Simple Minds' Jim Kerr talks 'Catholic guilt' over 'Breakfast Club' success, his band's new 'Direction' and unforgettable 45-year career

Jim Kerr of Simple Minds in 2022. (Photo: BMG)
Jim Kerr of Simple Minds in 2022. (Photo: BMG)

“I came here 20 years ago, and at that point, one of the reasons I came here was I thought the writing was on the wall,” says Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr, speaking to Yahoo Entertainment over Zoom from his home in Sicily, Italy. “I thought, ‘Listen, some things are not meant to go on forever. You don't want to overstay your welcome.’ I was bored with myself. I didn't quite think we had that much benzene in us.”

While Kerr, now age 63, stresses that the band “didn't split up and reform; we just kind of went quiet,” he and his longtime bandmate and songwriting partner Charlie Burchill did eventually decide, “‘All right, are we going to do this or not? If we’re going to do it, it has to be 100% — new songs, new records, promo, touring, everything fully-fledged.’ Now, that sounds great when you're 18 and 19, when you have nothing else in your life and nothing to lose. That's not quite the case when you've been around the block a few times, and there's no guarantees and people are telling you the record industry is ‘over’ anyway. But we decided, ‘Let's see if we can stand up and turn around in the right direction, and let's see how far we can run with it.’ And pretty much, that's been the story of the last 10 years.”

The most recent result of that brave decision is Simple Minds’ 18th studio album, Direction of the Heart, an anthemic opus brimming with newfound confidence and joy despite the fraught time period in which it was created — when Kerr’s father was terminally ill, and then the coronavirus pandemic forced the band to cancel their planned year-long 40th anniversary tour after only 10 days, in March 2020. The new album is also a full-circle affair. It opens with “Vision Thing,” which was written after Kerr returned to his hometown of Glasgow for the final 10 months of his dad’s life, and includes “Act of Love,” the very first Simple Minds demo that was shopped to record labels back in the late ‘70s. “It's quite amazing how ideas seem to find their time again; this one’s been 45 years in the making,” Kerr laughs. “Dad gave us the first hundred pounds to make our demo tape, that I then hitchhiked to London with. He still said he never got the hundred pounds back — and he was waiting with interest!”

As for “Vision Thing,” that was inspired by many long father/son chats during those final emotional months. “We were working in my place, which is not far from where we grew up and went to school, and Dad was near nearby. He would pop in and out, and it was obvious he wasn't well, but none of us knew howunwell he was. And then it became very clear, but the big thing for him was, ‘What are you doing? Don't sit around your mope. Get to working!’ But then he'd be shouting through from the room, ‘That f***ing music's driving me crazy! Do you really need to listen to it to 100 times?’ But I couldn't quite say, ‘Shut up, I'm writing a song about you!’ I just couldn't say that. But yeah, we didn't know what that song would be, what the story would be, but we felt we were on this opening chapter. And it set the tone for the rest of the album.”

But of course, no Simple Minds stock-taking, 45 years into their career, would be complete without a look back at their biggest hit, the Breakfast Club theme and 1985 U.S. No.1 smash “Don't You (Forget About Me)” — especially with the massive John Hughes boxed set, Life Moves Pretty Fast: The John Hughes Mixtapes, coming out Nov. 11. (Simple Minds’ iconic song is track 2 on mixtape 1.) While Kerr and company’s legacy in other parts of the world extended far beyond that hit — by 1985, they’d already released six albums, two of which had peaked at No. 1 and No. 3 in the U.K. — it was “Don’t You” that turned them into Stateside stadium superstars. At first, the Breakfast Club success didn’t sit well with Kerr, causing him to suffer from impostor syndrome and “Catholic guilt,” because Simple Minds had not written the song themselves. “Don’t You” was penned Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff and was famously first offered to Billy Idol and Bryan Ferry, who both passed; Simple Minds nearly passed as well, because of these misgivings.

Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill of Simple Minds in 1981. (Photo: David Corio/Redferns)
Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill of Simple Minds in 1981. (Photo: David Corio/Redferns)

“We were approached to do it at the time, basically because everywhere else in the world we were getting success, but in America there was scant promotion for New Gold Dream, which had been a hit everywhere else,” Kerr begins. “And the record company came to us and said something that record companies rarely say: They said, ‘We blew it. We should have really promoted you America. It was yours for the taking.’ Blah, blah, blah. ‘Just keep going. The next record we're going to promote.’ And then it went, ‘But there's this one thing in the interim that would be great. There's this movie called The Breakfast Club, and the director loves the band and would love for you to be involved…’ And we were like, ‘Cool, great!’ And then they went, ‘We'll send you the song.’ And we went, ‘Um, what song? Hang on a minute! We write our own songs! They want us because they like us, but they don't want our songs?’”

Kerr says the original “Don’t You” demo that the label presented to him sounded “a bit generic” and he “couldn't relate to the lyrics,” but he “could relate the hell out of the ‘la-la-la-la’s’ — which, let's be honest, is the best bit.” So, after Forsey came to visit the band in the U.K. and “within a couple of days became our best pal, going to the pub and all that,” they agreed to “just give it a go.” And the rest was history. Soon the band was onstage in Philadelphia at Live Aid, and their post-Breakfast Club studio album, the Jimmy Iovine-produced Once Upon a Time, cracked the top 10 in U.S. (as well as in 10 other countries) and yielded three Billboard Hot 100 top 40 singles — all of which the band wrote, of course. “In America, ‘Don’t You’ didn’t just take us through the door, it blew the door off. But it left us feeling, ‘Oh God, we didn't work for this.’ We hadn't put in the work like we had everywhere else. And so, there was always this uneasy feeling,” Kerr confesses.

However, while Kerr stresses that he wasn’t entirely prepared for that level of stardom — particularly when it came to the tabloids’ scrutiny surrounding his personal life and six-year marriage to the Pretenders’ Chrissy Hynde (“There was a certain level of creepiness that I’d never experienced before, which took a while of getting used to”) — unlike some of his British new wave peers, he had no qualms about “selling out to America.” Simple Minds had always had lofty goals, ever since that “freezing cold Monday night” at a Glasgow discotheque in January 1978, when they opened their first gig with “Act of Love” and were “arrogant enough to think, ‘We're going the distance. This sounds f***ing great!’” Kerr chuckles. “I mean, we were going for it. … I was already over in America, talking to Jimmy Iovine. I wanted to work with Jimmy. Yes, we were going for it. Why wouldn't we? I mean, f***ing America invented the rock ‘n’ roll thing, so why wouldn't you want to test your mettle there?”

But, as Kerr jokes, after that rush of mainstream success, the band “had to get on and do our own thing, and we became awkward again, because instead of doing ‘Don’t You Part 2,’ we come with this seven-minute-long Celtic thing called ‘Belfast Child’ and started singing songs about apartheid. And the label was like, ‘Oh God, this wasn't in the script!’ I do think the marketing guys were thinking that, and who could blame them? But you know, we were always moving on; none of our albums sounded the same, and we were always saying, ‘What’s next?’ But I think maybe for some people in the industry, we didn't follow through on the promise.”

But 45 years and 18 albums on, Simple Minds are still full of promise and pushing themselves to try new things, like enlisting Sparks’s Russell Mael for the uncharacteristically lighthearted Direction of the Hearttrack “Human Traffic” because Kerr didn’t think it sounded “tongue-in-cheek or cartoon enough” with his vocals alone. It’s safe to say that no one will forget about Simple Minds, and Kerr now has no regrets.

“It was all thrilling,” Kerr says of the ups and down of fame. “If somebody came to me where I was a young boy in school and said, ‘Listen, here's the deal, do you want it or not?’ — I would've bitten their hand off and taken the whole kit and caboodle.”

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