Jim Kerr knew he and Charlie Burchill were on to something in 1978. First forming Johnny & The Self-Abusers and playing shows in and around Glasgow throughout 1977, and releasing a single before disbanding later that year, they continued on, refurbishing themselves as Simple Minds. The band played their first gig on Jan. 17, 1978, and opened their show with a track Burchill had written called “Act Of Love.”
“It was Monday in January 1978, a freezing cold night, [and] we went into this pretty sparsely populated club, walked on stage to the sound of our own feet, and Charlie hit this riff,” Kerr tells American Songwriter. “He was 18. I was 19, and I just thought it was the best thing I’d ever heard. I thought ‘I don’t know if I can cut the mustard, but this guy can do it.”
Throughout the next year, the band learned to play, performing in pubs and venues across Glasgow and opening each set with that song. “Of course, no one knew us from Adam, so it was important that your song had impact, and it was our big banner song for about a year until we finally got a record deal,” shares Kerr. “By that time, we had so many other songs, and being young, restless, and easily bored, as great as the song [‘Act Of Love’] was, it kind of slipped out of the pecking order and didn’t feature on the record.”
Kerr adds, “The notion was ‘we’ll go back to it someday.’ Well, 40 years later, what are the chances?”
Reintroduced to the song again in 2019 when an artist was sampling Burchill’s “Act Of Love” riff on a dance track, Kerr reconnected to the song they first played 44 years earlier. “I can’t explain to you why a song finds its time again, but once again I fell in love with it and thought ‘we got to go back to this,’” shared Kerr. “Then I thought that’s a great story. We go back to this song and we can look at it from the perspective of being these old guys. I think we found the missing piece.”
Adding some new pieces to the old model, “Act of Love” recaptures an earlier, carefree essence of synth and pop, and was an arc of the fuller circle around Simple Minds’ 19th album, Direction of the Heart.
“It’s a bit like having an old classic car,” laughs Kerr, who said the band opened every night during a five-month tour in 2022 with their long-lost song. “You can soup it up a bit and suddenly it feels in the moment again or desirable again. That was really full circle.”
Just like their initial emergence in the earlier days of Simple Minds, in 2019, Kerr, who has lived in Sicily, Italy, and runs the hotel Villa Angela, returned to Scotland to care for his ailing father. Regrouped with Burchill, they went to work on songs just as they did in the beginning, in a room with their lyrics in a room, making some new noise, and continued that process through the pandemic.
“It was almost another case of full circle because when we started out, especially when we first got a record deal and had money to buy a rehearsal room, we just wanted to be in that rehearsal room 24 hours a day,” shares Kerr. “Nothing else in life interested us. We had nothing to lose. We can work on music. Lo and behold, four decades later, there was nothing to do. We always work in a bubble anyway—there’s only ever a couple of us in the room—so it was like, ‘let’s get on with it. Let’s write this new chapter in our story—whatever that is.’”
Direction of the Heart is a snapshot of a moment in time, a work around grief and loss, a global upheaval and making it all feel alright. “It was a unique moment for all of us because we ended up trying to make a feel-good record in the worst of times,” says Kerr. “Now, that sounds like something for a Mel Brooks movie or something, but that was the challenge that started to appear.”
“Vision Thing,” the first track Kerr was writing for Direction of the Heart while caring for his ailing father, who died at 83 in 2019, has the most bittersweet story for the singer. “It’s not only the album opener,” says Kerr. “It was the first song that kind of came over the hills, and I loved how it made me feel before I even got into the words.”
Reciting the opening verse The morning left the night before, I’m wide awake and thinking of you / How no one in this universe could make me do the things that you do, as he was writing “Vision Thing,” Kerr realized that the song was about his father, his influence and unconditional love and encouragement. A simple recipe of guitar, synth, and drums shimmer around Kerr’s reminiscent lyrics—I walked into an empty room and came across a version of me / You opened up the world you know and told me ’bout that vision you see.
All in reverence to his dad, the backstory of “Vision Thing” ties many of the pieces together on Direction of the Heart. “Charlie and I grew up on the same street, so he was always in my house, and he knew my dad almost as much as me,” says Kerr. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood, his father, a construction worker, lent the band 100 pounds to cut their first demo. His son then hitchhiked it around London, hustling for a record deal. “I don’t think a week went past when dad didn’t remind us that he gave us 100 pounds and he hadn’t seen it back,” jokes Kerr. “Surely there was a certain amount of interest due.”
Though ill while they were working on the new album, Kerr’s father was adamant that they both “get back to work,” says the singer, and not hang around him too much. Moving in with his father, and writing in a room brought Kerr right back to his teenage years.
“So I’m writing and I’ve got headphones on, and I’m tapping away, and when I take the headphones off, it’s like being 14 again,” says Kerr. “He’s [his father] shouting ‘You’re driving me fucking crazy with this tapping of your feet. What are you doing?’ I can’t say to him ‘shut up, I’m writing a song about you,’ because he’s not that kind of guy. And then he said ‘Well, let me hear it anyway, let me get this thing you’re working on?’ and said ‘Oh that’s pretty good, actually.’”
He adds, “It’s sad, but there’s a lot of joy in that song.”
The denser dance of “Human Traffic,” featuring Sparks’ frontman Russell Mael, was another piece of the album Kerr had written more than a decade earlier, while uptempo anthemic vignettes like “First You Jump” and “Natural” balance the more contemplative “Who Killed Truth” and spectral, Celtic-charged “Solstice Kiss.”
Mostly recorded at Chameleon Studios in Hamburg, Germany, Direction of the Heart rounded out with The Call’s 1983 single “The Walls Came Down,” the second song Simple Minds covered from the California band. The band first covered The Call’s “Let the Day Begin” on their 2014 album Big Music. Both bands toured together in the 1980s and became close friends, particularly with The Call’s late singer-songwriter Michael Been (also the father of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Robert Levon Been). Both bands collaborated with one another throughout the years with Kerr also singing on several songs by The Call.
At the time when “The Walls Came Down” was written, Been was referencing the tumult surrounding the Ronald Reagan era and the divisiveness of a still-standing Berlin Wall, but it’s a song that still resonated in 2022, considered one of the most polarized times in our history—Ringin’ in your ears / We got terrorist thinking / Playing on fears.
For Simple Minds, from their 1979 debut, Life in a Day, through Walk Between Worlds in 2018 and into Direction of the Heart, making a new album was never plotted. The pair just started pulling from an ever-expanding “library of ideas,” says Kerr, which has always been a “tennis match” of hitting melodies, choruses, and verses back and forth.
“Essentially what we do is the same thing,” he says. “We look for a melody. We look for an atmosphere. We look for an emotion. We’ll look for a picture, we can conjure up with words that’ll fit, and it becomes a song. That’s what we’ve been doing since we were 18.”
Simulating an earlier ’80s spirit throughout, Kerr says there was never an intention to make Direction of the Heart sound any specific way. “There’s a sweet spot we feel where you would love to go back but you can’t back it’s gone,” says Kerr. “That was then. This is now. The world has changed. However, you can evoke within the sounds and within maybe a phrase or maybe a way of singing something, ‘Oh, that’s like the early when we were full of imagination and quite naive. Technically weren’t so good but there was just imagination pouring out of us.’”
Kerr adds, “It’s great to evoke that, and if you can marry something of the contemporary, hopefully, the wisdom that you have being older or experiences, there’s a sweet spot in there somewhere and we hoped we could get that on this record.”
Thinking on the band’s more than four-decade journey, and what hasn’t been done yet, Kerr says he would love to explore a more Celtic-inspired album with a darker soundscape for Simple Minds’ next album.
“People ask me to sum up the Simple Minds sound,” says Kerr. “I can hear it in my head but at the same time, it’s been described as so many things—art rock, new wave, Celtic, political, stadium rock, ‘80s, MTV—but through it all, the essence is just Simple Minds.”
Photo: Black Arts PR