There was a common trajectory for the great new wave artists of the ’80s. With many of them having come out of punk in the ’70s, their beginnings were often more avant-garde than they might be given credit for, visionary collisions of post-punk and various dance music forms and pioneering electronic music in the lineage of Krautrock. When people talk about new wave as somehow being glossier and apolitical and genteel compared to the punk movement that preceded it, they’re not only eliding over the fact that plenty of these artists grappled with the bleak, Cold War atmosphere of the times, but that the sort of technological and genre experiments that were occurring in their music was, and still sounds, forward-thinking.
You sometimes have to go digging to find that part of these artists’ stories; what’s etched into our memories are the totemic hits that came later, the giant singles removed from context but larger than their context as decade-defining songs. OMD began as weirdo synthpop auteurs — whether on the icy Organisation in 1980 or the sound collages of 1983’s Dazzle Ships — before they delivered melancholic mid-’80s pop gems like “So In Love” and “If You Leave,” the latter burned into the culture thanks to its famous sequence in Pretty In Pink. Tears For Fears’ debut 1983 debut The Hurting was a goth-y, traumatized outing before they wrote immortal singles like “Head Over Heels” and “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” for 1985’s Songs From The Big Chair, an album that itself is proggier than its pop success might suggest. Echo & The Bunnymen eventually moved from their psychedelic post-punk into big-screen, shimmering anthems like “Bring On The Dancing Horses” and “Lips Like Sugar.” Regardless of what albums live on and get their due, a lot of these bands are broadly remembered for a handful of songs, or are consigned to history as one-hit wonders; consider “I Melt With You” by Modern English, a deserved all-time classic that belies the fact that the album it came from, 1982’s After The Snow, is an art-y new wave collection full of great hooks otherwise.
That transition from art-rock to mainstream can even be heard in the bigger names of the era that we do still talk about. From the darkness of Joy Division and early achievements like “Blue Monday,” New Order eventually dabbled in poppier forms and more effervescent colors on later singles like “Bizarre Love Triangle” (from 1986’s Broterhood) or even the 1993 cut “Regret.” Even someone as monolithic as U2, an artist always ancillary to the new wave movement and one that completely transcended any association to a specific era by becoming the biggest band in the world, has a similar arc: from a young group that some criticized as post-punk carpetbaggers in the early ’80s to arena-rock conquerors of their own breed by the end of the ’80s.
Then there were Simple Minds, perhaps one of the most severe ’80s cases when it comes to the story of exploratory early years ceding to massive pop success, and history’s ensuing decision to remember them just for the latter, just for one or two songs that in becoming iconic avatars of the decade, also wound up burying the band themselves, in a sense.
You know Simple Minds, of course, because of “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” It is by far their most famous song, and especially in America they are often remembered solely for it and, maybe, a few other hit singles from around the same time. Like OMD with “If You Leave,” it was made immortal via its use in the beginning and ending of another John Hughes film, 1985’s The Breakfast Club. One of the definitive ’80s films, The Breakfast Club is one piece of that decade’s pop culture that makes us imagine it in terms of nostalgia and youth and romance, and “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” was the theme song for it all.
It was the band’s only #1 hit in America, a song still heard everywhere over 30 years later, to some an enduring hit and document of the times, to others simply a piece of the atmosphere, one of those old singles that’s still so ubiquitous that you might not think anything about who released it or why, because it doesn’t quite belong to them anymore.
That is, perhaps, why Simple Minds were so reluctant to record it. As the story goes, the band took a lot of convincing to record a song written by other people, for a movie soundtrack, and then were reportedly somewhat nonchalant and/or disinterested when they actually did get around to committing. (In SPIN’s oral history of the song’s genesis, it’s mentioned that the people behind the music for The Breakfast Club also approached Billy Idol and Bryan Ferry; Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr remarked that when the band heard the songwriters’ demo, they were unimpressed and he thought it was more appropriate for a band like the Psychedelic Furs, and personally I’m now pretty curious what that might’ve sounded like.) While the band seems to have enjoyed some of the success and exposure the hit brought them, they’ve maintained a complicated relationship with it over the years, supposedly uncomfortable with the fact that now everyone knew them for a song they didn’t write, a song that was uncustomary for them.
There’s no question that “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” is a great song. But it’s easy to sympathize with Simple Minds’ unease. By 1985, this was already an accomplished group, popular abroad and with several adventurous albums to their name. It’s one of the great injustices of pop music history that, even as the ’80s get revived and revisited continuously, Simple Minds’ early career remains a niche interest.
They might’ve been worried at the time that everyone would know them for this song. They probably couldn’t have predicted that, despite the other famous songs they racked up in the mid-’80s, it would become their sole legacy to many people. The reality is: There is a lot more to this band than that.
Formed in Glasgow in 1977, Simple Minds underwent lineup changes frequently though was always anchored by Kerr and Charlie Burchill, the only two original members remaining in the band today. The contributions of their bassist Derek Forbes were crucial in the earlier years. Initially, they were a post-punk and new wave band, straightforward enough for the times. It was in 1980, with their third album Empires And Dance, where things really started to click, when the band began formulating a futuristic blend of rock, synthpop, and various strains of electronic and dance music. For several years in the early ’80s, with beloved albums that are still underrated in the grand scheme of things, they were purveyors of art-rock that nevertheless often bore monstrous hooks, a signal that they had an ear for straight-up pop as well and ambitions for larger stages.
There are purists out there who love these fertile, earlier Simple Minds years and loathe everything that happened after the band went in a more pop- and rock-oriented direction. And, sure enough, there were eventually diminishing returns there. But the band’s take on synthpop was always a more muscular and grandiose one, qualities that yield the whole “Scottish U2” comparison, which doesn’t make a ton of sense chronologically. Simple Minds began their forays into arena-rock with 1984’s Sparkle In The Rain, which preceded U2’s The Unforgettable Fire by eight months; that means that Simple Minds were making “U2-esque” music before U2 was making the kind of U2-esque music we’re talking about. (Even with “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” being on The Unforgettable Fire, let’s not forget that album was their weird art-rock outing.) Ultimately, it may be another cruel twist of history for Simple Minds: Their big mid-’80s hits do have some similarities to songs U2 might write, in theory, and with one band dwindling and another blowing up, it’s easy to look back and rewrite the Simple Minds a certain way.
The two groups were actually acquainted back then, and shared the stage. But beyond people using “Scottish U2” to dismiss Simple Minds, there’s something to the parallel: Of all the early ’80s bands that came out of post-punk, these two had an earnest, gigantic sound even in their artsiest moments. Their singers owed as much to Bruce Springsteen as any other vocalist, and each had a booming voice to justify it. And, like U2, it may seem that Simple Minds’ calling cards, wistful singles like “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” and “Alive And Kicking,” meant they might’ve been good, but never cool.
It’s another of the ways in which, when people talk about this band at all in the first place, they are somewhat misrepresented. Those early art-rock albums had the sheen and boldness of the best and most groundbreaking albums of the new wave era. They were urbane, and post-apocalyptic, and concerned with abstractions about post-war European society. They found Simple Minds constantly pushing in new directions, finding new sounds and alien rhythms, able to craft songs that were beautiful and haunting and off-kilter all at once.
After Once Upon A Time — Simple Minds’ big 1985 pop album that arrived eight months after The Breakfast Club — the band indeed began to go downhill. But before, and during, that time? They were a band that, within the span of five or six years, proved themselves to be gifted songwriters and shape-shifters, touching on alternative genres and then utilizing what they learned there to make huge anthems later on.
On the occasion of Simple Minds’ new album Walk Between Worlds, we decided it was time to go back and revisit those early years, from the highs that people don’t remember to the highs that are inescapable decades later, the ones that for better or worse sealed this group’s story. This band had many great songs besides “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” far too many to corral into a list of the 10 best. If I made it tomorrow, I could fill it with a completely different 10 favorites. The list below is a beginning, a hint of a career peak as rich as any of their peers’, a career that still deserves more attention than it receives. A career that deserves a reappraisal.
10. “Theme For Great Cities” (from Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call, 1981)
It may seem odd, after all that talk of how many great songs Simple Minds had, to lead off with an instrumental. But “Theme For Great Cities” is a song that exemplifies a pivotal aspect of early Simple Minds. When I talked to Kerr in 2014, he remarked on how some of the band’s main themes were “great cities and movements of people.” The former came from growing up in a depleted Glasgow in the ’60s and ’70s and later seeing the great capitals of the world. The latter came from that travel and the reflections it encouraged, and also Kerr’s musings on travel in broader, historical terms, the idea of populations moving from one place to another in search of a different life, a new identity. This stuff is central to the early Minds records, the city as a locus of self-actualization but also portrayed in a particular way, through electronic rhythms and synth lines that suggest the cutting edge, the future, but also sound like machinery and technology overcoming humanity.
Perhaps that’s why “Theme For Great Cities” still sounds futuristic today — like some other ’80s songs in this vein, it was using technology to capture a future that never quite happened, an aesthetic that recalls imagery like Blade Runner cityscapes. It’s one of the high points of Sister Feelings Call, the album that was culled from the same sessions as Sons And Fascination. A little more all over the place than Sons Of Fascination, Sister Feelings Call still had some serious highlights, like the infectious “The American” or the urgent “Wonderful In Young Life,” in which Kerr connects to the dots to “Theme” when he sings “Dream dream dream/ It’s the ’80s youthful theme/ Loving the city/ A theme for great cities.”
He could’ve sang those lines over the actual song “Theme For Great Cities,” perhaps, but it’s hard to picture how a vocal part could’ve fit in here, or could’ve made it any better. “Theme For Great Cities” is one of the most beloved compositions amongst people who know and care about the early Simple Minds material, and it is indeed a stunning piece of work. Rushing, unnerving, enigmatic — it has a kind of sublimity to it that perfectly echoes the lure and mystique of a great, foreign, perhaps imagined metropolis.
9. “I Travel” (from Empires And Dance, 1980)
In a sense, “I Travel” is related to “Theme For Great Cities.” Kicking off their third album, it was a song written with the frantic energy that comes from growing up in a depressed place and wanting to see the world, then actually getting to see that world. Simple Minds had toured plenty behind their first two albums, and their experiences began to feed back into the music, pushing it several steps ahead than where they’d been before. Their darkest album, Empires And Dance conjures up images of a ravaged post-war Europe, a Europe under the renewed, encroaching Cold War tensions. With other highlights like the towering, eerie “This Fear Of Gods” or the queasy “Today I Died Again,” it can be a foreboding listen.
“I Travel” was both a fitting prologue to the whole album, and kind of an outlier. It’s still a wiry post-punk attack of buzzing and flickering electronics, but it’s also by far the catchiest song on Empires And Dance, foreshadowing the perfect balance of strange inclinations and songcraft that Simple Minds would soon achieve. Again akin to “Theme For Great Cites,” it’s simply a great song when it comes to musically conveying its core concept: All rapid rhythms racing past and with each other, it’s the sound of new places and cities blurring past.
8. “Up On The Catwalk” (from Sparkle In The Rain, 1984)
Here it is, the turning point, or what grumpier fans might call the beginning of the end. On Sparkle In The Rain, Simple Minds abandoned many of the experimental qualities of their past record in favor of a bombastic synth-rock sound that, yes, could make them sound like U2’s Scottish cousins. That’s not a bad thing! The real problem with Sparkle In The Rain is that it is outrageously front-loaded, kicking off with a handful of songs that are just lined with deliriously catchy hooks. That includes other highlights like “Speed Your Love To Me” and “Waterfront,” and it includes the album’s quick serpent of an opener, “Up On the Catwalk.”
With its constant mood shifts and its curling little synth line, “Up On The Catwalk” actually bore some characteristics from the preceding albums, but was juiced up with some crashing drums and a prominent piano riff, making it a sort of transition between old and new Simple Minds. Maybe Simple Minds’ transformation into arena-rockers is something to be criticized when discussing later albums where the songwriting isn’t as sharp, but almost every single element of “Up On The Catwalk” is an earworm. You can’t fault them for it at this stage. They had ideas, they had songs, and they were going for it.
7. “In Trance As Mission” (from Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call, 1981)
There are too many great songs on Sons And Fascination. On most days, I’ll readily admit that New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) is obviously Simple Minds’ finest album front to back, but I love Sons And Fascination just as dearly. If the particulars of Empires And Dance’s texture worked like travelogues from desolation, passing through and around cities, Sons And Fascination is the album where Simple Minds sound like they’re finally hanging out in that future metropolis. It is a frequently gorgeous album of ingenious synth arrangements, unshakeable grooves, and Kerr’s growing melodic sense. You have the cacophony of “70 Cities As Love Brings The Fall” working itself into a pop song, the thundering rhythms of “Boys From Brazil,” one of the band’s most enduring anthems in “Love Song,” and the ghostly meditation of “This Earth That You Walk Upon” sounding like a lounge song for a space station.
Any of those songs could’ve been on this list, but I went with “In Trance As Mission,” a personal favorite and the opener of Sons And Fascination, so as logical a place to start as any. Like all great openers, “In Trance As Mission” is a journey and an introduction, the unveiling of Sons And Fascination’s slick, robotic world. It’s a place where Forbes’ bassplaying shines, with his hypnotic line driving the song forward relentlessly, giving it a kind of motorik pulse. Above that, there was one of the best melodies Kerr had yet written, a clear and memorable part with few of the twists or convulsions of the band’s weirder songs.
6. “Waterfront” (from Sparkle In The Rain, 1984)
Another song made by Forbes, in a completely different way. Unlike his usual basslines, “Waterfront” is built up from a single, throbbing note that, against and with the drumbeat, gives the song an unconventional pulse and makes it one of Simple Minds’ most robust tracks. Again, sure, those guitar flashes and Kerr’s vocal approach make the chorus pretty reminiscent of U2, but that strikes me as more of a testament to the song’s strength than a detriment: Like “Up On The Catwalk,” “Waterfront” found Simple Minds growing more comfortable with writing straight-up bangers, and it’s lived on as one of their key songs. (And, supposedly, its rhythm is what inspired Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” the following year.)
5. “Sons And Fascination” (Live circa 1981/1982, originally from Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call, 1981)
The recorded version of Sons And Fascination’s title track is cool, but something about it is too restrained. The dynamics aren’t quite there, the tempo is just a little too slow, but you can hear the beginnings of something great. And, later on, Simple Minds would find that when they played the song live. Speeding the tempo up and employing a more energetic and dance-y drum part, they turned the song into a titanic synth-rock epic, a song that never lets up and feels like it’s continuously reaching higher and higher. The main synth lines are addictive, the guitar squalor punctuates the track like crackling transmissions, and Forbes’ bassline turns hyperactive. This was the band at the height of their powers, able to craft a song that was strange, emphatic, danceable, and a head trip all at once.
4. “Someone Somewhere In Summertime” (from New Gold Dream (81–82–83–84)), 1982
The opening track to Simple Minds’ best album is also one of their best songs. It’s a bit funny that their career is divided so evenly — New Gold Dream being the peak of their early days and Sparkle In The Rain leading into the big pop era — considering that what makes New Gold Dream such an unheralded classic is that it was the moment where Simple Minds maintained all the enigmatic qualities of their more experimental albums while also going all-in with pop songwriting. There are several tracks on New Gold Dream that are straight-up, giddy synthpop, like “Promised You A Miracle” and “Glittering Prize.”
They’re balanced out by the more mysterious or nocturnal songs, like “Big Sleep” and “Hunter And The Hunted,” but it’s with “Someone Somewhere In Summertime” where the album begins with all its different moods and textures summed up in one track. The particular tone of the song’s synths tease the twilit atmosphere that hangs over all of New Gold Dream, a lush but chilly album in the tradition of the best new wave releases. And then that chorus hits, a chorus that updates the more angular writing of earlier Simple Minds for a pure pop moment. This album had all the best aspects of this band on display, mingling together, and this was the song that in turn represented all that in just a few minutes.
3. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” (from The Breakfast Club, 1985)
This song had to be on here. Yes, it doesn’t sound quite like the other Simple Minds songs, especially when you place it on a playlist alongside them. Yes, it wasn’t written by them. So it’s an iconic track that is everyone’s first impression of this band, and it’s misleading. Kerr’s voice even sounds different, mostly hanging in this calm mid-range unlike the low bellow he adopted on their other pop hits. But, at the same time, there is a reason this song became what it did, besides The Breakfast Club. It is a pop song for the ages, a pop song that does everything a pop song is supposed to do.
Of course, there are the musical elements, aligned perfectly. That warped guitar intro, the quiet seduction of the verses and overflowing emotion of the chorus, the breakdown into that “La la la” refrain. I mean, it does everything a great ’80s pop song stereotypically does; it’s one of the songs that stereotype comes from. Those elements come together to make a song that’s wistful, that’s nostalgic in the moment.
That quality is probably heightened by our association with the song and The Breakfast Club, especially considering the movie’s narrative. But take it out of that, or beyond that, once more outside the story of Simple Minds at all — it’s the type of song you expect to see at proms, the ’80s archetype. It’s the type of song, like LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” for a more recent example, that makes you feel old and nostalgic no matter how old you actually are. There are layers to the nostalgia of it, the fact that it was explicitly playing with that, and the passage of youth and time, in the moment in 1985, and then it became one of our foremost symbols of that strain of ’80s iconography. We’re made nostalgic by a song that was already nostalgic over 30 years ago.
The band may have chafed at their becoming known through it. And yes, it is an outlier that has unfortunately overshadowed everything else they achieved. But just because it was written by someone else doesn’t mean Simple Minds don’t deserve some credit for it. They’re the ones who turned it into what it was. As much as they might’ve tried to fight it, this kind of earnest pop was directly in their wheelhouse circa Once Upon A Time. And as a result, they have one of the most universal pop songs of all time to their name. That’s still something worth celebrating.
2. “New Gold Dream” (from New Gold Dream (81–82–83–84)), 1982
As the centerpiece, title track, and high point of Simple Minds’ crowning achievement, “New Gold Dream” lives on as one of the band’s best and most essential recordings. Everything about “Someone Somewhere In Summertime” being a concise synthesis of the Simple Minds’ varying dispositions? That is doubly true for “New Gold Dream.” A song that soars from the beginning and only surges even further by its conclusion, “New Gold Dream” is like other Simple Minds epics in that it builds itself up by layering on various elements and riffs until the whole thing is exploding with sonic detail. There are a handful of different synth motifs at play, and every one of them is perfect, especially the glistening oscillation that leads into each chorus.
But the thing that sets it apart, aside from all its bulletproof melodic decisions, is the end destination. This was the Simple Minds learning how to deploy their drama more effectively and carefully, allowing the song to be right at the edge of spiraling out of control until the end, where they let it loose. “Until the world goes hot,” Kerr calls out as the track intensifies and swallows him up. It’s about as perfect a creation as you could ask for in the synthpop idiom, and it’s one of the band’s masterpieces.
1. “Alive And Kicking” (from Once Upon A Time, 1985)
I like to think that “Alive And Kicking” was the result of Simple Minds hitting it big with “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” being irked they didn’t write it themselves, and deciding they’d go ahead and show everyone what else they actually had up their sleeves. Yes, this is from Once Upon A Time, which despite its pop success did signal the beginning of the end for the band creatively. So, sure, it might be odd to highlight this song at the end of a list mostly intended to reexamine Simple Minds’ earlier work, but, come on. How can you deny this track? Like “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” it’s a work of pure pop perfection.
“Alive And Kicking” didn’t become quite as big of a hit, though it’s likely the band’s second-most-recognizable song. (The only other contenders would be two other cuts from Once Upon A Time, the great “All The Things She Said,” and “Sanctify Yourself,” which sounds like INXS.) Something about that makes it feel more special, like you can still forge your own connection to it without the generations of cultural baggage that come with “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” It functions similarly, too — the scene-setting and tension-building opening, slowly making its way to a volcanic and unassailable chorus, the way the band’s once omni-present synths are carefully deployed to accentuate those choruses, the breakdown, and an outro built for climactic end-credits of any era.
When you’re talking about what made Simple Minds special, this song might be an outlier argument. It bears little resemblance to their old synthpop excursions, but that’s OK. It’s the grand finale before Simple Minds lost their way: From all the darkness and elusive early work, through to them finding their voice for hooks, this is the end destination, one gorgeous and moving and crystalline pop song to mark the end of the band’s peak.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify.