Simple Minds and U2: How New Gold Dream lit an unforgettable fire

Dismissed as ‘U3’, the Scottish band exerted an equally huge influence on Bono & co

It is always interesting when bands fall in love. In May 2020, in a series of public thank-you notes collectively titled 60 Songs that Saved My Life, Bono wrote that the title track to Simple Minds’ 1982 album New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) “would prove germane to U2’s evolution from a rock band into something much more ecstatic. Without the album, I don’t believe there would have been an Unforgettable Fire or a Joshua Tree.”

“Ecstatic” is a good word. New Gold Dream remains a bewitching, mystic work. Following five albums of often magnificent abstraction, Simple Minds located the sweet spot between art and pop, shadow and light, trance and melody. The lead single from the album, Promised You a Miracle, became their first hit. They were on their way.

U2 were listening – and watching – intently. On tour, they would walk on stage with the title track of New Gold Dream playing on the PA. On their 1983 live LP, Under a Blood Red Sky, Bono crouched on the cover in silhouetted profile, coiled and catlike, every inch Simple Minds’ singer Jim Kerr in stencil.

When it was finally released in October 1984, The Unforgettable Fire would explicitly reference the dreamy, ambient heat haze of New Gold Dream. Even Simple Minds guitarist Charlie Burchill, generally dismissive of musical comparisons between the two bands, acknowledged the similarity. “When they did The Unforgettable Fire, [it] felt a bit like heading into New Gold Dream territory,” Burchill said when I interviewed him for Themes for Great Cities, a new biography of Simple Minds.

Tongue-tied

The relationship between the groups dated to late 1980. Simple Minds were touring their extraordinary third album, Empires and Dance, U2 their debut, Boy. Meeting at a radio station in Manchester, Bono and Burchill reviewed a bunch of new singles on a show hosted by a young DJ called Mark Radcliffe. Burchill felt tongue-tied. The loquacious Bono, meanwhile, was “quoting f***ing Milton! I loved them as guys instantly,” says Burchill. “They were charming. We became really good friends.”

In 1980, the bands were poles apart musically. Empires and Dance, after all, contains an intertextual sound collage called Twist/Run/Repulsion, which includes a woman reciting a passage from a Nikolai Gogol short story in its French translation. Boy does not.

A symbolic tryst occurred on August 14th, 1983, at U2's homecoming show at Phoenix Park. Simple Minds opened their set with Waterfront, written just 48 hours earlier

By 1983, though the groups remained essentially very different propositions, the gap was narrowing. Simple Minds were an experimental art-pop group moving towards the mainstream, playing bigger music to bigger crowds in bigger spaces. Meanwhile, having infiltrated America, U2 were a heart-on-sleeve rock group seeking to infuse their sound with softer, more abstract colours. Each band looked to the other and saw something of value and integrity.

Over the summer of 1983 their paths crossed at European festivals. “We got a chance to watch them, and they got a chance to watch us,” says Simple Minds bassist Derek Forbes. “We’d obviously had an influence on them and they had an influence on us as well. It was magical.”

A symbolic tryst occurred on August 14th, 1983, at U2’s homecoming show at Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Second top of a bill that included Eurythmics and Steel Pulse, Simple Minds opened their set with Waterfront, written just 48 hours earlier and road-tested for the first time in front of 15,000 people. “Ballsy!” says Jim Kerr. “We thought, rather than having an intro tape, why don’t we make this the intro? That was how confident we were getting by that point. It was sheer belief.”

Reverberating

Two days previously, Simple Minds had been rehearsing in London. At the end of the day’s work, Forbes began playing a reverberating one-note bass line through a sampler on his Dynacord bass amp. “It sounded like a blues thing, but it was more than that,” Kerr told me. “It had this fretless thing, this Celtic melody. We started playing along and it sounded colossal.”

The bass line stirred something fundamental in the band. Waterfront is the music of industry; Burchill gestures towards the window of his Glasgow hotel: “It’s this city – even the sound of it.” The relentless pulse is rhythm pared back to its essence, the ceaseless heartbeat of the metropolis. To complement, Kerr stripped the lyric down to the barest elements to present a city built on enduring fundamentals: water, sky, people, work, hope. A city of sufficiently diverse and unyielding character to survive the privations of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and much else besides. Before the year of the European City of Culture in 1990, long before the chic multimedia regeneration of the riverside from which the song sprang, Waterfront reimagined Glasgow as a place of the future as well as the past.

The inspiration had come a week earlier, while Kerr was back home. “It was one of those things where, you travel far and wide in search of something, and then you come back to your home town and you see it with fresh eyes; or a thought comes to you that hadn’t previously.

“It was a beautiful summer’s night, and I had gone down to the river on a walk. Down there it was a graveyard. It was very much symbolic of a Glasgow whose glorious past was way in the past . . . The shipbuilding was there but it was dead. Ghosts. You could buy into that – that there was a city that had been and gone, and that was it – but I’d read recently, with the industry being gone, that the water had become much cleaner, and for the first time there had been salmon in the waters of Glasgow again. Wow! Also the fact that that was how Glasgow came into being: some monks set up there because the fishing was good. I went back that night and I wrote some words about that: ‘A million years from today, move on up to the waterfront.’ A wee bit gospely – the very nature of the waterfront: rebirth. A wee bit biblical.”

Significance

When he heard Simple Minds play this throbbing, half-formed piece during soundcheck at Phoenix Park, Bono caught the significance immediately. He turned to guitarist Charlie Burchill and said: “What’s that?” “It blew him away,” says Burchill. “We opened with it the next night and it went down a storm.”

The U2 singer recognised a raising of the stakes. Simple Minds’ set leaned heavily on the soft-focus whoosh and rush of New Gold Dream. There was a vacancy for something that would claim the wide open spaces, rather than simply fill them. Waterfront stepped up.

While in Dublin, Simple Minds met Steve Lillywhite, the blond, bouncy, can-do young Englishman who had produced the first three U2 records. Although his close association with the band initially made Kerr “a wee bit wary” of choosing him as their next producer – “U2 were dominating everything” – Lillywhite had no such qualms. He was already salivating at the thought of getting his hands on Waterfront. Kerr: “Others might have said, ‘It sounds great but it’s not a song.’ That would have spoiled it. Steve was like, ‘This is great, let’s go with it. It’s a statement.’”

Produced by Lillywhite, Waterfront was released as a single in November 1983. It didn’t merely signal the direction of travel for the next Simple Minds album, Sparkle in the Rain. It became a totem for a new sensibility: a bigger bang, the declamatory gesture. Even today, there is little point in arguing with Waterfront. You might as well argue with a cannon.

As their sound grew bigger and brasher, the dismissive “U3” tag which attached itself to Simple Minds rankled. It implied that they were mere acolytes, following in the footsteps of the Irish band. In truth, the influence had often worked more actively in the other direction.

What united the bands was a spirit: inclusive, live-based, fan-friendly, open-hearted. Anti-cool, anti-cynicism, ditching rote rock-and-roll alienation for something more communal. The fealty had been apparent at Phoenix Park, and was illustrated again when Kerr and Bono shared a stage at Barrowland Ballroom early in January 1985. The U2 singer and his wife Ali had come to Glasgow to wish Kerr a happy new year, turning up unannounced at his parents’ house and taking a nap upstairs.

Bono came to the show that night, arriving on stage during the encores to contribute to a freewheeling version of New Gold Dream. During its 12 minutes, the pair tweaked the song’s lyrics, embarking on a game of numerical one-upmanship: Kerr sang “’82, ’83, ’84, ’85”. Bono raised him: “’86, ’87, ’88, ’89 . . .”

A path to greater glory in the second half of the decade was being paved.

Themes for Great Cities: A New History of Simple Minds by Graeme Thomson is published by Constable on January 27th

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