How New Gold Dream lit an unforgettable fire
It’s 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 from Simple Minds’ 1982 album New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) “would be relevant to U2’s evolution from a rock band to 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 and mystical work. After five albums of often magnificent abstraction, Simple Minds strikes the right balance between art and pop, shadow and light, trance and melody. The album’s first single, Promised You a Miracle, became their first hit single. They were on their way.
U2 listened – and watched – intently. While on tour, they would take the stage with the title track from New Gold Dream playing over the sound system. On their 1983 live LP, Under a Blood Red Sky, Bono crouched on the cover in silhouetted, coiled, feline profile, every square inch of Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr stencilled.
When it finally came out in October 1984, The Unforgettable Fire explicitly referenced the dreamy ambient heat haze of New Gold Dream. Even Simple Minds guitarist Charlie Burchill, usually dismissive of musical comparisons between the two bands, acknowledged the similarity. “When they made The Unforgettable Fire, [it] I kind of felt like I was heading into New Gold Dream territory,” Burchill said when I interviewed him for Themes for Great Cities, a new biography by Simple Minds.
Attached to the tongue
The relationship between the bands dated back to the late 1980s. Simple Minds were filming their extraordinary third album, Empires and Dance, U2 their debut album, Boy. Reunited at a radio station in Manchester, Bono and Burchill went over a bunch of new singles on a show hosted by a young DJ called Mark Radcliffe. Burchill felt mute. The loquacious Bono, meanwhile, “was quoting the fucking Milton! I liked them as guys instantly,” says Burchill. “They were charming. We have become very good friends.
In 1980, the groups were at the antipodes musically. Empires and Dance, after all, contains an intertextual sound collage titled Twist/Run/Repulsion, which includes a woman reciting a passage from a short story by Nikolai Gogol in its French translation. The boy does not.
A symbolic rendezvous took place on August 14, 1983, during U2’s comeback show at Phoenix Park. Simple Minds opened their set with Waterfront, written just 48 hours earlier
By 1983, although the groups remained essentially very different propositions, the gap was closing. Simple Minds were an experimental art-pop band heading into the mainstream, playing bigger music to bigger crowds in bigger spaces. Meanwhile, having infiltrated America, U2 were a rock band with their hearts on their sleeves looking to infuse their sound with softer, more abstract colors. Each group looked at the other and saw something of value and integrity.
During 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,” said Simple Minds bassist Derek Forbes. “Obviously we had an influence on them and they had an influence on us as well. It was magical.
A symbolic rendezvous took place on August 14, 1983, during U2’s comeback show at Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Second headliner of Eurythmics and Steel Pulse, Simple Minds opened their set with Waterfront, written only 48 hours early and tested for the first time in front of 15,000 people. “Cuck!” said Jim Kerr. “We thought, rather than having an intro tape, why not make it the intro? That was how confident we were getting at that point. It was pure belief.
Two days earlier, Simple Minds was rehearsing in London. At the end of the workday, Forbes began playing a reverberating one-note bassline through a sampler on his Dynacord bass amp. “It sounded like a blues thing, but it was more than that,” Kerr told me. “There was this fretless thing, this Celtic melody. We started playing and it sounded colossal.
The bassline sparked something fundamental in the band. Waterfront is the music industry; Burchill gestures to the window of his Glasgow hotel: “It’s that city – down to its noise. The relentless pulsation is the rhythm reduced to its essence, the incessant heartbeat of the metropolis. To complete, Kerr reduced the lyrics to the barest elements to present a city built on sustainable fundamentals: water, sky, people, work, hope. A city with a character diverse and inflexible enough to survive the privations of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and more. Ahead of the European City of Culture year in 1990, long before the chic multimedia regeneration of the riverside from which the song emerged, Waterfront reimagined Glasgow as a place of the future as much as the past.
The inspiration had come a week earlier, when Kerr was back home. “It was one of those things where, you travel a long way in search of something, and then you come back to your hometown and you see it with fresh eyes; or a thought comes to you that hadn’t before.
“It was a beautiful summer night, and I had walked down to the river. Over there was a cemetery. It was very symbolic of a Glasgow whose glorious past was far in the past. . . Shipbuilding was there but it was dead. Ghosts. You could accept that – that there was a city that had been and was gone, and that was it – but I had read recently, with the disappearance of industry, that the water had become much cleaner , and for the first time there had been new salmon in Glasgow waters. wow! And also the fact that this is how Glasgow was born: monks settled there because the fishing was good. I went back there that night and wrote a few words about it: “In a million years, walk to the water’s edge. A bit gospely – the very nature of the waterfront: rebirth. A little bit biblical.
When he heard Simple Minds play this throbbing, half-formed piece during the sound check in Phoenix Park, Bono immediately understood the significance. He turned to guitarist Charlie Burchill and said, “What is this?” “It blew him away,” Burchill says. “We opened with him the following night and there was a storm.”
The U2 singer has admitted a one-upmanship. The set of Simple Minds leaned heavily on the whoosh and fuzzy rush of New Gold Dream. There was a vacancy for something that would claim the great outdoors, rather than just fill them. The waterfront has intensified.
While in Dublin, Simple Minds met Steve Lillywhite, the young, blond, spirited and dynamic Englishman who had produced U2’s first three records. Although his close association with the band initially made Kerr “a bit wary” of choosing him as his next producer – “U2 was 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 good but it’s not a song.’ It would have ruined it. Steve was like, ‘This is great, let’s go. It’s a statement.
Produced by Lillywhite, Waterfront was released as a single in November 1983. It didn’t just signal the direction of travel for Simple Minds’ next album, Sparkle in the Rain. It becomes the totem of a new sensibility: the big bang, the declamatory gesture. Even today there is no point arguing with Waterfront. Might as well argue with a cannon.
As their sound grew bigger and more brash, the dismissive “U3” tag that attached to Simple Minds grew angrier. This implied that they were mere sidekicks, 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-minded. Anti-cool, anti-cynicism, abandoning rote rock-and-roll alienation for something more communal. Loyalty was evident in Phoenix Park and was shown again when Kerr and Bono shared a stage at the Barrowland Ballroom in early January 1985. The U2 singer and his wife Ali had come to Glasgow to wish Kerr a happy new year , showing up out of the blue. at her parents’ house and take a nap upstairs.
Bono came to the show that night, arriving on stage during the encores to contribute a coasting version of New Gold Dream. During its 12 minutes, the duo tweaked the song’s lyrics, engaging in a game of digital one-upmanship: Kerr sang “’82, ’83, ’84, ’85.” Bono raised it: “’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 27