’s the best, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?’ I had the chance to tell Charlie Watts, The Rolling Stones’ drummer, that my mum always said The Rolling Stones were better, because they’re better to dance to. ‘Why was that?’ I’d ask. “Oh, it’s just the beat, it has something about it”, she said.

We were both backstage at a festival and we were playing in Belgium, just outside of Brussels. I was going to get a cup of tea in this Styrofoam cup when this guy says to me, ‘I’ll make you a real cup of tea’ – and it was Charlie Watts!

He travelled around with a china teapot. I think he liked bands and band life, talking to people. He came up with a famous quote that 90% of being in The Rolling Stone was hanging around and only 10% was playing. I guess it might have been one of those days where he was just hanging around. We had a good chat about being in bands and all of that as he made me a tea.

I first saw them live when I had a horrible job cleaning the back store of a butcher’s shop, with all that blood and guts. But it was great, because it meant that I could go to any concert and buy records, which is all I wanted to do. The Rolling Stones came to Glasgow and it was so exciting! Many years later, I think we’d been on four or five shows that were headlined by The Stones. After we’d played, I always went down into the crowd because I wanted to see it for real.

“Light My Fire” by The Doors

The Rolling Stones had a danger to them, but there was something about hearing The Doors’ “Light My Fire” and “Riders on the Storm”, they’re so haunting because of Jim Morrison’s voice. I later realised a lot of the production and reverb gave that effect too, but what an amazing band.

If you look at how this song starts, there’s a big drum snare and then the first thing you hear is this almost Henry VIII-style harpsichord. It’s almost like he’s playing a Bach riff, then you get this deep, dark voice from Jim Morrison with quite weird lyrics from a whole other place.

That’s when I first thought that I'd gotten into music of my own. My mum and dad wouldn’t have listened to The Doors. Compounding all of that mysteriousness, was the fact that not so long after, he died. Morrison was our version of Kurt Cobain and of course through the years the whole image of Jim Morrison became more and more iconic.

At first it wasn’t clear if it was drugs or suicide and there’s still a lot of myths about it. And like a lot of tourists in Paris, when I was young, I went to the grave. Père Lachaise was kind of a rite of passage. I think he’s a gem and if I had to choose a favourite singer, it might be Morrison’s voice.

“Hot Love” by T.Rex

People of the generation before me all talk about seeing The Beatles for the first time, but for my generation we all talked about seeing David Bowie on Top of the Pops for the first time and how it changed everything. We’ll get to David Bowie in a minute, but I had that sensation about a year and a half earlier with Marc Bolan, who I think opened doors for Bowie.

Although they were both unique in their own ways, they were actually friends, Bowie and Bolan were close. I’d just gone to secondary school when I heard this and there was something in the music. Apart from Marc’s persona, his voice and all of this strange lyrical language, it felt like our time. That this music is our time.

When he began performing, it started off as a folkier sound, a bit cosmic-hippy, but pretty soon it turned electric with great riffs and a real androgyny. In your teenage years you’re looking around for all the symbols which sum up how you’re feeling, and T. Rex did that for me.

Sadly, it was only a few months before Marc Bolan died that I saw them play live. I was thinking about that very recently because he died on September 16th, and I was thinking about this last week. I felt really guilty, because by the time I saw him live, his career was pretty much over, he very much was yesterday’s man, because everyone was listening to punk rock. There was something sad about seeing him play but I was still reminded of how brilliant he was. I felt guilty that I had turned my back on them. But you do that as a fan of something when something else comes along, you can be quite brutal about it.

I remember feeling somehow guilty because he was so great. But in fact, I’ve never stopped listening and here we are all these years later talking about this song.

“Aladdin Sane” by David Bowie

I remember that vinyl sleeve! There’s a million Bowie songs that I could've picked, but I remember being in my bedroom and listening to this repeatedly. Normally you’d think the title track would be this big blockbuster song, when in fact here you have this space-age ballad, with this piano and his falsetto. It’s definitely not rock n’ roll though, it’s very jazzy. So what is it? To me it sounded like it came from another time, another place – it was so futuristic.

I would have been 14 when this came out and normally I’d have been looking for something punchier, but you found yourself falling into this. He’s someone else who I probably think about every week - these are your heroes, they’re the soil that we somehow use to grow something of ourselves out of.

I think to make music you have to love music. And to make music you have to be really immersed. There is a mystery involved, because we all love music, but it’s how certain people take that passion to another level. I was thinking about “Aladdin Sane” there when we were talking, because I’ve got a story there as well which will tie this up, but it also bleeds into what you were asking about its influence on my music.

At school I’d walk around with my albums. Not everyone in the class was into music, but I remember one of the kids saying, ‘You’re into gigs and all that weird stuff, right?’ He said he could get me into any concert and that his brother was the head of security. “David Bowie’s playing in two weeks’ time at a sold-out matinee show”, I said. “Do you want to go?”, he replied.

True enough, he stuck to his word and took me. It was unbelievable. At the end, his brother came to collect us just before the show finished, because it being a matinee, he anticipated all the confusion. We followed him down under the stage to get out into the lane outside. We headed down the stairs while the band were still playing. I can remember someone shouting, “Stand to the side!” as Bowie and the band came swishing right past, almost touching us, it was that narrow.

When I tell people that story, they usually say ‘Well, how did you feel and what impression did that make?’ I thought, ‘I don’t know how this guy does this, or how anyone could do that.’ But I looked around and knew that I wanted to be a part of that world. I didn’t think I could be onstage, but I loved this whole world of people working in music. Lo and behold, eight years later we were on the same stage, playing to arguably an even more manic crowd in our hometown, and I had no idea how we got there.

There’s a lot to be said for being aspirational. There’s a lot to be said for seeing something and thinking, ‘I want that.’ But It’s not enough just to want it, you have to dedicate everything to get there.

Direction of the Heart is out now via BMG

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